Stages of Spiritual Growth

Sep 07, 2021

One of the topics that I have honestly never heard anyone teach on (except to mention it briefly in passing) but which has become such an important topic in my own life and ministry, is the teaching in the First Letter of John regarding the three main stages of spiritual growth. There are lots of other passages in the Bible that touch on these three stages, and they could be used to confirm and flesh-out what First John says, but I want to just briefly look at First John in this article.

I truly believe that if most Christians understood this, it would change the way they relate to other Christians (for the better) and how they engage with Biblical teaching.

Here is what 1st John 2:12-14 says:-

I am writing to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name. I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I write to you, dear children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one.

Let’s lay that out a bit clearer:

Spiritual Children are those who are told:

Your sins have been forgiven on account of his name and you have come to know the Father.

Spiritual Youth are those who are told:

You are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.

Spiritual Parents are those who are told:

You have come to know him who is from the beginning.

In other words, at different stages in your journey of faith, different things will be important and what is an emphasis in your life, prayers, understanding of scripture, and faith at one point in your life will not be the same emphasis at a different point in your life.

Like most people, I rushed through the “spiritual childhood” stage far too quickly, and I loitered at the “spiritual youth” stage far too long. I have watched this play out for three decades in different churches and in the lives of individuals, and I think I know why that happens:

People tend to “get fired up” about their faith or about scripture during the “Spiritual Youth” stage. Before that, we are told “like newborn infants, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). Yes we are to grow – but the way a baby grows. You don’t feed a baby filet mignon to get it to grow faster. Its system can’t handle that – it craves milk, something digestible.

People need to be given time to fully digest this new life that they have begun. They need to fully understand the gospel, and how salvation is a FREE gift of GRACE. When we rush people through that stage, before they have fully grasped that their “sins are forgiven” and before they have really “come to know the Father”, we are setting them up for failure. That’s when people think they have to work to earn their salvation (or work to keep it), or they are insecure in their faith. When someone who is not fully grounded in GRACE and the fact that they are 100% FORGIVEN and that God has become to them a nurturing, loving FATHER – when that person is encouraged to study deeper teachings and engage with theological debates, they are left confused and INSECURE in their faith – because they were never allowed to just be a child, just let the Father love them, just settle into the fact that they are forgiven and that there is nothing that they need to DO to make God love them (or love them more, or be pleased with them). 

Let’s allow people to actually enjoy their Spiritual Childhood. Let’s stop rushing them to be grown-ups. Let the truth fully settle deep down into their hearts, spirits, and subconscious minds – that they are FORGIVEN!! and that God has become their FATHER!! Once people are secure in those truths (basically, the gospel) THEN they can move on to deeper things.

The second stage is that of SPIRITUAL YOUTH. This is the stage that people tend to stay the longest in, and often people are strongly urged to resist growing beyond that place. In the Spiritual Youth stage, the goal is to become spiritually strong, and the way to that strength is by engaging with and mastering the Word of God, and by overcoming the evil one.

“You are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.”

Let’s unpack that a bit:

It is important to know what you believe and why you believe it. It is important to grapple with scripture and try to understand it, and examine the various viewpoints about a matter, and seek to come to a conclusion. That may well involve going through phases (like all teenagers do) when you claim you are a Calvinist, or an Arminian, or a Dispensationalist, or some other “system” of doctrine that you buy into fully – lock, stock and barrel – for a period of time (until you find inconsistencies and you have to tweak your beliefs to be less faithful to the system but more faithful to Scripture and to the overall character of God).

All of that is part of becoming “strong” and having the Word of God “abiding” within us. It’s often at this stage that people feel called to ministry or mission, or sign up for a Bible school or training course, or become conference-junkies. That is fantastic and it is an important season in our journey of faith – as long as they don’t now spend the rest of their life and ministry at that stage, haranguing people who dare to go beyond it.

