One of the joys of parenting is to watch children grow in their understanding of God and faith. To a toddler the Jesus figure in a Palm Sunday parade is literally Jesus and needs to hear the explanation that he is Mr. Jones, acting like Jesus. Beyond toddler literalism, middle-grades school children focus on fairness and see God as the judge handing out penalties for wrong behavior. They have a First Stage Merit-Based Faith. That’s the stage of most world religions.
A second stage is recognized by mainline churches at confirmation. Eighth graders affirm the faith they have been taught by their church—with as much understanding as a fourteen-year-old can have. In earlier centuries most church members remained at this Second Stage Confirmed Faith because they ran into few challenges. We are, of course, in a different world now. High school and college now present basic challenges to fundamentals of biblical faith, and many teens and college students abandon their confirmed faith.
We need now to focus on Third Stage Convicted Faith. With the help of supportive pastors and campus Christian organizations, some mainline young adults do reach that new stage and come back to their faith. Mainline churches that want to do well in this new culture will have to get better at helping youth reach third-stage-convicted faith. They should be asking, how do we get beyond confirmation faith?
Recognize also the fourth stage described by Paul: “Be joyful always, pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ. (1 Thessalonians 5: 16,17). Call this a Fourth Stage Close-to-God Faith. This is what Paul also described: “We are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3: 18) . I suspect in this passage many are confused about whose glory is increasing. The root meaning of the Greek word “glory” is a brilliant radiant light that comes from God. It is God’s radiance that is increasing as his people reflect his light in their Christ-like living.
Martin Luther himself offered a three-stage model very useful today. It appeared as an illustration in a sermon preached in 1521. Using the analogy of a sanctuary, he described a church-yard conscience, which concentrates on getting the 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 am calling motivation.
Here is Luther’s ideal stage: “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.” Getting to this kind of glad and loving heart takes the Spirit’s work. It is not a human achievement.
Here is the proposed four-stage understanding of the faith-based relationship with God:
- Stage One — Merit based Faith
- Stage Two — Confirmed Faith
- Stage Three — Convicted Faith
- Stage Four — Close-to-God Faith
With Luther, I believe that all those who confess Christ as Savior will have eternal salvation, whatever the stage of their personal faith. Indeed, Jesus taught that unless you receive the kingdom as a child you will not enter it. The fourth stage is what the Apostle Paul described when he urged the Thessalonians to ”be joyful always; pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances.”
A reasonable goal for a church pastor is to help participants move from Stage Two Confirmed Faith to at least Stage Three Convicted Faith. Congregations where most stay at Confirmed Faith are not going to do well in this new American culture we face. Further, what more practical question can church leaders deal with than guiding believers to be moved by the Spirit to the transformed life of Stage Four – Close-to-God Faith.
Stages Three and Four are an opportunity, not a duty. They are available only through the work of the Spirit. Reaching conviction brings welcome assurance of who a believer is in this current conflicted culture. Stage Four of living close to God brings the life-affirming special blessings of the fruit the Spirit produces: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.