“Virtue signaling” is a new phrase in the syntax of the popular English lexicon. Coined by British columnist James Bartholomew, it is a phrase that has come to define the act of writing or saying something so that one may ‘indicate that they are virtuous’ based upon their position. Bartholomew’s own illustration of how virtue signalling works is insightful:

Sometimes it [virtue signalling] is quite subtle. By saying that they hate the Daily Mail or Ukip, they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded. One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.

Aside from finding virtue signallng itself reprehensible – I also find it absolutely fascinating from a theological perspective. As a culture that has obsessed over making things quick and easy, it seems that modern man has found a way to develop McRighteousness, drive-by virtue, and all this at a bargain price!

Commenting on this phenomenon of social justice advocacy equalling personal righteousness, Hans Fiene has noted the ‘ex opere operato’ nature of the operation. Fiene wrote a piece in the Federalist where he convincingly expounded on the recent phenomenon of social outrage as a desperate search for righteousness. You can find the article here.  I strongly recommend you take a look. Fiene notes that from a theological angle, the culture of constant social justice outrage is perfectly rational. His argument (grossly simplified) is that since most individuals in our culture lack the only true ground of righteousness that comes through faith alone in Christ alone they seek it desperately in other areas – areas like social justice. Fiene writes that, “the gods of social justice have decreed that the way you become righteous is by speaking in defense of those the gods deem to be oppressed, and within this theological framework, you don’t have to actually believe they are oppressed.” So, just as the doctrine of ‘ex opere operato’ teaches that man is made righteous by the bare act of receiving the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist (according to the Roman Catholic Church), so now the modern secular social justice advocate finds righteousness as soon as they drag their mouse over the post icon. After all, how easy is it to find righteousness when all one has to do is to post a Facebook status or tweet their affirmation for transgender rights?

However, as a ‘watchman’ on the wall of conservative Reformed orthodoxy I would pose a question to my brethren: “What does our virtue signalling look like?” Those made righteous by the blood of Jesus are still prone to seek righteousness beyond the pale. Consider the Apostle Peter, a man fully justified through faith alone in Christ alone, who turns to ‘virtue signalling’ when he decides to sit with the cool kids and in doing so obscures the gospel:

Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I [Paul] withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews? Galatians 2:11-14

The point of all of this is that ‘virtue signalling’ makes perfect sense for those outside of Christ. If one doesn’t have righteousness – then like anything else in life – we find it in the quickest and easiest way possible. That is the raison d’etre for the song and dance of protestation in our own day. McRighteousness makes perfect sense. But it only makes perfect sense for those outside of Jesus Christ.

So, for those in Christ – an appeal. Quit your social posturing. Don’t make the political post that is going to fix all of social liberals who are busy ‘virtue signalling’. Don’t undress their souls without providing the cover of Christ.  Don’t counter the sentiment of social justice outrage with your conservative ideology. Instead make an appeal. Tell them about the Christ that you know who offers true righteousness. Tell them about the Savior who took their sins upon Himself, who stood condemned in the place of every soul who trusts in Him, who died for the sins of the persecuted and their persecutors. Tell them about the only One who can ever deliver perfect justice – and save the guilty at the same time. Tell them:

“For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” 2 Corinthians 5:21

Jason Hutchinson

Jason Hutchinson

Pastor at Grace Bible Presbyterian Church
Pastor Jason holds both the M.Div and D. Min from Southern Seminary where his project focused on the contemporary application of the Puritan model of pastoral ministry.He has come to Grace Bible Presbyterian Church from Mountain Community Fellowship after pastoring that church for ten years.Pastor Jason is married to his lovely wife Jennifer who is a graduate of Baptist Bible College and Seminary of Clarks Summit, PA.They have been blessed of God with four young men in their household: Peyton, Landon, Camdon and Jon Asher.Pastor Jason is currently acting to ensure that all published articles align with the necessary theological standards.
Jason Hutchinson

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