I trust most of you reading this article want to grow into spiritual maturity in the Lord Jesus Christ. If we’ve walked with Christ for a while we just instinctively know this is the right thing to do. But in case anyone asks why we should desire such growth, here are the reasons we would supply.
- Our spiritual growth is the right thing to do. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, having rehearsed “elementary doctrines of Christ,” exhorts his readers to “go on to maturity” (Hebrews 6:1). Paul chided the Corinthians for their spiritual immaturity, their yet remaining on spiritual milk, not solid food (1 Corinthians 3:1-3). I think we understand from life that it is better to do well in the tasks in which we are engaged.
- Our spiritual growth pleases God. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews prays God would equip his readers with “everything good” that they “may do his will, working in you that which is pleasing in his sight. . .” (13:20-21). Just as good children wish to please their parents, and do so, in part, by “growing up,” so disciples of the Lord wish to please their heavenly Father, in part, by spiritually growing into maturity.
- Our spiritual growth is needed by others. Individual people, our communities, our nation and the world need us to be salt and light.
First, salt. William Barclay notes salt in the ancient world had three connotations:
*purity. While the world does not expect Christians to be perfect, they do expect us to be better than they are; otherwise what option is there to one who wishes to leave a sinful lifestyle?
*preservation. In an era before refrigerators, salting of meat would retard spoilage. Even a relatively small number of Christians active in society can help preserve the rot that infects it. What is necessary, though, is for Christians not to hide safely in the salt shaker, but rather be active in the meat of the culture around us.
*flavor. A moderate use of salt enhances the flavor of many foods. Mature Christians, though not naïve to tragedy nor indifferent to injustice, tend to love life more and help others do so as well.
Second, light. We are to illumine both the evils that are hiding in the darkness and also the blessings that are found in Christ. We are to do this for one another, but not just for fellow believers. Barclay wisely notes, “Jesus did not say, ‘You are the light of the Church’; he said, ‘You are the light of the world,’ and in a man’s life in the world his Christianity should be evident to all.” (William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, Revised Edition, 1975, pages 118-123.)
- Our spiritual growth is good for us. Our relationship with God in Christ becomes more intimate and precious. We increasingly like what we see when we look in the mirror. We become more the people we want to be. We mess up a lot less and, therefore, do not suffer as many consequences as we once did. Our heart is blessed as we hear the voice of our Lord say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23).
GROWTH IN CHRIST IS A TEAM EFFORT
How Do We Grow in Christ?
If we agree that spiritual growth is desirable, then how do we do it? I believe there are three parties involved: ourselves, others and God. Growth either doesn’t happen or else it distorts when we involve just one or two of these. Each of the three is needed.
(In our Late Summer 2013 Newsletter, Vol-ume XXXIV Number l, I wrote an article entitled That Very Important Little Word “And.” See our webpage for the article.)
Our key text is in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 2, verses 12-13:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.
- We have to do our part. The text says, “. . . [you] work out . . .” We are not to remain passive and wait for the Lord to do it all for us. I’ve actually met people whose attitude is, “I really want to be a more godly person and I know God wants this, too. I really hope God will touch me and make me so.” Period! With no activity contemplated or enacted on their part. Wrong!
The Epistles were written, in part, to instruct Christians in how to grow into spiritual maturity. Look at how often the Epistle writers make use of commandment words. For example:
From Paul: “So shun youthful passions . . .” (2 Timothy 2:22). You actively shun these things, not wait passively for God to make your dispositions different. Also, “. . . walk by the Spirit . . .” (Galatians 5:16). You walk, not wait for God to propel you down the road.
From Peter: “Humble yourselves . . .” (1 Peter 5:6). You humble yourself, not wait for God to do it. (Isn’t our experience that if we don’t, He will?!)
From John: “. . . Test the spirits to see whether they are of God . . .” (1 John 4:1). You test the Spirits, not rely on God to do it and then inform you of the answer.
You get the idea. We have our part to play in spiritual growth. Isn’t this similar to our doing our part in ministry? Look at the many examples in the Gospels of cooperative ministry between people and Jesus. Two examples:
The servants filled six stone jars full of water and Jesus made it wine (John 2:1-11). While Jesus could have turned air into wine, He didn’t. The servants had their part to play.
Four men carried a paralytic to Jesus, lowering the man through a hole they made in the roof; then Jesus forgave and healed the man (Mark 2:1-12). While Jesus could have forgiven and healed the man from a distance, He didn’t. The man’s friends had their part to play.
So, first, in our spiritual growth we have to be active. But there’s more.
- We need the help of others. Our text says, “. . . As you have always obeyed . . .” As a church leader Paul knew the authority God gave him over the flock.
They were discipled into spiritual maturity as they followed his leadership.
When God calls individuals to come to Him it is in the context of a community (a Kingdom) He established. Although we must not so lean on the community that we have no faith of our own, actively participating in the community is an essential part of being a Christian.
No one has all the gifts of the Spirit. Paul reminded the Corinthians that soloist Christianity would not work nor was it God’s plan. He wrote, “But as it is, God so arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body” (1 Corinthians 12:18-20).
Three of the epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus) are devoted to the descriptions, qualifications and duties of the three-fold ordained ministry of bishop, presbyter (elder or pastor or priest) and deacon.
The organized Church with (ordained) orders of ministry is God’s idea. When people started coming to faith in Christ on the isle of Crete, Paul left Titus there to oversee (the word in Greek is the same as “be a bishop”) the work and appoint presbyters in every town (Titus 1:5).
Priscilla and Aquila took the enthusiastic disciple Apollos aside “and explained the Way of God to him more accurately” (Acts 18:24-26).
So, in our spiritual growth we have our part to play and we need the help of others.
- Only the grace of God will give the increase. The text says, “. . . for God is at work in you . . .”
Go back to those two examples of cooperative ministry just cited.
Yes, the servants filled the jars full of water. Jesus did not just make wine suddenly appear. The servants had their part to play, but only Jesus could make it wine.
Yes, four men carried a paralytic to Jesus. Although Jesus could have healed from a distance, He did not do so in this case. The men had their part to play, but only Jesus could forgive and heal the paralyzed man.
Even when we see God using people to work miracles and to heal — in the Acts of the Apostles, throughout the history of the Church, and today — it is always God at work through them (and us).
Why Might We Not Make Use of All Three of these Parties?
We might not play our part in our spiritual growth either because we are lazy (we want God or others to do it for us) or because we falsely think any effort on our part will rob God of the credit and of His glory. But we do have our part to play.
We might not make use of the help of others either because we are too proud or because we have been hurt by trusting the wrong people previously. But we do need the help of others.
We might not ask for God’s grace be-cause we think that God’s disapproval of our sin means God has turned His back on us completely, or because we know that to ask God for His help means we would beholden to Him and we don’t want to do that. God loves us and He tenderly cares for us. He wants to help us grow. Without His help we cannot grow. But with it, and with the help of others and with our own efforts we can. +