There are many paths to take in pursuit of spiritual growth. What does the Bible say?
Active, expressible spirituality is one characteristic that sets humanity apart from the rest of living beings. Humans are innately spiritual, and our unique awareness of spirituality is something that marks humanity as distinct.
While talk on the subject of spirituality has certainly increased in recent years, history records a variety of spiritual journeys and religious activities stretching over many millennia. Consequently, a holistic understanding of humanity should include spirituality, not just our physical and intellectual makeup.
If one explores the history of religion, it is easy to find examples of different paths designed for growing spiritually. Leading voices in contemporary mainstream spirituality promote methods for obtaining spiritual growth through higher consciousness, self-improvement, and study or ritual. Generally speaking, most of these methods are aimed at achieving self-knowledge, fulfillment, and control over the troubles of everyday life.
While there are many different spiritual “paths,” the purpose of this paper is to look at what the Christian Bible has to say about spiritual growth. We’ll take a look at the role of the Holy Spirit, prayerful Bible reading, and church community.
The Bible outlines a unique path for spiritual growth. In fact, it’s not so much a path as a person: Jesus Christ. Christianity as a whole is centered on a relationship with him. If one wants to understand spiritual growth from a Christian perspective, then the Bible must be consulted as the primary witness to Jesus’ life and teachings.1
The writers of the Bible make it clear that the gospel is the foundation for spiritual growth. As with any structure, the foundation is not only the starting point but also the primary support of the structure itself. When individuals come to faith in Jesus Christ, they recognize their sinfulness, repent of their sins, and trust in Jesus as their Savior and Lord. This is how people participate in the good news—or gospel—of Jesus Christ. The gospel is clearly laid out in 1 Corinthians 15:1–5.2
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.3
Author and theologian Graeme Goldsworthy summarized biblical teachings of the gospel as “the word about Jesus Christ and what he did for us in order to restore us to a right relationship with God.”4 Similarly, Tim Keller remarked that “the ‘gospel’ is the good news that through Christ the power of God’s kingdom has entered history to renew the whole world. When we believe and rely on Jesus’ work and record (rather than ours) for our relationship to God, that kingdom power comes upon us and begins to work through us.”5
For many Christians, J. D. Greear is correct when he writes, “The gospel has functioned primarily as the entry rite into Christianity; it is the prayer we pray to begin our relationship with Jesus Christ; the diving board off of which we jump into the pool of Christianity.”6 According to the Bible, true spiritual growth flows from a relationship with Jesus Christ. But in reality, the gospel is not only important for beginning one’s spiritual journey, but throughout all of the Christian life. Spiritual growth finds its genesis and continuation in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
J. I. Packer once said, “The good news of Jesus is information that issues an invitation to trust and believe for all of life.”7 Throughout the New Testament, the Apostle Paul regularly describes the life of a Christian as “in Christ” to emphasize the union a believer enjoys with Jesus. Out of this union flows dynamic spiritual growth.
The Holy Spirit
Once people believe in this good news, the Spirit of God dwells within them and empowers them. The Bible teaches that when someone repents of sin and believes in the gospel, the Holy Spirit guides them into all truth and promotes spiritual growth. In the New Testament this is often referred to as “new birth”—so called because of Jesus’ teaching that one must be born of the Spirit in order to receive salvation.8 This new birth, generated by the Holy Spirit, not only saves one’s soul but also motivates one to obey God and thus begin the spiritual journey.9
The ultimate purpose of the Holy Spirit’s operation in the life of a Christian is to promote personal transformation—transformation that makes our character increasingly like the character of Jesus Christ.10 Spiritual growth brought about by the work of the Holy Spirit results in concrete, practical change in us—how we think, feel, and act.
According to the Bible, spiritual growth is exhibited in what is called the fruit of the Spirit. In Galatians 5:22–23, the fruit of the Spirit is listed as love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Tim Keller describes these characteristics as follows:
- Love: To serve a person for their good and intrinsic value, not for what the person brings you.
- Joy: Delight in God and his salvation for the sheer beauty and worth of who he is.
- Peace: Confidence and rest in the wisdom and sovereignty of God more than your own.
- Forbearance: Ability to take trouble (from others or life) without blowing up. To suffer joyfully.
- Kindness: Practical kindness with vulnerability out of deep inner security.
- Goodness (integrity): Honesty, transparency. Being the same in one situation as another.
- Faithfulness: Loyalty. Courage. To be principle-driven, committed, utterly reliable. True to one’s word.
