[This post is part of the Reshaping Christian Habits series]
I had originally planned on talking about justification in this post, focusing on how the status God graciously gives us is a motivation rather than a goal to achieve. Here, I just want to focus on the goal. To talk about the “eschatology of Christian habits,” is to ask what the ultimate goal is of Christian character formation. We might all be able to agree that the goal is to become more Christlike (as Paul would in Romans 8:28-32), but I wanted to flesh that out some before moving on. In doing this, we’re shadowing Calvin’s structure in the Institutes where the discussion of the Christian life in general precedes the discussion of justification.
This helps, because it is helpful to have an idea where our sanctification is going. What is the goal of growing more Christlike? I’ll comment more on this in the next post, but I think the goal should be that your character grows into Christlikeness thereby moving you closer to a match with the status you already possess as an adopted, justified child of God. We have pretty big shoes to fill as Christians growing in grace, but growing into them is not what makes us part of the family, it is the result of already being in the family. Christians become part of the family of God upon regeneration but do not immediately start acting the part.
With Christ our older brother as our model (Hebrews 2:11-18), the goal of developing Christian habits should be to eventually live day in and day out like you’re actually part of the family of God.
Developing these habits intentionally takes the track of traditional virtue ethics, but reorients around the teaching of Scripture rather than those of philosophers like Aristotle. Commenting on Ephesians 1:17-19, N. T. Wright says:
This is once more the classic structure of virtue: glimpse the goal, work out the path toward it, and develop the habits which you will need to practice if you are going to tread that path. This passage does not yet mention the specific moral muscles needed to accomplish all this. It simply assures the faithful of God’s power, which will enable those muscles to be developed, those choices made (p. 170).
This makes virtue ethics different than either deontological (duty based ethics), utilitarian (greatest good ethics) or existential ethics (privileging spontaneity, a “what comes natural” ethic) because as Wright adds a few pages over:
Here, in fact, is one of the major differences between virtue ethics and other schemes of thought: the thinking is front-loaded. A person relying on a duty- or rule based ethic, faced with a challenge or dilemma, needs to think on the spot: Is there a rule? Is there a duty? Someone using a utilitarian-based ethic needs to do quite a bit of thinking: How will doing this (or not doing it) affect the sum total of human happiness? A person following a spontaneity ethic, of course, won’t want to think at all. For someone developing a virtue ethic, on the other hand, the hard thinking has already been done some time before a particular crisis or challenge presents itself. The character has been formed by conscious choice and habit (p. 173-74).
In other words, the goal of Christian habit formation is to think clearly in advance what steps need to be taken to grow more Chirstlike, and then begin forming those particular habits. What Wright does not spend too much time articulating, but I think is important to bring out, is that by doing this the different ethical approaches converge. This insight is fleshed out at length in John Frame’s Doctrine of The Christian Life (see esp 41-125), where he notes every ethical approach has to reckon with goals, motivations, and standards, but the traditional ethical systems split along which one of those you primarily focus on. He points out that the best ethical thinkers usually harmonized two of the approaches (i.e. Plato and Kant).
What appears to be the case is that each approach hits on a partial truth, whereas a fully developed Christian ethics incorporates the strengths of each and ultimately transcends them. When you begin growing in grace because of your cultivation of Christian habits you begin to find that what comes naturally (or spontaneously) is more in line with your new nature rather than your old nature. Or, what was once a foreign way of thinking or acting has now become “second nature.” Considering that you are given a new nature in converting to Christ (the “new man” in Paul’s writings) it makes sense that as you build up the “new man” acting more Christlike becomes “second nature” which is just our way of saying, spontaneous and authentic, or perhaps “automatic.”
You’ll find as well that in doing this, you are better following the duties of the Christian life outlined in Scripture. Rather than thinking in terms of following a bunch of rules from the onset, you find that as your strengthen your Christian virtue through developing godly habits in the power of the Spirit you automatically follow the rules that matter. Instead setting out to “keep the law” in order to grow more Christlike you’ll find your natural inclinations to follow it out of gratitude are strengthened. The goal is not for Christians to be a bunch of faithful law-keepers, but to be a group of people animated by the Spirit and overflowing with love for one another that then together keep the law because is has become natural to do so.
When a community does this as a group, they’ll find as well as the maximum number of people actually achieve true happiness (read: joy). John Piper formulated his vision for “Christian Hedonism” is reaction to the duty based ethics he grew up with. Finding true happiness by knowing God and enjoying Him forever is a laudable goal, but it is also the outcome of consciously cultivating Christian virtue through reshaping your habits in light of the gospel. I benefited greatly from Piper’s writing and ministry, but I think he may go too far in setting Christian hedonism in opposition to duty based living of deontological ethics or the spontaneity and authenticity of existential ethics. All three visions for ethical Christian living cohere together because God gave us the rules to live, a new nature to progressively live out of, and Himself to enjoy now and in eternity.
Or, as Wright summarizes:
Paul’s vision of the dawning day, and of justification, faith, and the Christian life, is itself held within a larger theological framework. For him, all Christian life, faith, thought, and action takes place within the creative and redemptive (or new-creative) action of the one true God, who had made himself known in and as Jesus the Messiah, and was now active in and through the Spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit. The implicitly and sometimes explicitly trinitarian framework of Paul’s thought has been explored many times, and we do not need to develop it here, except to note that if we were to ask Paul for his definition of the ultimate goal, the telos, of all our faith and life, he might reply ‘the resurrection’ or he might reply, ‘the new creation,’ but equality and perhaps more profoundly, he might reply ‘God himself.’ (After You Believe, p. 138)
This means that our goal here in talking about reshaping Christian habits is threefold: helping you begin to live more authentically in line with your Christian faith, leading you in obedience to the way we are actually commanded to live, and simultaneously growing in the knowledge and joy of God in the process. To do this, we now can shift to the foundation of our motivation, before giving you some tools to then build your character.