The Distinguishing Traits of Christian Character

Gardiner Spring, 1829



In what do those fruits of the Spirit consists, which show plainly to ourselves and others that we are born of God? This inquiry is of the most practical kind as it brings every man to sit in judgment on his character. "Know yourself!" is an injunction which comes to us under the combined sanction, both of reason and revelation, and which, though not without difficulty in its impartial fulfillment, may and must be fulfilled if we would discharge our duty or enjoy the full measure of comfort which the religion of Jesus imparts.

It must be conceded that men have no right to mistake their own moral character. There is a wide and essential difference between holy and unholy affections. God has given them all proper and necessary means to assist them in an acquaintance with their own hearts. He has expressly forbidden them to mistake "the nature of their religious affections and to deceive themselves in respect to their spiritual state; and it is impossible they should make the mistake unless they are under the influence of some selfish and sinful motive with which they have no right to comply. The Holy Spirit would not so often have urged the sentiment,
"Do not be deceived."
"Let no man deceive himself."
"You know not what manner of spirit you are of."
"Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?"—if there were any necessity for self-deception.

There are some things which neither prove nor disprove the existence of grace in the soul. There are other things that prove the existence of grace, and that may be safely relied on as furnishing conclusive testimony that we have passed from death unto life. It is no less important to examine the inconclusive than the conclusive testimony, and it is to the former that we solicit your attention for several of the earlier essays in this little volume.

There is no certain evidence that a man is the friend of God resulting from his visible morality. There is much apparent religion in the world which consists in mere visible morality. "Man looks on the outward appearance." When you see a person of unblemished moral character you involuntarily adjudge him worthy of your esteem and confidence.

There are such multitudes in this apostate world who are dishonest, idle, faithless, intemperate, unfriendly, and unkind; that when you meet a man who is honest, industrious, faithful to his promises, and punctual in his engagements, and who to these laudable qualities adds a friendly, humane, generous and amiable spirit and urbane demeanor—you are tempted to believe that such a man is a pattern of rectitude, and that there is no higher standard of excellence.

It is quite natural that such a man should not only secure the esteem and confidence of his fellow men, but command his own. Though he may confess he is not as good as he ought to be, yet he is very apt to imagine himself much better than he really is. He cherishes a high degree of satisfaction in the contemplation of his own excellencies, if not of exultation, in the comparison of his own with those of the multitude around him.

Can it be necessary to say there are thousands who rest their hopes for eternity on this sandy foundation? Melancholy view! Melancholy proof that the heart is deceitful above all things, as well as desperately wicked! Yet, thousands who on no other foundation than this are persuaded that their mountain stands strong; and who, because they see nothing to shake their hopes or alarm their fears, are environed by all the impenetrability of an unyielding self-righteousness and allured by a confidence that is "as the spider's web." We would not be understood as vindicating the claims of immoral men. Nothing is more preposterous than to yield the honors of the Christian character to vice and immorality.

Vital religion is in its very nature operative. The spirit of piety lives in the heart and lives in the life. Whatever may be the pretensions of the immoral and vicious, God forbid that they should be invested with the sacred name of Christian. Nor would we, on the other hand, deny to a reproachless morality the merit to which it is legitimately entitled. A man who possesses these excellencies must not be denounced as the greatest monster of human depravity. In its kind and as far as it goes his character is in a high degree praiseworthy. To the eye of one who sees not as God sees, there is much that is comparatively illustrious in the character and conduct of such men.

But while we cheerfully make these concessions, we may not substitute a mere visible morality, however exemplary, however vivid and useful, for true holiness. It is easy to conceive all the virtues of an unexceptional moral deportment concentrated in men who are at heart strangers to the spirit of Jesus Christ.

A person of the character to which we refer may, for example, be a professed disbeliever in the truths and doctrines of the Gospel. There are even infidels who rarely disregard the laws of good neighborhood and civil society.

David Hume would have blushed at the imputation of moral dishonesty and yet could boldly deny his God and Savior. Seneca and Socrates inculcated by their writings and sustained by their conduct, a morality which though not faultless, did honor to the pagan world, but they were pagans still. There are also men in these Christian lands who from the peculiarity of their condition, from the restraints of education and habit, from high notions of honor from a keen sense of propriety and gentlemanly deportment, or from motives of mere ambition and personal aggrandizement—would seldom be detected in an immoral action; who, at the same time, disclaim every principle of the Holy Scriptures. The morality of which we speak, with all its excellencies, is subjected to a lamentable defect. It regards only a part of the divine law.

