Last week, I wrote quite a lengthy post about why it’s so important to tend our spiritual lives as we would a carefully cultivated garden. God desires growth from us, and we need to put effort into that if we want to stay in a close relationship with Him. It’s important to know how highly God values growth, for Jesus warns if we don’t use the gifts He has given us there’s a very real chance they’ll be taken away. Knowing God wants and expects us to grow isn’t much use, though, unless we also talk about how to make growth happen.
Abide in Jesus
When Paul talks about people in ministry “planting” and “watering” spiritual gardens, he also makes very clear that it is God who “gives the increase” (1 Cor. 3:6-9). Growth and fruitfulness happen because of God’s work in our lives. We’re involved, but we don’t make it happen.
“Remain in me, and I in you. As the branch can’t bear fruit by itself unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you, unless you remain in me. I am the vine. You are the branches. He who remains in me and I in him bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5, all quotes from WEB translation)
This is the first principle of spiritual growth. There are things we can and should be doing to grow God’s gifts and bear fruit for His glory. But the best efforts on our part will accomplish nothing if we are not firmly attached to Christ. Without Him, we’re like plants that have no root system. We can’t grow unless we’re abiding in Him. “Being filled with the fruits of righteousness” only comes “through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:11). Read more →
Suppose you and your neighbor were to plant a vegetable garden. One of you put the plants and seeds in, watered them once, then stepped back to let it all grow naturally. The other watered and weeded diligently, trimmed where needed, staked up the vines, and poured time and attention into the garden. The first will have a small harvest, if any, from plants choked by weeds and eaten by bugs. The second will enjoy a bountiful harvest of tasty, healthy vegetables. That’s the analogy Gary Thomas uses in his book Sacred Pathways to talk about growth in the Christian life.
“Some of us live with the mistaken impression that our faith needs only to be planted, not tended. Becoming a mature Christian, some think, is like becoming six feet tall — it either happens or it doesn’t. This is not the view of those who have written the classics of our faith or the view of the writers of scriptures (see, for example, Philippians 2:12-13; 1 Timothy 4:15-16; James 1:4; 2 Peter 1:5-11).” — Gary Thomas, Sacred Pathways, p. 232
The Bible is full of talk about spiritual growth and fruitfulness. We can’t do anything to earn salvation or accomplish reconciliation with God on our own — that only happens through the work of Jesus Christ. But once He gives us the precious gift of salvation He expects us to do something with it. That “something” can be summarized as “grow.”
Growing Your Gift
Examples of God’s expectation for growth are found in the parables of the talents and of the ten pounds. A lord goes to a far country, entrusting great wealth to his servants. When he returns, every servant who increased their gift (no matter by how much) is praised as “good and faithful,” and welcomed into the lord’s kingdom. There’s one servant, though, who did nothing with their gift except hide it. It sat in the ground, useless. This servant is the only one who is not praised. The lord actually takes their gift away and then casts them out (Matt. 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27).
I honestly don’t see how people can read the Bible and still teach “once saved, always saved.” It is true that no one has the power to take you away from God (John 10:28-29), but you can reject God’s gift, or continue in sin without repenting, or neglect to use and grow what He’s given you (Heb. 10:26-31; Gal. 5:16-21; Matt. 18:21-35). Even the Apostle Paul didn’t think he could sit back and relax, assured that he’d get eternal life no matter what he did post-conversion (Phil. 3:11-14; 1 Cor. 9:27).
If we choose to do things that separate us from God and don’t then come back to Him and ask for forgiveness, we could miss out on the kingdom. God tells us how to get there and He even died to make it possible. He very much wants us to accept, use, and grow the gift He’s given us. But He won’t force us to.
Tending To Your Salvation
Talking about how God can take back gifts which He gives (a Biblical idea that’s found right there in the Jesus’s parables) is not designed to make us live in a state of uncertainty and terror, wondering if we’re “really saved.” Paul clearly didn’t think he should live in despair and doubt because he hadn’t yet attained the end goal of a Christian life. On the contrary, it motivated him to keep growing and striving to follow God.
God doesn’t really ask much of us when you boil it all down. Just the things needed for a good relationship. Love Him. Respect Him. Abide by the boundaries He sets. Apologize if you do something to wrong Him. Use the gifts He’s given you instead of setting them aside like they don’t matter.
