The Distinguishing Traits of Christian Character
Gardiner Spring, 1829
18. PRACTICAL OBEDIENCE
After all that has been said, the great evidence of vital piety is practical obedience. The character of men is to be decided by their conduct. I maintain this to be the great scriptural test of true religion. And it is a rule of judging which is always infallible. The conduct of men is governed by their hearts, "Out of the heart are the issues of life" (Proverbs 4:23). A good heart will produce good conduct, and a corrupt heart will produce corrupt conduct. The rule is infallible. By this I do not mean that it is always infallibly applied. A rule may be ever so perfect and yet by inability, unskillfulness, or error—be misapplied and lead to a wrong decision. Still, this does not impair the infallibility of the rule. Nothing is regarded by men as more certain, than that a good tree will bear good fruit and that a corrupt tree will bear corrupt fruit (Matthew 12:33).
And it is equally certain that a good heart will produce good practice, and that a corrupt heart will produce corrupt practice. Those dispositions of the heart which are right are so because from their nature they lead to right conduct. Those dispositions of heart which are wrong are so because from their nature they lead to wrong conduct. We have therefore absolute certainty, if the conduct is good, the heart is good; and on the other hand, if the conduct is bad, we have the same certainty that the heart is bad.
Men adopt no other standard of character in the common concerns of life, and they know no other. A man who is fettered by no external restrictions and who is left free to act will act according to his desires and affections. If we see a man supremely and habitually engaged in the pursuit of wealth, or honor, or pleasure—we are never at a loss to know where his heart is. This principle holds with respect to everything. As the practice is, so is the heart. If therefore we know the practice to be good, the conclusion is infallible that the heart is good; and if we know the practice to be bad, the conclusion is as incontrovertible that the heart is bad.
This is a test also which is peculiarly easy in its application. Were the inward sentiments or emotions of the soul the only test of character, we would have been peculiarly liable to self-deception. But there is by no means the same liability to deception when we judge of the nature of our feelings by our conduct. When a man says he desires and delights above all things to serve God—let him try the reality of his desire by asking whether he actually serves Him. How sure is this test! How comparatively easy it is to form a conclusion! What plainer principle can there be than this, "The tree is known by its fruit" (Matthew 12:33).
The Scriptures assign peculiar importance to this test of religious character. God knows the blindness of the human heart, and the strange exposure to self-deception in men. He has therefore provided that the reality of those dispositions which we profess to cherish toward Him, shall be clearly shown by corresponding conduct.
Do you inquire, "Who are the friends of Christ?" He Himself replies, "You are my friends, if you do whatever I command you" (John 15:14).
Do you ask, "Who are those that love the Redeemer?" He Himself replies, "He who loves me, keeps my commandments" (John 14:23).
Do you ask, "How shall we know that we possess a saving knowledge of the Redeemer?" You are informed that "Hereby we know that we know him if we keep his commandments" (1 John 2:3).
Would you know the evidence of hostility to Christ? He says, "He who does not love me will not obey my teaching." (John 14:24).
Would you know who are those who are deceived and deceivers? The Scriptures say, "He who says, 'I know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him." (1 John 2:4).
Would you become acquainted with the grand line of demarcation between saints and sinners? The Bible tells you, "By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother." (1 John 3:10).
Would you know what will be regarded as the grand rule of trial at the last day? The Scriptures inform you that "without respect of persons, the Father will judge every man according to his works" (1 Peter 1:17).
When the beloved disciple, in the visions of Patmos, saw the sea give up the dead which were in it, and death and Hell give up the dead which were in them; they were judged every man according to his work (Revelation 20:13). So that the test of character to which we allude has received from the great Searcher of hearts the decided preeminence.
The blindness, prejudice, and carelessness of men can scarcely mistake the result of a trial by this criterion. Men say what they please about religion; they may be ever so orthodox in their creed; and ardent in their affections, and optimistic in their hopes; but if they yield not themselves unto God as those that are alive from the dead; if they bring not forth the fruits of holy obedience, their faith is vain, and they are yet in their sins.
"By their fruits you shall know them" (Matthew 7:20). Grapes never did grow on thorns, nor figs on thistles.
