Too often the idea of spiritual growth is presented so disconnect from real life. Not so in the Bible!
The Colossian church struggled with sensuality[i] in a city renowned for its perversion. Paul, writing from a Roman prison, was encouraging the Colossian church to grow in godliness amidst the immoral climate of the city in which they themselves once walked.[ii] From within the congregation there were two theories as to who one overcomes these worldly lusts. The first group argued that one inhibit and control the bodily desires through rigorous regulations and rituals (asceticism), and the second group reasoned that one cannot and need not overcome it – one simply needs to allow the earthly flesh to go its course since it has not importance or influence on your renewed spirit (Gnosticism). Paul renounced the foolishness of both these arguments, stating that no bodily denial or imprisonment has power to overcome sinful urges[iii] and that God will certainly judge sinfulness, so don’t fall back into that life.[iv] The answer is to deliberately grow in holiness and renounce sensuality. [v]
Although the whole letter to the Colossians leaves us with profoundly practical truths about spiritual growth, these three verses contain very helpful truths on Spiritual growth.
“To [the saints] God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I labor, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” (Colossians 1:27-29)
- Spiritual growth does not earn favor with God
The gentiles in the Colossian church were saved and blessed with the indwelling Spirit of Christ because “God [has] chosen” them, because God “has qualified (them) to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints” (1:12). God loved and favored these gentile Christians in spite of their struggle with sensuality. Later, as he encourages them to grow in godliness, he reminds them that – even before they grow spiritually – they are already “God’s chosen, holy and beloved” (3:12).
This is true for you too: you have already been made “accepted in the beloved” [vi] regardless of their lack or level of spiritual growth. No amount of spiritual growth or weakness will increase or decrease God’s loving favor on your life. You are loved and favored because God had chosen you and qualified you.
- Spiritual growth has a clear goal
Paul’s ambition for the struggling Colossian church was clear: to “present everyone mature in Christ” (1:28). In the sister-letter Ephesians Paul phrased this truth bolder “to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (4:13). Every member ought to grow up into the image of Christ himself. For that we have been predestined[vii]; and that is the purpose of our times in the presence of the Lord[viii]. Although Paul never used the word disciple in his writings, we are not surprised that he chooses another word conveying this truth as the overarching goal of the Christian life[ix]. So according to Paul, spiritual growth has a clear goal: the imitation of Christ himself: to emulate his lifestyle and represent his character.
This demystifies spiritual growth completely. The goal of Spiritual growth is a person – to emulate and resemble Jesus Christ himself. And this is a life-long process to “grow in the knowledge and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ”. [x]
- Spiritual growth requires deliberate effort
Paul did not assume that spiritual growth happens automatically, but rather through his “proclaim(ation)… warning… teaching… wisdom… labor… struggle(s)… energy” (1:28-29). Spiritual growth requires deliberate effort – as everything else in life. Later in this letter Paul instructs these Colossians to overcome their weaknesses to sensual temptations by deliberate actions: “set your heart on things above” (3:1), “set your mind on things above” (3:2), “put to death what is sensual” (3:5), “put off anger…” (3:8) and “put on… compassion” etc (3:12-14). Peter likewise instructs the Roman church to “make every effort to add to your faith courage…” etc.[xi] We grow as we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”.[xii]
Real spiritual growth does not happen automatically. It is not reserved for a select few. It does not come by means of some special revelation nor academic learning alone, but by “exercising yourself in godliness” [xiii] – by deliberate acts of spiritual disciplines as we seek to know God, his will and seek to emulate him in a community of believers.
- Spiritual growth is God’s work
Christian spiritual growth is not another selfish self-help practice aimed to “be a better you!” Spiritual growth happens by means of God’s renewal. Even Paul’s labors are accredited to God’s as he works “with all his energy that he powerfully works” (1:29). Even as he encourages the churches to “work out your salvation” he qualifies that “it is God who works in you, giving the desire and ability to fulfill his will.” [xiv]
Spiritual growth is God’s work. We will do good to remind ourselves that when we were dead in our sin, God made us alive. God revives and continues to renew us into the image of His Son. And therefore every time “we behold him, we are being transformed into the image of his Son”[xv] – God does the work of renewal; we need to present ourselves to him and his grace.
- Spiritual growth is teamwork
Spiritual growth is not a solo mission. God works through others to shape, encourage and renew us. Paul boldly asserted his role in the renewal and regeneration of the Colossian congregation by means of his prayers (1:9-12), preaching, admonishing and teaching (1:28-29) and instructions (3:1-14, etc). Elsewhere he encourages the church to follow his example in life and godliness as a means of spiritual growth,[xvi] “to encourage one another and build one another up” [xvii] and in another place he mentions that his spiritual warfare on their behalf enhances their growth in godliness. [xviii] We grow up within caring and loving relationships.
Spiritual growth is teamwork; ironically our concern and effort for another’s spiritual growth makes us grow in godliness. Therefore we ought to always “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together.” [xix] In other words, the express reason for our assembly is to deliberately edify and encourage others to excel in godliness and good works. We grow because of other Christians’ input.
Thus, Paul teaches spiritual growth is the quest to know and represent Jesus Christ our Savior, in response to God’s loving favor and powerful enablement, by means of deliberate effort within a community of believers. It is something we desire, we respond to, we assist in and we celebrate, and something which only reaches its climax “we he appears”. [xx]
So, how have you grown? What’s next for you? And who is helping you?
[i] Colossians 2:22-23
[ii] Colossians 3:5-7
[iii] Colossians 2:23
[iv] Colossians 3:5-6
[v] Colossians 3:1-17
[vi] Ephesians 1:6
[vii] Romans 8:28
[viii] 2 Corinthians 3:18
[ix] 1 Thessalonians 1:6-7; Ephesians 5:1-2; 1 Corinthians 11:1; cf Philippians 4:9
[x] 2 Peter 3:18
[xi] 2 Peter 1:5-8
[xii] Philippians 2:12
[xiii] 1 Timothy 4:7
[xiv] Philippians 2:12-13
[xv] 2 Corinthians 3:18
[xvi] Philippians 4:9-121
[xvii] Thessalonians 5:11
[xviii] 2 Corinthians 10:1-6
[xix] Hebrews 10:24
[xx] 1 John 3:2