Chapter 8: Growth in Grace: The Final Assurance
Christian hope, we have been saying, is grounded in the structure of life. We believe we see within that structure the loving work of God. Christian hope for human society is based on the fact of God’s creative and redemptive working which is woven through the whole fabric of life. One manifestation of that work is a coercive and persuasive thrust toward a human society of justice and equality. While we reject the romantic doctrine that this society gradually emerges in purity, we do believe that God wins His victories in spite of the persistent evil.
This sober hopefulness depends upon the belief that it is possible in some degree for men to love their neighbors as themselves. We must examine this belief. Is this true? Or have we been describing life as it ought to be but not as it is? Reinhold Niebuhr suggests the formula that the Christian life means a break with sin in principle but not in fact.1 Is that where we must come out?
Part of the controversy over the possibility of love derives from misunderstandings of what the problem is. Some clarification is in order.
A first confusion arises if we try to prove the possibility of man’s loving his neighbor simply by pointing to noble, sacrificial, and kindly behavior. Of course there is such behavior. But the question is, What does it mean? The facts are clear. Human beings are capable of self-sacrifice. Parents gladly give their lives for their children. Men will die for their nation, and they will risk life even for someone unknown to them. The bonds of degrading habits can be broken. Alcoholics Anonymous proves this every day. Men can be converted, and can experience a new spirit which shatters old ways and releases them to live with decency and kindness. Let us add quickly that all these facts reveal something of the goodness of God and the potential goodness of man. But none of these facts answers the question which Christian faith must answer. Can a man give his life to the one real good, to the community of all things under God? Only the will to that good is the meaning of Christian love. Even the sacrifice of life for a stranger in peril may be no more than a natural response to danger or an expression of comradely feeling. Heroism both physical and moral may spring from motives quite different from the love we see in Christ.
The natural question comes: "What difference does it make what may be the source of moral qualities provided men actually achieve them?" But it makes all the difference. It makes the radical difference as to what we can hope for from human beings. Notice, if human goodness is prompted by something less than the full demand of the universal community of good, then no matter how courageous and high-minded it may be, Somewhere this limitation will be revealed. And that place will be just in the case where love is most needed, that is, where man must transcend his emotional attachments and instinctive responses to rise to a new level of service to the universal good. The ultimate imperative of the Gospel is, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness." Kierkegaard echoes the Gospel in saying, "Purity of heart is to will one thing."2 Can man really submit even his high ideals and noble virtues to be transformed by the demands of the one final good, the Great Society of all? If so we can hope that something of that society can really grow on earth. If not, we shall still discover many great goods in human experience. But they will all finally be exposed as falling short of the actual needs of the common life. The good which could make life whole will not be ours.
The doctrine that pagan virtues are but splendid vices is relevant here, though this ancient saying is an unfortunate statement of a partial truth. There is no reason to deny that human virtues are genuine goods in God’s sight as well as man’s. The religious question is whether man’s virtues lead him to will to serve God first and whether they support that will. Human experience gives abundant evidence that unless virtues are finally transmuted by the spirit of love they may become deadly in the service of ruthless and ignoble desires. Even kindness can make a man fail to meet the real demands of God in a given situation where something rigorous and unyielding is called for. Jacques Barzun remarks that "most of the heartburnings in the academic world come from somebody’s yielding to the temptation to be kind at the wrong time." 3
Christian love does not mean we will a good in which the self has no part. That error we have tried to refute in Chapter Three. Negation of self is a Buddhist, not a Christian, idea. But the high demand of God is to will one’s own good only as it can serve and share in the good of all. To love ourselves for God’s sake is the highest form of love as Bernard said.4 It is the possibility of that love we are seeking.
