Spiritual Growth is resting wrestling
Spiritual Growth is resting and wrestling.
I think many Christian authors write in a confusing way about what spiritual growth is and how we experience that growth. Spiritual growth is the habit of good moral behavior. Sometimes the Bible calls it, “Growing in grace and the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” [2Peter 3:18 ESV] Many people mistakenly call this process sanctification because of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.
WSC Question 35 says,
“What is sanctification? Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin and live unto righteousness.”
The Bible has a lot to say about: being renewed in the whole man [2Corinthians 4:16, Ephesians 4:23, Colossians 3:10 ESV], dying unto sin [1Peter 2:24 ESV], and living unto righteousness [Romans 6:13 ESV], but the Bible does not call this process sanctification. The word sanctification [according to the Bible’s use] means setting something aside for special ownership and use. Think of the way God has set Christians aside from the world for His own ownership and use.
That He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word… Ephesians 5:26 (ESV)
For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Hebrews 9:13-14 (ESV)
So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Hebrews 13:12 (ESV)
Even Romans six [a textbook passage on spiritual growth] uses the word sanctification in a way which presupposes it means to set apart. “I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. Romans 6:19 (ESV)” Paul says righteousness [that is being good and doing good] leads to sanctification. He doesn’t say being good and doing good is sanctification. So Paul sees righteousness and sanctification as two different, but connected things, one leading to the other.
Miles Stanford first introduced me to this observation in his Complete Green Letters:
There need be no difficulty with the subject of sanctification once the meaning of the term is understood. In both the Hebrew and the Greek, sanctification is synonymous with separation. To be sanctified means to be “set apart” for God’s possession and use. It is important to realize that the term has nothing whatsoever to do with the thought of cleansing or purification, as so many seem to think. For example, it is recorded that, prior to the advent of sin into the world, “God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it” [Genesis 2:3]. He set apart the Sabbath as a special day. Further, the sinless Lord Jesus said, “I sanctify myself” [John 17:19]. He willingly set himself apart, he separated himself, he completely devoted himself to the work the father gave him to do. [Miles J. Stanford, The Complete Green Letters, Chapter 23 Sanctification and Consecration p.100]
I have stressed this point because carrying a mistaken understanding of sanctification hamstrings our ability to understand what the Bible says about sanctification. If we can’t define the words Paul uses, we can’t understand what he’s saying.
So what is spiritual growth?
Now that I’ve argued for a Biblical understanding of the difference between sanctification and spiritual growth, I would like to talk about what spiritual growth really is. I have read Christian authors who talk about spiritual growth from the Platonic perspective, as though doing good deeds actually makes us better people. I agree that habitual behavior is a law of human nature which we can and should exploit toward doing good deeds so that the more good deeds we do the easier it is to do them. However, no amount of good deeds, and no amount of joy in them can change our fundamental and internal problem of spiritual guilt before God. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. Isaiah 64:6 (ESV)”
Other Christian authors take a “let go and let God” approach to spiritual growth, as though the Christian is not involved in the process. I believe this perspective is incomplete at best.
Striking the balance of what the Bible says about spiritual growth is a difficult task. Consider the Bible’s spiritual growth parables.
Spiritual growth is completely passive like the branches of the grapevine bearing clusters of grapes:
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:4-5 (ESV)”
Spiritual growth is a vigorously active like a boxing match, running a race, or fighting a war:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. 1Corinthians 9:24-27 (ESV)
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Ephesians 6:10-13 (ESV)
I have read many authors who lean the one way or the other on the subject of spiritual growth, but I have read very few who affirm that the Bible says both of these things together. Of course, this leaves us with the question of understanding how can spiritual growth be both completely passive and vigorously active. In my attempts to harmonize this apparent paradox, I must appeal to a hermeneutical principle: the indicative precedes the imperative. This is a fancy way of saying, “What we are comes before what we do.” For more information on hermeneutics, you can read my articles: Hermeneutics and Applied Hermeneutics. We draw this hermeneutical principle from the fact that Paul argues repeatedly in his letters, “You are Christians. Therefore, act like it.”
The indicative precedes the imperative
When I apply the principle that the indicative precedes the imperative to the question of the simultaneous passivity and activity of spiritual growth, I come to the conclusion that we really do wrestle and run and box and fight in our fervent desire to subdue sin and walk in righteousness. At the same time, Jesus Christ spiritually pours both the energy and the desire to fight into our souls moment by moment like plants drinking up the light of the sun.
Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. Colossians 1:28-29 (ESV)
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Philippians 2:12-13 (ESV)
Finally, our spiritual growth, our whole fight with sin is somehow mysteriously connected to the finished work of Jesus Christ who overcame sin by dying on the cross and rising again from the dead and ascending into heaven. We fight against sin because we already have the victory over it in him [Romans 6:6-7 ESV] and we are seated with him in the heavenly places [Ephesians 2:6 ESV].