Just as birth, growth and development, and death are primary components of physical life, so, too, the spiritual life features significant lifecycle events. We are born to new life, we grow and develop in our spiritual lives, and one day we will be completely transformed into Christ’s likeness. Or, to put it another way, we have been made holy, we are being made holy, and one day we shall be made completely holy. Today, we live in the “already, but not yet.” The exciting truth is that God plays a significant role in each phase of our spiritual lives.
It is by God’s initiative that we begin our spiritual lives. The apostle Paul taught the church at Corinth that Christ is the one who made it possible for us to be reconciled to God. In 1 Corinthians 1:20 he writes, “God alone made it possible for you to be in Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made Christ to be wisdom itself. He is the one who made us acceptable to God. He made us pure and holy, and He gave Himself to purchase our freedom.” (New Living Translation) And later Paul writes to the same group of believers that, “God made Him [Christ] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” (II Corinthians 5:20) Elsewhere, Paul describes this event as Christ trading His riches for our poverty so that we might become rich—in spiritual riches (II Corinthians 8:9). Some have referred to this transaction as The Great Exchange.
We have another exchange to look forward to—when we will exchange our weak, mortal bodies for glorious, imperishable bodies. At some point in the future, God will complete the work He began when He saved us. Paul deals with this aspect extensively in the fifteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians when he discusses the resurrection from the dead and the nature of the glorified body. The apostle John described our future hope this way: “What we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when He [Christ] appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” (1 John 3:2)
So we see that God began this work and He will finish it. As believers, we sometimes have a tendency to view the in-between phase as solely our responsibility. The truth is that God plays a crucial role in our spiritual growth and development. However, this truth does not imply that man’s role is unimportant. It is the interaction between what God does and what we do that produces growth. Paul provides remarkable insight to this complementary dynamic when he writes in Colossians 1:29: “To this end I labor, struggling with all His energy, which so powerfully works in me.” Paul was aware that he had a responsibility to expend effort; however, he also recognized that, without God working through him and giving him strength, his efforts would come to nothing.
As noted by Kenneth Boa in his book That I May Know Him, author and seminary professor Howard Hendricks has described the spiritual life as “the life of Christ reproduced in the believer by the power of the Holy Spirit in obedient response to the word of God.” This perspective on spiritual growth balances our responsibility to be obedient with God’s enabling power.
We can better understand God’s role in the growth process by looking at the two primary ways He influences us. God works in us both internally and externally, as discussed in the following sections.
God influences us internally.
God’s internal influence in our spiritual growth takes place primarily through the work of the Holy Spirit living in us. At the time of salvation, the Holy Spirit comes to reside in our lives permanently. Speaking to this point, Paul challenged the believers at Corinth: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16) This indwelling of the Spirit is the basis of all else that happens in our spiritual lives.
The Holy Spirit produces a permanent change of heart that causes the believer’s disposition to be tender toward God instead of hostile to Him (Romans 8:5-8). The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel spoke of this heart transplant as God taking away hearts of stone and giving hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 11:19). He went on to say that, after surgery, the transplant recipients would follow God’s decrees and be careful to keep His laws.
Believers who are indwelled by the Spirit also need to be filled with the Spirit—submitting daily to His lordship and control. As we yield ourselves to God, the Spirit impacts our lives in the following ways.
He writes God’s law on our hearts.
God, speaking through His prophet Jeremiah, foretold the day when He would make a new covenant with His people (through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ). He said, “I will put my laws in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts.” (Jeremiah 31:33) This new covenant would not be written on tablets of stone but would rather be engraved on hearts by the Holy Spirit. Even today we contrast the phrase “the letter of the law” with “the spirit of the law.” The religious leaders of Jesus’ day knew the law down to the letter. However, it had not been written on their hearts. As a result, Jesus would say of them, “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones.” (Matthew 23:27) Elsewhere, quoting the words of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus charged the religious leaders saying, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Matthew 15:8) It is only when God’s Spirit writes His law on our hearts that we can worship Him in spirit and in truth.
He gives us holy desires.
Along with writing God’s law on our hearts, the Spirit also grants us the desire to follow what God’s law tells us to do. As Paul explained to the believers at Philippi, “It is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose.” (Philippians 2:13) In other words, it wouldn’t do any good for us to know that God wants us to be holy if He didn’t also give us the desire to be holy. Though we still have to battle against our sin nature that wants us to continue in sin, we now have the Holy Spirit leading us to pursue righteousness.
He convicts us of sin.
