The difference between internally adhering to the person of Jesus Christ and externally adhering to a prescription of “do’s” and “don’ts,” as concerning behavior or the development of Christian Character, is as fundamental as the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament and the implications each of these testaments or covenants represented to its respective adherents. At the core of both testaments is an appeal to a fundamental behavioral modification of the human heart, one based upon a prescription of law, the other on an inscription of law, one externally administered upon tablets of stone written by the hand of God (the Old Testament), and the other internally administered upon the tablet of the human heart inscribed by the Holy Spirit (the New Testament). An external adherence to prescriptive law (do’s and don’ts), which is the level of adherence of the Old Testament, however, proved to be an insufficient level of compliance, or perhaps an immature level of growth in regards to the perfect compliance God ultimately demanded of mankind; God’s solution was to introduce the New Testament, a better covenant founded upon better promises, and thereby internally inscribing upon the flesh of the human heart—not just the obligatory demand of the law of righteousness—but additionally the strength to obey what this law demanded.
The Apostle Paul, who wrote the majority of the New Testament, and who, even by the Apostle Peter’s account, taught difficult things which the unlearned and unstable distort to their own destruction (see 2 Peter 3:14-16), wrote often of the theological idea of salvation by faith as opposed to works of righteousness. Paul even went so far as to teach that obeying decrees was like obeying the elementary principles of this world and the commandments and teachings of men; (Colossians 2: 20-22, New American Standard Bible) says:
If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men?
Of course, Paul presupposes here the born-again experience which had the effect of killing off the person one formerly walked in. No longer is this former person afforded peace and mercy, not because God is stingy, but because He has left off tending to the unregenerated man; “For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God” (Galatians -16, New American Standard Bible). This rule herein mentioned by Paul is clearly not a rule of law, but a rule of nature; it is now the internal ruling disposition intrinsically resident in the new creation entity, even a restored or reformed conscience, which is now able to hear and obey the still small voice of God in real time. In other words, peace and mercy be upon the true Israelite, the born-again Christian, and not the natural born man each of us was born with. It is never again about how well or poorly the old creature behaves, because it is now entirely disingenuous; God has moved onto another plan and is no longer attendant to those things which are fading away. To walk anymore in this old creature, to even brush up against it inadvertently, or God forbid, purposely touch it, is as anathema as an Old Testament priest touching the dead body of a human being (within the prescriptions of their Law).
But God finally did what mankind could never do for themselves; He drove His perfect rule—encapsulated as a nature or disposition within the Seed of Christ—down into the very core of every born-again creature and thereby solidified His claim to be God in every soul which opened up and allowed Him to recapture His rightful place at the center of their being. This adherence to God at one’s core, this relationship to Jesus Christ, is the essence of Christian character, but as of yet immature and unrealized in the fullness God intends to ultimately develop in mankind; but having begun this experience in Seed form, and for now, only affecting the core of a person, sufficient time and effect must be allowed to open this Seed’s divine potential and grow it into the actual mature tree of righteousness it is designed to be within the person it was planted into. Thus, all expression is—for now—temporarily suspect, ambivalent, and superficial; Christians doing what non-Christians do—not fulfilling certain aspects of God’s Law—is not definitive proof that a deep and hidden transformation has not occurred. A period of time and growth is needed to realign and reprogram the carnal mindset—which has been in habitual use within the natural born creature since their first birth—and must now be taught again to think in cooperation with the mind of Christ.
In the meantime, external law is still necessary in the early stages of human development because of the nature of immature, inexperienced and undisciplined flesh. Once the internal influences of the mind and soul matures enough to rule its own flesh (after the born-again experience and in cooperation with the strength it receives by remaining properly related to the Holy Spirit), the external law can be dismissed as superfluous and unnecessary; it must now be shed like a skin, removed from the new and emerging heart of flesh which cannot be suppressed, and be worn upon the sleeves as a witness to the miraculous transformation of character which, in turn, promises behavior worthy of the extraordinary life of Jesus Christ (to which it is now joined to by intimate relationship).
We would also do well to remember what God once said to the great prophet Samuel: “for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16: 7, partial, New American Standard Bible). This is a key principle and helps explain this portion of Scripture: “No one who abides in Him sins…No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God” (1 John 3: 6, partial, and 9, New American Standard Bible). On the surface, this seems to contradict every honest Christian’s experience, but undoubtedly it is speaking only of that central part of each Christian which is born of God, does not sin, and has yet to permeate and transform the rest of his person in expressions of perfect practice.
