In my freshman year of college, just a few months after turning 18, I had a class about spiritual growth and maturation in Christians and I had to write a paper about the theology of sanctification. How is it that a follower of Jesus becomes more like Jesus? I had been a believer for only three years or so and I did not grow up in a Christian home. My knowledge of the Bible was quite limited. The church I was converted in was quite sure how one became spiritually mature: we didn’t drink alcohol or use playing cards or watch movies in theaters. Oh, and we also didn’t, you know, sleep around. That was the big one. Avoid that and you’re nearly there.
While I learned quickly that while much of the process of growing and maturing spiritually was negative—avoiding certain things—there were positive things. You had to “go to church”, which meant if there were a worship service open to the public, you had to be there—or you were disobeying Jesus. Sunday morning. Sunday night. Wednesday night. During the summers? Thursday night as well. The really big, positive thing we had to do was read the Bible and pray every day. I took that one to heart as my appetite for learning was quite voracious. When I was 15 I read the entire Bible in just 90 days! I’m reminded of that hilarious Woody Allen quote:
I took a speed reading course and read “War and Peace” in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.Woody Allen
After reading through the entire Bible in just 90 days, I discovered something marvelous: it’s about God. I’m not sure how much I retained from those 90 days but I was amazed that the Bible is really about God. This is a more profound observation than it may appear as it points us to the Bible’s theology of sanctification!
On Pentecost Sunday a couple weeks ago we took a look at the Great Commission in Matthew 28. Jesus tells his disciples, the very ones who were still filled with some doubt about what to do with the reality of his resurrection, that all authority had been given to him. That is, at his resurrection he was crowned as the King of kings and restored to his rightful place as the Sovereign Lord of the entire universe. With this vast, unlimited authority, Jesus tells his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations. With all this incredible authority Jesus chooses to save men and women from sin and death, men and women from every tribe and language and people and nation on earth!
Other than telling them to go, he doesn’t offer a lot of detail about how to accomplish that mission. How do we go? What do we do when we get there? What do we say? Is there some process we should follow? At a minimum there is the proclamation of Jesus and his victory and there is teaching all that he commanded us to do. There’s almost no indication of method. It’s as if Jesus were the one who would build his church!
They were to go into all the nations of the world and proclaim the gospel and Jesus would save people and build churches everywhere. I don’t mean physical structures. I mean he would gather together an assembly of people who would worship him and live for him and love one another. The only real methodology we’re given is found in the various “one another” commands! We are to love one another and serve one another and teach one another and be patient with one another. Through these things discipleship happens.
The only way to fulfill the Great Commission is to make disciples. Period. The only way to make disciples is to teach followers of Jesus to obey his commands. The only way we can keep his commands is in relationship with one another. To say this another way, discipleship happens in relationship. The way in which we make disciples of all nations is to engage in relationship with people, loving them and caring for them and, when necessary, correcting them. Anyone can follow a list of rules (except rules that require others!). Discipleship isn’t merely about following a list of rules, though. Discipleship is about becoming more like Jesus.
Here is a point we must grasp: we do not accept one another as we are. I hope no one would accept me just as I am for I don’t like me just as I am! I am not all that I should be and if I were to remain exactly as I am that would be a terrible thing! I know this is how it’s often expressed, but God doesn’t accept us as we are. He accepts us where we are. When God saves a person he sees that person in Christ, which means he sees each believer as fully and completely righteous. None of us is fully and complete righteous. None of us is fully mature as a follower of Christ. It isn’t accurate to say we’re accepted as we are, for God intends to change us! Instead, God accepts us where we are on the journey to where he wants us to go. Accepting us as we are suggests we’re fine as we are, and we are not. Accepting us where we are, however, implies there is a destination and we have not yet arrived at the destination.
