Growing up my dad was always working on some project out in his shop. Much to my mother's chagrin, he would drag home some broken down vehicle or boat in need of a complete overhaul. Once he towed home a giant horse trailer that was completely rusted out and falling apart and we didn't even own horses! Friends were constantly hitting my dad up for help with their projects; he never charged them he just loved to help people. It was his escape, his way of avoiding the difficulties of family life. To his credit, he would, at times, try to include me by teaching me the ins and outs of mechanics and DIY projects but I was rarely interested. I was a bookworm and while mechanical things come easy to some it was (and still is) very difficult for me. I wish I had taken more interest in the things my dad was passionate about, it would have been a way to connect with him and at the same time learn some very practical skills that would most certainly come in handy as an adult.
While I didn't necessarily like the projects my dad chose to engage in, I did take an interest in more anthropological fixer-upper projects. At a fairly young age, I felt called to the pastorate. I went to Bible College right out of high school and began pursuing a life of ministry. For many years I viewed ministry in much the same way my dad viewed his projects; I was helping people with their favorite projects (themselves).
Too often we view the Christian life as a project we partner with God on. Unlike me with my dad, we take great interest in learning from God however. We call it "Christian disciplines" and "sitting at his feet". Day by day God and I tinker on this "old car" in the garage and once in a while we take it out for a spin, just to see how it's running. It usually breaks down and together we push it home to continue the endless task of making this project work.
I lived out my Christian life in this way and led others into this type of Christianity for many years. Convinced that by the power of the Holy Spirit I was "getting better" and I was helping others with their progress too. But there was one problem. I wasn't getting any better and neither was anyone I was supposedly helping. I was struggling with same sins that I had always struggled with but in the paradigm of "project car Christianity" I couldn't admit to this, I had to pretend that I had everything together and that God and I were making measured progress. I became skilled at polishing and patching my old man to make him operate the way I was convinced he was supposed to. God was of course "the God of second chances" and he didn't mind the slow and steady progress we were making. This was, however, an effort in futility. A square peg in a round hole that we're somehow certain will fit if we try hard enough. No matter how hard you try however you can't get your old man to be holy or to obey God. He is fundamentally opposed to God in every way and no amount of prayer, Bible study, or church attendance will make him anything other than this. From a pastoral perspective, this kind of theology works well too, for people love to be told that they have skin in the game. That if they try hard enough (with God's help of course) they can turn their lives around and take what was once a disaster and make it into something beautiful. This sounds wonderful, doesn't it? It can even be described as "good news" and when preached with enough pathos and pizazz people eat it up like free soft serve on a cruise.
Is this Christianity? Is this what the Bible describes as the gospel? Is the Christian life? A partnership with God where we fix up our old man? The simple answer is no. While we might be looking for improvement and progress the Bible calls for death.
"I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (Gal. 2:20)
While I had convinced myself that God and I were making such great progress on our project car there was a brand new car parked in the driveway the entire time. A car that needed no repair and that cannot be improved upon. All this time I thought God and I were "partnering" on trying to fix up my old man he was actually calling me to put the old car in the junkyard and take the wheel of the brand new car he gifted to me in Christ.
The Christian life is not about improvement, progress, or measured results. It's about death and life. There is no ladder to climb or tangible results to measure. The old man does not need tinkering with, he needs to be crucified. Your sin nature cannot be slowly worked out of you, you must be put to death. Transversely your new man (in Christ) cannot be improved upon, Jesus lived perfectly in your place! His obedience is your obedience. There is nothing that can be added or taken away from Christ and his gift of righteousness. So what are we trying to improve upon? Whether we're seeking to repair our old man or improve upon Christ we are attempting to do the impossible; beating our head against a proverbial wall of our own making. There is a better way, but it requires something painful, the excruciatingly difficult prospect of giving up on ourselves. If there is any process or progress in Christianity it is this, the continual going back to our baptism where our old man is put to death and we raised in newness of life in Christ. As long as we live in this body of sin and death we exist in this tension, we face this civil war within. We must remember however, that while this battle must be waged it was ultimately won before it was even started.
"In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us." (Rom. 8:37)