No true believer is completely satisfied with his spiritual progress. Under the illuminating, sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit, all of us are aware of our need to be refined and disciplined for the sake of godliness. In fact, the more we mature, the more capable we are of spotting the sin that still remains in our hearts. Peter responds to this need for sanctification when he writes about the importance of God’s people hungering for the pure milk of His Word, “so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2).
The Apostle Paul is a prime example. In many ways, he is the model for believers. In his first epistle to Timothy, he refers to himself as the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). In anguish over the sinful flesh he can neither escape nor conquer, he cried out: “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24). Paul understood the weakness that remained in him, and he longed to be freed of it. To that end, the singular goal of his life was Christlikeness and spiritual growth. In his letter to the Philippian church, he describes his earnest pursuit:
But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:7–14)
Paul carried a similar burden of spiritual discontent for those under his care. He referred to the Galatians as “my children, with whom I am again in labor until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4:19). Part of the godly shepherd’s duty is to help those in the church see their remaining sin and their need for further sanctification. He is to help them develop a discontentment with their spiritual state and to spur them on to greater growth and godliness. It’s not the pastor’s job to affirm our lifestyles, dangle false promises of health and wealth, or validate our personal ambitions for life. He’s not there to make us feel good about ourselves or convince us that God loves us just the way we are and wants to give us whatever we want. On the contrary, he’s there to hammer on our hearts, burdening them just as his own heart is burdened, with the understanding that we fall far short of what we should be in Christ. All of us—pastors, elders, and laypeople alike—must constantly go back to the Word to understand the high standard of God’s righteousness and to be reminded of just how much we fail to live up to it. We must examine ourselves regularly through the lens of Scripture, developing a spiritual discontentment that motivates us to faithfully continue in sanctification. There is discontentment in the cry of a newborn who can do nothing to fulfill his own needs. There needs to be a similar discontentment—one that draws us back to Scripture as our only source of spiritual sustenance and growth.
Rather than sitting self-satisfied and stagnant, Peter says believers need to “grow in respect to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). God’s people need to grow, and they can only do so through the ministry of His Spirit through His Word. As Paul put it, we must be “transformed into the [Lord’s] image from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). And how do we mark that progress? How do we know we’re advancing?
Several indicators that mark our spiritual growth. The first is an increase in spiritual understanding. True sanctification goes hand in hand with a deeper, richer understanding of the Bible. It doesn’t happen through some kind of mystical experience. Too many in the church today claim to have received insight through their dreams, their gut feelings, or hearing God’s voice in their heads. That is not the means to true growth in Christlikeness—if anything, it’s leading them away from the truth and further into darkness. We don’t look inside ourselves for truth or wait to receive personal insight from the Lord. True spiritual growth starts with an increase in our spiritual understanding, which requires an increase in our biblical knowledge. As our theology deepens, as our grasp of Scripture strengthens, that fuels our spiritual growth.
Along with an increase in spiritual understanding comes joy—a deeper delight in the things of God. We don’t hold our theology with cold, remote resolve—we develop a warm, rich affection for the God of Scripture. We enthusiastically praise the Lord for who He is and what He has done. We celebrate the work of His Word in our lives, and we long to see it unleashed in the lives of those around us.
One of the reasons I love to speak at pastors’ conferences is the opportunity for corporate worship. In those rooms packed with preachers and church leaders, the singing is not tentative or passive. Just the opposite—the walls reverberate with loud voices belting out their love for the Lord, His gospel, and His church. They’re loudly proclaiming the truths of Scripture that have captured their hearts and minds. Their delight is in the Word, and the same should be true of everyone who is growing spiritually.
A third factor that marks the progress of sanctification is a greater love for God. If we’re growing in our understanding of Scripture, then we’re growing in our appreciation for the majesty of our Lord. We’re more intimately acquainted with His person and work. We’re more enamored of His goodness, His mercy, and the rich blessings He pours out on us every day. The deeper our understanding of Scripture goes, the more deeply we get to know God in the fullness of His revelation to us.
Think of it this way: if you’re not growing in your love for God, there is good reason to believe that you are treating Scripture superficially.
Another vital component of spiritual growth is strengthened faith. With an increased knowledge of Scripture and a greater love for God, we become able to trust Him through all of life’s trials. I’ve spoken to many believers who have just received news of a terminal disease or another dire diagnosis. Often, their primary prayer request isn’t for healing, but that God would use them as a witness for Himself in the time they have left. There’s no collapsing in the face of trials, no despair in the midst of the storm. Their faith is firmly rooted in the goodness of God and His glorious purposes for their lives. If we’re growing spiritually, we’re more steadfast in our faith and surer of God’s sovereign care and provision. In a restless world, we can rest in His goodness.
The believer’s spiritual growth is also measured by his constant obedience. As the Apostle John succinctly says:
By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked. (1 John 2:3–6)
Spiritual growth is the process of growing in Christlikeness—how we think, talk, and act must always be conforming to the Lord’s righteous standard.
If we’re being sanctified by the Spirit through the Scriptures, it will be evident through an increase in our spiritual understanding, a deeper delight in the things of the Lord, a greater love for God, a strengthening faith in Him, and a consistent pattern of obedience to His Word. That is the kind of spiritual growth Peter wants us to pursue.
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