By Peter Amsterdam
November 29, 2016
(This article is based on points taken from The Practice of Godliness, by Jerry Bridges.1)
A key factor in becoming like Jesus is developing godly character. Every individual has character, which is defined as the qualities that make up who someone is; and it’s reflected in how they feel, think, and behave. Character is the combination of attributes that determine a person’s moral and ethical actions and reactions. Most people naturally have some good and bad character traits. Some people, regardless of their religious faith, or lack of it, have good character and strong morals. We’ve each developed our character throughout our lifetime.
While each person, Christian or not, has character, the focus in this article and those following will be character traits that Scripture identifies as those which believers should emulate and which lead us to Christlikeness. These character traits, which I refer to as Christian character traits, can be differentiated from other character traits that, while good, don’t necessarily make one more Christlike. For example, creativity, flexibility, alertness, decisiveness, and others are good attributes to have, but they aren’t directly addressed in Scripture; whereas faith, gentleness, patience, love, gratitude, and others are. Our focus will be on Christian character.
Before we jump into the topic, a few points merit clarifying. The first is that no Christian is perfect; we all make mistakes, we all sin, and none of us has complete Christlikeness, nor will we attain it in this life. Our goal is to allow the Holy Spirit to work within us, to change our thoughts, goals, desires, our whole lives, to be more Christlike. Secondly, developing godly character can’t be achieved by “keeping rules” out of a sense of duty, or feeling that if we robotically do all the right things, we will be living in a Christlike manner. While there are specific things to do and rules to keep, it’s not the rote keeping of them that develops godliness; rather it’s doing them in response to our love for God, who dwells within us. The actions which reflect godliness come from within us, from the transformation which is rooted in our entering a relationship with God, our becoming new creations.2 It’s by the work of the Holy Spirit that our character is transformed.
Of course, there is some work which needs to be done for us to grow in Christlikeness. There are moral decisions we individually need to make on a regular basis, along with specific efforts to undertake, and spiritual transformation needed to bring our lives, thoughts, and actions into alignment with the teachings of Scripture. But all of this must be seen within the framework of God’s grace. As was mentioned earlier in this series,3 it’s the Holy Spirit that brings about the changes in our lives which move us in the direction of Christlikeness. We have a part to play as well, but the actual transformation comes through the Holy Spirit. Like when sailing a boat, we have to put our sails into the right position in order to catch the wind. It’s the wind that moves the boat, but the sails have to be raised. The transforming power, the wind of the Spirit, is able to change us; but if we want to be moved, we must make the effort needed so the sails can catch the wind.
Part of raising our sails has to do with cultivating Christian character. There are godly traits that permeate a person—a pattern of thinking, acting, and being, which fully become part of the core of the person. It’s very different from a superficial, shallow show put on to be noticed and admired by others. Instead it’s the determination and effort to live in accordance with the teaching of Scripture to the point that it genuinely becomes part of the person. It’s more than one’s reputation; it’s who the person fundamentally is. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow.” Christian character is rooted in our belief about who God is—that He has spoken to us through His Word, that we are in relationship with Him, have dedicated ourselves to Him, and therefore desire to actively live our lives according to what He has revealed in the Bible.
Christian character calls for making conscious choices to allow the Holy Spirit to transform your character. It entails making right moral decisions over and over until doing the right thing, the godly thing, becomes second nature, part of who you are as a person. When you are tested or tempted in some area, you’ll automatically respond correctly because of who you have become. Having formed spiritual character day by day, year by year, when you are suddenly faced with a major moral challenge, you are able to overcome it because you have trained yourself in godliness or Christlikeness. In a sense you have built moral muscles; you’ve rewired your brain, or your soul, to respond in ways that glorify God. And it’s not all about being tested or tempted; it goes beyond that, as you develop certain attributes which reflect Christ, such as forgiveness, generosity, humility, gratitude, etc. However, the same principle holds true, because as you regularly choose to forgive, be generous, humble, and grateful, these qualities soon become part of who you are through and through. That’s the process of developing godly character.
