Virtue

FORGET NONE OF HIS BENEFITS
volume 18, number 37, September 12, 2019

“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue.”-2 Peter 1:5[1]

The three vital ingredients which were present and necessary for the founding of the United States Constitution are freedom, virtue, and faith. I said in my last my post that freedom is not license on the one hand (free to do what I want, when I want, how I want, with whomever I want), nor on the other hand is it presumption, that by simple declaration we can maintain our freedom or foist our idea of freedom on other nations. 
Freedom (true freedom comes only through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ who delivers, Acts 13:39, more about that in the next post) must have virtue. Virtue is moral excellence, goodness, kindness to others, respect for others and their property, what some have called “the habits of the heart.” Benjamin Franklin, the old sage of the Constitutional Convention (he was eighty-one in the summer of 1787 when the Constitution was written), who apparently was not a Christian but more a deist, said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. . . As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” Another way to say this is that the more ungodly and licentious a people become then the more laws are necessary to keep them under control. The paradox is that unless we maintain a Biblical notion of freedom we will sink into ungodly living which brings about slavery to the state. John Adams in 1776 wrote something similar, “The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure virtue.” He said that unless this new nation pursued virtue then, “They may change their rulers and the forms of government, but they will not obtain a lasting liberty. They will only exchange tyrants and tyrannies.” In his tour of the United States in 1831 French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the greatness of the American experiment was built on faith and virtue. Here is a summation of Tocqueville’s findings:

Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. American is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.” [2] 

It goes without saying that we have never been a perfectly righteous nation, even in our beginning. Our reprehensible treatment of the American Indians (my wife’s great, great, great grandmother was a Cherokee Indian who traveled from north Georgia on the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma)[3] was a horrible blight on our nation, totally inexcusable. And of course our practice of slavery mocks the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. In spite of these two very bad epochs in our history, we should still be able to say that there was a great degree of virtue. 

Self-government cannot exist unless people have genuine freedom to do what they ought to do, but that freedom cannot exist without virtue. Our constitution was predicated on the assumption that we were, and must remain virtuous. 

Consider this illustration. Let’s say you have teen-age sons and they are obedient, seeking the Lord with a desire to live holy and godly lives. If so, then you will find it unnecessary to put many restrictions of them. You will not need to watch their every move, monitor their screen time, or what they are watching, who their friends are, etc. If however, you discover that they are disobedient, hanging out with unsavory characters, watching porn, and drinking beer or smoking marijuana, then everything has changed. You must crack down on them. They were living under grace, so to speak, but they now have forfeited their freedom and must live under law. You will find it necessary to put more restrictions on them to protect them from themselves. 

So, from where did the virtue come at the time of our founding? To be sure, the arrival of the Puritans at Massachusetts Bay in 1630 was the foundation. They left England for Holland then came to America to gain religious freedom. They were God-fearing Calvinists who sought to build a Christ-centered nation on the word of God. However by the late 1600’s that godliness was already going south, much to the consternation of preachers like Cotton and Increase Mather. What made America a great nation was the preaching of George Whitefield (I will have much more to say about him in the next post). All the “Christian” nations of Europe, from where our early forefathers came, had various forms of state religion. Germany was Lutheran, as were the Scandinavian countries. Scotland was Presbyterian, as were the Scots who had been living in Northern Ireland. England was Anglican. Whitefield came with a clarion call which reached the masses in America. While the message of the Sixteenth century was largely justification by faith, and the message of the Seventeenth century was primarily sanctification, Whitefield and others (Jonathan Edwards, William and Gilbert Tennent) recaptured and proclaimed unequivocally and unrelentingly the message of regeneration, “You must be born again.” This message captured the minds and hearts of the masses. It has been estimated that of the three million people living in American in the 1740’s, over eighty percent of them had heard Whitefield preach at least one time. His preaching broke down social, ethnic, racial, and religious barriers. No matter what one’s status in life, rich or poor, black or white, slave or free, all could be in Christ. All could be true believers. This was a staggering and unprecedented event at the time. Whitefield has correctly been called the spiritual founding father of the United States. 

My dear friends, our freedom and our virtue have been eroding for well over one hundred years. We are a shell of what we once were. The division caused by the Vietnam War and Watergate has eroded our confidence in our leadership. We are a nation severely divided over the issues of race, politics, and religion. We cannot simply sing the National Anthem and pledge our allegiance to the flag and continue living as we have been. But gritting our teeth and trying to do better, to become more virtuous is not natural to any of us. The founding fathers believed in the total depravity of all people. Freedom only comes through virtue and virtue only comes through faith and faith only comes through freedom. 

What is the remedy in our day for the sure and certain demise of our nation? The only hope is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as we saw in the days of George Whitefield. We need preachers across this nation who proclaim with all boldness the full counsel of God, men who will call our nation, our politicians, our judges, our professors, our business people, and all people everywhere to repent of their sins and to call on the name of Jesus Christ to save them. Short of this, we will continue our slide into serfdom. More than ever, we need bold preachers, in the pulpits and in the streets, continually preaching Christ crucified, the only hope for sinners. Pray for your preacher to gain, maintain, or regain gospel boldness. Support faithful open air preachers with your prayers and money. Go with them to the streets. Pass out tracts, speak to people about their souls. Warn them to flee from the wrath of God which is to come. If God does a great work, as He did through Whitefield, Edwards, et al, then and only then can we regain what we are continually and increasingly hemorrhaging.   

________________________

1. The ESV is quoted above and gives the Greek translation of areten as “virtue”. The NASB has it as “moral excellence” and footnotes it also as “virtue”. 2. These quotes are all cited by Eric Metaxas in his book If You Can Keep It, pages 53-59.3. The Indian Removal Act of 1830, signed by President Andrew Jackson called for the removal of Cherokee Indians, and other tribes, from their homelands in Georgia and Alabama to what later became Oklahoma. Four thousand Cherokees died along the way due to disease and starvation. The reason for the resettlement? Gold had been discovered in north Georgia and the white man wanted the land and the gold.  

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