The term "life cycle" is familiar enough to anyone involved with project management, identifying various stages of a product's journey from concept to reality. For example, in the software field, projects move through the rough phases known as design, development, test, release and maintenance. Work projects in other professional disciplines have their own life cycles; most of us can probably identify some "life cycle" with which we are familiar.
But what about the spiritual realm? Is there such a thing as a "spiritual life cycle," the process by which Christians move from the initial stages of the faith to more mature stages of faith? Without a doubt, the answer to this question is "yes." The Scriptures identify and define distinct phases of Christian growth and maturity.
Like any modeling process, the notion of identifying distinct phases of spiritual growth has its benefits and drawbacks. By identifying and defining the phases, people can focus on elements pertinent to their phase without being distracted, overwhelmed or frustrated with elements from other phases. Spiritual leaders can also utilize this model to meet the spiritual needs of people based upon their place in their spiritual journey.
The main drawback of utilizing a spiritual phase model is the idea of "putting down" or limiting people. As we shall see, the spiritual phases have little to do with leadership abilities or ministry effectiveness. And such a spiritual model is designed to help understand and meet needs, not to stereotype people or constrain them in their outlook, sense of dignity or growth in the faith. Such a model doesn't mean that some people are "more saved" than others.
Each book of the New Testament covers a wide variety of topics for the benefit of the author's intended first-century audience. The historical context of these books is of primary importance in understanding how they relate to us and our circumstances today.
For for a moment, let us consider the audience of each of the books. We may observe that the books of the New Testament were written to various audiences at various stages of their own spiritual journeys. For example, the Thessalonian letters were written very shortly after the establishment of the Thessalonian church. We might break down the New Testament in terms of books written primarily to young congregations (and therefore young Christians), books written to older churches or to the universal church, and those that resist classification in either category. The former are directed towards the initial aspects of the spiritual life cycle, whereas the latter address Christians at all phases along the spiritual journey. And some books resist classification in either of these categories, most notably the gospels and the pastoral epistles.
These books were written shortly after the establishment of these churches and containing material mostly for the instruction of relatively young Christians:
These books were written to churches roughly ten or more years old, or written to the church at large; in either case containing elements relative to both old and young Christians:
These books resist classification but are still having relevance to the matter at hand)
These general classifications are designed to facilitate understanding, not to pigeon-hole the various books. Each book needs to be considered on its own merits and subject matter. For example, though 2 Corinthians is written to a relatively young church, Paul exhibits a high degree of openness with his own faith in his message to the Corinthians. The pastoral epistles and the personal letters reflect this same style of openness. Each New Testament book reflects not only teachings intended for the original readers, but insights into the spiritual lives of their human authors- all of whom were very mature Christians.
The Scriptures seem to recognize a three-stage model of Christian growth. These stages are:
We shall see these distinct phases recognized in the New Testament. In addition to the characteristics of each stage, we will also discuss the growth objectives, pitfalls and ministry needs at each stage
The newborn Christian stage is the beginning of the Christian walk. When someone becomes a Christian, he is "born again" (John 3:3) into a new life.
Therefore, putting aside all malice and all guile and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord (1 Peter 2:1-3).
This newborn Christian stage is characterized by learning the basics of this new way of life. It is a time of refreshing (Acts 3:19) and joy in the faith (1 Th 1:6).
There are two important growth objectives at this stage. The first of these is learning and solidifying the basics of the faith. Each letter or message to young Christians includes this element of learning to discern God's message for their lives:
So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:41-42).
For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light (Colossians 1:9-12)
As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude (Colossians 2:6-7).
For this reason I too, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you, and your love for all the saints, do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers; that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him (Ephesians 1:15-17).
For you were formerly darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth, trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord (Ephesians 5:8-10).
The second growth objective of the Newborn Christian stage is establishing spiritual discipline in the changing of old life patterns to new life patterns in conformity with the call of the gospel.
But you did not learn Christ in this way, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth (Ephesians 4:20-24).
Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that, as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you may excel still more (1 Thessalonians 4:1).
For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well. Farewell (Acts 15:28-29).
If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. For it is on account of these things that the wrath of God will come, and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them. But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him-- a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all. And so, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. And beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father (Colossians 3:1-17).
