What is the over-arching quality of Christian character?
It’s a question that I’ve been pondering since college when I chose to give up my pursuit of a career in research biology for pastoral ministry. My answer to the question has changed over the years, as my perspective is much different than it was when I was first launched into ministry. Over the course of serving in multiple churches and ministry contexts while working with men and women from various backgrounds, I’ve found that the answer can be distilled into a few key virtues.
That’s not to say that Christian living isn’t multi-faceted. Perhaps that’s why, during different seasons of ministry, I’ve found myself inadvertently emphasizing different things to the men who asked me to disciple them. To some, I would emphasize the importance of discipline and productivity. To others, I would emphasize the importance of faithfulness. Yet to others, I’d emphasize teachability as the quality to pursue. At the end of the day, all biblical virtues ought to be pursued, so that that the believer would be increasing in all things and lacking in nothing (James 1:4; 2 Pet 1:9). At the same time, there are certain character qualities that carry a heavier weight than others. As Christ said, certain commands and expectations for God’s people are weightier than others (Matt 23:23). So, while Christian living and Christian character is multi-faceted, certain virtues are of higher priority than others because they affect our expression of all other virtues.
Back to the original question: What is the over-arching quality of Christian character? What is the quality that authenticates and unlocks the true expression of every other virtue and every Christian endeavor? It’s not a trick question. It’s the virtue by which Christian wisdom is to be characterized according to James 3:17. It is the virtue with which prayer must be pursued according to Matthew 6:5. It is the virtue that must be present when one receives the Word of God according to 1 Peter 2:1-2 and when one teaches the Word of God according to 1 Timothy 4:1-3. It is the virtue that ought to be characteristic of one’s ministry and service as described in Matthew 6:2. It is the virtue that, according to Matthew 7:5, ought to harness how we confront the sins of others. It is the virtue that ought to be present in our church fellowship as Galatians 2:13-14 teaches. It is the virtue that ought to undergird humility and spiritual disciplines in the Christian according to Matthew 6:16. It is the virtue that authenticates worship in the Christian as Christ warned in Mark 7:6-7. It is the virtue that distinguishes true motives from malicious motives according to Matthew 22:18. And before you say the answer is “love,” let it be said that such a virtue is also one that ought to characterize love according to Romans 12:9.
It is the virtue no Christian can afford to neglect, for it unlocks the proper and acceptable expression of every other virtue, and, for that reason, just about every facet of Christian living. It is the virtue known as the biblical quality of integrity. With it, a Christian has everything; without it, a Christian has nothing—nothing of value in the eyes of God who searches the heart of every person. Consider the following:
- Without integrity, preaching becomes theatrics.
- Without integrity, teaching becomes brainwashing.
- Without integrity, shepherding becomes manipulation.
- Without integrity, fellowship becomes socializing.
- Without integrity, wisdom becomes deception.
- Without integrity, encouragement becomes flattery.
- Without integrity, leadership becomes corruption.
- Without integrity, gentleness becomes cowardice.
- Without integrity, love becomes lust.
- Without integrity, sanctification becomes legalism.
- Without integrity, serving becomes boasting.
- Without integrity, worship becomes idolatry.
- Without integrity, Christianity becomes a cult.
But to understand integrity more deeply, one can ask a converse question: what is the most dangerous vice that a Christian can exhibit? It’s a vice that is, unfortunately, present and prevalent, even in doctrinally sound, Bible-teaching churches.
Over the course of His ministry, Jesus interacted with all kinds of sinners: tax collectors, adulterers, polygamists, prostitutes, zealots, the arrogant and proud, the demon-possessed, abusive Roman soldiers, pagans, thieves, murderers, and betrayers, to name a few. From all of these groups of sinners He made converts and followers. That’s the beauty of studying the Gospel of Luke in particular—watching the Son of Man seek and save even the most vile of sinners.
But there was a group of sinners with whom Jesus engaged with particular severity: the Jewish religious leaders at the time, known as the Pharisees and scribes. Jesus dealt harshly with them because they were characterized by a particular sin—a sin that not a single person in the church is immune to. Everyone is potential prey; everyone must be alert lest they fall into the condemnation of the Pharisees. It was for this particular vice that Jesus said that unless one’s righteousness surpassed that of the Pharisees and scribes, one would not be able to enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:20). It is the vice that is directly antithetical to the virtue of integrity. And it was the sin that, during the week leading to His crucifixion, Jesus forthrightly, vehemently, and publicly exposed in the Pharisees and scribes.
It is the sin of hypocrisy. Reword, then, the above list:
- Hypocrisy turns preaching into theatrics.
- Hypocrisy turns teaching into brainwashing
- Hypocrisy turns shepherding into manipulation.
- Hypocrisy turns fellowship into socializing.
- Hypocrisy turns wisdom into deception.
- Hypocrisy turns leadership into corruption.
- Hypocrisy turns gentleness into cowardice.
- Hypocrisy turns love into lust.
- Hypocrisy turns sanctification into legalism.
- Hypocrisy turns serving into boasting.
- Hypocrisy turns worship into idolatry.
- Hypocrisy turns Christianity into a cult.
What is the solution to hypocrisy? What is the foundation for integrity in the Christian? It is none other than the gospel of Jesus Christ. As mentioned earlier, hypocrisy is first and foremost a condition of the heart. The only way to live with integrity, therefore, is to have a transformed heart. Jesus Himself says, “Blessed are the pure at heart, for they shall see God” (Matt 5:8). How wonderful it is to know that our Great Physician is a spiritual cardiologist. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not merely declarative; it is transformative. All those who believe in Him are given new hearts (Ezek 36:26). A heart impacted by the gospel produces a life of integrity.
The man who knows Christ as Lord and Savior won’t try to look pretty on the outside; rather, he looks to God to save him from his sins (Rom 7:24-8:1). Such a man won’t ever pretend to have it all together, because he knows that his sin is what put Christ on the cross (1 Tim 1:12-17). He won’t panic when people realize that he’s a sinner, because he knows that Christ paid the full price for his sins. He won’t care about how others think of him, because he knows that Christ is taking him to heaven (Luke 10:20). He won’t care whether or not he wins an Oscar, because he knows that reserved for him in heaven is the crown of life (2 Tim 4:6-8). The person who is transformed by the gospel is the person in whom hypocrisy is being mortified and in whom integrity is pervasive.
Integrity is not an impossible quality to attain. It is not only commanded to us by God; it is expected of us. And it is not only expected of us; it is needed from us. The church has been polluted by hypocrisy since its dawning (1 Tim 4:2), and it constantly gasps for the purified air that can only flow from those men and women with such wholesome Christian character. Where, then, are the men and women of integrity? Where are the ministers of God who, like the apostle Paul, can testify with a clear conscience that they have conducted themselves in holiness and godly sincerity (2 Cor 1:12)? It is my hope that you, whoever you are reading this article, are one of those people.