Saturday, July 11, 2009

What Is Spiritual Growth?

Huge amounts of ink or pixels are used in discussing spiritual growth. However, very little ink or pixels are used in clarifying what spiritual growth actually IS.

Most who attempt this tend to parrot others who say things like:

1. Become more obedient to God’s Word,

2. Become more conformed to the image of Christ (whatever that means),

3. Be more like Christ in behavior (as in WWJD?),

4. Develop the fruit of the Spirit.

I’d like to take those one at a time, show where they fall short, and then take a stab at defining what spiritual growth really is.

1. Become more obedient to God’s Word.

The problem with this is it says nothing about motive. An unregenerate person can be more obedient to the “basics” of God’s Word than some fairly “mature” Christians.

And some Christians can appear deceptively “mature”, when they know in their hearts they’re just putting on a show for the Church, while desperately reflecting Romans 7 (”I do the things I don’t want to do”) in their hearts and minds.

2. Become more conformed to the image of Christ (derived from Romans 8:29).

The problem with that is that not only is it usually not defined what “conformed to the image of Christ” means, and if it is defined, it’s usually something along the lines of Number 1 above, or Number 4 (see below).

3. Be more like Christ in behavior (as in WWJD?).

Like Number 1 or Number 2, this can be imitated by unbelievers. For example, I think if the Dalai Llama wore a suit and tie, and attended a typical church — and didn’t talk theology too much — he’d be thought a very godly man, even though he rejects Jesus Christ, and therefore the Father.

4. Develop the fruit of the Spirit.

This probably comes closest of the four to real spiritual growth, but again, one can *appear* to have love, joy, peace, patience, etc., without even having the Spirit. Or if they do have the Spirit, they can be walking by the Flesh, but “faking” the Fruit.


What is REAL spiritual growth, biblically speaking (what is often called sanctification)?

First, the word “sanctification” or “sanctified” (”set apart” or “holy” is the idea) is almost always used in Scripture for something that is *already* accomplished. We are already “sanctified” by God for Himself.

But the idea we want to get at is this thing we call *Progressive* Sanctification, or Spiritual Growth.

Here’s my attempt at a biblical definition (with special emphasis on key ideas):

Progressive Sanctification is UNDERSTANDING more and more the ETERNAL TRUTHS of God, particularly those of the NEW COVENANT, and living accordingly.

1. “UNDERSTANDING” means that we actually appropriate the truths through the renewing of our minds, as opposed to just acknowledging them to be true.

For example, all believers would agree that Romans 8:28 is true, “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him...”

But the more we really “get” that, appropriate it, and really understand it intellectually AND experientially (in our feelings), the more we will actually live accordingly.

The change in us may be visible to others (I would complain less, for example, because I know God is working it for good), or it may be invisible (I would have peace in tragedy, for example).

2. “ETERNAL TRUTHS” means those truths which are not visible or temporal, but are true nonetheless, because God has declared them to be true in the invisible eternal realm.

For example, Romans 6:11 says that we are “dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus”.

We may say, “I don’t FEEL dead to sin, or LOOK like I’m dead to sin. Unfortunately I can sin with the best of them when I’m not walking close with the Lord! What do you MEAN dead to sin? Are you crazy?”

Spiritual growth brings us to the point of realizing the truth of Romans 6:11, EVEN WHEN IT LOOKS TOTALLY UNTRUE! (Sorry for shouting.)

Or how about, “There is no longer any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”? I may FEEL condemned, or that God is frowning and angry with me when I behave badly. But it’s simply not true. His favor and intense love for me are not dimmed in the least by my sin, which is paid for and forgiven already, for eternity!

Spiritual growth means I’m APPROPRIATING that truth more and more.

3. “NEW COVENANT” is perhaps the most important concept of Scripture in “rightly dividing the truth” of the Word of God.

Hebrews 11 makes it clear that the Old (Mosaic) Covenant is obsolete, and the ETERNAL TRUTHS of the New Covenant have been accomplished in Christ, through His death, burial and resurrection.

These truths include all kinds of invisible truths like:

- our sins are already forgiven, past, present and future

- we are righteous (what we call Justification, declared righteous by God) — “Yes,” you say, “but only in God’s eyes.” — whoa…whose eyes COUNT, yours or God’s? — see, that’s spiritual growth

- we are new creations now, who love Jesus and hate sin

- we are dead to sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus

- we have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer we who live, but Christ lives through us

- we are no longer under Law, but under Grace (Rom. 6:14) — this is one of the most ignored verses in Scripture.

