Results tagged “Growth in Grace” from Reformation21 Blog

The Growing Christ

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During the Christmas season, we rightly focus our attention on the marvel of the incarnation of the eternal Son of God; then, we lag into the final days of the year with regrets about the many ways we failed to be the kind of person we set out to be at the beginning of the year. We reformulate certain goals and desires that we will have for ourselves as we enter a new year, and we repeat this cycle that we have adopted for the better part of our adult lives. Perhaps this year, we could continue focusing our attention on the incarnate Son of God--especially with respect to what the Scriptures tell us about his growth from an infant to a boy to an adult in his work as the Redeemer. 

Of the four Gospel records, only Luke's tells us about the days between the birth and infancy of Jesus and the inauguration of his public ministry when he was 30 years old. In just 4 verse (Luke 2:39-42), 12 years have passed from the birth of the Savior. The only things that we know about Jesus in this 12 years span is that he "grew, became strong, was filled with wisdom; and, the favor of God was upon him" (Luke 2:40, 52) and that he went with his parents to the Temple every year at the time of the passover (Luke 2:41-42) and that he was submissive to his parents (Luke 2:51). That's it! We don't hear about any miracles that he did as a boy (almost certainly because he did none until he started his public ministry). We don't hear about his interaction with his brothers and sisters (though he would have had many interactions). The thing that Luke, by the Holy Spirit, teaches us is that the eternal Son of God experienced sinless growth and development as a real human being. 

In his excellent article "The Human Development of Jesus," B.B. Warfield explained:

"There are no human traits lacking to the picture that is drawn of him: he was open to temptation; he was conscious of dependence on God; he was a man of prayer; he knew a "will" within him that might conceivably be opposed to the will of God; he exercised faith; he learned obedience by the things that he suffered. It was not merely the mind of a man that was in him, but the heart of a man as well, and the spirit of a man. In a word, he was all that a man -- a man without error and sin -- is, and must be conceived to have grown, as it is proper for a man to grow, not only during his youth, but continuously through life, not alone in knowledge, but in wisdom, and not alone in wisdom, but "in reverence and charity" -- in moral strength and in beauty of holiness alike. Indeed, we find it insufficient to say, as the writer whom we have just quoted' says, St. Luke places no limit to the statement that he increased in wisdom; and it seems, therefore, to be allowable to believe "that it continued until the great 'It is finished' on the cross." Of course; and even beyond that "It is finished": and that not only with reference to his wisdom, but also with reference to all the traits of his blessed humanity. For Christ, just because he is the risen Christ, is man and true man -- all that man is, with all that is involved in being man -- through all the ages and into the eternity of the eternities."

Warfield was, of course, building on Irenaeus of Lyons' teaching on anakephalaiosis (i.e. recapitulation). Irenaeus explained this in the following way:

"Jesus came to save all by means of himself-all, I say, who through him are born again unto God -- infants, and children and boys and youths and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness and submission; a youth for youths, becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord." (Against Heresies book. 2.22.4)

Again Warfield explained that-with regard to His humanity-Jesus had sinless limitations. He wrote:

"Everywhere the man Christ Jesus is kept before our eyes, and every characteristic that belongs to a complete and perfect manhood is exhibited in his life as dramatized in the gospel story. All the limitations of humanity, therefore, remained his throughout. One fresh from reading the gospel narrative will certainly fail to understand the attitude of those, who we are told exist, who for example, "admit his growth in knowledge during childhood," "yet deny as intolerable the hypothesis of a limitation of his knowledge during his ministry." Surely Jesus himself has told us that he was ignorant of the time of the day of judgment (Mark xiii. 32); he repeatedly is represented as seeking knowledge through questions, which undoubtedly were not asked only to give the appearance of a dependence on information from without that was not real with him: he is made to express surprise; and to make trial of new circumstances; and the like."

This is, in no way, to deny that in His Divine nature, Jesus is omniscient. We must always keep in view that Jesus is  fully God and fully man. James Anderson explains the significance of both truths when he writes:

We're told that Jesus was omniscient (John 16:30) but also that he increased in wisdom (Luke 2:52). To be precise, however, we should say that Jesus was omniscient with respect to his divine nature and gained wisdom with respect to his human nature. On this basis, it seems natural to say that God the Son is timeless and unchangeable with respect to his divine nature but temporal and changeable with respect to his human nature. Since Jesus' death and resurrection pertained to his human nature, this standard Christological distinction suggests a way to reconcile the events of Jesus' life with the immutability of God. (see James Anderson, "Did God Change in the Incarnation".