In forming our estimate of the nature of holy obedience, the Scriptures must be our only guide. A man may be very good according to the world's standard, who is very bad according to the standard of the Bible.
When we inquire into the nature of that obedience which constitutes the great evidence of Christian character, it is important to turn our attention to two or three particulars.
In the first place, obedience has respect to all God's commandments. The great error into which men are apt to fall is that of taking a partial view of the fruits of holiness.
Some highly extol those which relate to our duty to man, and lay little or no stress upon piety toward God.
Others lay the whole stress upon acts of piety and devotions and, where these are found, make very large allowances for the absence of everything else.
Others direct all their attention to views and feelings, and to a particular process through which a man may have passed in attaining his present confidence and joy, while few take into consideration the fullness of the Christian character or recognize the necessity that it should be complete in all its parts, though it is imperfect in degree.
Now all this is wrong. And it is so because it is a partial mode of judging and is very apt to lead to an erroneous judgment. The true method is . . .
to comprehend all the fruits of righteousness;
to bring into account all the duties of religion;
to compare our character with all the precepts of the Bible, both those which relate to God, to our neighbor, and to ourselves.
If this entire character belongs to us, then does our conduct demonstrate the genuineness of our piety. "If anyone says, 'I love God,' yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen." (1 John 4:20).
If a man makes high professions of his inward religious experience, while disregarding the claim of justice, kindness, honesty and truth toward his fellow men—he is deceived and knows as little of the power of godliness in his heart as the fruits of godliness in his life.
Neither a regard to one precept of the law or to another affords evidence of piety, but a regard to the whole.
The obedience of which we speak is also habitual. It is not constant, for if it were, then would men in the present world be perfect. Universal and constant obedience is the very definition of sinless perfection. But such is not the obedience of any man on earth.
I know it is written, "No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God." (1 John 3:9). But if we would make the Bible consistent with itself, we must give these passages some latitude of interpretation. The experience of all Christians, and the declarations of eternal truth assure us that "Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins." (Ecclesiastes 7:20). We must not root out all religion from the earth, because we do not find perfection in men. Moses, Samuel, Paul, Peter, were all fervently pious—and yet they sinned. The melancholy fact is that the best of men do sin greatly and are sometimes the subjects of the most awful defection.
It is needless to conceal the truth that the sins of good men are of an aggravated character.
It is vain to say that they do not sin knowingly. They are indeed often surprised into the commission of sin; but they often commit sin with calmness and deliberation. They often commit it in defiance of the sober dictates of reason and in defiance to the most powerful conviction of their consciences.
It is vain to say that they do not sin voluntarily. No man was ever constrained to sin. Sin cannot be forced upon men contrary to their own inclination. The children of God often complain that their hearts prompt them to sin, but their hearts never constrain them to act contrary to their choice. Seriously considered, it is impossible to sin without acting voluntarily.
The divine law requires nothing but voluntary obedience, and forbids nothing but voluntary disobedience. As men cannot sin without acting, nor act without choosing to act—so they must act voluntarily in sinning.
The children of God therefore do sin. They sin knowingly. They sin voluntarily, but they do not sin habitually. It is not the prevailing habit of their lives to disobey the commandments of God, but their purpose to obey always and their practice to obey habitually.
In forming our estimate of the fruits of righteousness, therefore, we are not to attribute too much importance to particular instances of conduct. The life of every godly man is stained with imperfection and sin. If we pronounce none good unless we find absolute perfection—then all must be condemned.
On the contrary, there is scarcely any bad man whose conduct does not sometimes exhibit the semblance of real goodness.
We can say no more therefore of good men, than that their obedience is habitual and that their conduct, viewed as a whole, exhibits clear and decisive evidences of a sanctified temperament. This is most surely true of every Christian.
It may also be added that the conformity to the precepts of God's Word upon which we may safely rely as a test of character is persevering. The disciple of Jesus Christ perseveres in his course to the end of life. He holds on his way. It is the characteristic as well as the blessedness of those who "trust in the Lord that they are as Mount Zion which cannot be removed, but abides forever" (Psalm 125:1).
