The gospel has me reconsidering the typical way we think about Christian growth.
It has me rethinking spiritual measurements and maturity; what it means to change, develop, grow; what the pursuit of holiness and the practice of godliness really entails.
What’s been happening in me recently is similar to what happened in me when I first became a Calvinist back in the Winter of 1995.
I began to read the Bible with new eyes. The sovereignty of God and the sweetness of his unconditional grace were EVERYWHERE! I remember thinking, “How did I miss this before? It’s all over the place.”
Well, the same thing has been happening to me with regard to how I think about Christian growth.
If we’re serious about reading the Bible in a Christ-centered way; if we’re going to be consistent when it comes to avoiding a moralistic interpretation of the Bible; if we’re going to be unswerving in our devotion to understand the many parts of the Bible in light of its unfolding, overarching drama of redemption, then we have to rethink how we naturally and typically understand what it means to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
In his 2008 movie The Happening, writer, producer, and director M. Night Shyamalan unfolds a freaky plot about a mysterious, invisible toxin that causes anyone exposed to it to commit suicide. One of the first signs that the unaware victim has breathed in this self-destructing toxin is that they begin walking backwards—signaling that every natural instinct to go on living and to fight for survival has been reversed. The victim’s default survival mechanism is turned upside down.
This, in a sense, is what needs to happen to us when it comes to the way we think about progress in the Christian life. When breathed in, the radical, unconditional, free grace of God reverses every natural instinct regarding what it means to spiritually “survive and thrive.” Only the “toxin” of God’s grace can reverse the way we typically think about Christian growth.
For a whole host of reasons, when it comes to measuring spiritual growth and progress our natural instincts revolve almost exclusively around behavioral improvement.
For example, when we read passages like Colossians 3:5-17, where Paul exhorts the Colossian church to “put on the new self” he uses many behavioral examples: put to death “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” He goes on and exhorts them to put away “anger, wrath, malice, slander” and so on. In v.12 he switches gears and lists a whole lot of things for us to put on: “kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” just to name a few.
But what’s at the root of this good and bad fruit? What produces both the bad and good behavior Paul addresses here?
Every temptation to sin is a temptation, in the moment, to disbelieve the gospel–the temptation to secure for myself in that moment something I think I need in order to be happy, something I don’t yet have: meaning, freedom, validation, and so on. Bad behavior happens when we fail to believe that everything I need, in Christ I already have; it happens when we fail to believe in the rich provisional resources that are already ours in the gospel. Conversely, good behavior happens when we daily rest in and receive Christ’s “It is finished” into new and deeper parts of our being every day— into our rebellious regions of unbelief (what writer calls “our unevangelized territories”) smashing any sense of need to secure for ourselves anything beyond what Christ has already secured for us.
Colossians 3:5-17, in other words, provides an illustration of what takes place on the outside when something deeper happens (or doesn’t happen) on the inside.
So, going back to Philippians 2:12, when Paul tells us to “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” he’s making it clear that we’ve got work to do—but what exactly is the work? Get better? Try harder? Clean up your act? Pray more? Get more involved in church? Read the Bible longer? What precisely is Paul exhorting us to do? Clearly, it’s not a matter of whether or not effort is needed. The real issue is Where are we focusing our efforts? Are we working hard to perform? Or are we working hard to rest in Christ’s performance for us?
He goes on to explain: “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (2:13). God works his work in you—which is the work already accomplished by Christ. Our hard work, therefore, means coming to a greater understanding of his work. As I mentioned a few posts ago, in his Lectures on Romans Martin Luther wrote, “To progress is always to begin again.” Real spiritual progress, in other words, requires a daily going backwards.
I used to think that when the Apostle Paul tells us to work out our salvation, it meant go out and get what you don’t have—get more patience, get more strength, get more joy, get more love, and so on. But after reading the Bible more carefully, I now understand that Christian growth does not happen by working hard to get something you don’t have. Rather, Christian growth happens by working hard to daily swim in the reality of what you do have. Believing again and again the gospel of God’s free justifying grace everyday is the hard work we’re called to.
