GROWING IN GRACE
So You Want to Grow?
I’ve never met a committed Christian who didn’t want to grow spiritually, to grow more mature, or to become more like Christ. Indeed, that desire to grow is one of the vital signs that we have a new heart (cf. Titus 3:3-7).
But when it comes to knowing how to grow, many Christians seem to be terribly confused. Some talk as if we grow mainly because of our own effort. “It all depends you,” they might say. Meanwhile, others talk as if there is nothing we can do to help or hinder our growth. “It all depends on God,” they claim.
So who is right? Does our growth all depend on us? Or does it only depend upon God? Who gets the credit for spiritual growth? Who gets the blame for our lack of maturity?
People who think that spiritual growth is left up to us tend to agree with the idea that ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ They think that God left us the Bible—which they see as Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth (B.I.B.L.E.)—and then asked us to “get to work.” He did his part, and now we have to meet him halfway.
While those who think this way do recognize that God has commanded us to do certain things, they totally overestimate our ability to obey God in our own strength and with the right motives. This often happens because they downplay the seriousness of sin. Unfortunately, this view of spiritual growth produces people who are either very prideful or very shame-filled. If they think they’re mature, they have themselves to thank. If they think they aren’t, they have themselves to blame.
On the other hand, people who think that there is nothing we can do to help or hinder spiritual growth aren’t much better off. They go around saying things like, “It’s all grace, brother.” “Let go and let God.” Or, “Pray Until Something Happens.” You can’t do anything, remember? You’ve got to wait for God.
Those who think this way at least understand that we can’t obey God on our own. They know that we need God’s grace to change at every point. That’s good. What’s bad is they don’t understand how grace works. Ask how people grow and they’ll say, “All I know is, we grow because of grace.” Yes, but how? “All I know is, God grows us through the gospel.” Yes, but how? “He grows us through the gospel because it’s the good news about grace.” Frustratingly unhelpful, isn’t it? This way of thinking tends to produce very passive people who wait for God to move, or else it produces very frustrated people who wonder why it seems like God isn’t moving.
Growth Takes Grace-Enabled Effort
The truth is this: spiritual growth depends upon grace-enabled effort. God’s grace enables your effort that leads to spiritual growth. That’s the message of the Scriptures over and over again. That’s why Paul repeatedly tells us to “put off” our old self with all its sinful practices, and to “put on” the new self that is being renewed in the image of Christ.
Paul was teaching that growing in the grace of Christ does not happen automatically, that spiritual growth does not happen passively. It takes grace-enabled effort. For while it’s true that Jesus says, “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), it’s also true that those who do nothing will have nothing to show for it.
One of the brightest Christian scholars of our time has summarized the relationship between God’s grace and our effort like this: “Grace is not opposed to effort. It is opposed to earning. Effort is action. Earning is attitude.” That means no one will be able to say, “I earned my growth because of what I did,” but neither will anyone ever be able to say, “I grew more mature by doing nothing.”
Paul, the apostle of grace, understand the relationship between grace and effort very well. Listen to how he describes grace-enabled effort:
“By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” (1 Cor. 15:10)
“To this end I strenuously toil [work hard] with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.” (Col. 1:29)
“And so, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only when I was with you but even more now that I am absent, continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is producing in you both the desire and the ability to do what pleases him.” (Phil. 2:12-13)
You see? God’s grace enables our effort that leads to growth. God gives us the desire and the ability to do what pleases him, and then we actually do it. In other words, we “work out what God works in” (cf. Phil. 2:12-13).
Peter the apostle calls the growth that comes from grace-enabled effort “growing in grace” (2 Pet. 3:17-18). He writes:
“God’s divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with perseverance, and perseverance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.”
In other words, God has given you everything you need for a godly life (grace) . . . therefore, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue (effort) . . . for if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful (growth).
Or as one theologian has put it, “God’s working in us [for our growth] is not suspended because we work, nor is our working suspended because God works… God works in us and we also work. But the relation is that because God works, we work.”
God’s grace enables our effort which leads to spiritual growth.
How Does All This Work?
The word “grace” means unmerited favor. In other words, God’s grace toward us means that he gives his love, kindness, blessing, and approval to people who haven’t deserved or earned these things in any way.
Normally when we think of “grace,” our minds run to the cross of Jesus. That is good and right. This act of grace brought salvation for undeserving people. But grace doesn’t stop there. According to Paul, the same grace that brings salvation also trains us in how to live. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people, training us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:11-12).
But how can grace “train” us? God’s commands, Jesus’ example, and the Spirit’s work to convicts us of sin and empower us for living are all grace. In grace, God gives us commands as a way to show us what is good, to demonstrate our need for him, and to restrain us from being worse than we otherwise might be (1 Tim. 1:8; Rom. 7:16). In grace Jesus not only died for us to forgive our sin, he also lived for us, leaving us an example that we might follow in his footsteps (1 Pet. 2:21). In grace, the Spirit convicts us concerning sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8-11), and to put to death the sins of our flesh as we walk in his strength (Rom. 8:13).
What Should I Do Now?
In the church where I grew up, we used to sing an old hymn that repeats the phrase “trust and obey” over and over again. The tune is campy, and some of the verses are odd, but the refrain is powerful and true: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” (Note: When this hymn was written, the word “happy” did not mean momentary giddiness, as it does in our day. It meant something closer to our word “joyful.”)
The same is true for growing in grace. Do you want to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ? (cf. 2 Pet 3:17-18) Then trust and obey. Trust that Jesus has done all that is needed to cleanse you, to forgive you, and to satisfy the demands of the law. Trust that your future is secure because Jesus has risen from the dead, as the firstfruits of those who are in him. Trust that your life is hidden with Christ in God, having been crucified with him in his death and raised with him to walk in newness of life. Trust that the Spirit of God now lives and dwells within you, fixing your eyes ever on Jesus’ face.
And as you trust these things, simply do as God says. Listen to his Word. Obey what he has asked you to do: talk with him in prayer; saturate your mind and heart with the Scriptures; gather with the church to hear the gospel preached; receive the sacraments of communion and baptism as living pictures of his grace toward you; spend time with other Christians in edifying fellowship; share the good news about Jesus with others; care for the sick, the poor, and the needy; sacrifice your time and money for the good of others; seek justice and plead the cause of the helpless; forgive one another as Christ forgave you—seek to do all these and many more besides. Whatever God has asked us to do, let us heartily obey, not in the fear of his judgment, but in warm-hearted love of his mercy and grace.
In the slightly re-worded rephrase of the old hymn, let us ‘Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to become more like Jesus, but to trust and obey.’
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.