Grace for Transformation

Every Christian can readily acknowledge, ‘I’m not what I used to be; but I am not yet what I will be!’ We are all very much a work in progress. This is reinforced by the verb tenses the Bible uses to refer to different aspects of salvation: we ‘have been saved’ (Eph 2.8), ‘…are being saved’ (1Co 15.2) and, ‘…shall be saved’ (Ro 5.9-10). The ‘already’ of our experience of redemption will always be nuanced by the ‘not yet’ of where it ultimately leads in the world to come. All of this to say that we need to grasp the ongoing dimension of God’s work in us as we find ourselves between conversion and completion.

This ongoing aspect of salvation is vividly portrayed in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The clue is in the title: there must be ‘progress’ in the life of faith. Or, in the drama of the exodus for Israel, it is the journey out of bondage, through a wilderness that leads them to the Promised Land. A journey God used to teach them, reshape them and prepare them for the new world they would enter when they crossed the Jordan. If we, as God’s people, are not progressing – not growing or continually being changed towards maturity in our Christian life – then there is something wrong.

Paul highlights the importance of this in several places in his letters. In his pivotal statement in Romans he tells his readers that, having begun to experience God’s grace in salvation, they are to ‘be transformed by the renewal of [their] mind’ (Ro 12.2). The fact he uses the passive voice in this statement indicates that God is the efficient cause of this transformation, though it entails our active compliance. But the fact he also uses the present tense for the verb highlights that it is something that continues throughout our Christian life, as long as we are in this world.

Elsewhere he makes the same point from a different angle, but with even greater force. He tells the Corinthians, ‘And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit’ (2Co 3.18). This second insight gives us an even more vivid appreciation of what the ‘in between’ of Christian experience entails and why we need to grasp what God is doing in our lives just now.

Once again, we see the present continuous element of this progress and growth in our renewal in the Christian life. It manifests itself in the first vital sign of new birth when we cry out to God for salvation and it continues through every age and stage that follows until the final whisper, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ And, once again, we see God’s agency at the heart of it all: it ‘comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.’

Peter alludes to this same need for ongoing progress in the Christian life. Having stated that God has already, through Christ, ‘granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness’ (2Pe 1.3), he goes on to say, ‘For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love’ (2Pe 1.5-7). That is, since God has given us every resource in his Son to live out our new in Christ, it will be evident to all through the facets of this new life the apostle goes on to list. More than this, the growth emanating from this new life will never come to a halt: ‘For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (2Pe 1.8).

Why does it matter that we grasp the importance of this as Christians? And in what way does this relate to grace? In response to the first question, it presses home the fact that being a Christian is more than just a label; it is a life – nothing less than a new life that comes from God. And, since it this is true, this new life should be visible in the way we live. As Paul made clear in Romans, as we progress in this new life, its newness is seen in part negatively in that we become less and less like the world into which we were born. It no longer shapes us as once it did. Instead we are being steadily renewed and transformed – reshaped into what God intends us to be. He reconstructs us from the inside out so that we become more and more like his dear Son. Growth is not optional; it is essential to the life of faith.

In all of this – seen not least in the fact that the New Testament authors without exception point to God as the prime mover in every aspect of salvation – it is self-evident that, as we noted in our last post, ‘salvation is of the Lord’ (Jon 2.11). From its being decreed in eternity through to its final consummation it is rooted in grace. It is salutary, therefore, that the lines in our appreciation of this of this can become blurred when it comes to justification and sanctification. Like the Galatians, who had begun so well only to be misguided by ‘another gospel’ (Ga 1.8), we can fall into the heresy of thinking we begin the Christian life by grace through faith; but then somehow progress in it ‘by the works of the law’ (Ga 2.16). In contemporary parlance, we fall into the trap of ‘justification by faithfulness’ – believing that our ongoing acceptance with God is contingent on our daily obedience. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Westminster divines judiciously highlight this problem in their treatment of justification and sanctification. The first they define as ‘an act of God’ (WSC 33) and the second as ‘the work of God’ (WSC 35) – but both are ‘…of God’s free grace’. In the first we are involved only through our reception by ‘the empty hand of faith’ of what God provides through his Son. In the latter we are involved through our participation in that provision as the Holy Spirit enables us to live out our new God-given life. But in neither case does our involvement contribute anything for which we can claim the credit.

To slightly tweak the title of a book by Dr Derek Thomas, it is indeed The gospel that brings us all the way Home, but only because it is The gospel of grace… from beginning to its very end.