Rev. Eriks is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hudsonville, Michigan.
Are you growing spiritually? Are you growing in your resistance of sin? Are you growing in faith so that more and more you are trusting in God? These questions are so important that elders often will ask them at family visitation. Even if they don’t ask the questions, this is one of their chief concerns, because they are responsible to care for your souls. Faithful husbands and fathers are concerned with the spiritual growth of their wife and children. As an individual, you should be asking yourself if you are growing spiritually. This concern for spiritual growth is scriptural. The Word of God says in II Peter 3:18, “Grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Spiritual growth is the concern of elders, fathers, husbands, and church members because where there is life there normally is growth. Yet, the child of God may experience seasons of spiritual wilting and shriveling. The Christian life is never stagnant. The Christian is either growing or falling backward. If we would chart the spiritual growth of God’s children on a graph, the line would not consistently rise. Instead the line would go up and down, but overall it would rise.
For there to be growth, there must first be life. This is true in the plant world. For a plant to grow and bear fruit, God must first give it life. The living plant grows when it receives the necessary sunlight, rain, and nutrition. So also for there to be spiritual growth there must be life. The child of God grows spiritually only because he receives from God spiritual life at the time of regeneration. Regeneration is the implanting into the heart of the elect sinner the incorruptible seed of Christ’s life. The regenerated sinner has been begotten again from above (John 3:3). This is the work and power of God’s grace. The Spirit of Christ effectually implants Christ’s life into our hearts. Where there is spiritual life, there is a personal, living knowledge of God, a personal knowledge of sin, and a desire to walk according to all of God’s commandments.
This is what it means to be a Christian. A Christian is united to Jesus Christ so that he is a partaker of Him and all His benefits by a true and living faith. Christianity is not simply saying, “I have done this” or “I do this.” Certainly Christians must live lives of godliness, but this is not what makes us Christians. A Christian is one who has received the life of Christ by the grace of God.
Scripture demands growth (II Pet. 3:18). A command to grow might seem strange. Children grow, but not because parents tell them to grow. A farmer does not stand in his fields demanding that his crops grow. But God commands His people to grow! God causes His people to grow in the way of commanding them to grow.
Although God commands us to grow, our spiritual growth is the sovereign, effectual work of God. Just as God causes growth in the creation, so also God causes spiritual growth. Growth in Christ is the gradual work of God in our lives. Never does this growth come to a completion in this life so that we can say we are fully matured. No matter how young or old we are, there is always much room for growth because in this life we struggle daily against the old man of sin. Throughout our earthly pilgrimage there is a daily struggle with sin and unbelief. There may be times of spiritual digression in life because of sin. This is why we desperately need the reminder of the command for spiritual growth.
What exactly is spiritual growth? Spiritual growth is growth in grace and in knowledge (II Pet. 3:18). This means that when we grow in knowledge we grow in grace. The two are proportionate. Growth in grace occurs when there is growth in knowledge.
Grace is a perfection of God, which means He is lovely and beautiful. God is infinitely beautiful in the glory of His infinite perfections. He is beautiful in His holiness, righteousness, wisdom, love, grace, and mercy. This beauty of God is manifest in an attitude of undeserved favor for His people in Jesus Christ. The emphasis of grace is that God’s manifold blessings of salvation are undeserved. God’s grace is most fully revealed in Jesus Christ. We are sinners deserving only the fullness of God’s fiery wrath in hell. But God, in grace, sent Jesus Christ to deliver His sheep from the punishment of sin by His substitutionary sacrifice on the cross. God’s grace is not only an attitude, but also His saving activity through Jesus Christ. Grace is also a power in our lives by which the Holy Spirit delivers us from the dominion of sin. When grace is present in our lives, we hate sin and love godliness.
Growing in grace is growing in the knowledge of God’s infinite beauty and growing in the knowledge and consciousness of His grace toward us. Spiritual growth is found in a deepening understanding of God’s gracious favor to us. An important aspect of this spiritual growth is knowing our own unworthiness. Time after time the testimony of elderly saints is not about how holy they have become, but in deep humility they confess their sinfulness. Those who are growing spiritually do not confess, “Sin is just about removed from my life.” Instead they confess, “I am the chief of sinners. I am a wretched sinner. For all these years I have walked in so much sin. And during all my years God has been so gracious.” In the light of sin, the child of God sees more and more how wretched he is and more and more God’s beautiful and amazing grace.
Corresponding with this growth in the knowledge of God’s grace is a firm resolve to live no longer to self, but to Him who loved us and gave Himself for us. When there is growth in grace, progress is made in sanctification because grace is a power in our lives. Growing in grace is increasing in the virtues that are ours by the grace of God: faith, hope, love, righteousness, and holiness.
Growth in grace is proportionate to growth in knowledge. This knowledge is the knowledge of faith, which is not just a knowledge of facts. It is the certain knowledge by which a child knows his Father intimately. When there is a growth in knowledge for the child of God, there is a growth in the confidence of salvation. The child of God experiences growing closer to God in Christ and trusting in Him for all things.
