Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed--not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence--continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
I have been reading a couple of books about developing leaders in the church. To be frank, they have been a little discouraging. I want to give the authors the benefit of the doubt, and I know that, when writing on a particular subject, it is common to make things very black and white, but I get the distinct impression that if a person has not attained a certain level of perfection, they are not qualified to lead. As a pastor, these books have been discouraging, because I feel that I have failed to produce the kind of leaders that are expected.
In a good way, these books have held up a mirror for me to look at my own life. Everyone who strives to be serious about their faith in Jesus Christ will struggle with the unfinished nature of their faith. The Apostle Paul relates this struggle with what theologians call “the already but not yet.” We are saved when we put our faith in Christ, but we are in the process of being saved, which is our future hope. To put it another way; we are living by grace and striving for perfection.
We all live in the dynamic tension between the ideal and the real. The ideal is to be totally conformed to the image of Christ. Peter sets out this goal in 1 Peter 1:13-16. Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: "Be holy, because I am holy." Jesus himself seems to set a pretty high bar for us to attain. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48) The goal for all of us is genuine holiness and spiritual perfection.
The reality is that we all fall far short of this goal. The danger for us is that we begin to believe that we must attain perfection by our own efforts. Our faith can become works based, yet we know that it is not. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9) The good news is that we are living under God’s grace. Like infants and children who need to grow and learn, so we need to learn and grow in our faith. Grace is never an excuse for not striving toward the goal. Rather grace gives us the chance to mature in our faith. Grace encourages us to do our best. Grace picks us up when we stumble and fall. Grace alerts us when we get off track. Grace encourages us when we get discouraged with our progress.
Paul puts this dynamic tension into perspective for us in Philippians 3:7-16.
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.
We live in the dynamic tension of the already but not yet. Through putting our faith in Christ, we are already made perfect in God’s eyes. Yet, we are looking forward to the day when we will stand perfect in His presence. In between, we work out the practical application of our faith under God’s grace. We should never take our eyes off of the goal of becoming like Christ in every way, but we should also not become discouraged in the process. Like a master teacher, the Holy Spirit is at work within us guiding us along the way; moving us step by step closer to the goal.
…being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.