In the devotional booklet Our Daily Bread, the story is told of a young girl who accepted Christ as her Savior and applied for membership in a local church. “Were you a sinner before you received the Lord Jesus into your life?” inquired an old deacon. “Yes, sir,” she replied. “Well, are you still a sinner?” “To tell you the truth, I feel I’m a greater sinner than ever.” “Then what real change have you experienced?” “I don’t quite know how to explain it,” she said, “except I used to be a sinner running after sin, but now that I am saved I’m a sinner running from sin!” She was received into the fellowship of the church, and she proved by her consistent life that she was truly converted.
The girl’s words in this story, “I feel I’m a greater sinner than ever,” ring true with many Christians who are experiencing spiritual growth. This greater awareness of sin occurs because the Spirit reveals more and more sin to us. As we pray with the psalmist, “Search me, O God, and know my heart…see if there is any offensive way in me,” the Spirit will point out to us areas that we still need to work on. Whenever we become aware of sin, we recognize that the Spirit is doing His job.
He gives us power.
The Holy Spirit also gives us power⎜power to walk in obedience, power to do good works (Ephesians 3:20), power to stand against evil (Ephesians 6:10), power to stand up under adversity (2 Corinthians 12:10), and power to bear witness before an unbelieving world (Acts 1:8 and 4:33).
He bears His fruit in our lives.
The result of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives is that we will bear His kind of fruit. Examples of this fruit include love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). This fruit is the evidence of growth and maturity. If we are growing, we will bear fruit. If we are not growing, we will be unable to bear fruit. It’s that simple.
God influences us externally.
God does not depend solely on His internal work in our lives to bring about spiritual growth. He complements this strategy with an external component that can be seen in the following ways.
Through life events
God uses difficult circumstances, consequences of our choices, and persecution to mold us into the kind of people He wants us to be. Responding appropriately to unfavorable events or circumstances is a frequent theme in the New Testament writings. Christians are challenged to see God’s hand in these things and to use them as opportunities to grow and develop in faith. James tells us to welcome times of testing as our friends (James 1:2). This is not a fatalistic or masochistic mind set; rather, it represents a mature understanding of the greater purposes that can be achieved through these tribulations. Suffering produces perseverance; discipline produces righteousness. And, as we endure these events and circumstances, we remain confident that God causes everything to work together for good for those who love Him (Romans 8:28).
Unfortunately, some interpret difficult circumstances as a sign that God has deserted them or no longer cares about them. They resent or resist the situation they find themselves in and decide to wait until things change for the better before they pursue spiritual growth.
Dallas Willard challenges this mindset when he writes in The Divine Conspiracy, “We must accept the circumstances we constantly find ourselves in as the place of God’s Kingdom and blessing. God has yet to bless anyone except where they actually are, and if we faithlessly discard situation after situation, moment after moment, as not being ‘right,’ we will simply have no place to receive His Kingdom into our life. For those situations and moments are our life.”
Through the results of our walk
God also uses positive results from our walk to motivate us to continue our pursuit of holiness. We are told in Scripture to obey God, to spend time with Him in prayer, to study His Word, and so on. As we exercise these spiritual disciplines, God brings about growth. When we engage in healthy activities such as proper diet, rest, and exercise, we feel better and this motivates us to continue. So it is with the spiritual life. The more we grow, the more we desire to grow.
Through the influence of other believers
God also brings about spiritual growth through the influence of other believers. It is part of God’s plan for His children to work together and to help each other in many ways. Whether it be the teaching or preaching of believers so gifted or through the encouragement, modeling, challenge, rebuke, or accountability that someone provides, fellow believers are an important means of growth. The apostle Paul certainly understood this dynamic and the role God enabled him to play in the lives of other believers. He referred to believers as his spiritual offspring and, at one point, wrote to the believers in Galatia that he “was in the pains of childbirth until Christ was formed in them.” (Galatians 4:19) What a profound picture of the influence of other believers on our spiritual growth!
Paul reminds us in Philippians 1:6 that, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.” This knowledge of God’s role in our spiritual growth leads us to a position of humility, gratitude, and dependence. Further, a deep understanding of God’s ongoing work of grace in our lives should motivate us to take responsibility for the role we play in our growth and energize us for the task. This aspect of spiritual growth will be discussed in the next Pocket Principle.
• List some examples of ways you have seen God influence your spiritual growth.
• Meditate on Philippians 2:12-13. As you meditate, think of an area in which you have experienced spiritual growth. Write down the part God has played and the part you have played.