6 For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.
The other day, I was sitting in one of the beautiful parks around where I live in Bellingham WA, in the far northwestern part of Washington state. The trees are spectacular here. I thought that, given their size and the speed at which they grow, because of the perfect conditions, maybe if I watched closely I could actually observe a bit of growth happen. So I sat for all of 10 minutes or so, watching the very top of one particular tree. It was clear and windless, so I thought I had a good chance.
I have to confess, I didn’t see anything happen. The growth happens much too slowly to observe without time-lapse photography. I think that people change in the same way. Paul frankly says in Philippians 1:6 that the good work that God began in you when you came to believe is going to need perfecting all the way until the day of Christ! It is further complicated by the fact that he is addressing the whole community of believers in Philippi – the “you” is a plural “you”. That means, we will remain imperfect in some way until that day, and the perfection is a communal one. We see this same idea play out all over the scriptures:
Even those who are not “going on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth” (Hebrews 10:26) can be true children of God who require discipline (Hebrews 12:6-7). So there can be ongoing and perhaps habitual error in a person’s life which requires the outside intervention of God, without threatening their status as a true member of God’s family.
Even those washed, sanctified, and justified in Christ (1 Corinthians 6:9,10,11), for whom all things are lawful (1 Corinthians 6:12), need the warning to flee immorality (1 Corinthians 6:18). So being washed and sanctified and justified does not mean that one is immune – quite the contrary. We are urged to see the unprofitability of sexual immorality in particular. However, you can be a true son or daughter, genuinely justified, and still require the warning to flee.
What am I saying? I am saying that our transformation, our genuine repentance from the heart, our real fruit of the Spirit, may take time. During that time, people may make heinous and deeply shameful mistakes. People are tremendously flawed. It may take a lifetime for some people to shed their reliance on the law and on the threat of punishment to freely choose even the smallest virtue by the unction of the Spirit. Many people have lived so long under such erroneous beliefs and teaching about this that they haven’t even really started – all of their virtue is born of the threat of the law and not the freedom of the Spirit. They have always assumed that the appeal of the law to the flesh is the true spirituality. It may take time for people to come around to real belief, and it may take time for the resulting fruit to grow. So people may come to a church where the gospel is preached for years, before we see any transformation coming. They may spend months or years pretending to go along while secretly despising grace. Some (probably most if not all) people have such deeply ingrained patterns of sin engraved on their souls that only a miracle could grant them the slightest relief. The only environment in which such people can have the freedom to finally flourish in their time is the message of one-way love and radical grace. Make no mistake – the grace of God will, in His perfect time, have its intended effect upon us. However, this effect is not a demand, it is a gift. Some things may fall off of us quickly, and some things may remain for a lifetime. The grace of God persists over us forever and ever.
So, the message we proclaim is not a message which presses the need for transformation, even though transformation will come in its time. We all know we must change. We all know our personal and private indulgences. Atheists and muslims know that we must strive to be good – this is not the Christian distinctive. What persists more than our need to change is our daily assurance that God loves us and has died to justify us. We are very greatly loved in the midst of our failure, and that is our hope that He not only began a good work in us, but that He will persist again from love to complete it. Grace says that God is in it with us for the long haul. If we come on some particular day and we do not leave transformed or touched, that is nothing to Him. He is eternal and He has loved us with an eternal love. He sees the big picture for us. We can trust that it is not we who are at work on ourselves, but that He is at work to perfect what He started.
If we are to really transform, from the heart, in a lasting sustainable way that perceives profit in the virtue, we need to see the long-term picture in our community with one another. It is important to be clear about this: there is no genuine virtue which does not promote love and community. It is easy to expect perfection and to be shocked at one another’s sins. It is easy to break ties and to move on to another superficial community. It is easy to reject. The miracle comes when we persist together in believing in God’s one-way persistent stubborn love for each other. Persistent personal genuine community among individual sinning people is the only real virtue. Personal holiness is a myth – God is love and love implies relationship. Not to mention that no one is holy except God! We will in all likelihood find it impossible to see change in one another on a day-to-day or even a week-to-week basis. Genuine growth happens slowly, like trees, and not everyone is even a healthy tree in the first place. Things may take time, which means there will be many sins and many offenses. Church is the place where we can expect to be wronged, if things are going well. Only strong and often ridiculously scandalous grace is going to have the resilient affection which will see the work which God is doing in us flourish. The law demands immediate compliance, but grace presses for real virtue born of freedom and unction.
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
Great post Jim. Scripture cannot be descriptive and exhortative at the same time.
I didn’t expect you would watch a tree to see it grow but that’s exactly what we all do. Thank God He’s in it for the long haul. I remember I told Him I’m going all the way with You (in my ignorance before hearing the pure gospel) but I should have heard him say “no I’M going all the way with you.”