The best measure of a spiritual life is not its ecstasies but its obedience. ― Oswald Chambers
There is a Chinese Proverb that says, “The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials” The Apostle Paul stated: “For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:6).” Paul assures us as Christians that what God started in us he will finish. It will be perfected or matured until the Lord Jesus returns. But how does a disciple of Jesus grow in his or her Christian life? What does it take to mature in the faith? What is God doing in the process? What is our role and what does a well-balanced Christian life look like? How can I make the decisions that God wants me to make? These are some of the questions that this lesson is designed to answer. The purpose of this lesson is to encourage us along the path of spiritual maturity.
There are seven aspects of personal spiritual growth that need to be understood as one goes through the process of growing in an intimate relationship with God and others. They are: 1) the cost of discipleship; 2) the larger picture of what God is doing and being Spirit filled; 3) the role of trials and rewards in spiritual growth; 4) basic Christian disciplines in our relationships with God and people, 5) the importance of good works in growth, 6) biblical decision making, and 7) having an eternal perspective.
We can start with the definition of a disciple. A disciple is a learner; a disciple of Jesus is one who learns and lives from the teachings of Jesus himself and those whom Jesus directly taught (the apostles). One discipleship ministry called the Navigators gives this definition: “A disciple continues in the Word, loves others, bears fruit, and puts Christ first.”1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German pastor who ministered in Germany during the difficult days of Adolf Hitler. His ministry and resistance of the Nazi regime eventually led to his execution toward the very end of the European portion of the war. In his work the Cost of Discipleship he writes, “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth . . . . The disciple places himself at the Master’s disposal, but at the same time retains the right to dictate his own terms. But then discipleship is no longer discipleship, but a program of our own to be arranged to suit ourselves.”2 The call to spiritual growth is the call to be a disciple of Jesus. It’s a call to be more like Jesus. It’s a call to submit ourselves to the lordship of Jesus. Jesus summarized the cost of discipleship with a vivid metaphor: “Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matt 16:24). This leads us to the importance of understanding what God has done and is doing in our life.
What is God doing with a disciple’s life? When considering this, one must understand God’s purpose or goal, that he is moving all Christians towards Christlikeness. Paul explains God’s plan: “those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son”
(Rom 8:29). God is chipping away at the stuff in a Christian’s life that is not like Christ to bring forth an image that is. He is molding us into a perfect piece of pottery so to speak. God is promising every believer in Jesus Christ that he will get him or her to this goal. The theological term for this is sanctification. Sometimes when God chips away and molds his grooves we feel the impact of it. God is using at least three means to propel believers in this direction: 1) the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, 2) trials, and 3) rewards.
The Role of the Holy Spirit. One way that God is conforming believers into the image of Christ is through the work and empowerment or filling of the Holy Spirit. When we were saved we received the “baptism” of the Holy Spirit at which time we were indwelt by the Spirit of God (1 Cor 12:13). This occurs one time. The indwelling Spirit gives us the inner spiritual resources to overcome sin. He gives us the desires and abilities to resist temptation and overcome it. As we submit to God’s commands following the leading of the Holy Spirit, we are “filled” with the Spirit (Eph 5:18). This is a continuous process in which we allow the Spirit to direct and control our actions. On the other hand when we sin we stifle the blessing of the Spirit’s activity in our lives. Paul states, “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thess 5:19; NASB) and again, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph 4:30).
The Role of Trials. God uses trials to produce spiritual growth in our lives. James writes: “My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything” (Jas 1:2-4). How can one possibly be joyful in difficulties? It’s because God is testing our faith and using the trial to bring us to maturity. We can rejoice not at the painful experience of the trial but at the opportunity for growth. One of my mentors once well said that trials can make us better or bitter.
The Role of Rewards. The Bible uses rewards as a motivation for our obedience. Paul writes, “The one who plants and the one who waters work as one, but each will receive his reward according to his work. . . For no one can lay any foundation other than what is being laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, each builder’s work will be plainly seen, for the Day will make it clear, because it will be revealed by fire. And the fire will test what kind of work each has done. If what someone has built survives, he will receive a reward. If someone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:8-15). Each one of us has two piles of types of work. One pile is the precious metals and stones; these represent the good works we do that God will reward. The other pile is the pile of materials that is burnable. It represents things we do that are not rewardable, not necessarily bad things but things that God does not give us a reward for. So the question we have to ask ourselves as we live our life is what pile are we building on? Are we building on the pile God rewards or the one that will be burned up in the end?
Dawson Trotman was the founder of the discipleship ministry called the Navigators. One illustration that he developed and this group has long used to explain the disciplines of Christian growth is called the Wheel Illustration.
The Wheel Illustration
At the center or hub of the wheel is Christ. He represents what is powering the wheel. For the wheel to roll the hub must supply the power. For the wheel to run smoothly balance is needed between the spokes. The vertical spokes on the wheel represent our relationship with God through prayer and the Word. The horizontal spokes represent our relationship with people by witnessing to nonchristians and fellowship with Christians. As the Christian is obedient to God’s commands and maintains balance in these Christian disciplines, while relying on the power of Christ, the wheel will roll.
