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.