Mile Markers: Stages of Growth Along the Journey Toward Spiritual Maturity

Mile Markers: Stages of Growth Along the Journey Toward Spiritual Maturity

by Tony Wolfe


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781633570856
Publisher: CrossLink Publishing
Publication date: 01/10/2017
Pages: 172
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.42(d)

About the Author

Tony Wolfe (Doctor of Educational Ministry • SWBTS Fort Worth, TX). Dr. Wolfe has served Southern Baptist churches in music ministry, education ministry, and the pastorate since 1999. He travels several times every year to speak at evangelism conferences, pastor/church leader seminars, and marriage events. More:

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Mile Markers

Stages of Growth Along the Journey Toward Spiritual Maturity

By Tony Wolfe

CrossLink Publishing

Copyright © 2016 Anthony Wolfe
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63357-085-6


Progress Needed

What is spiritual growth, anyway? To the average, church-going believer in Jesus Christ, it sounds like something we probably need. We have heard it before from the pulpit and in our small groups. Perhaps we have even participated in a 6-week Bible study over it, or have read a couple of books. But what is it? I find it necessary, before introducing the biblical stages of spiritual growth, to identify what exactly spiritual growth is, what it is not, and why it is necessary in the life of every believer.

Let's turn our attention first to what spiritual growth is not. What's in view here is not personal, moral growth. When personal, moral growth is superimposed on top of the gospel, the product is what has been recently labeled "Moral Therapeutic Deism," or "MTD". MTD understands God and Holy Scripture as moral escorts toward a better me. But the gospel is not a self-help program. It is a radical, reckless expression of God's unfailing love for His sinful creatures. The gospel produces eternal change, not temporal feel-goodisms. This book is not about psychological wellbeing, and it has no frame of reference within the misleading doctrines of MTD.

Perhaps our confusion over what spiritual growth looks like stems from our trendy, cultural obsession over what's often called personal growth. I just performed a search for books on "personal growth" in the search box on a popular online retailer. In less than thirty seconds, my search returned 243,647 titles in 33 different categories. One of the 21st Century obsessions of our post-postmodern culture is a fixation on what can make us better as human beings — better relative to ourselves, of course, since morality in our culture is only understood from the lens of isolated internal perception. Consider the following quotes on personal growth spanning the previous twenty years:

"Growth is the great separator between those who succeed and those who do not." – John Maxwell, pastor and leadership expert

"Lucid dreaming has considerable potential for promoting personal growth and self-development, enhancing self-confidence, improving mental and physical health, facilitating creative problem solving and helping you to progress on the path to self-mastery." – Stephen Laberge, psychophysiologist

"Those who improve with age embrace the power of personal growth and personal achievement and begin to replace youth with wisdom, innocence with understanding, and lack of purpose with self-actualization." – Bo Bennett, American businessman and author

Success. Self-mastery. Self-actualization. These are pursuits of what is called personal growth — if not born within the past thirty years, then at least popularized in the last thirty years. The great mantra of this branch of postmodern American neo-Idealism is that anyone can improve his or her lifestyle or psychological wellbeing apart from (or even in spite of) external influence — a self-centered divine ascent, from shadows of suppressive normalcy, up toward the enlightened freedom of exceptional self-mastery. Plato would have been proud.

But Christianity is not compatible with any form of ontological dualism. The Bible teaches that life is both a physical and a spiritual matter. Nothing remains uninfluenced by God. Biblically speaking, a healthy, growing psyche ("transformation" of the mind) happens as we learn to value what God values, obey what God commands, and discern what is "good" from God's perspective (Romans 12:1-2). Likewise, even the most tangible of life's needs has as its source the invisible, providential hand of our loving God (Matthew 6:33; James 1:17).

Whether tangible or intangible, "growth" absent the Spirit of God is what King Solomon would have called a pursuit of the wind. On moral change apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, the great theologian Charles Hodge wrote, "Such external reformation may leave a man's inward character in the sight of God unchanged. He may remain destitute of love to God, of faith in Christ, and of all holy exercises or affections." Personal growth absent the work of the indwelling Spirit of God has no eternal value. Moral Therapeutic Deism is a pursuit of the wind. Personal moral growth does not equal spiritual growth.


Spiritual growth is biblical. That may seem like an unnecessary thing to write, but it is not. If the concept is not explicitly taught and defined in Scripture, we have no business pursuing it. What follows is a survey of biblical texts, from both Old and New Testaments, which highlight the importance of spiritual growth for every believer in Christ. Admittedly, this section is a broad systematic treatment of the topic, utilizing a large brush-stroke. It attempts to divulge the unity of Scripture on the subject of spiritual growth. Although spiritual growth — as a work of God's indwelling Holy Spirit — is a New Covenant ministry, you will see that the foundation for spiritual growth is laid in the Old Testament. You may be tempted to skip this section. But I appeal to your commitment to the sufficiency and authority of Scripture in all things to ask that you read this section with care. The overarching biblical theme of spiritual growth is indispensible to our explanation, understanding, and disciplined pursuit of it.

