Skip to content

The Essence of Christian Character

First, I would like to commend the Lesson author for a fine series of studies on the theme of Spiritual Fruit. The lessons were clearly written, biblically based, practical, and balanced theologically.

The main focus of my comments will be on the current state of Seventh-day Adventist thinking on the subject of sanctification by faith. Quite obviously the subject of the “fruit of the Spirit” is the positive side of the coin that we normally refer to as sanctification. Thus this facet of experience deals with the transformative grace which has reference to the positive virtues that should be typical of the maturing Christian. Maybe these could also be called the active characteristics, though possibly “self-control” or temperance could be classified as that phase of character development which deals with the removal of abusive attitudes, words and actions from the experience of fruitful Christians.

But whether expressed actively or passively, what we are dealing with is growth in grace so that the forgiven, or justified believer is ever unfolding into the likeness of Christ. And this experience is the evident result of the power of the Spirit working subjectively in the soul.

Yet this subject has always generated a lot of discussion, even heated debate. The major issues for Seventh-day Adventists usually include the manner in which forgiveness integrates with the experience of sanctification. But the most controversial questions seem to usually gravitate to the closely related issue of sanctification’s goal, Christian perfection.

Furthermore, the perfection issue has normally stirred up debate over the closely related, hot-button themes of

  • the Humanity of Christ and His role as our Example in resisting temptation,
  • the extent to which transformation can progress before glorification and
  • the issue of the role of a final generation of perfected believers and their alleged vindication of God in the “Great Controversy” between Christ and Satan.

Quite certainly, each one of these issues could dominate our discussions.

But in the very moderate, even irenic spirit of the Lesson author, I will try to focus my comments on the questions of

  1. the relationship between sanctification and justification and
  2. just how optimistic dare we personally be about the extent of our salvation from the power of sin before death or the close of human probation.

As to the first issue, I am suggesting that the experience of justification and its deliverance from the guilt of sin forms the essential legal framework or key motivational launching pad for any experience of character change. Therefore I would urge that the whole converting process includes new legal standing with God through His forgiving grace (or the imputation of the righteousness of Christ) received by faith and accompanied by the installation of a whole new set of character dispositions to righteousness and joy.

Moreover, all of these gifts are imparted through the internal workings of the Holy Spirit. In other words, God does not justify any believer except as that believer is willing to become the receiver of the transforming Spirit’s work. And it is this work of the Spirit that effectually, and co-operatively produces the attitudes and fruit of the Spirit.

Thus the imputed righteousness (forgiveness) of Christ grants a safe haven in the family of God so that any newly adopted and regenerated believer can be free of the burden of guilt in order that he/she can now walk on in a fruitful, fulfilled life of growth and service.

Now many get very nervous about this whole nexus of justification and sanctification, fearing that some forms of either subtle legalism or cheap-grace presumption will rear their ugly heads. But I would urge that when the truly justified believer realizes the costly preciousness of their forgiveness there will be little danger of either legalism or presumption. And if anybody is really worried about any lack of Christian assurance, both the blessings of the constantly offered merits of Christ (imputed through His on-going work as our interceding High Priest) and sanctification’s work of illuminating both the awfulness of sin and the expensiveness of redeeming grace, all of these should normally bring about balanced perspective. Stated more succinctly, when sin’s extreme cost is understood, who would doubt God’s willingness to impart to His repentant children what was so costly to Him? Further, who of us would want to neglect so great a salvation that is on offer?

The major practical issue, however, that seems to hover over this whole discussion has to with the very question as to whether true believers can realistically expect a significant and abundant crop of the “fruit of the Spirit” in their personal and corporate lives. Do we really believe that we can become Christ-like? Or is freedom from guilt all that we can hope for. Dare we hope for power over temptation and a truly abundant Life of character growth in the Spirit? Could it be that we have allowed a spirit of de facto defeatism to highjack the optimistic vision so forcefully portrayed in Scripture and the writings of Ellen White? Should we continue to allow ourselves to be effectively paralyzed by the sad history of Laodicean defeatism and the protracted debates over just how perfect Christian perfection can be?