A second confusion which attends the discussion of the possibility of love is related to the problem of perfectionism. Jesus said, "You must be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect." 5 The word (Greek) which is usually translated "perfect" occurs fairly frequently in Paul’s letters.6 The problem of the various forms of perfectionism in Christianity has been thoroughly analyzed in such works as Dr. Sangster’s Path to Perfection, a study of John Wesley, and R. Newton Flews’ The Idea of Perfection in Christian Theology.7 The meaning of this doctrine of perfection is one problem for Christian faith. But the point to be made here is that the question of whether love is in any sense possible for man is separable from that of whether in this life he can ever perfectly love God and his neighbor. I am, for example, never quite certain whether Niebuhr means by a "break with sin in fact" a complete break. If the question is whether perfect love is possible I should certainly side with Niebuhr. But we may find it possible to assert that the beginning and maturing of the life of love is a fact. Let the possibility of perfection take its proper place as an ideal which lies always beyond existence. Or let it be the momentary glimpse of perfect love which transcends our ordinary state of being, which perhaps is what it really meant to John Wesley. But let us not insist upon the achievement of perfection in the Christian life any more than we insist upon it in the works of our hands or our minds.
With two possible sources of confusion removed we can state our thesis: It is possible for human beings, in response to the power and goodness of God, to begin to will His Kingdom above all other things and to grow toward a more mature expression of that will. In our first chapter we said that the new life is made possible through an encounter with the redemptive love of God. It involves a release from the old self and the putting on of a new. The power which works this transformation is released in the frustrated life through the discovery that the love which God demands is a love which shares our human lot and offers reconciliation. Norman Pittenger has said that what Christianity has to offer is life in God, life in charity, and life in union.8 If that is no real offer then we have no Gospel.
Evidence is called for to support this claim. But what kind of evidence will be sufficient? We can multiply testimonies from Christian experience. We can describe Christian lives as we know them, but all of this leaves us unsatisfied. We need to probe more deeply into the kind of problem here presented for Christian thought for nothing less than the good news of Christianity is at stake.
There are three reasons why it is difficult to support any interpretation of the Christian life.
First, there is the problem presented by the kind of reality we are inquiring about, namely, human motives and the human will. Man is more than a bundle of reflexes and emotional patterns which can be studied objectively. Man is spirit. He is a free creative participant in the process of becoming. Spirit is our name for personality in action, encountering and creatively responding to the demands of life. It is man as spirit that expresses love in all the high senses of that word. It is the human will in its inward structure and intent that is the real man as Christianity sees him. The question about love is a question about spirit, motives, and personal intention.
Now, we ask, what kind of experience can enable us to pass judgment on the spirit? The answer is that all human experience is evidence. But does any experience give conclusive evidence that our interpretation is valid? In judging others we are always reduced to mediated evidence. We certainly cannot enter into another person’s soul, at least never sufficiently enough to judge without question what is there.
It might appear that there is one whose spirit we can judge, that is ourself. But is a man ever really known to himself? We do not know ourselves apart from interpretation of our motives. We get the principles which we use in self-interpretation from something beyond our own experience, the categories and concepts of the group. There is a sense in which we are always seeing ourselves as others see us. Dr. E. E. Aubrey has made this point clearly in his book, Man’s Search for Himself. 9 A vivid illustration of the problem here raised for all moral judgments is given in the experience of a lecturer who asserted to a group of Southern people that no one could practice discrimination against another race and be a Christian. To this one person replied: Suppose that your family, your school, all the groups to which you belonged and whose members you respected, practiced and justified discrimination so that you never had a chance to raise with yourself a question about it, were you then not a Christian? The lecturer was forced to make an application of the doctrine of invincible ignorance! Any claim on our thought or behavior which we have never had an opportunity to recognize cannot be held against us as free and moral beings.
Unless then we can find some kind of "intuitive" knowledge of motives which cannot be questioned, we would seem to be forever at the mercy of the historical relativities of the concepts by which groups live. One who is born, for example, into a Christian group which teaches the doctrine of perfection may be expected to interpret a decisive religious experience as the granting of perfect love by the Holy Spirit.