This means that real change happens only as we continuously rediscover the gospel. The progress of the Christian life is “not our movement toward the goal; it’s the movement of the goal on us.” Sanctification involves God’s attack on our unbelief—our self-centered refusal to believe that God’s approval of us in Christ is full and final. It happens as we daily receive and rest in our unconditional justification. As G. C. Berkouwer said, “The heart of sanctification is the life which feeds on justification.”
2 Peter 3:18 succinctly describes growth by saying, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Growth always happens “in grace.” In other words, the truest measure of our growth is not our behavior (otherwise the Pharisees would have been the godliest people on the planet); it’s our grasp of grace–a grasp which involves coming to deeper and deeper terms with the unconditionality of God’s love. It’s also growth in “the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” This doesn’t simply mean learning facts about Jesus. It means growing in our love for Christ because of what he has already earned and secured for us and then living in a more vital awareness of that grace. Our main problem in the Christian life is not that we don’t try hard enough to be good, but that we haven’t believed the gospel and received its finished reality into all parts of our life.
Gerhard Forde insightfully (and transparently) calls into question the ways in which we typically think about sanctification and spiritual progress when he writes:
Am I making progress? If I am really honest, it seems to me that the question is odd, even a little ridiculous. As I get older and death draws nearer, I don’t seem to be getting better. I get a little more impatient, a little more anxious about having perhaps missed what this life has to offer, a little slower, harder to move, a little more sedentary and set in my ways. Am I making progress? Well, maybe it seems as though I sin less, but that may only be because I’m getting tired! It’s just too hard to keep indulging the lusts of youth. Is that sanctification? I wouldn’t think so! One should not, I expect, mistake encroaching senility for sanctification! But can it be, perhaps, that it is precisely the unconditional gift of grace that helps me to see and admit all that? I hope so. The grace of God should lead us to see the truth about ourselves, and to gain a certain lucidity, a certain humor, a certain down-to-earthness.
Forde rightly shows that when we stop narcissistically focusing on our need to get better, that is what it means to get better! When we stop obsessing over our need to improve, that is what it means to improve! Remember, the Apostle Paul referred to himself as the chief of sinners at the end of his life. It was his ability to freely admit that which demonstrated his spiritual maturity–he had nothing to prove or protect because it wasn’t about him!
I’m realizing that the sin I need removed daily is precisely my narcissistic understanding of spiritual progress. I think too much about how I’m doing, if I’m growing, whether I’m doing it right or not. I spend too much time pondering my failure, brooding over my spiritual successes, and wondering why, when it’s all said and done, I don’t seem to be getting that much better. In short, I spend way too much time thinking about me and what I need to do and far too little time thinking about Jesus and what he’s already done. And what I’ve discovered, ironically, is that the more I focus on my need to get better the worse I actually get. I become neurotic and self-absorbed. Preoccupation with my performance over Christ’s performance for me makes me increasingly self-centered and morbidly introspective. After all, Peter only began to sink when he took his eyes off Jesus and focused on “how he was doing. As my friend Rod Rosenbladt wrote to me recently, “Anytime our natural incurvitas (fixture on self) is rattled, shaken, turned from itself to that Man’s blood, to that Man’s cross, then the devil take the hindmost!”
So, by all means work! But the hard work is not what you think it is–your personal improvement and moral progress. The hard work is washing your hands of you and resting in Christ’s finished work for you–which will inevitably produce personal improvement and moral progress. Progress in obedience happens when our hearts realize that God’s love for us does not depend on our progress in obedience. Martin Luther’s got a point: “It is not imitation that makes sons; it is sonship that makes imitators.”
The real question, then, is: What are you going to do now that you don’t have to do anything? What will your life look like lived under the banner which reads “It is finished?”
What you’ll discover is that once the gospel frees you from having to do anything for Jesus, you’ll want to do everything for Jesus so that “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do” you’ll do it all to the glory of God.
That’s real progress!