Some educators talk about child development as ratchet-based. A ratchet on a windup spring keeps the wheel from turning backward – it can only be turned forward. So children grow bigger, never smaller. Vocabulary increases, never decreases. Thinking becomes more complex, never more simple.
This “truism” is, of course, not always true. The child who was enthused about learning in his early years may get “burned out” and wash out academically by the time he gets to junior high. The child who is growing normally may suddenly encounter an illness or accident which sends his physical and intellectual abilities into a tail-spin. People as a whole stop growing at some point. Otherwise people would be 90 feet tall by the time they are 90. Our minds and bodies also begin to deteriorate with age. The fact is, we even shrink a bit physically as we age.
So the ratchet-based idea is only true some of the time and part of the time for some people.
The same is true of our growth in Christian living, this thing the Bible calls sanctification. In a perfect world, our faith would always grow stronger and more mature. Ideally, we want to be stronger Christians when we are 90 than when we are 19. In some cases, this is happily true.
But not always. There are children whose gift of faith is the envy of any jaded adult. There are weary and compromised adults who would do well to regress back to the child-like faith of their youth.
Someone has observed that if we trace King David’s faith from the peaks in the valley of Elah when he defeated Goliath to the abyss on the roof of his palace when his lustful eye led to an adulterous affair and murder, you would not see a ratchet-based development of his faith-life.
The mountains and valleys of our walk with God are not so neatly defined. It is dangerous to become complacent in our faith, to cheapen the grace which cost God the Son His very life.
When it comes to our right standing with God, our justification, all of this is a done deal. Jesus said: “It is finished.” By faith in His complete payment, our forgiveness is total, complete, free and undeserved. When it comes to the fruits of faith, our becoming more Christ-like in our lives, this is a work of God in progress. Till the day we die, the Christian within us dukes it out with the sinful nature. That is why it is so important for Christians to stay in training, to nourish their faith with regular use of the Word and Sacrament. This is how Peter concludes the last chapter of his last letter: “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”