Growth in Christ Is Not Just Personal Improvement

Who Is Christ?

Our growth is not independent personal improvement. It is growth in Christ. Who then is he?

The temptation for many of us at this point is to assume we pretty much know what Jesus is like. We’ve been saved by him. We’ve spent time in the Bible over the years. We’ve read some books about him. We’ve told a few others about him.

And yet, if we are honest, we still find our lives riddled with failure and worry and dysfunction and emptiness.

Deeper Study Guide

Dane Ortlund

This companion study guide covers all 9 chapters of Deeper, offering 10 reflection questions per chapter. By learning gospel truths, Christians will deepen their faith and grow in godliness.

One common reason we fail to leave sin behind is that we have a domesticated view of Jesus. Not a heterodox view; we are fully orthodox in our Christology. We understand that he came from heaven as the Son of God to live the life we cannot live and die the death we deserve to die. We affirm his glorious resurrection. We confess with the ancient creeds that he is truly God and truly man. We don’t have a heterodox view. We have a domesticated view that, for all its doctrinal precision, has downsized the glory of Christ in our hearts.

So we need to begin by getting clear on who this person is in whom we grow. And we start just there—he is a person. Not just a historical figure, but an actual person, alive and well today. He is to be related to. Trusted, spoken to, listened to. Jesus is not a concept. Not an ideal. Not a force. Growing in Christ is a relational, not a formulaic, experience.

Who then is this person?


Ephesians speaks of “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8). The Greek word underlying “unsearchable” occurs just one other time in the New Testament, in Romans 11:33: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” Romans 11 calls God’s wisdom and knowledge unsearchable. That makes sense. God is infinite and omniscient; of course his wisdom and knowledge are unsearchable. But Ephesians 3 calls Christ’s riches unsearchable. How so? What does it mean that there are riches in Christ and that these riches are unsearchable? That we can dig and dig but never hit bottom on them?

Let me propose an idea. Let me suggest that you consider the possibility that your current mental idea of Jesus is the tip of the iceberg. That there are wondrous depths to him, realities about him, still awaiting your discovery. I’m not disregarding the real discipleship already at play in your life and the true discoveries of the depths of Jesus Christ you have already made. But let me ask you to open yourself up to the possibility that one reason you see modest growth and ongoing sin in your life—if that is indeed the case—is that the Jesus you are following is a junior varsity Jesus, an unwittingly reduced Jesus, an unsurprising and predictable Jesus. I’m not assuming that’s the case. I’m just asking you to test yourself, with honesty.

Have we been looking at a junior varsity, decaffeinated, one-dimensional Jesus of our own making, thinking we’re looking at the real Jesus?

When Christopher Columbus reached the Caribbean in 1492, he named the natives “Indians,” thinking he had reached what Europeans of the time referred to as “the Indies” (China, Japan, and India). In fact he was nowhere close to South or East Asia. In his path were vast regions of land, unexplored and uncharted, of which Columbus knew nothing. He assumed the world was smaller than it was.

Have we made a similar mistake with regard to Jesus Christ? Are there vast tracts of who he is, according to biblical revelation, that are unexplored? Have we unintentionally reduced him to manageable, predictable proportions? Have we been looking at a junior varsity, decaffeinated, one-dimensional Jesus of our own making, thinking we’re looking at the real Jesus? Have we snorkeled in the shallows, thinking we’ve now hit bottom on the Pacific?

I’d like to mention seven facets of Christ, seven “regions” of Christ that may be under-explored in our generation. Dozens more could be considered. But we’ll restrict ourselves to these seven: ruling, saving, befriending, persevering, interceding, returning, and tenderness. The point of this exercise is to bring the living Christ himself into sharper, starker contrast, to see him loom larger and more radiant and more glorious than ever before—to trade in our snorkel and face mask for scuba gear that takes us down into depths we’ve never peered into before—and to seek Christian growth out of an accurate and ever-deepening vision of the Christ to whom we have been united.

The Real Christ

Make your growth journey a journey into Christ himself. Explore uncharted regions of who he is. Resist the tendency we all have to whittle him down to our preconceived expectation of what he must be like. Let him surprise you. Let his fullness arrest you and buoy you along. Let him be a big Christ. C. S. Lewis remarked in a 1959 letter:

“Gentle Jesus,” my elbow! The most striking thing about Our Lord is the union of great ferocity with extreme tenderness. (Remember Pascal? “I do not admire the extreme of one virtue unless you show me at the same time the extreme of the opposite virtue. One shows one’s greatness not by being at an extremity but by being simultaneously at two extremities and filling all the space between.”)

Add to this that He is also a supreme ironist, dialectician, and (occasionally) humourist. So go on! You are on the right track now: getting to the real Man behind all the plaster dolls that have been substituted for Him. This is the appearance in Human form of the God who made the Tiger and the Lamb, the avalanche and the rose. He’ll frighten and puzzle you: but the real Christ can be loved and admired as the doll can’t.1

Determine today, before God, through the Bible and good books explaining it, that you will spend the rest of your life wading into the unsearchable riches of the real Christ.

Let him, in all his endless fullness, love you into growth.


  1. C. S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, vol. 3, Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950–1963, ed. Walter Hooper (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2009), 1011; emphasis original.

This article is adapted from Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners by Dane C. Ortlund.

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