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The truth about change.
On Dane Ortlund’s “Deeper” and the means of Christian growth.
This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
The new year has dawned. It is now the year of our Lord 2022. At least, that is what all available calendars tell me. Truth be told, I am still trying to process the maelstrom of events from 2020, the repercussions of which will likely remain nebulous for years to come. But as with any New Year’s celebration, my thoughts are drawn towards notions of growth, change, and personal development. I am confronted simultaneously by the “me” I still am and the “me” I yearn to become. You know, the “me” who’s more trim, more disciplined, more confident. The “me” who’s finally figured out how to balance all the implicit and explicit expectations that rattle around in my head. As I sit here, however, I am frustrated. No, that’s too weak. I am exasperated. I am exhausted. I am tired of making the same resolutions for change year-in and year-out only to see them go unfulfilled by mid-February, if I’m lucky. I am tired of telling myself that this will be the year when I finally put old habits six-feet-under and start living “better.” I am tired of making excuses for all the ways I haven’t changed in the last handful of years. I am a wretch, in desperate need of a new regimen to rescue me from this “body of death.” At least, that’s what I am told.
Every year starts the same, as we all drink a diverse concoction of optimism and enthusiasm that our plans will come together, dreams realized, and goals achieved. Gym memberships will explode and diet-app servers and websites will experience a significant traffic increase (at least for a few weeks). Perhaps our collective buoyancy that such hopeful realities are possible has been sufficiently strangled after all the hullabaloo in recent years. That “Polly Anna veneer” which often colors our New Year’s Eve celebrations and resolutions, has, in all likelihood, been discarded. Its cynical replacement is not much better, though. But here we are, left in the doldrums of needing and wanting to grow and change but entirely unable to effect anything permanent.
For some reason, when the end of the year rolls around, I often picture God in the form of Dwight Schrute’s Belschnickel, who goes around judging everyone’s year as either “impish” or “admirable.” Yet, in this dreary hypothetical, the divine Belschnickel has only one category from which to judge his miscreants. We are all impish. We have not changed from Christmases past. We have all fallen short. Which means, I suppose, we are all due for a good lashing. “Judgment is nigh, for the Belschnickel ist I!” My annual bout of frustration and disappointment and hollow resolve, however, has been comforted by this absorbing truth. Namely, that the God whom I claim to love and serve and believe in is more committed to my growth than I am (31). Such is the premise for one of the most trenchant books in recent memory, Dane Ortlund’s Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners.
As a pseudo-sequel to his exemplary Gentle and Lowly, Deeper sees Ortlund speaking into the confusion and frustration surrounding the elusive discipline of Christian growth. There is an abundance of curriculum geared towards instilling in “good Christian boys and girls” the requisite techniques to grow “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). Like New Year’s Resolutions, though, many of those studies end up in the scrap-heap of other frustrating Christian practices, because while the spirit might certainly be willing, the flesh is interminably weak. Indeed, broaching the subject of growing as a Christian no doubt brings with it all manner of ill-conceived ideas as to what it actually means. More often than not, the issue of Christian growth is accompanied by a bevy of platitudes towards progress and betterment, eventually culminating in some realized perfection or level of disciplined completeness. Even if that is not explicitly stated, it is often the overbearing implication: if you are not keeping these habits, following these disciplines, doing these things, then your faith needs work. And it might just be that you do not even have the faith at all. Deeper is word in season for those who are fumbling over such things.
Contrary to popular sentiment, the object of spiritual growth is not personal improvement. To grow as Christian does not mean that we have “leveled-up” in our Christian walk. It does not mean we have found higher planes of worthiness on which to demonstrate our superior religiosity. Those are the familiar conceptions of growth in the church. The aggregated understanding of what it means to grow is more in line with some morbidly constructed spiritual MMORPG, in which experience points are earned and personal growth is measured by the “level” of spiritual maturity on which we find ourselves.
