Have you ever had that feeling you’re just not growing spiritually? You’re doing all the right things—attending church, reading your Bible, participating in a small group, and praying. Maybe you even attend extra Bible studies or conferences to help you grow. But you still find that overall, you feel spiritually stagnant. As a pastor, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say some version of “I don’t feel I’m growing.” Many Christians wrestle with this issue, and the cause of this common feeling is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it takes to grow.
God’s Work v. Our Work
A young high-school basketball player was hungry to join the NBA. You could find him practicing to overcome his weaknesses, both before and after practice. His passion propelled him into a full scholarship at a major university. The stats he was putting on the board were unheard of for a freshman athlete at a school of that magnitude. Soon NBA scouts began to circle like hawks to get him. After arriving in the NBA, however, the young man seemed to lose his passion for the game. A large contract with guaranteed money had become an enabler for laziness. He could have been one of the top three players in the league if he’d retained his high-school work ethic. He needed to remember that the same practices that got him to the NBA were the same practices that would keep him there.
Many of us wonder why we’re not growing in our spiritual lives. A lot of times it’s because we think our growth depends only on us—that we have to work to achieve it all on our own. But it’s the work of Jesus on the cross that brings us into a relationship with God, keeps us in a relationship with God, and grows us in our fellowship with God. Unlike the basketball player who had to rely on his own work ethic, not only to get him to the NBA but also to keep him there, the gospel functions in the spiritual life on our behalf. Now we still have skin in the game, as we’ll talk about later, but it’s the gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives that propel us to grow closer to the image of Christ.
Trust the Process
It’s essential that we view our spiritual lives as a process of being conformed to Jesus Christ, because whether or not we realize it, we’re being conformed to something. Paul said it this way: “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2)
In other words, if we aren’t being conformed to the image of Christ, we’re being conformed to the pattern of this world. There’s no neutral option.
A continuous return to the gospel will help us move our hearts and lives toward greater conformity to Christ. God begins this ongoing process when we’re saved, and He completes it by the same means it began—through the gospel.
One of the most profound verses in the Bible on this subject is Romans 1:15: “I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” Paul’s eagerness to preach the gospel to the believers in Rome wasn’t because he thought they hadn’t accepted the gospel but because he knew they needed to hear the gospel over and over. The same is true of believers today. We never graduate from our need to hear the gospel.
Paul wrote many letters to churches in the first century, mentioning the gospel more than 60 times in the letters of the New Testament. This fact is notable because Paul wrote these letters to groups of people who were already believers, as we saw in the previous example. Paul was constantly speaking about the gospel to believers.
Sanctification Is Not Separated From God
God justifies us through the gospel, and He sanctifies us with the gospel. Many of us adhere to faith-based justification (the idea that we’re saved through faith), but we cling to a works-based notion of sanctification instead. In effect, we believe God saves us through the power of the gospel, but from that point forward we have to grow ourselves through our own power.
Hebrews 10:10 says, “By [God’s] will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” The word sanctified in this verse is a perfect passive participle. Perfect tense means our sanctification is a completed work in the past. Consequently, our being set aside as holy by God has been done. A portion of our sanctification is already complete. The passive voice of the word sanctified points to the fact that it was done to us, not by us. Finally, the fact that the word sanctified is a participle means this state of sanctification describes our identity. We’re continually being sanctified by God. Continual spiritual growth is part of what it means to be a Christian.
Scripture is clear that the gospel not only saves us but also grows us. It’s also clear that the Holy Spirit plays a central role in our sanctification. We can’t lose sight of that fact. If our theology is to be gospel-centered, we mustn’t forget the Holy Spirit. He’s the One who applies to us every component of the gospel. We don’t grow and conform to the image of Christ in our own strength.
Sanctification mustn’t be seen as separate from the gospel but as a part of it. It’s an extension of the gospel.
For too long the church (in some sectors) has had a reductionistic view of the Holy Spirit. In many cases He’s understood simply as an idea from the Bible. We’ve ignored and therefore disconnected ourselves from the power of the Holy Spirit and His role in our sanctification.
This blog post was adapted from the Unleashed Bible study by Eric Mason and published by Lifeway.