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There was a lot of activity and discussion in the Evans family in the months before the birth of our first grandson, Jackson. Between baby showers came conversations about the baby's name and other details of the birth and new life we were looking forward to.
It was interesting to listen to my son-in-law, Jerry, who was already talking about the college his son would attend and what team he would play football for. He, my daughter Priscilla, and our entire family were filled with ideas and plans for the future as we waited for the arrival of this new life.
Families can look ahead with excitement to a new child's future because inherent in every birth is the hope and expectation that this baby is going to grow and develop. Once a child has been conceived and born, growth is anticipated, because that's the way God designed the human body to work. No parents I know are content simply to say, "Well, we conceived a child, and that's all that matters," or "We have a healthy baby, so it doesn't matter if there is no growth." Parents who are excited about the conception and birth of their child are also excited about seeing that child grow.
One reason parents can tolerate the 3:00 A.M. feedings is that they know this phase of childhood won't last forever. The same can be said foreach stage of a child's growth-and aren't we all glad that the teenage years with their ups and downs and major crises every week didn't last forever? We grew past all those stages, and so will our children, because growth is the normal and expected outcome of a new birth. In fact, if a child doesn't grow, then loving parents seek whatever help is necessary because they care about their child's development.
Now if human parents are concerned about the growth of their children, then we ought not be surprised that our loving heavenly Father is concerned about the growth of His children. If the Holy Spirit, using the Word of God, brought about conviction in your heart and you put your faith in Jesus Christ alone for your salvation, then God is your Father by virtue of your new birth. He wants to make sure that you are growing properly in your Christian life.
We're going to begin our study of spiritual essentials by talking about the nature and importance of spiritual growth. But before we can begin to build a solid biblical understanding of spiritual growth, we need to clear away the rubble that can come from confused thinking. There is an enormous amount of confusion on this matter of how Christians grow spiritually. We need to address some of these issues, because if we don't get our thinking right, we can actually stifle instead of enhance our own spiritual growth, as well as that of others.
For example, some people view spiritual growth as primarily a matter of learning the correct biblical information. This group believes that if you attend enough Christian seminars, read enough books, accumulate enough data, and study the Bible enough, then growth in Christ will follow automatically.
I can identify with this group as a person who spent years studying the Bible in college and seminary. But any seminary student can tell you that studying the Bible and accumulating knowledge can lead to spiritual dryness and stymie growth if that "head knowledge" is not accompanied by inner spiritual transformation in response to God's truth.
Jesus said to the people of His day, "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life" (John 5:39-40). These folk studied their Bibles. They were the theological scholars of their time, but they didn't know Jesus. Their study, even of the Bible's accurate data, did not lead them to Him who is the source of truth and life.
Other people believe that spiritual growth is the result of following a certain well-defined process. They want to know the ten steps to spiritual growth, or the eight surefire keys to achieving maturity in Christ. Lists like these often contain good ideas, but when you have a lot of steps to climb, you get weary after a while. And if you miss a step, you get tripped up and everything gets out of sync.
I'm not saying there aren't some clearly defined stages or steps in our spiritual growth. The problem comes when we try to reduce a living process to a mechanical list of steps that everybody has to follow. People simply don't grow at the same rate, so a "one size fits all" approach to spiritual growth won't fit everyone.
One other misconception about the nature of spiritual growth is important to mention, because it has such a long history in the church. Most people in modern Western culture are inclined toward action and want to know what they can do to achieve a desired result. But another group of people is convinced that spirituality is achieved by what you avoid rather than what you do. These are the folk who work hard to give up certain things, deny themselves certain pleasures, and abstain from certain activities.
This approach to spiritual growth is known as asceticism, and it's almost as old as Christianity itself. Some ascetics live in cloistered monasteries to escape the world and its temptations. They may also systematically deny food to their bodies and scrupulously avoid anything that could be considered a worldly pleasure lest they defile their souls.
During certain periods of church history, ascetics did spectacular and even bizarre things to try to conquer their sinful flesh and get closer to God. Some whipped themselves to punish their flesh, while one man sat on a high pole for years to free himself from the evil world.
But asceticism by itself also ultimately fails to produce lasting spiritual growth because our problem is that the sinful desires and impulses that mess us up come from within, from our hearts, rather than just from the outside. There's nothing wrong with avoiding sinful activities and worldly lusts that inflame wrong desires. But as the great reformer Martin Luther discovered when he was a monk, we still have to wrestle with sin even if we are sitting in a bare cell in a monastery. Luther was said to have thrown his inkwell at the devil one day in frustration at trying to make himself holy.
If you have ever tried to grow spiritually using any or all of these methods, believing that they will do the job, then you have probably experienced some degree of frustration in your desire to grow in Christ. There is some truth in all at the methods we have mentioned, but the Bible's teaching on spiritual growth is bigger and more exciting than a list of dos and don'ts. My goal is to approach the subject in a way that is both biblically sound and applicable to your life.
