What is a Virtuous Life? – 2 Peter 1:5-7

Like several other places in the New Testament, Peter offers a list of virtues to describe what a “godly life” might look like. The structure of the list is like a staircase (a and b, b and c, etc.) This is a Hellenistic Greek style known as sorites, and is rare in the New Testament (Rom 5:3-5 is the only other example), but appears in Wisdom 6:17-20 and m.Sota 9:15. It is therefore a style known and used by Jewish Christian writers.

Open BiblePursuit of virtue must be a strenuous effort on the part of the believer. “Make every effort” implies deliberate action. Someone might claim to be growing in godliness, but if there is no deliberate activity then the claim is empty. Imagine someone who claims to be trying to lose some weight, but they are not dieting or exercising.  They are not really making “every effort” to lose weight! This is a bit like a “good faith effort” in modern English, but perhaps stronger. It means that the person really does make an honest effort to pursue virtue and godliness.

The believer is making an effort to supplement their faith with various virtues. The participle (παρεισφέρω) is a word only appearing here in the New Testament. In Koine Greek the word refers to benefactors who do good for a community. What they add to is a gift, and the main verb in the clause (ἐπιχορηγέω) is also used for “generous support of the community” (BDAG). Together, the image Peter has in mind here is of a wealthy patron who gives a generous gift to some public building.

Peter includes some virtues from other New Testament lists, but there are also a handful of unique items to this list.

Faith with virtue. Despite being common in modern discussions of ethical living, virtue (ἀρετή) is not often mentioned in the New Testament of godly living. The word is often associated with civic virtue, a wealthy patron who does good deeds for his community. This may be why Peter began with this in his list, since he has already used a metaphor of a benefactor in the previous verse.

Virtue with knowledge. To virtue is added knowledge (γνωσις).This noun is usually associated with intellectual knowledge, and it might seem strange for Peter to begin a Christian virtue list with two common Greco-Roman virtues.

Knowledge with self-control. Knowledge without self-control is arrogant. The noun (ἐγκράτεια) appears as the last item in Paul’s fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:23) and was a respected virtue in the Greco-Roman world. It refers to having a proper restraint on one’s emotions and passions.

Self-control with steadfastness. The noun (ὑπομονή) is often translated as patience, but may also refer to endurance or “personal fortitude.” The person who is in control of their passions will be patient with others and “suffer long” before reacting in a controlled manner.

Steadfastness with godliness. That patience is tempered with godliness (εὐσέβεια). The noun refers to loyalty to a god, so sometimes piety is a good translation. Sometimes the word refers only to external acts of worship, so that a pagan might be described as “godly” if they are pious in their worship of their god.

Godliness with brotherly affection. This noun (φιλαδελφία) refers to the sort of affection family members have for one another. It is common in the New Testament for Christians to think of themselves as brothers and sisters.

Brotherly affection with love. Christian love is more than a brotherhood, there is real and genuine love for others at the heart of Christian ethics. How we behave and how we relate to the world ought to be laced with genuine love.

It is significant that this “virtue list” begins with faith (v. 4) and ends with love (v. 7). Christian virtue lists are often introduced with faith and love. Love begins the fruit of the Spirit list, and faith, hope and love are the three most important virtues in 1 Corinthians 13, for example.

It is remarkable to me that these virtues are relational and non-confrontational. There is nothing in this list demanding believers protest the pagan meat-markets or fight back against their persecutors. Like 1 Peter, this virtue list describes a “good citizen” of Rome! A Stoic or Epicurean may have applauded this list as admirable, and not pagan would fault Christians for having genuine brotherly love or self control.

How does this particular list differ from how Christian virtues are described today? What is the reason for this quite striking difference?

14 thoughts on “What is a Virtuous Life? – 2 Peter 1:5-7

  1. You are right on, yet again. Americans who pride themselves on being Christian,yet hate those who are different; who encourage the use of the military as the first option to solve problems; and who attack gays, Muslims.etc. even as they say they are only doing it out of love, are more committed to the ways of the world than the ways of Jesus.

    We see God’s hatred in the OT and Jesus hatred in the NT and draw the wrong conclusion. God hates those who do not love, those who separate themselves from God and encourage others to do the same, those who distorte His Love and Mercy.


