A key factor in becoming like Jesus is developing godly character. This article will focus on character traits that Scripture identifies as those that Christians should emulate and that lead us to Christlikeness. These Christian character traits can be differentiated from other character traits that, while good, don’t necessarily make one more Christlike. For example, creativity, flexibility, alertness, and decisiveness are good attributes to have, but they aren’t directly addressed in Scripture; whereas faith, gentleness, patience, love, gratitude, and others are.
No Christian is perfect; we all make mistakes, we all sin, and none of us has complete Christlikeness, nor will we attain it in this life. Developing godly character can’t be achieved by “keeping rules” out of a sense of duty, or feeling that if we systematically do all the right things, we will be living in a Christlike manner. While there are specific things to do and rules to keep, it’s not the rote keeping of them that develops godliness; rather it’s doing so in response to our love for God, who dwells within us. The actions that reflect godliness come from within us, from our relationship with God and our becoming new creations.1 It’s by the work of the Holy Spirit that our character is transformed.
Of course, there’s some work to be done for us to grow in Christlikeness. There are moral decisions we individually need to make on a regular basis to bring our lives, thoughts, and actions into alignment with the teachings of the Bible. But all of this must be seen within the framework of God’s grace. It’s the Holy Spirit that brings about the changes in our lives that move us in the direction of Christlikeness. We have a part to play as well, but the actual transformation comes through the Holy Spirit. Like when sailing a boat, we have to put our sails in the right position in order to catch the wind. It’s the wind that moves the boat, but the sails have to be raised. The Holy Spirit’s transforming power is able to change us; but if we want to be moved, we must make the effort needed so the sails can catch the wind.
Christian character is rooted in our belief about who God is—that He has spoken to us through His Word, that we are in relationship with Him, and that we desire to live our lives according to what He has revealed in the Bible. It calls for making conscious choices to allow the Holy Spirit to transform our character. It entails making right moral decisions over and over until doing the right thing, the godly thing, becomes second nature.
Having formed Christian character day by day, year by year, when you’re suddenly faced with a major moral challenge, you’re able to overcome it because you’ve trained yourself in godliness or Christlikeness. Becoming more Christlike also means developing attributes such as forgiveness, generosity, humility, and gratitude. As you regularly choose to be forgiving, generous, humble, and grateful, these qualities become part of who you are.
Throughout Scripture we find what are seen as Christian characteristics, most notably in the list of the fruit of the Spirit: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”2
But there are numerous other godly traits spoken of throughout Scripture. We’re told to have compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness;3 to think on whatever is pure, lovely, commendable, admirable, excellent, and worthy of praise;4 to help the weak, as it’s more blessed to give than to receive;5 to do to others as we’d have them do to us;6 to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance, gentleness;7 to honor our word;8 to be temperate, dignified, sensible, kind, to have integrity;9 to live honestly, speak the truth, and keep our promises even when it hurts;10 to set an example in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity;11 to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry;12 to love from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith;13 to be hospitable, to love what is good, to be sensible, just, holy, and disciplined;14 to be generous and willing to share with others.15
These and other characteristics are found in Scripture, and when we put effort into developing them in ourselves, we raise our sails so that the Holy Spirit can work in our heart, mind, and spirit to transform us. Some or many of these traits may not come naturally, and in fact, at first we will need to work diligently to adopt them. The goal is to develop a Christlike character, and in order to do this we need to “take off the old human nature with its practices and put on the new nature, which is renewed … by conforming to … the one who created it.”16
Christlikeness calls for deliberate change. It won’t come naturally at the beginning, and the steps you take to get to that point require difficult decisions and actions that run contrary to instinct. Breaking bad habits and replacing them with good ones is no easy task, and neither is replacing sinful attitudes, conduct, and actions with godly ones. There are habits of mind, body, imagination, speech, and more that we’ll need to unlearn in order to make way for new habits which need to be learned.
For example, if we’ve been naturally selfish, breaking the habit of this character trait requires a change in the way we are. We have to fight against our natural selfish attitudes by making conscious decisions to be generous, to not demand that things go our way, to in fact go out of our way to let others have their way. Such a change requires deliberate, intentional action, but over time, our tendency to think only of ourselves and what we want will diminish, and we will become more sensitive to and aware of the needs of others. We will become more Christlike in this area.
It’s important to note that Christlikeness calls for both putting off and putting on character traits. Often, believers focus on taking off traits of a sinful nature. We see stopping sin as the goal, believing that we will be closer to God, better people, more godly if we overcome this or that sin or bad habit. While this is true, fighting against our sinful nature is only part of the battle. We are instructed to “be renewed in the spirit of [our] minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”17 We must develop godly characteristics in addition to putting off ungodly ones. Just as we are called to put off the traits of our old selves, we are called to put on the traits of the new. We can’t neglect either.
The challenge is consciously taking off sin and putting on godliness, making it possible for the wind of God’s Spirit to move us toward Christlikeness.
We must stop behaving as people do in the dark and be ready to live in the light.—Romans 13:12 CEV
Once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light!—Ephesians 5:8 NLT
Be imitators of God, as dear children.—Ephesians 5:1
1. See 2 Corinthians 5:17.
2. Galatians 5:22–23 NIV
3. See Colossians 3:12–14.
4. See Philippians 4:8–9.
5. See Acts 20:35.
6. See Matthew 7:12.
7. See 1 Timothy 6:11.
8. See Matthew 5:36–37.
9. See Titus 2:2–8.
10. See Psalm 15.
11. See 1 Timothy 4:12.
12. See James 1:19.
13. See 1 Timothy 1:5.
14. See Titus 1:8.
15. See 1 Timothy 6:18.
16. Colossians 3:9–10 CEB
17. Ephesians 4:23–24 ESV1