Growing in Christ — Part I
A Growing Relationship with the Living God
When a person accepts Jesus Christ into their heart, he (or she) becomes a Christian. But that’s only the beginning. The Bible says you are reborn as a child of God.
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. John 1: 12-13 (NAS)
The Bible also says Christians are a new creation in Christ Jesus:
Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. II Corinthians 5: 17 (NAS)
Becoming a Christian is just the beginning of a fantastic new life. The apostle Paul introduces us to this new life in Colossians 2: 6-7
Therefore as you 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. (NAS)
What is it like to be a new creation in Jesus Christ? Well, to begin with, you have an exciting new life. You are connected to and residing in a living relationship with the great God—the creator of the universe! You are aware of a new set of standards for living. There is so much to learn; so much to experience. Where do you start?
Every living creature begins life as a baby (or as a larva if it’s a bug) and grows up into an adult. It is the same for us as new Christians. We are like newborn babies. We need to grow. We need to learn. We need to experience our new life. Regarding this growth, the early church theologian Irenaeus wrote
Now it was necessary that man should in the first instance be created; and having been created, should receive growth; and having received growth, should be strengthened; and having been strengthened, should abound; and having abounded, should recover [from the disease of sin]; and having recovered, should be glorified; and being glorified, should see his Lord.
The apostle Paul reports this process in II Corinthians 3: 18:
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. (NAS)
How do we get started in this process? We know how a healthy baby grows. First, the baby needs milk until he is old enough to digest solid food. The baby also needs a family to protect him and keep him safe. He needs contact with his parents, especially his mother, the biological source of his life. As he grows and matures he comes into contact with people outside of his family. He needs to learn how to interact with others.
OK, that’s good but the growing baby illustration is a metaphor that helps us understand Christian growth. What is Christian growth? What activities should we practice? What processes should we pursue?
Where can we find answers to our questions about Christian growth? Well, God gave us a book that helps answer our questions about our new life. That book is the Bible.
What does the Bible say about this? How did the first baby Christians in the Bible begin to grow in Christ? On the day of Pentecost, as told in Acts 2, the new Church received its first growth spurt.
At that time, the Church was very small. It consisted of about one hundred and twenty persons (see Acts 1: 15). The first one hundred and twenty Christians learned directly from the Master Himself—they learned from Jesus Christ. Many of them followed Jesus during His earthly ministry.
On the day of Pentecost, Peter preached to the crowds of Jews who came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Pentecost. Many of these Jews were from other countries. They never heard about Jesus. About three thousand people responded favorably to this new teaching. It had the ring of truth. These three thousand were added to the Church on that very day (Acts 2: 41).
How did all of those bunches of baby Christians start growing in Christ? According to Acts 2: 42,
They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (NAS)
Their basic activities were listening carefully to the apostle’s teaching, fellowshipping with other believers, and prayer. Over time they learned one additional skill. Jesus announced this requirement in Matthew 28: 18-20
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”(NAS)
As we begin to grow in Christ, what better example can we have than that of the early Church? They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles. Apostolic teaching is preserved for us today in the New Testament in the Bible. They also maintained fellowship with other Christians. They spent much time in prayer. And they told the world about Jesus the Christ.
How can we remember these basic activities in a Christian’s life? Some Christians use a memory aid to remind them of these basic activities. The memory aid is called the Disciples’ Cross.
The basic parts of the Disciples’ Cross are abiding in Christ, Prayer, Bible Study, Fellowship with other Christians, and Evangelism. Let’s examine the Disciples’ Cross in greater detail.
In this study, the basic activities of growing Christians are divided into two parts. Part I discusses two activities that focus on our relationship with God. These are “Abiding in Christ” and “Praying to God the Father.” Part II emphasizes three activities that are task oriented: “Reading and Studying the Bible,” “Fellowship with Other Christians,” and “Evangelism.”
I. Abiding in Christ Is the Center
In most diagrams the most important feature is at the center of the picture. That’s certainly true for the Disciple’s Cross. Abiding in Christ is the most important task in a Christian’s life.
Jesus told His disciples in John 15:5 that their activities for Him are meaningless unless they maintain a close, daily, personal relationship with Him. He compared this relationship to that of a vine and its branches, saying,
“I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. (NAS)
Growing in Christ is a spiritual process. Growth cannot happen unless the Christian is very close to Christ. The apostle Paul refers to this process in Ephesians 3: 17-19:
So that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. (NAS)
Paul speaks of us being able to comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of God. We can know the love of Christ—the great love Christ has for us—the greatest love in the universe! What a marvelous gift! This love surpasses knowledge. We can be “filled up to all the fullness of God.”
That sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? It does to me. Where can get this knowledge and fullness? How can I experience this remarkable love? Where do I sign up?
The first verse, Ephesians 3: 17, gives a couple of prerequisites. First, Christ dwells in our hearts through faith. Second, we must be rooted and grounded in love. In other words, we must stay in very close communion with God and Jesus Christ.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we all become monks and sleep on the cold, stone floor of a monastery. Don’t become a monk unless God calls you to that task.