The fact that we misjudge our own motives is the primary difficulty of the "intuitionist" solution of the problem. Once we allow that intuitions can be faulty, we have to provide for some method and standard by which they are corrected. This takes us beyond a purely intuitional theory of knowledge. Rarely if ever does our judgment of our intentions become mature in the moment of action. It is in retrospect with the advantage of some detachment, and with the opportunity of bringing into our judgment the wider range of our knowledge that we begin to know ourselves. We often revise our estimate of the motives and interests which actually have dominated us. What we thought was profound religious stirring we may judge to have had a large mixture of adolescent romanticism. Our "devotion to the Kingdom of God" may have concealed an inward yearning for approval and power. There is clinical evidence here. The psychologist Rollo May tells of an idealistic college student who went to the Near East as a missionary only to break down when he discovered he really did not possess the spirit he was teaching. "The boys saw through our shell. The idea had got around that when we teachers talked about love, it was not Christian love for the natives at all, but love for our own ideal of love."10
Ours has been an age of unmasking. We have indulged in what has become almost an orgy of self-disclosure and self-abasement. The names of Freud and Marx stand for some of the profounder discoveries about the hidden springs of conduct. Much modern literature, poetry, and painting has joined the chorus. It is difficult to sift the sense from the nonsense, but surely this whole exercise in self-analysis has yielded solid truth. We need, for example, to recognize how deeply our spiritual lives are influenced by the conditions inherent in the particular economic and social structure in which we are placed. Most people have little or no conception of how their emotional patterns and profoundest religious experiences are conditioned by the values, experiences, and frustrations which their particular role in the social order involves. To face these facts, and to be willing to follow through to the end whatever may contribute to our self-knowledge is itself an act of love, for love casts out the fear of knowing the truth about ourselves.
We now seem to be saying that we can get knowledge of our real intentions. It would be nonsense to say that we misjudge our motives unless there is some way in which misjudgments are corrected.
The solution has already been hinted at. It consists in a synthesis of intuition and critical reflection. We have to take our interpretations of human behavior as hypotheses and test them against an ever wider range of experience. That testing includes a continuing attention to whatever the special sciences tell us about the conditions and the character of human motivations. But we cannot get the truth about man simply by adding up what the sciences say. We have to gather the data of experience to achieve a coherent interpretation which includes as clear an analysis as we can make of our presuppositions about the nature of things.
Such data as we have are often like this testimony out of the concentration camps. Mine. Olga Lengyel writes:
Yet I saw many internees cling to their human dignity to the very end. The Nazis could debase them physically but they could not degrade them morally. Because of them I have not entirely lost my faith in mankind. If even in the hell of Birkenau there were those who were not necessarily inhuman to their fellow men, then there is still hope. It is that hope which keeps me alive.11
The facts upon which we comfortably reflect are indeed often gathered at great cost.
The work of elaborating a world view in which all our particular ideas will have their place is essential to any judgment on the nature of man. On its technical side this is the task of philosophy and theology. These disciplines can achieve a view of things which makes sense. But we cannot claim for them as much objectivity as the sciences have.12 Psychology itself shares many of those difficulties with philosophy and theology. Professor Allport says: "Even the psychologist who honestly desires not to underestimate the complexities of personality finds himself limited by the crudity of the tools within his professional store."13 Even with the best tools, we will always be confronted by the fact that the interpretation of human motives involves ultimate theories of the nature of things which can be tested only as they progressively illuminate more and more of the human scene. Alternative world views will always be possible. It is the fate of man to be able to know himself adequately only as he comes to know God.
One further remark about the understanding of personality which has been made possible by modern science should be made. The disclosure that the particular interests of men, whether biological, psychological, or economic, do influence not only their behavior but their self-interpretation, does not disprove the claim that love as will to the universal good is possible. We do not have to show that some pure and detached spirit of love operates in man apart from his natural interests and desires. We do not have to show that love exists completely uncorrupted by those interests. We only hold that the whole man can act with freedom, and that his act can be qualified by his will to serve the good of all things.
Any judgment on human nature runs into the problem of human differences. There are varieties of Christian experience. We have to take into account the whole company of saints and wicked, the once-born and the twice-born, the strong of spirit and the weak, the kindly and the ruthless, those who have saved their souls by withdrawal from the world, and those who have assumed the moral risks of ecclesiastical office and public trust. Each adds something to our experience of the way of love, both in its possibility and its elusiveness. Professor Whitehead’s reminder that "the intolerant use of abstractions is the major vice of the intellect" is timely for the theology of the Christian life.14 The imposition on experience of particular patterns which define for everyone what it should be like for him to be a Christian has been a major vice not only of theology but of the Church’s approach to Christian nurture.