Spiritual Growth in the Old Testament

While the lifelong process of spiritual maturation guided by the indwelling presence of God's Holy Spirit is unique to those who have been reborn through Jesus Christ's New Covenant ministry, the Old Testament lays a foundation for the topic of spiritual maturation. In several places in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word gadel (usually translated "grow" or "increase") is used to describe the progressive maturation of one's spirit. For example, the boy Samuel is described as having grown "in stature and favor with the Lord and with men" (1 Samuel 2:26). The language implies an increase of more than physical qualities. Samuel grew not only in size, but also in character and righteousness as the Spirit of the Lord guided him. Andrews and Bergen explain that Samuel's gadel "foreshadowed the boyhood development of Jesus (Luke 2:52)." The biblical writer was not drawing a comparison between the physical growth rate of Samuel and Jesus. Instead, the intention was to convey growth in spirit and righteousness.

Similarly, in Judges 13:24-25, the Hebrew word gadel is used of Samson: "The boy grew and the Lord blessed him. Then the Spirit of the Lord began to direct him in the Camp of Dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol." The Lord's blessing accompanied Samson's growth not only physically, but spiritually as well. Gary Phillips explains, "The promised child was intended to live a life of special holiness — in the world, but not of the world." As for lifelong progression, Psalm 92:12-14 conveys an expectation that such righteous growth in spirit would continue throughout one's life, even under the Old Covenant: "The righteous thrive like a palm tree and grow like a cedar tree in Lebanon. ... They will still bear fruit in old age, healthy and green."

The Old Testament concept of spiritual gadel also acknowledges the possibility of growth away from righteousness. In Ezekiel 16:26, God rebuked Jerusalem for having grown in spiritual prostitution. The prophet Jeremiah complained to the Lord that the wicked had "grown and produced fruit," while God was "ever on their lips, but far from their conscience" (Jeremiah 12:2). King Solomon admitted superior gadel in wisdom, yet lamented that on its own wisdom was merely "a pursuit of the wind" (Ecclesiastes 1:16-17). As Ezra prayed for national renewal in Ezra 9:6, he confessed to God that the sins of his people had grown up to the heavens. In these instances, gadel implies a progressive growth of spirit away from God's intended design.

The Old Testament's examples of spiritual growth are only a foreshadowing of the New Testament expectation. Spiritual growth, under the New Covenant, would be the ministry of the indwelling Holy Spirit who, at the moment of salvation, was to be deposited within the born again believer to guide maturity in Christlikeness. Old Testament saints did not have for their benefit the indwelling Spirit of God, progressively leading them in sanctification. That the indwelling Holy Spirit would be necessary for such spiritual growth is the intimation of Old Testament texts such as Jeremiah 31:33, Ezekiel 36:27, and Joel 2:28-29. These texts point the Old Testament reader forward to a day when God's Spirit would reside within His children permanently, making growth in righteousness a possibility. Without the indwelling guidance of the Holy Spirit, as history has proven, the natural spiritual progression of mankind is away from God, not toward Him. However, under the New Covenant indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit, growth toward righteousness would not only be available for the child of God, but expected of him.

Spiritual Growth in the New Testament

The spiritual growth of a born again believer must be understood as a ministry of God's Holy Spirit who indwells him (Ephesians 1:13). Though immediate regeneration is the work of God's Spirit, another ministry of the indwelling Holy Spirit — as the John 14:26 promised parakletos — is to guide the believer in progressive sanctification. Chafer writes that the Holy Spirit is the power of God for each believer to be "effective in every right attitude and service." Referencing 1 Thessalonians 4:3-4, he continues, "Progressive ... sanctification is said to be God's will for each believer and this is reasonable." The New Testament is replete with exhortations for the Christian to grow in righteousness through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Once the believer is born of the Spirit, he is expected to grow in Christlikeness as the Spirit guides him.

In 1 Corinthians 3:1-3, the Apostle Paul reprimanded believers in the church who have been in the faith for a while, yet have not grown spiritually. He called them "babies" in Christ, making a distinction between the spiritual truths they were able to learn and digest, versus the spiritual truths he desired to teach them. In his second letter to this group of believers Paul declared that the Christian life is a process of transformation. This process begins with "unveiled faces" at the moment of salvation and ends when the Christian is changed into the glorious image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). In Paul's perspective, such transformation into Christlikeness starts with God's glory and ends with God's glory.

Likewise, in Philippians 3:15-16, Paul wrote of those who were teleios ("mature" or "perfect") in the faith, in comparison to those who were not. He explained that this maturation happens as believers learn and faithfully appropriate biblical truth in their lives. The King James Version renders this word "perfect". Thayer defines it, "the end, i.e., the last in any sequence or series," and further, "the end to which all things relate, the aim, purpose." By implication, it is God's good purpose that believers in Christ mature steadily as they commune with the Father in daily living. This is a lifelong process. The ultimate goal for believers in Christ is to grow more and more toward the teleios.