Now many might be thinking to themselves, “Well these questions are only for those more ‘traditional’ Adventists who are preoccupied with personal righteousness, but they do not apply to the more ‘progressive’ Adventists who worry about social justice and public righteousness.” If these happen to be your sentiments, I would offer the thesis that both groups should be open to sober reflection since the calls for righteous action have been strenuously sounded forth by both parties. If the ethos of the church’s personal piety wing senses the foul odor of creeping compromise, the progressive wing should also be sobered with the on-going challenges manifested in the rising tide of social injustice in the world (and even in the church). I therefore ask both groups: do you really share a vision that you and your church can make significant leaps forward in personal piety and the alleviation of social sins?

If the history of reform has taught us anything, it is that all propensities and inclinations to sin, both inherited and cultivated (whether they unfold as either social or the more personal varieties) will require an abundance of power of the Holy Spirit to overcome. Once more I enquire: Can it be that such transformative possibilities are optimistically real?

Furthermore, can there really be any significant social transformation without a deeply personal transformation taking place in the characters of both the subjects and the agents of change? I would humbly suggest that any real and lasting change can only be effected by those who realize the need for radical change (at least in their own lives) through the power of the Spirit of God. These “kinds” of demonic powers can only be cast out and defeated by “prayer and fasting” (Mark 9: 29)!

Although the task appears daunting, I would like to strike an optimistic note in the face of the evident flood of both social and personal evils that continue to bear down on all of us. For those who really care about public and social righteousness, are you willing to be a William Wilberforce? For those outraged by personal evils in the church, can you really believe that the transforming power of Christ can make you and your fellow travelers “humble . . . before God” so that professed people of God become renowned for their “kind and courteous and tenderhearted and pitiful” words and manners? (in fact Ellen White claimed that “the strongest argument in favor of the gospel is a loving and lovable Christian” [Ministry of Healing, p. 470). If we will become “humble,” “kind,” “courteous,” “tenderhearted,” “pitiful,” “loving and lovable” it will be the greatest of the miracles of the Spirit and the promise is that “there would be one hundred conversions to the truth where now there is only one.”

But here is the rub. There is a simple, yet challenging condition to such a change and its prospects for a great harvest: “though professing to be converted, we carry around with us a bundle of self that we regard as altogether too precious to be given up.” Does this sound costly? It most certainly does! But then comes the gracious promise: “It is our privilege to lay this burden at the feet of Christ and in its place take the character and similitude of Christ. The Saviour is waiting for us to do this” (E G. White, 9 Testimonies, pp. 189, 190). So where do we go from here?

I urge that we take the following words of promise from Jesus with utterly optimistic seriousness:

So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives . . . . If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!

(Luke 11: 9-13).

In the face of such wonderful and optimistic prospects, how can we be pre-occupied with debates which do little but limit the power of God in our personal and corporate life in the Spirit? As to the perfection debates, which are so often related to the discussions of sanctification, I really do not know how perfect “perfection” can be this side of the coming of Jesus. But what I do know is that Jesus is far more optimistic about what his spiritual children can be and do than what we are currently experiencing. So why don’t we just go for it in a great spirit of optimistic trust in the promises and power of God?

The wisdom of seventeenth-century Dutch reformer, Jacobus Arminius seems relevant to our current perfection debates:

But while I never asserted that a believer could perfectly keep the precepts of Christ in this life, I never denied it, but always left it as a matter which has still to be decided.

While not preoccupied with perfection, he went on to offer sage counsel about disputes over the issue:

I think the time may be far more happily and usefully employed in prayers to obtain what is lacking in each of us, and in serious admonitions that every one endeavor to proceed and press forward towards the mark of perfection, than when spent in such disputations.

(Quoted in Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971], p. 347).

The aged John Wesley was on the borders of eternity. He had engaged in many disputes over perfection with both his evangelical friends and foes. He could have become very discouraged amidst these swirling controversies. But thankfully he refused to have his vision of victory over sin dimmed by the heat of doctrinal disputes or the magnitude of the evils that threatened the work of God. And amidst these forbidding circumstances, he sent forth one of his last letters, addressed to William Wilberforce who had just begun his legendary and protracted struggle against slavery in the British dominions. Wesley’s stirring lines, so reflective of his optimistic teachings on grace, are among the most moving he ever penned:

O be not weary of well-doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it

(quoted by Kenneth J. Collins in his biography of Wesley entitled A Real Christian [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999], p. 156).

With Wesley, I say let us “go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might”!

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.