I remember asking for hymn number 18 every time we had a “hymn sing” on a Sunday evening in my home church. Even in those days when I did not follow Christ I was drawn to the words of “Higher Ground.” I wanted to press “on the upward way” and be able to say “new heights I am gaining every day.” I loved the optimistic realism of the song in the face of “Satan’s darts.” Now that I am surrendered to following Christ, the song means all the more. This week, we will explore what growth in grace is, what that teaches us about God, and how we can preach in a way that matches God’s character.
Charles Finney in his great sermon on growth in grace rejects some things that growth in grace is not. First, he says that growth in grace is not a work. We grow by faith just as we are saved by faith. Second, growth in grace is not the gradual repentance from known sin. In Finney’s words, ” we are nowhere in the Bible commanded to give up sin gradually, we are everywhere commanded to give it up instantly and wholly.” Known sin is already surrendered even if not completely defeated.
Growth in grace, Finney tells us, is growth in the favor of God. God’s grace is not a thing that we grab more and more of in order to “hoard” the bling of Christian growth. Instead, grace is a relational term. When we grow in grace it is because we have strengthened our relationship with Christ by welcoming the Spirit’s work more regularly and relating to Christ more authentically. That’s really it.
When we relate to God, God’s love transforms us. By faith, we learn to trust the nudges, convictions, and affirmations of the Holy Spirit working in us. The more we relate to God the more we grow in grace necessarily. The more we hide from God, as if this were possible, or withhold from God, as if this were wise, the less we can grow in grace. Growth in grace is a faith-work, like sitting in a chair. We trust the chair to hold us, so we relax our muscles and rest against the chair. It’s a passive action, a trust-choice, and become the opposites of “works” even though it is a decision and an action.
When we rest, abide, settle into the grace of God we participate more and more in what God is, knowing better who God is. We are not God, yet we share in some part of the divine nature: love. The key then, as always in spiritual growth, is a relaxing of our anxiety that leads to spiritual control: a surrender. We surrender our body to the “chair”, and sit in, abide in, the supporting grace of God. The longer we live “there” and the more consistently, the more we grow in grace. Why? Because the longer you spend with anyone, the more like them you become. So the promise of Immanuel “God with us” is also the means of our being like God: participating in “God with us.” And that is God’s highest desire. That is the “joy set before him.”
What does this teach us about God?
- God’s view of spiritual growth is relational, not performative.
- God’s means of spiritual growth is an increase in relationship
- God’s aim is a change of heart that further increases relationship
Think of it this way:
Relational change with God —> better sense of God’s nature through experience —-> greater desire for relationship —> Relational change with God
What can this mean for how we preach not just what we preach?
1. Don’t confuse communicating knowledge with growing people.
The primary means of spiritual growth is not preaching, it is relationship. This is true even for preaching itself. A preacher who remains aloof only in the introverted study until emerging Sunday morning to deliver a well-polished sermon, knowledgable sermon devoid of rich relationships misunderstands preaching. Preaching is a relational affair. The ground of spiritual growth through preaching is relationships prior to preaching. We cannot relate to everyone, but relationships with the few will lend a real-world flavor, and an authentic trustworthiness to our messages even for those who do not yet know us. Humility leads to empathy, empathy accrues wisdom, and wisdom is easily distinguished from a know-it-all in the pulpit. So even preaching itself requires relationship.
Also, life change primarily happens over long haul exposure to lovingly holy relationships. Preaching can move us toward relationships, convict us of sinful obstacles to loving relationships, help deliver us from unhealthy relationships, or inspire us to be a better relational presence in others lives. Yet all these things are just arrows pointing to the real thing: loving, worshipful community. Knowledge about relationship with God and relationships with others is not the same thing as knowledge of God and of loving relationships through experience. Consider any sermon unfinished that does not somehow end in transforming relationships.
2. Preach relationship more than performance.
The pattern of our “applications” or “implications” even our “illustrations” must match the character of God and God’s way of working with us. Think about your sermon illustrations and applications lately. Are they more about doing or relating? Are they about doing something more often or about relating to someone more continually? Is even the doing consistently in service of relating? Or has performance become the ends and relationship the means? When performance becomes the end and relationship the means, legalism is just around the corner. Relationship focus transforms, performance focus conforms. We do not seek conformed people, we seek transformed people…in the likeness of God.
Here is an example of the subtle shift. Do not read scripture so that your performance can change. Do not read scripture in order to be a better person. Instead, read scripture to find Christ, relate to Christ, and to know Christ. Do not even read scripture to know things about Christ except insofar as they help you actually relate to the living Christ. The shift may seem subtle, but it is the difference between works righteousness and performance based Christianity and growth in grace. Further, we need to help draw the connections between the change in our relationship with Christ and the change in our relationships with people. Again, this should not be a “should” or an “ought to” that is not empowered by a “can” and a “want to” because of Christ. It is not just that we “should” related differently in order to have integrity. It’s that we now can relate differently to people, because we are related differently to Christ.
3. Preach Christ, not about Christ
It is all too easy to slip down the heights of righteousness which we once climbed and tell others about what it was once like to be up there with God. The goal though, is not simply to describe a path toward God, explain a relationship with God, or challenge people to do what they need to do. All these things happen in preaching but they are all means, not ends. They are all secondary not primary. In the end, in every sermon we want to preach Christ and him crucified, and not even preach about Christ and about Christ crucified. For our people to grow in grace through the preaching moment we need a relational encounter with a resurrected God. It seems to me that the primary way to ensure others encounter Christ in the preaching moment is for the preacher to seek Christ in the preaching moment. This does not mean only seeking relational connection with Christ during preaching preparation. That’s crucial to be sure. Even in the preaching moment, to seek the unexpected face of Christ and to welcome him even while preaching when he comes is powerful for everyone, preacher included.