by Pastor David J. O'Leary
We must learn what God wants from us and for us before we can move in that direction. That's why Christian growth begins with the knowledge of God's will and our desire to hear it.
Christians grow in grace. There is no way to avoid it; it's a matter of life. The Gospel does a living work in us. It doesn't produce an end product. It doesn't produce a by-product. It produces life, and growth is an essential part of life. Each of us has a favorite passage about growth (e.g., Ephesians 2, John 15, etc.), but my thoughts turn to Colossians.
As the Apostle Paul prays for the young Colossian church, he outlines a process of growth in the Christian life. Look at how he prays for their progress in Christ:
For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience (Colossians 1:9-11, NIV).
First, Paul prays that the Colossians will be filled with the knowledge of God's will. This knowledge must come from the Word of God. We start with what God says. While James tells us not to be hearers of the word only but also doers (James 1:22), we must start with hearing! Paul tells us elsewhere that we should find out what pleases the Lord (Ephesians 5:10). We must learn what God wants from us and for us before we can move in that direction. That's why Christian growth begins with the knowledge of God's will and our desire to hear it.
We receive this knowledge through the Holy Spirit. We comprehend it, Paul says, "through all spiritual wisdom and understanding" (v. 9). In I Corinthians 2:13-15 Paul makes a similar statement that spiritual things are spiritually discerned by people who are taught by the Spirit. As we commune with God, He imparts knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. In that manner, we grow spiritually. So growth begins with Bible study and prayer.
Up to this point, we might all be in agreement. We like methods which emphasize knowledge and learning. However, Paul shows us that the goal is not simply the acquisition of information. Rather, the goal is practice; the goal is obedience; the goal is service; the goal is "living a life worthy of the Lord" (v. 10). This life has two aspects: pleasing God in every way and bearing fruit in every good work. We must realize immediately that these aspects express our calling to serve the Lord. The mystery (and delight!) of the Gospel is that we can please Him and that we do bear fruit. The fruit we bear is that which comes from abiding in Christ (John 15:4-5).
What is the fruit which is borne in us? We are told that we grow in the knowledge of God Himself and are strengthened with all power according to His glorious might (v. 11). As we give ourselves to Him in service, we move from knowing God's will to knowing God. And our growth leads to great endurance and patience, enabling us to serve better and more faithfully.
The process of Christian growth moves through various stages, and the stages repeat themselves. We have seen that these stages include learning what God has said, doing what He has told us to do, and growing in the knowledge of the Lord Himself. Jesus put it a bit differently in John 8:31-32: "If you hold to my teaching [literally: 'abide in my word'], you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." Here we move from abiding in His word, to the knowledge of the truth, to the freedom which the truth brings. This is a great hope for us because we may join the cycle at whatever point we are. Since we know the Lord, we should live for the Lord. As we live for the Lord, we will grow in knowing the Lord. As we grow in knowing the Lord, we will grasp His will more clearly! Onward and upward!
Yet, merely learning what to do and doing it in our own strength is dead legalism. If we live in legalism, instead of making progress in our faith, we step onto a treadmill of fruitless motion that takes us nowhere.
How do we avoid this treadmill? First, we must recognize what God has accomplished in us. We were enemies of God, but He has redeemed us and reconciled us to Himself (Colossians 1:21). Next, we must recognize that He has promised to continue to work in our lives (Philippians 1:6). Then we must look further to see that He has "qualified [us] to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (Colossians 1:12-14). In other words, while the process of Christian growth should be pursued by us, the foundation rests on God's deliverance in Christ Jesus!
It is right at this point that many of us shrink back from the process of growth. It may be because we have lost sight of God's provision for us in the Gospel. That provision includes the faith, hope, and love which grow out of the Gospel and which bring forth fruit in our lives (Colossians 1:3-6).
Our faith is the shield which protects us from judgment and condemnation. That allows us to see and freely admit the sin that hinders and entangles us. Nothing need hold us back.
The hope we have of eternal life frees us to risk ourselves in the Lord's service, rather than remain paralyzed with fear. Boldness may now characterize our lives.
And, finally, love assures us of God's favor and acceptance of us. This frees us to serve and to give love to others. That's why in Colossians 1:29 Paul can speak of his wholehearted commitment to serving Christ when he writes, "To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me."
The Gospel produces life -- life that bears fruit and grows in us. Knowing God's grace to us, knowing His deliverance of us, we may pursue with abandon the process of growing in Christ.
David O'Leary is married and has four children. He lives in Reading, PA where he is the pastor of Covenant Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He holds degrees from Tufts University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary (M.A.R., M.Div.), and Covenant Seminary (D.Min.). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.