Therefore, putting aside all malice and all guile and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord (1 Peter 2:1-3).
Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life (Galatians 6:7-8).
There are several pitfalls to this stage, in addition to challenges associated with the growth objectives discussed above. The first is an overvaluation of knowledge compared to love. As young Christians grow in their spiritual discipline and knowledge, they will naturally begin to attempt to meet the spiritual needs of others. Since their growth has a large knowledge-based component, they are likely to consider knowledge to be the cardinal virtue and may overvalue it in comparison to other virtues.
Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies. If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know; but if anyone loves God, he is known by Him (1 Corinthians 8:1-3)
For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself (Galatians 6:3).
Because of their lack of experience and perception of things beyond their own experience, young Christians may sometimes personify the old adage, "A little knowledge is dangerous."
Another pitfall at this stage of Christian growth is worldliness masquerading as spirituality. Though this is not restricted to this stage alone, it is especially prevalent in this stage. As young Christians get more involved in meeting the spiritual needs of others, they are prone to worldliness in these interactions.
And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to babes in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men (1 Corinthians 3:1-3)?
For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, "YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF." But if you bite and devour one another, take care lest you be consumed by one another (Galatians 5:13-15).
If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another (Galatians 5:25-26).
Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment. ... Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy (James 3:1, 13-17).
The most important ministry need at this stage is the establishment of good relationships with mature Christians and spiritual leaders. By God's design, following older Christians is essential to their future spiritual growth. Young Christians need an environment where they can build healthy relationships with older Christians. This is done by them being encouraging, gentle and caring towards them during their formative stages in the faith. It is equally important that young Christians give their hearts and appreciation to those leading them.
But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having thus a fond affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8).
Our mouth has spoken freely to you, O Corinthians, our heart is opened wide. You are not restrained by us, but you are restrained in your own affections. Now in a like exchange-- I speak as to children-- open wide to us also (2 Corinthians 6:11-13).
But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).
Another important ministry need at this stage is instruction in the basics of the faith.
And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42).
But when some were becoming hardened and disobedient, speaking evil of the Way before the multitude, he withdrew from them and took away the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus. And this took place for two years, so that all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks (Acts 19:9-10).
And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming (Ephesians 4:11-14).
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food (Hebrews 5:12).
One last important ministry need at this stage is helping young Christians become mature. This may be done by encouraging them to grow in their faith and to gradually wean them from dependence upon leadership to dependence upon God.
And after they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, "Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God." And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed (Acts 14:21-23).
And we proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ (Colossians 1:28).
Epaphras, who is one of your number, a bondslave of Jesus Christ, sends you his greetings, always laboring earnestly for you in his prayers, that you may stand perfect and fully assured in all the will of God (Colossians 4:12).
For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil (Hebrews 5:13-14).
The ministry needs of young Christians might be compared to the needs children have from their parents (ref. 1 Th 2:7, 11; 1 Cor 4:15). When children are born, there is a need to bond with their parents. Then the parents instruct them in self-sufficiency and prepare them for eventual but inevitable independence. In a similar way, spiritual leaders need to bond with young Christians, instruct them in the faith, and then help them reach maturity in the faith.
The mature Christian has progressed through the Newborn Christian phase and has established a foundation in the faith and in the spiritual discipline that propels him to this next stage.
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil (Hebrews 5:12-14).
This stage of the faith is characterized by practice in spiritual discipline and strong familiarity with the basics of the faith.
There are three special growth objectives associated with this stage. The first is self-discipline in godliness. The mature Christian has accepted basic Christian values as his own standards and has put them into practice. He now faces individual challenges in godliness that will fill all areas of his life.
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things (Philippians 4:8).
This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith (1 Timothy 1:18-19).
But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come (1 Timothy 4:7-8).
Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if a man cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work. Now flee from youthful lusts, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart (2 Timothy 2:20-22).
Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says, "TODAY IF YOU HEAR HIS VOICE, DO NOT HARDEN YOUR HEARTS AS WHEN THEY PROVOKED ME, AS IN THE DAY OF TRIAL IN THE WILDERNESS, WHERE YOUR FATHERS TRIED Me BY TESTING Me, AND SAW MY WORKS FOR FORTY YEARS (Hebrews 3:7-9).
