Character Versus Habit?

How do Christian people become virtuous? As it turns out, the question can become tricky very fast. I’ll defer in this post to C.S. Lewis (this normally settles disputes in the evangelical world). In a chapter of Mere Christianity entitled “Let’s Pretend,” Lewis cleverly describes the idea of “putting on Christ”, or, as he puts it, “‘dressing up’ as a son of God in order that you may finally become a real son.”[1]  This line of thinking has firm roots in the writing of Aristotle that may be worth explaining. In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle contended that we learn the virtues by first exercising them. He says:

“What we need to learn before doing, we learn by doing. For example, we become builders by building, and lyre-players by playing the lyre. So too we become just by doing just actions, temperate by temperate actions, and courageous by courageous actions.”[2]

Some questions

This train of thought may lead you to two understandable questions: do we become good by simply forming new habits and sticking to them? Or, perhaps, more to the point: does Christian sanctification require moral effort? Secondly, if we’re willing to answer in the affirmative, doesn’t this ‘putting on’ kind of language seem a bit hypocritical? Is it appropriately called character when we act friendly even though we’re not feeling particularly nice? Let’s delve into a couple of these questions.

The answer to the first question of whether the Christian process of progressive growth in virtue requires moral effort seems easy on the surface. Paul the apostle certainly seemed to think that the Christian life required intense moral effort. Even a peripheral reading of Colossians 3 or Romans 6 would reveal this. What becomes difficult are the different assumptions that Christians have about the word ‘conversion’.

Conversion and Sanctification

Conversion implies a renewed orientation, and indeed this is the case for believers who have tasted grace and who have experienced repentance. Sometimes, this change is radical. If conversion doesn’t bring about any kind of change, how can it be called, in any meaningful sense, conversion? But what happens afterwards? Does progress in our God-ward walk stem solely from miraculous conversion, where we have all the strength and tools needed for moral growth at day one, or does it stem from our daily disciplined effort?

Act the Miracle

As is often the case with theology we should think ‘both/and’, not ‘either/or’. Paul beautifully illustrates this in Philippians 2:12-13. He concludes a pivotal description of exaltation and praise that Christ receives because of the incarnation and his obedience to the point of death:

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”[3]

As John Piper has aptly described it- God requires us to act the miracle he is going to do in us.

Christianity versus Aristotle

Well, we never got to the second question of hypocrisy. I think we established, albeit briefly, that the idea of moral effort and habituation doesn’t necessarily run against the grain of the gospel. How about the question of hypocrisy? We can accomplish this by looking at a wider question that will encompass it: there is significant benefit to taking a step back to looking at what Paul wrote about the Aristotelean virtue-ethic tradition. How does the habit-formed character of Christianity look differently from Aristotle’s? If you think that Paul (or Jesus for that matter) didn’t have anything to say about this, then you’re in for a ride. Tom Wright has written a whole book on the subject and it will be fun to look in further detail at what the New Testament does with this line of thinking. I’d love to hear your comments on this subject. Feel free to launch tomatoes if I’ve gone awry. If you’d like to receive updates to this blog via email, just select the ‘Follow’ button.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1960), p. 166

[2] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. Roger Crisp (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p.23 Emphasis mine.

[3]The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002) Philippians 2:12-13

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