Looking back, I realize that for much of my Christian life, I viewed the journey to Christian maturity something like the following description. Let's call it "Option A."
First, I came to faith in Christ. Then, by reading the Bible, praying and listening to sermons, etc., I began to learn more about who Christ is and what He expects. That helps me overcome any un-Christlike attitudes or ideas, and begin to behave better over time. I have ups and downs, and never quite get it perfect, but over time, people should see fewer sinful behaviors and more things like humility, kindness, faith and love.Now, let me make this clear: I do think the Scripture teaches that over time, the people around us should begin to see different behaviors and attitudes in our life resulting from our faith in Christ. I'm fully on board with the Bible's expectation that faith in Christ will, over time, produce different behaviors and attitudes in people. These behaviors and attitudes are called the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Jesus teaches that they come from "abiding in Him" (John 15:1-8)
My study of the Scripture has taught me though that "Option A" won't really get me to that end. Sadly, many of those around me through life would confirm that experience bears this conclusion out. We bear Fruit of the Spirit by a different process than increasing understanding and performance. Let's look at the one example: the life of Paul.
If "Option A" were true, we would expect to hear Paul say something like this towards the end of his life: "Over time, I have grown in my understanding and love for God and His ways. I am increasingly leaving my old behaviors and attitudes behind, and increasingly "bearing fruit" with new, more Christ-like, attitudes and behaviors."
We get something VERY different though. Look at these four quotations from Paul's writings. I'll set them up in chronological order with approximate dates and a brief comment:
33 AD - Acts 8:1 - And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. This was Paul before he was a believer. He elaborates on this time in his life in Philippians 3:4-6
56 AD - I Corinthians 15:9 - "For I am the least of the apostles. . ."
61 AD - Ephesians 3:8 - "Although I am less than the least of all God's people. . ."
63 AD - I Timothy 1:15 - "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst."
While we cannot date each letter exactly, there is a solid conclusion: Over the course of approximately 30 years of "growth in Christ," Paul, who is the Apostle to the Gentiles and author of a large portion of the New Testament, has grown in his self-awareness from "self-righteous enough to authorize a stoning" to "the worst sinner in the world." Doesn't sound like a process of personal improvement to me!
What were the people around Paul seeing over these years? They certainly saw miracles and power in the course of his church planting. His knowledge certainly grew. I think it is reasonable to assume that his attitudes and behaviors were increasingly Christ-like and consistent with the fruit of the Spirit. All of this took place while he was experiencing an increasing sense of the depth of his personal sinfulness.
In truth, I'm convinced that it was because of his increasing sense of the depth of his personal sinfulness that Paul was able to grow in fruitfulness. The Gospel of Grace teaches us that we don't grow in humility, peace or joy because we know more and do it better. We grow in these things because we see more clearly the depth of our brokenness, face our utter inability to "do" those things, and then pursue an experience of the grace, love and power of Jesus that would grow to cover that sin and empower a new heart and new life. We bear the fruit of the Spirit not by knowing more and doing it better, but by abiding more deeply in the finished work of Jesus. I'm afraid that over time, the pursuit of Christian knowledge and behavior without a deepening sense of our personal sinfulness is more likely to produce an "older brother" (Luke 15:25 ff) than it is an Apostle Paul.
This perspective on the journey of Christian Maturity can be visualized with the "Cross Chart." I first saw this while working through a program called "Sonship." It is part of the Gospel-Centered Life by World Harvest Mission that several groups at Christ Covenant are working through as well. I was struck while leading discussion in that material how perfectly Paul's self-awareness of his sin matches the lower line of the graph.
Here's a link to a more detailed presentation of the same visual. I don't know the blogger, but I downloaded this graphic for myself!