Spiritual growth—the challenge

In the previous post I covered the basic difference between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. There is much more that can be (and has been!) written on those distinctions. But my focus in the current series is on spiritual growth. Specifically I want to explore how spiritual growth ties into these two opposing positions?

Spiritual growth and theology of glory

According to the theology of glory, we set the agenda for how God operates and for what we can do. Spiritual growth becomes a stepping stone, a ladder to come closer to glory, as we work toward this goal of the glory. This life is that in between reality where, as Forde mentions, “we seem somehow to have gotten derailed —whether by design or by accident we don’t quite know—but that is only a temporary inconvenience to be fixed by proper religious effort” (Forde p. 5).

Thus, spiritual growth from this perspective requires me to be more disciplined, more devote, more intentional… and the focus is what we can do to achieve this high goal. Jesus got us started on the road back to glory, we have to finish the job.

Inevitably, this leads to a spiritual growth that is measurable, identifiable, and ultimately comparable. Spreadsheet analysis of spiritual growth works! I see the areas I think need work. I see what tools are available. I see the strategies that put all this together. And everything seems to “fall into place.”

But that last item is the one that exposes the theology of glory: comparable. In other words, spreadsheet analysis of my spiritual progress is fine. But what about John or Angie or Ralph or Sandra? How are they doing? How are they doing compared to me?

The comparison aspect of spiritual growth is rampant in Christian circles. What is the latest theological fad in books, blogs, vlogs? Who is the hot writer right now? What disciplines will help me that I haven’t tried yet?

It’s easy to see the problem with the Pharisees in the New Testament era. It is much harder to see that I have become a Pharisee as well. The comparison of spiritual growth points exactly there. And if we want to play that game, then we have to see what Jesus said about this problem:

“For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20 NAS)

“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48 NAS)

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1 NAS)

At this point the theology of glory demands spiritual growth such that you have to be perfect. As Dr. Phil might ask, “So how’s that working for you?”

Spiritual growth under the theology of glory results in either pride/arrogance or despair.

Spiritual growth and theology of the cross

Spiritual growth under the cross is far different. It is based on the proper understanding of both Law and Gospel. Just to review, I will summarize both terms.

Law: Shows us what to do and not do, giving punishment when there is failure. The Law always accuses, always threatens, always demands.

Gospel: What Jesus Christ has done by His perfect life, His death to pay for the penalty of sins, and His resurrection as victory over sin, death, and the devil. The Gospel never threatens, never demands, but always comforts, forgives, renews, restores, reconciles.

With this clarity, then we turn to what Paul wrote in Galatians:

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. (Galatians 2:20 NAS)

Dying to self, crucified? But how can that work? After all, doesn’t God know what I can do? Yes, He does, and that is the crux of the problem. Unless we are crucified with Christ, we cannot speak about spiritual growth. For our old self struggles to survive, claws at the coffin to get one more gasp of air, to proclaim at least one more good deed we can do.

Spiritual growth, then, is not measured in how well we can resusitate the old self, nor how well we can harness its “potential.” Rather, we die to self. Paul shows that this is connected to our baptism.

Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? (Romans 6:3 NAS)

Interesting that those who want to emphasize “my role in baptism” don’t really want this part of it. Baptism is a drowning, a killing off of myself — “baptized into His death.” Spiritual growth is not a monitor of our activity. Rather, as Paul wrote, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” In other words, spiritual growth in the theology of the cross is the reality of Christ living in us.

So, the question naturally arises: what does this mean? Or more appropriately in this context: What does this look like? Paul gives us a glimpse in Galatians,

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:22-24 NAS)

Notice that while the old self is measured by deeds (Galatians 5:19-21), the new person in Christ, the resurrected person is described in Christ living is us by the fruit of the Spirit. Not activities, but character, not demands, but description of what that means.

Living in the theology of the cross is difficult. Is dying ever easy? But God begins to work in and through us as we daily die to sin and are brought to life again through the forgiveness of sin.

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About exegete77

disciple of Jesus Christ, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, teacher, and theologian
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2 Responses to Spiritual growth—the challenge

  1. Lucas Dawn says:

    We do need to die daily to sin, and receive God’s working in us, which produces the fruit of the Spirit. At the same time, Jesus did say to take up our cross and follow him (a demand); and that losing our life meant saving it (our life in his kingdom). And he said he would give us the Spirit, so that we could follow his demands about love (even enemies), peace, and kindness, by doing activities (actions) of love, peace, and kindness (faith working through love).

    • exegete77 says:

      Howdy, thanks for stopping by. Notice that everything you mention has to do with the fruit of the Spirit, Christ in us. And the last statement comes from Galatians 5:6. The reality is that we have a constant battle going on within us (simul iustis et peccator = at the same time saint/justified and sinner). The daily dying is that old person who desires to control. And that is the challenge of the theology of glory.

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