Virtues like being a good, hard worker, being humble, self-controlled, content, self-confident, and even LOVING may make you and I easier to live with, but those same virtues will keep us away from our Savior unless we recognize that they are fatally flawed and as damnable as the worst of sins. Our good qualities, no matter what they are, will not save us. They can also become terribly irritating to the ordinary human beings out there in the world unless they come from a humble and desperate relationship with the Servant Savior, Jesus Christ.
The following is from "The Double Cross" by Steve Swanson (Augsburg Publishing 1980).
Martin Luther says we have three enemies: “Sin, Death, and the power of Satan.” When we first discover that sin is our enemy, we cast about for some sort of friend to help us combat it. Unfortunately, our first choice of a friend to combat sin is usually not Jesus Christ, but rather a set of actions we call virtue. When we single-handedly team up with virtue to combat sin, we always discover virtue to be a false friend. Apart from the power of the Spirit in Jesus Christ, virtue always double-crosses us. Misguided virtue betrays us, stabs us in the back. Any virtue that we develop on our own is eventually twisted into sin.What do we do? "In the midst of this confusion" writes Swanson, we "finally cry out for help." We go, often with tears, hopefully with friends... We go in prayer to the cross of Jesus and to God's Word. There, the Holy Spirit helps us "measure God’s will and God’s law against what our own good or bad action do for or to someone else."
So we bear a double cross: the cross of deadly, damning sin – and the cross of perverted and “deadly” virtue. It is only through the Spirit’s call that we can be pulled away from the double cross and directed to the single cross, the cross of Jesus Christ. On that cross Jesus died to forgive our sin and lead us to real virtue, to real sanctification.
Sin and virtue, then, aren’t as completely opposite as we might at first believe. One of the shocking truths about sin is that we seldom commit it for an avowed evil purpose. In Dante’s long poem Purgatory, he has Virgil say that all deeds arise from the love of good – which is to say that whenever we choose to do anything, however evil it might be, we do so believing our action to be ever so good.
This creates a label problem. If what we do seems good to us, we are not likely to call it sin. Likewise, when we finally come to recognize that an abused virtue is actually bad for us, we will think it absurd that we ever thought of it as a virtue at all.
"Wretched man that I am!" says Paul in Romans 11:24-25, "Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!"
Only through Jesus and His gift of the Holy Spirit can we be saved and transformed for the good purposes of God. Come to Worship during Lent and let God do His good work, stripping you of your sins and your homemade virtues, giving you a new beginning, every day, at the cross of our Lord.