Staying close to God is a process of practicing the presence of Christ. Christ can give you the power and ability to do this. Ask Him to be with you every minute of every day. Stay close to Him.
Jesus called this “abiding in Me.” This concept is difficult to understand when you first discover it. Over time it becomes second nature.
Let’s look again at the metaphor Jesus used when He introduced this concept to His disciples. He compared abiding in Christ to a grape vine and its branches. He hoped this might help the disciples to understand. He said the following in John 15: 4-5, 8
“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. . . . My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.”(NAS)
In the book The Shack, Jesus said the following to Mack:
“If you try to live this without me, without the ongoing dialogue of us sharing this journey together, it will be like trying to walk on the water by yourself. You can’t! And when you try, however well intentioned, you’re going to sink.”
Abiding in Christ is the center of Christian growth. Try walking on water without Jesus. It’s not possible. But it is possible to stay close to Jesus every day. It’s the only way to grow. Apart from Him we can do nothing.
II. Praying to God the Father
Does this seem strange to you? First, we grow by abiding in Christ. Now we’re being told to pray to God the Father. What gives? If I’m abiding in close contact with Jesus, why do I need to pray to God the Father?
Besides, Jesus said in Matthew 6: 8, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” If God already knows what we need, why must we ask?
Because prayer is more than a “wish list.” Prayer is a declaration of faith. It shows you know the true source of your blessings. As you grow in Christ, prayer demonstrates your faith and trust in God’s goodness. When you have a problem, you come to God for help.
In addition, conversation is a feature of all healthy relationships. Prayer is a conversation with God: talking to and listening to Him.
When we listen to God during prayer, He may provide us with guidance. Jesus prayed all night before He selected twelve followers to become His apostles. Consider Luke 6: 12-13:
It was at this time that He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God. And when day came, He called His disciples to Him and chose twelve of them, whom He also named as apostles: (NAS)
How should we pray? What should we say when we meet with God in prayer? Actually, Jesus’ disciples asked Him that same question. Jesus gave them the following answer in Matthew 6: 9-13:
Pray, then, in this way:
“Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed [holy] be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.” (NAS)
Many ancient texts add the phrase “For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”
Let’s examine this prayer line by line. The prayer begins with words of praise: Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed [holy] be Your name. God is our Father. He dwells in heaven. His Name is a holy word of praise.
Praises to God are scattered throughout the Bible, especially in the Psalms. Here is an example from Psalm 150: 1, 2, 6.
Praise the LORD! Praise God in His sanctuary;
Praise Him in His mighty expanse.
Praise Him for His mighty deeds;
Praise Him according to His excellent greatness.
Let everything that has breath praise the LORD.
Praise the LORD! (NAS)
Hebrews 13: 15 exhorts us to praise God continually. “Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name.” (NAS)
The next lines in the Lord’s Prayer shows we are in tune with God’s will and His master plan. Jesus prayed, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.”
We pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom. We pray that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
Paul also provides an example of this. In Ephesians 6: 18-19 he requests prayer for the Church and for boldness in proclaiming the Gospel.
With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints, and pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, (NAS)
Pray for the church you attend. Also pray for church workers around the world. Pray for missionaries and others who work to expand the Kingdom of God.
Next, we ask God for our daily bread, knowing that it is His will to supply the needs of those who follow Him. Jesus promises this in Matthew 6: 33-34:
“But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you [that is, at least food, clothing, and shelter]. So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (NAS)
The Lord’s Prayer continues with confession. We ask God to forgive our sins. We also ask God to deliver us from temptation and the power of the evil one. Confession of sins is important. It keeps the lines of communication open between us and God. Forgiveness of others releases us from being trapped in a prison of our own hate and anger.
These are the elements of Jesus’ prayer. It begins and ends with praise. The prayer also states that we support and affirm God’s plan for the coming of His Kingdom. We also confess our sins and promise to forgive those who sinned against us.
Prayer also contains a couple of other elements that are not mentioned in the Lord’s Prayer. However, their importance is affirmed throughout the Bible. They are (1) thanksgiving and (2) prayers for ourselves and others. We find an example of thanksgiving in Psalm 100: 4-5.
Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise.
Give thanks to Him, bless His name.
For the LORD is good; His lovingkindness is everlasting
And His faithfulness to all generations.(NAS)
But what about prayer for ourselves and for others? These are called prayer requests. Isn’t that the main focus of most people’s prayers? Too often requests are the main focus of our prayers. But prayer requests are no more or less important than other parts of prayer. Requests are legitimate prayers. According to Jesus in Matthew 7: 7-11,
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” (NAS)
Ask God for help. Ask Him to supply your needs. When He answers your requests, you will learn that God is faithful. He can be trusted in times of need. As this continues to happen, you will understand the kind of peace described in Philippians 4: 6-7.
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, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (NAS)
I Thessalonians 5: 16-18 provides a good summary for this section on prayer.
Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (NAS)
The next part of this study concentrates on the three basic, task-oriented activities maintained by growing Christians.