The last thing the Apostle Peter wrote, that we have a record of, is "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen" (2 Peter 3:18). I think we would all agree that Christians should be seeking to always grow spiritually. However, while the desire to grow is there, the actual growth is not. Why is that? I think it is because we often do not know where we are spiritually. And if we do not know where we are at, we cannot know where we should be going. In this lesson, I want us to identify where we are in our spiritual maturity and how we can begin to grow as we ought to.
No Time to Delay:
First, we need to address a very real temptation we all face, putting off spiritual growth. In times of distress, we can easily convince ourselves that "Life is so hard right now; my concentration is broken; I'm exhausted. I'll get back into spiritual growth when things calm down" (Berkley, Spiritual Growth, Paused?). But here is the thing. We do not get to take a break from growth. Consider the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews.
One of the letter's major points to the Hebrews was to encourage its audience back to faithfulness to Christ because they had taken a "break" from growth. What were the results of this "break"?
- They were in danger of drifting away (if not already beginning to). Hebrews 2:1-4.
- They had stunted their growth. Hebrews 5:1-14.
- They had begun to regress. Hebrews 10:32-39.
As a result, when difficulties came to these Christians, they had a much harder time dealing with them than before.
It is interesting to me that contrary to this idea of taking a break from growing when things are difficult, I find persons in the Bible growing by leaps and bounds during difficult times.
- When it seemed that Abraham would have no children, he endured and grew closer to God. Romans 4:18-21
- When Babylon was forcing the Jews to bow to an Idol, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego grew in their confidence in God. Daniel 3:16-18
- Some of the Apostle Paul's most joy-filled, Christ-exalting, God-honoring letters were written when he was confided in Roman prison, having had most of his companions desert him. (E.X. Philippians).
We can see there is never a time to delay growth. We should be striving to grow closer to God in every season of life regardless of the surrounding circumstances.
Children, Young Adults, Mature Believers:
To know how to grow, we need to know where we are at spiritually. That is, figuring out what is our "spiritual age." Thankfully, God has given us the knowledge to figure this out. Let us turn to 1 John 2:12-14. Here the Apostle John has outlined the three stages of spiritual growth:
Sins are forgiven v.12
Overcome the evil one v.13
Know Him who is from the beginning v.13
Know the Father v.13
Are strong v.14
Know Him who is from the beginning v.14
Because the word of God abides in you v.14
We could subdivide this group into newborns and toddlers. These are the new and newish believers. They have come to "know the Father" (1 John 2:13). They are rejoicing in their newfound forgiveness of sins and their new relationship with God (1 John 1:12, 13).
This group, just like physical newborns and toddlers, are totally dependent on others for their spiritual nourishment (2 Peter 2:2, "like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation,").
Nothing wrong with be a spiritual child!
We might also subdivide this into teenagers and young adults. John says that this group has "overcome the evil one" and that they "are strong, and the word of God abides in [them]" (1 John 2:13, 14). These are the Christians that are active in the fight against Satan and in the work of God's kingdom.
This group has a firmer grasp on the Word of God and is actively seeking to apply its teachings to their lives.
As a result, they are beginning to learn how to feed themselves spiritually and have begun to feed others as well. They are growing their knowledge of the word of God and are beginning to prepare classes, sermons and seek to study with others.
This last group are the spiritually mature in a congregation. John says twice that they "know Him who has been from the beginning" (1 John 2:13, 14). They just do not know the Father (1 John 2:13b); they have come to know Him more fully and deeply. John Stott describes this group like this, "Their first flush of ecstasy in receiving forgiveness and fellowship with the Father was an experience long ago. Even the battles of the young men… are past. The fathers have progressed into a deep communion with God" (Stott 1992, 102).
This group includes the Christians who are fully self-sufficient. That is, they can feed themselves spiritually. They study the Bible, prepare classes and sermons, and are actively teaching others.
These are the Elders (1 Timothy 3:1-7), the older men and women of the church (Titus 2:1-5), the people God has given for the equipping of the saints (Ephesians 4:11-13).
I want us all to think for a moment, and do so honestly, and figure out where we are at on this growth chart. Think of how often you engage with the Scriptures, do you know how to feed yourself spiritually, are you seeking to feed others? Once you know where you are, you can know where you need to be heading. Here would be a few examples of some growth goals for each group.
- Children – Right now, you're 100% dependent on others for your spiritual nourishment. A good goal is to start building the habits and developing the skills to be an independent Bible student. One habit would be daily Bible reading.
- Young Adults - The goal would be to continue to grow in knowledge and application and seek to begin to feed others.
- Fathers – The aim of fathers, parents would be to teach and train the children and young adults to be fully functional mature believers one day—believers who can stand on their own two feet.
That You May Grow:
So, what is the process then for growing? How can we reach these growth benchmarks? The path to growth is not complicated, but it isn't a quick three-step plan either. How does one grow? By daily, consistent, thoughtful engagement with the word of God. That's what Peter says in 1 Peter 2:2-3, "like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord." Note the connection. It is by nourishing ourselves by the "milk of the Word" that we can grow.
Let's take a look at how this works on a practical level. Turn with me to Psalm 119:9-16, and let's note two things. One, what the Psalmist asks for, and two, what does the Psalmist do in connection to his asking. The Psalmist starts with, "How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your word" (Psalm 119:9). The rest of the stanza breaks down what it means to keep your ways according to God's word:
- The pursuit of God is the Psalmist chief end in life v.10a.
- Prays that God would keep Him from wandering away from His word v.10b.
- He has internalized God's word v.11.
- Prays that God would instruct Him v.12b (cf. James 1:5; 2 Timothy 2:7)
- He teaches others God's law v.13.
- He meditates (i.e., thinks deeply on) God's word v.15a.
- He gives attention to God's law (it's not an afterthought or when he has free time) v.15b.
- He commits the word of God to memory v.16b.
By his engagement with the Word of God, the Psalmist set himself up for success and growth spiritually. Spiritual growth is not a magic three-step program that magically makes you spiritually mature. No, spiritual growth is done little by little, day by day, and in due time you have grown into maturity (Hebrews 5:14).
I want to end with this quote that I found helpful in understanding the path to spiritual maturity. "The pathway to maturity and to solid biblical food is not first becoming an intelligent person, but becoming an obedient person" (Piper).