We are not looking, then, for an indisputable judgment on what may be possible in the response of the spirit to God’s demand. We are looking for a sober and responsible position which squares with as full an understanding as we can get of what the history of the Christian people reveals. The position now to be set forth is this: While it seems quite clear that perfect love is never possessed by man, the beginning of a response in love to the grace of God is possible and growth in grace as a maturing in that life is possible. In our formulation of the Christian life we have to do justice both to the grace and to the growth, for whatever progress in the life of love is possible, it is always progress within the structure of man’s relationship to the creative and redemptive working of God. Growth never takes us beyond the need of grace in any of its aspects. But there can be real progress in the Christian life.
To break any living thing into parts, whether it be a flower or the pilgrimage of the human spirit, is to risk destroying its vital unity. Yet we must analyze, and too simple formulas for the Christian life are to be distrusted. The five principles here set forth are attempts to do justice to five aspects of the Christian life conceived as growth in response to the grace of God. These distinctions do not represent separate moments of experience. They are aspects of a total life the mystery of which lies beyond our powers of analysis. If we take any one of them in isolation from the others we fall into error.
The emphasis upon "growth" connects the New Testament conception of growth in grace with the metaphysical doctrine that the most concrete reality we know is process. Applied to the description of the Christian life, this means that our standpoint is directly opposed to that neo-orthodox doctrine which stresses the discontinuity of Christian faith with the rest of experience in such a way that it is asserted, for example, by Dr. Daniel T. Jenkins that there is "no kind of continuity between the ‘old man’ and the ‘new man in Christ.’ "15 Our analysis presupposes that there is always continuity in human experience between any of its moments and all of its moments. The Christian life is a process in which the continuum of conditions and consequences is not escaped. Within this process God does effect a revolutionary transformation.
1. Growth in grace has a beginning. The beginning of the new life of the Christian is the birth of faith in the whole man. Faith is born out of the encounter of man with the fact of God. It is the breaking of the shell of self-centeredness and the free commitment of the self to the power and the goodness of God. Faith is more than belief though it involves belief. Faith is more than an act of will, though it involves a decision of will. Faith is response. It is the whole-souled giving of life into the keeping of God who is the absolutely trustworthy source and redeemer of life.16
Two points have given rise to endless controversy over the nature of faith. The first has to do with the relative significance of God’s power and man’s freedom in the new beginning. The second has to do with the psychological process involved, particularly the significance of emotional manifestations which may accompany conversion.
With respect to the first, there are always difficulties if we try to separate, even in thought, God’s bestowal of the new life from our reception of it. It is right to emphasize that faith itself is given to us as a gift. We cannot create it by an act of will any more than we can create God’s mercy for us, and bring it to ourselves by human effort. Yet God cannot bestow faith which we in our freedom will not receive. There is a double movement in faith -- God toward us and we toward God. God is the initiator of all saving activity. Here it appears to me the Calvinist insistence on "predestination" is so far correct. But we need not make an artificial separation between justification by faith as the receiving of the gift of forgiveness, and regeneration as the actual beginning of the new life. There is no such separation, as Calvin himself takes great pains to make clear. If there is no element of our own freedom in our giving of ourselves to God, then the Christian life depends on a mechanical action. If we deny human freedom we make the humanist protest against religion inevitable and so far valid.
On the question of the actual psychological processes involved in the birth of faith, and particularly on the question of whether faith is given once for all, we must exercise caution. On the psychological side there is so much we do not know about religious experience. What we have said about the varieties of experience applies here. Some find faith in a dramatic experience for which they can give date and place. Some find it as an imperceptible growth, its beginning known, if at all, only in retrospect. As we shall see in a later point, we have no basis for saying that faith is always possessed once for all. Men do lose their faith. Some find it again. We can know we are telling the truth when we say this, though we should always be uncertain about judgment on any particular case. There is something in the whole person which no analysis will ever reveal.
