The subject of spiritual growth focuses our attention upon the process whereby we become spiritual grown-ups or mature adults in the Lord. This is a life-long process which does not reach its fulfillment in this life, but through death attains its exalted height in the perfection of the life to come. No matter how old we may be, we must continue to grow spiritually.
Since such growth encompasses the whole of our life, we do well to ask ourselves what does it mean to be spiritually strong. What must be the goal for which we strive as people of God?
In determining what spiritual strength or maturity really is, we should consider three things.
First, a spiritually strong person is in a right relationship with God. By this we mean that he knows that he is spiritually dead in himself and that his life with God is a result of God’s reaching down and drawing him into His covenant friendship. A sure sign of spiritual immaturity is having the false idea that God is obligated to save us because we are good persons. The proof of spiritual growth is that one is willing to acknowledge that salvation is God’s work from beginning to end. A person who is spiritually strong confesses that the only hope of his being at peace with God is through the blood of Jesus Christ who has paid for his sins through His work on the cross. It follows from this that the purpose of our life is not to seek our own pleasure but to serve God and glorify Him forever. Spiritual strength is the ability to forsake our own will and do the will of our Father Who is in heaven. Attend to I John 1:6-7, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and walk in darkness, we lie and do not the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another and the blood of Jesus cleanseth from all sin.”
Secondly, spiritual maturity is distinguished by a proper relationship with our neighbors. This follows as the second table of the law follows the first. Hence, John adds, “He that saith he is in the light and hateth his brother is in darkness even until now. He that loveth his brother abideth in the light and there is no occasion for stumbling in him.” I John 2:9-10. This love encompasses every neighbor, our Christian brother or sister, and even our enemies. The more we grow spiritually, the more we seek the good of our neighbor, we enjoy fellowship within the covenant of grace, we desire to lead the unbeliever into that fellowship. The fruits of the Spirit described in Gal. 5:22 are to be directed to our neighbor, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance, against such there is no law.”
Thirdly, spiritual growth enables us to have the strength to deal with life itself. This follows from the preceding. If we are in a proper relationship with God and our neighbors, we will be able to deal with life’s problems. The Bible speaks a great deal about this. When we are spiritually strong, we are able to deal with the problem of temptation. “Resist the devil and he will flee from thee,” James 4:7. We will be able to endure persecution. “Blessed are thy that are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Matt. 5:11-12. Note carefully, they will be able to say that persecution is blessed! That takes spiritual maturity. The same holds true for being able to face the trials of life. We must be spiritually mature if we are to face hospitalization, pain, even death itself. We can understand the words of Heb. 12:6, “For whom, the Lord loveth He chasteneth,” only from the vantage point of spiritual strength. This enables us to bear pain, to be chronically sick, to face the loneliness of death.
It is usually a long road between our being born again and our entrance into the kingdom of heaven. This road is marked by change, the greatest change being from death unto life. As we are born into this world, we are spiritually dead in sin. The Psalmist declared, “Behold I was shapen in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me,” Ps. 51:5. By nature we are children of our father the devil, John 8:44. As such we are born with Adam’s guilt which is sufficient to sentence us to an eternity of divine punishment. By virtue of natural conception and birth, we are brought into this world with a nature that is prone to hate God and our neighbor. We say with Paul, “For that which I do I allow not, for what I would that do I not, but what I hate, that do I,” Rom. 7:15. If there is to be any spiritual growth, we have to be born again, we need a beginning of a new and different kind of life, that which is from above, John 3. Because this is true, we can search the Scriptures and learn that God describes our spiritual life as the product of being born again and compares our spiritual growth to that of our physical development.
Our spiritual man of God is conceived by God Himself through His Holy Spirit. Christ mentions this in his conversation with Nicodemus, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven.” This rebirth has its beginning in God’s act of implanting the seed of the new life in our hearts. “Of His own will begat He us with the Word of truth,” James 1:18. “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God which liveth and abideth forever,” I Peter 1:23. Just as a baby is conceived in the womb when the ovum is fertilized, so our hearts need a spiritual seed, a new beginning through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Through this conception, we are born into conscious life with God. The baby conceived in the womb is soon born into the world. He begins to respond to life, he cries, he eats, he smiles. So the child of God begins to enjoy the new life when he is consciously born into fellowship with God. He knows God, he loves God, he seeks to serve God, all of this indicating that he is in truth born of God. Hence we read, “Everyone that loveth is born of God,” I John 4:7.
