Cultivating Virtuous Character

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A Christian liberal arts college education is virtue education. It seeks to develop the whole person, not merely as laborers but as truly human beings who bear God’s image and help others flourish. But this raises a question. How does one develop character? Can it be mastered in one three-credit course or even a full 128 credits?

How do we develop character?

Answering that question well requires clarity about character itself. Character isn’t a commodity that can be purchased or transferred. It is a result. Character is the imprint of virtuous habits. Our patterns in life engrave qualities that exemplify who we are. Character is life’s trademark inscribed by habits over time.

What kind of habits? The kind that reflect Jesus Christ, our Savior and the only perfect Human. God’s master project is to conform redeemed sinners into the image of His Son, “that he might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29). Peter puts it this way, “And beside this [or because of God’s gracious provision], giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity” (2 Pet. 1:5–7). These are core virtues because they resemble the Lord Jesus Christ.

And unsurprisingly, these characteristics—moral excellence, true knowledge, self-control, perseverance, God-centered devotion, empathy, sacrificial love—are what families and churches and communities and employers need. New York Times columnist David Brooks calls them “eulogy virtues,” the kinds of qualities that at the end of the day and the end of a life really matter. Our world needs people whose lives have been stamped so clearly by the Gospel of Jesus Christ that they live in a distinctly virtuous way that helps others flourish.

So, our quest this year is to place all of our time and energy and obligations and opportunities at God’s disposal so that by His grace we might develop virtuous habits.

How do we establish these habits?

This leads us to another question. How do we establish these patterns? Or how do we translate goals into lifelong pursuits? Here is the answer we’ll unpack: Virtuous habits develop through God-glorifying imitation and God-dependent practice.

God-Glorifying Imitation

All of us need inspiration more than occasionally, because success is more than knowledge. We often make strides due in large part to the example of others. For instance, Paul commends Timothy in 2 Timothy 3 not only for believing apostolic doctrine but also for adopting the apostolic pattern of discipleship. Timothy learned how to live from Paul.

Imitate godly examples

This emphasis on imitation can seem contradictory to being Christ-centered. In fact, the pendulum of imitation tends to swing out of balance. Many times in history, both Christian and otherwise, leaders set themselves up as paragons of virtue and dictate that their followers copy their every move. Such a proud, man-centered environment is very unhealthy and often ends in catastrophe. As Proverbs 16:18 says, “An haughty spirit [goes] before a fall.” God never desires one mere human to be the center of anyone else’s universe.

Live worthy of imitation

But there is an opposite error, an overreaction to this real and present danger. The other ditch is to dismiss imitation as an illegitimate category. Sometimes with good intention we attempt to step out of the picture, not wanting the scrutiny or pressure of being exemplary. The problem is that God made His image-bearers to affect others by our example. It’s a part of created human nature. To be relational is to have influence. Without blushing Paul wrote these God-breathed words, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).

Therefore, we cannot simply take a pass when it comes to God-glorifying imitation. The truth has to be embodied. As Jeremy Pierre says in The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life, “Imitation is an effective means of spiritual formation as people model themselves after others who embody a full-hearted faith. … The gospel message for Paul was not merely knowledge content to be transferred, but also a life to be lived in light of that knowledge. People learn what that life looks like by seeing it” (148). We don’t seek to bring glory to the faithful examples we’re following. We follow their footsteps because their gaze is firmly fixed on Jesus Christ, the Author and Finisher of our faith (Heb. 12:2).

So, our quest this year involves finding faithful examples we can learn from and humbly attempting to set the right example for those whom we will influence.

God-Dependent Practice

Another aspect of developing virtuous habits is God-dependent practice. Habit is not a word that leaps off the page to fill our souls with splendor. It sounds mundane, perhaps even lethargic or inauthentic. But the problem isn’t the idea of habits. The problem is what we love and what habits we develop.

That’s why it’s so important to establish good patterns of beliefs, values and commitments. The world recognizes this. Motivated by philanthropy or perhaps the almighty dollar, many advertising firms influence our view of and choices about diet and exercise. Business leaders read and write about habits for success. College football coaches implement a system of recruiting, conditioning, practice and strategy that will hopefully lead to winning championships. In other words, it’s no secret. Habits are crucial.

In order to bring God glory, we need not only to find faithful examples to learn from but also to establish faithful practices. Simply attending a church service isn’t virtuous. Simply opening a Bible, reading a few verses and checking a box is not sanctification. Doing a service project doesn’t make us righteous.

But joyfully submitting to God’s instructions about the primacy of the local church, taking God at His Word that success comes by meditating on Scripture day and night, building into our weekly schedule opportunities to serve others so that they see God’s light and give Him glory—these are the kinds of rhythms that God uses to form Christ in us. It’s not about meriting His favor or proving our superiority. It’s about intentionality that has His kingdom and righteousness squarely in view (Matt. 6:33). It’s about “giving all diligence [to] add to your faith virtue” (2 Pet. 1:5).

Our quest this year is to cultivate good patterns of thinking and believing and choosing. May God help us.


This article was originally published on the BJU Student Life Blog.


Dr. Eric Newton is the dean of students and the chief student life officer at BJU.