By Peter Amsterdam
December 6, 2016
(This article is based on points taken from The Practice of Godliness, by Jerry Bridges.1)
As we saw in the earlier article The Foundation of Christlikeness, becoming more like Jesus requires devotion to God, which is rooted in our reverence of God and our understanding of His love for us as individuals. Being God-centered positions us to grow in Christlike character. Our love for and dedication to God opens the door for the Holy Spirit to transform our character, to develop the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. In addition to these specific fruits, any other trait commended in Scripture as being godly can also be seen as a fruit of the Spirit, such as humility, compassion, gratitude, contentment, and more.
While it may seem like quite a challenge to manifest this fruit, we can comfort ourselves that we grow in these areas as a result of the Holy Spirit working within us. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit does all the work and that we bear no responsibility for developing Christian character. We must be open to and cooperate with the Holy Spirit, and fulfill our responsibilities to grow in Christlikeness through the Spirit’s direction and empowerment. We don’t become Christlike without God’s Spirit working within us.
Upcoming articles will cover in detail the fruit of the Spirit. But first, there are some general principles which would be helpful to mention, as they apply to all aspects of Christlike character.
The first is having the right motives. We want to move away from motives which are self-centered rather than God-centered. While being Christlike will generally result in giving us a good reputation before others and making us feel good about ourselves, that shouldn’t be our underlying motivation. Our devotion to God should be our motivation for actions that are pleasing to God. We can see this motivation in the Old Testament story of Joseph, when Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him. He didn’t refuse her on the basis of “If I did that and my master found out, he would have my head.” Rather he said:
How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?2
Jerry Bridges wrote:
I recall once being tempted with the opportunity to engage in a questionable business transaction, one of those gray-area situations in which we tend to rationalize our actions. As I pondered the matter I thought, “I’d better not; I might incur the discipline of God.” Of course, when all proper motives fail, it’s certainly better to be checked by the fear of God’s discipline than to go ahead with our sin. But that is not the right motive. In this situation the Holy Spirit came to my aid and I thought to myself: Now that (the fear of God’s discipline) is certainly an unworthy motive; the real reason why I should not do that is because God is worthy of my most honorable conduct. The Holy Spirit helped me to recognize the self-centeredness of my initial motivation and to correctly focus my motivation on God.3
Our motivation for our actions should be a sense of devotion to God. The apostle Paul wrote:
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.4
The source of the power to live in a godly manner comes from Christ; therefore the means of experiencing that power is our relationship with Him. Jesus said:
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.5
By abiding in Christ we develop godly character and become more like Jesus. The power to transform us comes from outside of us. We must be plugged into the source—Jesus—and we stay connected to Him by abiding in Him and His Word, being in communion with Him through prayer and devotion.
The next principle is that though the power to have godly character comes from Christ, the responsibility for developing and displaying that character is ours. We’re told to Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it;6 pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness;7 train yourself for godliness;8 live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives.9 While we can look to the Lord for the grace and power to grow in Christlikeness, we can’t just toss it in His court and expect Him to make us godly. Some effort, in fact a great deal of it, is required of us. This comes back to the concept of “putting on” and “putting off,” which we have covered in earlier articles.10 In a sense we are totally dependent on the Lord, through the Spirit, to transform us; while at the same time we are totally responsible to do our part to make it possible. We are called to the active pursuit of God’s moral will, to devote ourselves to God, to do all we can to develop Christian character, to live according to and align ourselves with the teachings of Scripture, while at the same time depending on the Lord to transform us into His image through the power of the Holy Spirit.
We, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.11
When we endeavor to become more Christlike, we want to let all the fruit of the Spirit grow in our lives, including the fruit which isn’t included in the list in Galatians 5:22–23. This would include traits like compassion, humility, etc. Growing in Christlikeness isn’t about personality or temperament; it’s about seeking to grow, through the help of God’s Spirit, in every area of Christian character. We all have areas within our personality which align to some degree with Christian character traits. Some people are naturally generous, self-sacrificing, patient, etc.; but even in such areas, God’s Spirit nudges us to stretch and grow, often through our being faced with a challenge which calls for us to take an extra step or go an extra mile. In addition, there are fruits of the Spirit which may even run counter to our personality and will take much more focus to grow in.
