Paul’s analogy of spiritual growth focused on the progressive steps that were necessary to reach spiritual maturity. Paul began by pointing out that God’s gift of salvation did not guarantee spiritual growth. He stated, “And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able” (1 Corinthians 3:1-2). The two Christian characteristics Paul compared in this passage, spiritual versus carnal, represented the difference between being supernaturally regenerated or born again and unregenerated, living an animal-like existence. Paul wanted the Corinthians to understand that they were not only acting like babies, but also were in danger of missing the whole point of their salvation. His statement, “I have fed you with milk” (1 Corinthians 3:2) eluded to the Corinthians’ immaturity and lack of awareness of their own bad behavior. Most likely, Paul was trying to make the point that his advice needed to be taken seriously and not treated as meaningless babble.
Paul explained to the Corinthians that spiritual maturity required a process of growth similar to a building project or planting a garden. The process of growth involved stages that might be compared to things like laying a foundation, erecting a structure, etc. Paul started by making it clear that he and others might be involved in the process, but God alone produced the results. He stated, “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:6). Paul differentiated himself from other teachers by indicating he was a masterbuilder, a chief constructor or architect (G753). He said, “According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:10-11).
Paul seemed to be concerned that his work of preaching the gospel was being undermined by teaching that was inconsistent with God’s plan of salvation. Paul didn’t give any examples of the errant messages that were being circulated, but implied that Jesus Christ’s role was not being emphasized enough. It could be that the process of salvation was being miscommunicated and Paul needed to remind the Corinthians that their supernatural regeneration was a result of what Jesus did for them through his substitutionary death on the cross. Paul explained that when it comes to the process of salvation our work and Christ’s work are two separate things. Although we cannot save ourselves, our service to God contributes to our spiritual growth and development and we will one day be judged for the results we’ve produced. Paul stated, “Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is” (1 Corinthian’s 3:13).