Moral Excellence

One evening several years ago, when the rest of the family was outside, I decided to fix a meal. Since I knew almost nothing about the kitchen at the time, I thought I would try some easy breakfast food. How hard could it be to follow the instructions on a pancake box?

Unfortunately, I found out that the difference between adding a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of salt is quite large. None of us enjoyed my “saltcakes,” and we all woke up thirsty in the middle of the night.

Salt is certainly not what makes a pancake a pancake, but adding the correct amount to the mix is important. Peter tells believers in 2 Peter 1:5 to add “moral excellence” to their faith. We can think of the way moral excellence relates to Christianity as salt relates to pancakes. Moral excellence doesn’t make a person a Christian, but correctly supplying our faith with moral excellence is still vital.

What is moral excellence? The word for moral excellence (areté) is often translated “excellence,” “goodness” or “virtue.” Non-Christian writers often use this word, but the New Testament writers use it rarely. The word often meant excellence in general or, when referring to people, specifically moral excellence. The word is a general term that overlaps with the other characteristics Peter mentions later in 2 Peter 1:5-7. For example, if you are a morally excellent person, you will also be godly and self-controlled.

A few questions confront us when we think about Peter calling us to moral excellence. First, why does he use a term that is far more common in non-Christian writings than Christian writings? Second, what’s the point of using such a general word? Is he just telling us to be good?

When we look at the character of the false teachers in 2 Peter 2, we see that the picture Peter draws of their character would not only have displeased the Lord, their lifestyle would also have been abominable to respectable pagans. These leaders were arrogant, ungodly, irrational, blasphemous, adulterous and greedy (2 Peter 2:10-16). Many responsible non-Christians would have thought that this behavior was reprehensible. Long before 2 Peter, Caesar Augustus famously sent his daughter Julia into exile for adultery. Closer to Peter’s day, a popular pagan speaker named Dio Chrysostom described the evils of corruption in terms much like the ones Peter uses. The false teachers were living more shamefully than respectable unbelievers.

Paul makes a similar point in 1 Timothy 5:8 when he says that even unbelievers take care of needy relatives. God’s law, though marred, is still on the hearts of unbelievers (Romans 2:15). If Christians don’t even live up to the basic standards that they can still recognize, then they place a stumbling block in the path for people to come to Christ. When we as Christians go beyond these standards of moral excellence, we commend the Lord with our lives (Matthew 5:16).

Peter says that Christians are to add moral excellence to their faith by “applying all diligence” (2 Peter 1:5). Moral excellence is neither automatic nor easy. God has, however, given believers a supernatural calling, extraordinary promises, and an opportunity to share in His own nature (2 Peter 1:3-4). His grace calls for nothing less.

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