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Posted by on Mar 19, 2014 | 7 comments

What Happens When We Invite Christ Into Our Hearts?

virtue“Man’s virtue is that by which he seeks eagerly for his Creator, and when he finds him, holds to him with all his might.”- Bernard of Clairvaux: On Loving God

“Be complete as your heavenly father is complete.” –Matthew 5:48

Most of us have been to a church where the pastor gives an altar call.  It usually happens at the end of a sermon when those in the congregation, who have not accepted Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour, are asked to repeat a rote prayer that asks God to come into their hearts and save them from their sin. But what exactly are we asking God to do when we repeat these words? Is it just for non-Christians? What does it mean to ask Jesus into one’s heart? Is it just a plea to be moral and not sin anymore, or does it have some deeper meaning, a meaning that we have lost in rigmarole of modern Christianity?[1]

What if I were to tell you that the classic Christian understanding is morality and virtue are different things, and while being moral isn’t a bad thing, attaining virtue is something far greater? Would you accuse me of parsing terms? Certainly morality and virtuous living go hand in hand, but I will argue that virtue differs from morality in as much as virtue is the final end, the telos, of a Christian’s life, whereas morality is an incomplete means to that end.

While one may commit a moral act it may not be a virtuous act, whereas a virtuous act may not immediately be seen as a moral act, a choice between right and wrong. While morality has to do with correct choices, often determined by societal impulses, Christian virtue has to do with living a life that is grounded in the presence of God. Therefore, when we follow the pastor and invite Christ into our hearts what we are really doing is asking Christ to complete our actions and to make them virtuous by his participation in them. Thus, when Christ commands his listeners to be perfect as their heavenly Father is perfect, he is not saying that they should be morally just (though this isn’t a bad thing), he is stating that they should be complete in their actions (the Greek word that Matthew uses is teleios, which means fully developed/complete) just as God in heaven is complete in the fullness of his glory. The main ramification of Christ’s claim is that all moral actions are worthless without the fulfillment of God’s presence. Viewed in this way, Christ was not a moral teacher, instead he taught virtue, and it is through his virtue that he calls us to be completed by participating in the life he has prepared for us. This is not to say that Christ’s actions were not moral, but they overcame cultural morality by the fact that they were virtuous—Christ’s actions, including his death on the cross, were complete/virtuous because of his union with the Father and not because of the rightness of the act in itself.

What this means is that whenever we act we have the opportunity to be virtuous. This goes beyond moral action; it strikes at the very heart of who we are as human beings. The very fact that you are an accountant, or a barista, or a garbage collector means that you have the possibility of participating in the virtue of God. In fact, going to a baseball game, writing a paper, having sex, or eating a meal can be virtuous as well—all these things can be a means of God bringing about completeness in our lives. Virtue, as seen in the Bernard quote above, is the means that we use to seek God, and the means through which God completes us, the means through which God makes us more like himself. Therefore, all our actions have the possibility of virtue; all our experiences can draw us up into the presence of God—this is the holiness of the everyday; this is the magnificence of Christian practice.

While this may sound fine and dandy, what exactly does this look like in practice? How exactly do we acquire virtue? Well, the first step sounds remarkably similar to that prayer that the pastor asks the congregation to participate in. That prayer—as silly as it may sometimes seems to us who have heard it over and over again—is the foundation of a virtuous life. By asking Christ to come into our hearts, by appealing for salvation, we are seeking his participation in our quotidian experiences. It is something, according to John Climacus, that many of the desert fathers did daily, and it isn’t a bad thing for us to do every morning either. This has nothing to do with the assurance of our salvation; instead it is an acknowledgement of the way the joy of our salvation interacts with our jobs, habits, and pleasures. In this way virtue has less to do with our moral choices—e.g. Cheetos vs. kale chips (I have it on good word that God prefers Cheetos)—and more to do with the way God interacts or withdraws his presence from these choices.  In the end virtue has less to do with golden means, categorical imperatives, and moral absolutes, and more to do with invitation, spiritual practice, and humility. For, while it is the presence of God that makes us holy, not our actions, it is our actions grounded in the holiness of God that give rise to virtue, to God’s presence in our lives. It is my hope that this humble seeking after virtue may make our use of moral injunctions as a determinate of holiness fade away in the actuality of God’s presence. Let us remember everyday to ask Christ into our hearts so that we may be purified by the refining fire of his virtue.


[1] This post, in many ways, is an answer to Justin’s previous post Does God Watch While You Have Sex. At the end Justin asks the question, “What would it mean for our practices of eating and sex if we recognized that God was watching and participating?” I answer Justin by saying that it would not mean much if God was just watching (fear of God’s wrath may lead to right action for a brief period of time). But, as I will argue below, when we invite God to come into our hearts we are asking God to participate in our lives, we are asking God to help us, to complete us; it means that we are developing virtue.