The precise difficulty in stating the marks of true faith is illustrated by the struggle of Jonathan Edwards with this problem. For Edwards it was a pressing question. In the Great Awakening, he saw all about him -- much of it produced through his own preaching -- the violent psychological disturbances connected with religion. How is one to tell what is really an authentic sign of faith and what is not? Edwards’ analysis is keen and uncompromising. He discusses many suggestions as to how the difference can be told, and rejects even the most plausible ones. For example, "It is no certain sign that the religious affections which persons have are such as have in them the nature of true religion, or that they have not, that they dispose persons to spend much time in religion, and to be zealously engaged in the external duties of worship."17 Again. "It is no sign that affections are right or that they are wrong, that they make persons that have them exceedingly confident that what they experience is divine, and that they are in a good estate."18 And Edwards avoids the error of putting faith in good works. "It is no evidence that religious affections are saving or that they are otherwise that there is an appearance of love in them."19
Edwards must be able to say what the distinguishing signs of faith are else he could not make these statements; but he acknowledges that he does not believe it is in God’s plan to give us rules whereby "we may certainly know who of our fellow professors are his." This is God’s prerogative.20 Edwards’ answer is that divine things are discerned by the spirit, hence this judgment itself is a judgment of faith. He does introduce "Christ-like ways of life," and "perseverance in the duties of the Christian." These are the best signs we have.
Edwards’ treatment is a masterly blend of psychological insight and the cautious reserve appropriate in the Christian sense of the mystery of grace. But the assurance that there is a life in faith is maintained.
2. The second principle is that the life of faith is actualized in the process of life. There begins a new way of living. That the reality of this new way was an integral part of the message of Jesus is superbly put by Karl Holl in his comment on the distinctive Christian notion that "God stands particularly close to the sinner."21 Holl points out the relation of this doctrine to Jesus’ teaching:
It is all the more astonishing that on the basis of such a conception of God, which seemed to dissolve all morality, Jesus nevertheless built up an ethic, and the most exacting ethic conceivable at that. . . . The meaning is clear: pardoning grace overcomes, because at the same time it encourages and humbles. It creates an inner affection, a feeling of gratitude which must find expression, and for which the highest is not too much to do. . . . From this follows the most splendid feature of the ethic of Jesus, namely, the naturalness, the spontaneous character of the action, which he supposes even in things most difficult and self-denying. . . . God takes the initiative: with His forgiveness He creates something quite new, out of which arises at once a real, close, and warm relationship to God, and with it at the same time a morality which ventures to take even God Himself as its model.22
The new life includes (1) a new interpretation of the meaning of life, (2) a new devotion in the service of God, and (3) a new participation in the working of God. These are all recognizable processes. All involve growth in the depth, the wisdom, and the completeness of the life of faith.
Growth in grace involves growth in the new structure of meaning through which faith interprets life. The possession of a new meaning in itself yields power to alter life. We are interpreters. We live in the world which is in large part shaped for us by the system of cultural symbols and concepts which we inherit. Our very minds and spirits are interwoven with the structure of symbols and meanings by which we interpret the world. The significance of Dr. Hocking’s remark, "What the man sees becomes the working part of the man," has been abundantly confirmed in the psychological clinic.23 The process of healing the disordered personality involves the reinterpretation of the past and the achievement of a new interpretation of the meaning of existence. The Christian revelation has always been apprehended as the Word of God, not merely a word about life, but the entry into human history of a new meaning which has become operative in shaping the course of history.
This aspect of the new meaning in the life of faith helps us to see more deeply into the question of whether faith can ever be lost once it has become real in life. This much is true: when I have once seen my life in relation to God all further experience must be so interpreted as to include that fact. Whatever the loss of faith may mean it can never be a return simply to what life was before faith possessed it. Its meaning now is "life which has lost faith." This gives a new dimension to the bitter experience. There is a sense then in which once the life in grace has begun it can never fall completely out of its apprehension of that grace, even when we rebel against God. We have stood once within the circle of God’s love. We can never move far enough to leave it entirely.
Interpretation exists within the life of devotion, for the new meaning is simply life given in service. It is the life of work in response to our vocation. Energy, intelligence, and will are enlisted in doing what needs to be done. This too is process. This working must be renewed day by day; the new life has its times of waning energy and loss of courage, its times of decision, and its times of victory in the whole-souled response to need.
