I was there when Megan took her very first breath.
Megan is my niece. I was— along with her father and her physician—one of the first people to see her enter the world; first, just the top of her tiny hairless head, followed by the rest of her pink (and, at that moment, rather slimy) little body. A few minutes later, wiped clean, wrapped in a blanket and placed in my sister’s arms, we were thrilled to meet her in her entirety.
We’ve been just as delighted to see Megan grow, year by year. There are pictures on our mantelpiece of Megan as a newborn, then as a pudgy toddler, then starting school, a third grader with missing teeth; in middle school, and right up to the present, when she’s a tall high-schooler. And our photo collection isn’t finished: I expect that a time will come when we’ll have pictures of Megan’s children on our mantelpiece.
Our pictures track Megan’s physical growth—changes in her face and form from one year to the next. That’s only one part of her growth, though. As she’s grown in stature, her talents have developed (she sings nicely and is a good volleyball player), her personality has blossomed (she’s considerate, responsible and shows good judgment) and her intellect has expanded (she’s an avid reader and diligent student).
In short, Megan has grown in many dimensions. But as important as all the other types of growth is this one: she has grown into a dedicated, thoughtful Christian.
Just as all living things have a beginning, so does each Christian. Jesus told Nicodemus that accepting Him is like being “born again” (John 3:3). Nicodemus thought the idea preposterous, but as the conversation progressed, he came to see that Jesus was talking about a brand-new start, one so dramatic that it is like a new life. One who is born again realises that the past is over— that today is the first day of the rest of life. He or she sees the world through new and different eyes. Hope blooms where there was once despair. There is a joy different from any other joy, for it comes from the realisation that having met Jesus, life will never be the same.
There are no special qualifications for physical birth; thousands enter the world every hour, through no choice of their own. Nor is it difficult to qualify for the new birth. You must only desire it. When a jailer asked Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be saved?” their answer was simple: “Believe in the Lord Jesus” (Acts 16:30, 31). That’s all; and that’s enough to become a newborn Christian.
I’ve seen a number of people experience that new birth, and I can tell you that it is a miracle—as astonishing in its way as seeing a baby come from the womb of its mother.
Yet birth is not enough. Babies must grow. Seedlings become trees, tadpoles grow into frogs, kittens become cats, baby giraffes stretch into three-metre tall adults, fry (baby fish) grow into huge, silvery tuna, and newborn whales become the giants of the deep. Any baby that doesn’t grow has poor prospects for survival.
And so with baby Christians. There is no such thing as a perpetually newborn Christian. Unless you grow in Christ, you’re in spiritual decline.
The apostle Peter (whose own remarkable story of spiritual growth is recounted in the Bible) outlined spiritual growth like this: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).
Please notice Peter’s two distinct parts of spiritual growth.
First, we grow in grace. The word grace is a slightly ambiguous one; it may mean the poise and smoothness of an accomplished dancer or athlete, but in this case it refers to qualities like kindness, generosity, thoughtfulness and forgiveness. In short, Peter says that Christian growth will be in the direction of becoming more like Jesus Christ in our words, actions and choices.
A good idea, don’t you think? Second, Peter says we will grow in our knowledge of Jesus. If our new birth is real, we’ll long to read the stories of Him, to know what He taught and lived for, as well as what He died for. We will want to know how He asks us to live now, as well as what He has planed for this earth’s future.
I must warn you that one of these qualities is not enough. Knowledge alone is insufficient. I once saw a class listed in the course catalogue of a secular college called “The Bible as Literature.” The professor made it clear that it was not a class in religion. It had only to do with analysis of the plots of Bible stories, which he regarded as myths, and the beauty of biblical language. Knowledge alone does not necessarily create faith.
On the other hand, grace without knowledge is insufficient, too. Perhaps you’ve met—as I have—a kind, thoughtful, generous atheist. While I would prefer him kind and good to unkind and hurtful, as a believer in the Bible I must caution that his decency and integrity will not earn him eternal life, for “there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
My friend Tom complained to me once, “I just can’t seem to grow a nice flower garden.” “Have you put fertiliser on it?” I asked.
“Fertiliser?” he asked quizzically.
“Have you pulled the weeds? Removed the stones? Planted your bulbs and seeds correctly?” I asked.
“I guess I have some work to do,” he said.
Growth, you see, is not automatic.
Living things need care and nutrition to grow. And so do Christians. Let me suggest several ways you can cultivate your spiritual growth.
One is a continuing connection to God through Bible study. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” said the psalmist (Psalm 119:105). If you’re on a journey to spiritual growth, God’s Word is the only map to rely on.
Another is prayer. Human friendships can’t thrive without communication, and neither can heavenly ones. In prayer, God and human beings speak to one another—and hear one another.
One of the most profound facts in the entire universe is that the immortal, eternal, all-knowing God listens to every word we say to Him! More, He anticipates our needs: “Before they call I will answer,” He says. “While they are still speaking I will hear” (Isaiah 65:24).
Equally important is fellowship with other growing Christians. I am a member of a church, a gathering of wonderful Christian people dedicated to growing toward maturity in Christ.
Toward that end, we encourage one another to practise specific Christian disciplines. In addition to Bible study and prayer, we gather for regular fellowship each Saturday—the Sabbath.
We share our means to assist the cause of Christ. We pay attention not only to our minds and spirits, but our bodies, in order that we may not be just happy and holy, but also healthy. In general, we hold one another to the standard of doing the things Jesus would do.
Some argue that they can be Christians without a church. But the isolated Christian is handicapped. He or she misses out on a unique relationship God has established with believers gathered for worship: “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them,” He promises (Matthew 18:20).
Finally, growth in Christ requires standing against temptation. Believe me, there is a devil, and it is his studied desire to see us fail. I’ve known too many people delayed on their journey toward spiritual maturity by their choice to do something they know they shouldn’t. How can that happen to a growing Christian? Those who have experienced it say the problem begins in neglecting the very elements of spiritual growth we’ve explored here. The psalmist asks, “How can a young man keep his way pure?” The answer: “By living according to your word. . . . I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:9,11).
Fortunately, God has made provision for our failures. “If we confess our sins,” said John, “he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). And the result is that every sinner can claim forgiveness and inherit God’s gift of “eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23).