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Laying Foundations for Spiritual Growth

When my two sons were young we went to Atlanta for the groundbreaking of one of the more famous skyscrapers. We had been reading about the project for months in the local papers and were excited to watch the construction of the “tallest building in the South”. As we arrived on the scene, the bulldozers were already clearing the site, but there was a viewing area for spectators with an architectural rendering of the completed structure emblazoned on the side of the construction fencing. “Wow!” my oldest exclaimed, “It’s humongous!” And indeed it was, soaring nearly seventy stories above Peachtree Street, it certainly promised to be a focal point of the city skyline. We faithfully trekked to the site and watched trucks haul away dirt and debris while other trucks delivered steel girders and other building materials. After several weeks of this vigil, one of the boys exclaimed in frustration, “Dad, when are they going to start working on the building?” (It was a question that I had pondered myself, because all that existed was a large hole and lots of mud.) Approaching a worker with a set of plans under his arm, I inquired, “Can you give us some idea when the building is going to begin?” His chuckle made it obvious the question had come up before.

“It’s hard to believe it,” he said, “but this hole is the most important part of the building. We have to dig down several hundred feet and build a solid foundation to support a structure that’s over seventy stories tall. It will take several months to pour the concrete and sink the steel pillars, but then we’ll start going up. Once we start, it will rise pretty fast!”

The Bible compares living the Christian life with constructing a building. Just as there are phases in building a building, there are phases in the growth of a Christian, and the first phase is: “laying a foundation”. Our initial salvation experience is the beginning of a process of growth that lasts a lifetime. The success of our Christian walk is determined by the strength of our spiritual foundation. Matthew 7: 24-27 asserts that the Christian life built on a solid foundation will withstand the storms of life. The tallest building in the South is still standing today. Believers who lay solid foundations are more likely to stand tall than those who fail to establish a solid base for growth.
This foundations phase actually consists of four interconnecting parts:

  1. relating to God,
  2. relating to other Christians,
  3. understanding truth, and
  4. applying truth so that it transforms us.

Let’s explore these together!

The success of our Christian walk is determined by the strength of our spiritual foundation.

Relating to God

Unlike other religions, the essence of Christianity is a relationship with God, not a set of rules. In John 17: 3 the Scripture affirms that eternal life is all about knowing God. It is thrilling to remember that God desires a relationship with us that will never end. The great news is that believers don’t have to wait for heaven to experience this. It begins the moment we accept Christ!

Having a relationship with God is not all that different from having a relationship with anyone else. As we relate to others, we get to know them better and the relationship deepens over time. There are specific situations that will help believers better experience a relationship with God. The first of these involves setting aside time for personal devotions, a quiet time each day devoted to prayer, Bible reading, and personal meditation. The Scripture promises in James 4: 8 that as we “come near to God, He will come near to us”. This “coming near to God” is not a religious duty, but a time for relational development. Of course just as good disciplines and habits can be beneficial in other areas of life, the more we remain faithfully committed to our quiet time, the more benefit we derive from it.

Another aspect of developing a relationship with God is attending public worship in a church that exalts Him. Although we can worship God any place, any time, worshipping with other Christians deepens and develops our ability to relate to God. There are many different public worship experiences and not all churches structure them in the same way.

Worship that focuses on the greatness of God and includes times of singing praise, prayerful meditation, and Biblical preaching should be a priority. Ask God to help you find a church in your community and become a part of the fellowship. This leads to another important part of laying a good foundation: relating to other Christians.

Relating to Other Christians

God has placed us in His spiritual family, the Church, to encourage us, protect us, correct us, direct us, and provide for us. Again there are specific situations that help believers experience relationships with other Christians. Each of these plays a unique role in helping to form a spiritual foundation and each will require some effort. But they all are incredibly beneficial. Christians who do not have connections with other Christians tend to stop growing. (cf. Hebrews 10: 24-25)

Unlike other religions, the essence of Christianity is a relationship with God, not a set of rules.

In the first century there were very few church buildings. Mostly the believers met together in private homes for Bible teaching, prayer, and fellowship. There are benefits to meeting with large groups in public worship, but there is also an advantage gained from being part of a small group. The intimacy of the setting provides a place for relationships to flourish. Many modern believers have learned that meeting together in small groups helps to forge close relationships as members discuss Scripture, pray for each other, and share personal matters.

