[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church, entitled "Turning Toward the Cross". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]
In Mark 8:22-33, we see progression in the work of God. In the encounter with the blind man (v. 22-26), we see that Jesus progressively heals him, laying hands on him twice. Then, we see that this healing was like a visible parable as the passage continues. The blind disciples have their eyes open to see that Jesus is the Christ (v. 29), but they do not understand what it means for Jesus to be the Christ. This is evidenced in Peter's rebuke of Christ in v. 32.
Once Jesus touched the blind man's eyes, he could see...but he could not see things as they really were (men looked like trees walking). Once the Father revealed Jesus' identity to the disciples (v. 29; Mt. 16:17), they could see...but they could not see Jesus as He really was. Their spiritual sight still needed another touch. So, Jesus continues to teach them what it means for Him to be the Christ, and the disciples continue to be fuzzy on the whole issue (9:30-32; 10:33-37). It will become clear to them, but not until after the resurrection.
Gradual progression in spiritual growth for the Christian is the normal pattern. When one is saved by God, he/she is not immediately transformed into a perfectly mature believer. Do not misunderstand. That person is a new creature in Christ; the old has gone, and the new has come. That person is completely justified...declared 'not guilty'...counted as righteous before God. However, from the moment of the new birth, this new creature is to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus (2 Peter 3:18). At the moment of conversion, God changes our identity because He makes us His child. The old self is crucified with Christ (Rom. 6:6), and God says, 'This is who you are now.' From that moment, spiritual growth means becoming, in reality, what we have been declared positionally. The message of this growth is: 'Be who you are.'
In 2 Corinthians 3, we see this idea pictured. Paul talks about our conversion as a moment in which the veil of unbelief is lifted (v. 14-16). Yet, even though the veil has been removed, and we 'behold [or reflect] the glory of the Lord,' we still grow. In Paul's words, 'we...are being transformed from one degree of glory to another' (v. 18). As we grow in our understanding of the gospel and of its implications for our lives, we are transformed.
Also, it's interesting that Paul saw his own life as a process. In Philippians 3:12-14, we see the great apostle saying that he has not achieved the fullness of knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection (v. 10). He is still pressing on to it, and he makes it his singular goal in life to achieve it. In 1 Corinthians 9:27, Paul makes an incredible statement that reveals this same self-understanding. He says that he disciplines himself, so that after preaching to others, he himself will not be disqualified. This is not a man who questions the person and work of Christ, as you know from all his other writings. This is a man who takes seriously the idea that God's work in him and through Him is progressive, and he takes seriously the call to persevere in pursuing his own holiness.
Seeing this in Paul, it's not surprising that he would urge the Philippian believers to '...work out your salvation with fear and trembling' (Phil. 2:12b). He urges them to do it because he himself is doing it. He's not looking down on them as inferior; he's inviting them to join him on the journey of spiritual growth. Then, in chapter 3, he tells them of his own striving toward growth (as we've already seen), and he says 'join in imitating me' (3:17). Why? Not because Paul has already attained perfection but because Paul is on the God-ordained path of progressive spiritual growth, which will lead to 'attain[ing] the resurrection of the dead' (3:11).
We may take three steps forward and two steps back, but we must never stop pressing on "toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:14). We must persevere in this important task...working out our salvation with fear and trembling. We must put to death the deeds of the body by the power of the Spirit (Rom. 8:13). We must grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord. We must be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2). We must "take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5). We are to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness (1 Tim. 4:7). All of this is essential, and all of it happens over time, as we grow progressively in our walk with Christ.
The last question, then, is how can we do this? Where do we find the power for such a strenuous, lifelong, sporadic, sometimes-stagnant marathon of Christian growth? Let's listen to the words of Paul once again. How is it that we "are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another" (2 Cor. 3:18)? He finishes the verse with the answer: "For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit." How is it that we can "work out our salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil 2:12)? The next verse answers: "for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure."
The answer is that the power to accomplish God's purpose of spiritual growth comes from God himself. In sending His Spirit to give us eternal life, He has obligated Himself to us as His children. He did not have to, but He has graciously made us His own, and because we are His, He is committed to glorifying Himself in and through our lives. Since God is committed to our becoming like Christ (Rom. 8:28-29), then He will complete the work He began at our conversion to do so (Phil. 1:6).
The truth is this: God is more committed to our spiritual growth than we are! His glory is at stake in those He calls His own. If He has promised to make us like Christ and then He fails to do so, His character is compromised. He would not be glorified as He should, and one thing we can be sure of...God is committed to His glory. He said, "I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols" (Is. 42:8). Because of this, we are greatly motivated and encouraged to press on and to work out our salvation and to grow.
I'll close by answering this question: If God is committed to my spiritual growth, and He will accomplish it, then why are there so many days when I feel stagnant or like I'm even going in reverse? Why does my growth often progress at a snail's pace? I want to suggest that even these experiences in spiritual growth are meant for your spiritual growth. Imagine if the opposite were true...you never felt stagnant, you never went backward, and you could completely control the rate of your maturing. Seems ideal, doesn't it? Where's the danger in that? Here's the danger...it can lead to pride and self-reliance. Humility and dependence are essential to the Christian life, so it makes sense that God would work to produce these fruits in our lives.
There is something good about wanting to grow quickly because it means that, at the very least, we want to grow! However, when we don't and when our lives feels stagnant or slow-growing, let's pray that God will use those times to instill in us a greater sense of humility and dependence on Him. For while we may work hard in cultivating the field of our own souls, "only God...gives the growth" (1 Cor. 3:7).