Spiritual Journeys of Growing Closer To God

The Spirit Calls, Gathers, Enlightens and Sanctifies God’s People

Charting Your Spiritual Journey of Growing Closer to God

The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyon has been a great classic of spiritual literature for centuries. It tells the story of Mr. Pilgrim’s journey to the Celestial City. On the way, he encounters many detractors but also many encouragers. What makes this journey very appealing is its reliance on allegories that are symbolic fictional figures and places

My personal interpretation is to see those who encourage Pilgrim as believers who exemplify the fruit of the Spirit at work in their lives, such as the characters Faithful, Hopeful, Goodwill, Mercy, Prudence, Charity, and others. And recognize their parallel to the Spirit’s fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Think of your life with God as a journey. Your ultimate destination is the Celestial City in eternity. In this life, what’s the next step you aspire to in being drawn closer to God? In Paul’s terms, what more of Christ’s full stature will you reach for? In Luther’s terms, where would you like to see your new nature in Christ become stronger and what of your old sinful nature would you like drowned out?

Greater sanctification is not something you achieve on your own. In Paul’s terms, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” In Luther’s terms, “Now we are only halfway pure and holy; the Holy Spirit must continue that work in us.”

Use the following chart to draw out your personal Spiritual journey. Where are you now in your relationship with God? The left side of the chart represents being close to God or far from him at various stages of your life. The bottom line presents those stages, starting with your childhood through youth to the present. Plot your personal history. The key is where you want to be in the future.

In traditional Lutheran thinking, infants at baptism are close to God, and they get closer through years of education leading to confirmation.  Until recent times, the chart would then show a straight level line into the future because there were few social challenges to the faith as received.  Now, of course, high school and then college present many challenges to confirmation faith, so many young adults drift farther from God and don’t find their way back.  But some do, especially when their children come along.  If you are reading this, you are probably interested in becoming closer to him.

Use the chart to describe your personal journey of being farther or closer to God. Dwell on individuals who helped or hindered you on your version of Pilgrim’s Progress.  You might want to thank those encouragers you associate with helping you discover more hope, joy, peace, and patience on the way.

Three Stages of Faith

Martin Luther offered a three-stage model of growing closer to God.  It is found in a sermon preached in 1521.  Using the analogy of a sanctuary, he described a churchyard conscience concentrated on getting the rules of church life right.  A nave (pew section) conscience characterizes those who are living faithfully but out of guilt with no joy.  Progressing forward, those who are living with a heart changed by the Spirit have a chancel conscience.

Here is Luther’s ideal stage:  “When the Spirit comes, he makes a pure, free, cheerful, glad and loving heart—a conscience made righteous by grace, seeking no reward, fearing no punishment, doing everything with joy.”

What if Christian churches became known as centers of joy where people are making progress toward pure, free, cheerful, glad, and loving hearts?  Those congregations would be attractive to so many in our mixed-up world where few have lasting experiences of the joy available in Christ.

Four Stages of Faith

I offer a four-stage model that expands Luther’s understanding of progress in sanctification.  Mine divides the middle nave stage into two, distinguishing between culture-faith and convicted-faith.

Call the initial stage Merit-Based Faith, living by the rules.  It is characteristic of children.  But many adults never get beyond this Stage One in their faith life.  I was once teaching lay pastors when one wanted to know if it’s OK for a Christian to smoke.  I stopped the class and led a long discussion of salvation by grace.  When he came back the next day, I asked if he thought smoking was something a Christian could do.  His answer?  No, that’s not right.  His thinking was stuck at Stage One.

Stage Two is Cultural Faith, a faith held in common with others in a shared culture.  Confirmation is acceptance into the church faith.  It is a good way to live, as long as it is not challenged or no longer seems popular.  Traditional Cultural Faith is now under stress. It is not being passed on well to the next generation.

Stage Three is Convicted Faith when a believer has taken on ownership of the personal faith. Cultural faith confesses, “I believe what the church believes.”  Convicted faith confesses, “This is what I believe and by which I will live my life.”

Stage Four is Close-to-God faith so well described by Luther as living joyfully with a glad and loving heart.  Let that be the aim of every personal spiritual journey.

Stages Three and Four are the Spirit’s work.  They are not human achievements.  The challenge for traditional churches is to better prepare the way for the Spirit to move believers along.

Such a journey moves beyond the basic question of saving faith.  Salvation belongs to all who confess Christ as Lord and Savior, even if they do not understand well the implications.  Jesus did teach that unless you receive the kingdom as a child you will not enter it.

In your personal Spiritual journey, where have you been in the past? Where do you wish to be in the future? Where is your focus? And how do you stay focused in a distracted world?

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