Are you making progress?

Are you making progress?
Vladimer Shioshvili, Flickr

What does the perfect Christian life look like? When asked the question by a friend, Gregory of Nyssa said it looked like perpetual progress toward God, a thought stemming from Christ’s statement that Christians are to be perfect like God is perfect.

This is tricky business. Perfection is easy if we’re talking about the length of a yard or the number ten, things that have attainable, comprehensible limits. But what if there is no spatial or conceptual boundary? Exactly how long is virtue, anyway? How heavy is goodness?

The problem is that there’s no limit to God’s perfection. Pursuing it is an unending proposition for fallible, finite creatures such as us. But we should lean into the labor nonetheless. After all, said Gregory,

even if men of understanding were not able to attain to everything, by attaining even a part they could yet gain a great deal. . . . [L]et us make progress within the realm of what we seek. For the perfection of human nature consists perhaps in its very growth in goodness (The Life of Moses 1.9-10).

Gregory looked to Paul for his inspiration, “that divine Apostle” who “ever running the course of virtue, never ceased straining toward those things that are still to come” (1.5). Indeed Paul writes about having not yet “attained,” having not yet been “perfected.”

Not that the deficit gets him down or slows him up:

[B]ut I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

The trick, said Gregory, is not stopping. When we stop pressing, stop progressing, that’s when we get into trouble. “Just as the end of life is the beginning of death, so also stopping in the race of virtue marks the beginning of the race of evil,” he said (1.6).

Maximus the Confessor warned about the same thing. He spoke about “travel[ing] in a holy way of life the road of virtues, a road that in no way admits of any stalling on the part of those who walk in it.” According to Maximus, “the immobility of virtue is the beginning of vice” (Ad Thalassium 17). If you’re not moving forward, in other words, you’re sliding back.

Yes, we rest is in Christ’s work and distrust the merits of own efforts. But Christ enables us to pursue him, chase down holiness, run after all that he offers, perpetually progress toward perfection.

It’s not that we do not already have the grace of God. That’s the wrong picture. It’s that there’s more, always more, eternally more grace. We cannot exhaust the flow; we can only push further into its endless streams.

Take stock: At the end of the week, how are you progressing?

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  • ~Kim

    And what if after I take stock in my week and find that I have NOT progressed much? Let’s say I actually had a really BAD week…I was impatient with my children, quick to be angry with my spouse, pretty selfish with my time in general…what then is my motivation to ‘do better’?

    For every one time I look at my sin, TEN times I look at the cross. I can cheer up, because I am worse than I think! Knowing that is exactly why Jesus came…to live the perfect life I couldn’t. And He loved me so much He died for my lack of progress. THIS gives me motivation to want to fight the fight of faith…He living in me, my union with Him, causes me to fight for patience, gentleness, kindness, meekness…

    Only will I progress in my faith when my eyes are fixed on the cross and what HE has done for ME. If it’s the other way around…I will always come up disappointed and discouraged. And we are all wired for works…to think we somehow can muster up enough to progress and get better. That is why it is so important that we are always going back to the Gospel and finding our perseverance in that.

    As Martin Luther once said,
    “To progress is always to begin again.”

    I am a Christian who often slides back. My progress is very slow. I struggle with sin and guilt. But I am exactly who Jesus came for. Praise God for that! And even in my very ‘good’ weeks, when I see I have progressed…I am still in need of His Grace. I am THAT bad…but He is THAT good.


    • Thanks for your comment, Kim.

      I often think of Martin Luther’s first thesis: “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

      Repentance is progress and is essential to it. God’s grace enables us to, as you say, begin again.

      That’s what Paul, who, as he said, preached nothing but Christ and him crucified, is getting at in Philippians 3. Despite not having yet arrived (like all of us), “I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.”

      Christ laid hold of our salvation, and we lay hold of it too. That’s “press[ing] toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

      We often fail, but God is faithful. And he constantly calls us to get up and get going again.

      • ~Kim

        “Christ laid hold of our salvation, and we lay hold of it too.” …Could you explain that a little further? Specifically, how WE lay hold of our salvation?

        Thank you!


        • It’s sanctification. It’s how we appropriate the work of the cross in daily life, growing in the image and likeness of Christ.

          It’s another way of saying, as Paul does one chapter earlier, “[W]ork out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).

          He’s not saying that we earn our salvation, but he’s clearly saying in both Philippians 2 and 3 that we actively participate in what God is doing in our lives.

  • Since we know that GOD sees our ‘innermost’ self, and that our worship of HIM has to be based on the Spiritual, doesn’t it follow that the fact that we strive and want and need to grow in HIM blesses HIM as much as any outward [objective] milestones reached? Just a thought, and my wife says that sometimes two things are true about my ‘thoughts.’ First, I have too many of them, and second, that they are altogether too random. Be Blessed in HIM! k2montana

    • The milestones aren’t so important as the goal — being conformed to likeness of Christ. That’s the journey and the destination.

  • Matthew 5:48

    Amplified Bible (AMP)

    48You, therefore, must be perfect [growing into complete [a]maturity of godliness in mind and character, [b]having reached the proper height of virtue and integrity], as your heavenly Father is perfect.

    our godliness in mind and character doesn’t happen by focusing on the ungodliness. we are ‘transformed by the renewing of our mind’. our ‘doing’ comes out of ‘being’ – who we are in relationship with Trinity. and God is not focused on our sin. sin has been dealt with. forgetting those things that lie behind us, is how we’re to live – forward focused. we are being cheered on by Father, Son, H Sp. their <3 is FOR us. and cheered on by those who have gone on before us. it's a life of encouragement – goodness + mercy that follow us every day of our lives – mercy + compassion that greet us each new day…

    not living performance oriented. not 'striving'! having entered God's rest. that place of 'ahhh' relaxed in the arms of The One who LOVES you, Who holds you, Who actually 'carries' you – from your birth God has carried you & will be carrying you when your hair is white with age! so we're told by the prophet Isaiah. gorgeous lifegiving picture. picture that inspires and inspirits us to live in that intimacy of relationship. loved. valued. cared for. by The One Who is 'completing' that which He alone has begun and can alone bring to completion… His work. H Sp's fruit, not our own.

    • I don’t think it’s a question of focusing on ungodliness, but God clearly gives us a choice between the path of life and the path of death (see the blessings-and-curses portion at the close of Deuteronomy). We are, as Joshua said, to choose this day who we will serve. Service assumes labor, effort, striving, which is what Paul talks about in the passages mentioned above. We don’t coast through the Christian life on the breeze of the Spirit. We walk and we run.

  • ~Kim

    Thank you for your response. You may have recently been aware of the blogging discussion between Pastor Kevin DeYoung and Pastor Tullian Tchividjian on this very subject. My own Pastor, R.W. Glenn, gave some insightful thoughts on their debate that I bet you would find very interesting as well…


    • Thanks for that, Kim. I saw that Doug Wilson blogged recently about the DeYoung-Tchividjian debate. He basically said they’re both right. I don’t really have a dog in the fight, but in spirit I think I lean more DeYoung’s direction. Thanks for participating in the conversation.