What is the goal of the Christian life? For some, the goal is belief itself, followed by entering into the community of such belief: the church. Once they are “in” with God’s chosen people, they feel they have arrived.
Jesus summed up the goal of Christian living in two words: “Follow me.” We are called to become like Jesus—to develop his character, to practice being like him. Sanctification and justification are interwoven spiritual realities. After you place your life in trust to Jesus, his Spirit begins to renew you from the inside out until the fruit of that Spirit becomes your “second nature.”
Unfortunately, churches tend to focus on activities closely associated with following Jesus. They emphasize the rules of that following, the romance of that following, or the righteous society that proceeds from that following—without becoming more like Jesus themselves. We need to become the change we seek in the world, and that transformation begins in our heart, ripples into our habits, and becomes our character.
When this Spirit-led metamorphosis takes center stage, the rules are obeyed, the romance blossoms, and we take steps closer to becoming the righteous society that is God’s new creation. In other words, we become supporting characters (priests and rulers) in the unfolding story of God’s redemption of the world.
What is character? Character is different from our image or appearance. It is the stuff we’re made of—it’s who we are in the dark. Like toothpaste, our character is most revealed when we feel the squeeze put on us. The good news is that this substance of our identity is not fated to remain forever the same; it can grow and change and become new. This metamorphosis is best pictured in the change that happens when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. It’s a radical, profound transformation.
Growing up, I cannot remember ever hearing a sermon directly on the topic of character development, although many sermons certainly discussed some aspect of Christian character: the cardinal virtues of faith, hope, and love or the fruit of the Spirit, for example. More often than not, the focus was on keeping the commandments or building a Christian worldview. But lately many Reformed thinkers have been writing about the importance of Christian practice and how habits shaped by liturgies may be more foundational to our faith than keeping commandments and shaping a worldview (see Calvin College professor James K. A. Smith’s recent books, including Desiring the Kingdom). Focusing on Christian character, which is formed by our habits, is part and parcel of this new theological posture.
In shaping this series for Sunday services we looked to N. T. Wright’s book After You Believe: Why Character Matters for inspiration. Wright claims that some Christians focus only on whether they are “in” or “out” and not on what they ought to become. They know what they want to be saved from and toward but not what they are saved for or saved to do. Their sanctification is absorbed in a focus on justification in the rear-view mirror. But after we believe, he insists, there is much virtue to pursue and practice.
Wright engages the classical Greek discussion of virtue as key for understanding the process of character formation, although of course he gives it a Christian twist since we are called to be characters in the Christian story. So, in our case, our development is fueled by grace, directed by the Spirit, and bent on compassion and humility—not only on courage and prudence. Nevertheless, the process of shaping character, by which thoughts become habits and habits become virtues, is built into creation; and there is much to learn from the classical tradition.
This series is especially apt for congregational teaching, as the church itself is one of the core communities in which we develop character. The diversity of ages, stages, ethnicities, and worldviews found in a congregation makes it the perfect environment for character growth in close-quartered conversation, celebration, and conflict. Flourishing as a congregation does not mean that everyone thinks alike; but it does suggest a maturity of Christian formation that turns disagreements into opportunities to learn and grow and become more Christ-like rather than causes of discord and hurt.
Following are five weeks of services that provide a window into our calling to become more like Jesus in our daily lives. We commissioned artist Floyd Elzinga from a nearby Christian Reformed congregation to create a piece for us that demonstrated “metamorphosis,” and we asked him to develop the artwork over the five weeks of services. This allowed the congregation to see its shaping, molding, and gradual formation over time—an analogy to our Christian character as it is shaped and molded by God’s Spirit along our own life journey. (For more about Floyd’s work, see page 10 of this issue or visit floydelzinga.com.)
Week One Total Surrender
Romans 12:1, 2
Chapters 1 and 5 in N.T. Wright’s book After You Believe
This sermon should set the stage for the series and introduce some of the basics mentioned above. To name how Christian character goes against the grain of our culture is a good starting point (we used James Davison Hunter’s The Death of Character to help us name our cultural context). The emphasis on this day should be on the starting point: because of God’s mercy we offer ourselves completely to God. This total surrender is the beginning of our transformation (the Greek word for transform in Rom. 12:2 is actually metamorphosis). This radical change begins with “the renewing of our mind”—a revolution in our thinking that moves us from seeing the world as a big machine or seeing ourselves at the center to seeing God’s redemptive presence and power as the hope of all creation.
