Rev. Paul McCain, of CPH fame, had a fine post over at Cyberbrethren last week, which dealt with the subject of Christian growth. This got me to thinking, and I offer some additional thoughts:
The Christian can grow in his/her faith. Lutherans are often accused of teaching otherwise, which is quite absurd. What we Lutherans believe, teach, and confess is that the Christian can never reach perfect sanctification in this life. We Christians will remain sinners until we breathe our last breath here on earth. But, that doesn't mean that we cannot grow in faith.
But, how does such growth occur? Not in the manner many believe, for many posit that Christian growth is fostered by motivating the Christian to think more highly of him/herself; to stop thinking of him/herself as a sinner and start concentrating on the good in him/her. This way of thinking is prevalent among popular TV and radio "preachers" out there today. If you watch and listen closely, you will notice that they almost never talk about sin. For that matter, you will also notice that they rarely mention Jesus. If Jesus does happen to make it into their motivational messages, it is to put Him forth as an example to follow, or a "life-coach" to heed, not as the Savior we so desperately need. In their way of thinking, Jesus did His part for us 2,000 years ago and now it is up to us to do our part. The focus is on leading the Christian to "become a better you" and to "live your best life now" (which happen to be the titles of both of Joel Osteen's books - Osteen is the most popular "preacher" in America today).
What these "preachers" put forward will not help the Christian grow in his/her faith in any way, shape, or form. In fact, quite the opposite will happen, for as the people who heed the motivational messages of these false prophets earnestly struggle to "become better thems" and "live their best lives now," they will need Jesus less and less, if at all. Why is Jesus needed when the key to Christian growth and happiness lies solely within them? Why is Jesus needed when they are no longer sinners in need of a Savior?
No, my friends, true Christian growth happens through continual and honest self-examination in light of God's Holy Law, for it is only through such that Christians will recognize their sinfulness and desperate need of a Savior. You want to grow in your faith as a Christian? Get in touch with your sinfulness. The more you realize how sinful you are (and, by the way, YOU are!), the more you will be led to fall upon your knees and plead for mercy, and the more you will learn to appreciate and cling to God's answer to your plea - His Son, your Savior, Jesus Christ, who lived the perfect life you can't live and died on the cross for every single one of your sins.
I know it sounds backwards, but this is the true way to Christian growth. The Christian life is a life of daily repentance and faith. That never changes. We never move beyond the need to confess our sins and we never move beyond our need to rely solely on Jesus, the answer for our sins.
None of this is to say that the Christian lays around, day after day, lamenting his/her sins. Not at all. Ours is the victory in Christ. We are free to live; free to serve; free to love. It is because we know that our sins have been taken away by the Lamb of God that they need not haunt us. We need not wallow in the mire of our sins, but are free to live as those redeemed by Christ the Crucified.
It also must be stated that we do not simply throw in the towel concerning our sinfulness. We strive to defeat sin. We battle sin. We crucify our flesh and its sinful desires. We don't willingly and knowingly repeat the same sins with the attitude that it doesn't matter because Christ has died for them. To do that is to turn the Gospel into "cheap grace." No, we strive against sin. And, when we fail, even when we fall into repeating the same sins over and over again, we approach the throne of grace with sorrow and repent, with the desire to amend our sinful ways. Then, upon hearing the Good News that we are forgiven in Christ, we depart in peace, not to go out and do as we please, but to fight the good fight of the faith, which includes the ongoing battle in which we must be engaged with our sinful flesh.
The point of all of this is that true Christian growth is not marked by complacency and comfortable satisfaction. It is certainly not fostered by encouraging an inflated self-esteem within the Christian. Rather, it is marked by an internal struggle within the Christian, who is never content this side of heaven, but longs for the day when the struggle with sin will be ended. That is to say, true Christians are not intent on becoming "better" thems, but "more faithful" thems; they are not concerned with living their best lives "now," but struggle through this life always with an eye on the "life of the world to come." True Christians realize that the earthly lives they live are nothing more than pilgrimages in the wilderness of this sinful world on their way to the Promised Land. Realizing this, true Christians love the habitation of their Lord's House, the place where His glory dwells. They return regularly to the Divine Service, where their Lord meets them to absolve their sins, fill them with His Word, and feed them with the Heavenly Manna of His true Body and Blood, that they may live in His forgiveness and be strengthened and preserved in the faith.
In sum, to "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Pet. 3:18) is not a matter of building your self-esteem, but a matter of increasing your reliance upon the Christ. Such reliance comes only through continuous self-examination and faithful reception of the means of grace (Holy Word and Sacraments), through which the Holy Spirit works to sustain and strengthen the faith of repentant sinners.