All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11).
For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well (James 3:2).
This self-discipline in godliness results in developing exemplary Christian character. The mature Christian learns to exhibit character traits that exemplify Christian ideals and qualify him for offices of leadership.
An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, uncontentious, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?); and not a new convert, lest he become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he may not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain, but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience (1 Timothy 3:2-9).
The second growth objective is transformation. Beyond outward actions, the mature Christian is now growing in Christlikeness in thought and character.
I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).
Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).
The third growth objective is a sense of fullness or maturity enabling him to meet the spiritual needs of others.
And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and able also to admonish one another (Romans 15:14).
But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no man (1 Corinthians 2:15).
Finally, brethren, rejoice, be made complete, be comforted, be like-minded, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you (2 Corinthians 13:11).
Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted (Galatians 6:1).
The challenge the mature Christian faces is one of perseverance and growth in the face of discouragement. As life challenges present themselves, the mature Christian is faced with the choice of growing spiritually or getting discouraged and postponing that element of growth until another time.
But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul (Hebrews 10:39).
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart (Hebrews 12:1-3).
Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).
Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge; and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness; and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten his purification from his former sins (2 Peter 1:5-9).
One thing can be said about this stage of spiritual growth: There can be no Christlikeness without the intensely personal encounter with God at this stage.
Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way (Psalm 139:23-24).
Most (if not all) of the great people of faith in the Old Testament faced this same challenge of discouragement in the face of hardship. Abraham, Moses, David and many others faced times of challenge that helped them advance to successive stages of spirituality and character formation. Such examples appear to be one of the enduring purposes of the Old Testament for Christians:
For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope (Romans 15:4).
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us (Hebrews 12:1).
The Revelation of John contains striking messages about perseverance in the face of trials. Jesus cites a wide variety of spiritual maladies afflicting the mature churches of Asia Minor. A short list of these traits:
In these letters to the Asian churches, problems arise with lack of balance in terms of inward versus outward focus, living on reputation alone and deficits in one's spiritual life. The key to victory in these matters is a deep spiritual encounter with Jesus at the private and personal level. Reliance upon him brings the transformation necessary for victory. Thus, church involvement may become a substitute for spirituality.
I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire, that you may become rich, and white garments, that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; be zealous therefore, and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with Me. He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne (Revelation 3:18-21).
Mature Christians have unique ministry needs compared to newborn Christians. The relationship between mature Christians and leaders needs to be a peer relationship. This is not to say that mature Christians don't need leadership, but rather that the type of relationship needs to change, just as the relationship with a child and his parents changes when the child matures. For example, there is not as much need for teaching but more need for reminders.
Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be uncontentious, gentle, showing every consideration for all men (Titus 3:1-2).
Therefore, I shall always be ready to remind you of these things, even though you already know them, and have been established in the truth which is present with you (2 Peter 1:12).
Another trait of these peer relationships in the New Testament is that leaders treated mature Christians as partners in the gospel. Mature Christians can meet the needs of leadership as well as receive ministry from leadership.
For I long to see you in order that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established; that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other's faith, both yours and mine (Romans 1:11-12).
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now. For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of grace with me (Philippians 1:3-7).
John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos, because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus (Revelation 1:9).
Perhaps the ministry need requiring the most sensitivity is that leaders must respect the individual faith and personal integrity of the mature Christian. Rather than provide the same type of direction as a newborn Christian, the mature Christians needs encouragement in the face of the challenges at this stage of faith. Mature Christians face issues that are likely to be masked> by church involvement, whereas newborn Christians face issues that are likely to be remedied with church involvement. Spiritual leadership needs to be aware of this and provide a flexible environment where these issues can be resolved. The measure of success here is not church involvement but transformation of spirit.
Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ; so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel (Philippians 1:27).
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).
Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained (Philippians 3:15-16).
Another important element that leaders need to provide to mature Christians is a great example. At this stage of faith, the example speaks louder than words.
But I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you shortly, so that I also may be encouraged when I learn of your condition. For I have no one else of kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare. For they all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:19-21).
Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe (1 Timothy 4:12).