The term “mentoring” was coined by the modern business community to describe a relationship where a seasoned executive tutors a younger colleague in commercial practices. But long before mentoring was introduced to the world of commerce, it had already existed in the spiritual community as “one-to-one discipleship”.

In this case it describes an intentional relationship between a young believer and a more mature Christian who models the Christian life, answers questions, gives counsel, and helps the younger Christian stay focused on the priorities of growth.

Understanding Truth

One important priority for growth (and the third part of laying good foundations) involves developing an increasing understanding of God’s truth. The Bible is the Book of Truth for Christians, but it can appear overwhelming to a new learner. It was Jesus who proclaimed that knowing truth sets people free from the bondage of sin. Therefore, it is helpful to have a basic plan of study for learning the truths that we need to build upon, a plan that focuses on specific themes and principles of foundational development. A good beginning series of studies for young believers should include the themes mentioned earlier: truth that helps someone to know more about God, truth that helps people understand other people, and truth that helps someone to grow spiritually.

There are specific approaches to gaining an understanding of these foundational truths. The first is a curriculum of systematic instruction. This is the first of a series of “Pocket Principles” that are designed specifically for helping new believers lay solid spiritual foundations. If you received this “Pocket Principle” from a mentor or small group leader, continue to work closely with that person to discover and apply the other truths in this series.

Another way of gaining insights into living the Christian life is by reading. There are many excellent materials and resources available in Christian bookstores, libraries, and on the Internet. Your own informal reading will supplement your growth. But be sure to focus on the foundational themes mentioned above as a starting point.

Christians who do not have connections with other Christians tend to stop growing. (Hebrews 10: 24-25)

Your local church is also an excellent source of content. Besides the weekly sermon delivered by the pastor or other teacher, many churches offer small groups devoted to helping new believers get established in the faith. Consult the churches in your area for opportunities to learn foundational truths.

Applying Truth

But as important as truth is in the growth process, it is not the information alone that transforms us. In fact other parts of Scripture warn us that knowledge by itself can be dangerous, leading to spiritual pride and the deadening of our hearts to God. This particular sin characterized the Pharisees who were enemies of Christ. It is only truth that is obeyed or applied to our lives that changes us and causes growth. Romans 12: 2 reminds us that it is a life consecrated to obeying God that is impacted by truth. When our minds are transformed in this way we help establish the will of God on earth. This is more than just knowing the truth, it is actually doing truth.

A skyscraper is an engineering marvel, but soaring high means digging deep and laying solid foundations. A maxim of the Christian life asserts that “you can only grow as tall as you grow deep”. Laying good foundations takes time and effort, but the benefits are worth it. The new believer needs to embrace experientially the truths related to knowing and understanding God and other believers.

Conclusion

Applying truth will require becoming involved in specific situations that facilitate foundational growth. Establishing a time for personal devotions, joining a small group, locating an older believer who can come alongside you as an encouraging mentor, setting up a systematic plan of study , and participating in public worship are layers of spiritual brick and mortar that form this foundation. But these situations without a heart commitment to obey the truth will not suffice. Blessings to you as you grow!

It is only truth that is obeyed or applied to our lives that changes us and causes growth.

  • So where are you laying foundations?
  • Where do you find is the best place to find a mentor?
  • Have you made time for studying God’s word?
  • What are some of the things you have done to help lay foundations for growing in your faith as a Christian?

Get this Pocket Principle in Knowing God, part of Cornerstone  from the WDA Store

For more information visit the WDA Store.

telling the truth

CULTIVATING AN ATMOSPHERE THAT IS “FULL OF TRUTH”

Now, we will consider how specifically to encourage an atmosphere that is “full of truth” (John 1:14), to the end that people become convinced over time that there is nothing more wonderful, nothing more exciting, and nothing more life-giving than becoming an obedient follower of Jesus.

telling the truthAs we think about forming environments that are full of truth, we must consider several factors with regard to our use and presentation of the Law of God. As was the case with Paul, our goal is for Christ to be formed in everyone (Galatians 4:19), meaning that personal character gradually becomes like His. But this is tricky, because true obedience to Jesus is obedience from the inside-out. It is the kind of obedience that aims not to use God and put Him in our debt, but to honor Him and taste His loveliness and worth. In short, we must encourage an obedience that responds to the love of Jesus. Any other kind is moralism, not Christianity.

First, we must discern and to reject the three primary misuses of God’s Law.