The new life participates in the power of God. We do not do it all. We share in a working which is beyond our sight and our power. Our moment in time is the heir of all previous moments and of what God has accomplished in them. We are deceived by the appearance that everything is dependent upon our efforts. But the tides and powers which shape our destiny and to which we add our mite of freedom and creative decision have been running for all the ages. It follows that what we actually do is largely invisible to us. What we actually do is what our life becomes as it influences the ongoing history. We share in a destiny we can but faintly envision. We participate in a task which occupies God for eternity.
We come now to the difficult question of whether it is meaningful to speak of growth or progress in the life of love. It might appear that if we describe the Christian life as process, we should have to accept the notion of a progressive achievement. But the matter is not so simple.
3. The third principle is that there is new temptation at every stage of the Christian experience. Therefore, growth in grace is never growth away from dependence upon the continuing mercy of God.
The danger of all theories of growth in grace is that they may justify a false complacency by suggesting that achievement in the religious life puts one beyond the possibility of serious temptation and actual sin. This danger is manifest when Professor Macintosh describes the Christian experience in these terms: "Christ brings to us the salvation which consists in being indwelt and progressively delivered from the ruling power of sin. . . . As Paul might have said, the Christian life is the Christ-like life, the life of faith, hope, and unselfish love, inwardly felt and outwardly expressed."24
There are two reasons why this puts the matter inacceptably. The first is that the risks of freedom are not recognized. If we say the progress of the Christian life results in a freedom only to do the good then we make spiritual maturity a development out of responsibility into mechanism. There is no evidence that mature Christian experience makes new decisions automatic. Habits become established, indeed. But the meaning of every important decision is precisely that old habits do not suffice. We have the example of the prayer of Jesus prayed in agony in the garden of Gethsemane, There is every evidence that his last decision was the most difficult to make.
In the second place, there is abundant evidence that growth in the life of the spirit brings new temptations with it. The very achievements of the Christian life bring peculiar difficulties. These are not always overcome in proportion to the degree of spiritual advancement. That evidence has been gathered and powerfully presented by Reinhold Niebuhr. His analysis of the sin of moral and spiritual pride is a permanent addition to the Christian interpretation of life.25 Sin is man’s absolutizing of himself.26 Its source lies both in man’s insecurity and in his possession of something which makes a high estimate of his own wisdom and virtue plausible. The good man can always find reasons to conceive of his goodness more highly than it deserves. Behind our exaggerated estimates of our own virtue there usually lies a more or less hidden consciousness that our case is not so strong as we would have it.
A judgment confirming Niebuhr’s has come from one whose orientation is somewhat different. W. E. Sangster, whose study of Wesley’s doctrine of perfection we have noted, is closer to the pietist tradition, and he affirms the possibility of love more unequivocally than does Niebuhr. Yet Sangster concludes that the claim to perfection has been a mistake. It is part of the strategy of the Christian life to recognize the saints’ capacity for self-deception.
John Calvin was correct in his saying that humility is the first. second, and third truth about the Christian life, at least so contemporary theology agrees.27 The dam to any complete possession of Christian love reveals a superficial knowledge of how deep sin is and how frail we are. However much thou progress thou must set thy hope on mercy," says St. Augustine.28
Our first three principles affirm growth in the Christian life; yet we have now said this growth never gives us such firm spiritual achievement that we can say our goodness is adequate. We need to go on then to the statement of the fourth principle.
4. Real growth in the strength to love and serve God is possible. Growth in grace means that there can be progress in the expression of Christian wisdom and love. There is no contradiction between this and the third principle for we do not say that such growth puts man beyond the possibility of temptation and the subtle corruptions of the spirit. We say only that there can be growth in the discernment of what it is that corrupts and in the power to meet temptation.
