In the last two lessons we dealt with two foundational attitudes – faith and obedience. The Christian’s entire walk with God can be summed up as a daily exercise of these two attitudes. This lesson naturally flows from the previous two. When a Christian consistently exercises his faith in God through obedience to God, he will inevitably progress in his Christian maturity. This increasing maturity is what we call spiritual growth. Growth is our next attitude of the heart.
2 Thessalonians 1:3 We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.
Paul thanked God for the Thessalonians because their faith was growing abundantly. Even in the midst of great persecution and afflictions, this church’s faith endured, and grew. They remained steadfast in the faith and increased in their love for one another. God was to be thanked because it was His grace and His Holy Spirit which was producing the Thessalonians spiritual growth.
2 Peter 3:18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.
Whereas Paul showed us in 2 Thessalonians 1:3 that God is to be thanked for spiritual growth, Peter indicates that growth is the responsibility of the believer. Again, we find the paradox of human responsibility and divine sovereignty. How do these twin truths reconcile? God places the responsibility to grow spiritually upon us and then provides all the means for us to do so.
What Spiritual Growth is Not
Before we get into a Biblical understanding of what spiritual growth is, let’s consider what it is not. First of all:
Spiritual growth is not a means by which we become accepted by God.
2 Corinthians 5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Philippians 3:9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith–
We were accepted by God the moment we received Jesus Christ as our Saviour and Lord by faith. God’s acceptance of us had nothing to do with our inherent worthiness and will never have anything to do with our inherent worthiness. He has accepted us on the basis of Christ’s righteousness and not our own.
He accepted us “while we were still sinners” (Rom 5:8), while we were “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1) and while we were the “slaves of sin” (Rom 6:17). He did it, not because we deserved it, but for the “sake of Christ” (Eph 4:32). This acceptance was immediate and irrevocable (Heb 13:5).
Having been accepted by God on the basis of Christ’s righteousness and not our own merit, it makes no sense to attempt to earn His continued acceptance through obedience or spiritual growth. Every Christian should strive for continual obedience to the Lord while understanding that this is the outworking of our acceptance by God and not the means to obtain it.
What pitfalls might a Christian encounter if he believes his acceptance by God is dependent upon the rate or quality of his spiritual growth?
Next, consider that:
Spiritual maturity is not necessarily linked to how long someone has been saved.
Job 32:9 It is not the old who are wise, nor the aged who understand what is right.
Because God has chosen to use means to produce growth (His word, prayer, fellowship, obedience, etc), it is possible for one to be a believer for quite some time without seeing much spiritual growth. How is this? Spiritual growth can be stunted by the neglect of God’s means for growth. On the other hand, a relatively young believer, who has a pattern of Bible reading, prayer, fellowship and obedience can grow quite rapidly.
A Christian’s stage of spiritual growth is not necessarily related to how long he or she has been a Christian. Some grow fast, some grow slow, and some recede in their growth. Still, there should be a definite progression in ones spiritual maturity. We should expect to see spiritual growth in the life of a genuine believer.
Hebrews 5:11-14 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
Although every believer is different and rates of spiritual growth will vary, it is right to expect a reasonable rate of maturity. The writer to the Hebrews expected to find them at a certain level of maturity, but was disappointed. He even admonished them for their lack of spiritual growth.
Next, consider that:
Spiritual growth and Bible knowledge are not synonymous
1 Corinthians 8:1 Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up.
Head knowledge and spiritual growth are not the same. Growth comes as a man learns scripture, obeys scripture and becomes closer to God as a result. There are many men who can quote scripture and have knowledge of doctrine, but who do not have the spiritual wisdom or fruit which accompanies growth. A man who learns, but does not grow is susceptible to pride. He can cause undue discord in the church by his immature reactions – often towards what he perceives to be false doctrine. He has not yet grown to the point where he can handle himself with the grace, meekness or compassion that comes with spiritual maturity.
Now, understanding what spiritual growth is not let’s look at a passage of scripture which deals with the stages of spiritual growth.
Stages of Spiritual Growth
1 John 2:12-14 I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake. 13 I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I write to you, children, because you know the Father. 14 I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.
There are two different terms for children in this passage. The first in v12 seems to encompass all Christians. This is not an uncommon usage in scripture. Jesus, Paul and John all used this term to refer to the people of God in general (John 13:33, Gal 4:19, 1 John 2:1). Verse 12 indicates that there is something that all children of God have in common, regardless of their stage of growth – that their sins are forgiven for the sake of Christ.
In verse 13 we find another greek word translated “children.” This word refers to those Christians who are spiritually immature.
A spiritual child doesn’t know much. What he does know is that his sins are forgiven and that he has a new heavenly Father. For the most part, this is the entire span of his spiritual knowledge. He knows that he has entered into a new relationship with God and that’s about it.
Spiritual childhood is a necessary and wonderful stage of spiritual growth. The presence of spiritual babes in the church is an indication that a church is growing and people are getting saved. That being said, when this stage of growth persists for too long it becomes abnormal and even detrimental to a Christian and the church at large.
1 Corinthians 3:1-4 But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?
As we see in this passage, and as we have already seen in Heb 5:11-14, it is good and right to expect to find spiritual growth in the life of a believer. Where there is life, there should be growth. Stunted growth and continued spiritual barrenness should not be viewed as “normal” for the Christian life. Such a lack of maturity is an indication that there is something terribly wrong.
Paul expected a natural progression of growth to take place in the Corinthian’s lives, but he did not find it. He went on throughout his epistle to correct false doctrine and to rebuke sin. The Christian who remains immature may be the victim of false doctrine (and the unbiblical thinking which accompanies it); they may be harbouring sin in their lives; or, they may not be a Christian at all (Luke 8:11-15).
Consider your own life. Have you passed the childhood stage of spiritual growth? What is different in your life now compared to when you were a “spiritual babe”?
Ephesians 4:11-16 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
Spiritually immature Christians are susceptible to false doctrine. It is easy for them to be led astray by cults or other false teachers (Gal 1:6-7, 2 Cor 11:1-4). Like a child, they lack discernment, are vulnerable and are in need of protection from those who would do them harm (1 Cor 4:14-16). They have a basic knowledge of God but have not yet progressed to the point in their knowledge of the son of God that they can refute false doctrine or defend the faith (Eph 4:13).