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When we accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, we begin a life-long process of growth and change.
Some Christians don’t see it that way, or don’t act as if they see it that way. Perhaps some may view their salvation simply as a ticket to heaven, or an insurance policy against hell. Some may see church, and Christian fellowship, as a pleasant social club, or a tradition that they enjoy holding on to. Some want to fit in as much as they can to a world that is increasingly becoming non-Christian. Some have found an easy, comfortable level in their Christian life and don’t want to move out of their comfort zone.
But Scripture makes it clear that growth and change are a major part of the Christian life. I shall develop this in some detail, because it is so essential to understand it.
Paul’s epistle to the Romans is the most comprehensive and systematic exposition he wrote of his basic teaching to believers. Near the end, as he usually does, he turns to practical principles of Christian living. One of the first things he says is, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). I believe this transformation is an absolutely essential part of Christian life. It’s purpose is nothing less than to have us develop the character qualities that God has! (I discuss this in chapter 14.)
As someone has put it, “God loves us as we are, but he also loves us too much to let us stay the way we are.”
This process of change is also a process of growth. We see this powerfully expressed in many passages of Scripture. I quote at some length, in order to give the full flavor of what they are saying. I ask you to consider each word and phrase thoughtfully and prayerfully. In Ephesians, Paul wrote,
Much could be said about this remarkable passage, but for now I simply want to emphasize that it says, over and over, that we believers in Christ need to grow. We must be built up, become mature, cease being spiritual infants, and grow up.
Peter writes this,
“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins. Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:3-11 NIV).
This is one of my favorite passages in Scripture. I keep finding new things in it. For the present, I would simply emphasize two things.
James writes, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you encounter trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:3-4 NIV).
Again we see the call to become mature and complete. But James adds some new thoughts. (1) Very often it is trials, difficulties, testings, and suffering that mature us. The maturing process can be painful and difficult. (I discuss this more fully in Chapter 19.) Maturing is seldom easy. (2) Maturing involves a testing of our faith. (3) Maturing typically requires perseverance. Perseverance—hanging in there in the face of difficulties, keeping going when things seems impossible—is an essential quality that we Christians need. In today’s “fast food,” “quick fix” society, it is not easy to persevere, but it is necessary. To stand firm to the end when others are turning away means to persevere.
Paul says, “… stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured…” (Colossians 4:12 NIV). It requires maturity to be able to stand firm.
The author of Hebrews gives us another perspective about growth:
We tend, today, to think of “discipline” as punishment. It can have that meaning. However, according to Strong’s Dictionary of the Greek Bible, the word translated “discipline” in this passage has as its root a word meaning education or training, and it is sometimes translated “instruction, nurture.” Today, one of the accepted meanings of the word is to train or develop by instruction and exercise.
Other Scriptures also talk about our need for training. We train ourselves to tell good from evil (Hebrews 5:14). We train ourselves to be godly (1 Timothy 4:7). (Also see 2 Timothy 2:15.) We train ourselves to be righteous (2 Timothy 3:16).
Maturity is necessary to enable us to understand the full message of Scripture. Scripture expresses this in the image of food. Elementary teaching is described as milk; more advanced teaching as solid food. The spiritually immature can only handle milk. The spiritually mature are able to receive the solid food of Scripture (Hebrews 5:12-14; 1 Corinthians 3:1-2).
Other Scriptures mention some specific areas in which we need to grow. Paul prayed that our love would “abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment” (Philippians 1:9), that we would be able to understand and “know the love of Christ which passes [surpasses] knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19), and that our love for each other would increase and overflow (1 Thessalonians 3:12, 4:10). He prayed that we would grow in the knowledge of God and be strengthened with all power (Colossians 1:10-11). Peter urged us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). Our faith needs to grow more and more (2 Thessalonians 1:3). The disciples asked, “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5). Paul urges us “to abound more and more” in our ability to please God (1 Thessalonians 4:1). Jude tells us to build ourselves up in our faith (Jude 20). Paul urges us to “become complete” (2 Corinthians 13:11). We need to grow in every aspect of our life. Jesus told us to “be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). The Greek word for “perfect” includes the meanings of complete, mature, adult, of full age. 20
We need to grow in both knowledge and character. The process never stops. Paul, near the end of his life, wrote that he had not yet achieved what he aimed at, “…But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on toward the goal…” (Philippians 3:13-14 NIV).