Try this experiment: Go to the 5 most biblically knowledgeable people you know and ask them to complete the sentence from Scripture: “For sin shall no longer be master over you, because...” Very few will complete the sentence from Rom. 6:14, because very few understand that we are no longer under Law, but under Grace (a radical New Covenant truth in itself).


When we do indeed understand more and more these eternal truths, our behavior will be affected, but it’s not the behavior which is the spiritual growth.


feetxxxl said...

richard rhor in his book "things hidden"

said that he taught mother teresa's nun in india. he said he remembered no stories of conversions, and said that his understanding was that mother teresa instructed her nuns not to engage in coversations about christ, but to instead................. BE CHRIST.

as in the parable of the talents having her nuns invest themselves in the fruit of the spirit paid great dividends not only for her ministry but more importantly for the glory of god.

as to obedience, 1cor13 says that anything without love is nothing and gains nothing. therefore i would say that only thru the grace of loving christ will you receive the grace to obey his one another as i have loved you(the greatest among you will be your servant.)

it is so good to hear someone finally lift up the fruit of the spirit. so to what degree of importance do you give it?

my understanding is that it is the litmus test for everything that is christ."1thess5:21 test everything keep the good."

as believers, our test is one of witness thru fellowship of walking in the light. "that which we have heard, which we have looked, and have seen with our eyes, and our hands have touched"1john1

in that regard what fruit of the spirit have you witnessed among homosexual believers that has convinced you as to whether being homosexual is or is not a sin?

my witness in this fellowship of sharing the spirit of christ in church that 100% gay is that their spirit of worship is nothing less than that in any heterosexual church. and in their support of homosexuality from the pulpit i witness no spirit of deceit, denial, and delusion.

actualy in prayer i hear the holy spirit praising god for homosexuals as part of his diverse creation.

Joel B. said...

Terry... great post! Indeed "growing" isn't about becoming something better, or improving behavior or performance. It's growing in the understanding (in head and heart) of who we already are and what is already true of God and of us. The truth and the life of Christ will then naturally flow from us in the things we say and do. This is one of the main reasons my friend Mike and I came up with the name 'Growing in Grace' for our podcast. We don't talk so much about "doing the stuff," but we talk about the wonderful truth of our identity and of the grace of God (as you do so wonderfully on your program), with the belief that all of this will lead to the natural living out of the Christ-life.

Terry Rayburn said...


Thanks for commenting.

There are more "fruits" of the Spirit than the few listed in Galatians Chapter 5.

One of the "fruits" of the Spirit is believing the Word of God.

It's not biblical for Mother Teresa to teach her nuns to not engage in conversations about Christ. That's what preaching the Gospel IS.

To say, "Be Christ", may sound good, but it is totally unbiblical. Christ's Spirit lives in those who are born again. Unless someone is born again, Jesus said, he can't even see the Kingdom of God.

For you to say that homosexuality should be judged by *apparent* fruits of the Spirit among homosexuals is to side-step the clear Scriptures which teach that it is immoral.

It's not just the Old Testament which condemned homosexual practice, there are several New Testament passages directly forbidding it, and many more that by implication forbid it by upholding man/woman marriage and families.

I won't detail them all here, because I've yet to see a homosexual change their mind by a barrage of verses.

(On the other hand, many have changed their mind as God gives them a new heart, and THEN those verses come alive.)

Suffice it to say that if you can read the first Chapter of Romans about the natural vs. unnatural use of male/female bodies, and maintain that homosexuality is moral, I would simply say that your heart is not right. So numerous other Scriptures will not convince you.

Many who agreed with you have been born again (regenerated) and immediately have come to believe the Scripture re the sin of homosexual practice (even if they continued being tempted through the flesh).

Agreeing with God about our sins is a huge turning point. Only then can we take biblical steps to walk by the Spirit in avoiding specific sins.

But even that begins with believing what God says in His Word, without side-stepping it.

Terry Rayburn said...


Good points.

Your combining of both Grace and Identity is right on.

It's wonderful how many are being ushered into a new awareness of God's radical Grace.

Now we have the opportunity to also help them grow in an understanding of our Identity in Christ and our union with Him as our Life.

I mentioned "motive" in my piece. We grow in understanding of motive.

A good motive to follow the ways of Christ is gratitude for what He has done.

A higher motive is out of love for Him.

A higher motive still is what you call the "natural" result of Christ living His life through us, a la Gal. 2:20.


Mark D. Vilen said...

That is an EXCELLENT article/devotional. I have told many fellow believers than even a nonbeliever can follow Biblical morality, but still have an old, sin nature . . . OR, that we as believers can display fruit via self-effort (flesh), which will be burned out of us at the Judgment Seat.
Anyway, your article explains it much better.