“Change My Heart, O God” SNC 56, WR 373
“Lord, I Want to Be A Christian” PH 372, PsH 264, TH 530, WR 457
“Create in Me a Clean Heart” (Mary Rice Hopkins)
“Take My Life and Let It Be” LUYH 863, PH 391, PsH 288, TH 585, WR 466
“Speak, O Lord” LUYH 755
“Have We Any Gift Worth Giving” LUYH 872
“In Great Thanksgiving” LUYH 744
“I Surrender All” LUYH 739
The first stage of Floyd Elzinga’s artwork featured a seed as a symbol both of our potential and of the smallness and vulnerability of our unformed character. It shines not because it is perfect, but because it has yet to begin life’s journey, with all its bumps, bruises, and beautiful moments of healing and hope.
Week Two Taking Off the Old Self
Colossians 3:1-14 (especially 9-10)
Wright, chapter 2 and pages 143ff
Character development is first of all an unlearning, a taking off of bad habits and choices. This includes the removal of all kinds of vices, but it can also mean displacing a preoccupation with the rules (like that of the elder brother in John 15) or challenging the focus on being true to ourselves (acting in rebellion, like the prodigal son). It is especially important that this sermon include stories of people who struggled with anger, pride, gossip, bitterness, or addictions and achieved some measure of grace to replace those vices with Christian virtue. The analogy of pruning the vine in order for it to bear fruit demonstrates both how painful and messy the metamorphosis process can be but also how beneficial and rewarding it may become.
“Spirit of the Living God” LUYH 749, PH 322, PsH 424, TH 726
“Refiner’s Fire” (Brian Doerksen)
“Take My Life and Let It Be” LUYH 863, PH 391, PsH 288, TH 585, WR 466
“Jesus Calls Us O’er the Tumult” LUYH 121
“Come to Me, O Weary Traveler” LUYH 123
“I Heard the Voice of Jesus Calling” LUYH 128
“Come to the Savior Now” LUYH 613
“Will You Come and Follow Me” LUYH 742
The next stage of Floyd Elzinga’s artwork shows a sapling springing from the seed. It is thin and frail, but it is beginning to show its final form. Its growth is facilitated by pruning, which removes the dead branches and suckers so that the main extensions of the plant can flourish.
Week Three Christ in Us and Us in Christ
1 John 4:12-16
Wright, chapter 4
One thing that makes Christian character development different from the classical tradition is that it begins and flourishes in Jesus Christ. Our sanctification happens as Christ moves in us and as we move in Christ (who is in the Father) by the power of the Holy Spirit. This grace shapes our surrendered heart, turning it from anxiety to prayer, loneliness to community, and from anger to compassion. This theme echoes through the writings of John and in the spiritual theology of John Calvin. In terms of character, this is the main dynamic in the process of personal transformation.
Our preacher for this Sunday used a Russian matryoshka doll set to illustrate how Christ is in us as we are in Christ, in the Father. One way in which we are “in Christ,” of course, is that we are part of his body, the church, where we learn about him and rehearse the story of his death and resurrection.
“My Jesus, I Love Thee” LUYH 366, PsH 557, TH 648, WR 468
“Dwell in Me, O Blessed Spirit” LUYH 745, PsH 427
“From the Inside Out” (Joel Houston)
“Take My Life” (Scott Underwood)
“Be Thou My Vision” LUYH 859
“Come, Holy Ghost” LUYH 232
The photo of this particular part of Floyd Elzinga’s artwork focuses on the hungry roots. One might say that Christ is the soil that nourishes the roots, and the soil’s nutrients end up in the plant, as Christ is in us and we are in him.
