1. God is ultimately responsible for all spiritual growth
2. Effort, diligence, and discipline are absolutely necessary for growth
3. Spiritual growth potential may not be easy to see at first
4. Spiritual growth depends on an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ
Evangelical Christianity has always taught that a relationship with Christ is absolutely necessary for salvation. The relationship must continue beyond this initial introduction. Salvation is only the first step in a long journey of intimacy with our Lord. As important as a marriage ceremony is to the marriage relationship, intimacy in marriage goes much deeper than either the vows or the honeymoon. Growth in the Christian life requires an ongoing intimacy in one’s relationship with Christ.
Jesus gives us a clear illustration of the link between growth and a close relationship with Him in John 15: 1 – 17. Here Jesus describes Himself as the vine and Christians as the branches. The principle repeated over and over again in this passage is that the only way to grow and bear fruit in our lives is to stay closely attached to the vine. The term for staying closely attached is translated among versions as remain, abide, continue or dwell. These words clearly describe the responsibility of the Christian to stay closely connected to Jesus throughout life, as an ongoing relationship of intimate communion and fellowship.
In this passage Jesus describes at least 5 benefits of staying closely connected.
i. Fruitfulness in our lives (John 15:2–5, 8, 16). From Galatians 5: 22 – 23, we discover fruitfulness is at least in part associated with the fruits of the Spirit. These are exhibited primarily through our character and its outflow into the lives of others. Evidence of this fruit is directly related to our goal of maturity in Christ. As a Christian matures, increasingly more fruit should be exhibited.
ii. As we stay close to the Lord, He promises to stay close to us. John 15:4: “Remain in me, and I will remain in you.” What a promise! In a day when relationships are becoming less and less secure, Christ gives us a way to enjoy absolute security.
iii. Answered prayer - benefit of maintaining an intimate relationship with Jesus is. “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you” (John 15:7). The best way to explain this benefit is to recall your relationship with a close friend. The closer two people are to each other, the more sensitive they tend to be to each other’s needs. As we get closer to the Lord, the more our thoughts and desires become His, and the more His will is accomplished through us and our prayers.
iv. Joy - benefit of walking in a close and intimate relationship is what Jesus terms (John 15:11). More than simple happiness, based on circumstances, the joy that Jesus describes relates to a supernatural inner peace that brings emotional satisfaction even in the midst of the most distressing circumstances. It reflects a deep satisfaction based on a person’s assurance of the presence of God in one’s life.
v. Friendship with Jesus - benefit of staying close to Jesus and obeying His Word. As He says: “You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:14–15). With this level of friendship with Jesus, He enables His disciples to discern God’s Word with more clarity and insight. The former sting of legalism and false guilt is replaced with a sense of freedom and partnership. Friends of Jesus enjoy all the rich blessings of intimacy with the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
5. Growth is primarily an inside-out process
Growth relates more to the condition of a person’s heart on the inside than to what a person encounters from the outside. Biblical content, experience and relationships help us grow only as we interact and respond from the heart under the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Principles of growth are learned only as we wrestle to integrate them into the core of our being. Since the beginning of recorded biblical history, God has challenged humankind to wholehearted worship and service (Deut. 6: 4 – 6). Loving, serving, and worshiping God are actions that arise from a heart of passion. Our challenge is to kindle the spiritual fire within our hearts.
Once again, we turn to Jesus’ parables for insight. In His story of the sower (or, more appropriately, the Parable of the Soils), Jesus explains the dynamics of spiritual growth using the familiar garden analogy (Mark 4: 1 – 20). Although common interpretation of this text focuses on the role of the sower, Jesus identifies the soil as the most significant factor in spiritual formation. Four different types of soil are represented in the text: 1. Hard soil on the path, 2.Rocky, shallow soil, 3. Weedy soil, 4. Good soil. The different soils represent the different conditions of human hearts related to their receptivity to the gospel message (or the “seed”). Jesus’ main purpose in telling this parable to the disciples is to explain the dynamics of how and why spiritual growth occurs differently among people. How growth occurs, or whether or not it occurs at all, depends to a great degree on the condition of the heart. When one’s heart is soft and receptive to spiritual things, the ability to understand and assimilate the Word is heightened. Spiritual growth begins in the heart and moves to outward expressions of growth.
6. Spiritual growth relates to every aspect of our lives
What begins inside the person eventually affects every aspect of life: family, friendships, leisure, business, etc. God’s desire is that every person loves Him with their whole being: body, mind, and spirit (Deut. 6: 5). Spiritual growth, seen in this light, is a process in which a person willingly allows the Holy Spirit to control increasingly more of his or her life.
Spiritual growth also relates to all aspects of personal development. Once again, Jesus provides us with a perfect example of this process as recorded in Luke 2: 52: “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men.” Although this simple description of Jesus’ growth process is not meant to include every category of human development, it does suggest that growth is multidimensional. We can conclude it involves the intellectual, physical, spiritual, and relational categories as named by today’s social scientists. This principle of multidimensional growth is clearly seen throughout the Old and New Testaments. The continual cry of the prophets of the Old Testament is not only to return to God but also to show evidence of godliness in practical action (Zech. 7: 9 – 10). Spiritual growth and maturity express themselves in both belief and action.
Throughout the New Testament we find this principle repeated in various contexts. John the Baptist challenges people not only to “repent” (Matt. 3: 2), but also to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3: 8). The challenge here is to change one’s heart and belief system as well as one’s behavior. Coming to God and growing in godliness demands our whole being. Jesus reiterates the multidimensional nature of commitment to God when addressing a Jewish lawyer in Matthew 22: 34 – 40. “We begin the actual Christian experience when we surrender as much of ourselves as we can to as much of Christ as we understand.” A simple commitment grows into an ever-broadening stream of fullness of the Holy Spirit that transforms us, by God’s grace, into greater conformity to Christ’s likeness.
Paul calls this transformation process the “renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12: 1 – 2). He states that it begins with offering our bodies to Christ as “living sacrifices,” refusing to follow the pagan lifestyle of the world. Regardless of how philosophers and theologians subdivide the nature of persons (body, mind, and/or soul), Scripture clearly teaches that growing in Christ involves every aspect of our personhood and life.