Growing in Christ Banner

TRICYCLEIf you were to write out an equation for spiritual growth, it would look something like this:

Holy Spirit + Personal Commitment + Church = Spiritual Maturity

Each part of this formula for growth is necessary: Spirit, Self, and Church. None is expendable. Each has its own unique part to play in developing disciples into the image of God.

If you are math-challenged and the very thought of “equations” and “formulae” gives you hives, perhaps you should think in terms of a tricycle. You and I are on a life-long journey towards maturity. We drive to that destination on three-wheels: Spirit, Self, and Church.

First and foremost, spiritual maturation is only possible through the Spirit’s power, wisdom, and transforming work. It is God’s Spirit who is acting on us, changing us, re-creating and maturing us. It is by his mercy that our brokenness and immaturity are healed. The Bible consistently maintains that only the Spirit can accomplish God’s agenda for our lives. He gives us new birth. He circumcises our hearts. He leads and controls us. He fills our lives with holy fruit. He reveals God to us. He gifts and seals us. He teaches and deepens and grows us. There is no spiritual maturity without the Spirit. There cannot be. [See my book, A Spirit for the Rest of Us, for an exploration of how the Spirit acts in us to work God’s purposes.]

But the Spirit will not do in us a work we refuse to allow. He will not barge in and make spiritual changes without our permission and collaboration. He’s looking for a partner, not a puppet. Spiritual growth requires our cooperation, participation, willingness, and hunger. Until we lay ourselves on God’s table and bare our hearts to his knife, there will be no growing up in Christ. Self-denial and self-control may not be sufficient to produce full-grown spiritual adults but they are certainly necessary.

Spiritual growth is a result of God’s Spirit and our willing participation. Both factors are critical to growth and deserve further examination and study. However, we do not ride to maturity on only these two wheels. As we will see (comprising, as it does, the major focus of this series of articles), there is a third “wheel” that carries us towards the final destination of this spiritual journey: the church. Paul talks about all three as vital to our development into fully-grown disciples of Jesus.

Three Wheels in Ephesians

In Ephesians 3:14-4:16, Paul encourages the Ephesian Christians to “grow up.” He specifically mentions three factors that will help these Christians mature and develop: Spirit, Self, and Church. These, says Paul are the necessary rubber-meets-the-road elements for becoming the people God wants them to be.

First, he prays for the Holy Spirit to be active in these Christians so they can “be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Listen:

“I pray that out of his glorious riches [God] may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, … [so that you] may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ …—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory …” (Eph 3:14-20)

Do you hear it? It is the “Spirit in our inner being” who strengthens them with power, allows Christ to dwell in their hearts, teaches them to understand the love of Christ, so that they may become the fullness of God. The word “maturity” is not mentioned in this passage. But the meaning is clear. Paul wants the Ephesians to grow up in Christ, live with power, learn and practice Christ’s love, and demonstrate in their lives the fullness of him who fills everything. And the first step on that maturing journey involves the Holy Spirit—God’s “power that is at work within us.”

Next, Paul insists that the Ephesians themselves have a role to play.

I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Eph 4:1-2)

Yes, the Spirit is at work in these disciples to fill them with God. But the Spirit will not do for them what he wants to do with them. There is a contribution they can and must make. That contribution is not the most important factor in spiritual growth. But it is necessary none-the-less. “Watch your life,” Paul says. “Make sure you are cooperating with the Spirit to demonstrate the Spirit’s fruit.” (Notice how closely this list of virtues corresponds to the fruit of the Spirit Paul identifies in Gal 5:22-23.) “To the Spirit’s presence, you must add your own participation if you want to live up to the calling you received,” Paul tells them.

But the Ephesians will never reach their destination on only two wheels. There is a third touch-point which keeps their journey grounded and ensures they are making steady progress towards their ultimate destination.

The Maturing Community

God has not wired us to grow in isolation. Don’t imagine that retreat to some holy hermitage, far from the distractions of other people, is the surest route to spiritual maturity—more likely, it’s a dead end. Don’t think that God and you, up on a mountaintop somewhere, is the fastest path to sainthood.

When God decides to bake a disciple, he does not stick us in an oven by ourselves. Disciples are made in batches. They are grown in groups, pods, herds, flocks, droves … communities where disciples can bump against and sharpen and teach and model for each other … public spaces where the individual can be honed by his or her peers. The most common name for this group-in-which-disciples-are-cultivated is “church.”

The church is not a worshiping club. It is not a society for the elevation of public morality. Its primary purpose is not benevolence or camaraderie or witness. The church is an incubator in which disciples are nourished. It is a nursery where spiritual infants are encouraged to develop into spiritual giants. It is a family, crowded with different generations and levels of maturity, whose entire purpose is to release fully-functional, fully-competent, fully-Christ-like spiritual adults into the world.

The functions of the church—worship, fellowship, ministry, and evangelism—are the means by which disciples are matured. (Other benefits, considerable and important as they may be, are serendipitous.) The leaders of the church have—as their primary task—the growth and development of the people God has placed into their care. (All other leadership responsibilities, though many and necessary, are secondary.) The teaching of the church must train people to become the fullness of Christ. The structures and programs of the church must implant and cultivate the image of God. Relationships in the church must encourage an increasing and pervasive Christ-likeness. Whatever other good the church may do, to fail in the role of maturing its people is to fail at the one place where failure is fatal.

It is to this “maturing community” Paul turns next in Ephesians 4:11-16. In this passage, he makes a plea for the “church to be the church” so that disciples can be the fully-grown, Christ-like people God intends.

[Link to next article.]