It is also not to suggest that Jesus somehow lacked human consciousness that he was the eternal Son of God, Messiah and the Redeemer who would lay down His life a ransom for many. Geerhardus Vos rightly explained that Jesus' "destiny and conscious purpose were identical":

"Our Lord affirms that he came to give his life as a ransom. The verb 'came' belongs not merely to the first thing named--the ministering--but it belongs equally (as) much to the second thing named--the giving of the life by way of ransom: the Son of Man came to minister and to give. I beg you to notice this form of the statement sharply because many have tried to put upon it the weakening interpretation: Jesus came to serve and found, in the course of his life, that to serve to the full meant for him to die. But that merely makes the death the outcome of the service."

...Jesus did not live the greater part of his life in a naive ignorance and unconsciousness of the web of destiny that was being woven around him. In his case, as in no other case, destiny and conscious purpose were identical. Not only that he died, but that he meant to die for us, this constitutes the preciousness of the gospel story for everyone who reads it with the eye of faith." (Vos, "Sermon on Mark 10:45")

In order to be the Covenant-keeping, true Israelite and Redeemer of His people, Jesus had to learn more and more of His Father's revealed will in Scripture. He did so according to his human capacity at each age and stage of life in order to be equipped as a man to be the Redeemer of men. Jesus never studied in the Rabbinical schools like all the other religious leaders in Israel (John 7:15). But, we must conclude that Mary and Joseph faithfully taught Him the Scriptures from His earliest days. We know that He would have been in the synagogues often as a boy; and Luke tells us that He went with Mary and Joseph to the Temple every year. We find Him there as a 12 year old boy astonishing the teachers with His questions and answers about the Scriptures (Luke 2:41-52). Jesus almost certainly knew the Old Testament by heart. As I have explained elsewhere, Jesus read the Old Testament as the Covenant revelation of God written to Him and about Him. We have frequently rushed to this latter part and rightly rejoiced in the fact that Old Testament was written by and about Jesus, but have failed to see that, at the same time, it was written, first and foremost, to Jesus.

Foremost among those things that Jesus grew in his knowledge of through the Scriptures was that he had to suffer on behalf of his people. Jesus would have known that Isaiah 53 was speaking of him. When he met the two on the road to Emmaus, Jesus said, "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:25-27). In his post-resurrection appearances, Jesus appealed to what the Scriptures said about his sufferings and subsequent glories. He had, no doubt, learned of them as he read God's covenant revelation throughout his life. 

This leads to one final thought about the human growth and development of Jesus. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus "learned obedience by the things that he suffered" (Heb. 5:8). There was something in the experience of Jesus prior to his agony in the Garden and dereliction on the cross that he did not know prior to the experience of it. This does not intimate that there was any sinful imperfection in him. It merely means that he learned something by way of experience that he did not formerly know according to his human nature. John Owen captured the meaning of Hebrews 5:8-9 so well when he wrote:

"[Christ] can be said to learn obedience only on the account of having an experience of it in its exercise...This he could have no experience of, but by suffering the things he was to undergo, and the exercise of the graces mentioned therein. Thus learned he obedience, or experienced in himself what difficulty it is attended withal, especially in cases like his own. And this way of his learning obedience it is that is so useful unto us, and so full of consolation. For if he had only known obedience, though never so perfectly, in the notion of it, what relief could have accrued unto us thereby? how could it have been a spring of pity or compassion towards us?" 

Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men by becoming what Adam, Israel and we have failed to be. He did this by constantly taking the word of God into his mind and heart, thereby learning to conform his human will to the divine will. He also grew in his capacity to obey on account of the experience of the sufferings he endured. By doing so, Jesus lived the life that we haven't lived so that he could die the death that we deserve to die. Jesus was obedient in all things--not least of which was his obedience to his Father in laying down his life for his people on the cross.

Easy Like a Midweek Small Group

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Consistent throughout Scripture is the idea that the impossibility of perfection does not loosen its claim on us. God's vision of the bride of Christ, as of a people without spot or blemish, translates to an annoying shortage of loopholes. That means that when someone complains: "Shouldn't we be doing more in evangelism?" One cannot respond, no matter how many church profiles have been filled out, "I'm sorry, that's not in our target marketing zone." Everything is in your target zone. In a sense, every gospel believing church owes a debt to every person in the world, and to transform every facet of life to the glory of Christ.

