15 For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, 16 I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. 17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know Him better. 18 I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which He has called you, the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and His incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of His mighty strength, 20 which He exerted in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under His feet and appointed Him to be head over everything for the Church, 23 which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills everything in every way.
11 It was He who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 16 From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more.
20 You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. 21 Surely you heard of Him and were taught in Him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
The Bible speaks about Christian growth.
The apostle Peter concludes his second letter with these words: “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18)
When we are born physically, we are not born fully grown, and the same principle applies to our spiritual lives.
Children of God, at the moment of accepting salvation through Christ, are born as spiritual babies. We do not instantly become perfect disciples of Jesus. In fact, perfection cannot be attained in this life, for the simple reason that we remain sinners. Forgiven yes, but perfect – no.
Occasionally it takes a long time for us to realise this truth. Many Christians – new ones especially – with all the best intentions try so hard to do everything just right, only to discover that their very nature will fight against that desire, with the result that so many Christians feel they’ve let God and themselves down. In the most extreme and sad cases you find some who just give up completely, eventually going back to their former lives.
A conversion experience does not completely solve the sin problem. And many, because of their failure to think only pure thoughts and do only the right thing, but instead find themselves hamstrung by their inability to break enslaving habits, consequently failing to live a totally transformed Christian life, hobble along in unbelief.
We need to face up to the fact that the new birth produces not a mature Christian, but a spiritual infant who is capable however, of growth. And here is where can take encouragement.
We will always take backward steps, but we can and do take forward steps too, and that is why we should keep striving to be more Christlike.
Only growth, time, and experience will solve some problems.
This is why we need Christian growth.
Without it, all we are left with is spiritual immaturity, and this creates conflict in the Church.
One of the best known examples of early conflict in the Church was in Corinth. They had huge issues, but the reasons for their troubles were clearly spelled out by Paul: “Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly - mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men?” (1 Corinthians 3:1-3) All of their issues stemmed from spiritual immaturity.
To achieve maturity in any area is never easy, and this is especially true in the spiritual realm. Most Church conflicts are because of, and can be traced back to the immaturity of an individual or a group within the congregation.
The result is that the work of the Kingdom is hampered, and sadly, in some cases it is crippled almost beyond repair.
On the other hand though, if there is growth, it creates a stability and steadfastness of character that reveals the value of being a follower of Jesus Christ. People will be attracted to a Church which is growing spiritually.
When there is growth in the Church, there is a new awareness of the difference between truth and deception, and at the same time there is a desire among the individuals in the Church to pursue truth, rather than deception.
It’s one thing for a preacher to say, “Thou shalt not…” But it’s quite another when the truth of God’s Word grips the hearts of people with such conviction that they find themselves wanting to obey God out of a deep love for Jesus, rather than simply because we are told ‘Thou shalt not.’
That’s what spiritual growth is all about.
Continued immaturity though, makes effective Christian witness virtually impossible. Hebrews 5:12–13 says “Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s Word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.”
In every area of life it is assumed that growth and progress will follow birth, and there needs to be that same expectation in the life and growth of individual Christians and the Church.
An infant can understand only the things of an infant. A toddler cannot do the work of an adult.
The point is that we should not be surprised at the spiritual immaturity we sometimes see in our own lives, but at the same time we must guard against allowing those things to discourage us completely.
No one expects a 5 year old to have the same insight or understanding of a 30 year old. God does not expect of His little babes that they demonstrate either the understanding or the efficiency of more mature Christians. But He does expect each one to be on the way toward maturity.
New birth alone does not eliminate the bad attitudes and habits of the non-Christian life. These things are dealt with by the Holy Spirit as growth takes place. Some of our bad habits take a lifetime of struggle, and for some, this life is just not long enough.
I found out something very interesting about trees which lose their leaves in autumn. The leaves don’t fall during the very first cold snap as the seasons change. What they actually do is cling onto the tree and fall off only when the sap rises to the tips of the branches, in preparation for the new growth which begins in spring.
So a tree without its leaves actually has all it needs to begin the new growth literally inches away, the moment the warmer weather comes.
1 Peter 2:1 says “rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” Don’t be disheartened when you struggle to do this, because it is only possible when the new growth from the inside causes these attitudes and behaviours to fall off. The purity of God’s Spirit on the inside grows, and eventually our old, bad habits have nowhere else to go, and so, by the power of God we find the strength to defeat those habits.
So what are the areas for Christian growth?
There are 6 areas we’ll look at very briefly today.
1. The child of God needs to grow in grace.
2 Peter 3:18 again: “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” God’s grace is the divine side of the salvation experience. God’s grace is His activity of moving to meet the sinner’s need on the basis of divine love and mercy rather than on the basis of human merit or achievement. It is God’s grace that makes it possible for us to be saved by the human response of faith. And as we respond through faith and obedience we are called more and more into a deeper experience of God’s grace.
