The Distinction Between Common Virtue & True Virtue – Moralism (2)

Apparently Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) made a distinction between common virtue and true virtue, in his work, The Nature of True Virtue. I am not sure if he used the exact terms but the idea is in his works. Here I continue taking some notes on the idea. All emphases are mine.

(2) Notes from my old prof,  D.A. Carson, from The God Who is There, page 62.


“… By contrast, Jonathan Edwards asserts that a high percentage of all virtue is common virtue, i.e., the fruit of common grace. These must be distinguished from gospel grace and gospel virtue.  Two motives commonly lie behind common virtue: fear and pride.  The fear may be of God, law, parents, what others might think, and more; the pride says, in effect, ‘I am not as others are.’

Individuals who learn not to commit adultery or not to lie refrain from adultery and lying not because of a transformed heart but because of fear and pride. They do not commit adultery and do not lie, not because they love sexual purity and truth-telling, or for God’s sake, but for their own sake.  They do not have transformed hearts and minds but restrained hearts and minds. The irony is that a person may lie and even commit adultery out of fear and pride – and another may refuse to lie and commit adultery equally out of pride.  In short, the line between committing explicit sins and the works-righteousness of not committing those sins is very thin: both common vices and common virtues may be nourished by fear and pride.

To preach and to teach morality may actually strengthen fear and pride within the congregations of the living God.  But where the gospel takes hold of people, where both justification and regeneration have taken place, we understand that we have been accepted and remain accepted out of sheer grace, we receive this by faith, and our ethics springs out of gratitude for this grace.

As Charlotte Bronte wrote in Jane Eyre,

“Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion.  To attack the first is not to assail the last.  To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.”