The other feature of this season, is the focus on “overcoming the evil one”. Now, that doesn’t mean that it’s your job to overcome the devil (Jesus already did that for you – the devil and his forces are bound, defeated, stripped, and spoiled, according to the New Testament). So, what this is talking about is you overcoming the works of the evil one IN YOUR LIFE. Remember Jesus said “I will not speak much more with you, for the ruler of the world is coming, and he has nothing in Me” (John 14:30). Our problem, very often, is that the evil one still has something “in us” – some unresolved issues that actually “give a foothold to the devil” in our lives. (Ephesians 4:27)

So, basically, at the Spiritual Youth stage, we should have already become deeply grounded (during our Spiritual Childhood stage) in the fact that we are totally forgiven and accepted by our Father God, and so now we should be concentrating on growing in our understanding of the Bible and what it teaches (that’s a long process, with twists and turns, but it is also a journey of discovery) and also identifying our “fault lines” and where the devil may have a foothold in our inner lives in the form of unresolved issues.

Eventually we should become clear about what we believe and achieve freedom from our past issues, and be ready to move on and grow. Warning: if we don’t move on and grow there is real danger of getting stuck at the Spiritual Youth stage and letting our enthusiasm with “the Word of God” become an obsession with legalism and literalism and debates and rules – all of which is spiritually stifling. Or, instead of “overcoming the evil one” we can become obsessed with the evil one and spend all our time trying to “discern” and engage in “warfare prayer” and denounce everything (from Star Wars to Starbucks) as being “demonic”.

In other words, if we stay too long at the Spiritual Youth stage, instead of “becoming strong in the Word and overcoming the evil one” we become “obsessed with arguing about the Word and obsessed with what the evil one is up to” and when we see people move on from that stage, we warn them about the need to stay focused on defending the Bible and fighting the devil. We actually discourage others from growing, because we are afraid that they may “grow away” from God. Staying too long in this stage leads to legalism, literalism, and dualism – which ironically stop you from growing by convincing you that you don’t need to grow – you need to stay exactly where you are.

The third stage is Spiritual Parenthood, and at that stage the overwhelming theme is developing a strong and deep relationship with God and a sense of peace that His eternal plan is working out exactly as he intends.

“You have come to know him who is from the beginning.”

To “know” in the Bible generally (and with the Greek word used here specifically) means more that just to “know about”, it means to have solid and experiential knowledge of God.

These Spiritual Parents have developed a deep and abiding relationship with God, and are at peace because they know that God is “him who was from the beginning”, that God has an eternal plan that he is working out –

God has now revealed to us his mysterious plan regarding Christ, a plan to fulfill his own good pleasure. And this is the plan: when the times reach their fulfillment, he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth….. All things came from Him, and exist through Him, and are returning to Him; to Him is the glory through all the Ages (Ephesians 1:10-11 & Romans 11:36).

When you reach Spiritual Parenthood, you feel secure and grounded in your faith and your relationship with God. You have sorted out the important things of what you believe and have come to acknowledge that a lot of things which seemed really important to you during earlier stagers, really don’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things. You have become settled regarding what the Word of God teaches in its overarching themes, and you don’t lose sleep (or friends!) over minor details or disagreements. This doesn’t mean that you know everything – you will continue to be a lifelong-learner, but you are SETTLED.

Also, you have managed to identify and have dealt with the unresolved issues in your life that have been giving a foothold to the evil one, and you feel free and unentangled, and you tend to lose your interest (or at least your obsession) with the devil and the demonic. You no longer feel like you are trying to hold your ship steady on a choppy sea – you feel that you have conquered the choppy seas, and are now sailing straight and true towards the life purpose that God created you for, fuelled by the wind of the Spirit in your sails – your relationship with God becomes effortless and unhindered by the constant second guessing of yourself and your beliefs, (that is so typical of the Youth stage).

In fact, sometimes when people grow beyond the Spiritual Youth stage, and enter into Spiritual Parenthood, others think they are backsliding, or becoming lukewarm, because they are no longer interested in wrestling with scripture or wrestling with principalities and powers. They have been through that stage, have become settled in what they believe, and have conquered the footholds the enemy once had – it’s time to sit and the Masters feet and drink deeply, and also to mentor, father, mother, coach or help those who are still on their journey.

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