The Necessity of Spiritual Growth
Getting a handle on spiritual growth is crucial for at least two reasons. First, it is God's command and, therefore, His will for us. And second, the alternative to growth is stagnation and eventual deformity. There's a good reason you won't find a hymn called "Backwards Christian Soldiers" in your hymnbook. Failing to grow is not an option for believers-at least not if we want to please God.
It may help to begin with a definition of spiritual growth that will serve as the basis for this book. Spiritual growth may be defined as that transformational process by which we allow the indwelling Christ to increasingly express Himself in and through us, resulting in a greater capacity on our part to bring God greater glory and experience His greater good for ourselves.
That's a mouthful, so here's a boiled-down version. Spiritual growth is more of Christ being expressed in my life through less of me. John the Baptist said it best. As Jesus' ministry and popularity grew and John began to step into the background, John's disciples came to him and said, "Do you realize what's going on here?" (see John 3:22-26). John's bottom-line answer was, "He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease" (v. 30). We are growing spiritually when more of Jesus is being expressed through less of our fallen humanity.
Spiritual Growth Demands Nourishment
It often helps to follow a definition with an illustration of what we're talking about. One obvious way to illustrate spiritual growth is by looking at its physical counterpart. Let me tell you, the extended Evans family can testify that a newborn baby wants and demands food. Everything within that child is screaming, "Give me something to eat. I've got some growing to do!"
If you have ever heard a newborn baby cry out for food, you can appreciate the apostle Peter's words of admonition to Christians: "Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation" (1 Peter 2:2). This is one of the best one-sentence descriptions of spiritual growth you'll find in the Bible. We may not know exactly how spiritual growth works, but this verse helps us because it compares spiritual growth to physical growth.
The issue for a newborn baby is the development of the life he or she has been given. Now that may seem so simple and obvious that you wonder why I even mention it. But it has been my experience as a pastor that this key principle of spiritual growth is often overlooked for exactly that reason. Spiritual growth is not first and foremost a program or a curriculum, as we said above, but the nourishment and development of a life.
Now I can hear someone saying, "Well, a baby may not be following a program, but its mother certainly is." That's true. There is a well-established, proven program of nourishment that a mother needs to follow if she wants her baby to experience healthy growth. That's why we said there is nothing wrong with various programs or steps as long as they are facilitating the growth of spiritual life. The goal of spiritual growth is to feed the life you were given by the Holy Spirit at the moment of your conversion, or new birth, so that you may, as Peter wrote, "grow in respect to salvation" (1 Peter 2:2). Paul put it this way: "We are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ" (Ephesians 4: 15).
The point is that your spiritual DNA is complete because you received the life of Christ at your conversion, and nothing can be added to Christ. Our challenge as Christians is to maximize what we already have, not run around looking for the latest gimmick or shortcut to spiritual growth.
Spiritual Growth Demands Relationship
A baby is dependent on other people for the nourishment needed for proper growth. This demands a relationship that begins even before birth as an unborn child draws nourishment from the mother through the umbilical cord. In this case the importance of that relationship is clear because the baby is feeding off the mother, whose life is supplying life to the child. If that relationship is disrupted, the baby is in serious trouble.
A child in the womb is not studying a book, listening to a teacher, or following a program. He or she is simply piggybacking off a life that is, ideally, already mature and strong. As long as the umbilical cord isn't cut or blocked-as long as the baby stays in right relationship with the mother-growth will continue to occur.
The spiritual application of this physical truth is, of course, the importance of our relationship with Jesus Christ. It's interesting that Jesus did not say, "I have come to give you My program," but, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10). So if we are not growing as we should, even though Jesus came to give us not just life but abundant life, then maybe it's because we have messed up our relationship with Him or traded it for something less. Spiritual growth is progressively learning to let Christ live His life through us, and that only happens by relationship.
The Ingredients for Spiritual Growth
Since this chapter is an overview and introduction to our subject, I'm hitting the highlights as we talk about the importance of spiritual growth. Let me give you two ingredients of this growth as found in a key verse from 2 Peter 3: "Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (v. 18).
These two things work in partnership to enhance our growth, but let's be sure we understand once again that our growth is not in the grace and knowledge of a program, a denomination, or anything else. Our growth is inextricably connected to the person of Jesus Christ, the One whose life flows through our spiritual veins. The supply of grace and knowledge we need comes from Him.
The Essence of Grace
One reason the grace of God is so amazing is that it comes up no matter where we turn to talk about the Christian life. We're devoting chapter 4 to grace and its place in spiritual growth, so let me just give you the essence of grace and how it relates to spiritual growth.
