After You Believe :: On Virtue & Character

Screen Shot 2011-09-21 at 12.17.47 PMWell, I finally finished N.T. Wright’s book After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. It took me WAY longer than most books take but it was well worth it.

I’ll first say that this isn’t the first NT Wright book I would suggest. It was slower and harder to get through than most of his books. At the same time it was some of my favorite content by Wright because of its timely nature—at least for the conversations I’m observing and even some of the conversations I’m having. Let me explain a little.

Pop theology and Christian culture is hearing A LOT from the neo-reformed and Calvinist crew these days. The Gospel Coalition and leaders who run in those circles (Mark Driscoll, John Piper, Tim Keller, Matt Chandler, etc.) seem to be gaining a lot of traction in the circles I run in, especially in conversations related to young adults, youth, and church planting. Some of my best friends and conversation partners are firmly rooted in this reformed camp (Gospel Coalition or not) but, in my opinion, way too many conversations wind up having to do with grace vs. works and similar topics. I think a lot of this is because of a fear that if we do anything good we might be trying to earn our salvation or something along those lines. And I’ve heard enough low blows about Methodists and their theology to last me a few years at least, and I’m not even Methodist … although I do like Wesley an awful lot!

In comes N.T. Wright.

Wright gives an alternative to the rhetoric of the Gospel Coalition, he draws a picture of a life lived in the sweet spot of grace and action. He paints a picture of true christian character and a life of authentic virtue.

I think one of the reasons this book was “slow” as I described it was because the topics of virtue and character are foreign relics in the landscape of our current Christian conversations. Wright has to re-introduce these themes; he had to almost start from scratch because we don’t talk about virtue and character much these days. When it was all said and done, Wright’s last chapter entitled “The Virtuous Circle” was worth the price of the whole book as he clearly articulates what we are called to after we believe. He simply brings it all together and explains how to engage in the virtues of faith, hope, and love. And as he’s done throughout the book, he challenges the reader to take action, to exercise these gifts so that we can become the people God has created us to be.

The bottom line is that we don’t become on accident or by osmosis, but we become the people God created us to be—we become fully human—by hard work and exercise, exercise of the gifts of faith, hope, and love that God gave freely when we said yes to His Spirit that was drawing us to Himself. Our effort and exercise is enabled by the life of Christ and the Spirit He fills us with, but our effort, by His grace, is the path to becoming like Christ and to developing a second nature. I like to think about it in terms of participation. We don’t pull ourselves up and become good Christians by hard work; instead, we participate with God’s creative Spirit to recapture the life we were always meant to live.

Another thing that really popped out to me in this book was the idea of a second nature. When we use the phrase “second nature” it’s typically referring to something we do automatically. It’s like we didn’t think about it but it was just second nature, almost like it was a reflex. But Wright points out that it’s small choices over a long period of time that develop that second nature in us. And living out the virtues of faith, hope, and love is exactly that type of thing. Small decisions over a long period of time help faith, hope, and love to be our natural reaction to life's situations. But it takes time to develop that, maybe a lifetime.

There are a few other bits that are great in this book, some great stories and examples, but I won’t continue to ramble. I’ll let you go get the book. It’s worth it.