Christian character in the life of a believer is an essential aspect of Christian living and ministry. Christ has redeemed His people in order to conform them to His image. The end goal of the work of redemption is the glory of God. By conforming His people to the image of Christ, God displays His glory in the church. According to Scripture, Christian character includes the pursuit of truth, godliness, righteousness, love, joy, peace, gentleness, kindness, patience, perseverance, meekness, humility, self-control, compassion, thankfulness, forgiveness, contentment, and unity. God produces Christian character in the lives of believers by faith in Christ, in the power of the Spirit, by the Word of God and the sacraments. Suffering is also an essential part of the process toward the formation of Christian character.
God created human beings in His own image, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness (Gen. 1:26; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). At creation, God gave man the task of exercising dominion over creation (Ps. 8:5–8). By living righteously and subduing creation to the glory of God, mankind was to reflect the image of God throughout the world. When Adam disobeyed, the image of God was tarnished by sin and rebellion. Adam lost original righteousness for himself and his natural-born descendants. He brought all sin and misery into the world. All who descend from Adam by ordinary generation bear his corrupt fallen image and are subject to death and the curse (Gen. 5:3; Rom. 5:12–21; Eph. 2:1–4).
Through the promised Redeemer, Jesus Christ, God restores in man what was lost in Adam (Gen. 3:15). Since Jesus is the image of God, God effects the renewal of His image in His people through the saving work of Christ (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10). This is true for both Old and New Testament believers. Jesus is the last Adam who took the sin and rebellion of His people on Himself on the cross in order to take away the guilt and power of sin and to renew His image in them. By union with Christ, believers manifest His character in their lives. Jesus is the fruit-bearing vine in whom believers become fruit-bearing branches (John 15:1–8). As the last Adam, Jesus brings forth fruitful spiritual offspring who will fill the earth for the glory of God. Ultimately, Jesus will renew the image of God perfectly in His people in the resurrection on the last day. Redemption reverses the fall.
The heart of Christian character is conformity into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). Christian character involves the renewal of the whole life of a believer. Conformity to Christ reaches to the physical, spiritual, mental, emotional, and dispositional aspects of the Christian life. The Scriptures set out the many sides of Christian character. In the Old Testament, the Proverbs highlight the manifestation of Christian character in the various spheres of life. In the New Testament, teaching on the fruit of the Spirit, the Beatitudes, and the Lord’s Prayer reveals the essential elements of Christian character.
The Christian life is lived in the imitation of Christ. Through union with Christ, believers receive the fruit of Christ’s own character. This is evident from the allusions to “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22) in Jesus’ Upper Room Discourse. Jesus taught the disciples that they would share in His love (John 15:9–10), His joy (John 15:11; 17:13), and His peace (John 14:27). The fruit of the Spirit is the description of the primary attributes of Christian character. Jesus promised to send the Spirit as the Helper to impart this grace to His people. As the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit is the agent of producing Christ’s love, joy, peace, gentleness, kindness, brotherly love, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control in the lives of all believers.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ teaching about the Beatitudes further reveals aspects of Christian character. Those who have been redeemed by Christ become poor in spirit, mournful, meek, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. The first four beatitudes speak of the character of Christians in the relationship with the Lord; the last four speak of the believer’s relationship with other believers and with the unbelieving world. Believers grieve over sin and death, show mercy to others, desire to live uprightly, adopt a mind-set of humility, act out of compassion, seek peace in their relationships with others, and are willing to suffer persecution on behalf of Christ. These characteristics were also true of Christ during His earthly ministry.
Since believers have become the objects of the compassion of Christ, they are to marked by their compassion for other image bearers. Compassion led Jesus to the cross where He atoned for the sins of His people. Since God in Christ has forgiven the sins of His people, Christians are called to be people who seek and extend forgiveness to others. The compassion of Jesus resulted in His serving those who were by nature God’s enemies. As the Apostle Paul explained, “For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me” (Rom. 15:3). Therefore, Christians are to bless those who persecute them and repaying no one evil for evil (Rom. 12:14, 17).
While all Christians are called by God to pursue the formation of Christian character, it is an essential qualification for leaders in Christ’s church. The Apostle Paul set out numerous Christian characteristics as marks of men who are qualified to hold office in the local church. While special gifts suited to the function of the office of elder and deacon are necessary qualifiers, the better part of these qualifications are traits of personal holiness.
When the Bible speaks of patience, particularly as one of the fruits of the Spirit, and as one of the characteristics of love, it speaks of it as a virtue that goes far beyond the mere ability to await some future gain. It involves more than the rest or peace of the soul that trusts in God’s perfect timing. The patience that is in view here focuses more on interpersonal relationships with other people. It is the patience of longsuffering and of forbearing in the midst of personal injury. This is the most difficult patience of all.
Believers are never told to become one; we already are one and are expected to act like it. Ephesians 4:16 puts it this way: ‘From whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.’ … Therefore, if we care anything about Christ, who is the head of the body, and other Christians—the rest of the body—we simply must move beyond our comfort zones to compassionately meet needs.
The Bible’s understanding of patience as a Christian virtue is rooted in the totality of Christian truth. Patience begins with the affirmation that God is sovereign and in control of human history, working in human lives. With eternity on the horizon, time takes on an entirely new significance. The Christian understands that full satisfaction will never be achieved in this life, but he looks to the consummation of all things in the age to come. Furthermore, we know that our sanctification will be incomplete in this life, and thus Christians must look to each other as fellow sinners saved by grace, in whom the Holy Spirit is at work calling us unto Christlikeness.