I love Sam Wells’ book on Virtue Ethics “Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics” I have been hugely impacted both by Wells’ book and a similar work by N.T. Wright “After You Believe.” In chapter 5 of Wells’ work, “Forming Habits,” he opens with a metaphor that has been most powerful in helping me think about Christian Formation, Virtue, and Moral Performance.
“‘The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.’ The Duke of Wellington’s famous reflection on the climax of the Napoleonic wars was not a statement of personal modesty. It was a recognition that success in battle depends on the character of one’s soldiers. It was a statement that Britain had institutions that formed people with the kind of virtues that could survive and even thrive in the demanding circumstances of war. …the moral life is more about Eton than it is Waterloo. Eton and Waterloo represent two distinct aspects of the moral life. Eton represents the long period of preparation. Waterloo represents the tiny episode of implementation – the moment of decision, or ‘situation.'”
Of course, this leads to an obvious theological question for those who have “reformed anxieties.” Is this works righteousness? Absolutely not. N.T. Wright addresses this in several places within his vast library of books. One such place is “Justification” (his response to John Piper).
“…the question is about the means of salvation, how it is accomplished. Here John Piper, and the tradition he represents, have said that salvation is accomplished by the sovereign grace of God, operating through the death of Jesus Christ in our place and on our behalf, and appropriated through faith alone. Absolutely, I agree a hundred percent. There is not one syllable of that summary that I would complain about. But there is something missing – or rather, someone missing. Where is the Holy Spirit? In some of the great Reformed theologians, not least John Calvin himself, the work of the Spirit is every bit as important as the work of the Son. But you can’t simply add the Spirit on at the end of the equation and hope it will still have the same shape. Part of my plea.. is for the Spirit’s work to be taken seriously in relation both to Christian faith itself and to the way in which that faith is ‘active through love’ (Gal. 5:6).”
We are created for good works. We are indeed redeemed (saved) for the purpose of good works (Eph. 2:8-10). The fact that we are called to good works does not inherently mean that those works are a pre-requisite to our justification by grace through faith. Rather, our acts of love are a natural outflow of the work of the Spirit in us.
Back to moral formation, Christian character, and virtue. Where does this fit in? From the beginning all the way through to the end. The “christian virtues” (Faith, Hope & Love) are a part of our formation into Christlikeness. It begins with the recognition that we need redemption. We are, in a sense, confessing that we have been morally, spiritually, politically, psychologically, and physically formed into the likeness of the world. So we begin to “re-order” our lives in such a manner that it opens up the Life and Movement of the Holy Spirit to make us new every day. Anything good that comes, comes from God – it is not of ourselves, it what the Spirit has done in us.
And such a moral formation is important, because we don’t stay in Eton forever. Eventually, there’s Waterloo. And if we haven’t done the necessary work, yes work, then the Spirit will be squelched and our actions will not be an outflow of the Grace “at work within us.” Rather, our actions will be an outflow of whatever else is at work within us.