Your writings are always insightful.

Mark Vilen
Spokane, WA

Terry Rayburn said...

Thanks, Mark. Well said.

feetxxxl said...

"For you to say that homosexuality should be judged by *apparent* fruits of the Spirit among homosexuals is to side-step the clear Scriptures which teach that it is immoral."

how is that possible? is the fruit of the spirit of christ the same as that of powers and principalities.

believing homosexuals affirm, support and celebrate being homosexual, their marriages and lives are filled with the fruit of the spirit the same as those of heterosexuals.


ROMANS 1......because they worshipped and served the created (powers and principalities) they were given over to the spirit that served those powers and principalities............shameful lust.

men and their women abandoned their relationships that were of their natural inclination that brought them peace( peace, one of the fruit of the spirit) to indulge in relations that were not and were without peace. the due penalty for shameful abusive defiling behavior(kjv 1500's and wycliffe1384 1cor and 1tim translations).

where there is lust, the only commitment is to satiating the lust. the individuals involved are mere instruments for satiating the lust.

homosexuals have never "had women", not from their earliest sexual memory, how can someone be accused of abandoning something they never had? their earliest sexual memory is to the same sex, which they have lived with 24/7 their entire lives. there are a thousand things that make someone heterosexual, the same is true of those homosexual.

homosexsuals bond, not out of anything shameful much less lust, but instead mutual love, respect, devotion, affection, and trust for a shared committed life together.

if as you believe that sexual intimacy between 2 of the same gender is a sin then why the necessity of denoting issues of shameful lust, abandonment, sexual intimacy of itself is the sin.

are you saying that even though you are created thru the spirit of christ and christ spirit lives in you, you cannot put full faith in your witness of the spirit thru the one who lives in you as to the spirit of christ living in another but instead have to be led by the your belief systems. how can you your belief system be greater than that thru the one who lives in you.

for the record romans 1:18-32 is about the basis of all sin.

1. not thanking god in all things

2. exchanging the glory of god, our eternal relationship with him for mortal concerns.

3. worshipping and serving powers and principalities and being given over to the spirit that served them.

4. exchanging the truth of god's love for a lie

evidencing all are sinners and that man cannot save himself.



Romans 1:20 (New International Version)
20For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

again, please annotate. thank you.

feetxxxl said...

the due penalty for shameful abusive, defiling behavior is self hatred and self loathing.

feetxxxl said...

romans13: 9The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet,"[a] and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself."[b] 10Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

if the the second commandment is the essence of all new covenant law, then in regards to the law all sin under the new covenant, is that which comes against the second commandment.

how does homosexuality come against the 2nd commandment?

Bobby Mosteller said...

Hey bro. Terry,

Great article! You always have a way of putting things into perspective. This particular subject has lately been a burden on my own heart.

It seems many Christians teeter back and forth between 2 extremes - Kind of a restless legalism (my problem) or a cheap grace with no moral seriousness. Hammering down the third option, a Gospel character, is definitely something that comes through growth in our understanding of what actually took place at the Cross - then and only then can our posture be right...

Thanks again and keep 'em coming.


feetxxl said "how does homosexuality come against the 2nd commandment?"

You are forgetting the other part of that verse as stated by Christ in Luke !0:27 -


Living in open sin (homosexuality) and being proud of it is the complete opposite of loving God. Even more using Scriptural gymnastics in order to push an agenda and to present the Bible as if it is unclear on the subject ( at least not to 2,000 years of orthodox church history and Biblical scholarship) adds a further problem.

We will never love God in the way He deserves...But whatever love by grace, through Christ, that we do have, it is not separated from a growing hatred of sin.

Neither is the fruit of the SPIRIT, the Holy Spirit, who's main function is to convict of sin John 16:8.


Terry Rayburn said...


Thanks so much for your comments.

Your points re feetxxl are right on.


I've been through fine-point hair-splitting debate on homosexuality many times. I have no confidence you will be convinced until your heart is right.

So I repeat my previous statement:

"Suffice it to say that if you can read the first Chapter of Romans about the natural vs. unnatural use of male/female bodies, and maintain that homosexuality is moral, I would simply say that your heart is not right. So numerous other Scriptures will not convince you."

Bino M. said...

Excellent teaching, Terry! I liked the way you defined Spiritual Growth:

Progressive Sanctification is UNDERSTANDING more and more the ETERNAL TRUTHS of God, particularly those of the NEW COVENANT, and living accordingly.


Terry Rayburn said...

Thanks, Bino. Always nice to hear from you.