Growing in Grace (Ephesians 4:22-24)
Today we’re going to talk about how to grow in grace. Growing in grace sounds like an oxymoron. How can you grow in something you’re given? It sounds like other oxymorons: act naturally; definite maybe; unbiased opinion. Or the ultimate Canadian oxymoron: a temporary tax increase.
But God intends for us to grow in grace. In fact, it’s a command in Scripture. 2 Peter 3:18 says, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Ephesians 4:14 says, “We are not meant to remain as children but to grow up in every way into Christ.”
Last year we brought home a baby. That baby was incredibly cute, and it still is. But wouldn’t you be frustrated if babies never grew? A baby who crawls and drools is cute. But a seventeen-year-old who crawls and drools is a different story. God’s intention for your life is that you don’t remain as a spiritual infant. God wants you to grow up in Christ.
Before we look at how to grow spiritually, there are three facts about growth that you need to know.
First – Spiritual growth is not automatic. Just because you’ve been a Christian for a long time, doesn’t mean that you have grown spiritually. The fact that you’ve been saved by grace doesn’t mean that you’ve grown in grace. Hebrews 5:12-13 says:
You have been Christians a long time now, and you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things a beginner must learn about the Scriptures. You are like babies who drink only milk and cannot eat solid food. And a person who is living on milk isn’t very far along in the Christian life and doesn’t know much about doing what is right.
There is no correlation between the amount of time that you have been a Christian and the amount that you have grown. Some people have been believers for years and have hardly grown. Some just began to follow Jesus and they’ve grown tremendously already. Spiritual growth is not automatic.
Second – Spiritual growth is ongoing. Unlike physical growth, it never ends. There isn’t a person here who couldn’t grow more spiritually. 2 Peter 3:18 says, “Continue to grow in grace.” It never ends. Every day when you wake up, you can either grow more spiritually or you can take a step backwards. Somebody has said that the Christian life is like riding a bicycle. Unless you keep moving, you fall off. We will never attain all that there is in Christ in this life.
People try a lot of shortcuts. Some people look for an emotional experience – “If I just get this `certain experience’, then all my problems will be solved and I will be a mature Christian.” Other people say, “If I could just go to this seminar…. If I could just read this book… If I could just listen to this tape…” Other people say, “If I could just keep a certain set of rules, then I could be all God wants me to be.”
But the Bible says, no. It’s a continual process. You have to learn to be mature. But there are some skills that you can learn that will help you grow.
Third – Spiritual growth isn’t about how many. It’s not about how many meetings you attend at church or how many verses you memorize in the Bible. It’s not about how many minutes you spend in devotions every morning or how many Christian books you read last year. Those aren’t bad things, but they’re not the measurement of spiritual growth. Just doing things doesn’t mean you’re growing. It’s not a matter of how many.
Let me tell you what spiritual growth is. It’s about how much. It’s about the quality of life. It’s about how much closer I am to God than I was at this time last year. It’s how much my character is being changed by God’s power. It’s how much more I love my wife and kids because of God’s grace. Jesus said, “My purpose is to give life in all its fullness” (John 10:10). He didn’t say he came to give us more things to do. He came to give us a new quality of living.
God didn’t just give us grace to get us started. God gave us his grace to keep us going. Now, there’s a lot of confusion about how to grow spiritually. This morning I’d like us to look at a Scripture passage that gives us three steps to take in order to grow. Please read with me Ephesians 4:22-24:
Since you have heard all about him and have learned the truth that is in Jesus, throw off your old evil nature and your former way of life, which is rotten through and through, full of lust and deception. Instead, there must be a spiritual renewal of your thoughts and attitudes. You must display a new nature because you are a new person, created in God’s likeness-righteous, holy, and true.
In this passage, Paul describes the three actions that spiritually growing people take. At the end of this message, I’d like you to identify one action that you need to take. Let’s look at the first one:
FIRST – SPIRITUALLY GROWING PEOPLE LET GO OF THE OLD
Paul writes, “Throw off your old evil nature and your former way of life, which is rotten through and through, full of lust and deception.” I love Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message: “Since, then, we do not have the excuse of ignorance, everything – and I mean everything – connected with that old way of life has to go. It’s rotten through and through. Get rid of it!”