  2. It seems that Christian virtue lists today are a lot more guided towards doing good things and being a good person outwardly, not specific virtues that should be changed on the inside of a person. 2 Peter teaches that to escape the world’s corruption, one must have a change of character (Jobes 375). This is the value commonly lost in today’s Christian mindset. Our character is supposed to continue to grow through our process of sanctification, which really never ends throughout our life, and it involves an inward renewing. So often our minds try to change the outward things for good motives, but not really having a change of heart inside. This often times is a disguise for not desiring God and holding onto the things that are hard for the flesh to give up in order to follow God’s virtues. Without the renewing of our mind from the world’s corruptions through Jesus’ grace and new life that he offers us every day, and lacking the desire to do so, then we will not be able to possess the virtues in 2 Peter. We will be kept from being productive or effective in our knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, as it says in 2 Peter 1:8.

  3. 2 Peter 1:5-7 describes important qualities to be found within a Christian. Many of these qualities build off one another and are essential to living a Spirit filled life. Some of the characteristics include knowledge, self-control, brotherly affection, love, etc. In light of these, I find it very interesting when P. Long stated in this article that many of these qualities are non-confrontational and instead relational. However, it seems as if many of these qualities are absent in the modern day Christian. Today’s Christian seems to be a confrontational and rather busy one and not necessarily putting emphasis on the importance of his/her relationships. While this statement is not true for every Christian, there is a direct emphasis on the necessity of being busy and working hard as a Christian and further saying whatever comes to their mind, whether offensive or not. But Peter is writing this letter to encourage his readers to care about how we live in light of Christ (Jobes 354). Thus, may we have self-control, love, and faith in all circumstances and continue to practice these every chance we can get.

  4. I think the main reason our virtues are so much more different now from what they were in the time closely after Jesus’ life, is that our narrative is different (what we place at the center of our lives). 2 Peter 1:8 says that if we follow these virtues, we will not be barren or unknowledgeable of Jesus Christ. This list was compiled for new Christians who wanted to gain in understanding of the man whom just died for them. People living in 2016 have the resource of the Bible which may cause a shift in narrative. I think that Christian virtues today are fairly similar to the ones described in 2 Peter especially in regards to love. I mainly say that because I think the world has become more involved in the grace side of the Lord compared to before the 1950’s where people believed more in the judgment of God. The other possibility to our differing virtues is that we are not dealing with false teachers in the same way the readers were. Jobes says that this passage was written because of the false teachers that were causing others to stumble (Jobes, 375). I think that people of our time are remarkably similar to those Peter was writing to because we both struggled with immoral ways of living.

  5. In today’s American culture Christians are viewed as people who “do good”. A lot of people who claim they are Christians but aren’t truly living it out in all aspects are seeking to “one-up” each other in doing more “good things” than others. God has called us to serve Him and to live a life worthy of the calling we have received (Ephesians 4:1). Yes, doing good things is a good thing to do, but don’t forget that it is more than just an outward action. It is an inward action and a change of heart. When you start realizing that you are doing something for a much greater cause, serving God and living out the Great Commission, your mindset changes. Not only internally but externally your attitude and actions start honoring God more and more. 2 Peter 1:5-7 is a passage that really emphasizes the key qualities that all Christians are to possess. Through the different qualities that Christians possess, we must remember that Jesus Christ is the center of it all and that we are supposed to live in Christ’s light (Jobes 354).

  6. It is no longer the goal of people to do what the says but what they believe, think, feel, or interpret as the bible says they should do. People have moved away from the biblical and factual definitions for everything and now the society is becoming about what is relative to ones own self. What they believe is right and wrong not what is right and wrong. The bible is very clear on everything most people debate about but since everyone believes that they know everything now they make up their own definitions to words and beliefs.
    Worst of all is the lack of correction in those matters showing people what is truly spoken by God as truth. People claim many things even I believe things I should not have, and misunderstood and read things. That is why the bible is so important to read fully and understand fully instead of just listening to another person. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
    The bible is used for us to understand what God says is good, what is true, and what is not. People believe if it is not said in the bible then God didn’t plan for it. Recently after studying many things I have been told and found to be misunderstood I also realized that if it is not in the bible then it is probably not good. The bible is for the truth and goodness of God. If you can not find support in the bible for what you are saying and believing in the correct context than you should observe it to be bad.

