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The apostle Paul’s teaching of justification by faith raised questions: “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” (Rom. 6:15). In other words, “If I am eternally declared ‘not guilty’ by God, can’t I now do anything I want to do?” This of course misses the point. Justification is not about “fire insurance”—believing in Jesus so you won’t go to hell; it’s about character development.
Sanctification means that we are now free to make moral choices that prior to justification we were not able to make. Sanctification means that we now can say no to that which is not good and right and yes to that which is pleasing to God.
Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace. (Rom. 6:12–14)
Character requires restraint. Some years ago in a famous study, researchers put young children in a room and placed a marshmallow in front of each of them. They were left alone and told not to eat the marshmallow until the researcher returned. If they were able to restrain themselves, they would get the marshmallow and a reward.
Some of the children were able to restrain themselves; others were not. Over the next thirty years the children who participated were tracked. Many of those who were not able to restrain themselves lived in poverty and prisons. Most of those who were able to restrain themselves became professionals and lived what most would describe as successful lives.
Morality of course is about more than restraint. It is about saying no to sin and yes to God. The Greek word for sanctify means to “make holy.” To become holy means that we grow so close to God that we share in the character of God and live in ways that are pleasing to God.
Good character has “traits,” ways of thinking and acting that we can identity. Perhaps the most comprehensive list of character traits listed in the New Testament is the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23).
It is important to note that these traits are indeed the fruit of the Spirit; that is, they are not the result of merely doing one’s duty by the exercise of willpower. The fruit of the Spirit is the manifestation of the character of Jesus Christ that grows in our lives as, by faith, we live in Him and He lives in us.
A person of good character used to be described as virtuous. A virtuous person is skillful, even artful, in doing good. In his book After Virtue, Alistair McIntyre traced the sources of the moral crises of modern culture to the loss of virtue.
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