Process of spiritual growth

Peter’s second epistle is believed to have been written not long before he was martyred for his faith during the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero (The Second Epistle General of Peter, Introduction). Peter’s final instructions focused on the process of spiritual growth. Somewhat like stepping stones that mark an unfamiliar pathway, Peter identified the characteristics that result from a believer’s diligent effort to produce spiritual fruit. Peter said, “Add to your faith virtue; and to virtue, knowledge; and to knowledge temperance, and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity” (2 Peter 1:5-7).

Peter assumed that the people he was writing to had already been born again because he told them to add to their faith virtue (2 Peter 1:5). Faith in this context is the initial reliance upon Christ for salvation (G4102), a decision to accept Jesus as your savior. Peter indicated that after being born again, a person must learn to or at least make an effort to be virtuous. The Greek word translated virtue, arete (ar-et’-ay) is properly translated as manliness or valor (G703). Arete has to do with the impression one makes on another person. You could say that it is the image of ourselves that we project to others or our appearance. What I believe Peter was getting at was that after we become Christians, we should start looking like Christians. People should notice and be impressed by our Christlike behavior.

Peter instructed believers to add to their virtue knowledge (2 Peter 1:5). The Greek word Peter used that is translated knowledge is gnosis (gno’-sis). Gnosis denotes spiritual truth and in this instance is concerned with the initial understanding that one should have of his or her faith, what it means to be a Christian. In other words, Peter was saying that Christians should understand the Bible enough to answer the question, what does it mean to be saved? The first three steps that Peter identified in the process of spiritual growth were things that almost every person that has been born again is able to do as soon as or shortly after becoming a Christian. They don’t take very much effort. Therefore, you could say they have to do with being a baby Christian, someone that has not really started to mature yet.

Peter said we are to add to our knowledge temperance or self control. Paul mentioned temperance in his list of spiritual fruits (Galatians 5:23). This seems to suggests that Peter was shifting gears and was beginning to focus on the kind of spiritual growth that is usually associated with a mature Christian. The Greek word translated temperance, “Egkrateia is the virtue of one who masters his desires and passions, especially his sensual appetites” (G1466). For some people this might be a rather easy task, but for others it can take a long time, sometimes a lifetime for them to get their addictions and habits under control. Peter’s next step, patience is what I would refer to as the characteristic that separates the men from the boys. Patience or hupomone (hoop-om-on-ay’) is also translated as waiting, but it is more than just sitting idly by and expecting something to happen. Patience has to do with enduring trials and is sometimes associated with God’s disciplining of his children.

According to James, patience perfects Christian character (James 1:4). “fellowship in the patience of Christ is therefore the condition upon which believers are to be admitted to reign with Him, 2 Ti 2:12; Rev 1:9” G5281). Peter encouraged believers to go beyond this point and instructed them to add to their patience godliness (2 Peter 1:6). Godliness has to do with conforming oneself to the will of God (G2150). I believe this is where the transformation of a believer’s life becomes evident to everyone around him. You could say that the Christian that exhibits godliness definitely stands out in a crowd. I think this step in the spiritual growth process is where the majority of Christians drop out or give up, thinking that it is too hard or not worth it. I can say from my own personal experience that this step is not for the faint of heart.

The next step in the process of spiritual growth is one that might seem like it should be at the beginning rather than the end. Peter said we are to add to our godliness brotherly kindness (2 Peter 1:7). Brotherly kindness or philadelphia in the Greek represents the kind of love that is usually expressed between blood relatives, but in this context it refers to all believers or the family of God. The final step in the process of spiritual growth, charity is closely linked with brotherly kindness. The Greek word Peter used that is translated charity, agape is the highest or purest form of love that can be expressed between two people. It conveys “the attitude of God toward his Son” (G26). I believe what Peter was getting at was that in order to reach full maturity as a Christian, we need to first learn how to love other believers the same way we love our own family members and then, we need to be able to love everyone else the same way we love ourselves.

