In kinesiology class back in college, I had a professor tell me that since the triceps muscles functioned to extend the forearm, one only needed to do bicep curls to exercise the whole arm. Her reasoning was that lowering the weight extended the forearm, and therefore exercised the triceps. She had taken a basic fact and misapplied it because she neglected to account for simple facts like gravity being the force that lowers the weight as the lifter slowly relaxes his biceps.
Similarly, in the Christian life, we can easily misapply things. This is especially so in the case of the Bible’s language regarding Christian growth and God’s grace. For instance, some see the passages about justification by grace through faith is the ultimate or only expression of the Christian life. In so doing, they can actually believe/explain a version of faith that does not lead to good works or obedience in Christ. In fact, some might even disparage good works!
On the other hand, some look at the passages in Scripture about spiritual growth and the need for obedience and see these as the ultimate or only expressions of the Christian life. The danger here is teaching that one is saved by one’s efforts and not God’s grace and the progress is always obvious and linear. Such teaching may indeed lead to boasting in one’s works as the Pharisee in Luke 18:10-14.
As all imbalances in Christian teaching go, one can see both of these aspects of the Christian life in Scripture. They go by many names: the gospel/law distinction, justification/sanctification, and indicative/imperative distinctions. Well explained, all of these end up saying the same thing. I’m not a fan of the words used though. They create unnecessary confusion of vocabulary. Here are some examples: in Scripture the gospel includes commands, the law of Moses includes promises, indicatives result from imperatives, and sanctification is sometimes a state not a characteristic of a person.
I prefer to distinguish between the positional and progressive elements of the Christian life. I’m sure somebody came up with the language before me, but I haven’t seen it anywhere and it popped into my mind when I was teaching an introductory course on Christian theology. Below I’ll simply describe some of the positional and progressive elements of the Christian life.
These are aspects of the Christian life concerning one’s identity in Christ. They are gifts of grace to be claimed as a certain possession by the faithful. Biblical examples include but are not limited to:
- Justification by faith (Romans 4:24-5:10)
- Adoption (Ephesians 1:3-23)
- Sanctification/being called saints (Romans 1:7, 1 Corinthians 1:29-31)
- Being beloved by God (all over the Bible)
The importance of the positional aspects of the Christian life included the fact that they are true (it is important to know true things), they depend on God’s grace and not necessarily our progress, and they supply us with an individual and communal identity.
These are elements of the Christian life in which growth and progress can be made. The confusing thing is that sometimes the Bible uses the same words for progressive and positional categories (sanctification, grace, live like children of God, etc). Biblical examples include but are not limited to:
- Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God. Being a son of God here is a designation based on character, not a declaration based on grace received through faith.
- Matthew 6:33 (seek first the kingdom of God and it’s righteousness). Righteousness is not a courtroom declaration like in Paul’s letters, but a virtue to be pursued.
- Hebrews 12:14 says to strive for the holiness/sanctification necessary to see the Lord.
- Abiding in God’s love (1 John 3, John 14-26)
The importance of these aspects of the Christian life is that they speak of the goals toward which faith strives. While one does not have to be a perfect peacemaker to be justified by faith, one should have a faith of the sort that will lead to peacemaking. These aspects of the Christian life also speak of how one experiences life with God and approaches true happiness and Christian virtue.
When we understand the difference between the two ways the Bible talks about the spiritual life, we can have hope in our justification, but still ‘strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14)’ because faith that justifies is faith that seeks holiness (the holiness doesn’t justify).