That is decidedly not what it means to “grow in grace.” Rather, as Ortlund simply puts it, “It is growth in Christ” (21). Growth happens the deeper we are drawn into “the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” “Growing in Christ,” Ortlund writes, “is not centrally improving or adding or experiencing but deepening. Implicit in the notion of deepening is that you already have what you need. Christian growth is bringing what you do and say and even feel into line with what, in fact, you already are” (16). That, I think, is one of the most formative truths that is perennially neglected by many a-churchgoer.
Go back to the example of New Year’s Resolutions. Nearly all of them are defined in terms of something you are not and something you wish to be or do or accomplish, with those resolutions only rightly being achieved when some such carrot is grasped. The goals are usually some blend of additions or subtractions. “I don’t have six-pack abs. I’m resolving to get a six-pack. I’ll be complete when I look more like Chris Hemsworth.” Or, “I want to be less of a jerk.” That, to be sure, is a frivolous rendition of what actually stunts and stifles the faith of far too many Christians. While I will surely have to deal the cognizant frustration of not having six-pack abdominal muscles after one too many trips to Dunkin, there is no accounting for the damage that similar sounding syllogisms of “spiritual growth by addition” inflict on otherwise faithful churchgoers. If what it means to grow as Christian is only realized in terms of addition and subtraction, then I might as well give up on the hope of virtue and enjoy a season vice.
But (thanks be to God) that is not how growth is accomplished. It is not a matter of mathematics. It’s a matter of resurrection. We are raised to “walk in newness of life” as a consequence of Christ’s passion and death (Rom. 6:4). Growth, then, is a byproduct of what we have been given in Christ. “To grow as a disciple of Christ,” Ortlund asserts in his concluding chapter, “is not adding Christ to your life but collapsing into Christ as your life” (166).
In the defining portion of the book, Dane walks through the operative framework for Christian growth in terms of the cross. “We grow in Christ,” he says, “as we go deeper into, rather than moving on from, the verdict of acquittal that got us into Christ in the first place” (85). Those words are eerily reminiscent of St. Paul’s polemic to the Galatians (Gal. 3:3), and that is not by accident. Our growth in grace is found nowhere else than in remembering what precipitated that extension of grace. Namely, the cross whereupon the Lord Jesus Christ was crucified in order to make atonement for the sins of the world. Growth does not and, indeed, cannot happen apart from that event. Therefore, any endeavor to grow as Christian which does not keep the cross as its prevailing concern is destined to morph into another in the assembly line of effort-based progress reports by which spiritual development and success is measured.
Instead of frustrating and, frankly, exhausting regimens of Christian growth, however, the good news of Scripture offers the gospel of the sinner’s justification in Christ Jesus, which announces that our standing with God is decidedly not dependent upon us. Growth and change in the Christian life is not byproduct of rules followed and boxes ticked. Rather, it is the concomitant effect of continually “returning, ever more deeply, to the event of justification” (85–86). Ortlund does not quote Gerhard Forde here, but he might as well have. The fundamental concern of Christian growth is not a development away from dependence into a disciplined, independent child of God. Rather, it is a growth into deeper and deeper recognition of our utter dependence upon the unmerited favor of our Heavenly Father, secured for us by his own Son’s blood.
The longer I live, the more I have come to realize that I am utterly incapable of growing on my own. I will not say that I am okay with that confession, but I confess it nonetheless. Despite my best efforts, I am not much more than a slightly remixed version of myself from a few years ago, only with significantly more responsibilities and pounds around my waist. I hate admitting that. I would rather say that I have figured out some such discipline or some other method which has made me proficient in the art of living the Christian life. But, alas, I have yet to stumble upon the winning formula to effect the change I so desperately want to see in my life. And that is precisely because “growing in Christ is a relational, not a formulaic, experience” (22).
There is no recipe by which I can insert the requisite spiritual ingredients in order to properly mix a beautiful spiritual growth pie. What makes Deeper such a revelation is that it is entirely absent of lists. Flip through its pages and you will not find a single checklist of items you need to do. Rather, what you will find is page after page inviting you to stand mouth-agape at the all-surpassing wonder and greatness of Christ, who greets perennial failures like me with unceasing faithfulness.
Dane Ortlund, Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021).