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180px-Bankofamerica-atlanta1When 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!

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

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).

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 “life coaching” 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

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

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 themes such as: truth that helps someone to know more about God, truth that helps people understand themselves, and truth that helps someone to grow spiritually.

There are specific approaches to gaining an understanding of these foundational truths. This series you have just read is the first in a curriculum of systematic instruction. Next is a series called Laying Foundations, which is designed specifically for helping new believers (or mature believers wanting a review) lay solid spiritual foundations.

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.

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!

 

 dove1BREATHTAKING RESCUES

During the war with Iraq, America’s elite Special Forces pulled off two breathtaking rescues of our POWs from behind enemy lines. In the first, Jessica Lynch lay in grave physical condition, with wounds to her head and back and many broken bones. She was way beyond using her skills, wits and training to mastermind an escape. Even if she could crawl to the door, four Iraqi soldiers waited there, armed with AK-47 machine guns. All the strength she could muster was futile. Her only hope was to be rescued.

That’s exactly where we found ourselves spiritually before our salvation. We were lost, without hope, without the resources or ability to reach heaven on our own. Fortunately, God came to our rescue. As the Apostle Paul put it,

For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son…. (Colossians 1:13, NASB) 

Fortunately (or providentially!) for Jessica, an awesome array of Special Forces risked their lives to come for her. After midnight, hundreds of Marines crossed enemy lines and created a diversion south of Jessica’s building with artillery and gunfire. Then, several dozen ‘’door-kickers’’ arrived in Black Hawk helicopters provided by Air Force special operations. Army Rangers secured the building. Navy Seals penetrated the hospital.

I want someone to accompany me through this life, someone strong enough to take care of me.

Wearing night goggles, the Seals found her room and whisked her off to a helicopter. But, although she was rescued, she knew that she wasn’t out of harm’s way. On the helicopter, she said, “Please don’t let anyone leave me.” They never did.

Lest you think this desperation for companionship was just a feminine reaction to her ordeal, in a similar rescue of 7 male POWs in Iraq, the rescuers sensed the same need for companionship in the rescued men. So, two Marines were instructed by their commanding officer to accompany the soldiers out of Iraq. As one rescuer said, “We were the first Americans they’d seen since they were captured. They kind of clung to us from the start, so our Commanding Officer figured they needed some familiar faces traveling with them.” (1)

Spiritually, I have some of the same needs and feelings as these POWs. Sure, I’ve been rescued from darkness and given a new chance at life. But I don’t want to be simply dumped outside the city limits of Baghdad and left to fend for myself. I want someone to accompany me through this life, someone strong enough to take care of me.

This is exactly what God has given us in His Holy Spirit. When Jesus readied His disciples for His departure, He assured them that He’d send them a “helper”—“one summoned to the side of another to befriend him, advise him, and if necessary plead his cause.”(2) (John 14:16,26, 15:26, 16:7)

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.
(John 14:26, NASB) 

And, He comes to live inside of us! In this Pocket PrincipleTM, we’ll learn more about the Holy Spirit and how He wants to relate to us.

WHEN GOD MOVED IN

Back in Old Testament times, God wasn’t as up close and personal. Sure, He talked to Moses face to face, but to most of God’s people, He was separated from them by a veil in the temple. God dwelt “in the midst of” His people (Exodus 15:13,17; Numbers 35:34; Deuteronomy 7:21). The temple symbolized God’s presence (Deuteronomy 12:5-7), and only the priests could enter the “holy of holies,” where God could be contacted.

You shall not dread them, for the LORD your God is in your midst, a great and awesome God. (Deuteronomy 7:21, NASB) 

God moved out of His temple and into His people!

Jesus changed all of that. In the Christmas story, you may remember Jesus is referred to as “Immanuel,” which means “God is with us.” (Matthew 1:23) God walked among us during His years on earth, but He assured His disciples that after His death and resurrection He’d stay close to them through His indwelling Spirit (John 14:7). When He died on the cross, the temple veil ripped in two, symbolizing that God’s presence was no longer just for the priests (Matthew 27:51).

