What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ? What is sanctification? What does growth in Christlikeness involve? What is the link between salvation and works? These questions occupy a great deal of my day-to-day thought life. Let me offer a few rambling thoughts and conclude with a parable/metaphor that came to me on my morning commute.
First, I am utterly convinced that salvation is a free gift of God. There is nothing that anyone can do to earn salvation nor even to improve their standing with God. Ephesians 2:8-9 reminds us: "for it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God." Christ's favor is unmerited. Whoever places their faith in Christ will be saved. Period.
But, unlike the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43), most of us are not immediately headed for glory upon our good confession. God leaves most of us here for some time. In light of that, we are wise to ask, what shall we do with time we are given? How shall we live? These questions place us squarely in the domain of discipleship.
To be a disciple means that we seek to learn from a teacher, in the case of Christianity, Jesus. Disciples try to shape their lives to be more like Christ wants them to be, which he demonstrated by his life and teachings. In other words, they seek to grow in Christlikeness. Although stated above, this point is important enough to be restated: these attempts to grow in Christlikeness do not merit favor with God. Those who have placed their faith in Christ are as approved as they will ever be, which is to say fully approved.
However, even though salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, it does not mean that works are inherently bad or evil. Dallas Willard has famously said, "grace is opposed to earning, not to effort." Indeed, the words of the apostle Paul routinely commend us to to strive for growth in holiness. Why should we do this? Not to earn God's favor, but because it is the best way to live.
Let's see if this story clarifies this thought.
Following up on their New Year's resolutions to get healthier, two men joined a gym. Taking advantage of New Year's offering, the first man signed up for the whole year, intent on becoming healthy and strong. The first few weeks, he showed up faithfully. Though he didn't really know what he was doing, he would run on the treadmill and do a few reps on the weight machines. After those first few weeks, life got in the way. His work was busy and after work, he just wanted to come home and crash in front of the TV for a few hours before going to bed.
Also wanting to be healthier, the second man signed up for the whole year. He had chosen his gym after doing quite a bit of research and weighing out the pros and cons. He knew that the gym he joined not only had a variety of exercise options, there were also staff and more experienced athletes who were able to help him to reach his goals. He knew that in order to be successful, he would need to prioritize his time at the gym. In the upcoming year, he developed strong habits. He consistently came to the gym several times a week. If he missed for any reason, he would get back at it, not shaming himself for missing, but keeping his goals in mind. He sought advice from a personal trainer who also helped him to stay motivated and reach his goals.
At the end of the year, the first man gained 15 pounds. He regularly complained of new aches and pains. He felt tired all the time. The second man lost 15 pounds. He felt healthier and better able to handle the daily stresses of life. In the Fall, he reached a long time goal of completing a 5K race. Others took notice of his improved health and he found himself instructing and encouraging others.
Both of these men remained gym members. They both had access to all of the rights and privileges of being a member of the gym. They could take advantage of any of the resources at any time.
But only one became a disciple.
Like most parables, the parallels to real life are imperfect and clumsy at times. Yet, they often make a larger point, in this case, the importance of being a disciple. Jesus was the only one to ever live his life perfectly. Dallas Willard argued that Jesus is the smartest, wisest man who ever lived. If we believe that, we believe that Jesus knows what constitutes the best life because he lived it. If then that is true, it would be unwise for us to merely give assent to his claims without also seeking to live a certain way, Jesus' way.
In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul encourages his readers to become Athletae Dei--athletes for God. Athletes, at least those who want to be successful, go into training. They begin to shape their lives to succeed at their sport. They know that progressive training will be essential to continued success. No one wakes up one Saturday morning and plans to win a marathon that day without training for it. No matter how hard they try, they won't succeed. Training is more essential than trying.
The same holds true for those of us who desire to grow in Christlikeness. We begin to train ourselves to be more and more like Jesus in our thought, word, and deed. We become his students. No one expects an overweight middle age guy to run a marathon, but knows that with training, he probably can. As our teacher, Jesus also knows that we are far from living perfectly, but he is eager to teach us his ways.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive an imperishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.-1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (ESV)