The problem with building a Christian moral life is that you cannot just start with the rules. If you start with the rules you essentially have the same problem as in the Old Testament of having everyone trying to follow the laws. This is a disaster waiting to happen; as St. Paul observed, “if it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin. I should not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead“ (Romans 7:7-8).
Rather, what you need to build a Christian moral life are raw materials and tools. For the Christian, our raw materials are to be found in the Bible and in our theology. Knowledge of Christ and knowledge of God’s word are the necessary building blocks upon which we build a Christ-like life in accordance with God’s word. The tools, then, are spiritual disciplines: it is in our prayers and our worship and our other devotions that we take the raw materials of Christian faith & knowledge and work them, with love, into a Christian lifestyle.
It is then, with the Christian life built up in the knowledge and In Worship, that the Christian character can begin to emerge. Without the raw materials, the life that is built will not be a Christian life, but a secular life. Without the tools, the life that is built will be very easily knocked down or invaded by outsiders, no matter how good the raw materials are.
This means that if we want new believers to become virtuous and upstanding Christian men and women, we must teach them and equip them.
They need to be taught the basics of theology and the contents of the Scriptures. These, as the raw materials of a Christian moral life, are absolutely necessary – if you don’t know who God is and what He’s like, you have no chance of living in any way like Him. There are many ways to do this, and most Christian traditions have a catechism or confessional document that can be used. The issue is rarely a lack of teaching material, but a lack of actually using it.
They also need to be equipped with a range of tools with which to work on those raw materials. As critical as knowledge is, knowledge alone doesn’t change us. Again, as St. Paul observed, “the commandment came, sin revived and I died; the very commandment which promised life proved to be death to me” (Romans 7:9-10). It is the tools of spiritual disciplines – of praying, of drinking from the fountain of the Spirit through the Scriptures and writings of the Saints and other great Christians, of tithing and almsgiving, of fasting and self-denial – that transform systematic theology into ascetical theology, that transform the proclamation of the mind into the proclamation of the heart.
Again, various Christian traditions provide various resources for developing one’s spirituality, and here is a place where modern Protestantism has widely lost track of its resources. Anglicans and some Lutherans and Presbyterians still have a decent hold on the treasures of the past as far as schooling believers in the life of worship, but for many Evangelicals the wheel is constantly being re-invented, and it still doesn’t have a strong axle on which to roll.
What happens when the right tools are used properly, applied to the right raw materials? Something gets built. A strong foundation in Christian teaching which is heartily engaged with through prayer and worship other spiritual disciplines will eventually yield growth in Christian character. This could be summarized more succinctly: Believe, Belong, Behave. First, if we don’t know what we believe, we will never belong and never behave. Second, once we know what we believe, then we can settle in and learn to belong. Thirdly, and finally, it is only in the nurturing context of believing and belonging that we can begin to heal from our sinfulness and begin to behave as Christians.
This, of course, can be a bit of a challenge. How do we get new Christians into a place where they can be taught the faith, and equipped with the tools of a spiritual life that will together enable them to grow in the ways of Christ? Preachers often have a favorite subject – telling people what to believe, or how to belong, or how to behave. It can be difficult to balance out all three. It’s a similar situation with Sunday School programs and small group ministries and parachurch organizations – a particular group or program often tends towards only one of those three focuses. So we need to be more attentive to what we’re putting out there, and what people are receiving in abundance versus what people are lacking.