Do we play a part in our spiritual formation and growth?

A New Year dawns and with it a determined resolve to get our spiritual lives in shape. Echoes of 1 Timothy 4:7 come to mind, perhaps, when Paul told Timothy, “Train yourself to be godly.” Ah yes, we say to ourselves, it’s time to get rid of those embarrassing spiritual cobwebs and get back into spiritual training again, back to the spiritual disciplines of prayer and Bible study, turn over a new leaf, make a plan for spiritual improvement and get serious about our spiritual growth, etc, etc.

But is that what Paul’s talking about in 1 Timothy 4:7?

No, it isn’t. There are many Christians of late who say it is, however, who use that verse to prove that spiritual disciplines are necessary for all Christians as our part in our spiritual growth and formation. But the context says nothing of the sort. In context, Paul is not issuing a general command to all Christians to discipline themselves for spiritual formation, he’s specifically advising a young minister, Timothy, in how to conduct his ministry.

He’s talking to Timothy, mentor to student, advising Timothy to “be diligent” (15) in both his life and teaching to help protect the people in his care from being deceived. He’s encouraging Timothy to be a “good minister of Christ Jesus” (6) by sticking to the “truths of the faith” and the “good teaching” he’d received to combat “deceiving spirits” (1) that were influencing people into believing and teaching “godless myths and old wives’ tales” (7).

This is an older minister’s personal advice to a young minister facing some real challenges in his churches. “So, watch your life and doctrine closely,” Paul tells Timothy in verse 16, “persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” – “save” in context here meaning protect the Christians in his care from deception by demons. Paul knows what Timothy is up against, so he’s encouraging Timothy to keep his life well-grounded at all times in the truths he’d been taught, because that’s what Timothy had been gifted as a minister for, to inspire the church by his example (12), his teaching (13) and his progress (15).

Unfortunately, 1 Timothy 4:7 – just like 1 Corinthians 9:27 – has been used to create the idea that we play a part in our spiritual formation and growth, and that it’s necessary for us to discipline ourselves to make ourselves godly. But that is not what Paul is talking about in either of these verses, and if it was it would contradict what he wrote in Galatians 2:16, “that a man is not justified by observing the law” – or any other discipline – “but by faith in Jesus Christ.”

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It’s the journey that makes us grow

Jesus has us on a journey, just like Aslan the lion took the children on a journey in the land of Narnia, because it was the journey that grew them up. It wasn’t their efforts or their determination or “doing their part” that made them grow, it was simply what happened to them on the journey.

As we live in eternity with Christ right now, this is what happens to us too. It’s not our efforts that grow us up, it’s the journey. This is the stage where Jesus now saves us by his life. His death got the journey started for us, but “how much more shall we be saved through his life!” Romans 5:10. There’s a lot more to come, all of which brings us closer and closer to God, to the point we really begin to “rejoice” in him, verse 11.

That’s the journey Jesus now has us on, our very own “pilgrim’s progress.” His death began the journey but what follows grows us up. It’s like the children stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia. Their journey had just begun; it’s what followed that did wonderful things to them. It was tough at times, yes, but they grew, and every bit of what happened to them served some aspect of Aslan’s marvellous plan for them, that one day they would be kings and queens in his kingdom.

The children had no idea at the start that this was Aslan’s plan, or that the journey they were embarking on would perfectly prepare them for what Aslan had in mind. Nor do we. We have no idea what Jesus “saving us by his life” means, or any previous experience of it. Paul does give us a clue, though, that there will be “sufferings,” verse 3, so the journey will be tough at times, but it’s just as much a part of our salvation, because it grows us up in “perseverance, character and hope,” verse 4, all of which are perfect preparation for what Jesus has in mind for us. We can, therefore, “rejoice in our sufferings,” verse 3, knowing that they’re all part of the journey that’s taking us to the exact point Jesus has planned for us to be at.

