Six GROWTH practices: Go, Read, Obey, Witness, Trust, Humble Yourself
Think of spiritual growth as going through stages of development.
Martin Luther himself offered a three-stage scheme of faith development. First is learning the external rules of church life. The second is living faithfully but out of guilt with no joy. The third is living with a heart changed by the Holy Spirit, who makes pure, free, cheerful, glad, and loving hearts that seek no reward, fear no punishment and do everything with joy. Surely, who would not want to experience growth into such hearts?
Spiritual growth is a major theme in the letters of Peter and Paul. Peter encouraged his readers to add to their faith qualities like love, kindness, and godliness “in increasing measure” (2 Peter 1: 8). Paul’s prayer for the Philippians was that their love may abound more and more (Phil 1:9). He thanked God that the Thessalonians’ love for each other is increasing and overflowing. (1 Thessalonians 1:3). He explained to the Corinthians that we are being transformed into Christ-likeness with every increasing glory through the power of the Spirit (2 Cor 3:15). Peter challenged his readers to “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).
Jesus himself declared that he has come so that his followers can have a life better than they ever dreamed of (John 10:10). He meant in this life now, not just in eternity.
Consider these four stages of spiritual growth from childhood through adulthood.
Stage 1 Child-like Faith
There is something very touching about the trust of children, seen especially when they say their bedtime prayers. Biblical faith has two meanings—statements of what is believed and also trust in a person or something. The second meaning of trusting God is more important in daily living. Jesus did teach that unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 18 3).
Stage 2 Cultural Faith
Every church has its own culture of beliefs, values, and behaviors. Most focus on the values and behaviors, with the beliefs in the background. Cultural Faith is accomplished when a member confirms “I believe what my church believes.” This level is a life full of “shoulds” and has little to do with continued growth in love, kindness, and godliness. Stage 2 Cultural faith does well in a vibrant church culture with a strong sense of community. It weakens, though, when the larger social culture no longer affirms the values and behaviors of Christian church cultures.
Stage 3 Convicted Faith
Cultural faith moves from “I believe what my church believes” to “This is what I personally believe.” It involves taking ownership of the biblical Gospel, and it usually arises out of a time of testing. This Stage 3 emerges through the movement of the Spirit, who opens the eyes of the heart. Transitioning from head to heart is not a human accomplishment. Church communities made up mostly of those with Convicted Faith to do well do better in the future than Cultural Faith in post-Christian times.
Stage 4 Close-to-God Faith
Paul described this fourth stage with his encouragement to the Thessalonians that they rejoice always, pray without ceasing and give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thes 5:16). As noted, In Luther’s words this stage is living with a heart changed by the Holy Spirit, so it becomes pure, free, cheerful, glad, and loving. Growing into this stage most often happens after experiencing an immovable Wall that leads to complete surrender. Clearly, such surrender happens through the special work of the Holy Spirit.
One insight from stage theory is that someone cannot see beyond the stage just in front of them. Stage 4 Close-to-God Faith is hard to envision for someone living with Cultural Faith.
In God’s grace, there is no room for insisting that salvation is only possible for those at a higher level of faith to gain entry into life eternal. All it takes confessing, in whatever form, that Jesus is Lord. The key to spiritual growth is placing yourself where the Spirit can do his work of moving you to a higher level.