For example, an optimistic and cheerful person may find it natural to have joy and compassion, yet they may find it difficult to have self-control or to be faithful with their responsibilities. Or someone who is calm and even-tempered, who doesn’t naturally show a lot of emotion, may find a challenge with the fruit of joy. Some who are naturally very self-disciplined might lack patience with those who are challenged in this area, and would want the Spirit’s help in patience and gentleness with others. One who is self-sacrificing, sensitive to the needs of others, and always willing to help out, might have a tendency to criticize others who do less and might need to focus on growing in love and kindness.
No matter which godly attributes come naturally to us, we all face the need to grow in manifesting the fruit of the Spirit. We each have varying challenges when it comes to demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. When we don’t naturally display certain fruit, it’s not enough to say, “That’s just the way I am.” The principle to learn and apply is that we are each responsible to exhibit all of the traits of godly character in a balanced fashion. Some godly traits are more difficult to grow in than others. These will require extra prayer and attention, but that is part of training for Christlikeness. Remember, growth in godliness requires both “putting off” and “putting on,” and just as athletes who want to be successful in their sport have to work hard to strengthen their weak areas, so we need to make the effort to manifest all the fruit of the Spirit.
Growth in Christlikeness, in godly character, is progressive. No matter how much we grow, there will always be room for further growth. Like athletes who need to train regularly in order to maintain the progress they’ve made, we need to keep growing in godliness; if we aren’t progressing, we will regress. Whether we’re aware of it or not, the decisions we regularly make and the habits we form train our character. When writing about false teachers, the apostle Peter wrote:
They have hearts trained in greed.12
The implication is that we can train ourselves not only toward godliness but toward ungodliness as well.
Jerry Bridges makes this point:
The implication of Peter’s use of the word train is very sobering. It is possible to train ourselves in the wrong direction! That is what these false teachers had done. They had practiced greed so well that they had become experts in it—they had trained their hearts in greed! So there is a sense in which we are growing in our character every day. The question is: In which direction are we growing? Are we growing toward godly character or ungodly character? Are we growing in love or selfishness; in harshness or patience; in greed or generosity; in honesty or dishonesty; in purity or impurity? Every day we are training ourselves in one direction or the other by the thoughts we think, the words we say, the actions we take, the deeds we do.13
Growing in godly character calls for understanding the intimate relationship between conduct and character. When we repeat an action (whether good or bad) over and over again, eventually that action will become habitual; it will become part of who we are, part of our character. At the same time, our character can also determine our actions; for example, if we are unselfish in character, then we are more likely to help someone who is in need, as our character causes us to act generously. If, however, we are selfish by nature, yet we are training ourselves to overcome selfishness, then we make a point to regularly help those in need; and the more we do it, the more it becomes second nature to us, and we develop an unselfish character. What we do, we become, and what we are, we do. Our conduct is always feeding our character, and our character is also always feeding our conduct. This makes it very important that we practice godliness every day in both conduct and character.
Growing in Christlikeness calls for commitment and determination, as well as the powerful work of the Holy Spirit within us. There are numerous godly traits spoken of throughout Scripture, and it would be overwhelming and unrealistic to try to work on all of them at the same time. Character formation takes time, both in “putting on” godly traits and “putting off” ungodly ones. Where to start is a matter for prayer, seeking the Lord to show you, by His Word and through the Spirit, which areas He may be leading you to give attention to for a time, and when it might be time to focus on a different trait. Let the Spirit of God guide you in this.
Don’t expect to become an overnight wonder. It takes time to change and grow. Make the commitment to pursue godly character, to become more like Jesus; and then work in conjunction with the Spirit, praying for guidance and for the strength to continue to work toward godliness in belief, action, conduct, and character. Do your part to put up your sails so that the breath of God can move you in the direction of growth in Christlikeness.
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 Genesis 39:9.
3 Bridges, The Practice of Godliness, 60.
4 1 Corinthians 10:31.
5 John 15:4–5.
6 Psalm 34:14.
7 1 Timothy 6:11.
8 1 Timothy 4:7.
9 Titus 2:12.
10 You can find the other articles in the “More Like Jesus” series that touch on this topic at the following links:
11 2 Corinthians 3:18 NIV.
12 2 Peter 2:14.
13 Bridges, The Practice of Godliness, 70.