“When the Spirit comes, he makes a pure, free, cheerful, glad and loving heart—a conscience made righteous by grace, seeking no reward, fearing no punishment, doing everything with joy.”
So observed Martin Luther in a sermon he preached in 1521. The Spirit was very much in the center of his thinking in those early years of the Reformation. He was not a systematic theologian. But what he intuited in this off-hand comment happens to fit three of the stages of faith development recognized in modern developmental psychology.
Luther described three kinds of conscience, which are three stages of faith development. A churchyard conscience concentrates on getting the external rules of church life right. A nave (pew section) conscience characterizes those who are living faithfully but out of guilt with no joy. Progressing forward, those who are living with a heart changed by the Spirit have a chancel conscience. “Conscience” in classical theology describes what I call motivation. The Latin would be affectus.
Stage One in developmental psychology is the literal-mindedness of a toddler. Stage two focuses on fairness and learning the rules. Stage Three is belief in and living according to what the church teaches—passive faith. Stage Four is Convicted Life in God. What is Stage Five? I would describe it as Living Close to God.
Would you like to live Close to God with a “a free, cheerful, glad and loving heart?” You can’t get there on your own. Only the Holy Spirit can move you to that high-quality life.
A reasonable goal in ministry is to help believers learn to live Close to God. This stage is what the Apostle Paul described when he urged the Thessalonians to “be joyful always; pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances.”
All five stages represent a Christian faith that brings eternal life. The first stage is that of a toddler who thinks in literal terms and cannot distinguish a heavenly Father from earthly fathers. Jesus taught that unless you have the faith of a child you cannot enter the kingdom of God. Paul taught that all who call on the name of Jesus Christ will have eternal life. We can add, whatever stage of faith they are in.
The psychologist best associated with faith development is James Fowler. He was an academic at Emory University. But his description of the stages is dense academic jargon incomprehensible to an average reader. Thomas Droege from Valparaiso University translated those stages as: 1. “God is like my Father,” 2. “What’s fair is fair,” 3. “I believe what my church teaches,” and 4. “This is what I personally believe.”
My interest is in his stages 2-4, and I add a fifth. Many Christian adults live in Stage 2: “What’s fair is fair.” They never quite grasp the concept of God’s free grace. Children in established churches move on to Stage 3: “Confirmed Faith, where many stay for a lifetime of faithfulness. Some move on to Stage 4: “Convicted Faith.” Some of those then arrive at Stage 5, which I call living Close to God, living with a Spirit-given free, cheerful, glad and loving heart.
Daily living is where the Third Person of the Trinity operates. The Second, Jesus Christ, ascended into heaven where he sits at the right hand of the First Person, God the Father, to return only at the final judgment. The Father and the Son send the Holy Spirit to be their advocates to unbelievers but especially to believers who say Jesus is Lord, as Paul writes. It is the Spirit who stimulates our faith to grow.
Our challenge as traditional Christians in the 21st century is to present the Good News as it applies to living daily life now, not just in the next world. The Gospel of eternal salvation in Jesus Christ by grace remains basic. The second part of the Good News is what Paul calls “spiritual gifts,” flowing from the grace gifts of the Spirit that God sends to work in our hearts now. Enjoying the fruit of the Spirit here and now amounts to recovering what has become the forgotten Gospel.