He wants us to possess and practice love, patience, mercy, faith, kindness, gentleness, meekness and temperance, and He wants us to do these things with self-restraint and self-direction. To do them, we must have godly character.
God develops character in those whom He has called, those who are baptized into Christ and are obeying God. (Even repentance and baptism are acts of obedience.) He does this developing through the power of His Spirit in us. Godly character stays with us; it's all that stays with us. It's what we are when we're born into the family of God at the resurrection.
The enemy of character
I want to summarize as simply as I can how our enemy has tried to destroy this permanent character--even the concept of character--that God creates in us as individuals. Prophecy pinpoints how this takes place through deception:
"For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a licence for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord" (Jude 4, NIV).
"But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber" (2 Peter 2:1-3, NKJV).
These false teachings affected the church then and are prophesied to happen over and over until Jesus comes:
"And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming" (2 Thessalonians 2:8).
Different words mean different things to different people. When you hear John Newton's song "Amazing Grace," the word grace in the lyrics means different things to different people.
Just what do you mean grace?
To many in the Churches of God, grace means one thing. To many others in the Churches of God, grace means something altogether different.
When the gnostic Christians in Jude's and Peter's day talked about "Christ in you," those words had a meaning to them different from Jude's and Peter's understanding. The gnostic Christians believed they possessed a mystical, magical spirit apart from their "spirit in man," or their minds. They taught a grace that rendered obedience unnecessary and even undesirable. They used the doctrine of grace to prevent the development of spiritual character.
These "Christians" believed the Old Testament, the Old Covenant, the law, even the Creator of the physical world, were evil.
The gnostics' bedrock belief was that anything physical is evil, and only the spiritual can be good.
The early church fought this false notion. Paul spent a lot of time refuting it. We find hints and references in nearly all of his writings of his war on this erroneous concept. I think that is why so many misunderstand his writings, especially when it comes to law and grace.
Paul fights back
Paul fought the attacks on the concept of character in at least two ways.
The Jews thought they could gain salvation by developing righteous character through the law. Paul taught that the Jews--and everyone--had to be saved by grace. To Paul grace was God's expression of love to us and all mankind evidenced by God's giving His only begotten Son as a sacrifice to pay for our sins.
Paul also believed God resurrected Jesus as our High Priest, our Intercessor, our Savior, and that God sends His Spirit to comfort us, to help us change, to overcome, to grow and to develop the character I've been talking about.
Paul also refuted the gnostics by countering their interpretation of grace and law. The gnostic Christians of Paul's day believed and taught a radical interpretation of law and grace, claiming the two are incompatible. They believed in "grace alone" (apart from obedience to law) and that no "works" (obedience) are necessary.
Later in history we find that John Calvin and Martin Luther, the Protestant reformers, believed fundamentally the same thing. They espoused "faith alone" and "grace alone."
They tied their belief to the immortality of the soul. They believed that at death a soul escaped from its evil physical body and ascended to heaven.
Luther called the epistle of James a "book of straw" because James disagreed with Luther's theory on grace. Luther was uncomfortable with James' teaching that "faith without works is dead," and one must look into God's law as a mirror to see himself and change, which is repentance (James 1:23; 2:17-20).
Luther even added the word alone in Romans 3:28 in his German translation of the Bible: "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith [he inserted alone here] apart from the deeds of the law" (Romans 3:28, NKJV).
The reason this perverted concept of "grace" is called a "mystery of lawlessness" by Jude--the same "grace" of Luther and Calvin--is that it is disguised as obedience to a higher form of spirituality. It isn't, but that's what the two reformers say.
Is obedience legalism?
A historian and writer in our day, Alan Knight, in his new book Primitive Christianity in Crisis, states this about character on page 196:
The early, or "primitive," church held that the law "continues as a standard and guide for Christian conduct and good works."
Mr. Knight continues: "According to some modern evangelical theories, however, even to look into the law to learn what good works will please God is legalism. It implies you are trying to do works on your own. It is a tacit violation of faith in the mystical power of Christ working within you."
Mr. Knight writes about character:
"The early Protestant reformers, and many evangelical theologians today, interpret this [Galatians 2:20, about Christ living in a Christian] to mean man plays no role in the formation and expression of Christian character" (same page).
"In the first century, just as today, there were antinomian Christians who claimed to have an inner experience and walk with Jesus that replaces literal obedience" (p. 200).
It is important to see that God builds spiritual character through authentic "grace" and "Christ in us" and to be alert to our enemy's disguise of the truth when he inspires the deceiving uses of the same words to create a mystery of lawlessness.
It is instructive to read Jesus' last message in the Bible, about eternal life in God's family:
"And behold, I am coming quickly, and my reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work . . . Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city" (Revelation 22:12-14).
Character is important. The concept of character does not conflict with the concept of grace.
Don't let anyone hinder what God is developing in you.