When He ascended, He told His disciples to go to Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit. Since that time, the Holy Spirit enters believers at the time of our salvation (Acts 2:38; Ephesians 1:13; Romans 8:9-11). Now all believers are priests; our bodies are His temple (I Corinthians 6:19; Acts 17:24). God moved out of His temple and into His people!

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? (I Corinthians 6:19) 

When a young child named Benji expressed a strong desire to make sure that he was going to heaven, his parents led him in a prayer to ask Jesus to come live in his heart. After the prayer, Benji looked up at his parents with a confident smile and said, “Well, He’s packing!” In his literal-thinking mind, Benji could imagine God packing His bags to come live in his heart. What a great picture!

When God’s Spirit comes to live in us, He makes several changes in our lives.

A NEW LIFE

One night, Jesus talked to a fellow named Nicodemus about how to enter God’s kingdom. Being a high ranking Pharisee, Nicodemus had certainly studied God’s Word and tried to live it out. Yet, Jesus said that he couldn’t get into God’s kingdom without being born again, which He also calls being born of the Spirit (John 3:5). Jesus was speaking of the new life the Spirit gives to us.

Jesus also described this new life as crossing from death to life (John 5:24). Those who have not been born again are spiritually dead. Only when the Spirit of God enters their lives do they become spiritually alive (Ephesians 2:1-5). This means not only that the believer has eternal life, but that additionally he has a personal relationship with God (is alive to Him).

Although this new relationship with God, through the Holy Spirit, begins at salvation, it keeps growing throughout the rest of our lives. It’s kind of like a good marriage. A couple becomes one on their wedding day, but they continue to grow in their relationship throughout their lives. Two of the Holy Spirit’s continuing ministries are to assure the believer that she is a child of God and to inspire her to cry out to God, her Father, in prayer (Romans 8:15-16).

Although this new relationship with God, through the Holy Spirit, begins at salvation, it keeps growing throughout the rest of our lives.

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by Him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. (Romans 8:15,16) 

A NEW HEART

Cassie Bernall became known worldwide as a 17-year-old student who died in the April, 1999 massacre at Columbine High School. Although she was a committed Christian at the time of her death, she wasn’t always that way. Raised by loving parents, she got with the wrong friends and began to dabble in satanic rituals. Subtly, the glasses through which she viewed the world became darker and darker, until she could seem to find no good in the world. She would cut herself. She hated her parents, God and her life, becoming obsessed with suicide. Cassie wouldn’t have responded to a self-help book or a motivational speech. She needed a new heart.

Her mom began to pray desperately. A Christian classmate befriended her and wouldn’t let go. She invited Cassie to a weekend retreat in the Rocky Mountains. During a praise and worship service, God broke through. Her change was immediate and dramatic. She walked outside the meeting room with some friends, gazed at the stars and stood in awe of the God she once hated.

When her parents met her at the bus, they immediately saw the difference. According to her dad, “it was as if she had been in a dark room, and somebody had turned the light on, and she could suddenly see the beauty surrounding her.” They saw the smile that had disappeared years ago. God had given her a new heart—one that had a passion to love God and love people. (3) Before we knew Christ, we had serious heart problems. We needed more than corrective surgery; we needed a transplant.

What does it mean to have a new heart? An Old Testament Prophet named Ezekiel prophesied of a time when God would send His Spirit to live within believers and give them new hearts. He said that God would remove their hearts of stone and give them hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). A “heart of flesh” means a heart that is responsive to God. It seeks after Him and desires to follow Him (Ezekiel 36:27).

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezekiel 36:26, 27) 

The Apostle Paul explained the same truth in a different way. He spoke of the “desires of the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:17; Romans 8:5) When we are born again, the Holy Spirit gives us a new set of godly desires. But many sinful desires remain as well. God’s indwelling Spirit gives us the power to say “yes” to the godly desires and “no” to the sinful ones (Galatians 5:16,22-23).

A NEW PERSPECTIVE

The Holy Spirit enlightens our understanding (I Corinthians 2:12). Those who do not have the Spirit (unbelievers) do not understand the things of God. Spiritual issues seem like foolishness to them (I Corinthians 2:14). We see this dramatic change in the Apostle Paul. Before his conversion, he saw Christianity as a perversion of the truth. After receiving the Holy Spirit, he understood the truth (Acts 9:17-18).

