In much of Christian culture, a lot of attention gets paid to the need for people to reach a moment of decision and place their faith in Jesus, to be “born again.” This isn’t surprising. After all, beginnings matter, and birth is essential. Jesus Himself used birth as a metaphor during his conversation with Nicodemus early on in John’s Gospel. Jesus told him that in order to see the kingdom of God he needed to be “born from above” (NRSV) or “born again” (NIV). Later on in the same chapter, Jesus also (famously) told him that, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16 NRSV).
So yes, repentance and initial belief in Christ are important, and I don’t want to minimize that. However, I also don’t want to end with that part of the story. New birth in Christ is supposed to lead into the long, painful, and beautiful process of growing up. In his 2010 book, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing up in Christ, Eugene Peterson notes that the twin metaphors of spiritual birth and growth aren’t meant to stand apart; one is supposed to flow into the other (p.3). However it seems that, in some quarters at least, so much emphasis gets put on making sure people get “saved” that the task of walking with them as they grow to maturity in Christ can be treated like something of an afterthought, and that isn’t healthy.
Not Just a Ticket to Heaven
In 2006, the English theologian N.T. Wright penned Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, an exploration of Christian practices and beliefs that reads much like a successor to C.S. Lewis’ excellent book, Mere Christianity. In the introduction, Wright spends a bit of time delving into nature of the Christian life:
The point of following Jesus isn’t simply so that we can be sure of going to a better place than this after we die. Our future beyond death is extremely important, but the nature of the Christian hope is such that it plays back into the present life (p.xi).
Being made alive in Christ is the beginning of a journey of Spirit-driven renewal that is meant to seep down into every crag and crevice of our lives, not merely a one-time decision regarding our preferred post-mortal destination. It’s not just an intellectual pursuit of knowledge divorced from the concrete realities of life, and it also isn’t a quest for emotional comfort and certainty separated from a life of ongoing intellectual curiosity. The Christian life is an all-encompassing and ongoing process of being made into the image of Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
The ethical teachings found throughout the Scriptures aren’t there merely to provide a set of rules to be followed, but to help with the cultivation of a Christ-like character. Near the end of his letter to the Galatians, Paul encourages his readers to live by the Spirit, rather than the flesh, adding that, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23 NRSV). It seems to me that Paul was urging them to pursue lives marked by these qualities.
Wright, in his book After You Believe, argues that the fruit of the Spirit listed by Paul function in a way analogous to the Aristotelian concept of “virtue” that people are supposed to pursue (2010, p.206). He comments that describing them as fruit helps get across the point that they are cultivated from within rather than externally imposed without intentionality on our part. They are characteristics that “need to be thought through, chosen with an act of mind and will, and implemented with determination even when the emotions may be suggesting something quite different” (p.206). In Mere Christianity, we also see Lewis use some of this virtue-based framework:
There is a difference between doing some particular just or temperate action and being a just or temperate man. Someone who is not a good tennis player may now and then make a good shot. What you mean by a good player is a man whose eye and muscles and nerves have been so trained by making innumerable good shots that they can now be relied on… In the same way a man who perseveres in doing just actions gets in the end a certain quality of character. Now it is that quality rather than the particular actions which we mean when we talk of a “virtue” (1952, pp. 79-80).
A large part of following Jesus consists in being formed by the Holy Spirit, cultivating qualities like patience, gentleness, and joy so that they get deep down in our bones and by the grace of God become parts of our character rather than just things that we do. Of course, this can make “growing up in Christ” sound exceedingly idealistic and overly individualized. However, the Christian life isn’t (or isn’t meant to be) a personal quest carried on independent from other people. Instead, Peterson writes in Practice Resurrection that:
If we are to get in on all that is going on in this adventure called life that we live responsively into, we must extend the conversation to include the others whom God is calling, the others who are walking in response to the call. The life into which we grow to maturity in Christ is a life formed in community (p.35).
Discipleship in Community
Granted that God gives us life alongside other followers as the context in which “growing up in Christ” occurs, it’s worth acknowledging that being part of a church family for any extended period of time is no easy thing. From the outside, a congregation may seem to be wholly made up of people full of energy, passion, and kindness, but each and every body of believers contains its share of petty politics, ongoing squabbles, and opportunities for disillusionment to set in. Peterson isn’t ignorant of these difficulties. In light of them, he asks:
So, why church? The short answer is because the Holy Spirit formed it to be a colony of heaven in the country of death… Church is the core element in the strategy of the Holy Spirit for providing human witness and physical presence to the Jesus-inaugurated kingdom of God in this world (p.12).
Imperfect as it is, church is the work of God, a gathering together of real people in particular places living out a life of resurrection in a world where, as Peterson puts it, “Death gets the biggest headlines” (p.12). He continues on, adding that, “The practice of resurrection is not an attack on the world of death; it is a nonviolent embrace of life in the country of death… but the practice of resurrection, by its very nature, is not something any of us are very good at” (p.13). A church community is full of people at various stages of being made new, of “growing up in Christ.” Some are still taking their very first steps, others having spent many years maturing. As part of God’s in-breaking new creation, churches are made up of flawed saints that witness to a truth that “dazzles gradually” (p.27).
I’d like to suggest that this connects back to Wright’s discussion of virtue and the fruit of the Spirit in After You Believe, because it is precisely through the challenging, annoying, and grace-filled setting of life in the church that we are able to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit, learning to be more forgiving, gentle, and self-controlled towards others. This is no quick process.
Growing up in Christ is the essential, life-long journey that begins when someone becomes a Christian. It isn’t an easy journey that smoothly goes on from one victory to another, which is why it’s important to remember the foundational role that God’s ongoing grace and forgiveness plays in the process. As we mature in Christ, it happens through God’s grace and alongside the formational work of the Sprit in us, not by gritting our teeth and accomplishing self-improvement purely through our own strength. The most important moments in the process of “growing up” usually aren’t the most exciting ones. Richard Beck, a professor at Abilene Christian University, expresses this point well:
No one tells you that Christianity is a 70 to 80 year grind in becoming more kind, more gentle, more giving, more joyful, more patient, more loving. You learn that God isn’t in the rocking praise band or the amped up worship experience. What you learn after college is that Holy Ground is learning to listen well to your child, wife or co-worker. Holy Ground is being a reliable and unselfish friend or family member and being a good nurse when someone is sick. Holy Ground is awkward and unlikely friendships. Holy Ground is often just showing up (Beck, 2015).
The Christian life is meaningful even when it’s mundane, and seemingly everyday things like being a good friend and serving others in unnoticed ways matter because they are ways in which God grows us up to be like Christ and live as witnesses to the resurrection.
Beck, Richard. A Million Boring Little Things. May 28, 2015. http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2015/05/a-million-boring-little-things.html Accessed 8/13/2015.
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity: A revised and amplified edition, with a new introduction, of the three books Broadcast Talks, Christian Behavior, and Beyond Personality. 2001 Harper Ed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1952.
Peterson, Eugene. Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing up in Christ. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.
Wright, N.T. After you Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. New York: HarperOne, 2010.
—. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. New York: HarperOne, 2006.