Perhaps this conundrum surrounding the idea of making superficial or time-constrained judgments concerning certain specific behavior as a barometer of genuine Christian character is best resolved by taking a look at what both C. S. Lewis and the Apostle Paul said similarly, but in slightly different ways. Lewis basically claimed that man has an evolving and maturing glory, as he indicated in these few lines: “poetry replaces grammar, gospel replaces law, longing transforms obedience, as gradually as the tide lifts a grounded ship” (Lewis, 2001, p. 28). Paul said there is a surpassing glory (the New Testament glory) which essentially eclipses the Old Testament glory by its sheer magnitude and brilliance (see 2 Corinthians 3:7-11). Still another credible voice, that of one John Witherspoon, who was largely credited with instructing many of the founding fathers of our country, once said “Example is more intelligible than precept” (Myers, 2010, p. 26). By the God of Israel sending His only begotten Son to demonstrate or model righteousness it seems God agrees with Witherspoon’s assessment that example modeling is a better or clearer form of training than precept adherence.
Now when God either matures or transfigures His glory, mankind must not worship yesterday’s lesser version of it; if one adheres to the Old Covenant after the New Covenant has displaced it—after God has left that spot and taken His glory with Him to new ground—it becomes, indeed, the “commandments and teachings of men” based on the “elementary principles of this world,” and is to go back to beggarly things, to operate in “do’s” and “don’ts” and willful constructions of one’s own making in substitute for genuine obedience and compliance in accordance with God’s current plan of redemption. It is, of course, deception and outright disobedience to comply with anything God has left off blessing; indeed, “he who kills an ox is like one who slays a man” was a problem to first-century Judaizers (because they still had a difficult time stopping off sacrificing animals and other aspects of Judaism), and to any Christian today which insists on working out their own salvation in any religious fashion which God has either abandoned or never endorsed (Isaiah 66: 3, partial, New American Standard Bible).
Even an “empirical, data-driven, investigational” methodology supports my overarching contention that Christian character formation is made by an interactive ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ and not by obeying a manual or list of rules (Zigarelli, 2002, p. 40). Moreover, Zigarelli went on to identify what he called “high-virtue Christians,” those whom he claimed were high achievers in possessing and demonstrating three particular attributes: “gratitude, joyful living, and God-centeredness through the practice of the spiritual disciplines” (2002, p. 42). Foremost of these spiritual disciplines, and an indication of God-centeredness—again according to Zigarelli—is continual prayer (2002, p. 44). Thus continual prayer is an active cultivating of one’s relationship with God through Jesus Christ—and by participating with the Holy Spirit—it is the primary means whereby one grows in Christian character. No doubt it involves studying/meditating on God’s Word, fellowshipping with His people, and doing some prescribed activities, however, not by compulsion or rote, but by and through the power of a simple and singularly motivated heart madly in love with God.
In the end, I leave it to Oswald Chambers to reiterate much of what I have written herein, namely, that a relationship with Jesus Christ is the catalyst for Christian character formation, and not a prescription of duty performances. Indeed, Chambers said, “Our Lord’s first requirement is a personal relationship to Himself, and then obedience to His principles” (2000, p. 90). And again, “It is not a question of applying Jesus Christ’s principles to our actual life first of all, but of applying them to our relationship to Himself, then as we keep our souls open in relation to Him our conscience will decide how we are to act out of that relationship” (Chambers, 2000, p. 90). It is exactly because this prescription to duty is static and divorced from a relationship with its giver that such a construction of adherence can only become wooden and lifeless, and for the opposite reason, a clean conscience by the blood of Christ in real time and space is both fluid and ever pertinent (because it draws its power from the never-ending source of a marriage relationship between the redeemed soul and God). Though the Law is holy and just and ever obligatory upon us, those who foolishly attempt to obey its demand without first aligning themselves with the source of all power to perform it, namely by establishing and maintaining an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, find themselves unable to endure to the end (and it is only those that endure to the end which are saved).
Chambers, O. (2000). The complete works of Oswald Chambers.
: Grand Rapids, MI
Discovery House Publishers.
Lewis, C. (2001). The weight of glory: And other addresses. NY: HarperCollins
Myers, J. (2010). Cultivate: forming the emerging generation through Life-on-Life
: Passing the Baton International, Inc. Dayton, TN
Zigarelli, M. (2002). Cultivating Christian character.
: Xulon Press. Fairfax, VA