Spiritual fruit

After he identified the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21) and the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), Paul went on to say that all Christians are personally responsible for the outcome of their spiritual lives (Galatians 6:4-5). Paul stated, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). Paul intended that the principle of sowing and reaping would link spiritual activity with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. When he said, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance,” Paul meant that these characteristics would be produced by the Holy Spirit and become more and more visible over time in a Christian’s behavior if he or she remained in fellowship with God.

An important aspect of the principle of sowing and reaping was the idea that a particular type of seed produced a specific kind of fruit (e.g. you can’t grow an apple tree from an orange seed). Whatever kind of seed you started with was the only thing you were able to produce. Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matthew 13:3-8) indicated that the seed that needed to be sown in order to reap the fruit of the Spirit was the word of God. In his explanation of this parable, Jesus said:

“When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” (Matthew 13:19-23, ESV)

The Greek word translated understands in Matthew 13:23, suniemi (soon-ee’-ay-mee) is derived from the word sun (soon) which denotes union; “with or together, i.e. by association, companionship, process, resemblance, possession, instrumentality, addition, etc.” (G4862). Another way of describing the Greek word sun would be assimilation, the process of taking in and fully understanding information or ideas. Assimilation also refers to the absorption and digestion of food or nutrients by the body or any biological system (Oxford Dictionary).

The process of assimilating the word of God can take years, sometimes decades, or even an entire lifetime. What is important to note is that it is an intentional process, one that does not happen automatically. Otherwise, there would be no such thing as a carnal Christian, a person that is saved, but does not produce any spiritual fruit (1 Corinthians 3:3). Paul encouraged believers to stick with the process of spiritual growth, even if it seemed like nothing was happening. He said, “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Galatians 6:9). In other words, your appointed time to be blessed by God may come when you least expect it, when you are past the point of giving up.

Walking in the Spirit

Paul’s explanation of Christian living focused on the freedom believers obtained by becoming children of God. He said, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1). The Greek word translated liberty, eleutheria (el-yoo-ther-ee’-ah) is derived from the word eleutheros (el-yoo’-ther-os) which means “unrestrained (to go at pleasure) that is (as a citizen) not a slave” (G1658). Slavery was common in the Roman Empire and it is likely that many of the people that Paul preached the gospel to were not Roman citizens. Paul may have used the term eleutheros to describe the effect of salvation as a way of illustrating the complete transformation that occurred when someone was born again.

Paul defined liberty as a choice to love others instead of oneself. He stated, “For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty, only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Galatians 5:13-14). The connection Paul made between love and liberty may have come from the personal revelation he received from the Lord, Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:12). Paul wanted us to understand that the result of receiving salvation by grace was that the Christian’s heart was no longer to be focused on harming others. Instead, love was to be demonstrated to everyone in need.

Paul identified the essential key to successful Christian living in Galatians 5:16 where he stated, “This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.” The phrase “walk in the Spirit” implies spiritual activity. What Paul may have been thinking of was the daily decision-making that controls our behavior. In connection with the freedom he referred to in Galatians 5:1, Paul seemed to be saying that walking in the Spirit was a continual choice to do what God’s word tells us to. Jesus illustrated this principle in his parable of the good Samaritan who chose to stop and help a wounded man in the road rather than pass him by like the priest and Levite had (Luke 10:25-37).

Paul indicated the result of walking in the Spirit was the development of spiritual fruit. After listing the works of the flesh, Paul said, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23). Even though these characteristics might seem like natural human tendencies, Paul made it clear that they were only possible as a result of the Holy Spirit’s influence on the believer’s heart. Paul’s statement, “against such there is no law” meant that keeping the law would not produce these divine behaviors. It was only by identification with Jesus Christ that a believer could be expected to act like a child of God.

Patience

James letter “to the twelve tribes which were scattered abroad” (James 1:1) was meant to be a lesson on the topic of patience (James 1:2-4). Apparently, Jesus’ promise to return to Earth was being questioned and the delay of this event was causing believers to be filled with doubt. James encouraged Christians to wait patiently in his statement, “Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain. Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh” (James 5:7-8). The phrase “stablish your hearts” has to do with the way we think about our lives. It is likely James was referring to the commitment believers make when they give their lives to Christ. James was pointing out that even though the primary function of salvation was to secure God’s forgiveness and eternal life, Christians should expect to go through a difficult and sometimes long process of transformation before they go to heaven.

