Science tells us that no living thing can remain static. Either an organism is constantly growing and developing, or it is slowing diminishing and dying. All living things change, and no life can maintain a status-quo existence for very long.
This observation is no less true when it comes to the Christian life. Either a Christian is constantly growing and developing in Christ, or else his or her spiritual life is in decline. Every Christian is constantly changing in either one direction or the other. No Christian can maintain a status-quo existence for very long.
The Prescribed Order of Growth
In 2 Peter 1:5-7, the Apostle Peter tells us that once we have faith, we need to grow and mature as Christians. In order to do this, we must "add" other qualities to our faith. The Greek word for "add" here (epichoregeo) originally meant to "lead a chorus (choros)" and then by extension "to contribute to the expenses of a chorus." In the New Testament, however, the word simply means to "supply (that which is lacking)." Through His servant Peter, God is telling us here how we can grow as Christians. And our faith, our belief and trust in God, serves as the foundation upon which we must build, if we intend to grow and mature as men and women of God.
"Now for this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith virtue; and to virtue, knowledge; 6and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. 8For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ [the translation is mine].
Here the Apostle Peter mentions seven qualities that we need to add to our faith, if we are to grow: virtue, knowledge, self-control (or temperance), perseverance (or patience), godliness, brotherly kindness, and love. And the order of these qualities is not just arbitrary. There is a logical progression. In fact, the grammar of the original language suggests that it is in the exercise of faith that one acquires virtue, and that it is in the exercise of virtue that one acquires knowledge, and so on. Each successive quality is the means to acquiring the next. A similar list can be found in the early Christian (uninspired) writing the Shepherd of Hermas (Vision 3.8.7), where the Seven Christian Graces (all of them feminine nouns in Greek, just as they are here in 2 Peter 1:5-7) are pictured as women, one giving birth to the next. In other words, if a person wants to grow and mature in Christ, then he or she must add these qualities in the proper order, for each successive quality gives birth to the next. And so, "having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust" (vs. 4), a man or woman of God must now add these seven qualities in the sequence here prescribed by Peter.
The recognition that the sequence is important means that the first quality that one must add to his or her faith is "virtue." If you are a believer in God, if you have put your faith in Jesus Christ, then the next step in your Christian walk involves virtue: "Add to your faith virtue" (vs. 5).
But what is virtue? What does it mean? The Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed., publ. 2003) defines virtue as "conformity to a standard of right" or "a particular moral excellence." "Moral excellence" is how the Greek word is translated in the NASB, but both the KJV and NKJV have "virtue." But what does this mean in practical terms? What is moral excellence or virtue?
Our English word virtue comes from the Latin word virtus. Now in Latin, virtus refers to the "strength" and "courage" that one manifests in battle. In fact, at the root of virtus is the Latin word vir, which means "man." Virtue, then, means "being a man" or "manly" in the sense of "courage." The word was used of soldiers who courageously met an enemy on the battlefield (2 Maccabees 10:28). The same courage must be manifested by the Christian in fighting the good fight of faith. As Guy N. Woods explains in his commentary on 2 Peter (rev. ed., publ. 1991, in the Gospel Advocate commentary series), the " 'Virtue' (arete) which faith supplies is [the] courage . . to do that which is right!" Put simply, virtue is the courage to do what is right!
While cowardice leads the way to other sins (Revelation 21:8), virtue coupled with faith leads to a righteous life. In virtue, faith faces its fears and does what is right, no matter what the consequences. Peter knew all too well the pathway paved by fear (Matthew 14:30; 26:69-75: Galatians 2:11-12). Here he tells us that we must combine faith with virtue to avoid the pitfalls laid by Satan. And virtue is not simply the courage to do what is right. It is also, conversely, the courage to avoid what is wrong. Young Christian teenagers in high school and college must arm themselves with virtue if they are to resist temptation in the face of peer pressure. By wholeheartedly trusting in God through faith, the Christian can find the courage to resist temptation and to do what is right. It is in this exercise of his or her faith that the Christian acquires virtue.
The Progression of Maturity in Christ
Once a Christian develops virtue, the courage to do what is right, then he or she naturally wants to know what is right. Thus, virtue leads to knowledge (gnosis) and a desire to know the will of God. Knowledge, in turn, leads to temperance or self-control (egkrateia). For when one knows and understands what God's will is, the faithful man or woman in Christ naturally desires to regulate his or her life in accordance with His will. In time, self-control gives birth to patience or perseverance (hypomone), as one strives to remain faithful amid the temptations, hardships, adversities, and persecutions that accompany the Christian life. And perseverance produces piety or godliness (eusebeia), and godliness produces brotherly kindness (philadelphia), which then leads to love (agape), the capstone of the Christian faith (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, 13). As Joseph B. Mayor observes in his great commentary on 2 Peter (publ. 1907; I paraphrase his words), in godliness we manifest the right attitude toward God; in brotherly kindness we manifest the right attitude toward our fellow Christians; and in agape love we manifest the right attitude toward everyone else.
But if there is a prescribed order in the growth of a Christian, then logic would demand a similar sequence in reverse for the decline of a Christian. At whatever point a Christian stops in his or her growth, whatever quality he or she fails to add to his or her faith, it is from this point that the spiritual life spirals down. For the fully mature Christian, the first sign of weakness appears in agape love. With the loss of agape love, one's concern and love for fellow Christians begins to erode. As brotherly kindness dies, godliness becomes the next victim. And with the demise of godliness, perseverance falls prey to Satan's attacks. The instability brought on by the loss of perseverance leads to a lack of self-control. And with the loss of self-control, one begins to lose any concern for the knowledge of God's will. And once one no longer cares to know what is right, he or she loses the courage to do what is right (virtue). And it is with the loss of courage and virtue that one experiences doubts and fears, which―if they go unchecked―will ultimately destroy one's faith in God.
Faith alone has never been pleasing to God (James 2:17, 20, 26). God expects us to add other qualities to our faith. Just as no living organism can remain static, so the Christian must constantly be growing and changing or risk spiritual decline and eventual death. The Apostle Peter assures us: "If you do these things, you will never fall" (2 Peter 1:10). Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, let us be diligent in adding these seven qualities to our faith!