If you think this is an exaggeration, listen to Paul's description of why God has given an assortment of gifted people among his churches. The point is: "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ." (Eph 4:12-13)

Pretty simple, right? All your church needs to do is make sure everyone, everywhere attains the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. With such a lofty goal, one might fear that many churches would throw up their hands and say, 'Who is sufficient for such things?' and start praying for the grace of Christ and the power of His Spirit. Don't worry, it rarely comes to that. Rather, the answer lies in more programs, more committees, more ministries. Once you create a 'unity of the faith committee', a 'knowledge of the Son of God committee', and a 'mature manhood committee', you'll be well on your way.

After we've finished poking holes in our excuses of abdication, and our short-sighted self-sufficiency, where are we left? Church leaders and Christian believers must still wrestle with a calling to be all things to all people, combined with the inadequacy of a programmatic response, which leans toward an ingrown experience of meetings for the sake of meetings. How can the church avoid the freeze of indecisiveness and take meaningful steps toward an impossibly broad calling?

The answer lies, in part, in small groups. The universal actuality of small groups at every church, whatever name they go by, speaks to an inescapable awareness that this must be a vital part of what it means to be the church. Once a church affirms a need for small groups however, their implementation and execution spurs as much diversity as there are churches and denominations. Not only is that right and good, but it confirms the purpose of small group ministry, which is nothing more or less than being the church in at all times, or 'building up the body of Christ.'

Though most iterations of small groups offer some value, the best model comes in the form of same-sex groups of no more than six men or women, who meet weekly. Randy Pope terms this 'life-on-life discipleship'. Perhaps relieving the burden of the church's massive commission through small groups only kicks the can one step farther down the road. Yet it does provide a structure and context, and unleashes localized sovereignty in tackling the charge to all Christians: to make disciples of Christ.

Why small groups are hard

Small groups are the hardest things in the world. This is so for two reasons. First, because they are supposed to do everything. Secondly, they require relationships.

Not a single element of 'church'--with the possible exception of sacraments--drops out between Sunday morning gathered worship, and your Tuesday night small group. And yet it's hard to imagine two linked experiences, which share the same ultimate goal and values, feeling more different. That's why the complement of these two ministries, corporate worship and small groups, when healthy, compose virtually the entire body of church life. It's also why the ceiling for the small group's mission climbs to a spectacular, even unattainable height - the call is to do it all.

Take the three basic categories of a church's mission to see how small groups fulfill these in distinction to corporate worship:

  1. Exalt God's glory - Hearing God's Word unfolded and his grace extolled is one thing coming from the 'professional, polished Christian' at the pulpit, but it comes with quite a different force when it comes from the mouth of Sally, the swamped mother of three, who's been sick for the past month.
  2. Equip God's people - You may find it easier to ignore the prompting of the Holy Spirit when you can slip out the back after the sermon, and drown out the call to repentance and grace with brunch and a nap. That resistance proves harder when God speaks his knowledge and love for you through a friend who sees your habits, patterns, and dirty laundry, and offers counsel with compassion.
  3. Extend God's kingdom - "I hear there are human souls headed for judgment and damnation, and I want to care... but I can't be a missionary; after all, I dropped Spanish after two years." Small groups contextualize missions, service, and evangelism in such a way that members can see it as an opportunity, not a burden.

Small groups are the hardest thing in the world because, when done properly, they strip away the veneer of 'playing church', and press us to, as James says, to "not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves, do what it says." (James 1:22)

The evolution from hearing to doing comes on account of the second scourge of small groups: other people. Small groups, presume the presence--or at least the development of--real relationships. There's the rub. If the promise and potential of small groups sound too good to be true, that's because what has been glossed over is the actual messy spadework of building spiritual friendships, which will have to take up ninety percent of your time. As soon as someone can condense and systematize the process of spiritual friendship formation, we won't need anymore books, blogs, or conferences on discipleship.

