by Jim Berg
This article first appeared in FrontLine May/June 2003.
We are seeing a renewed interest in character development today— even in the public sector. Some secular educators and even some public officials have taken up the cause of character education for the nation’s youth. Former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett penned a bestseller entitled The Book of Virtues, further fanning the flames of concern, and Stephen Covey’s writings promote personal responsibility. In addition, some current non-Christian and Christian parenting curricula present a renewed emphasis upon rearing morally responsible children.
While Christians can be thankful for any effort that attempts to upgrade the moral fabric of our society, it is crucial that we realize that developing human virtue (i.e., “character,” as the world uses the term) in our children and in ourselves is not the same as developing Christlikeness. It is important that we understand both the similarities and the differences between human virtue and Christlikeness. For the purpose of this discussion, I will use the terms “Christlikeness,” “godliness,” and Christian character” synonymously.
Human Virtues (Character)
By human virtues I mean character qualities such as responsibility, honesty, loyalty, charity, generosity, courage, compassion, punctuality, cheerfulness, helpfulness, dependability, initiative, obedience, and fair-mindedness. These qualities are admirable in saved and unsaved alike.
Character, however, can be developed by anyone. An unsaved man can follow God’s universal laws, whether scientific, social, or moral, and benefit from them. The capacity to develop virtue is one of the aspects of the residual, marred image of God in man. A lost businessman can be honest. A lost employee can be loyal. A lost philanthropist can be charitable. A lost soldier can be courageous. A lost student can be punctual, etc.
The development of human virtue simply requires embracing standards of excellence and disciplining oneself toward those standards. Discipline is essentially making decisions that subordinate personal desires to those standards of excellence.
A person who will submit himself to the instruction and accountability of wise elders and will discipline himself— or allow himself to be disciplined by others— toward standards of excellence will with enough practice develop certain commendable qualities. This is how U.S. military academies develop men and women of character. This is how parents who are willing to take the time to discipline and train their children are rewarded with virtuous children.
While we rejoice at whatever good we see in man and his works around us—good art, good manners, good conduct, good music, good literature, just laws, and fair courts—we as believers cannot be content with moral virtue alone. And certainly we must not confuse these human virtues with Christlikeness.
Children can leave Christian homes and graduate from Christian high schools and colleges with certain commendable qualities and still not be godly. They can possess character without Christlikeness.
Christian Character (Christlikeness)
Unlike human virtues, Christlikeness—the fruit of the Spirit—is produced only by the life of God at work in the believing and yielding soul. There is something supernatural going on in the life—a spiritual vitality—that must permeate the standards of excellence and the discipline in the following ways:
First of all, Paul tells us that we are changed into the image of Christ by a S p i r i t – e n a b l e d process of “beholding as in a glass [mirror] the glory [the unique excellencies] of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18).
The excellencies of Christ may be viewed first in another believer, perhaps as a child sees Christ in his parents, a teacher, or his pastor (1 Cor. 11:1). Believers reflecting the true Light are to “shine before men” that when those around them see their “good works”—their Christlike life—their attention will be turned to the “Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
Leaders who show Christ will be attractive to those in whom the Spirit of God is working, because God’s “fruit” always “tastes” good to those with tender hearts. Christlikeness has an attractive warmth, but it also has a humility about it that uses opportunities of interaction (Deut. 6:7) to point the follower to the true Light (John 3:30). The Christlike leader will especially use his influence to point others to the Word, where they will see Christ far more clearly because there is no human influence to taint the vision. When viewed in the Person of Christ, every virtue is seen in its most potent form and is exceedingly attractive.
The believer seeking and seeing Christ in the Word is enamored with the beauty of Christ’s holiness, and the Spirit works in him a desire to be holy. He marvels at the unchanging love of his Lord, and the Spirit increases his desire to be loving himself. He is humbled by Christ’s compassion and mercy to him and wants by the Spirit’s work to demonstrate the same in his life. He is encouraged by the Savior’s faithfulness, and the Spirit quickens his desires for the same steadfastness in his own character. He sees the Master’s humility, and the Spirit teaches him that he has much to learn about humbly serving others. And so it goes with all the blessed qualities of the Lord Jesus. This spiritual vitality promotes a Christ-centered vision as the source for standards of excellence.
Second, spiritual vitality empowers the discipline needed for Christlikeness. Self-discipline toward standards of excellence can produce human virtue and moralism, but alone it isn’t enough to produce Christlikeness. The believer who truly sees the excellencies of Christ is humbled and realizes he cannot produce these on his own. He knows he needs Spirit-empowered help to “row against the current” of his own sinful heart; he cannot merely discipline himself into Christlikeness.
At every crossroad where he must decide whether he will please himself or please Christ, the growing believer must die to himself (Luke 9:23, 24) in order to receive the divine help (i.e., the grace) to carry out the right choice (1 Pet. 5:5). This Spirit-enabled self-denial fuels the discipline of his life toward the Christlike excellencies he seeks to emulate.
Any time he refuses to deny himself for God or others, his leaders must not only insist that he choose to do the right thing—and perhaps administer appropriate chastening for failure to do so—but point out how his lack of discipline in that area is a rejection of the path to Christlikeness. He must be pointed back to Christ for forgiveness and for grace to do right as he seeks reconciliation, makes restitution, or endures some protective or corrective restriction as a result of his disobedience.
Spiritual vitality then is the personal relationship with Christ Himself that provides the divine light (the vision of Christ) and the divine might (the grace of God) to live the Christian life. Christlikeness cannot be formed without this living relationship with Christ any more than branches can bear fruit apart from the vine (John 15). Our discipleship efforts, therefore, must keep this relationship with Christ front and center, or we will produce followers who may have character—human virtue—but not Christlike character.
Think of the necessity of spiritual vitality this way. A family on vacation might be able to build a lifelike sand sculpture of a dog at the beach, but it would take an act of God to make the sculpture live. It is the same with Christian character. A man can develop certain qualities that look like godliness, but only God can produce the fruit of His Spirit. The “sand sculpture” of character will come alive as Christlikeness only as the disciple is beholding Christ and His ways in the Word and in those around him and responding with Spirit-enabled self-denial in the daily choices of life.
One Last Thought
I hope you can see that it is possible to develop character without developing Christlikeness. I hope you can also see that it is not possible to develop Christlikeness while rejecting the main components of character: standards of excellence and discipline. They are essential to Christlikeness, but not enough. There must be a spiritual vitality that infuses both components with divine life as the believer interacts with God.
As parents, pastors, and school leaders, we have much work to do in this area. We cannot be content with high standards and discipline. They are important to the preservation of civility and morality, but they do not produce godliness on their own; only the Spirit of God can produce godliness.
The goal of our discipleship efforts is not merely to keep our children and students out of moral calamity or to help them become responsible citizens, caring spouses, and good parents. Any of those goals can be accomplished by unbelievers. Our goal must be to see those we disciple fellowshipping with the living God themselves so that He can form His own likeness in them.
This article was adapted from Created for His Glory, Jim Berg’s sequel to Changed into His Image, and is used with permission. Created for His Glory, its companion workbook, Taking Time to Rejoice, and its accompanying videos are available from BJU Press.
At the time of writing, Dr. Jim Berg was Dean of Students at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. Dr. Berg now serves on the faculty of Bob Jones Seminary and will be one of the featured speakers in the National Fellowship Meeting of the FBFI.