The three “misuses” that must be resisted are as follows:

The secular misuse. Those who come from this perspective will resist the notion of all people being accountable to a higher power. Secular people may see biblical commands as oppressive and may then replace them with a new law—the law of tolerance. For this person, the sole “absolute” is that there are no absolutes. All people, views, and behaviors should be tolerated, except for those that are not tolerant! The problem with this approach should be obvious—to add to or to take away from the Word of God puts one in great danger (Revelation 22)! It also sets the human community up for systemic and relational chaos. If there is no truth in the world that applies to everybody, then everybody will do what is right in his/her own eyes—acting in personal interest versus in the interest of others.

The religious misuse. Those who come from this perspective tend to view God’s commands primarily in terms of duty. If you keep the commands, you have done your duty. If you don’t, you will be judged and things will not go well for you. Period. Religious people see God’s Law more in legal terms and less in relational terms. For the religious person, there is very little dancing in the heart over the beauty of God’s commands. In some religious circles, one might be tempted to assume that you are in the center of God’s will to the degree that you are grumpy! The Bible gives such a different picture, however. Psalm 1 teaches us that the Law of God is the believer’s delight! The writer of Psalm 119 says, “O how I love Your law!” The Psalmist enjoys God’s commands and in no way sees them as “a burden I must bear” or “a duty around which I must center my life.” While the Law is duty, it is so much more than duty! If people are consistently burdened by our presentation of God’s commands, if they are left feeling weighted down versus liberated, it is likely that we are missing the heart of the Law altogether. 1 John tells us that for the believer, God’s commands are not burdensome!

The antinomian misuse. Antinomians tend to treat God’s commands as optional. Antinomian means “against law”—the thought being that one can receive Jesus as Savior but refuse Jesus as King. The problems with this are obvious. Jesus Himself said, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I say?” James reminds us that “Faith without works is dead.” Martin Luther, the Reformation’s champion of grace, said that we are saved by faith alone, but never by a faith that is alone.

The following chart attempts to distinguish between the various uses (and misuses) of God’s Law. We must labor passionately to present the Law of God, but to do so from a Christ-centered approach and none other.

approach to God's Law

Secularized “The Law is oppressive.”
The Bible’s commands are primitive and un-enlightened. They take away my freedom. “Tolerance” and “Freedom.” Resistance to all authority except self. Disdain for anyone who challenges my personal “freedom” to think, believe, and do as I please.

Religious “The Law is legal in nature.”
The Bible’s commands are everyone’s duty. If you don’t follow them, you will pay. Treadmill-living. Self-righteousness and condemnation of others (I think I am keeping the law and others are not), Anxiety (I have failed at the law), or Denial (I can’t deal with the fact that I have failed at the law). Lack of inner joy.

Antinomian “The Law is optional.”
The Bible’s commands are fine and good. They are a good ideal but not necessary for me as a Christian. Trust in the sinner’s prayer. Self-deception (I can be a Christian without being a follower of Christ). Self-centered living (proving that I really love sin, not Jesus).

Gospel “God’s Law is relational and lovely.”
The Bible’s commands are a gift, and are the key to enjoying the “abundant life” Jesus came to give! They show me what it is to be truly human! None. Confidence in the finished work of Jesus for my standing with God—I’m not crushed when I fail at obedience, but am driven once again into Jesus’ loving arms. I love God’s commands because I know they are motivated by His deep passion for my well-being!

Second, we must receive and share God’s commands as an expression of His love.

Remember, God’s Law is not merely legal. While it does have a legal component, it is also deeply relational. God gives us His law in order to set us free, not to burden us. Consider the following:

God’s commands, rightly understood, are a gift. The overwhelming testimony of Scripture is that the Law of God is beautiful and good. It is not oppressive and freedom-robbing, but life-giving. It is not merely duty but delight. It is not an option but a blessed treasure. It was the only thing that made sense!

God’s commands provide freedom. It is important to understand the original meaning and context of the word torah (Law). For Jews living in the time of Moses, this was the word used to describe a loving father’s instruction to his children. When considering any command of God, we must start with the question, “What motivates a parent to tell his/her children to stay out of the street, or to eat vegetables, or to get 10 hours of sleep?” The answer to this question, without exception, is that the parent is committed to the child being healthy and happy. This is the purpose of loving, life-giving parental laws! This is but a reflection of God who gives His Law because He intends for His children to flourish. His Law is our pathway to becoming more fully human, the very best version of ourselves.