At this point, spiritual growth begins and slowly develops. Such a child of God, whether he is born of God as a child or as an old man, needs spiritual baby food. “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the Word that ye may grow thereby,” I Peter 2:2. Hence Paul wrote the church at Corinth, “I have fed you with milk and not with meat; for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able,” I Cor. 3:2. When we are spiritual babes, we need spiritual food that we are able to take into our spiritual mouth by faith, chew it, swallow it, digest it. The more we grow, the more meat we will be able to handle. Scripture also mentions that a person who is a spiritual child, will act like a child in distinction from a mature person. Certain things characterize childishness in our everyday life. A child can easily be persuaded to change his mind. A child is preoccupied with petty things and can “fight over nothing”. It is a simple fact that spiritual growth takes a person through such a stage. This necessitates a warning, “That ye henceforth be no more children tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine,” Eph. 4:14. Paul, the aged and experienced servant of God had to warn Timothy, the young newcomer, “But shun profane and vain babblings; for they will increase unto more ungodliness,” II Tim. 2:16. Part of growing up is being able to ignore childish spats and to deal with important differences in a disciplined way.
As a child grows up, he must be entrusted with more responsibility. Soon he demonstrates that he is trustworthy. Part of this is due to the fact that he gains understanding. He is able to see life as God has laid it out and therefore he can deal with the presence of sin and temptation. Persecution is viewed as a divine necessity and he understands the value of sickness. Until one reaches such a point, he will struggle like a child who has to live with something he doesn’t like. A child can kick and scream if he doesn’t get his way. We sometimes act that way spiritually before our Father in heaven. Christ told His disciples, “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now,” John 16:12. They could not perceive them at this point of spiritual growth. Later, after His suffering and death and especially after the Holy Spirit would be given them, they would grow up and be in a position to receive such teaching.
Finally, the Bible also speaks of spiritual adulthood. Such a person can understand profound spiritual truths. He can eat a diet of, meat. His faith, enables him to bow before truths which are hard to be understood. Listen to II Peter 3:15-16, “And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation, even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things in which are somethings hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.” A spiritually mature person will believe what God says, even though it is hard to comprehend. Similarly, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction for instruction in righteousness that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works,” II Tim. 3:16-17. The more we grow up, the more we see the need of doing God’s will which leads unto good works. Hence the child of God reaches his chief end, to glorify God in everything he does.
We have concluded that the Bible speaks of spiritual growth as that of being born, developing, and finally attaining unto manhood. There is a close analogy between our physical growth and our spiritual.
The question remains: does that spiritual growth coincide with our physical? Is it so that we grow spiritually as we grow physically?
Here we must be careful not to push a point beyond its validity. Generalities are dangerous. It can be witnessed by anyone that there are times when an adult is not as spiritually mature as a young person. Age does not have everything to do with growth. The same thing is true for a person converted later in life. Such a person usually, and again we must be careful with generalities, does not attain to the spiritual level of development as one who may have been brought up within the covenant from infancy on. In some of these instances, there may be a flurry of “first love” but that love must be tested in the crucible of experience and even opposition.
We may conclude, that within the sphere of the covenant, spiritual growth usually coincides with physical development. As a person gets older and matures physically, he also grows spiritually and becomes wiser in the service of God. “The glory of young men is their strength; and the beauty of old men is the gray head,” Prov. 20:29. “I have written unto you, fathers, because ye have known him that is from the beginning,” I John 2:14.
Spiritual growth is a life-long experience. We cannot say, “I am grown up.” Perfection is the ultimate goal of our spiritual growth, and that will not be realized on this side of the grave. We will attain that when we pass through the shadow of death. Just imagine what amount of growing up we will do when we die. This in itself sounds strange, yet it is true. Through death, we will attain unto the perfection of our soul, we will leave sin and death behind and enter into a greater life of praise and service unto God. When our Lord will return and raise our bodies from the grave, we will then reach that perfection God has eternally intended for us. We will then be fully mature, each in his own place and degree in the kingdom of heaven.
We must next consider, D.V., in what ways we must grow up spiritually.