Likewise urge the young men to be sensible; in all things show yourself to be an example of good deeds, with purity in doctrine, dignified, sound in speech which is beyond reproach, in order that the opponent may be put to shame, having nothing bad to say about us (Titus 2:6-8).
This stage is the pinnacle of spiritual growth in the life of a Christian. Closely reflecting the example of Jesus himself, it is seen in the lives of the writers of the New Testament books when they provide glimpses of their own perspectives and motives in life. This stage is reached by the mature Christian persevering though hardships over the course of life, just as Jesus himself was perfected by suffering:
For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings (Hebrews 2:10).
The suffering in view touches upon the spiritual and emotional pain that Jesus endured throughout his life, of which the prophets spoke:
He was despised and forsaken of men,
A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
And like one from whom men hide their face,
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him (Isaiah 53:3).
Paul's powerful statement to the Philippians identifies many characteristics of this stage.
But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained (Philippians 3:7-16).
One characteristic of this stage is knowing Christ through spiritual hardships.
... that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:10-11).
For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ (2 Corinthians 1:5).
For this reason I also suffer these things, but I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day (2 Timothy 1:12).
Another characteristic of this stage is a true disdain for things of the world. While Christians at other stages aim to "put to death" sinful acts (e.g. Colossians 3:5) and abstain from sinful desires (1 Peter 2:11), Christians at this stage have been deeply transformed at the heart level. Things of the flesh and the world are just not as important anymore.
But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him (Philippians 3:7-9).
Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me (Galatians 2:20).
But may it never be that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Galatians 6:14).
Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides forever (1 John 2:15-17).
Another trait of this stage is selfless love of others. This is not the world's self-beneficial, "quid pro quo love" (ref. Matthew 5:43-48), nor it is the love that arises from goodwill (e.g. Romans 12:10) or from obedience to a commandment (Matthew 22:39). This love is a selfless, Christlike love. Only those transformed by God, secure in themselves and truly at peace can love others without regard for the approval of men.
But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, in order that I may finish my course, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God (Acts 20:24).
If others share the right over you, do we not more? Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things, that we may cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ. ... For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more (1 Corinthians 9:12, 19).
Therefore knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest to God; and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences. We are not again commending ourselves to you but are giving you an occasion to be proud of us, that you may have an answer for those who take pride in appearance, and not in heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are of sound mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, that they who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf (2 Corinthians 5:11-15).
For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ (Galatians 1:10).
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body (which is the church) in filling up that which is lacking in Christ's afflictions. ... And we proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ. And for this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me (Colossians 1:24, 28-29).
For our exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit; but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men but God, who examines our hearts. For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed--God is witness-- nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority (1 Thessalonians 2:3-6).
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because He first loved us (1 John 4:18-19).
This final stage of the spiritual journey for the Christian may sound like one of the earliest stages. While young Christians are urged to imitate Christ in varying degrees, Christians at this stage have had such a close relationship with God and submitted to such sufficient self-discipline that they have been utterly transformed. They have within them a strong character that can only be compared to Christ himself. Again, even young Christians are said to "know Christ," but there is a depth of relationship here that only comes through experiencing the sufferings of Christ.
There aren't any pitfalls to being Christlike, but there are some traits that may be troubling to others that are about as close as we will get to a "pitfall" in this stage.
Christlike people have a sense of calm amidst chaos that may make them appear detached. This trait is seen in Jesus' earthly ministry at various times:
And while He was being accused by the chief priests and elders, He made no answer (Matthew 27:12).
And they were saying this, testing Him, in order that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down, and with His finger wrote on the ground (John 8:6).
Paul demonstrated this apparent detachment at times:
For I know that this shall turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I shall not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ shall even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose (Philippians 1:19-22).
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! Let your forbearing spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:4-7).
Christlike people regard themselves as accountable to God and as a result may not care much about pleasing people:
But to me it is a very small thing that I should be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord (1 Corinthians 4:3-4).
But from those who were of high reputation (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)--well, those who were of reputation contributed nothing to me (Galatians 2:6).
Christians at this stage of their faith are likely to be leaders. They will take care of what is important to God without regard to how they are treated or led. They don't need leadership per se, what they need is fellowship and an opportunity to minister to others:
... recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we might go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. They only asked us to remember the poor--the very thing I also was eager to do (Galatians 2:9-10).
