“The Christian life is not an exodus from vice to virtue,
but rather from virtue to grace.” -Gerhard Forde
Growing up as a child it was my perception that one needed to be converted. Yes, converted. Unconverted people were those that would smoke, drink, chew and date girls that do. Converted people were those that didn’t smoke, drink or chew. Converted people were those that went to church, tithed, said please and thank you and had an aura of cleanliness that was next to Godliness. Regardless if this was my own legalism informing my perception or if it was the fruit of my church’s material principle, the previous ideology sees conversion as converting from vice to virtue.
Vice to virtue conversions see conversion primarily in the external actions of the individual. “I used to be a drunk, now I am not a drunk. Praise God.” Vice to virtue conversions see people as a part of the flock based not upon a common confession but upon a common lifestyle or a preset list of social acceptable norms. In order to be converted in a vice to virtue conversion the individual must adhere to a specified set of standards and exhibit the proper fruit. The problem with this vice to virtue conversion mentality is that a person can externally exert all sorts of energy in order to rid himself of his immoral vices. He can polish himself up through effective alcoholic treatments from the doom of alcoholism. He can use effective accountability groups and internet filters to cut out the seduction of pornography. He can curb the sourness of his cursing tongue and the entrapment of gossip through carefully monitored speech. A person can externally rid himself of all of these moral deficiencies and still be eternally lost; that is damned. The reason for this is that mankind’s virtues cannot justify in the eyes of God.
Painfully I have witnessed countless well-meaning Christians, pastors and authors advocating for vice to virtue conversions. The problems with vice to virtue conversions are plentiful. For starters, how does one know if they have fully rid themselves of the vice and how do they know if they have fully embraced the new virtue? One can never have assurance. Secondly, this view of conversion points people to “self.” One will always be looking inward to rid vice and acquire virtue by the strength of their will. Thirdly, the vice to virtue convert will always seek a message/sermon that consists of steps, encouragements and principles to aid in the journey from vice to virtue… messages that are Christless or Crossless at best. Fourthly, the vice to virtue convert essentially needs to be converted yet again. Converted? Yes, converted because they are living not in grace but in an alternate reality of moralism.
The vice to virtue convert needs to be converted not from vice to virtue but from virtue to grace. This is a whole paradigm shift. While churches and ministries that encourage vice to virtue conversions can be commended in the realm of morality and external behavior modification, this journey from vice to virtue unfortunately misses the essence of Jesus and His grace. You may respond by saying, “But why not from vice to grace?” It is true that we need to be converted from vice to grace but equally important we need to be converted from virtue to grace. Ellie Corrow states,
“The trouble is that we need to be saved from our ‘good works’ as much as we need to be saved from our vices. In short we need to be saved from ourselves; our trespasses are not restricted to obvious vices, but also extend to our most pious good works. Why? Because we imagine that they are, indeed, good works that just might improve our standing before God. Our piety can actually stand between us and the Savior. No one says, ‘I’m too good to go to heaven’ but how many people, even those who should know better, think ‘I’m fine, at least I’m not like that tax collector over there.”
The problem with virtue is not that good works are inherently evil, rather it is what our sinful nature does with the good works. The Old Adam (i.e. sinful nature) grabs a hold of virtue for itself, raises it up and says, “Look at what I have done.” The Old Adam is always looking for a way to justify itself. Thus when we cling to virtue as assurance, worth and/or merit before God we are essentially stating that we don’t need Jesus. (See Galatians 5:2) If we can become so virtuous, why would we need Jesus and His cross? This is why Paul consistently condemns vices of all flavors in his epistles and it is also why he considers his virtues as rubbish in Philippians 3:4-9. Nothing, I mean nothing; can be a proper substitute for Christ crucified! Everything, both vices and virtues, is rubbish in justification compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ.
Conversion from virtue to grace is a conversion that is not void of virtue though, for virtues are present in grace! The virtues that are present in grace are Jesus’ virtues. Jesus who knew no sin was made to be sin on our behalf so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21) My vices, our vices, are taken up by Jesus and we are ‘gifted’ the virtues of Jesus as if they are our own. Imputed! Converted from our works to Jesus’ works. It is not about our works in justification but about Jesus’ work for us.
Virtue to Grace… Grace Alone. Amen.
 Paraphrase of a C.F.W. Walther Quote