In the early fourth century, a monk named Evagrius Ponticus came up with a list of cardinal sins—cardinal in the sense that these foundational sins lead to other sins. In AD 590, Pope Gregory revised this list to form the modern concept of the “seven deadly sins”: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. These sins are well-known today through the Catholic Church and through famous writings and artwork, including Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Cadmus’s The Seven Deadly Sins. Accompanying the list of the seven deadly sins is a list of seven virtues, which are seen as the inverse of the cardinal sins. Neither list, of the seven deadly sins or of the seven cardinal virtues, is explicitly biblical.
Virtues are habitual and firm dispositions to do what is morally good. The Catholic Church teaches that, by creating habits to do good and giving the best of ourselves, one can become more like God and overcome the temptation of sin. The Catholic Church focuses highly on the seven virtues as a means of combatting the seven deadly sins and thus overcoming the evil within us.
Several versions of the list of seven cardinal virtues exist. The Vatican version includes the following: prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, and charity. The first four virtues are categorized as “cardinal” virtues, which means that the other virtues depend on them. The Catholic Church teaches that the cardinal virtues are acquired by education, good actions, and perseverance in struggle. The last three virtues are known as theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. They are called “theological” virtues because they relate directly to God.
Here is a brief description of each of the seven cardinal virtues:
Prudence — The ability to find the good in every situation and choosing the right means of achieving it.
Justice — The constant and firm will to give what is due to God and neighbor.
Fortitude — The demonstration of strength in difficulties and temptations; the ability to overcome fear and other obstacles in one’s moral life.
Temperance — Balance in the use of created goods, using pleasure in moderation, and seeking that which is good.
Faith — The virtue by which one believes in God and believes that all He has said and revealed is true.
Hope — A desire for the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as one’s happiness, placing one’s trust in Christ’s promises, and relying on the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Charity — Love for God above all else for His own sake and love for one’s neighbor as oneself for the love of God.
The Vatican’s statement on charity reminds believers that all the virtues are inspired by charity, which “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:14, ESV).
The Bible talks about many virtues. Biblically, virtues flow from God’s character and are produced in us through the work of the Holy Spirit. It is God’s will to conform us to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). Once a person puts his trust in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17) and he begins to reflect the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23). By God’s grace and through the work of the Holy Spirit, we become more like Christ and therefore filled with virtue. The transformation to Christlikeness is not primarily a self-help effort in which we seek to live virtuously; rather, it depends on the work of the Holy Spirit (Philippians 2:12–13). Overcoming sin and living a godly life of virtue is about abiding in Christ (John 15), yielding to and keeping in step with the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:16–18), and trusting in God and His provision for us (1 Corinthians 10:13).
Any and all sin separates us from God (Romans 6:23). Being “virtuous” is meaningless apart from a relationship with God, who alone is good (Isaiah 64:6; Luke 18:19). Our sin is only overcome through the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross. We are commanded to “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue” (2 Peter 1:5), and the list of seven cardinal virtues might help us notice areas to work on. But we remember that true virtue comes only by the work of the Holy Spirit who indwells all who put their faith in Christ (Philippians 2:12–13). Our salvation was begun by the Holy Spirit, and the process of sanctification will be completed by Him as well (Galatians 3:3).