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Rethink Everything You Know About Spiritual Growth

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, and 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.

Everything changed.

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.

It’s understandable.

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 one 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.

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Tullian is a graduate of Columbia International University, where he received a degree in Philosophy, and Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, where he earned his Master of Divinity. A grandson of (Evangelist) Billy and Ruth Graham, Tullian was the Founding Pastor of the former New City Church (in Fort Lauderdale, Florida) which merged with the historic Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in 2009. He served there as Senior Pastor until June 2015.