In the meantime, however, these rare monuments of spiritual friendship are built, rather than discovered. Brick by brick: through transparency, weakness, repentance, grace, dependency on Christ, and refreshment in the gospel. Small group members cannot feel content to function as a shared interest group, a mutual admiration society, a social club, a learning lab, or merely a refuge to unburden. That's the challenge. All of those are good pieces, or fringe benefits, but each by itself falls short of the best: to grow collectively more and more into the image of Christ. Or to put it in C.S. Lewis terms, when it comes to small groups: 'We are too easily satisfied.'

A good small group requires people you're comfortable with getting uncomfortable with one another. We all have to grow in giving ourselves freely and without defensiveness, and also receiving feedback with humility, grace, and compassion. That's why small groups are the hardest thing in the world: we have to want the good that comes through the hard.

Why small groups are easy

Imagine your church published one of those handy little instructional pamphlets titled: "So you want to be a small group leader?" The packet sits with its topical comrades of vocational advice and hobby-building, such as: 'Mastering the art of real-estate' and 'Maintaining mindfulness through Chinese Checkers'. When you open the pamphlet, you are greeted by images of the small group leader amidst his daily tasks: saving souls, visiting the sick, caring for orphans, revealing fresh Biblical insights, leaping tall buildings, rebuking the Scribes and Pharisees, restoring a broken marriage, throwing a killer party, mentoring each member one on one, and then praying for them all throughout the day.

You may begin to wonder, not only if you're cut out for small group leadership, but whether or not Jack and Diane's Tuesday evening prayer and fellowship with ice cream and decaf coffee is meeting as many of your needs as it should. Such is the dual blessing-curse of leadership idolatry, which we might claim as the unique property of 21st century American evangelicalism. Of course that's not the case:

Isaiah 30:1-3 "Ah, stubborn children...who set out to go down to Egypt, without asking for my direction, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt! Therefore shall the protection of Pharaoh turn to your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt to your humiliation."

We are always prone to set up leaders, whether in the church or in the world, as demi-gods, as Jesus-icons. Such misplaced hopes always end in disillusionment and frustration, for both leader and follower. The more we cling to human power instead of the God who saves, the more we set ourselves up for humiliation when he/she fails.

We set up a glass ceiling of leadership which seems impossibly high from underneath, and then when someone magically pops up on the other side, the temptation is for them to hoist themselves up by raising the ceiling still higher. We want more small group or ministry leaders, but then we wonder when no one signs up for a job description that sounds like bench pressing small vehicles.

In reality, small groups are easy. At least, they should be easy. John Butler describes the work of a small group as: 'representing the practical application of a church's beliefs.' Acts 2:42 describes what was happening in early small groups or house churches in similar terms: "And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." Turns out that the small group formula of: Bible, prayer, and snacks may not need quite as much reconstructive surgery as we think.

As referred to earlier, in examining the challenges of small groups, it takes effort to elevate a small group meeting from mere Bible study or hang out time to genuine fellowship-koinonia. However, that challenge mainly takes the shape of developing a culture of authenticity, not how many commentaries the leader consults each week. Our reformed culture tends to make the error of equating leadership fitness with one's ability to recite creeds and catechisms.

In synopsis, a small group has one chief objective each time it meets: take a living faith in Jesus, and apply that to life. Or if that's too long, you can simplify it to one word: apply. Apply. And then apply some more. The Holy Spirit bears the ultimate responsibility for doing this work in a believer's life, which happens through Sunday morning worship, as well as in all the other individually received means of grace. However, small groups can offer a context to receive this grace of transforming application in a more direct and wholistic manner than anywhere else, as members open up their lives, complete with sorrows, joys, struggles, and hopes. We grow in giving and receiving the trust, love, and Biblical counsel which incarnates how we receive Christ himself.

If we comprehend this objective of applying faith to life, the whole dynamic of a small group changes. No longer is the goal to extract an obscure nugget of Biblical truth or to make a new friend. The dominant question during preparation or discussion time should be: how does 'x truth' about Jesus and his grace meet me where I am today? How does God's word reshape my actions and perspective within this particular desire, success, or failure? Though it's far more desirable to shape our needs to God's Word, rather than searching to find God's prescription for our needs, the latter approach, if executed faithfully will still lead us to Christ and His grace. In fact, if your group accomplishes nothing except to read a psalm, openly share meaningful prayer requests, and then pray, you'll still be ahead of ninety percent of the pack. None of these exercises requires anything but a willingness to open our lives to God and other believers.