Throughout the month of July we have been looking at what it’s like to grow up as a Christian! We have used the different stages of our physical development to serve as a template to help us understand how we grow and change as followers of Christ. And I’ll quickly give you a brief summary of what we’ve looked at so far.
To use the Biblical phrase, we were all born ‘dead in our sin’. Even at the moment of our physical birth, we had no spiritual life apart from God. And so the very first step in every believer’s journey is to accept Christ as their Lord and Saviour. At that moment, when we put our trust in Jesus, we become ‘born again’ and become spiritually alive as spiritual infants.
Now spiritual infants have a huge learning curve as they really know very little about following Christ, but through the guidance of older brothers and sisters in the family of God – and of course, with the guidance of the Bible, they begin to grow up. They learn to feed themselves spiritually by cultivating those disciplines such as Bible reading, prayer, and being part of a church family.
And as they do this, before long, they will find themselves moving into the next stage of being spiritual children. Now of course, at this stage, life pretty much revolves around them – Christianity is all about what Jesus can do for me – because they haven’t yet learned to give much thought to anyone else! But before long (hopefully), as they experienced the goodness and faithfulness of God, they begin to follow in His footsteps – serving and loving others just like how Christ served and loved us!
At this stage they begin to become spiritual teenagers or spiritual young adults! They begin taking responsibility for their own spiritual growth – and they also start taking responsibility for others too! They begin serving in the church – building the kingdom of God according to their gifts and abilities.
And while there are many good things done for the kingdom of God during this time, most spiritual young adults struggle to realize that God isn’t primarily concerned about the good things we do for him, but more importantly, God is concerned that we are growing into the person that He created us to be.
The outward actions of our life may be good and right – but God is really more concerned about our inner transformation where our heart and our inner desires aligned with His – where we truly began to take on the character of Jesus!
And unfortunately, for many people, it usually takes some sort of life crisis for them to begin to grasp this and really begin to move into the next stage of spiritual maturity. We really have to come to the end of ourselves to realize who we are in Christ and how much God loves us simply because we are his child – and not because of anything we do or don’t do!
A great example of this from the Bible was Peter – as a disciple of Jesus He was as zealous for the Kingdom of God as anyone – but it took Jesus’ crucifixion and his own bitter denial of Jesus that led him into the final stage of his transformation.
Likewise, for us, moving through this stage of our spiritual growth may be one of the most difficult things we go through in life, but it will also be one of the most rewarding and life-changing!
And so today, I want to describe what this final stage of spiritual growth looks like. This is kinda the end-goal of Christianity. When God says He wants to transform us into in new people by changing the way we think – this is the kind of person that He wants to transform us into!
Now on our little Discipleship graphic that we’ve been using, they list the final two stages of spiritual growth as being a spiritual parent and spiritual grandparent – with the idea being that you’ll be making disciples who will then go on to make more disciples! And that is certainly true! This stage of life will certainly be the most fruitful time of ministry for you, but I want to emphasis again that it isn’t about all the things you can do for God – but it’s about recognizing and becoming the person that God created you to be! It’s about a lifetime of enjoying God and delighting in his unlimited and unconditional love! And of course, as we experience that, His love flows through us and that is what totally changes the world around us!
We’ve been reading Romans 12:1 each Sunday of this series – and it says:
Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.
So today we’re going to look at the final stage of THAT transformation – where we learn to know God’s will for us – and we discover that it is indeed good and pleasing and perfect.
And that’s not to say that we don’t experience any of this in the other stages of growth. Like I said at the beginning of this series – this is just a simplified way of understanding the process of growth – it’s not quite so cut and dry as “today I’m in this stage, and next year I’ll be in this stage”. No, everybody grows and matures differently and we might be in several stages at once! But the final stage that I’ll describe today is really what we’re aiming for. It’s how God invites us to live as his children.