Throughout Scripture we find what are seen as Christian characteristics, most notably in the list of the fruit of the Spirit: the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.4 But they are not limited to these alone, as there are numerous other traits spoken of throughout Scripture. We’re told to have compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness;5 to think on whatever is pure, lovely, commendable, admirable, excellent, and worthy of praise;6 to help the weak, as it’s more blessed to give than receive;7 to do to others as we’d have them do to us;8 to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance, gentleness;9 to honor our word;10 to be temperate, dignified, sensible, kind, to have integrity;11 to live honestly, speak the truth, and keep our promises even when it hurts;12 to set an example in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity;13 to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry;14 to love from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith;15 to be hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, holy, and disciplined;16 to be generous and willing to share with others.17
These and other characteristics are found in Scripture, and when we put effort into developing them in ourselves, we raise our sails so that the Holy Spirit can work in our heart, mind, and spirit to transform us. Some or many of these things may not come naturally to us, and in fact at first we may almost have to force ourselves to adopt them. It can be uncomfortable to feel that you’re being put into a mold, trying to force yourself into becoming something different than you naturally are. And that is in fact what’s happening. The purpose is to develop a Christlike character, and as the apostle Paul said, in order to do this we need to put off the old self with its practices and … put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.18 Christlikeness calls for deliberate change.
Look at the language that Paul used when writing about what goes into developing godly character, the moral effort that is called for:
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you…19
You must put them all away…20
Above all these put on….21
This tells us that serious effort is involved in developing Christlikeness. It won’t come naturally at the beginning, but eventually, as character is formed, it will become part of you. But the steps you take to get to that point require difficult decisions and actions which run counter to instinct. We have to choose to “put to death” and “put away” sins which have become habitual. Breaking bad habits and replacing them with good ones is no easy task, and neither is replacing sinful attitudes, conduct, and actions with good ones. There are some habits of mind, body, imagination, speech, and more which we need to unlearn in order to make way for new habits which need to be learned.
In order to “put off” some things and “put on” others we must decide, over and over, to do or not do certain things so as to develop new patterns which eventually become habitual. At first it’s a fight, because it seems so unnatural, but over time a new godly habit is developed. For example, if we’ve been naturally selfish, breaking the habit of this character trait requires a change in the way we are. We have to fight against the natural selfish attitude which has become part of who we are by making conscious decisions to be generous, to not demand that things go our way, to in fact go out of our way to let others have their way. Such a change requires an internal fight, but over time, our tendency to think only of ourselves and what we want will diminish, and we will become more sensitive to and aware of the needs of others. We will become more Christlike in this area.
It’s important to note that Christlikeness calls for both putting off and putting on character traits. Often, believers focus on putting off traits of a sinful nature. We see stopping our sin as the goal, believing that we will be closer to the Lord, better people, more godly if we overcome this or that sin. While this is true, fighting against our sinful nature is only part of the battle. We are instructed to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.22 We must develop godly characteristics in addition to putting off ungodly ones. Just as we are called to put off the traits of our old selves, we are called to put on the traits of the new. We can’t neglect either.
The challenge is consciously putting off sin and putting on godliness, making it possible for the wind of God’s Spirit to move us toward Christlikeness.
Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us…23
Let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.24
At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.25
Be imitators of God, as beloved children.26
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Jerry Bridges, The Practice of Godliness (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2010).
2 2 Corinthians 5:17.
4 Galatians 5:22–23.
5 Colossians 3:12–14.
6 Philippians 4:8–9.
7 Acts 20:35.
8 Matthew 7:12.
9 1 Timothy 6:11.
10 Matthew 5:36–37.
11 Titus 2:2–8.
12 Psalm 15.
13 1 Timothy 4:12.
14 James 1:19.
15 1 Timothy 1:5.
16 Titus 1:8.
17 1 Timothy 6:18.
18 Colossians 3:9–10.
19 Colossians 3:5.
20 Colossians 3:8.
21 Colossians 3:14.
22 Ephesians 4:23–24.
23 Hebrews 12:1 KJV.
24 Romans 13:12.
25 Ephesians 5:8.
26 Ephesians 5:1.