Problems in Our Thinking
Saying that a Christian should expect, work for, and experience growth isn’t the end of the issue. For the Christian to grow in a healthy way, we must clarify what growth is and is not. Ours is a superficial culture that lays emphasis on the outward signs and neglects the inward reality. We’re far too vulnerable to settling for being thought of as mature rather than actually being mature. Jesus’s teaching in Luke 18 helps us to identify at least two attitudes that hinder solid biblical growth and discipleship:
He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9–14)
Three problems in the Pharisee’s thinking prevented him from growing in godliness.
1. The Performance Trap
In all major sports, statistics are recorded for player performance—batting percentage, field goal percentage, number of stolen bases, home runs, touchdowns, assists, and on and on. Often the worth of an athlete is summed up by these statistics. And those who can “stuff the stat sheet” with big numbers are celebrated, heralded as “marquis players,” and given awards. Our idea of Christian growth can be influenced by a “stuffing the stat sheet” mindset. Notice the Pharisee spoke with God about himself and all he had done. He measured growth in observable goals and objectives—fasting twice a week and giving tithes of all he received. We can do this too. We emphasize the number of times we completed “quiet times” this week, the number of times we passed Christian literature to others, or how often we shared the gospel. We can fall into the performance trap, thinking that spiritual growth and discipleship look like good performance and success. When this happens our sense of growth and worth become wrongly tied up with our “stats.”
2. Judging by the Wrong Standards
Another thing that often misguides Christians when it comes to growth is the tendency to judge our well-being by comparing ourselves to others. Many Christians are relativists in this way. The Pharisee was proud before God that he “was not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” Imagine that! Kneeling to pray before God and simultaneously judging and denouncing the man praying right next to him! Jonathan Edwards’s eighth resolution is a better approach. Edwards wrote:
Resolved, To act, in all respects, both speaking and doing, as if nobody had been so vile as I, and as if I had committed the same sins, or had the same infirmities or failings, as others, and that I will let the knowledge of their failings promote nothing but shame in myself, and prove only an occasion of my confessing my own sins and misery to God.1
Self-effort is not the source of true spiritual growth.
If we’re focusing on others in an attempt to justify ourselves before God or to “exalt ourselves” as “giants of the faith,” we will not only not grow as we ought, but we will also delude ourselves into thinking we’re better than we are. And we may be sure that God will humble us. So it is better to humble ourselves and trust in the grace of God than to be opposed by God because of pride (James 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5).
3. Depending on Personal Strength or Effort in Spiritual Growth
This is another of the Pharisee’s mistakes. As far as he is concerned, all that should commend him before God is a result of his effort and ability. But self-effort is not the source of true spiritual growth. After the writer to the Hebrews exhorts them to “leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity,” he adds, “And this we will do if God permits” (Heb. 6:1, 3). Holy Scripture tells us that our progress in discipleship and spiritual maturity depends on the grace and will of God, not on our self-effort and strength. This is why the apostle Paul praises God for the growth of Christians (2 Thess. 1:3) and prays to God for continued growth (1 Thess. 3:11–13; Col. 1:10). We are commanded to grow and to cultivate maturity and godliness (2 Pet. 1:5–8, 3:18, for example), but all of our efforts are exercised in dependence upon God and with faith in him for the growth we seek.
So biblical growth should not be confused with outward performance alone, nor is it measured by using others as our standard. And it does not finally depend on our self-effort and attainments.
The Growth We Want to See
A healthy church member has a pervasive concern for his or her own personal growth and the growth of other members of her or his church. As Mark Dever correctly notes, “Working to promote Christian discipleship and growth is working to bring glory not to ourselves but to God. This is how God will make himself known in the world.”2 Since a concern for God’s glory should be uppermost in our lives as believers, our concern for growth should be pervasive.
Several passages of Scripture outline for us the kind of growth healthy church members should hope to see in themselves and others. For example, Galatians 5:22–25 lists for us the fruit of the Spirit, evidences of Spirit-wrought virtue and character that typify those who live not according to their own power and sinful nature but by the Spirit. We are to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18).
Ephesians 4:11–13 reminds us that the Lord gives gifted men to the church for the purpose of growth “for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”
We can sum up all of these pictures and exhortations with either the term “godliness” or “holiness.” The growth we wish to see, the growth that is not finally external and superficial, is growth in godliness or holiness, growth in “the stature of the fullness of Christ.” A growing church member is someone who looks more and more like Jesus in attitude of heart, thought, speech, and action. That’s what we long to be and long for our churches to be.
1. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998), lxii.
2. Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 214.
This article is adapted from What Is a Healthy Church Member? by Thabiti M. Anyabwile.
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