Now folks in this stage of growth are not perfect! If fact, if you were to ask them, they would probably tell you that they are increasingly aware of how imperfect they are! As they get to know God and realize more and more just how Holy He is, they become all-the-more aware of their own faults, failures and shortcomings. But thankfully, they are also increasingly aware that those faults, failures, and shortcomings don’t define them. They don’t gloss over their sin or ignore the issues that they need to deal with, but still, they are able to rest in the knowledge of who they in Christ and what Christ has done for them.
In fact, these folks are surprisingly restful! They don’t tend to be as frantic or as busy as the rest of us. They’ve learned to slow down and embrace their God given limits. They likely practice some sort of regular Sabbath rest where they can just stop and be – and allow God to run the universe for a while. They have realized that they can’t be everything to everyone – nor do they want to be! They increasingly focus on doing the things that God has specifically called and equipped and gifted them to do. Or more accurately, they increasingly focus on being the person that God created them to be.
Perhaps one of the best passages of Scripture that describe this stage of our spiritual journey is John 15:1-8. Jesus said:
“I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. 3 You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you. 4 Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.
5 “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. 7 But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! 8 When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.
One of the key characteristics of a fully mature follower of Christ is that they recognize their complete and utter dependance on God and their constant need for connection with Him.
I don’t know if you’ve ever pruned any grapevines before – but I’ve done a little bit – and I can tell you that what Jesus is saying here is actually quite an understatement! He says that if a branch is severed from the vine, it cannot bear fruit! Well, that’s for sure! In fact, if you cut a branch off the vine, not only does it not produce fruit, but it actually starts to wilt and wither within the hour! There’s not much to those skinny little branches – as soon as you cut them off from the vine – from the source of their life – they wither almost immediately!
And the same principle is true for us as believers! God never designed us as human beings to be separated from Him – not even for a little while – our souls are designed to be in a constant relationship with Him. It’s not like we’re a rechargeable wireless device where need a once-a-week recharge at church each Sunday – No, we don’t even have a battery – we need that ever-present hardwired connection!
So what does that look like? How do we keep that constant connection with God? Well, the specifics are probably a little different for each person, but the starting point would be the practice of some of those basic spiritual disciplines – like spending time reading God’s Word, prayer, and Christian fellowship. But it doesn’t stop there. Fully mature believers will continue those activities throughout their day – not just for 15 minutes in the morning or before bed.
For example, they spend a significant time meditating on God’s Word – which is really just thinking about it throughout their day. That might include things like pondering how God wants a particular passage to reshape how they think or change their point of view in a certain circumstance. “How does this verse impact the decisions I’ll make today – about my business dealings or how I interact with my neighbour or how I discipline my children or even how I view myself?” It’s like we’re trying to see our world constantly through the lens of God’s Word… How do we understand and apply God’s Word to every moment of our day?
Prayer is another great example of that constant connection. Fully mature believers are always praying. Like Paul instructed us:
16 Always be joyful. 17 Never stop praying. 18 Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
This doesn’t mean we are on our knees by our bedside 24/7 – but rather, we’re communicating with our Heavenly Father throughout the day! Not only are we sharing with him our concerns and thoughts, giving thanks and asking for his guidance…. But also, we’re listening too! That’s an often neglected part of prayer, but it’s a key part of communication.
A part of ‘never stop praying’ is just listening for those small, quiet promptings from the Holy Spirit to do this, or say that – send this text, or make this little choice. Prayer isn’t just going through our prayer list once a day, but it’s constant communication with our Heavenly Father!
And those are just a couple of examples of how we remain in Christ! There are lots of other ways that we don’t have time to get into today, but if you’d like some more thoughts, I’d be happy to share more with you over a coffee sometime!
But to go back to our passage in John – Another one of the key distinguishing marks of a mature disciple that Jesus points out is that they bear a lot of fruit! Notice how Jesus says that…
#1. “He prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more”
#2. He says, “those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit.”
#3. he says, “When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples.”
So fruitfulness is obviously a key and distinguishing characteristic of mature disciples – just as literal fruit is a distinguishing mark of a mature fruit tree!