Let’s develop the four Christian disciplines related to this illustration a little more. One of the disciplines related to our relationship with God is the absolutely necessary of the Bible. The Word of God is a catalyst for Christian growth. Peter writes, “And yearn like newborn infants for pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up to salvation” (2 Peter 2:2). The spiritual milk that Peter is talking about is God’s word. How can we get the Word of God more involved in our lives? The more we feed on it, the more we will grow. There are many ways to do this and all of us should be involved in more than one: Quiet time (Just a few minutes each day in the Word and prayer can help us make that personal connection with God), Bible memorization, Bible reading, Bible study, listening to good expository preaching (Sunday morning church, internet posted sermons, Christian radio, etc). D. L. Moody, the 19th century American evangelist once stated, “The Bible will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from the Bible.”
The second Christian discipline related to our relationship with God is prayer. Prayer is our lifeline to God. Paul states, “constantly pray” (1 Thess 5:17). What kind of prayers should we pray: 1) praising God for who he is, 2) praising and thanking God for what he has done, 3) confessing our sins, 4) praying for others in authority or in our circles of relationship, 5) lastly, making requests for ourselves including God’s guidance. One missionary friend of mine was working in a difficult area to share the gospel. He had a plaque over his desk which stated, “Prayer Changes Things.” It was a reminder and encouragement for him to pray every day. E. M. Bounds, Civil War chaplain, pastor, and author summarized the importance of prayer, “Prayer succeeds when all else fails.”
The third Christian discipline, which is related to people, is witnessing or evangelism. We need to share the good news of salvation with others. Paul explains, “I am a debtor both to the Greeks and to the barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. Thus I am eager also to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:14-16). Family, friends, fellow workmates are all people that God has brought into our lives and many of them need exposure to the gospel. Think of the person who shared the gospel with you. Aren’t you glad that they did? Billy Graham stated his goal in life, “My one purpose in life is to help people find a personal relationship with God, which, I believe, comes through knowing Christ.”3
The fourth Christian discipline, also related to people, is fellowship. We need to make a commitment to fellowship with other Christians committed to living out God’s commands. The author of Hebrews emphasizes this. He writes, “And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near” (Heb 10:24-25). We need to all be involved with a local church. If the church is large, we especially need to be in a small group with a spiritual emphasis.
In one exchange with the Pharisees Jesus was once asked, “What is the most important commandment?” What is interesting is that when Jesus was asked for one commandment he gave them two. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:34-40).4 These two commandments are inseparable. You cannot obey one without the other. We love God by growing in our relationship with him though the Word and prayer. We love our neighbor as ourselves when we share the gospel with the lost and fellowship and grow with other Christians.
Good works have sometimes been downplayed by Protestant evangelicals due to teachings that have tried to make them as the basis or condition of salvation. While this concern is valid, one should not downplay them in the context of the Christian life, rather they need to be emphasized. While we are not saved by good works we are saved for good works. Paul writes, “We are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them” (Eph 2:10). James adds to this concept pointing out that there is a relationship between faith and works in that good works mature our faith. “You see that his faith was working together with his works and his faith was perfected by works . . . . For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead”
(Jas 2:22, 26). Years ago, the Salvation Army was holding an international convention and their founder, General William Booth, could not attend because of physical weakness. He cabled his convention message to them. It was one word: “OTHERS.” When we shift our focus of life from our self to others, good works will naturally flow out of a life empowered by God.
How do I make decisions in my Christian life? Josh McDowell has a helpful pattern for us to follow which can be referred to as the four Cs.5 The first C is 1) Consider the choice. What is right and wrong and who determines this? God is the one who determines what is right and wrong. The Old Testament prophet Micah states, “He [God] has told you, O man, what is good, and what the LORD really wants from you” (Micah 6:8). Other people may give advice, some of it good and some of it bad, but we have to come to grips with the fact that God alone has the ultimate authority of what is the right course to take. The second C is 2) Compare it to God’s Word. What does the Scripture have to say about what God want you to do? Since the Scripture is God’s revelation to man it is the message that God wants us to follow. In the Psalms we read, “Your word is a lamp to walk by, and a light to illumine my path” (Ps 119:105). The third C is 3) Choose the biblical way. Make a commitment that you will follow the biblical way as the way that God wants you to go. “Who is the man who fears the LORD? He will instruct him in the way he should choose” (Ps 25:12). The fourth and last C is 4) Count on God for protection and provision. As we follow God’s path, we can trust him for the outcome and blessing that he wants for us. Moses wrote, “All these blessings will come to you in abundance if you obey the LORD your God” (Deut 28:2).
Lastly, Christians need to be able to see beyond the here and now to the reality of what lies ahead. We need to be able to live in view of the light at the end of the tunnel. If we have an eternal perspective, understand what God is doing with us and where we are heading, we will be in a good position to grow in the grace that God has given us being conformed to the image of his Son. Paul writes, “Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary, light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (2 Cor 4:16-18).
1 Church Discipleship, Vol 11, No 1, the Navigators.
2 Dietrich Bonhoffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 64, 66.
3 Billy Graham, (Date accessed November 27, 2012).
4 Now when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they assembled together. And one of them, an expert in religious law, asked him a question to test him: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matt 22:34-40).
5 Adapted from the 4 C’s from Josh McDowell, “Setting You Free to Make the Right Choices,” Leaders Guide, 9-10.