The subject of spiritual growth has been and is presently receiving much attention in the religious press. A great deal of this is being specifically directed toward youth. Campus Crusade is a well oiled machine that grinds out voluminous material for college youth. There are two main gears that control its movement. The one is to reach unconverted young people and bring them to salvation in Christ, the other is to bring the gospel to those who already profess to be Christian young people, but do not experience the full potential of their spiritual life. This kind of approach is representative of so much evangelical literature that is geared to deliver young people from the status of “Carnal Christian” to “the abundant Christian life.”
There is something very dangerous about this. Its theology is rooted in the neo-Pentecostal movement. The implication is that spiritual growth is impossible without a “spirit baptism”. Mere regeneration is not enough. We need to receive more, a baptism of the spirit. This opens up the way to spiritual power, growth, and victory. Following this line of thought, young people are told that they may have been born in Christian homes, catechized by the church, had Christian instruction, yet not be Christian. In order to be sure one is a Christian he needs an “experience”. We need an encounter with God. When this happens, the Spirit takes over our life and we can “feel the difference.” Our whole life changes and we have a warm feeling inside and a glow of contentment. When you get this, you have what it takes to grow.
Closely connected with this is the foolish notion that such a person is able to reach spiritual perfection. You can detect this emphasis in evangelical novels, devotional materials, so called Christian movies. If you get the spirit, former appetites disappear, you are a different person, you are spirit filled. The impression is left that you reach such spiritual ecstasy that the whole world appears to be filled with love and good.
To deal with this error, we have to do two things: first, we have to ask what is spiritual growth and then consider how we grow spiritually. We will consider the former aspect in this article.
I cannot imagine a Christian young person that is not personally interested in his own spiritual growth. This interest is stimulated by a keen awareness that we have to face a clever and powerful enemy who would destroy our faith. If we truly love God, we are personally interested in growing up so that we can deal with these temptations lest we be destroyed.
To begin with, we suggest that spiritual growth means growing in understanding. From childhood on, you have been instructed in truths concerning God, yourself, the world in which you live, and the need for salvation in Jesus Christ; God has given to us the gift of intellect, the ability to learn, to retain ideas in our minds, to reason, to interpret the meaning of so many things. By nature this gift of the mind is completely under the power of sin. Apart from God’s work of salvation, we “mind the things of the flesh,” Rom. 8:5. We are “carnally minded,” Rom. 8:6. When Christ works in our hearts by His Word and Spirit, this is changed. We are able to put on the new man which after God is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him, Col. 3:10. Hence, Paul exhorts, “And this I pray that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; that ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ,” Philippians 1:9.
Spiritual growth involves understanding. The opposite is also true. Ignorance destroys. “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge, because thou has rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee,” Hosea 4:6. This lack of knowledge was not due to the fact that no one informed Israel. They were informed, but they didn’t want what they heard. Their ignorance was rooted in outright rejection. What a warning for young people. You have every opportunity to grow in understanding. You have Christian parents in the home who guide you in understanding life. You sit under the pure preaching of the word and have this further explained in catechism. Some of you go to our own Protestant Reformed high school, others to Christian schools. What are you doing with all this knowledge? Are you understanding it? Do you see how the Bible gives direction for the whole of our life? Bible history is essential for understanding. Bible truths form the foundation for our Christian life today. With the Word of God as our key to interpretation, we can understand God’s purpose with history, we can recognize that the times in which we live serve for the development of sin and the salvation of the Church.
Ask yourself seriously, are you growing in understanding? You have more than facts—you can interpret these facts and understand the whys of life. This must be your goal with all the instruction you receive.
Closely connected with understanding is conviction. Understanding is foremost a matter of the mind as controlled by the heart. Conviction is a matter of the will as controlled by the heart.
To grow spiritually, we must reach a point at which webelieve what we are taught. There is a difference between nodding your head when your teacher, minister, or parent tells you that this or that is right. Little children are the best at doing this, so much that, Jesus used their implicit faith as a model for our Christian response, Matt. 18:3. You must come to believe that what they say is right, not just because they say it but because you believe it.