- Gentleness (humility): Self-forgetfulness.
- Self-Control: Ability to choose the urgent over the important thing.11
These are characteristics that Christians strive for and depend on the Holy Spirit to bring about. For this reason, throughout the Bible, Christians are called to walk in the Spirit, to be filled with the Spirit, and to seek God’s wisdom for direction in everyday life.12 The work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian results in spiritual growth.
The theological category that encompasses this process is called “sanctification.” In biblical parlance, sanctification refers to the process whereby an ordinary person or thing is made holy or set aside for God’s good purposes. Christians are made holy through their relationship with Jesus Christ. In other words, simply by virtue of their connection with Jesus, Christians are put in right relationship with God. They are holy because Jesus is holy, and he shares that quality with them. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” Paul said.13
However, there is also a progressive sense of holiness that is the aim of sanctification or spiritual growth. It is interesting that the Apostle Paul opens many of his letters to ancient churches by addressing the readers as “saints.”14 As you read these letters, however, you see that these early Christians don’t seem so “saintly.” They are prone to weakness, envy, and strife. They are deeply flawed and broken—just like everyone else. Paul continuously reminds these Christians that they are called to be a holy people. But they continue to struggle to live fully into God’s purposes for them because of the pervasive and insidious influence of sin.15
In light of this, the work of the Holy Spirit regarding spiritual growth can be described in two ways. First, the Holy Spirit convicts Christians of their sin and leads them to avoid evil in all forms. Second, the Holy Spirit impels Christians to pursue holiness and virtue. So, when the Bible teaches that individuals are sanctified by faith in Jesus Christ,16 the power for that sanctification comes from the Holy Spirit.17 According to the Bible, the believer’s growth will cause them to become more and more like Christ until Jesus himself returns to make all things new.18
Prayer and Bible Reading
Spiritual growth occurs as a result of God’s guidance and the believer’s gospel-driven efforts.19 For this reason, Christians turn to Scripture to discern patterns that promote maturing in their faith. The Bible directs Christians in the pursuit of spiritual transformation. For individual practice, the most important things one can do are read Scripture and pray. Combining the two, one might find it helpful to read the Bible prayerfully, as George Whitfield discussed:
I began to read the Holy Scriptures upon my knees, laying aside all other books, and praying over, if possible every line and word. This proved meat indeed, and drink to my soul. I daily received fresh life, light, and power from above. I found it profitable for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, every way sufficient to make the man of God perfect, thoroughly furnished unto every good word and work.20
If one accepts the Bible as God’s authoritative decree for all of life, there is much that helps direct spiritual progress. Several recent books have identified dozens of beneficial practices; however, it seems wise to begin with engagement in Bible-prescribed activities.21 As Jesus himself said, “[God’s] word is truth.”22 The Bible uses several metaphors to describe its function in our spiritual growth: it is the water by which we are washed, the weapon with which we fight, the tool kit with which we’re equipped, and the milk by which we grow.23 These images underscore the Bible’s key role in helping us mature in the faith.
There are several ways that the Bible offers guidance as to how to grow spiritually. First, the Bible reveals our sinfulness. The Bible is like a mirror in which we see ourselves as we truly are.24 Whenever we read and apply God’s Word, our thoughts and intentions are laid bare before us.25 Paul Tripp writes, “The Bible by its very nature is heart-revealing. For that reason, Scripture must be our central tool in personal growth.”26 As one prayerfully reads the Bible, sin is revealed, and the Spirit convicts us, comforts us, and leads us to thankfulness for the good news of Jesus.
For this reason, the Bible also encourages Christians to pray without ceasing.27 In other words, the Bible calls for a continuous attitude of prayerfulness and personal fellowship with God. Christians are to live their lives conscious of the fact that they are in the presence of God all day, every day. According to Paul Miller, “Prayer is simply the medium through which we experience and connect to God.”28 This type of prayer life requires that a Christian devote himself to prayer.29
Prayer relates to Bible-reading in that, as Graeme Goldsworthy has said, “Prayer is our response to God as he speaks to us.”30 This pattern of prayer—of God speaking and us responding—is found throughout the Bible. When you read Scripture, you are reading God’s words to the church and to you. Scripture is an ongoing conversation between God and his people; we join in that conversation through prayer.
This takes us back to the good news of Jesus Christ. Our greatest problem in any situation is sin. Our greatest needs in any situation are a pure heart and God-honoring conduct. And as 1 John 5:14 confirms, “If we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” God’s will is that we grow spiritually to be conformed to the likeness of Jesus. So we must practice these disciplines with Jesus as the focus—pursuing intimacy with Christ.
