Jesus is more than just a ticket to heaven. The Christian life lived matters immensely! Yes, Christ is the path to eternity in the next life, but he is also the path to obedience, joy, and godliness in this life. And so, Christians must dedicate themselves to spiritual growth and maturity because “godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim 4:8).
Some people hear this call, and they want to get to work. They quickly identify how they need to grow and change. They approach spiritual growth like being in a Rowboat. When you’re in a rowboat, you’re in charge. You determine where you want to go. You provide the direction and the power to get there. If the water is rough, you adjust. If you want to get there quicker, you work harder. If you get tired, you can slow down. People think, “God wants me to grow and mature, and he may help me from time to time, but really it’s up to me.”
Others have the opposite approach to spiritual growth. They see growing in godliness like floating on a Raft. On a raft, there is no way to propel yourself and no way to steer. You just float down the river and go wherever the river directs you, at whatever speed the current takes you. Some people think, “God is in control. I’m only here because of his grace, and it’s only by his grace that I’ll become more mature. As long as I don’t fall into grave sin – as long as I stay on the raft – the current of God’s Spirit will take me wherever I need to go. My efforts mean nothing. I just need to let go and let God.”
If you’re like me, depending on the phase of life and mood you’re in, you may oscillate between these two mindsets!
But there is an error in the Rowboat mentality: It relies only on your effort and discounts the grace of God and the Spirit of God. You did not come to Christ by your own merit, and you can’t grow in Christ on your own merit. The Christian life, from beginning to end, is all by the grace of God. Even our good works were prepared beforehand (Eph 2:10).
But there is also an error in the Raft mentality: The “let go and let God” mindset is a seriously deficient understanding of the Christian life. Rather than facilitate godliness, it leads to spiritual apathy. The New Testament is filled with active verbs that describe our spiritual life and growth in maturity. We’re called to put to death our sins, strive for holiness, purify ourselves, strain forward, cleanse ourselves (Rom 8:13, Heb 12:14, 1 Jo 3:3, Phi 3:13, 2 Co 7:1). There is effort and work in the Christian life!
There is a third way to approach Christian maturity and growth in godliness: the Sailboat. On a sailboat, you don’t go anywhere without the wind. If there is no wind, you don’t move. If the wind is blowing hard, you can go really fast. A sailboat must work with the wind. And yet, there is a lot of work for the sailor to do. The sailor must cooperate with the wind to make use of its power. The sailor needs to know how to set the lines, raise the mainsail, man the helm, turn the tiller, tack into the wind, adjust the jib, and bring in the boom. The sailor needs to work hard to keep the boat moving! And yet, he’s not going anywhere without the wind. See, the Spirit of God and the grace of God are the driving force behind our spiritual growth. God calls us to work with him as we grow and mature, but without his grace and his Spirit, we’ll go nowhere. (This analogy is adapted from a reference to John Ortberg in Dave Kraft’s book “Leaders Who Last.”)
I call this sailboat approach to spiritual growth Grace Empowered Effort. We see this approach in 1 Corinthians where Paul talks about his standing as an apostle of the Gospel. Because he persecuted the church he considers himself the least of the apostles.
He writes, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1Co 15:10). Did Paul work hard? You better believe it! But it was only because of God’s grace at work in his life. And that grace wasn’t ineffective; he worked harder than any of the other apostles. Actually, it was the grace of God at work in him!
We desperately need God’s grace as we grow in godliness. Grace is God’s unmerited favor. Grace drives our salvation from beginning to end. Receiving something by grace is the opposite of earning it by your own effort. And yet 2 Peter 3:18 says that we are to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” This requires energy and effort. In The Great Omission, Theologian Dallas Willard writes,
“…growing in grace, is something we must do. Appropriate action is the key. True, as Jesus said, ‘Without me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5). But it is also true that if we do nothing it will be without him. The path of spiritual growth in the riches of Christ is not a passive one. Grace is not opposed to effort. It is opposed to earning. Effort is action. Earning is attitude. You have never seen people more active than those who have been set on fire by the grace of God.”
We don’t earn our way to Christ, and we don’t earn our spiritual maturity in Christ. It is all God’s grace. And once you get a hold of the amazing power of God’s grace – the reality that God has forgiven you and filled you with new life – heartfelt action will flow out. A sailor who has seen the power of the wind can’t stop himself from hoisting the sails and letting the wind drive him!
Christ rescued us from the sin of apathy that is uninterested and lazy in our pursuit of godliness and the sin of self-reliance and self-righteousness that thinks we can become godly on our own. He saved us from the raft and the rowboat!
Paul wrote that was working to present everyone mature in Christ. He said, “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col 1:29). Paul is toiling, struggling, laboring, striving to fulfill God’s will. But he’s only toiling because the energy of Christ is powerfully working within him.
Paul told Timothy that “godliness is of value in every way,” and so his instructions were to “train yourself for godliness” (1Tim 4:7). We can think about our training for godliness like a sailor catching the wind. We need to put ourselves in the path of God’s grace and God’s Spirit! This is where the Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian faith become so vital: Scripture, Prayer, Fasting, Solitude, Worship, Evangelism, Serving, Stewardship, and Fellowship. We don’t practice these things for their own sake; these practices are the means, not the ends. They are the means by which we grow in godliness, obedience, and intimacy with Christ. Donald Whitney says in his book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life these are the “ways by which we can spiritually place ourselves in the path of God’s grace and seek him.”
That’s why the Spiritual Disciplines are often called the Means of Grace. They are the means by which, we “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pe 3:18). Now, God’s grace can work to accomplish his purposes and make us holy even when we’re being lazy or stubborn. If the wind is blowing hard enough, it can push a boat even if the sails aren’t up! But that is not how God designed us to live the Christian life. God designed us to be sailors, constantly involved, continually aware, working hard, and always dependent on the wind. This is the path to godliness and intimacy with our Savior.
The Lord calls you to “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” (Phil 2:12-13). We can only work out our salvation because God is working in us! Any work we do is only and always driven by his work. God’s unmerited love and favor is driving and energizing our efforts. Grace empowered effort.