Yes, brother, let me benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ (Philemon 1:20).
Make every effort to come to me soon (2 Timothy 4:9).
The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth (3 John 1:1).
I, John, your brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos, because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus (Revelation 1:9).
Let's summarize the growth model and make final observations about how this model might be utilized in life and ministry. The following chart summarizes the main points of each stage from the preceding sections:
|Item||Newborn Christianity||Mature Christian||Christlike Christian|
The stages of the Christian life that we've examined are progressive-- that is, Christians grow from one stage to the next. Those who received the letter to the Hebrews experienced what might be termed "stage regression" or "stage failure:"
Concerning him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food (Hebrews 5:11-12).
As the author of Hebrews addressed the issue of regression to his readers, these instances should be taken seriously by leaders and the church. When Christians regress in stage growth, it is due to failing at the present stage.
But stage regression can be difficult to assess. A Christian regressing from the challenges at one stage might fall back to the more familiar territory of a previous stage. This might appear to be "growth" when in fact it is a failure.
For example, consider one who is having a hard time at the "maturity stage" with the challenge to become more self-disciplined. Discouraged or bewildered at this stage, he might regress to the more familiar territory of desiring external discipline from a mentor. Some might laud such a person as one "just as humble and eager to learn as a baby Christian." But what is being masked is a failure to grow to the next stage. Worse, such lauding encourages regression and discourages real growth. What is needed is help to push through the problems at the next stage.
Like any growth process, the spiritual growth model presents unique challenges at stage transition times. Growing to a new stage fundamentally means change. And this change can be challenging or even frightening. The natural temptation is to resist change and remain at the familiar previous stage. But growth demands that we embrace the uncertainties with faith in God and his leading us. As Paul told the Philippians, "however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained" (Philippians 3:16). We may face hardships in growth, but let us not go backwards on the journey.
The Scriptures speak to various "seasons" in life:
There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven
A time to give birth, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to uproot what is planted
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to tear down, and a time to build up
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance
A time to throw stones, and a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace, and a time to shun embracing
A time to search, and a time to give up as lost;
A time to keep, and a time to throw away
A time to tear apart, and a time to sew together;
A time to be silent, and a time to speak
A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time for war, and a time for peace (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8).
In the New Testament, various seasons of Christian life are identified. These may occur at various times of life and during any of the stages. Some of these "seasons" of life include:
It follows that each stage has its own times or seasons of refreshing, humbling, etc. These seasons are finite in time and scope, and often serve as the agent that bring growth in a particular stage.
Having examined the New Testament with a view towards a model of spiritual growth and maturity, we ought to consider what impact this ought to have in the lives of individual Christians and in the ministry of the church. At the very least, it should open our eyes to the fact that specific stages of spiritual maturity were recognized and utilized by the early church. But there are several specific benefits that we can realize.
Using such a model helps people gauge their growth. Just as mileposts indicate progress on a journey, intermediate stages on the journey to ultimate Christian maturity help us understand where we are headed and how far we have traveled along the path.
From this, it follows that such a model helps us understand which tasks are stage-appropriate and which tasks are beyond our immediate grasp. While this may seem to defy the words of Paul to the Philippians "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13), in fact it fits quite well with what we've been discussing. Paul reached a point of maturity that his readers had not yet attained, as is seen in the context of the entire saying:
Not that I speak from want; for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:11-13).
If we recognize the stages of spiritual growth, we will be able to better understand our own spiritual walk and the walks of those around us. Utilizing these findings we can establish reasonable expectations and appropriate ministry directives in the church. These can in turn guide the growth of individuals from the Newborn Christian stage, through the Mature Christian stage, towards the ultimate stage of Christlikeness.
This raises one more important point in utilizing the stages of spiritual maturity. The example of an outstanding Christian (such as Paul) or of Jesus himself should not be held up as a minimal or normative expectation for all Christians today, as though everyone who would call himself a Christian needs to have the same maturity as the outstanding one. Discussing these examples ought to be instructive and inspiring and not discouraging. Like Paul, leaders today should imitate a good parent and recognize the stage of growth of those they lead. Instruction and expectations should be according to their stage of growth, without chastising them for failing to be at a level of maturity beyond what is reasonable.