2. The child of God needs to grow in knowledge of Jesus.
2 Peter 3:18 once more: “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”
Christian growth should be both intellectual and experiential.
As we spend time in the Scriptures, we discover both the mind and the manner of Jesus’ dealing with different types of people. Jesus dealt with different people in different ways, and of course, it’s reasonable to assume then that Jesus will relate to us in the same way He related to those we read about in the New Testament. If you want to know how Jesus feels about a particular issue or attitude in your life, then read the first 4 books of the New Testament. I can guarantee you’ll find the answer there.
However, intellectual knowledge alone is not enough. We need to know Him personally. We need to experience Him. We experience the presence and power of Christ as we respond to His Spirit within us as we relate to the world.
As the years go by, we should not only know more about Him, but we should also know Him better.
3. The child of God needs to grow in spiritual competency.
In 2 Timothy 2:15 Paul writes “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”
Paul was a tentmaker by trade, and in the original language he uses a term familiar to tent makers as he described the efficiency with which the servants of God should work. When he spoke of ‘correctly handling the word of truth,’ he wrote in terms of cutting it straight or cutting it correctly according to the pattern so that all of the pieces fit together.
The challenge to them, and subsequently to us is to become efficient and mature in interpreting and applying the Word of God. As we put the pieces of doctrine together, they will fit like a well-made tent.
Learning from the Word of God is a lifetime of discovery, but we must continue to grow in our understanding of the Bible.
4. The child of God needs to grow in his or her conviction of the Word.
Someone once said that the follower of Jesus Christ should be ashamed if after years of professing faith in Jesus Christ he or she does not understand and is unable to relate, at least in elementary terms, basic Christian ideas and convictions.
It’s sad but true that many who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ do not know what they believe. This doesn’t mean we are to win every argument we have with non-believers, but rather we should not be swayed by the many alternatives to good, solid, Biblical Truth. And we can only do that when we know what we believe.
5. The child of God needs to grow in obedience.
We’re told in Ephesians 5:1 to be imitators of God.
Of course, as we’ve seen already and have certainly experienced for ourselves, new birth does not produce instantaneous loving obedience in the heart of the Christian. While there may be a desire to be obedient to God, it usually takes a degree of spiritual maturity to produce an attitude of loving obedience to the will of God. The truth is though, that we should be more obedient today than we were a year ago, and we should be more obedient next year.
6. The child of God needs to grow in Christian love.
1 Corinthians 13, the so-called ‘love chapter’ is often quoted at weddings, but the real context or setting of this letter is that it was an appeal by Paul to Christians to love their fellow Christians. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
This is the kind of love we are to see firstly in the Church, and then as a natural progression, outside the Church as well. Do non-believers see this kind of self-sacrificing love in us? And if not, why not?
The love of God, expressed in us and through us is the supreme gift of the Spirit. This kind of love is more important than anything else.
This kind of love does not come cheap and easy. It also does not come instantaneously. It comes as we allow the Holy Spirit to work within our hearts.
But how do we do all of these things? I have only listed 6 areas of essential Christian growth but there are many more. The theory is easy, but how does a sinner cultivate and grow in these areas, because it does not come naturally.
It begins in the relationship we have with God thorough Jesus. The Christian experience is not the establishment of a legal relationship but rather the forming of a living relationship. This new way of life will increase our hunger and thirst for spiritual truths. One of Max Lucado’s books has the simple but brilliant title “Come Thirsty.”
As a new baby needs nourishment, so the child of God will have an appetite for the things of God. Jesus says in Matthew 5:6, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
Another source of growth is found in the Church – in the fellowship of believers. I don’t think we appreciate often enough just how much we need each other in this journey through life. Christians need each other to magnify the joys of life, and also to find and bring comfort through the sad times.
Our reading from Ephesians 4 today says “It was He who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From Him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
The Church has much to do in the outside world in terms of witness, outreach and mission, but one of its primary roles is to ensure that those inside the Church are grown and nurtured in their faith.
And finally, we have the inward work of the Holy Spirit.
Paul wrote in Philippians 2:13, “It is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose.”
We can take tremendous encouragement and strength from those words. Even though our sinful, selfish natures will continually resist God’s will for our lives, it is His Spirit who will drive us on to seek His will and His truth.
You will never be a better person by sheer will power. But you will by sheer Spirit power.
God works from within to reproduce the mind, character, and conduct of Jesus Christ. If we are to grow in Christ, we must recognise and respond to the work and promptings of the Spirit within our hearts.
The desperate need of a lost world for our complete Christian testimony makes continued growth imperative. So consequently, we all need to respond to our responsibilities for spiritual growth.