Spiritually growing people let go of the old – their past. They let go of three things:
They let go of their guilt. Spiritually growing people let go of the guilt from their past. One of Satan’s greatest tools against believers is a false sense of guilt. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, everything that you have done in your past has been forgiven. Everything! Paul writes in Romans 8:1, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” The entire human race was under God’s judgment. God could have judged all of us and sent us to hell. But instead, we’ve been pardoned. God has declared all who trust in Christ as “not guilty” and has given us freedom from sin and from hell.
I don’t know what you’ve done in the past. I do know that if you’ve received God’s grace, you don’t have to worry about it any longer. God has “cancelled the record that contained the charges against us” (Colossians 2:14). We don’t have to worry about guilt from our past anymore. We can let it go.
Spiritually growing people also let go of pure self-effort. Now, I’m not saying that spiritual growth is effortless. But it won’t take place on your own power. In the past, we tried to grow spiritually by ourselves. But it didn’t work. That’s why Paul says this about all his religious efforts before he discovered God’s grace:
I once thought all these things were so very important, but now I consider them worthless when compared with the priceless gain of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I may have Jesus Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own goodness or my ability to obey God’s law, but I trust Christ to save me. For God’s way of making us right with him depends on faith. (Philippians 3:7-9).
No amount of law keeping, self-improvement, or discipline could make you right with Christ. The answer isn’t to try harder. You couldn’t be saved by trying to be a better person. It’s been tried before, and it never works. Spiritually growing people realize it’s not all up to them. They give up on pure self-effort.
But spiritually growing people give up on one more thing: they give up on their former way of life. “Throw off your old evil nature and your former way of life, which is rotten through and through, full of lust and deception” (Ephesians 4:22). Studies consistently show that followers of Jesus Christ act very much like those who don’t follow Jesus Christ. In fact, I recently heard that the divorce rate among believ ers is higher than that in the general public. But spiritually growing people know that they need to give up their former way of life. They need to give up their past behavior.
Now, here’s where it gets interesting. What do you think of when you think of unregenerate behavior? Paul gives us a good list in Galatians 5. He mentions things like sexual immortality, idolatry, participation in demonic activities, drunkenness, and wild parties. Would you agree that these behaviors and completely against what Christ wants to cultivate in our lives?
While these behaviors are inappropriate for any believer in Jesus Christ, listen to the other things that Paul mentions in Galatians 5:19: impure thoughts, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, divisions, and envy. Now how many followers of Jesus Christ have you seen practicing demonic activities? Worshiping idols? Now how many followers of Jesus Christ have you seen hostile, quarreling, angry, and self-ambitious? Paul says, “Let me tell you again, as I have said before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God.” Whether you’re a drunk idol-worshiper or a quarrelsome gossip makes no difference to God. They’re both behaviors that need to be put off by any person who wants to grow spiritually.
How do you make a break with your past behavior?
- First, become aware of the problem. I have a friend who had a quadruple bypass. The day before he had it done, he went to the Mandarin buffet. The doctor told him not to anymore, and my friend was shocked. “You mean Chinese buffets are bad for you?” I’ll bet you’re doing things that are spiritually harmful, and you’re not even aware of them. Ask God to reveal anything to you that’s harmful for you spiritually. David prayed in Psalm 139, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. Point out anything that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.”
- Second, ask for God’s help. Jesus taught us to pray, “And don’t let us yield to temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” Ask for God’s help in not yielding to your temptations. You can’t do it on your own power, but if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, God has given you the Holy Spirit to live within you. The same power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work in your life. So ask for God’s help.
- Three, be prepared to take decisive action. It takes discipline. It takes courage. Jesus said, “And if your hand-even if it is your stronger hand-causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:30). Now, Jesus was speaking figuratively. He was telling us to take action, even if the solution is radical. If you’re tempted at work, get a transfer. If TV is a problem, cancel the cable. If it’s the Internet, then get a filtered service provider. Do whatever it takes to deal with the problem. If it only took a minor change, you would have done it by now. Be prepared to take decisive action.
