About a month ago, I got a new puppy – a seven-week old German Shorthaired Pointer named Kawliga (cf. Hank Williams or Charlie Pride). He is the latest in what is becoming a fairly long line of bird dogs that I have owned. It is the nature of upland bird hunting that dogs have to be replaced, generally about every ten years or so, and Kawliga is the heir apparent at my house. I’ve been fortunate to own some pretty good bird dogs through the years. Tejas; Dixie; Tye; Revitt – each one had their own personality, their own strengths and weaknesses. And to this day I can close my eyes and see at least one special moment that I shared with each. As a life long hunter, there’s nothing I’ve enjoyed quite as much as hunting behind a bird dog who knows what he’s doing and who’s on his game. In fact, bird hunting is as much about the dogs as it is the birds. At least for me.
Kawliga has been at my house for about a month now, and watching him grow has been fun. Each day brings a little more development, a bit more coordination, some new movement or interaction or experience that is contributing to his maturation. He’s gone from toddler to little kid to pre-teen in a few short weeks, eating his way through an entire bag of dog chow and destroying pretty much anything he can chew on in the process. He’s getting bigger, stronger, faster, quicker, smarter. It’s been a while since I had anything little like him at my house. My youngest child is twenty-one; my old bird dog is almost eleven; no grandkids. So, watching this puppy is the first close experience with the process of physical growth that I’ve had in a while. And watching Kawliga has renewed my appreciation for the biblical concept of growth.
The New Testament epistles make fairly frequent mention of spiritual development, and most of the writers at some point employ the image of physical growth to help us understand the concept. It seems possible, if not likely, that they are drawing upon the imagery of rebirth which Jesus describes in John 3, for Paul, Peter, James, and John all employ such language at some point in their letters. It would be natural, then, that the idea of spiritual progress be caged in terms of physical growth, beginning with birth and advancing from babes (1 Pet.2.2; Heb.5.13; 1 Cor.3.1) to full-grown men (Heb.5.14; 1 Cor.14.20; Eph.4.13; Col.1.28). As every disciple is somewhere along this spectrum of spiritual maturation, we are encouraged, instructed, and even rebuked regarding our development. The Hebrew Christians are criticized because they have failed of growth (Heb.5.12f) and the Corinthians are similarly rebuked because they were infantile in their discipleship (1 Cor.3.1-3f). And the controversies over eating certain foods in both Rome (Rom.14-15) and Corinth (1 Cor.8-10) are driven in part by distinctions in spiritual growth and a failure to recognize or respect such. A failure to grow, develop, mature should be disturbing for one trying to follow Jesus, just as certainly as I would be troubled if Kawliga did not get bigger, stronger, smarter, and more coordinated. God expects us to grow up into “a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph.4.13).
How is it that such growth is accomplished? Simply put, spiritual growth is the end result of the learning, understanding, and wise application of God’s Word.
It has long been the case that God’s people are impacted by the culture around us. Such a spiritual battle defines the Old Testament narrative. And that influence is not confined to moral behavior (sexual mores; modesty; honesty; violence; etc), or temporal concepts (nationalism; covetousness; liberty; individualism). Even our interpretation and understanding of spiritual matters is impacted by what happens around us – note the influence of Calvinism, entertainment in worship, ecumenicalism, and subjectivism upon our views of grace or worship or judgment. One of the growing and prominent influences of the modern religious culture upon people who are striving to follow Christ is simple emotionalism. The general idea of “following my heart” or “walking my path” or “pursuing my own spiritual journey” or “living my personal relationship with Jesus” is a widely accepted concept in this generation. Exactly how that concept is played out in life becomes a purely subjective expression, as the standard of behavior is determined by each individual. It is this mindset that allows me to live as I please and yet salve my conscience regarding my acceptance by God. It produces mega-churches full of people who dismiss God’s revelation and yet who offer praise to Him for the mercy they expect Him to grant them. It makes my own feelings, perceptions, and thoughts the very authority for what I do in religious matters. It is modern idolatry, with my god revealed in my mirror. And, sadly, it is often explained by reference to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Who hasn’t heard someone justify some religious or moral behavior with the vindication, “this is where the Spirit is leading me.” The beauty of the concept is that there is no convincing refutation to be made. What others may think or even what the Bible says, is dismissed because I’m convinced that God has communicated to me personally (or perhaps through some other source, such as a priest or pastor). Such pure emotionalism defines the general religious world around us.
Such a mentality is influencing even the most conservative of disciples. There is an increasing fascination among fundamental disciples with the idea that we are being somehow led by God the Spirit in ways that are distinct from God’s Word. I do not deny the reality, divinity, nor power of God the Spirit. He clearly guided the apostles in their work as they spread the gospel and authored the revelation of God (John 14-16; Acts 1-2f; Heb.2.1f; Eph.3.1f; etc.). And I do not claim to fully understand all of the possible references to Him and what He may or may not do – particularly in regard to the passages that mention the Spirit/spirit dwelling in us. I have my opinions, but I do not find enough explanation in the scriptures to draw definitive and irrefutable conclusions. But please note what I do find in the scriptures that is both definitive and irrefutable.
Spiritual growth is always connected to the revealed Word of God.
In 1 Pet.2.1 we are encouraged to “desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby.” In Eph.4.11-15, Paul notes that the Lord gave gifts to men for the purpose of “equipping the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ…” Each of those gifts are expressly involved with the revelation of God’s will (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers). And the end of the process of revealing God’s will to His people is that we serve and edify each other so we all come to unity of faith and “the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (v.13). And the next verse notes that we should no longer be children. In other words, God’s Word is given to us so we can serve each other and help each other become full grown reflections of Jesus. In 2 Tim.3.14-16, Paul offers instruction to Timothy – a young preacher who had received some miraculous gift from God the Spirit (2 Tim.1.6-14). The apostle specifies that Timothy is to “continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of” – specifically the scriptures that he had learned as a child. These are “able to make you wise for salvation” (v.15) and are sufficient to make a man “complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (v.17). In Eph.3.1-7, Paul affirms that he is writing what God had revealed to him so that we might read and “understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ” (v.4). In God’s Word, I can learn everything that Paul knew about salvation. In Col.1.25-29, he makes a similar observation about God’s revelation so that “we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus” (v.28). In Heb.5.12-14f, a disciple of Jesus can attain to “full age” by the skillful use of “the word of righteousness” – “who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern between good and evil” (v.14). In Rom.14-15, the problem addressed is the result of differences in knowledge and understanding. Those lacking such are described as weak and those who had advanced in their appreciation of God’s word are noted as strong. The point of these references should be obvious at this point. Spiritual growth is always connected to the revealed Word of God.
If God’s Word supplies all we need for growth, perfection, completion, and maturity, then what more do we need? What more can be supplied to the disciple of Jesus?
There remains great mystery surrounding God the Spirit. God has told us what His primary role in redemption has been/is, namely the revelation of the mind of God (1 Cor.2.7-16). Beyond that, we have passing references that are not defined or explained. The mystery is compelling. But we need to be abundantly cautious in a religious culture that is being swept away by subjective emotionalism. It is a dangerous – and unverifiable – proposition that God the Spirit is somehow affecting, moving, or leading me in a way separate from the revealed will of God. What we do know – verifiably – is that the Word of God supplies all we need to grow fully into the measure of Christ.
I don’t know how Kawliga grows. I feed him, he grows. But I know exactly how a Christian grows, because God has told me. He grows by his knowledge, understanding, and wise application of God’s Word. Period.