I have about an acre and a half of fruit trees that I’ve planted over the last three years – and so far from those trees, I’ve gotten about 4 or 5 actual pieces of fruit! So there’s not much fruitfulness there yet BECAUSE they haven’t yet matured enough! Most of them are still under 4ft tall! But hopefully in another 5 years or so, most of these trees will have matured and I’ll have far more fruit that I can possibly eat! It’s going to be wonderful!
But fruitfulness is a sign of maturity!
Now for believers – what counts as fruitfulness? Is it the number of people that we bring to Christ? Is it the consistency of our church attendance or the amount we tithe? Is it the number of disciples we make? What does a fruitful Christian look like?
Well, there maybe a few different ways to define that, but I think Paul summarizes it quite well in Galatians chapter 5.
22 But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control.
But notice that being fruitful is not something we do – it’s something we are! As we mature and grow in Christ, this fruit gives evidence that God has been transforming us into the people that He created us to be! As we remain in Him – allowing Him to shape us through His Word and through His Holy Spirit in every area of our lives – what naturally results is a life that is full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. It’s the character of Christ fully developed in us! That’s the fruit we are to produce!
And I know there are always areas that we can work on – we are never ‘fully and completely’ mature on this side of heaven. As I said before, mature believers aren’t perfect! But we can certainly be a lot more like Christ than we are like our old sinful selves.
In fact, a believer in the final stage of spiritual growth looks a lot like the person described in the love chapter – 1 Corinthians 13. Just replace the word “love” that that person’s name.
4 [A fully mature believer in Christ is….] is patient and kind. They are not jealous or boastful or proud 5 or rude. They do not demand their own way. They are not irritable, and they keep no record of being wronged. 6 They do not rejoice about injustice but they rejoice whenever the truth wins out. 7 [A fully mature believer in Christ] never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.
1 Corinthians 13:4-7 [Paraphrased]
Probably the clearest marker for a fully mature believer in Christ is love. When we truly love others like Christ loves us, we are his true disciples. And so I would just challenge you to put your own name in that verse and see if it is still true. Is Dave really patient and kind? Am I jealous or boastful or proud or rude? Am I irritable? Do I keep records of being wrong?
Boy, even just reading that far gives me several reasons to think I’ve still got some growing up to do!
But the point is not to make us all feel guilty for not being this description of love – but rather, the point is to spur us one towards that! After all, isn’t this who you want to be? Is this how you’d like people to describe you to others?
Well, the good news is this exactly who God created you to be! When He thought of creating you, he imagined a person that was full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. That’s how God imagined and intended you to be. And maybe you’re not fully there yet, but that’s where God is taking you – on the journey to become that person. And so for me, that’s pretty exciting, because that’s the person that I want to be too! I want to be that guy!
And so I want to do whatever I can to participate with God in that process! I want to let God transform me into a new person by changing the way I think. Then I will learn to know God’s will for me, which is good and pleasing and perfect. And I trust that that’s your desire as well!
And so on that note, I want to tell you about some exciting opportunities in the near future!
For the next few weeks, I won’t be bringing the Sunday morning message – I’ll be out at camp this next week and then doing some vacationing of my own. But when I get back, we’re going to get into part two of this series – and I want to dig into how we become this fully mature believer in Christ – how we become the people that God created us to be. We’ve looked at the different stages of spiritual growth – but now I really want to zero in on this last stage and figure out what it takes to live in that stage more and more.
And along with that, for those who are willing to really dive and and do the hard work of aligning themselves with God as He brings about this transformation – I think I’d like to do another small group study that ties in along with part two of this series. But this won’t be just a ‘show up once a week for the meeting’ thing – this one is going to be a little more intense. You’ll need to commit to some real-life application through the week – so you’ll have to be pretty intentionally about it. But if you’re willing to put in the work, I think it’s really got the potential to be a life changer – so if you might be interested in being part of that, let me know and I’ll give you a few more details. I think it’s really going to be great!
So with that, let’s close in prayer and we’ll be dismissed into the week!