Cultivating Christian Virtues (2 Peter 1)

Peter wrote his second letter not to tell his readers something new, something they didn’t already know. Instead, he wrote to remind them of things they already knew (2 Pet 3:1). In this Peter’s audience was like many of us who basically know what we should be doing in our Christian lives but who need occasional (or frequent) reminders to help us stay on course or get back on track.

A Staircase of Christian Virtues

Most distinctive is the “staircase of Christian virtues” Peter lists in the opening chapter of his letter. After assuring his readers that God had given them everything they needed to live a godly life, including his “very great and precious promises” (2 Pet 1:4), he urged his readers to supplement their faith with

  • goodness
  • goodness with knowledge
  • knowledge with self-control
  • self-control with endurance
  • endurance with godliness
  • godliness with brotherly affection
  • and brother affection with love (2 Pet 1:5–7).

There does not appear to be any necessary reason to the order of these virtues as if we must cultivate one before progressing to the next, except that it is probably no coincidence that love is the climactic virtue as in other similar lists (compare 1 Cor 13:13; Gal 5:22–23). While many of these virtues are standard fare and are found also in Paul’s writings (note, for example, that goodness and self-control are mentioned in Gal 5:22–23), one word catches our attention, however, the word “godliness” (Gr. eusebeia).

The Christian Virtue of Godliness

This word is found three times in 2 Peter 1 (in vv. 3, 6, and 7) and once in 2 Pet 3:11, for a total of 4 out of 15 NT occurrences (see Acts 3:12; 1 Tim 2:2; 3:16; 4:7, 8; 6:3, 5, 6, 11; 2 Tim 3:5; Titus 1:1). Related forms are found 7 times in the NT: the verb eusebeö in Acts 17:23 and 1 Tim 5:4; the adjective eusebēs in Acts 10:2, 7 and 2 Pet 2:9; and the adverb eusebōs in 2 Tim 3:12 and Titus 2:12. Interestingly, therefore, the word group only occurs in Acts, the Pastoral Epistles; and 2 Peter.

What this means, most likely, is that eusebeia was a term used in the larger Greco-Roman world of the first century, denoting a person’s religious piety or devotion not necessarily in a Christian sense, and that Christians were initially reluctant to incorporate this term into their vocabulary but eventually, toward the end of the NT era, decided to Christianize it. Hence we find the word characterizing the Gentile centurion Cornelius in Acts 10:2 and a devout soldier in Acts 10:7.

So it is only in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus and 2 Peter that believers are urged to “live peaceful lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim 2:2); and that Timothy is exhorted to “train yourself to be godly,” for“godliness has value for all things” (1 Tim 4:7–8; see 1 Tim 6:11), while false teachers are excoriated for their lack of true godliness (1 Tim 6:5; 2 Tim 3:5). In Titus 1:1, Paul expresses his conviction that it is the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness. Peter tells his readers to engage in holy conduct and godliness in light of the second coming (2 Pet 3:11).

Conclusion

There is therefore nothing wrong—to the contrary—for Christians to cultivate Christian virtues, as long as they remember that their quest for godliness is not to be done in self-effort through a regimen of religious disciplines (such as prayer, fasting, reading God’s Word, and so on), no matter how good they may be in and of themselves. As Peter reminds us, it is his divine power that has given everything required for living a godly life (2 Pet 1:3), and so the power for advancing in Christian virtues comes not from ourselves but from God.


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