If you look below, you'll see that I just posted my short review of N.T. Wright's book, "After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters." It's kind of dense, so here's an analogy about virtue ethics that I came up with when reading his book:
There's a football player (let's call him Jack for our purposes) who tears his ACL while practicing. This is a devastating injury. Without any sort of surgery and therapy, he will never be able to play again. But football is his life, and he is willing to do nearly anything to get back to where he was on the playing field.
The first step in the long road to recovery is surgery. He has an expert doctor repair his ACL so that his knee is structured like it was before the injury. Then, he has to go to physical therapy in order to retrain his atrophied muscles to walk, run, and eventually play football again. The doctor performs the surgery in less than an hour. But the therapy takes six months of disciplined, and often painful, work on Jack's part with only the aid and guidance of a therapist.
This is likened unto the Christian life: we find that we have either broken ourselves or have been broken by the world around us (usually it's a little bit of both). We want fixing, we want to be renewed. Then, with grace, we find that there is a way. God, the holy physician, has opened up for us a way to this new life by Jesus Christ's birth, death, and resurrection. There is no way that we could have ever hoped to save ourselves; it is only by God's grace that he has opened up to us the way of life (this is what theologians call "justification").
Once justification has occurred, we find ourselves in the lifelong process of sanctification, or being made into the holiness and glory of the image of God. This process, like physical therapy, takes a daily conscious effort on our part. As Jack had the aid of the physical therapist, we have the guidance and comfort from the Holy Spirit. This lifelong spiritual process takes concentrated, dedication, devotion, and self-discipline. Yet in the end, it pays off spectacularly. We find that we are living the holy life, just as Jack finds himself once again out on the football field.
One final note: justification must precede sanctification. Physical therapy before surgery would be nonsense, as the structure of Jack's new changes from before the surgery to after. The surgery is necessary for the path of rehabilitation, and only a surgeon can do that. Just so with the holy life. We have to recognize that God, and God only, can truly rescue us from this present brokenness. This is the good news of Easter. If we were to try and live a holy life without the grace of God, we would find it to be empty, narcissistic, and eventually, self-serving.
I hope that all of this makes sense. And don't think that I'm writing this from atop some lofty mountain of virtue that I have attained. No, I too am a pilgrim on this long journey called the Christian faith.