  7. The striking difference that I see between this list of virtues and how we list virtues today is the order. This list that the author of 2 Peter explains, suggests that the first virtue works up to the second virtue. One leads to the other and so on. The reader can see the growth throughout the process. I find that today we want everything at once. We tend to try and assume every virtue that we can at one time. We do not have very much patience in this area. Not having patience can lead to empty virtues. We may say we are working towards all of these virtues, but we tend to give up because it can be overwhelming. The author of 2 Peter shows a step by step growth pattern of virtues. I believe that if we were to follow this pattern, we might be able to obtain these virtues. Instead of having empty virtues we may be filled with the truth.
    -McKenzie McCord-

  8. I really agree with McKenzie here. The difference with 2 Peter’s understanding is that it is like a stepping stone. With one, comes another, and as these virtues continue the ultimate goal is to have all by the end. The essence here is that it is a process. However, today like McKenzie stated Christians want them all right away. Or maybe they claim that they have all the virtues already with no effort. 1 Samuel 2:3 states, “Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed”. I believe that verse speaks volumes. I think in todays Christian culture arrogance can take place. Maybe not arrogance to others but more towards individuals themselves. They are arrogant with their faith, they believe that already have the knowledge, self-control, etc. Therefore, to wrap this up Jobes explains it best, “Peter teaches that to escape the world’s corruption one must have a change of character. To faith in Christ one must add goodness, and to goodness, knowledge; to knowledge one must add self-control and then perseverance; to perseverance one must add godliness followed by mutual affection and, finally, love (1:5 – 8) (Jobes, 427). Its a process or stepping stone, and cannot just be done right away.

  9. In today’s society, we are looked upon as Christians as good doingers. They’re many people in the world that claim to be Christ followers but don’t actually live there life as a Christian. We find ourselves competing with one in another on who can do the most “good deed”. Versus doing good things for good reasons and not for praise. God looks at what you do to help the world to become a better place. But doing things for selfish reasons doesn’t mean that much because you aren’t doing it out of the goodness of your heart. Karen Jobes talks about how Martin Luther states “ a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone” (Karen, 172). We are called to serve others in any way possible. Another thing that Karen said that stuck out to me was that Peter taught us that we need to escape the world’s corruption by changing of character and mindset will help us not get to caught up in what the world is trying to make us do (375). Our character must carry over the top of different temptation that are brought to our attention. 2 Peter 1:5-7 discuss the importance of different value and virtues that are found in Christians. We must keep improving our relationship and knowledge that we have about God. We can never know enough about Our Lord and Savior.

  10. The virtues of Christianity today are completely different than the one’s described in this passage. Where Peter’s list of virtues is for the purpose of showing what the Christian life should consist of, today’s values are mainly legalistic. Both Peter’s virtues and today’s virtues would agree with Jobes when she writes that salvation is supposed to free one from a sinful life instead of promoting a sinful life. (Pg. 375) However, the motives belonging to both sets of virtues would differ vastly. Peter’s virtues would say one does not live a sinful life because each virtue feeds into one another, thus having each subsequent virtue monitoring how the primary virtue is used. By doing so, each virtue is held accountable to another. Today’s Christian virtues says “Have you looked at porn lately? Well, if you have, make sure you don’t let people know about it.” Today’s church focuses so much upon the outer appearance of a Christian life as the proof of one’s salvation. Instead of self-controlled knowledge, some Bible study goers spout off their knowledge of the Bible to show how pious and mature a Christian they really are. I wonder if their browser history would agree with that. Even “simple” virtues such as brotherly love can be overlooked because some Christians still believe in exclusion, judgement and gossip. If I come off salty and passionate, it is probably because I am. Please pray for my critiquing soul.

  11. Several years ago, I heard a sermon on this passage. In it the pastor likened the list of virtues as a checklist. It was like a, “do you have faith? Check. Now go work on attaining virtue…” type of system. The pastor also likened it as a way to measure both our level of godliness and that of our neighbors. I remember being quite uncomfortable during that sermon because I was sure I was not even close to being godly and wasn’t learning all of these things in order!
    Looking back the whole thing reminds me of those girl scout badges where you complete an activity and earn a patch to add to your display.

    Needless to say this blog post was extremely helpful in redefining what this passage is actually about. I was surprised to learn about how many of these had so much value in the Greco-Roman world. It reminds me of the instruction in 1 Peter 2:13-16 to obey the government. But of course here Peter is not just saying to obey, but to also have self control and brotherly affection – essentially to grow in the example of Christ.

    It is interesting how each virtue is then added to or complemented by the others. We are not just to be full of knowledge, but to have knowledge paired with self-control, steadfastness, and love. These aren’t so much personal trophies as they are our examples to work to grow into.

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