Key to spiritual growth is growth in the knowledge of truth, which is why true doctrine is so important in the church. Many today say it does not matter what you believe. The word “doctrine” is taboo in many churches today. They say it does not matter what you believe about how God created the world. Differences concerning the doctrines of the covenant or grace are probably all just a matter of semantics, they will say. There is no use in discussing these things because in the big picture it does not matter, they claim. The Word of God says that knowledge matters when it comes to spiritual growth (John 17:3). To poison the truth of God’s Word with false doctrine will stunt spiritual growth. There is no spiritual growth without growth in knowledge. God says, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. . .” (Hosea 4:6). Therefore, true knowledge and true doctrine are vital for spiritual growth. The more we know Him, the more we love Him and the more we desire to serve Him.
Just as God causes the living things of His creation to grow through the means of sunlight, water, and proper nutrition, so also God uses means for our spiritual growth. The chief means God uses for spiritual growth is the preaching of the gospel, through which we receive the true knowledge of Him. Through the chief means of grace God gives the spiritual nutrients needed for growth. I Peter 2:2 teaches this: “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby.” This means that growing in grace and knowledge takes place by feeding on the preached Word. This is the means God has given for spiritual growth. The children of God spiritually are like newborn babies, which need mother’s milk. For newborns, mother’s milk is the best thing. That milk provides all the nutrients babies need to be healthy. This milk is a picture of the preaching. We need “sincere milk.” The word “sincere” means pure or unadulterated. For spiritual growth, the child of God needs the truth of God’s Word. Anything else is detrimental to the spiritual health of God’s people. Watered down truth is not sufficient. Preaching poisoned by false doctrine is spiritually harmful. The truth of God’s Word is what feeds and nourishes our hungry and thirsty souls.
Obeying the command to grow in grace and knowledge demands a desire for the milk of God’s Word. This means that the child of God must attend church regularly to grow. The child of God arrives at the worship service Sunday morning and Sunday evening with a voracious spiritual appetite that can be satisfied only with the truth of God’s Word. We know our need for the preaching. Without it we cannot grow spiritually. Without it we shrivel up spiritually. What happens if a man skips meals for days on end? He shrivels up and eventually he dies. The same thing happens spiritually to the one who misses the spiritual feasts of the preaching each Sunday.
God has provided other means for our spiritual growth to supplement the preaching. The truth of the preaching is reinforced by the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which “more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel, namely, that He grants us freely the remission of sin and life eternal, for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross” (Heidelberg Catechism, q. 66). The sacraments direct our faith to the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, which is the only ground of our salvation.
God has given to us His Word to read and study, as spiritual snacks between feasts on the Lord’s Day. God gives spiritual growth to His people by means of the faithful study of His Word. The reading and study of God’s Word at our times of family worship is vital for spiritual growth in our covenant homes. Fathers and husbands, we cannot expect spiritual growth in our homes without daily reading and discussing God’s Word with our families. As individuals, we cannot expect spiritual growth without reading and studying God’s Word, which “is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (II Tim. 3:16, 17).
With the study of God’s Word, God has given to us prayer for our spiritual growth. God blesses with spiritual growth when we ask for it in prayer. The Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 45 (A. 116), in the section on prayer, emphasizes this when it says, “God will give His grace and Holy Spirit to those only who with sincere desires continually ask them of Him, and are thankful for them.” For our spiritual welfare, let us daily read God’s Word and pray.
Not only must the child of God have the right spiritual food, he must also avoid all that is spiritually harmful to growth. In a home, parents will keep what is physically harmful from their children by installing safety latches on some cupboards or by placing harmful medicines and chemicals out of reach of their small children. So also spiritually, the child of God puts away what is spiritually poisonous.
Spiritual growth requires putting off all wickedness. II Peter 3:17teaches this, as the context to the command to grow in grace and knowledge. This verse says, “Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know these things before, beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own steadfastness.” The word “beware” here is a military term that means “be alert.” A watchman on duty must be alert in his watch because an enemy could come and destroy his unit. So also the child of God must beware the great power of wickedness. The enemy that we face is strong and must never be underestimated. The danger is that we would be turned from godliness to worldliness. Worldliness so easily rubs off on the church because we have an ally to the world in us: our sinful flesh.
Such awareness is necessary because, when clinging to sin and the world of ungodliness, we will not grow. This is true because sin spoils the reception of God’s Word. When we are walking in sin willingly and have no desire to give up that sin, our ability to receive the Word of God will be affected. When we are enamored with sin, we do not want to hear week after week that we are sinners in need of God’s grace. We will not grow when we are under sin’s control.
It is important that in our covenant homes we promote an atmosphere of spiritual growth. If the television or the latest music of the world or the filth of the Internet dominates in our homes, there will not be an atmosphere that promotes spiritual growth. Our homes must be focused on God’s Word. This doesn’t mean reading God’s Word all day long. But we strive every moment to live in conformity to the Word.
Through these means, God grants the spiritual growth that He commands. Seeing this spiritual growth is not always easy. When our children grow physically, we cannot watch that growth. We become aware of it when shoes pinch the feet, or when ankles that were once covered by the pants are now exposed. So also in our spiritual lives, we don’t see the growth at the moment. When we reflect on our lives and all the hardships and struggles, we see how God used them for our spiritual growth.
When we grow spiritually, God is glorified, for this growth takes place only by the power of God’s grace. Are you growing spiritually? Give thanks to Him for this growth and the means He provides for this growth to take place.