The term "progress" very likely confuses the issue here for some. In our modern usage it connotes a smooth and all but inevitable movement toward a goal. But no reader of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress need fall into this illusion. Bunyan’s description of the Christian journey through life is one of the most realistic ever produced. There are giants to be fought at nearly every turn in the road, and the Pilgrim trembles to see at the very gate of heaven a byway to the pit. But there are experiences of victory, and a vision of the gates of glory at the end. Calvin’s description of the Christian life comes from another ruggedly realistic mind. He faces all the difficulties but finally leaves this door of hope open. "No man will be so unhappy but that he may every day make some progress, however small"29
Growth in grace may be best interpreted as progress toward spiritual maturity. Dr. Moffatt usually translates the New Testament word as "mature." Maturity in the life of loving service is a recognizable fact in Christian experience.
Christian maturity means progress in self-understanding which is one of the prerequisites of works of love. We correctly speak of progress toward a fuller awareness of the meaning of love and of the nature of sin. There has been, for example, a growth in grace in this respect in the modern Church’s understanding of social sin. The recognition that love must bear the burdens of the common life, that what appears as personal holiness may mask an irresponsible attitude toward social injustice, and that the task of love includes social reconstruction marks an advance in Christian maturity. It would be impossible for this gain to be made had there not appeared here and there in the Church those for whom the way of love was real.
Maturity in the life of love means increasing skill in meeting the obligations which love lays upon us. Every minister knows people of good will in his parish upon whom he relies because they know, often better than he does, what needs to be done for the person in need. The minister knows of others, not lacking in good will, who are inept in situations which demand special sensitivity and insight. Christian maturity involves the development of the skills and intelligence through which love can do its work. It is here that much of the responsibility of Christian education lies. We have to speak cautiously about increasing the skills of the spiritual life. It is God’s work more than ours. We can, however, try to provide the conditions under which love has a chance to grow, and do its work well. A. D. Lindsay has wisely observed:
The difference between ordinary people and saints is not that saints fulfill the plain duties which ordinary men neglect. The things saints do have not usually occurred to ordinary people at all. . . ." Gracious" conduct is somehow like the work of an artist. It needs imagination and spontaneity. It is not a choice between presented alternatives but the creation of something new.30
It may be objected that we are speaking here not of growth in love but in skill and insight. I reply that these cannot be absolutely separated. Love itself is necessary to growth in knowledge of other persons. Growth of insight may lead to a deeper appreciation and self-giving. Love which has capacity for social imagination, and for a skillful dealing with human problems, is strengthened in itself. Growth in grace is growth in a wise, continually renewed appreciation of the things which serve and the things which destroy, and the mastery of ways of dealing with both.
Christian maturity involves, then, progress in our capacity to love. This is the most difficult principle to affirm. Let us quickly observe that if Christian experience means anything at all it is also the most difficult to deny. Surely the New Testament affirms it: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who worketh in you."31 "The Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men."32 "Seeing that ye have put off the old man with his doings and have put on the new man that is being renewed unto knowledge after the image of him that created him."33 The difference between the beginning of life in love and whatever fuller realization of love comes to be may be slight indeed. But there can be no Christian life at all unless there is some real meaning in progress in strength to express love. If that be not true then the meaning of life is realized only in moments of vision which do not affect our earthly existence except by relating us to something outside of it. The New Testament, the message of Jesus, the existence of the Church become inexplicable. Sangster rightly opposes the tendency in contemporary theology to stress the impossibility of holiness. It is as dangerous an error as that involved in too simple doctrines of sanctification. We need the balance of the Westminster Confession which rings with a new clarity and power at the dose of our inquiry into the secret of the Christian life. The Confession allows no extravagant self-appraisal. It requires a searching and reverent humility before the righteousness of Christ. But it does not shut the door to our growth in such love as God in Christ has made possible for us:
When God converts a sinner, and translates him into the state of grace, he freeth him from his natural bondage under sin, and by his grace alone enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet so, as that by reason of his remaining corruption, he doth not perfectly nor only will that which is good, but doth also will that which is evil. The will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to good alone in the state of Glory only.34
5. The fifth principle brings into view a new dimension of our human pilgrimage toward the light. There is the last question of the Christian’s relation to the things loved in this life, and the nature of his hope in the face of death. Growth in grace involves maturity in the kind of attachment we have to the goods of this earthly existence. The principle may be stated thus: Growth in Christian maturity is growth in love for all the goods of mortal life, and at the same time it is growth in the capacity for detachment of our ultimate faith and hope from dependence upon our particular plans and interests. Christian detachment is not a denial of the ultimate worth of created things; but it is a willingness to yield all things to the transformation of the passage of time and to surrender them to the ultimate order of God’s Kingdom. Even the fate of conscious personality we entrust in death to God’s keeping without knowing exactly how His care for us will be expressed.