God’s commands promote human flourishing. God’s Law shows us what it is to be truly human. It tells us how we can pursue our potential, how we can be all we can be! If you take a fish out of water, it becomes anxious and afraid. All sorts of distortions are thrust into the fish’s existence. Only when you put the fish back in its natural habitat will the fish thrive again. It is no different with a human being concerning the Law of God. The Law is humanity’s natural, life-giving habitat! So, when we present the Law of God to our own hearts and to the hearts of others, we must constantly be communicating the following things about it:

  • The Law will benefit you! It enhances quality of life and promotes human flourishing.
  • The Law will protect you! All distortions in life come from some form of departure from the Creator’s design. Just as ignoring dietary wisdom will damage the body, ignoring biblical wisdom will damage the soul as well as relationships. God’s Law is our protection here.
  • The Law is lovely! We must learn to embrace God’s Law as the writers of Scripture did—as beautiful, the only thing that truly makes sense for those who wish to live life to the fullest.

Third, we must emphasize that obedience is motivational, not merely behavioral.

Jesus said it is a good root that makes a good tree bear good fruit. We obey God because of the people we have become on the inside, and for no other reason. We love God because God first loved us. It is only due to a clear vision of the loveliness of Jesus and the Gospel that anyone will obey in a way that will honor God and set the heart free. This has several implications for us:

We must encourage a want-to obedience versus a have-to obedience. True obedience comes from a heart that loves and enjoys the things of God, not from a heart that is duty-bound. So we want obedience to become second-nature for ourselves and others. Think of Michael Jordan as an example. He is known as one of the hardest working athletes ever—spending unparalleled amounts of time and energy honing his skills (just as we as believers must “train ourselves for godliness!”). But when Jordan got to game time, basketball had become so much a part of him that he dominated the game effortlessly.

Take, for example, the methods often used to get Christians to tell others about Jesus. Evangelism courses can be helpful in some instances, but to be honest, very few of them lead to a long-term commitment to tell others about Jesus. Why is this the case? It is because many courses fail to address the why of evangelism. Focusing so much on technique, they can miss the heart! Consider the New Testament on the other hand. The Samaritan woman (John 4) went immediately into Samaria to tell as many as she could about Jesus. The Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5), when told by Jesus to go and tell his family what the Lord had done to heal him, instead goes into the Decapolis (Ten cities!) to tell as many people as he could about the healing he had received! What motivated these people to tell others about Jesus? It was the fact that Jesus had become so irresistible to them that they absolutely had to tell others! When something becomes meaningful to us, our enjoyment of it is not complete until we have shared it with others.

If we present the Law as primarily a means toward modifying behavior, the behavior will happen on the outside but the heart will not change. Obedience will fizzle as soon as the guilt wears off. On the other hand, if we present the Law as a loving expression of God’s care for us, we will begin to see people change at the motivational level, it will produce lasting fruit that is in keeping with repentance. I think it was Steve Brown who once said, “I love to sin, but the reason I choose not to is because I love Jesus more!”

So, our “strategy” for encouraging people to obey God is to show them the beauty of Jesus on a regular basis. When Jesus becomes truly beautiful, truly lovely to people, they cannot help but follow Him. We will always give our lives effortlessly to the things that give our lives the most meaning. We don’t become like Jesus by trying to be like Jesus. We become like Him because we have been with Him, and in this have tasted His irresistible grace, kindness, and love.

This is part 3 of a series of articles by Scott Sauls. 

Begin the Series: Part 1

Next in the Series Part 4

Scott Sauls, a graduate of Furman University and Covenant Seminary, is foremost a son of God and the husband of one beautiful wife (Patti), the father of two fabulous daughters (Abby and Ellie), and the primary source of love and affection for a small dog (Lulu). Professionally, Scott serves as the Senior Pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Prior to Nashville, Scott was a Lead and Preaching Pastor, as well as the writer of small group studies, for Redeemer Presbyterian of New York City. Twitter: @scottsauls

Editor’s Note: Scott was a member of our WDA Campus Ministry (Next Generation Ministry) while at Furman University. We are excited to see our alumni continuing to carry a vision for discipleship!

This is a repost of A Jesus-Like Church Culture  by Scott Sauls. It appears here with the author’s permission. Website: cpcblogs.blogspot.com.