- Fourth, get some help. Every week I meet with someone who holds me accountable. You need someone who will help you with your struggles. You weren’t meant to struggle alone. I used to think I was the only one struggling with certain issues. 1 Corinthians 10:13 says, “Remember that the temptations that come into your life are no different from what others experience.” It helps so much to struggle together.
One word: you can’t hope to grow spiritually if you haven’t taken that first step of giving your life to Jesus Christ. Jesus longs to take your life as it is right now – full of whatever mistakes might be there – and to declare you not guilty. He longs to give you a clean slate. All you have to do is come to him and receive his forgiveness. Don’t try to grow spiritually until you have taken that first step.
But once you’ve taken that first step, you need to let go of the past. You need to let go of the guilt, the self-effort, and your former way of life. Spiritually growing people do that. And the reason they can do it is because of grace.
The second action that spiritually growing people take is this:
TWO – SPIRITUALLY GROWING PEOPLE PUT ON THE NEW
Ephesians 4:24 says, “You must display a new nature because you are a new person, created in God’s likeness—righteous, holy, and true.” Colossians 3:10 says, “In its place you have clothed yourselves with a brand-new nature that is continually being renewed as you learn more and more about Christ, who created this new nature within you.”
A few facts about this new life that God give us…
1. You don’t have to earn your new life. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “What this means is that those who become Christians become new persons. They are not the same anymore, for the old life is gone. A new life has begun!” You don’t have to create your new nature. It’s a gift from God. It’s as if God came to us and said, “Here’s a $2,000 suit to wear, or a $10,000 dress.” God gives it to us the minute we begin to follow him. All that we have to do is to put it on.
2. You don’t have to keep your new life. Colossians 3:3 says, “For you died when Christ died, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God.” Hidden means “concealed and safe.” You don’t have to worry about keeping your new life. It doesn’t depend on you. It’s safe and secure.
3. You do have to put on your new life. You don’t have to earn it and you don’t have to keep it, but you do have to put it on. Paul tells us, “You must display a new nature because you are a new person, created in God’s likeness-righteous, holy, and true.”
God gives us this ten thousand dollar outfit, and a lot of us say, “God, I’d rather wear my own outfit.” Perhaps we even try to piece together an outfit out of old tatty rags. Or we try to wear our old outfit along with our new one. God says, “I want you to take off the old and put on the new. I want you to look like me on the inside. I want to change you from the inside out.”
Every day, I have a choice to make. I can look at what God has given me and can never be taken away, and I can put that on. Or I can refuse to put on God’s nature. The choice is up to me.
Galatians 5 says:
When the Holy Spirit controls our lives, he will produce this kind of fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
These are the character traits that the Holy Spirit is producing in our lives. They’re the character traits of Jesus. We can’t obtain them by trying to get them. We can’t make these character traits by ourselves. They only come as we allow the Holy Spirit to control our lives.
It’s not enough to get rid of the old. You have to put on the new nature. It’s given to you free; you just have to wear it.
There’s one more action that spiritually growing people take:
THREE – SPIRITUALLY GROWING CHANGE FROM THE INSIDE OUT
Ephesians 4:23 says, “Instead, there must be a spiritual renewal of your thoughts and attitudes.” Romans 12:2 says, “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.”
When I was a child, I actually flew quite a bit. Those were the days that children were spoiled on the airplane. They got toys. They got extra attention. They even got to see the pilots in the cockpit. And so, I was taken to the cockpit during the middle of the flight. I think I pictured the pilot looking through the windshield, with both hands on the controls, piloting the plane just like you’d drive a car. I was shocked to see him relaxing, talking, hands off the controls, not even looking where he was going. I had discovered something called an autopilot.
Now, the pilot didn’t have to do too much. He took off a nd he landed, and in between I think he entertained kids in the cockpit and other things. I was still glad he was there, but he didn’t actually fly the plane manually. The autopilot took over.
Now, would you agree that most of us have an autopilot? Do you remember when you first learned to drive, you would have to consciously think through every step? “Lower the steering column; foot on the clutch; car in neutral; turn ignition…” and so on. Now I bet you get in the car and you hardly even realize what you’re doing. That changes when you drive a rental car and all of a sudden you have to actually think about what you’re doing.
