A careful observation through the history of almost any city demonstrates that the single greatest source of a church’s catastrophic implosion (and the further emanations of spiritual darkness over the landscape) comes not from imperfect theology but from deficient character.
To be sure, there is a connection between the two, but aspiring to right ideals are not enough. Our character must be transformed by a biblical theology that is lived.
Our most lofty public preaching does not have sufficient long-term lift to overcome the enormous gravitational pull found in our personal brokenness.
Our sin, however carefully concealed, will more accurately describe the dark nature of our real theology than our well-rehearsed creeds and confessions. And worse, this year alone painfully highlights that the swath of casualties hemorrhaging from our leaking character broadens as our leadership’s influence grows.
When it comes to leading Jesus’ church, character trumps everything.
It should be instructive to realize that in the New Testament ‘belief’ is not a noun, but a verb. We can never own a belief; we only can live a belief. Our best theology is never truly believed until it is first integrated into our daily lifestyle.
So however we slice it, our character reveals the true nature of our theology.
The Character of Christ
Implicit in Jesus’ call to discipleship was a call to personally take on the radical character of Christ. When Jesus ushered a fresh charge to his pre-disciples with these celebrated words, “follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men”(Mark 1:17), he was with one breath describing both his Kingdom assignment and the only process that makes that assignment possible. ‘Follow me’ always precedes ‘fishers of men.’
Taking on the responsibility of leading the charge for disciple-making without first allowing the character of Christ to transform our personal brokenness can only lead to an unhappy ending.
Conversely, the character necessary for multiplying true disciples of Jesus grows directly in proportion to our personal follow-ship of Jesus.
This pattern of ‘following me’ and newly derived ‘character’ is clearly revealed when Jesus declared; “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
This ‘light of life’ is the very authentication of our character as we follow and therefore resemble our King. The process of following Jesus is the only spiritual discipline that can transform the darkness of our broken character into the very image of Christ himself.
What Does the Character of Christ Actually Look Like?
Reflecting on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount one sees a three-dimensional picture of Kingdom character that warrants a lifetime of study and personal application.
John observed firsthand that Kingdom character and the glory of God were displayed in Jesus through the perfect blending of two spiritual realities – ‘grace’ and ‘truth’; “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Grace and truth eternally and inextricably fused together. In Jesus, grace and truth were not a balanced duo, nor one moderated by the other, but both dished out lavishly and unreservedly toward an undeserving humanity.
It was as extraordinary of a sight in the first century as it is in the twenty-first. The very character of our eternal Father fleshed out before us in the person of Jesus Christ. All grace. All truth.
So, it stands to reason that the process of following Jesus should build a life branded by the character of Christ. So why is our character often so very different?
Sin, by definition, is missing God’s intended mark.What is his mark? Grace and truth.Our deviation from God’s mark causes us to embrace one and reject the other. Our damaged character finds appeal in one of two insidious and character distorting forms of sin:
i) The Sin of Sensuality (license).Sensuality is seeing ourselves small and therefore living in a way that is lessthan God created us to be. This is deviant grace without truth. A life of sensuality leads to a character damaged and enslaved by obsessive addictions of every shape. In Jesus’ parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15), this is the youngerbrother.
ii) The Sin of Pride (legalism).Pride is seeing ourselves large and therefore living in a way that is greaterthan God created us to be. This is smug truth without grace. A life characterized by pride leads to a character deformed by an arrogant self-righteousness and pseudo-spiritual superiority. In Jesus’ parable of the Lost Son, this is the olderand equally lost brother.
Growing up and learning to navigate the icy winter roads of Canada, one of the first things my father taught me was the danger of oversteering. Oversteering is the tendency to overcompensate when starting to lose traction and begin to spin. It seems at first like a natural response – but soon leaves the inexperienced driver completely out of control.
Instead of correcting a slight skid, he finds himself spinning much faster in the opposite direction. The proper correction is a minor change back toward the center of the road.
We can readily see spiritual oversteer at the heart of our discussion of the Kingdom character of grace and truth. It may come from an attachment to a historical movement (“this is truth”), or following a personality (“this is who I want to be”), or spiritual lethargy (“this is who I am”), or from the need to over-define mystery (“this is who God is”), or from the desire to make personal applications universal (“this is how you should be”).
Attempting to correct without the character of Christ as our guide usually leaves us in worse shape than when we started.
What Are the Symptoms of Spiritual Oversteer?
When we singularly accentuate and consequently reduce one of hallmarks of God’s glory (grace and truth), we find certain symptoms that indicate we are now on a road to damaged character. Often our attachment to ideologies leads us to embrace extreme and rigid positions.
This fanaticism drives us to a heretical understanding of truth – devoid of the grace of Christ. Conversely, our escape into a twisted understanding of grace sends us down a destructive path of self-fulfillment through sensual gratification. The end is always the same, selfish grace without truth leads to bankrupt character.
Oversteer can be seen in our contemporary theological trends. What undoubtedly started out by a godly propulsion to bring balance to a heretical overemphasis, soon becomes dramatic oversteer by the ensuing followers who jump wholeheartedly on the speeding bandwagon.
Back and forth we have swerved past the character of Christ in our attempts to self-correct. From liberalism (grace in isolation), to fundamentalism (truth in isolation), to the emerging church (grace in isolation), to the new orthodoxy (truth in isolation.) From ditch to ditch we travel on our ineffective mission to be the church of Jesus Christ all the while wondering why we rarely see the glory of God.
How Can I Lead with the Character of Christ?
It seems intuitive to our logic that when we are out of balance, we moderate and find some kind of healthy equilibrium. However, seeking an artificial balance by reducing a fact will never shape our character into that of our King’s.
It is impossible to reduce one part of him in an attempt to become more like him. We simply create another spiritual Frankenstein and tag it Christlikeness. We are no further ahead.
The good news is that the gospel is actually great news to our sad theology. In Christ, we have two spiritual realities that can assist us when we oversteer, either personally, or corporately, that guide us to experience the mystery of grace and truth.
The Cross of Christ
If the sin of sensuality is seeing ourselves as smaller and therefore living in a way that is lessthan God created us to be, then what higher expression of grace could there be than the cross of Jesus Christ. With his sacrifice he has once and for all demonstrated the eternal value that we have to the Father. Unworthy though we may be, we are not worthless.
Whenever we are tempted to revel in grace by excluding truth, we need only to gaze at cross to remind ourselves of the high price paid for our position of holiness. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
The cross is history’s best picture of absolute grace.
The Throne of Christ
If the sin of pride is seeing ourselves as larger and therefore living in a way that is greater than God created us to be, then what more humbling reflection could there be than the very throne of Christ. Spiritual arrogance becomes difficult to maintain when we compare our sullied morality to the holiness of our sovereign King who sits without blemish on an eternal throne.
Whenever we are tempted to swagger in our distorted version of truth without grace, remember that only One sits in perfection. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (Isa. 64:6).
Spiritual pride cannot strut before the throne of Christ.
And so, the riverbanks of spiritual protection that keep us flowing in the character of Christ are his grace and his truth. By daily embracing both, we find ourselves walking closely behind the King.
And the world takes note.
μαρτα (hamartia) is a self-originated ethical failure of hitting God’s prescribed target for living. Strong’s Concordance gets to the point with “missing the mark.”
Again, John 1:14 – the perfect picture of God’s glory.
Adapted from author’s book, Kingdom First: Starting Churches that Shape Movements