Week Four The Testing of Character—Struggle and Failure
Wright, page 177
Nothing shapes the soul like failure. We need to admit that character building is not easy and that we will lapse often and never truly “arrive.” Some failures wound and scar us, but by God’s grace they can also make us stronger and help us grow in virtues like humility and compassion. Examples of failure in our own lives and congregations are plentiful, and the Bible is overflowing with illustrations, from Adam and Eve to Moses to Solomon to Peter. The progression in the Romans text can make a good sermon refrain: “Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” We need to be willing to stop, listen, reflect, and repent of our mistakes rather than blame, rationalize, or excuse. This is the route to becoming true priests in God’s kingdom: seeing our own lives as a parable of the gospel.
“Good to Me” LUYH 620
“God, Be Merciful to Me” LUYH 622/623
“Perdón Señor/Forgive Us, Lord” LUYH 642
“By Grace We Have Been Saved” LUYH 675
“Jesus, Draw Me Ever Nearer” LUYH 660
Here we see that the growing tree has been broken into a stump. The cut is messy, and the tree looks hurt. Whether symbolizing our own failures or the troubles that beset us, this stage of the artwork starkly portrayed how difficulty can stunt our growth, leaving us weak, vulnerable, and even angry or bitter. But that is not the end of the story or the artwork.
Week Five Conclusion—Character in Community
Wright, chapter 8
This service sums up the series while emphasizing that character is best transformed in community—“in Christ” and within his body. The text draws attention to disagreements in the congregation in Philippi and to how Paul urges the Philippians to reconcile with the help of a third party. Immediately after that, he encourages them to celebrate, not worry, and to focus on the best of culture as belonging to God. We found in our walk through this series that it was easier to talk about “character” in a general sense rather than focusing on specific virtues. But this would be a good place to focus on specific virtues such as courage, humility, integrity, joy, and so on, and to give some practical advice to the congregation on how to develop those virtues at home, work, and school. Use of Wright’s “virtuous circle” gives listeners an image to contemplate, reminds them of all they’ve heard in this series, and offers practical ways to work its wisdom into their lives.
“You Are the Vine” (Daniels/Rigby)
“Awake My Soul” (Randy Phillips)
“We Are Your People” LUYH 248
“They’ll Know We Are Christians” LUYH 256
“Koinonia” LUYH 258
“All Are Welcome” LUYH 269
At this service we unveiled the final product of Elzinga’s artwork, and he was present to talk about the finished piece and his process. The last stage shows a new sprig of growth coming out of the stump. This alludes to our continued growth in Christ in spite of our conflicts, failures, and frailty in the face of life’s troubles. The rust-colored background is simultaneously earthy, gritty, worn, and beautiful. The congregation can imagine the forest of other trees and plants that both shelter and tussle with this lone tree.
We had a very strong response from our congregation on the spiritual challenge these services provided, as people found it a refreshing, liberating, and very practical focus for a month of Sundays. Talking about our struggles with our own character demonstrates “working out our salvation with fear and trembling”; doing so in worship highlights the fact that “it is God who works in you.”
Developing character means being transformed into a better Christian, a better person, if Christ himself is the model of the best human. While a consumer culture nurtures self-indulgence and a “religious” approach falls back on the rules, Jesus pointed to something deeper: to the habits of the heart and the cultivated virtues, such as courage, patience, humility, and love. Join with us this month as we investigate how the small, everyday choices we make can shape our moral muscle so that imitating Jesus’ character becomes “second nature.”
Photos of the five stages of metamorphosis as depicted in Floyd Elzinga’s artwork were framed and displayed on our art exhibit wall at the back of the sanctuary. The final metalwork piece was displayed beside it with a paragraph of explanation:
Metamorphosis is the Greek word translated as transformed in Romans 12:2, and it signals the work of grace in us when we surrender our whole lives to God’s service. Floyd’s artwork gives us a symbolic window into that life-long character formation process. We start small and vulnerable, grow in our foundations and poise, and at times crack and break and fail—even miserably. Yet there is always hope, for Christ is working in us and we work into Christ and his body. We flower and flourish in the soil of his forgiveness, buoyed up by the Spirit who blows through and bends our branches. Then the fruit of the Spirit—the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—may be more manifest in our character, to bless and make beautiful our small corner of creation. The finished piece looks unfinished—gnarled, broken, twisted, before a backdrop of rust. But such guts and grit are the mark of mature Christian character.