Transforming Ordinary People into Extraordinary Followers of Christ

The work of growing – a post from Gwen Howell

The work of growing

I have had multiple conversations lately in which people expressed the concern that they do not feel like they are “growing spiritually.” I have felt this same concern in my own life. Typically, this concern has lead to frustration and even doubt that God can work in and through me.

The concept of growing spiritually is, in theological language, referred to as Sanctification. Sanctification is a large theological concept that I will only be brushing the surface of through this article.  

Sanctification is the process by which a believer becomes more like Christ and therefore, more holy.

It is important to remember that Christians are positionally holy through the blood of Christ. John writes that when “we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). This is justification.  Once we have made this one-time decision, we no longer are under sin’s dominion (Romans 6:14). We are also “dead to sin but alive to God” (Romans 6:11).  But we still sin. We are free from the power of sin by Justification, but it is through sanctification that, step by step, we get rid of the presence of sin in our lives.

It is the process of progressive sanctification, which occurs after we are justified, that we become more like Christ

So if we are already justified, why is it that at times we don’t feel that we are being sanctified or “growing spiritually?”

Today’s issues with growing

A common misconception that many people of our generation have is that we do not need to make any effort in sanctification. I think that in response to previous generations, our generation is scared of legalism. We can lean so far from works and towards grace that we forget the importance of our own efforts.

In fact, in each conversation that I had with these frustrated believers, I asked them about their practice of spiritual disciplines like reading the Word and spending time in prayer, and they all responded that they have not been actively pursuing these disciplines.

We see countless times in scripture that we have a personal role in sanctification. The author of Hebrews tells his readers to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely” (Heb. 12:1), and to “strive for…the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). James encourages his hearers, “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22), and Peter tells his readers, “Be holy yourselves in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:15).

Now, I believe that God plays the primary role in our sanctification. Paul submits, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely” (2 Thessalonians 5:23). But in this post, I am focusing on the role of the saint in sanctification due to the misconceptions among our generation.

So what is our role?

In Joshua 1:8, Joshua is commanded by God:

“This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.”

The spiritual discipline of reading, meditating, and memorizing scripture is an important contribution to our sanctification. John 17:16-19 states that we are sanctified through truth, which is God’s word.

It is instructed to us in 2 Timothy: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). Peter wrote, “As newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby” (1 Peter 2:2). The Psalmist proclaimed, “Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You” (Psalm 119:11).

Abide in Him

One of my favorite passages in the bible is John 15.  Jesus states,  

“Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.  Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.  I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (John 15:3-7)

About a year and a half ago, I came to the realization that the fruit of my life is not mine, but it is the Spirit’s. I kept trying to bear the fruit of the Spirit by my own means, without yielding to the spirit, and I kept failing. When I discovered John 15, I was shocked at the simplicity of it. All I was to do was abide. I now have a tattoo of a vine and branch on my arm to remind me of this truth.

Abiding in Him requires our participation. This is a way that the ripening of the fruit comes about. In Galatians 5:16 and 17 Paul says, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” He then follows to list the works of the flesh. There is always fruit in our lives. Depending on what we are abiding in, we will either bear fruit of the flesh or fruit of the spirit.

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another (Galatians 5:18-26).

We abide in Him through engaging with the Word, but also through prayer.

God delights in the prayers of His children (Psalm 147). Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” (Matt 6:11) which shows that he wants us to go to him daily to meet our needs. Daniel prayed three times each day, even when he knew that it may result in death (Dan 6:10).

In fact, part of our prayer life should be directed at praying for our own sanctification and that of others. “But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, and for that of others” (Jude 1:20).

Prayerlessness can makes us vulnerable to temptation. Jesus instructed Peter, James, and John in Gethsemane to “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). Prayerlessness can work against our growth.

Invited in

This whole process I’ve been explaining is tough. It is a rigorous fight, this fight for our spiritual maturity. Why would God arrange it this way?

Keep in mind here that, in the end, it is all on God and his strength that he gives us, and not our own power. But God does allow us to work hard to seek him.

Proverbs 8:17 says that God loves it when we seek Him. And when we seek Him, we find Him. God doesn’t want passive people who are just swept up into his salvation, like a rag doll dragged around by a child. He invites us in to be a part of it, to seek him, to feel the sweat drip from our forehead and feel the resistance that our flesh pushes back with. God has invited us to work hard in seeking Him.

In Psalm 42:1, the writer compares his thirst for God to that of a painting deer. We are panting for God. We cannot pant if we have not run. We run to the flowing streams of God’s love, and of Christ’s character. This way, the waters taste sweeter, the salvation we receive shows more of God’s power. If we were simply caught up and dragged toward heaven, we would never know the strength of the sin we’ve been rescued from.

By working hard to abide in Him, we get to see his strength, and feel it working in us. This maximizes our joy and his glory!

Connect2TCC / Online Community