We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. (I Corinthians 2:12) 

Of course, the Spirit doesn’t give us all spiritual knowledge. We won’t see all things clearly until we’re in heaven (I Corinthians 13:12). Here on earth the Spirit opens our eyes immediately to some truths, and others as we follow Him and read His Word. It’s kind of like taking a trip by car at night. When you turn on the headlights, you can’t see all the way to your destination, but as you move forward, your headlights give enough light to let you continue your journey.

CONCLUSION

We introduced this lesson by describing the dramatic rescue of Jessica Lynch. It wasn’t enough to be rescued. She needed someone to accompany and protect her until she could make it home. As I write, she’s safely home in America, celebrating her 20th birthday. God not only rescued us from the domain of darkness, but also promised to accompany us each step of our journey—helping us, enlightening us, growing us up, and transforming us until that day that we arrive safely at our heavenly home.

End Notes:

.(1)  Sgt. Joseph R. Chenelly, Marines Recount POW Rescue Operation, I Marine Expeditionary Force. Patrick Rogers, Peter Mikelbank, Rose Ellen O’Connor, Susan Keating, Jane Sims Podesta, Courtney Rubin, “Saved From Danger,” People, (April 21, 2003).

.(2)  R.V.G. Tasker, Book of John, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1960), 172.

.(3)  Misty Bernall, She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall (Rifton, NY: Plough Publishers, 1999).

I had the privilege of hearing a bunch of middle schoolers share reflections about their time at our local middle school.  It was interesting that my perception of middle school was tainting my ability to hear with objectivity.  I have furiously attempted to avoid thinking about anything related to my Jr. High School experiences.

There are books written about teenage girls, queen bees, bullying and an assorted other difficulties related to growing up through adolescence, especially during the middle school years.  I previously posted about our experiences as parents of teenagers in a blog called Three simple steps to growing up with your teenager.

We are still learning here.  I do recommend you read “Like Dew Your Youth” by Eugene Peterson.  I have also had a great many talks with our C.O.O. David Parfitt,  who has just launched two teenagers into college and beyond.  His perspective has certainly been helpful.

As I sat there listening to these really awesome teenagers, some who performed music and others who read 2-3 minute reflections on Middle School, I was struck by the differences in maturity and perspective.  It reminded me of two things.

5120336436_0af6412eae_o1.  We’re not there yet.

If there is one thing that I have learned it is that none of us have arrived. From the moment you sent the first child off to preschool to the point where you release them into independent living, you remember at each point that none of us have arrived.  This living in the now and not yet, the point where you look at your heart or try to understand the heart of a teenager, the place where you are both able to remember that “we’re not there yet” is both scary and humbling and also a place for faith.

More than one teenager communicated that Middle School was a place to learn and grow. They shared the trials that were faced there, the loss of a teacher or parents, the loss of reputation, dealing with their own inner struggles and consequences of poor choices.  Some communicated about their dreams and plans, high hopes and confidence in their vision for a future.  That’s what those kinds of events are for.  But is was good to see that in the midst there were those who realized that “they were not there yet!”

This reminds me of a critical point for those who are helping build disciples and those who are being shaped towards Christlikeness, we are all in process! This process will not be done till we see Christ face to face.

2. The way up is the way down.

The second truth is somewhat surprising and at the same time confusing at first.  To grow spiritually, to grow into a person who has the character of Jesus, means that the way up is the way down!  What?  I thought that maturity means increasing holiness and perfection.  I thought that sanctification was getting better!

What was telling in the different teenagers who shared was that each seemed to have a bit of humility, they knew that they were not there yet, but there seemed to be a variety of ways which they would attempt to continue to grow.  Certainly there were mentors and teachers along the way that helped these optimistic and sometimes proud teens learn the lesson that they don’t know everything (something of which I still have to remind myself).  There were circumstances of loss, pain and grief that brought honesty and self reflection to these teens.  But one thing that wasn’t shared across the board was a simple truth that Jesus brings to the table.  The way to go up is the way down.

But not all Christians see Sanctification in these terms.  What about being “enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness”?  Doesn’t that mean I’m getting better! Well, yes and no.

