ONWARDS AND UPWARDS
Growth in the Christian Life
Jesus describes our relationship to him as that of a vine and its branches, with God the Father as the master gardener (John 15:1ff).
In another place Jesus compares life in his kingdom to the growth (or not) of plants whose seeds are sown along a path, in rocky places, among thorns, and in rich soil (Matt. 13:1ff).
Meanwhile the apostle Paul writes that the church is “God’s field” (1 Cor. 3:9), and he calls the results of God’s work in the lives of his people “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22ff).
All of this talk of vines, branches, seeds, farms, fields, and fruit is intentional: part of the Christian life is about growth, because living things grow. For this reason, a lot of articles (including some you will find on this site!) talk about how to grow, but not as many seem to discuss the nature of growth itself.
To begin with, when we talk about “growth in Christ” we are talking about development in the sense of maturity. This spiritual maturity is like physical maturity in some ways while being unlike it in others.
How Spiritual Growth Is Like Physical Growth
The main similarity between physical and spiritual growth or maturity is that both move in the same direction: little by little, slowly but surely, onwards and upwards. The reason for physical growth is in our DNA; it’s just part of what it means to be human.
The reason that spiritual maturity moves us “onwards and upwards” is because of who is at work inside us. It’s the God who renovates us from the inside out (Titus 3:6), renewing our minds (Rom. 12:2) and replacing our spiritually dead heart with one that’s alive and filling us with his Spirit (Ezek. 36:26); he gives us new desires and new abilities to say ‘yes’ to God and ‘no’ to sin (Titus 2:12) and hes promises never to leave us or forsake us (Heb. 13:5) until he completes what he started (Phil. 1:6).
That’s why we can confidently say you will be like God one day, fully conformed to the image of Christ, and God himself will make sure that it’s done. But that promise doesn’t lead to passivity. In fact, someone who does nothing while they wait around for God to make them new is not only missing the point; they might be missing Jesus, too.
How Spiritual Growth Is NOT Like Physical Growth
In one very important way, spiritual growth and maturity is different than the physical growth we all experience from infancy to adulthood. Specifically, physical growth is automatic—you don’t have to “do” anything but wait for a baby to become a boy to become a teenager to become a man.
But to grow more mature, the mere passing of time is not enough. (Which is why people are able to say things like, “Act your age, not your shoe size.”) The same is true of spiritual maturity and growth in Christ. Simply put: the number of years you have been a Christian does not, by itself, translate into greater maturity, growth, or likeness to Christ.
This is because it is possible to “grieve” (Eph. 4:30) or even “quench” the work of the Holy Spirit inside of us (1 Thes. 5:19). We do this when we resist the Spirit’s work inside us, acting against what God says is good and right in favor of whatever passing pleasure we’re duped into thinking is worth the cost (it never is).
Why This Matters
Understanding the intended nature of growth in the Christian life is important for two reasons. First, it provides us with a way to “examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith” (2 Cor. 13:5). Imagine talking with someone who claims to be a follower of Jesus, though they never seem to trust him or attempt to obey him in anything—and this has been the case for years and years. Now it’s true that we’re not ‘saved by our works’ (Eph. 2:8-9), but it’s also true that we were created and redeemed for good works (Eph. 2:10; Titus 2:14), so their total absence for decades is a cause for grave concern. Indeed, James reminds us that faith without works is dead—not because faith must be supplemented—but because true faith can’t lie dormant forever (James 2:14-17).
The second reason why we need to understand the nature of growth is because we would be tempted to despair if all we had was the previous paragraph. Our lives would consist in endless fruit inspecting, full of perpetual worry that we don’t have enough signs of the Spirit’s work in our lives to “know for sure” that we really do belong to Jesus. But that is not the whole story. The same God who solemnly calls us to ‘examine ourselves’ also reassures us with incredible promises. More than this, he does gives us evidence, over long periods of time, that we are his and that he is renewing us in his image (Col. 3:9-10).
To understand how all this works, it might help to think of how stock markets work. The movement of the market can vary considerably from week to week, and this kind of instability can drive stock spectators crazy with worry. The same happens when Christians spend too much time looking at themselves instead of looking at Jesus. However, it is still true that, given enough time, the stock market always rebounds; it always regains its losses; it always moves onwards and upwards (which is basically what makes retirement possible for so many millions of Americans).
The point is this: only a fool would never even take a peek at how his stocks were doing. Do they even care?! On the other hand, if you looked at them daily you’d agonize over the littlest movements up or down and miss the big picture. The same is true with spiritual growth. We ought to examine ourselves because God tells us to do so. But what we are looking for is not an perfectly progressing line with zero crashes or downward turns. Rather, we’re looking at the big picture, all the years of our life with Christ, to see the proof of his faithfulness and the fruit of our faith-filled obedience (Rom. 1:5).
You see, if you do belong to Jesus and you look at the big picture of your life, past the falls and the failures and the struggles and the sins you will see a zigzagging line with a discernible direction: onwards and upwards to the prize of God’s calling in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13-14).
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is a regular contributor to RE|SOURCE. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.