When it comes to measuring spiritual growth and progress, our natural instincts revolve almost exclusively around behavioral improvement.
“Only the ‘toxin’ of God’s grace can reverse the way we typically think about Christian growth.”
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?
A Matter of Belief
Every temptation to sin is a temptation, in the moment, to disbelieve the gospel–the temptation to secure for ourselves in that moment something we think we need in order to be happy, something we don’t yet have: meaning freedom, validation, and so on. Bad behavior happens when we fail to believe that everything we need, in Christ we 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.
Colossians 3:5–17 provides an illustration of what takes place on the outside when something deeper happens (or doesn’t happen) on the inside.
Going Backward for Progress
In Philippians 2:12, when Paul tells us to “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” he’s making it clear 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? 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. 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.
The Work of Belief
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 every day 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.”
Growth in Grace
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.” The truest measure of our growth is not our behavior, 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.
Take the Focus Away from You
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.
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!
“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.”
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!”
It Truly Is Finished
By all means work! But the hard work is not what you think it is; the hard work is washing your hands of you and resting in Christ’s finished work for you. Progress in obedience happens when our hearts realize God’s love for us does not depend on our progress in obedience.
This is a partial repost from Tullian Tchividjian’s blog Rethinking Progress. To read it in full click here.