And yet, we can say, in the Christian life, that there is a very clear objective: to become more like Christ. It’s in the name! The Christians were first called as such as a pejorative, but I quite like the idea of “little Christs” running around. According to Paul in Romans 8, we are “predestined” to become conformed to the image of Christ, the one seen in the Gospels:
28 And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. 29 For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; 30 and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.
Traditional Protestant Christian theology would say that, by virtue of being justified before God in a legal sense (by God being a gracious judge), we are also glorified as if we were Christ already. Christ already reaches the objective by “fulfilling” the Law through His actions, death, and resurrection. But, it is also clear that our status in the Christian life right now, on the terra firma, is not so much settled yet. While we remain under grace, that does not mean God’s work in us reached completion. The Holy Spirit exists for that very purpose: to slowly transform us into the like image of Jesus:
17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. 18 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.
2 Corinthians 3
While this sounds rather complicated, it’s really not. The whole reason why the Gospels exist, at least from a purely practical point of view, comes down to the need for Christians to emulate Christ. Accepting that charge means throwing away the older measurements and the old comparisons; rather, you now achieve a new goal, one that you can’t ever attain. Well, perhaps I’m putting that dramatically, but the point isn’t to demonstrate the enormity of the task. Rather, it is to show that the old objectives were, in effect, meaningless without Him involved. Life becomes new, and you must set aside the old self to see the old life in a new light. Paul in Ephesians 4 says this:
1 if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, 22 that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old[p]self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, 23 and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and put on the new [q]self, which [r]in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.
The old things and the old ways were terrible, that’s for sure. The intent of our hearts were deceptive, for no man can really know his own heart (Jeremiah 17:9). But, now we can reinterpret the old in light of the new, and see the good things that were there. Paul experienced literal “scales” that fell from his eyes; God made a man blind, and then let him see, both physically and spiritually. As such, Paul sought to convert, and then to teach, both believers and non-believers, about Christ. His new objective was, in fact, similar to his old one. Remember that Paul received an education in the synagogues of his day, and he was well-versed in the Scriptures of their time (what we call the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible) as well as the countless Midrash and Talmud that interpreted those same Scriptures. His skills and talents, substantial and obvious just from a cursory look at his writing, now found application in a new way. The old techniques weren’t abandoned, but understood in light of a greater truth. This is why, I think, Romans 12 (the book which many consider the capstone of Paul’s writing career) emphasizes the mind in its conclusion:
Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, [a]acceptable to God, which is your [b]spiritual service of worship. 2 And do not be conformed to this [c]world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may [d]prove what the will of God is, that which is good and [e]acceptable and perfect.
Behavior is certainly a part of this renewal, but not the whole of it. Paul was probably familiar with Matthew 7:24, surely:
24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and [o]acts on them,[p]may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the [q]floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. 26 Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not [r]act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 The rain fell, and the [s]floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.”
Even so, he does not deny that knowledge, in fact, plays a part. You need to know the right way to live, and just doing it without first understanding it means little in the grand scheme of things. Otherwise, how can you measure your growth in likeness to Christ? Paul clearly set measuring devices in place for the various early congregations. Each faced strange, contextually difficult issues, and the various Epistles (and Pauline visits) sought to squash those issues. He sought to give them measures and understanding, to transform them first through knowledge of Christ, and then through action like Christ. That is the steps Paul outlines in just about every piece of text he wrote that we’ve collected, and it seems almost indelibly a part of his former life as Saul the Pharisee.
So it is that Christianity tells you that progress isn’t measured just by abandoning the physical trappings of your old life. That action, in fact, might not be completely necessary. Rather, it asks us to remove the mental and spiritual barriers to become more like Christ. That, I think, is the tough nut to crack. The objectives, and the measurement of progress, are clear. But, in a way, obtaining that objective is impossible from a purely practical standpoint. Our progress can only be measured through time, action, and understanding. We will make mistakes (and sin, of course), but we can learn from those mistakes with the understanding that we will. This is no excuse, just an acceptance of a known reality. But you will try again, and that’s the whole point: keep going.