Grace is all that God is free to do for you based on the work of Jesus Christ on your behalf. It is God's inexhaustible supply of goodness whereby He does for you what you could never do for yourself. This is the ABC's of the faith, but we need to review it because the truth of grace seems to get lost so often when it comes to how we grow in Christ. That may be true because growth suggests effort on our part, while grace is a gift that can only be received and enjoyed, not earned. But the Bible says we are saved by grace and we grow by grace. Or as Paul told the Colossians, "As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him" (2:6).
If I were the devil and I didn't want Christians to grow, I would keep them from drawing on God's grace and drive them back to the principle of law to keep them in bondage. Romans 6-8 contain Paul's classic contrast between the Law of Moses and grace, describing in painful detail our complete inability to obey God's commands in our own power.
Now Paul made it very clear that the problem is not with God's law, which is "holy and righteous and good" (Romans 7:12). The fault is with our sinful, fallen flesh. What happened under the Mosaic Law is that when God's perfect standard, with its requirement of perfect obedience, was applied to sinful and weak human beings, something had to give-and God was not about to lower or adjust His standard to accommodate our sinfulness. And since the Law carried with it a penalty for failure to obey, we fell under the sentence of death.
Paul also wrote, "The Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin" (Romans 7: 14). The reason this is important is that the Law had no power to help anyone obey its commands. Law tells you what to do, but it doesn't hold out a hand to help you. The Law reveals God's demands, which never change. But we need someone to give us the power to obey God's commands.
Living under law is like living with a perfect person who takes joy in telling you everything you are doing wrong, but never lifts a finger to help you get it right. Under these conditions you will inevitably live an unhappy, defeated, and empty life.
This is where grace enters. Law shows you what to do, but grace assists you to do it. Law says, "You know you ought to obey God." Grace says, "You know you want to obey God." The Law held people in bondage because they couldn't do anything to satisfy its demands and thus experience release. But grace has set us free, not to sin all we want ("May it never be!" Paul cried to that idea in Romans 6:2), but to become all that God redeemed us to be.
We can see why grace is required for spiritual growth. Spiritually dead people can't grow, but all that the Law of Moses could produce was death because it was all command and penalty without the enablement to obey. That's why Peter said if we are going to grow, it has to be by grace. And not just grace as a theological concept, but as it is related to Christ.
The Knowledge of Jesus Christ
As an author, I rarely ever receive one of my books in the mail from someone I've never met, with a request that I sign the book. But when I speak at a conference where books are available, a lot of people come to me and ask me to sign their copy. The difference is that they have met the author, and so the book takes on a new meaning They have connected the content with a person.
Peter told us to grow in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. We have His book, the Word of God, to learn from, and the Holy Spirit as our Teacher. In other words, we have everything we need to put the ingredient of knowledge to work in our lives.
We have already mentioned how easy it is to get off track in this area and seek spiritual knowledge for its own sake. But that's like a young man who carries around a boxful of letters from his girlfriend, content to read them instead of using the insights they contain to deepen his relationship with his girlfriend.
Our goal is to know Christ, not just know about Him. A lot of people can give you facts and details about the lives of their favorite sports star or celebrity. But there's a world of difference between that kind of knowledge and having the person invite you over for dinner because you are good friends.
I am often asked in theology class why the original manuscripts of the Bible do not exist. After all, if they were available, we could learn so much from them. But God didn't see fit to preserve them, at least in part because He knew we would be tempted toward bibliolatry, the worship of the Bible. We have enough people worshiping sacred relics as it is. Imagine what would happen if we had the original documents of Scripture.
Excerpted from Life Essentials by TONY EVANS Copyright © 2003 by Anthony T. Evans. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. The Importance of Spiritual
2. Conversion: The Foundation of Spiritual Growth
3. Identity: The Key to Spiritual Growth
4. Sin: The
Hindrance to Spiritual Growth
5. Grace: The Environmnet of Spiritual Growth
6. Faith: The Action of Spiritual Growth
7. The Holy Spirit: The Enabler for Spiritual Growth
The Food of Spiritual Growth
9. Prayer: The Access of Spiritual
10. The church: The Context of Spiritual Growth
11. Giving: The Generosity of Spiritual Growth
The Test of Spiritual Growth
13. Temptation: The Battle of Spiritual
14. Calling: The Ministry of Spiritual Growth
15. Obedience: The Response of Spiritual Growth
The Goal of Spiritual Growth
DR. TONY EVANS is the founder and president of The Urban Alternative,
a national ministry dedicated to restoring hope in personal lives, families, churches and communities. Dr. Evans also serves as senior pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas. He is a bestselling author and his radio program, The Alternative with Dr. Tony Evans, is heard on nearly 1,000 stations around the globe every day. For more information, visit: tonyevans.org.
Posted April 16, 2012
This book breaks down the essentials for christian living in a way that even spiritual babes can grasp but also challenges the spritually mature. Milk and meat for growth on a spiritual and practical level. He quotes James when he challenges the believe to put feet to his faith and then tells him just how to do it! This book must be on the top shelf of every believers library.
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Posted January 8, 2012
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