The Westminster Confession of Faith says:

Q. 35. What is sanctification?
A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace,[97] whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God,[98] and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.[99]

[97] Ezekiel 36:27. Philippians 2:13.  2 Thessalonians 2:13.

[98] 2 Corinthians 5:17. Ephesians 4:23-24. 1 Thessalonians 5:23.

[99] Ezekiel 36:25-27.  Romans 6:4, 6, 12-14.  2 Corinthians 7:1.  1 Peter 2:24.

Note something in the first phrase that is sometimes missed.  Sanctification is the WORK of God’s free grace.  To support my first point, we are not there yet.  It is the ongoing work of God that helps us grow.  We are renewed after the image of God! Certainly more like Jesus than when we begin.  The last point is also true, enabled more and more to die unto sin and live unto righteousness.

So on the one hand, Yes, Sanctification is the work of grace where we are enabled more and more. So take heart, we do grow!

What does this look like?  Well, maybe we need to consider what this doesn’t look like!

Sanctification is not the work of my flesh, personality, or inner stubbornness to be a good person!  We remember it is a work of grace! That means God is more concerned with my spiritual growth than I am!  He has promised to complete what He begins!

So it doesn’t look like me picking myself up by my own bootstraps! I don’t grow by my own will!  (Getting Better is a hard phrase to explain here, but by my saying, No  – I am not getting better – means that “I” am not making myself better.)

To connect this back to my original point, I need to remember that I don’t arrive once I am saved and I still don’t arrive once I have learned how to grow and follow God.  The way up is the way down!

Some of this is perspective.  I have a brother-in-law who is an awesome mechanic.  If I were to go in to his shop while my car was getting a new timing belt, not knowing what it took, I might be surprised at all the things he has to take off my car to get that job done.  Simply, if all I have ever done “spiritually” is fill my “heart” up with gas, put in new coolant or give it a wash (metophorically speaking), then I would be shocked at what real “heart work” takes.  It is as if we forget that to grow takes both time and a bit of time under the hood.

The very thing that marks Christian maturity is the ability to grow in brokenness.  This is not simply admitting that I am a sinner, but the ongoing process of allowing the Holy Spirit to uncover the things in my life that need to be repented of and developing a heart that is willing to “go with the Holy Spirit” down into my heart. I have to allow Jesus to take apart the transmission, do an overhaul on the engine and maybe even do some body work.  I’m not going to see anything unless I allow the “great mechanic” under the hood.  And honestly, if I understand what the Bible says about my condition apart for Jesus, I need some serious time in the shop!

Self examination with the Word of God,  prayer producing God given repentance and Godly sorrow, and a healthy relationship with God means I need to go down!  (Psalm 5:17) The more I am aware of my sinfulness before a holy God the more I see my need for Jesus each moment!  It is at these very moments that I see the cross of Christ grow bigger and bigger! I realize the depths of my sin, but also begin to scratch the surface of the depths to which Christ’s death paid for my sin.  Jack Miller says, “Cheer up” you’re far worse than you think you are!  But you are more loved and accepted in Christ than you ever dared dream!

So I listen to the middle schoolers finish speeches and one thing that I’m reminded of is that some of them have a healthy view of self.  They realize that they have a ways to go and are learning.  They haven’t lived up to their own or others expectations and will continue to mess up.  But as with all of us, they still are in progress.  My prayer for them, for myself and for you is that that process of growth toward maturity begins with a humble and broken heart before Jesus that causes you to replace trust in yourself for self-improvement with faith to believe that Jesus is calling you to Repentance and Faith.

Walking with Jesus today means that I learn that I am still growing.  I learn that Jesus helps me see my daily sin, my love for self, my trust in this world; in seeing these things…. he calls me to ongoing repentance and ongoing faith.

Here are a few articles that can flesh these thoughts out further.

All of Life is Repentance: Tim Keller

The Theology of Sonship

Sanctified by Grace: White Horse Inn Blog

The Centrality of the Gospel

The author takes full responsibility for the content and links provided on this blog.  His views may not be held by or represent all the views of Worldwide Discipleship Association.  Feel free to jump in and have a good discussion!