Over the course of your life, you’ve developed many patterns or habits. They’ve become the autopilot of your life. You act in certain ways without even thinking. And what God has to do is to transform your autopilot into one that is pleasing to him. He has to transform the way you think.
Let me give you another way of looking at it. When the autopilot is on in an airplane, the pilot can overpower the controls and turn the airplane in another direction. But the minute the autopilot is released, the plane goes back to the way you were going. Now, you can, with great effort, steer your life in another direction. But the minute you turn your attention to something else, guess where you go again? Your autopilot takes over. It’s going to be more effective to reprogram your autopilot, rather than to focus on changing your behavior.
Romans 12:2 tells us the secret of how our behavior can be changed. It’s by allowing God to change the way we think. When God changes the way we think, our behavior will inevitably think. We need to allow God to transform our minds.
Now, we don’t often want God to do that. We want God to tinker around and do a patch-up job. But God doesn’t need to do cosmetic surgery. He needs to completely rewire us.
The alternative, of course, is to let the world continue to program us. We could let the world dictate the way we think.. If you want to live a life that’s always behind the times, built on shifting sand, then let the world dictate the way you think. You’ll always be behind because the world always changes. But if you want your life to be built on principles that will never change and that form a solid foundation, then let God dictate how you think. Paul writes:
Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits at God’s right hand in the place of honor and power. Let heaven fill your thoughts. Do not think only about things down here on earth. (Colossians 3:1-2)
Now, who influences your mind more – Oprah or God? Who has a bigger impact on the way you think – the writings of People Magazine or the writings of the Apostle Paul?
A few years ago, I found a television show that I really liked. So, I began to watch it every week. Pretty soon I was arranging my week around the time of that television show. Then I found that there was a show after it that wasn’t really good, but if I waited for the show after that it would be worth it.
Then I discovered the VCR. No longer did I have to arrange my schedule around the television show. Now I could race home from wherever I was, kick back, and watch that television show whenever.
But one day it dawned on me that my life was being arranged around people who didn’t exist in a plot that wasn’t that good, and that definitely didn’t honor God. I was spending more time worried about these fictional people than I was my own wife sometimes. And I was letting my mind be influenced by the values and morals of that show.
Who is influencing your mind? It could be the television. It could be the movies. Do you know that mental images from movies that I saw years ago, and had no business seeing, have been permanently seared into my brain? Other people’s minds are shaped by magazines. Who is influencing the way you think? If it isn’t God, then you’re building your house on sand. You’re programming your autopilot way off base. You’re not allowing God to change your behavior. Why? Because you’re not allowing him to transform your mind.
How do you transform your mind? Simple. You get to know the Word of God. If you want to live a life based on solid principles that never change, you live according to this book. Later this year, we’re going to run our inaugural Class 201 – Discovering Spiritual Maturity. If you want to learn how to grow spiritually, and how to read and understand the Bible, you can pre-register for Class 201 today. The Bible speaks to every situation you’ll ever face and every need you’ll ever have. 2 Peter 1:3 tells us, “As we know Jesus better, his divine power gives us everything we need for living a godly life. He has called us to receive his own glory and goodness!” We have everything we need to grow through God’s power and through his Word.
Spiritually growing people let God transform their minds. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”
If you want to grow spiritually, don’t focus on behaviors. Let God begin to reprogram your mind. It goes from the inside out.
Now, look up here. You might be trying hard to be a better person. You may be aiming to be a better spouse or a better parent. You may be trying to conquer some bad habits. I’ll tell you something: you can’t. You can’t do it on your own power. You can only do it when the Holy Spirit gives you new life. You can come to him this morning and receive your new life and your new power. I’ll lead you in a prayer in just a minute.
Growing spiritually isn’t automatic. It won’t happen by itself. You need to take action. It’s not about how many times you come to church. It’s about how much – how much you’re in love with Jesus. It’s his plan to grow you until you think, act, and feel just like Jesus Christ. What step do you need to take to grow? Let’s pray.