Every good story includes conflict. For the journey to be an adventure, not simply a mindless stroll, we must encounter obstacles and challenges. To persevere on our quest, we must be inspired by the promise of reaching our destination.
That’s why, as we hike up the side of a mountain, we keep our focus on the summit—the place we’re headed—because that vision motivates us when we grow weary. Imagining what the top of the mountain will be like—the views we’ll take in, the air we’ll breathe, the sense of satisfaction that will settle over us—inspires us to continue the quest when we’re exhausted.
Always in Pursuit
Humans are, by nature, driven toward a goal. We have a destination in mind. There are thousands of apps on our phones intended to help us grow in certain skills and knowledge. Video games hook us by leading us through levels of increasing difficulty. Communities form around fitness goals and workout routines, with coaches who inspire us, in the words of the apostle Paul, to discipline our bodies into submission (1 Cor. 9:27).
At the start of a new year, we make resolutions we hope will improve our lives and ourselves. Teachers, instructors, and coaches help students master a field of knowledge, learn a new language, pick up a musical instrument, or grow in athletic prowess. We’re always in pursuit of something.
We look with pity on people who slip into a settled state of apathy regarding the betterment of their lives, when there’s no longer any desire to grow in their character, try out a new hobby, or even beautify their home and yard. It’s sad to see someone lose their sense of purpose and abandon ambition. Why? Because we recognize that humanity at its best is always pressing forward, straining toward a goal. Something’s gone awry when a person no longer cares about his or her destination.
On the other hand, something goes wrong whenever, in pursuing success, we begin to base our identity on our achievements. If we find our worth and value in the small steps we’ve made up the side of the mountain, we’ll eventually burn out, with restless hearts driven toward perfection yet ever restless when lived without reference to the God who made us for himself.
Sometimes, religious people picture life as a pathway up a mountain toward a summit, a reward for achieving spiritual growth and excellence. But Christianity is different. The Christian story is not about humanity ascending but about God descending. The Son of God comes down the mountain to save us, for we cannot save ourselves.
The Christian story is not about humanity ascending but about God descending.
Still, the purpose of God’s gracious descent is to raise us to be with him. We do ascend, by the power of the Spirit. And so it’s true that, on the other side of the cross, the Christian life does resemble a pathway up the mountain toward the summit, and if this journey is to be an adventure we should expect difficulties. The New Testament describes the race of faith as one with hindrances (Gal. 5:7; 1 Thess. 2:18; Heb. 12:1). The path to the summit is exciting precisely because it’s perilous. Without the possibility of setbacks, without real and ever-present dangers on all sides waiting to trip us up or distract us from the quest, we’d settle into a mindless walk that doesn’t go anywhere.
Any worthwhile goal requires devotion and effort. Whether learning a language, earning a doctoral degree, or training to run a marathon—the demands are intense. If we want to see success and transform our minds and bodies, we must be devoted to a vision of our future selves.
If you’re like me, you feel exhilarated by a vision of your future self—but also deflated. You’re all too aware of your flaws and failures. You see your struggles. You repeat your stumbles. If the church is a school, you can’t imagine ever receiving anything more than a barely passing grade. If the church is a hospital, you can’t see beyond your present wounds and injuries to a future of health.
Take heart! Your self-assessment is bound to get worse. The closer you get to Jesus, the more you’ll notice the lingering sins that keep you from Christlikeness. The more you grow in holiness, the more you realize how far you fall short. The higher up the mountain you climb, the farther away the summit seems.
If you talk to an older saint, someone who has walked faithfully on this journey with Jesus far longer than you have, you won’t hear them boast about their progress. Instead, time and time again you’ll hear them say, “I still have so far to go!” In response, you may say to yourself, I’ll never get there. I just hope I can keep a few of Christ’s commands and keep my stumbles to a minimum. The path up the mountain can feel hopeless at times.
The good news is that Christianity, while setting a standard that seems impossible to attain, also provides the path for the wayward to return. The righteous one falls seven times, but he gets back up again (Prov. 24:16). The gospel is good news about forgiveness. Christ’s righteousness covers your unrighteousness. The staggering heights of Christianity’s moral vision are set next to the boundless mercy and grace of God. The radical ideal is matched by radical mercy. God’s mercy doesn’t lower the standard, but neither does God’s standard diminish his mercy.
Augustine’s Response to Failure
Sixteen centuries ago, the church faced this tension in the decades following a brutal period of Roman persecution of Christians. During that era, many Christians were hounded out of their homes. Some lost their livelihoods; others lost their lives.
The crackdown on Christian belief and practice included the government’s confiscation of sacred religious texts. Under the threat of torture and death, some Christians renounced their faith. Some church leaders handed over their collections of the New Testament documents to the authorities. Meanwhile, a good number remained steadfast in the face of this persecution and paid a steep price for their faithfulness.
Once the trial passed, the question arose of how to handle those who had renounced their faith under duress or handed over sacred books. Could these Christians return if they were repentant? Could priests and bishops who had vacillated under severe pressure be welcomed back into leadership?
A large and influential group of Christians (named the “Donatists” after Donatus, a bishop in North Africa) said no. What’s more, they said that the power of baptism and the Lord’s Supper were rendered ineffectual if presided over by leaders who’d been reinstated after their failure to stand firm in persecution.
Augustine of Hippo wrote thousands of words on God’s sanctifying work. His own journey had taken him from moral dissolution to moral virtue. Someone unfamiliar with his bracing self-assessment in Confessions might expect his take to resemble that of the Donatists, but instead, without lowering the high ideals of Christianity or excusing sin and struggle, he insisted the church must include the weak, the doubters, the “failures.”
Through Augustine’s leadership in the Donatist controversy, the church upheld both holiness and mercy. The path up the mountaintop would remain, but the path would be one of repentance. The holiness of God would beckon us onward, while the grace of God would cover our stumbles. The gospel isn’t for the pure and healthy but for the losers, the failed and flailing, the fallen and falling. The path to the mountaintop of Christlike virtue is a path of penitence. The victorious Christian life isn’t the sinless life; it’s the repentant life.
Sinners into Saints
What you find in the words of Jesus and the apostles is a rigorous commitment to the otherworldly ethic of the kingdom combined with a wide-open door that welcomes in all who fall short of the standard. The school of sanctification is now in session. The field hospital is receiving the wounded.
The victorious Christian life isn’t the sinless life; it’s the repentant life.
To soften the ideal is to diminish the adventure of moral exertion. It also makes the glory of God’s mercy and grace something we take for granted. To lower the ideal turns our vices into virtues. It makes salvation something less than God’s gift, twisting his grace into a debt he owes us.
Orthodoxy sets before us a God who not only saves sinners but transforms sinners into saints. He not only justifies us but also sanctifies us. Christ not only died for us; his Spirit also lives in us.
Yes, the hike may wear us out. And yes, on the way up the mountain, we’ll stumble. We’ll fall. But because of both God’s call to holiness and God’s gift of grace, we keep going. We press on, determined to take hold of that which has already taken hold of us. We’re always moving forward and always repenting of our failures at the same time.
The narrow road to future victory is a pathway of present repentance. No one reaches the top sinless, but only through the merits of the sinless Savior who empowers us by his Spirit.