You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. EPHESIANS 4:22–24
Fruitful character comes from a great devotion, and the greatest devotion of all is the love of God. A life that grows in loving God becomes like God. John Owen writes, “[Love] begets a likeness between the mind loving and the object beloved.… A mind filled with the love of Christ as crucified … will be changed into his image and likeness.” The apostle Paul writes,
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18, ESV)
Christian character flows out of devotion to God, and it confirms the reality of that devotion in practical ways. We may express a reverence for God, we may lift our hearts in worship to Him, but we demonstrate the genuineness of our devotion to God by our earnest desire and sincere effort to be like Him. Paul not only wanted to know Christ, he wanted to be like Him, and he pressed forward with utmost intensity toward that goal.
In the Scripture text that opened this chapter, Paul says we must “put on the new self” and “be made new in the attitude of your minds.” What is this new attitude of mind, and where does it come from? Again, John Owen helps us here. He writes that this is the “image of God” and “the divine nature” that is wrought in us by God and that we partake of by the Spirit of God. It is a “supernatural habit” or a “habit of grace” that is “nothing but the word changed into grace in our hearts.”
What are the character traits that distinguish the person who is increasing in this habit of grace—the person who is becoming godlike? A good place to start is the list of nine gracious qualities, which Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit, in Galatians 5:22–23. In chapters to come, we will concentrate on these qualities. It seems obvious, however, that Paul did not intend to limit the traits of the Spirit’s fruit just to this well-known list. Any other trait commended in Scripture as befitting a believer is also a fruit of the Spirit, since its evidence is a result only of the Spirit’s ministry in our hearts. To the qualities listed in Galatians 5—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—we can also add such traits as holiness, humility, compassion, forbearance, contentment, thankfulness, considerateness, sincerity, and perseverance.
This is an awesome list of character traits to pursue, and our first reaction, if we are realistic at all, is probably to say, “I can’t work on all of these.” That is indeed true, if we were left to our own devices. But these traits are the fruit of the Spirit, the result of His work within us. This means not that we bear no responsibility for the development of Christian character but rather that we fulfill our responsibility under His direction and by His enablement. It is this divine dimension that makes Christian character possible, and it is only this divine dimension that can keep us from becoming frustrated and defeated in our desire to exemplify godly character traits in our lives.