The return of Christ was misunderstood to be an event that would happen in the near future, perhaps before the first generation of Christians died. The reason it was so important to believers was likely because the persecution that was taking place was very difficult to handle. The return of Christ may have been used as a coping mechanism to get through the horrible circumstances Christians had to deal with. The problem with that approach was that it didn’t leave room for the possibility that suffering was to be expected and embraced rather than avoided in the Christian life. James wanted believers to understand that spiritual development was counter intuitive and shouldn’t be thought of as a quick and easy process that anyone can get through. His analogy of the precious fruit of the earth (James 5:7) being like the faith that Christians are developing throughout their lives suggests that the cultivation of spiritual fruit (love, joy, peace, etc.) is the outcome that we need to focus on in order to survive the trials and temptations that we all have to go through.

I think patience is often misunderstood because we associate it with things that are unpleasant. I believe James’ opening statement, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2) was meant to teach us that joy and patience actually do go together. The key to understanding this strange concept may be James use of the Greek word hegeomai (hayg-eh’-om-ahee) which is translated “count it” in James 1:2. Hegeomai means “to lead, i.e. command (with official authority)” (G2233). Hegeomai is also translated as “have rule over.” You could say that exercising patience means that you take control of a situation, you don’t let your circumstances determine how you are going to behave. Another way of describing patience is long-spirited. From this perspective, you could say that patience is letting yourself be stretched spiritually. In other words, your spirit is dominating your flesh or human nature. One way of doing this is through prayer. James encouraged believers to pray about their difficult circumstances (James 5:13) and stated, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16).

Bad things happen to good people

“In ancient times, and even today, it was often assumed that a calamity would befall only those who were extremely sinful (see John 9:1-2; see also Job 4:7; 22:5, where Eliphaz falsely accused Job)” (note on Luke 13:2,4). Jesus refuted this belief when he responded to a report that Pilate, a Roman governor was offering human sacrifices in his temple. It says in Luke 13:2-3, “And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galileans were sinners above all Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” Jesus was referring to the great white throne judgment when he said all who didn’t repent would likewise perish. This is the judgment of unbelievers (those who have rejected Christ) that takes place at the end of the Great Tribulation. It says in Revelation 20:11-15:

And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.

Jesus used the parable of the fig tree to illustrate the difference between judgment (what happens to unbelievers) and discipline (what happens to believers). In his parable, the owner of the fig tree expected it to produce fruit, but after three years there was none. Therefore, the owner told the caretaker of his vineyard to cut it down because it was useless to him (Luke 13:7). The caretaker responded, “Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: and if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shall cut it down” (Luke 13:8-9). Jesus used the image of fruit symbolically throughout his ministry to represent spiritual activity in the life of a believer. Jesus explained the process of spiritual discipline to his disciples in John 15:1-2. He said, “I am the true vine and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.” In other words, like a healthy tree that needs to be pruned, God disciplines believers so that they will produce more spiritual fruit.

One of the hindrances to believers bearing fruit is spiritual bondage. Jesus used the example of a woman’s infirmity or feebleness to show that a person can be delivered from moral sickness. It says in Luke 13:11-12, “And behold, there was a woman which had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bowed together, and could in no wise lift up herself. And when Jesus saw her, he called her to him, and said unto her, Woman thou art loosed from thy infirmity.” The Greek word translated loosed, apoluo (ap-ol-oo┬┤-o) means to set free or “to let go free, release a captive: i.e. to loose his bonds and bid him depart, to give him liberty to depart (Lk 22:68; 23:32), to acquit one accused of a crime and set him at liberty” (630). It seems as though this woman may have been bound by her guilt and needed to be released from the power it had to condemn her. Jesus did not mention any sin or say that she was forgiven, but merely took away the spirit or belief she had that she was a bad person.