A merely moral man may be very scrupulous of duties he owes to his fellow men, while the infinitely important duties he owes to God are kept entirely out of sight. Of loving and serving God, he knows nothing. Whatever he does or whatever he leaves undone, he does nothing for God. He is honest in his dealings with all except God, he robs none but God, he is thankless and faithless to none but God, he feels contemptuously, and speaks reproachfully of none but God. A just perception of the relations he sustains to God constitutes no part of his principles, and the duties which result from those relations constitute no part of his piety. He may not only disbelieve the Scriptures, but may never read them. He may not only disregard the divine authority, but every form of divine worship, and live and die as though he had no concern with God and God had not concern with him.

The character of the rich young man in the Gospel presents a painful and affecting view of the deficiencies of external morality (see Matthew 19:16-22). He was not dishonest, nor untrue. He was not impure nor malignant; and many of the divine commands he had externally observed. He says, "All these have I kept." Nor was his a mere sporadic goodness, but steady and uniform. He had performed these services "from his youth up." Nor was this all. He professed a willingness to become acquainted with his whole duty, "What do I still lack?"

And yet when brought to the test, this poor youth saw that, with all his boasted morality, he could not deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Christ.

I said that mere morality regarded only a part of the divine law, but to speak more correctly, it disregards the whole of it. The sum and soul of obedience to the divine law consists in love to God. But the people whom we describe, though they many have some knowledge of God and may confess his worthiness to be loved—they love almost everything else more than He. They have no supreme delight and delight in His excellence. It is no source of delight to them that He is what He is, and that He sways the empire of the universe. And if they ever fix their thoughts upon God, their contemplation of His holiness, justice, and sovereignty are rather the sources of suspicion, alarm, and uneasiness—than of tranquility, confidence, and holy pleasure. Men of this description, therefore, are wholly destitute of the radical and essential principle of conformity to the law of God. However they may have the appearance of rectitude, they fail in all the essential parts of holy obedience.

Nor is there in such a character any conformity to the requisitions of the Gospel. Repentance, faith, humility, submission, hope, and joy—are acts of a mind that delights in God. There is a wide distinction between moral virtues and Christian graces. Christian graces spring from holy love and have their origin in holy motives. They regard chiefly the glory of God and the interests of His Kingdom, and then govern the relationships of men with their fellow men as God has required. Moral virtues spring from supreme selfishness. They have their origin in motives that are never recognized by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They have no regard for the glory of God and the interests of His Kingdom, and go just so far as a well-regulated self-interest leads the way and there they stop.

We may also remark that all mere morality is perfectly consistent with a heart of unsubdued and unyielding enmity to God. "He who is not with me," says our blessed Lord, "is against me." Who possessed a fairer character or were held in higher estimation in our own view and in the view of the world than the scribes and Pharisees? And who were more bitter or unrelenting enemies to Christ? You may soothe the self-righteousness, flatter the pride, and inflate the expectations of moral men—and their enmity to God will repose in indifference and stupidity.

But let them think enough of God to excite any sensibility toward His character; let them become acquainted with the great design which God is carrying on in all the world; let them perceive how totally opposed it is to all the selfish designs of men; let them feel how certainly every other interest is subjugated to the advancement of God's glory and Kingdom—and they will see that it is impossible for them to act a neutral part, and that if they are not at heart the friends of God, they must be His enemies.

There is then no true holiness in mere morality. Much as there is in such a character that is highly esteemed among men, there is nothing that is right in the sight of God. The principle and motive of such a character is at a great distance from all that God requires and loves. "As a man thinks in his heart, so is he." The moral quality of actions lies in the disposition of heart with which they are performed. A man may be very moral, but if the disposition of heart with which the acts of morality are performed are not such as God requires and approves—though he may believe he is going to Heaven, he is in the broad way to Hell. Mere morality never aims at the heart and could never touch it if it would. It may lop off some of the branches of human depravity, but it never strikes at the root. It may not sink into the baseness of degeneracy, but it never soars to the purity of holiness.

It is a fascinating picture, but it is cold and spiritless as the canvas on which it is delineated. It is like the twinkling glow worm which borrows all its light from the putrescent and earthy substances of which it is composed, but sustains no relation to the luminary which imparts light and heat to the universe. However fair this exterior, and however accordant with the expectations of the world—it falls far short of what a man must be to become either truly holy or happy.

If men were not accountable, if they were creatures of time merely, and not directing their course to the Judgment Seat of Christ and destined to the retributions of an ulterior existence, there would be some apology for substituting visible morality for heart religion. Tell me, will such a morality be of any avail in the hour that God tries the hearts of men? Does not every page of the Word of God flash conviction on the conscience that such a spurious morality is of no account in the sight of God?