Martin Luther had some profound thoughts about the process of transformation we undergo as sinful men justified before God and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. He said “to progress is always to begin again.” The Christian life is about grasping the gospel with ever increasing strength and confidence (1 Cor 15:1-3, Col 1:21-23). The Christian life is a life of repentance precisely because we fail to cling to the gospel and allow it to work its way out in our lives.
We are deeply fractured and sinful. We stand in constant need of grace. Our lives are patterned by falling and getting up, stopping and going, sinning and repenting, doubting and trusting. It is really not about how much we fall so much as it is about how many times we get up afterwards. As the japanese proverb says, ‘fall seven times, stand up eight.’ Not far off from a Proverb I know (Prov 24:16). This is what grace and forgiveness are about.
We stand in need of cleansing and a fresh start again and again and again and again. I think this is the idea behind Luther’s understanding of progression. True growth and progression is revealed in a pattern of beginning again and doing it again and again. The Spirit indwelt man is a fighter and therefore he keeps getting up no matter how many times he has been knocked down.
This getting up again and starting anew by running to the gospel—this is progression. This perception of growth is extremely helpful because it is extremely realistic. It is no triumphant onward and upward garbage that no one ever actually experiences on this earth. It connects to real life and places desperation for the gospel at the heart of growth.
Gerhard Forde, a Lutheran theologian, fleshes this out in his discussion of sanctification. He says that “sanctification is the art of getting used to justification. There is a kind of growth and progress, it is to be hoped, but it is growth in ‘grace’ a growth in coming to be captivated more and more, if we can so speak, by the totality, the unconditionality of the grace of God. It is a matter of getting used to the fact that if we are to be saved it will have to be by grace alone.
We should make no mistake about it: sin is to be conquered and expelled. But if we see that sin is the total state of standing against the unconditional grace and goodness of God, if sin is our very incredulity, unbelief, mistrust, our insistence on falling back on our self and maintaining control, then it is only through the total grace of God that sin comes under attack, and only through faith in that total grace that sin is defeated. To repeat: sin is not defeated by a repair job, but by dying and being raised new.”