Our discussion in this book has centered on the problem of hope. That hope has many dimensions in Christian experience. There is a legitimate hope for good in every human situation. We have said that hope that one’s own spirit might grow in love to God and man is not vain, for God’s grace is real. Yet in every particular human hope there is a link to a victory which transcends earthly fortune and misfortune. The wisdom of life lies in the discovery that joy belongs only to him who can submit all his own hopes to the cause of the great community of good which life on earth can never fully define or capture.
Paul’s faith that "love hopeth all things" is not sentimentality. It is the affirmation which Christian faith must make about what it means to trust in God. Only the man whose hope can stand the defeat of any particular project is free to hope "for all things," that is, for whatever good may really be possible under God. Such a faith is not flight from the responsibilities of this life. The God we serve is the giver of this life with its obligations and possibilities. There is no situation in which the Christian cannot find meaning and hope. There is no social wrong which need remain unattacked, unmitigated, unreformed. There is no private desperate struggle with anxiety and bitterness and failure which cannot yield new hope when we discover that God does not leave us forsaken. But those who know this, while they are released to spend themselves in doing what needs to be done, live with a certain divine carelessness concerning earthly fortunes. Their hope sees beyond the years and they live in this demanding present under the everlasting assurance of God’s love.
1) Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. II, passim.
2) S. Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, trans. Douglas Steere (New York: Harper & Brothers, rev. ed., 1948).
3) Jacques Barzun, Teacher in America, p. 201.
4) Bernard of Clairvaux, Loving God, 15, 39 (Opera 1360).
5) Matthew 5:48. Moffatt translation.
6) W. E. Sangster, The Path to Perfection (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1943). Textual analysis in chap. iii.
7) R. Newton Flew, The Idea of Perfection in Christian Theology (London: Oxford University Press, 1934).
8) W. Norman Pittenger, "What the Church has to Give," The Christian Century, Vol. 62, No. 11, March 14, 1945, p. 333.
9) E. E. Aubrey, Man’s Search for Himself (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1940), esp. chap. ii.
10) Quoted in Rollo May, The Springs of Creative Living (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1940), p. 47.
11) Olga Lengyel, Five Chimneys (Chicago: Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, 1947), p. 212.
12) Cf. A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, chap. i.
13) Gordon W. Allport, Personality (New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1937), p. 215.
14) A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, p. 26.
15) Daniel T. Jenkins, The Nature of Catholicity (London: Faber & Faber, Ltd., 1942), p. 65.
16) Professor H. N. Wieman has clarified the meaning of faith as commitment. Cf. The Source of Human Good (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946), pp. 46-53.
17) Jonathan Edwards, Works, Vol. III, p. 45.
18) Ibid., p. 48.
19) Ibid., p. 34.
20) Ibid., p. 63; cf. p. 202.
21) Quoted in William Manson, Jesus the Messiah (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1946), p. 62.
22) Ibid., pp. 62-63.
23) William E. Hocking, Human Nature and Its Remaking (New Haven: Yale University Press, rev. ed., 1929), p. 411.
24) Douglas C. Macintosh, Personal Religion (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1942), pp., 141-42.
25) Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. I, chap. vii.
26) I am indebted to Wilhelm Pauck for this definition.
27) John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 7th American ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1936), Vol. I, p. 291.
28) St. Augustine, commentary on Psalm CXLVII, sec. 12.
29) Calvin, op. cit., p. 750.
30) A. D. Lindsay, The Two Moralities, quoted in Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., 1941), p. 192.
31) Philippians 2:12-13.
32) I Thessalonians 3:12.
33) Colossians 3:9.
34) The Westminster Confession, chap. IX, Secs. 4-5.