The Church Community
Richard Lovelace argues that “no individual . . . is spiritually independent of the others. . . . Therefore, ‘the normal Christian life’ is not simply a function of an individual believer’s relationship to God.”31 In recent years, much teaching on spiritual growth has focused on the individual, to the exclusion of corporate spiritual formation. However, the Christian community is central to a Christian’s spiritual identity.
Tim Chester and Steve Timmis made this point when they wrote, “I am not autonomous. I am a person-in-community. I cannot be who I am without regard to other people.”32 The church community is meant to be a spiritual family in which spiritual growth is encouraged. When the Church gathers, members inspire one another to go deeper with God through corporate worship, reading and hearing the Bible, and prayer. Generally speaking, a church gathering should be characterized by these aspects.
The word “community” is instructive here. A community is a body of individuals unified around something they hold in common. For Christians, the common unifier is the gospel. Christian community means community through and in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the goal of all Christian community is to “meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation,” to help individuals orient themselves to the gospel.33
In Ephesians 4:12–13, Paul discusses the importance of maturing in faith by addressing and describing the Church community as a whole, not as isolated individuals. In the Gospel of John, the words of Jesus to the Church are very clear: we are to make God known through our life together as the body of Christ.34 God’s intention is that we mature in community, not just on our own. Change is a community project.
One huge implication of this claim is that sin is a community concern. As Tim Chester observes, sin “impedes the growth of the community as a whole. It stops us from growing together as the body of Christ. . . . Even our private, secret sins affect the community.”35 Despite its faults, the Church remains the best context for change because it is the God-given context for spiritual formation and growth. “One of the great things about Christian community is that it gives us models of Christ-like behavior. Of course no one is perfectly like Jesus, but other Christians help us see what it means to walk with Jesus.”36
We model growth when people see us struggling with sin and turning in faith to God. God uses people to reveal things about ourselves that we cannot see on our own. Presbyterian pastor Sinclair Ferguson notes: “The church is a community in which we receive spiritual help, but also one in which deep-seated problems will come to the surface and will require treatment. . . . We often discover things about our own hearts which we never anticipated.”
God uses many people—often people with contrasting personalities—to elicit positive change in one’s heart. And that doesn’t mean just the happy people or the people with whom we get along, but also the difficult people, the annoying people, the people who are nothing like us. God places us all together in the tumbler of life to smooth out our rough edges.
This requires that we receive truth and speak the truth in love to one another. Tim Chester writes, “Love without truth is like doing heart surgery with a wet fish. But truth without love is like doing heart surgery with a hammer.”37 According to the picture painted in the Bible, the church is to be a community of confession, accountability, encouragement, rebuke, and love.38
There is usually reluctance among us to speak the truth in love because we fear the other person’s response. But the Bible also calls us to rebuke and confront each other.39 Without rebuke and confrontation, sin often silently charts its own course until it blows up to devastating effect. Church communities that practice loving rebuke and repentance are communities of grace, which allows being honest, open, and transparent about struggles. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way:
The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We are not allowed to be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone in our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. But the fact is, we are sinners.40
The key is that we accept each other as we really are, just as Christ has accepted us. God desires that his children reflect his character.
A Satisfying Road
Richard Lovelace aptly observed that “self knowledge and self-fulfillment are considered to be the core of human achievement” when it comes to spiritual growth in contemporary religious and mainstream spirituality.41 He added, “The search for these goals has produced a lot of people who are at best self-preoccupied and at worst obnoxiously self-assertive.”42 That is, many routes to spiritual growth generate nervous self-concern or overabundant spiritual pride. But this need not be so. An honest assessment of one’s spiritual state and attempts at spiritual growth will lead to an awareness of one’s limits. While there may be many different spiritual paths today, the Christian gospel offers a uniquely satisfying road to spiritual growth.
Because Christian spiritual growth is focused and dependent on God’s grace through Jesus Christ, the gospel allows one to avoid self-occupation and insufferable self-assertion. Christians may avoid nervousness and pride in spiritual growth by returning to the good news of Jesus—namely, that they are secure in their spiritual status before God based on Jesus’ work alone, not their own. The gospel is the true foundation of spiritual growth. Rooted firmly in the gospel, spiritual growth proceeds through the power of the Holy Spirit, directed by prayerful Bible reading within the context of a robust church community.