Scripture is full of vigorous, energetic images such as straining, pressing on, making every effort, and being eager. One senses that we, as believers, are not to sit back and watch someone else do it all. We are to apply ourselves vigorously and energetically to whatever needs to be done. The process of growth doesn’t just happen; it requires a good deal of energy and determination. We are to pursue, with all vigor, the things that will help us be transformed—training, discipline, spending time with God (in prayer, Scripture, praise and the like). We are to throw off everything that hinders (Hebrews 12:1). We don’t just let go of it; we hurl it as far from us as we can! We are to capture every thought so as to make it obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5)—a military image of considerable force! And, as I shall point out in chapter 12, the devil will resist all of this at every turn.
My pastor likes to say that his job is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I’m afraid we Christians in the United States today have tended to allow ourselves to become too comfortable.
The rest of this book deals with various aspects of the process of growth and change. I would like to make a few general comments about the process.
What is needed, as I see it, is growth both in knowledge and in character. One aspect that I have had much difficulty with is that of getting knowledge down from the head level to the heart level. Intellectual knowledge, while useful, is not enough. If I want knowledge that I can stand firm on in the face of great difficulties, it has to be knowledge and faith that I am deeply convinced of in my heart and my inmost being. Indeed, I cannot effectively communicate it to others unless it is deeply rooted within me. What I have written in this book is based on study of Scripture, but it is also based on deep conviction.
One reason we need to become mature is, as Ephesians 4:14 says, so that we will not be easily deceived. Jesus, in his great end-time prophecy, warned us, “Take heed that no one deceives you” (Matthew 24:4). Paul warns that “some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1). There are a great many things being said and taught in the world today which may have some surface plausibility, but which are spiritually false. The best safeguard against every kind of deception is to grow to maturity in Christ. Then we will know beyond question what we believe, and will have the faith and character to stand firm in it despite heavy pressure.
Another reason is that we all have a part to play. Ephesians 4:16 (NIV) says, “…as each part does its work.” We find the same thought in 1 Corinthians 12:12-30 and Romans 12:3-8. Just as every part of the human body has its function, so every believer has a function in the body of Christ. Ephesians also says that the task of leadership is to equip the saints (all believers) “for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12). “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10 NIV). We, the whole body of God’s people, are “a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9). God has a calling, a function, for each one of us, and we need to be prepared to do that function to the best of our ability. This calls for maturity, sound knowledge, and strong character.
Satan is waging war against us. (See Chapter 12.) In a time of such war, children are greatly at risk because they often don’t know how to protect themselves. If we fail to become mature Christians, then we endanger ourselves and the people who depend on us.
We need to keep a balance in this process. Growth to maturity is a gradual process; it doesn’t happen all at once. Sometimes it cannot be hurried. The process is never completed on this side of heaven. As my pastor says, “I’m not where I need to be, but thank God I’m not where I used to be.” We don’t have to work on every aspect of growth at once. Work on whatever the Holy Spirit prods you to work on. Sometimes we find that when we have dealt with one area, we have improved in another area also that we didn’t think we were working on.
But at the same time, we need to have a sense of urgency. The times we now live in are difficult and challenging. They could become much more so, rather quickly. We should not wait until the difficulties are greater. We need to work now on increasing our maturity, so as to be ready for whatever may come. As Jesus said in a different context, “I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:4). Paul wrote, “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16 NIV). Growing to maturity needs to be a top priority.
I could go on. But I think it clear that one of the central things we need, in order to be able to stand firm against opposition, is to become so mature in our faith and our Christian life that we cannot be shaken. We need to be able to persist, to endure, to persevere, to hang in there. Jesus tells us that the one whose faith is not firmly rooted will not endure when difficulties and persecution come (Mark 4:17). Our faith needs to be so sure, and so solidly rooted, that difficulties merely serve to make our faith stronger. When other things are being shaken, our faith needs to be unshakeable. (See Hebrews 12:26-29.) In the rest of this book I shall deal with further aspects of spiritual maturity.