A Four-Stroke Engine Drives Spiritual Growth
August 08, 2018 | Andrew Davis
Knowledge - Faith - Character - Action
In 1876, a German engineer named Niklaus Otto developed the first internal combustion engine using a piston in a cylinder, following a cycle of four strokes endlessly repeated: 1) intake; 2) compression; 3) ignition; 4) exhaust. At the end of the exhaust cycle, the piston comes to the top of the cylinder to begin the cycle again. This four-stroke cycle powers engines all over the world to this day. Of course, a driver motoring along the road does not generally think about this four-part cycle—it just goes on and on, whether he is aware of it or not, and the vehicle makes progress. So it is with the engine that drives sanctification. Without our being conscious of it occurring, knowledge produces faith, faith transforms character, character results in actions, and actions feed knowledge. I call this the “K-F-C-A cycle.”
Knowledge Increases Faith
"The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith’” (Luke 17:5). Just as it is God who gives faith (Eph. 2:8-9), so it is God who gives growth in faith. Faith originally comes from hearing factual truth from the Word of God: “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17, ESV). The same way that faith first springs in the heart, it also grows to maturity. We grow in spiritual knowledge factually by saturating our minds in the Bible (by personal spiritual disciplines, hearing good preaching, reading good books, etc.). The Bible reveals that life experience rightly interpreted by the Word of God also gives ground for growing faith. David learned to trust God while nursing (Psalm 22:9), and while killing a lion and a bear that threatened sheep he was watching. David connected the dots of his experiences and believed: the same God who fed him as an infant and delivered him from the beasts would deliver him from Goliath in battle (1 Sam. 17:37). Likewise, Jesus’ disciples should have learned from the experience of seeing him feed five thousand and four thousand people (Matt. 14 and 15) and applied it when they forgot to bring bread (Matt. 16; Mark 6:52). Jesus actually chided their weak faith, saying in effect those experiences should have been ground for growing faith. The more we venture forth in trust in the Lord and see him faithful, the greater our faith will be. George Mueller’s faith grew over decades of seeing the Lord provide for over ten thousand orphans in answer to fifty thousand specific prayers! Faith grows by factual and experiential knowledge.
Faith Transforms Character
As a person believes the promises of God, their heart is transformed and made ever-increasingly Christlike. Peter said that the Gentiles he preached to had their hearts “purified by faith” (Acts 15:9). And in 1 Peter 1:13-2:3, Peter unfolds how trusting in God’s Word changes our hearts. The central exhortation is: “Just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16). The biggest enemy to this holiness is evil desire: “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance” (verse 14). In order to battle these pervasive evil desires, we have to be ready for internal action: “Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed” (verse 13). The battle for holiness, then, comes down to hope: setting our hope (faith) fully on the grace to be given us in the future (verse 21). Thus faith changes character. And Paul prays for the Ephesian Christians that “Christ would dwell in your hearts by faith” (Eph.3:16). In the context, it is clear that he is praying for a powerful experience of spiritual growth by the Spirit in their hearts, a growth that only happens by faith. As that growth happens, the Ephesians will be “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19). Consequently, faith transforms character.
Character Produces Action
God has ordained an unbreakable connection between the nature of the tree and the fruit that it bears: “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good” (Matt. 12:33). If the heart is made good, purified by faith (Acts 15:9), then it is capable of producing good fruit. And if the heart is increasingly conformed to Christ, it is increasingly capable of doing works that are pleasing to him. Thus I am arguing that Jesus would say, “Make a tree better and its fruit will be better.” This is the theory of the matter—that increasingly Christlike character produces increasingly Christlike works.
Action Promotes Knowledge
“Knowledge” is “factual and experiential spiritual information.” Therefore it stands to reason that, the more we do such actions as reading, memorizing, and studying the Bible, the more we will grow in knowledge. And the more obedient we are in our actions, the more experiences we will have of God’s faithfulness. Habitual obedience fuels an ever-increasing storehouse of spiritual knowledge. This is just common sense. But the Bible also teaches it plainly:
Understanding promotes obedience: “Give me understanding, and I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart” (Psalm 119:34).
Obedience promotes understanding: “I have more understanding than the elders, for I obey your precepts” (Psalm 119:100).
The more we understand of God’s Word, the more we will obey; the more we obey, the more we will understand. So also Jesus said, the more we have (know) and obey his commands, the more he will disclose (reveal) himself to us (John 14:21). Obedience promotes knowledge.
An Upward Spiral Which Becomes a Pyramid
Thus I have argued for a cycle: knowledge promotes increased faith, increased faith transforms character, transformed character bears fruit in action, and increasingly obedient action feeds growing knowledge. However, it would not do to see this as a two-dimensional cycle, like a dog chasing its tail and never seeming to go anywhere. Paul spoke of the “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14, ESV), ascending higher and higher in Christlikeness, aiming at perfection. As we go around and around in the cycle, K-F-C-A, K-F-C-A, K-F-C-A, we will be making “upward” progress in Christlikeness— the four corners go upward. And since all of this upward progress is focused on Christ—knowledge of Christ, faith in Christ, character like Christ’s, obedience in the pattern of Christ—I find it helpful to conceive of the four legs of the cycle coming together to form a pyramid, with Christ as the pinnacle.