This conviction is expressed in two ways. First, it is a response of faith to the knowledge you have come to understand. Most of you young people know what truth is taught in our Reformed confessions. It is summarized in our catechism books. Spiritual growth takes you beyond a simple understanding. It leads you to a response. You become convinced that it is the only truth faithful to God’s Word. Such conviction leads you to put great value upon it, for when we act out of conviction, we act responsibly. Then we will not leave the faith, but will continue to confess that which we are convinced is true. Secondly, conviction is expressed as assurance of our personal salvation. Salvation is not a matter of the mind. It involves the mind, but is not limited to it. Salvation is ultimately a matter of the heart. The heart influences our will so that we respond personally and say that we are included in the blood of Christ that taketh away the sin of the world, we are one of God’s elect, we are also going to go to heaven, the hope of the redeemed. Such growth leads us to confess, “I will delight myself in thy commandments which I have loved,” Ps: 119:47. Paul also expressed it this way, “I am persuaded that neither death nor life . . . shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord,” Rom. 8:38, 39.
Since salvation is rooted in our hearts, the basic spiritual growth is that of love. Our heart is the fountain of love. Isn’t it significant that God’s first work of salvation is in the heart? Regeneration is God’s act of implanting a new seed in our hearts. So significant is this that Jesus said, “Except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of heaven,” John 3:3. This rebirth is a demonstration of God’s love to us. No one can be born of his own will, no more than it was possible with our natural birth. God freely in, love gives us a new heart. As this influence of love grows in our hearts, our understanding becomes enlightened and our will becomes activated to do God’s will. All of this is rooted in the heart.
Hence spiritual growth involves our response to God for His love. The apostle John suggests this response, “We love him, because He first loved us,” I John 4:19. Paul in the Spirit .expresses it so beautifully, “That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints, what is the breadth, and the length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge that ye might be filled with the fulness of God,” Eph. 3:17-19.
This love of God in Christ is expressed personally in the desire to be right with God. We know that God is a holy God and He has established His will for us in His Word, especially in the commandments. We know that our place in the covenant is a free gift of God to us through Jesus Christ. In our response of love to God, we must desire God’s friendship. We thrill to hear Him speak to us through His Word. We desire to please God and do His will. We desire to see His smile of approval upon us. We desire to have the assurance that He is blessing us. All this is rooted in our love of God.
Look at your life as a young person. Are you growing in your love of God? Does the fact that God has included you in His eternal covenant cause you to respond in love to God? Is God precious to you? Does your prayer life show that you love God? (You know it is easiest to speak to a real friend.) Do you do this while at the same time you reverence God’s holy name?
This is the final aspect of spiritual growth. It follows the proceeding three. As we intimated, growth in love is not some sentimental feeling for God, but is a spiritualresponse of joy in His covenant friendship. That love can best be tested by our conduct. This is true in our experience with one another. How do you show your parents that you love them? Yes, by telling them so, but more significantly, by obeying them.
Growth in love means two things.
First, we believe what God says in His Word and hold that for truth. Imagine the contempt, when man presumes that God is not able to reveal His will to us without making mistakes, without having proud man to decipher the message. This is the boldest effrontery of man upon God’s love. How can anyone truly say that he loves God, and turn right around and distort or deny His Word? He can’t. So young people, spiritual growth means that we always reverence God’s Holy Word. Love requires this of us. We recognize God’s greatness, His ability to reveal His truth to us, the value of God’s Word for us. Spiritual growth requires of us diligence in reading and studying God’s Word and receiving it as the Word of God.
Secondly, we must do more than read the Bible. We must obey what God commands. Love requires this of us. “We walk by faith not by sight,” II Cor. 5:7. To walk by sight means we ignore the Bible and do things our own way. To walk by faith means we guide our lives according to the will of God given to us in the Bible.
It is this last idea that produces the best objective proof of our spiritual growth. Are you able to turn away from the devil, to resist temptation, to delight in doing the will of God and find peace in His way? As we grow spiritually, this should be true of each of us. The more we are on the way of spiritual growth, the easier this will become. Not one of us is able to do this perfectly. We all must strive daily; yet the outcome of such striving differs from one child of God to another.
That difference is the degree of spiritual growth.
How much are you growing?