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A.A. Grudem

I am a coffee drinker, book reader, and horrid speller.

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  • Thanks, Alex. I really enjoyed reading your post. The idea that God completes our actions in virtue is quite intriguing to me. It’s an interesting foil to existential understandings of divine action that stem from the Lutheran tradition.

    I would like to press you on an issue related to the scheme that your present here. Correct me if I am misreading you, but I gather from your post that you hold that the movement toward virtue begins with an explicit invitation extended to God by the believer for Christ to complete her actions. It is this action in particular that makes what you have outlined here specifically Christian. My question to you is this: does this emphasis on a particularly Christian invitation preclude those outside the Christian faith from attaining any semblance of virtue?

    I ask this because there does seem to be a strain of Christian theology, in Catholic thinking at least, that would like to say that there is at least the possibility of partial participation in virtue available to non-Christians. Dante includes certain “virtuous pagans” in Limbo among the unbaptized; the Catholic catechism—in both its Tridentine and CCC iterations—carves out a place for the virtuous actions of the “unlearned,” and perhaps most strikingly, Karl Rahner posits an “anonymous Christianity” that is premised upon the always already reality of God’s gratuitous grace present in the world. Would you admit any of this, and if so, how would such an admission affect your call for the faithful to invite the virtue of Christ into their lives?

    • Alexander Arden

      Ryan,

      Thank you for your thoughtful response. As always you force me to clarify my thought and I thank you for that. This is a really tough question and one I am hesitant to answer. The main reason is, I don’t know. While I believe God’s gratuitous grace is present in the world, to claim that saves or does not save a particular individual based on their virtuous action seems to me to rely too much on virtue as a means for salvation and not the saving power of Christ. I should have been more clear about this in my initial post.

      One of the reasons why I was so particular, well as particular as one can be in 1,000 words, about distinguishing between moral action and virtue was precisely this question. Essentially, what I am trying to argue is that the goodness of Christ was different from the virtue of Christ. In the same way, the goodness of a moral act committed by a Christian is different than a virtuous act. Because what is deemed moral is more often than not determined by a particular society, one can be moral without being virtuous; this also means that one can be virtuous without being moral. Therefore, moral action is not a means of salvation, virtue is.

      Parenthetical Tangent: (I am not alone in this belief, this is what Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, the greatest of 19th century moral philosophers–suck it Kant– were claiming. What differed Kierkegaard from Nietzsche was where their concepts of virtue were found. For Kierkegaard, virtue was grounded in absolute reliance on God, for Nietzsche it was discovered in self awareness procured from a creative act.) Tangent done.

      Now, to try and answer your question to the best of my limited ability, it really depends on how you define virtue. If, like Bernard, Kierkegaard, and I, you claim that what makes something virtuous is the that by which one seeks after God, and how God makes us more like Godself, then I don’t see how virtue as a spiritual practice, or virtue in the ideal sense, can be something that non-Christians can participate in, or that they would want to participate in, for it involves a denial of the self.

      Christianity, at it’s basic level, involves a change of heart. It requires one to reject the idea that we can know ourselves without the revelation of God, and it is through the development of virtue that we know who we are, because (and I believe this is Augustine’s point in De Trinitate) it is through participating in virtue that God is revealing to us our true nature: the imago dei. In as much as the image of God is in all people, all people participate in the virtue of God. But I don’t know if that is enough to claim that they are saved–there is a reason why Dante put them in Limbo–nor do I believe there is enough to claim that they are not saved. What I do believe is that the concept of virtue without God will eventually always be epitomized by Nietzsche’s cardinal virtues: absolute self awareness (faith), absolute self reliance (hope), and absolute self reverence (love). Whether or not this is enough for salvation, I will let you decide.

  • Alex, I appreciate your post. It strives in the direction I was trying to build up to in my previous post – as a foundation for my next one. I am curious about your footnote, however. In what manner do you find your post responding to mine? Is it meant as a correction or an extension or an inspired tangent? Did you find my post promoting a concept of fear of God’s all seeing eye as a ground for human action and Christian Ethics?

    • Alexander Arden

      No, I just wanted to clarify that if one believes that God was only watching the world, without participating in the world, then belief would only be an impetus for moral living, not virtuous living.

  • Bob

    When did virtue become the telos of the Christian life? I thought the end of the Christian life is liberation, emancipation from the powers of sin and death. A cruciform solidarity with the broken and crushed, resistance to… Oh never mind.

  • Bob

    And what is virtue here? Transubstantiated acts of living? Where mundane shit gets “blessed” and thereby takes on some kind of metaphysical completeness or wholeness?

    • Bob

      If that’s what you’re looking for, you might want to try chewing on something other than a Derrida book in your profile pic.