It is this teleios to which God the Father has predestined all Christians. In Romans 8:29, Paul wrote that God predestines born again believers to sanctification — "to be conformed to the image of His Son." In tandem with the purpose of this book, Thayer's choice of the words "sequence" and "series" in his definition of teleios implies a succession of stages from which one is to progress. God not only expects this of believers in Jesus Christ; He has predestined them to it.

Likewise, in his letter to the church in Colossae, Paul prayed that the believers would "walk worthy of the Lord," "bear fruit," and "grow" in knowledge of and obedience to God (Colossians 1:10). In Romans Chapter 14, he encouraged Christians to be accepting of and encouraging to believers who are weaker in the faith; they may be unknowledgeable about certain liberties and responsibilities of the Christian lifestyle, but "God has accepted" them nonetheless (Romans 14:3). Whereas the goal is maturity/perfection — growth toward the teleiosof spiritual maturity — there are those who are not as strong as others in their faith. James Edwards notes that those weaker in the faith are to be accepted "genuinely for what they are — as fellow Christians," especially as they have "not (yet) thought through the full implications of their faith." In this way, Paul's teaching acknowledges the existence of born again believers who are at different stages/levels of spiritual maturity.

Paul's words of personal testimony to the Philippians indicate that the goal of Christian maturation will not be made consummate until the believer is in the presence of God, in Heaven:

"Not that I have already reached the goal or am already fully mature, but I make every effort to take hold of it because I have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus ... I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God's heavenly call in Christ Jesus. Therefore all who are mature [(teleios)] should think this way." (Philippians 3:12-14)

Paul understands that one mark of Christian maturity is an ever-deepening commitment to continued growth toward Heaven's glory. Those who are mature will recognize the vast gap between where they are and where God wants them to be. Spiritual growth is not complete until the day God calls us home to Heaven.

James indicated that through trials and difficulty the believer in Christ is able to mature in the faith: "But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature [(teleios)] and complete, lacking nothing" (James 1:4). Peter described this spiritual maturation through a process of refinement, as ultimate salvation of the soul is being produced within the believer toward the final day of glorification (1 Peter 1:1-9). Such refinement in the believer would be possible only through the ministry of the "Spirit of obedience," also called the indwelling "Spirit of Christ" (1 Peter 1:2, 11). As mentioned in the Introduction to this book, Peter ended his second letter, in 2 Peter 3:18, with an appeal for believers to "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." On the word auxano ("grow"), Thayer suggests the imagery of both plants and infants, and references its biblical usage in the context of "inward Christian growth."

The writer of Hebrews revealed his frustrations over the lack of spiritual maturity among those in the faith; according to the amount of time they had been saved, they should have been teachers, but instead, were in need of someone to continue teaching them "basic principles" of Christianity (Hebrews 5:11-14). As has been demonstrated, both Pauline and non-Pauline New Testament letters teach the expectation that a born again believer mature in Christlikeness, through the power and guidance of God's indwelling Holy Spirit.

The doctrine of spiritual growth from the New Testament letters is not unlike Jesus's own instructions and intimations on the subject. In Matthew 10:24-25, Jesus instructed His followers to strive to grow and be more like Him as their teacher. His parable of the sower and the seeds in Matthew Chapter 13 and Luke 8 taught that the Word of God, when planted in the fertile soil of a believing heart, will grow and bear much fruit. In verse 30 of Matthew's account, the believer himself is one who is said to auxano alongside the weeds, until the day of harvest. Later, in Matthew 17:20, Jesus rebuked His disciples for their "little faith" as opposed to the mature kind of faith that can accomplish great things in His name.

The Gospel writer Luke recorded Jesus's words of encouragement toward those who continually seek God throughout their lifetimes. Through the process of growing faith in God's provision, believers store up treasures for themselves in Heaven (Luke 12:31-34). The barren fig tree of Luke 13:6-9 reveals the need for growth in grace, as well as consistent, increasing production of spiritual fruit after one is saved. There is evidence in Luke 17:5 that the disciples understood their need to "increase" in faith, even as believers in and followers of Jesus. Jesus's parable of the ten minas in Luke 19:11-27 taught that growth in faithfulness over what one has been given will be rewarded with more opportunities for faithfulness to God's glory. In John 4:14, Jesus described salvation as a "well of water, springing up from within for eternal life;" clearly, this spring is something born of the Spirit and growing in both grace and effectuality as it overflows from the redeemed heart, with its final consummation to be "eternal life". The teachings on spiritual growth in the Gospel records exhibit a beautiful harmony with those of the New Testament Letters.


Excerpted from Mile Markers by Tony Wolfe. Copyright © 2016 Anthony Wolfe. Excerpted by permission of CrossLink Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Dedication iii

Acknowledgements v

Introduction ix

Chapter 1 Progress Needed 1

Chapter 2 Regression Possible 19

Chapter 3 Community Necessary 33

Chapter 4 The Biblical Framework for Stages of Maturity in Christ 57

Chapter 5 Spiritual Childhood 69

Chapter 6 Spiritual Adolescence 85

Chapter 7 Spiritual Adulthood 99

Chapter 8 Best Practices 113

Chapter 9 Conclusion 129

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