This isn’t mere pedantry, trying to be clever with words. When God saves a person he sees the person from his eternal perspective, which means he sees, in a sense, the finished product. When he sees us in Christ, he sees us as fully mature and fully faithful in him. God also sees where we are on that journey and he accepts us where we are on that journey because he sees the finish line. He sees that we will cross it and when we do he will have finished the work he started. This is the promise we read in Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.Philippians 1:6 ESV
What a remarkable declaration! Notice who began the good work of salvation! God himself did. Jesus is the one who is building his church. He is the one who said he would draw men and women to himself. He is the one who promised he would not lose a single one of those the Father had given him, but would, in fact, raise each one on the last day. Salvation is of the Lord! The one who started the work is the same one who will finish the work.
I mentioned earlier that when I read the Bible in just 90 days I came away with one concrete understanding: it’s about God. The Bible is the story of God, even as ordinary people are highlighted throughout God’s story. The story remains about God. So, too, our salvation is about the Lord and what he is doing. Our salvation is the story of God’s goodness shown to those who come to him in faith.
This brings us back to the question how we grow and mature as followers of Jesus. In short: God causes us to grow and God brings us to maturity. He does this in the context of his church making disciples, which necessarily happens in relationship. It is only in relationship with one another that we can love one another and encourage one another and teach one another and exhort one another and serve one another and pray for one another. As we live together in Christian community, which necessarily involves putting up with one another at times, God is at work in us and through us to cause us to become more like Jesus. This simply means we continue to move along on that journey.
Yes, God accepts us right where we are, but he accepts us knowing we will not remain still but will continue to advance along that continuum of faithfulness until the day he himself completes the work he began in us when we first believed. He knows this because he is the one moving us along! He is the one causing us to grow. I love how the apostle Peter explains this:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.1 Peter 1:3–5 ESV
This is simply a longer version of “he who began a good work will bring it to completion”! Peter says God has caused us to be born again. That is, God is the one who brought about our salvation in the first place. Notice also that God is the one who guards us through faith for salvation that will be revealed. The fullness of our salvation is still future and we are being guarded through faith. God is the one who is guarding us, even as he sustains our faith. God started it. God is maintaining it. God will finish it.
What this means on a practical level is when God draws men and women to himself we must recognize they, too, are on a journey that leads to Christ. We must not accept them as they are, for they must continue to grow until they reach their destination, but we must accept them where they are. God moves people along at his pace and unless we can say we ourselves are where we should be, we must never point the finger at others in an accusing way as if they were somehow deficient for not being where we are on our journey.
This requires patience with one another. After all, love is patient! Further, Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:14 we must “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all”. There will certainly be times when we must correct one another and exhort one another to greater faithfulness. Sometimes we are blind to our shortcomings and our sins and it is loving and kind of God’s people to come alongside us and help us see where we’re falling short. We must do this in full recognition that God began the good work in us and God is the one who will bring it to completion.
This means there must be a lot of patience with one another, particularly with those newer to the faith. We should expect “baby Christians” to be immature! Immaturity is okay—when it’s expected. Who among us would see a problem with someone’s child in diapers? If that child were, say, 16, we’d all recognize that something is wrong. If the 16-year-old is just being lazy, there’s a real problem. However, if the child has some medical reason we’d allow space for a 16-year-old in a diaper.
If you are a newer believer, keep striving! We’ll keep walking with you, accepting you where are, knowing that God is moving you toward full maturity in Christ. If you are an older believer, keep striving! We’ll keep walking with you, accepting you where you are, knowing that whether you’re further along than we are or not quite where we are, you’re right where God wants you at this point in time. If however, you are still as you were when God saved you, you must ask yourself some hard questions, with the primary question being why. Why haven’t you grown in your faith? No one’s expecting you to be perfect, but we should expect every one of us to have progressed in maturity over time and if you have not, something’s wrong.
This is where the church is a necessary and vital part of maturity in Christ. It is the very place where discipleship happens, for the Great Commission is to make disciples, first by baptizing new believers and then by teaching them to follow Jesus into spiritual maturity. Let’s walk with one another in Christian community, accepting one another where we are, knowing that we share the same destination.