Spiritual growth – who does what?

If we are God’s workmanship (Ephesians 2:10) and it is God who works in us to change us (Philippians 2:13), then our spiritual growth is primarily God’s project. Indeed, it is God himself who takes responsibility for finishing it (Philippians 1:6, 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).

If all this is true, as it certainly is, what are you and I supposed to do? What role do we play? Do we “let go and let God” as they used to say? Or do we decide, as Amy Grant wrote,

     that being good is just a fable;
     I just can't ’cause I'm not able.
     I'm gonna leave it to the Lord. 

? Peter tells us to desire the pure milk of the word (1 Peter 2:2), which certainly makes sense — spiritual growth requires spiritual food — but is that all we need to do?

Peter actually gives us a bunch of other commands leading up to that one, which I think have to be related to it:

Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”

Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear. …

Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart. …

Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.

Summarizing, we need to be alert, to focus our hopes on Christ, be holy, love one another, live reverently as strangers, shun malice and hypocrisy and slander. This doesn’t sound like just lolling around drinking spiritual milkshakes.

If we look at those other passages, we see a similar pattern: growth is related to what we do.

Paul’s confidence that God will complete his work in the Philippians (Philippians 1:6) isn’t a guarantee for all Christians; we actually can refuse to grow and thus hinder his work in us (see for example 1 Corinthians 5:5,1 Timothy 1:20, 2 Timothy 4:14). Philippians 1:6 is quoted often, but even in the NIV, the sentence begins back in verse 4:

In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

Paul prays with joy because of their partnership in the gospel, and is confident that he (i.e., God) who began a good work (i.e., of making them holy, mature, godly, people) will complete it.

The Philippians had sent Paul a gift (2:25, 4:18) when he was in prison, and by the way their loving sacrifice is a big part of why Paul is confident that God will supply all their needs (Philippians 4:19).

As for Philippians 2:13 — again, let’s look at the whole sentence:

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed–not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence–continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

God works in the Philippians, and by extension in us, as they work out their salvation. What does that mean? One big clue is found by looking at the forest this tree comes from — that is, let Scripture explain Scripture. If we expand our scope a little, say to Philippians 2:1-18, I’ll assert that working out our salvation involves:

  • being united in spirit and purpose;
  • humbly serving others;
  • imitating Christ’s attitude
  • refraining from complaints and arguments;
  • rejoicing even in tough times.

The same goes for 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24: Paul pronounces the blessing (that God will sanctify them and keep them blameless) on these Thessalonians even as he assumes they follow his instructions in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22 (or maybe starting in verse 12). Here we find things like respect, peace, patience, kindness, joy, prayer, discernment, gratitude.

Looking at these commands, the following things strike me:

  1. First, these are not things that one can just check off — like
    • Wash the dishes, OK;
    • Change the oil in the car — done.
    • Be joyful always — check. Uh, waitaminute….

    These commands aren’t like constructing the temple according to a set of plans; they’re not even an annual ritual (go to thus and such a place and offer these prescribed sacrifices). They’re changes in our patterns of living.

  2. These things don’t just take a lifetime because they’re changes in our habits; they’re actually very difficult! As my friend Jim says, “If it were easy, we wouldn’t need a command.” Because these things are so hard to do, a corollary is that
  3. We need God’s help; in particular we need to call out to God for help.

Here is how all this works for me: I have a long ways to go in trying to obey these commands. But as I repeatedly try and fall short, I become aware of my shortcomings, and God uses that awareness — he reminds me to be humble and gentle (as in Hebrews 5:2). And as I call out to him in my failure and frustration, he makes me more and more aware of his holy presence.

And by his grace he works in me, so that I’m a little less grumpy and argumentative and foolish than I was some years ago.

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