The apostle John speaks of a class of professing Christians that were somewhat multiplied even in those early days of the Christian church. He says, "They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us." (1 John 2:19).
The true disciple endures to the end (Matthew 24:14). Though he foresees that his path is beset with obstructions on every side, still he goes forward. Though dangers may threaten and trials discourage him—leaning upon the Beloved, he goes forward. His most vigorous resolutions terminate upon his duty. He goes forward with a firm and vigorous step. No matter how rough the way, with eye fixed on the Author and Finisher of his faith—he goes forward with unabated ardor, leaving the world behind him and animated with the prospect of Heaven and glory before him. He is aiming at "the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:14). No difficulties are so great, no fatigue is so severe, as to divert him from his design. Perfection is his aim. He cherishes no present intention to disobey at all. From the heart, he desires and intends to yield a compliance, not merely to this or that requisition, but to all the divine requirements without distinction and without exception.
Now I am satisfied to make my appeal to my readers, whether this is not the conduct which flows from genuine piety. To say nothing of the example of Christ who added to universal, habitual, and persevering conformity to holiness, a constant conformity—are not such the fruits of righteousness demonstrated by prophets and apostles and other holy men mentioned in the Bible?
Between such obedience and the man of mere morality or the best painted hypocrite the world ever saw, is there not a discernible difference?
Such obedience begins with love to God.
It advances with hatred of sin.
It is encouraged by faith in Jesus Christ.
It is cherished by a self-abasing humility.
It is nurtured by prayer.
It is purified by detachment from the world.
It is beautified by all the relative and social virtues.
It is consistent in all the moral and exterior duties.
It is evidenced by a tender and active benevolence.
It is matured by a life devoted to God.
These are the fruits of genuine Christianity.
They grow on this parent stalk and on no other.
They may be sometimes blasted and withered by the noxious atmosphere of the world.
They may find little to nourish them in the impoverished soil of the human heart.
They may sometimes appear in very diminished size and richness, but in greater or less perfection.
Yet here they are always found; and they never fail to flourish in such quantity and such perfection as to tell on what tree they grow.
Let the reader, then, try his character by the same rule by which the Word of God tries it. He who has the hope of the Gospel, purifies himself even as Christ is pure (1 John 3:3).
Does your love to God prompt you to devout attendance upon all His commandments?
Does it animate you with increasing attachment to His Word and His service?
Does your love to man lead you to do justice and love mercy, to live in peace with all men?
Does it make you the better husband, or the better wife; the better parent, or the better child; the better master, or the better servant; the better magistrate or the better subject; the better friend, or the better citizen?
The religion of Jesus Christ is not a system of empty speculations, designed to have no practical influence. It is not the offspring of wild enthusiasm that exhausts all its force in feeling, and leaves none for action. A good man out of the treasure of the heart necessarily brings forth good things (Matthew 12:35).
Experience without practice is worthless.
Practice without experience is equally worthless.
Experimental religion consists in the reality of the Christian graces, and in their due effect upon the life and conduct. If you are an authentic Christian, you feel the power of religion in your heart and exhibit it in your life. With such a test, men surely need not be deceived in their fears or their hopes. Nothing is more infallible than this simple test.
If any go through the world with false hopes, it will be because they measure themselves by a standard of their own—and not by the standard which God has given them.
Never, never could the hypocrite, destitute of every good thing and enemy of God as he is, go to the throne of judgment with the hope of eternal life, if he did this.
And never could real Christians so often doubt of their good estate, if they did this.
If the fruits of righteousness in their lives were not so few, withered, and sickly, they could never doubt whether they are genuine. Because you are not a better Christian, you doubt whether you are a Christian at all. God never designed that saved men should have assurance, peace, and joy in any other proportion than they bring forth the fruits of holiness.
If you would enjoy the pleasures of religion—you must practice its duties. If you will not do this, you will continue in darkness and doubt while you live. On the contrary, if you will awake to a life of Christian activity, you shall have that peace which passes all understanding, that your joy may be full.
There is a world of difference between the truly biblical and classical doctrine of the "perseverance of the saints" and the unscriptural "eternal-security" doctrine which is so popular in many evangelical circles today.