And like Aslan, Jesus keeps us encouraged along the way, pouring his love into our hearts (verse 5) so that we never stop hoping and believing in him, that through all this mess we have to go through, there’s a marvellous purpose to it all. And what part do we play in all this? The same part the children played in Narnia. They lived life as it happened, because it was the journey that made them grow.

What is certain in this New Year?

As we enter a new year, there are two things Paul says we can count on: First of all, we can “count ourselves dead to sin” and secondly, that we’re “alive to God,” Romans 6:11, both of which have been done for us by Jesus – the first one by his death, and the second by his life.

We do not travel through the new year, then, in our old body of sin. Jesus nailed it to the cross and rendered it powerless. We are free of it once and for all (verse 7). The typical human evils Paul talked about in chapters 1 and 2 “no longer have mastery” over us, just like they had no mastery over Jesus (verses 9-10).  

But that’s not all we can count on. We can also count on the fact that Jesus rose from the dead to lift us into a completely new life that’s just like the life he lives. And what kind of life is that? Simply put, Jesus “lives to God,” verse 10. And so can we, verse 11, because we’re “alive to God” too. 

It’s at this point a Christian may well ask, “But what’s our part in all this?” – because Jesus seems to have done everything for us. “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (4:25), so what’s left for us to do? We’ve already been credited with righteousness (4:24), we’re already at peace with God (5:1), we’ve already been saved from God’s wrath and reconciled to him (5:9-11), and now we discover sin has no power over us either, so now what? What part do we play in all this?

Paul has an answer: “Therefore,” Romans 6:12, now that we know we’re dead to sin and alive to God, “do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.” It’s a nasty shock to discover that even though we’re walking in eternity with the living Christ, evil still exerts a strong influence on us in the here and now. It’s like the children in Narnia. They live in a wonderful new world, in which Aslan the great lion rules, but there’s also an evil witch in Narnia trying to thwart Aslan’s purpose, and the children still fall prey to their own desires and fears. It’s not a bed of roses for them; it’s a constant battle, but Aslan encourages them to keep pressing on, forget the mistakes and mishaps – count themselves dead to them – and be alive to him, because he is with them every step of the way and he will get them through.

And that’s just as certain for us too, all through this New Year.                 

Are New Year’s resolutions in Scripture?

Where do New Year’s resolutions fit in with Christianity? Is willpower a part of our Christian walk? Is strict self-discipline a part we play in our sanctification? If so, wouldn’t the New Year be a good time to get a grip on ourselves, resolve some niggling problems at last, and make a determined effort at spiritual growth?

And wasn’t that what Paul was recommending in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27? He compares himself in these verses to an athlete preparing for competition: “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training,” he writes in verse 25, and in verse 27, “I beat my body and make it my slave.” That sounds like a regime of strict self-discipline and bashing oneself into shape by willpower and resolve – like a New Year’s resolution, no less. And many Christians have interpreted these verses to mean exactly that too – that we must do our part in our spiritual formation by disciplining ourselves in various spiritual exercises, like prayer, meditation and Bible study.

But is that what Paul meant?

No, it wasn’t, as the context clearly shows. Paul’s talking about the job he’s been given of preaching the gospel, not describing life as a Christian. “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel,” he writes in verse 16. And talking of bringing his body into slavery, it’s in the context of verse 19: “I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible,” and in verse 22, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”

The context is clear, verse 23: “I do all this for the sake of the gospel.” And if we finish off verse 27, it says, “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” And what prize is he talking about? Verse 18, “What then is my reward? Just this; that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge.”

That was the prize he was “beating his body into submission” for. It was to get the gospel out effectively to win as many people as possible, without ever having to charge for it. He wasn’t talking about daily life as a Christian, nor was he even hinting at something like a New Year’s resolution as our part in our spiritual growth. Nor was he talking about strict self-discipline, or character-building exercises, or focusing on the strength of our own will to create changes in our lives. “The life I live in the body,” Paul wrote, “I live by faith in the Son of God,” not by human willpower, Galatians 2:20.