The Pursuit of Moral Excellence


Dan Petty

The apostle Peter exhorts believers to “supplement your faith with virtue” (2 Pet. 1:5). Virtue translates the Greek aretÄ“, which is found in three other passages in the New Testament (Phil. 4:8; 1 Pet. 2:9; 2 Pet. 1:3). It may also be defined by terms such as goodness, moral courage, or moral excellence.

Virtue means excellence in the sense of the inherent practical goodness found in the fulfillment of a thing. When anything in nature fulfills its purpose, that is good. The land that produces crops is good because it is fulfilling its purpose. The tool that works correctly is good because it is doing what it is supposed to do.

So, what is the excellence of a man? It is fulfilling what the Creator intended when he first created man in his image and likeness (Gen. 1:26). The apostle Peter has already used the word in 2 Peter 1:3, where he refers to Christ, who “called us by His own glory and excellence.” The same quality of excellence that characterized our Lord and attracted us to him is to be reflected in our lives. Jesus has shown us the true meaning of human excellence.

It is said that wisdom is knowing what to do next, while virtue is doing it. Virtue is that practical goodness that makes a man a good citizen and friend. It is what instills in us a desire to live well, in the service of God and man.

Virtue is about pursuing excellence, even in our thoughts—the source of every word and every deed. “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). Are we filling our hearts and minds with those things that will encourage us in our pursuit of moral excellence?

It takes courage to face the challenges that come in the pursuit of virtue. Those challenges appear in the form of those who, by their own word or example, advocate following the path of sensuality and immorality, or just to do less than our best. The world by its very nature is not friendly to the pursuit of the virtuous life. Virtue in life requires diligence. Indeed, this is why Peter says to “make every effort” in its pursuit. Virtue is the moral courage always to choose the good.

The key to the pursuit of virtue is to remember who you are—a member of the family of God, called by him out of darkness into his light, to proclaim and show forth his excellence. When we reflect that excellence in our behavior, we glorify God before the world (1 Pet. 2:9-11). Remember that Christ in his life and sufferings has left us the example to follow in the pursuit of moral excellence (1 Pet. 2:21).

We have come to know Christ, that we might become partakers of his nature. “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue” (2 Pet. 1:3-5).