So then, my beloved, even as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure. (Phil. 2:12-13, all quotes from WEB translation)
Salvation is something Jesus accomplished once for all humanity, and He is the only path to eternal life (Heb. 9:12; 10:11-12; Acts 4:12). Salvation is also a life-long process that we’re involved with as God works in and through us.
Be diligent in these things. Give yourself wholly to them, that your progress may be revealed to all. Pay attention to yourself and to your teaching. Continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you. (1 Tim. 4:15-16)
Paul isn’t telling Timothy that he can save himself or his congregants in the same sense that Christ saved us. But he is pointing out that we are involved in the ongoing aspects of salvation. To return to the garden analogy, people can plant and water spiritual gardens but only God can make them grow (1 Cor. 3:6-9). We’re expected to work on growing, but God’s the one who makes all that growth possible.
Producing Fruit to Glorify God
Paul describes us in 1 Corinthians as “God’s farming.” In Romans, he uses another agricultural analogy by describing the people of God as trees with grafted branches. Israel is God’s olive tree, and when He opened salvation up to a wider group of people it was like He “grafted in” branches from wild olive trees. As the farmer, God is allowed to graft in or prune out as He pleases. He can even graft people back in after they’ve been cut out so long as they repent and turn back to Him in sincerer belief (Rom. 11:16-24). And we get to play a role in whether or not we stay grafted in.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the farmer. Every branch in me that doesn’t bear fruit, he takes away. Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. … I am the vine. You are the branches. He who remains in me and I in him bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man doesn’t remain in me, he is thrown out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them, throw them into the fire, and they are burned. … In this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; and so you will be my disciples. (John 15:1-2, 5-6, 8)
In another place, Jesus tells us that we will know false prophets by their fruits. We can discern whether or not someone is trustworthy by how they live and the fruits they produce. God applies the same logic to us; He knows us by our fruits (Matt. 7:17-23). And we are warned, like the people John the Baptist preached to, “every tree therefore that doesn’t produce good fruit” (e.g. “fruits worthy of repentance”) “is cut down, and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:7-9).
God Is Eager To Help Us Grow
Now, don’t go thinking all this talk of pruning and burning is happening because God doesn’t like us or wants to terrify us. He’s not up there waiting for any excuse to wack us out of the Vine. On the contrary, these things serve as a warning so that we’ll understand exactly how important it is that we stay close to Jesus Christ (the source of our life, as the roots that feed a plant) and commit to living in a Godly way (having a character that produces spiritual fruit). So long as we make even the tiniest effort, God is ready and eager to facilitate our growth.
Consider the lilies, how they grow. They don’t toil, neither do they spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. … Don’t seek what you will eat or what you will drink; neither be anxious. … But seek God’s Kingdom, and all these things will be added to you. Don’t be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. (Luke 12:27, 29, 31-32)
One of the key characteristics of God’s kingdom is that it grows (Luke 13:18-21). And we’re invited to be a part of that. Seek Him. Grow with Him. Keep adding to your faith moral excellence, knowledge, self-control, perseverance godliness, brotherly affection, and love (2 Pet. 1:5-8). Produce fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).
One of the most encouraging studies I’ve ever done (for me at least) was on how God talks about human perfection. So long as we’re growing toward the goal of being perfect, as He is perfect, He treats us as if we’re already there. We don’t have to get everything right all the time or worry we’re not good enough. The only way to fail is to not even try. So long as we put effort into tending our spiritual gardens and do not neglect the gifts He has given us, God will make certain that we live abundant, fruitful lives that lead to the best eternal outcome.
Do you ever feel stuck in the past and discouraged by how hard it is to move forward? You’re a Christian and you know that’s supposed to give you hope, but somehow that just doesn’t seem to be the case.
It’s disheartening to feel as if you can’t move forward from your past or that there is no way out of your present. Especially if you feel like you’ve done something so wrong or your circumstances are so hopeless that there’s no point trying to fix things. These sorts of worries weigh us down emotionally and spiritually. They can make us feel heavy, foggy, and hopeless (and may lead to other symptoms of depression as well).
Jesus never promised that life as a Christian would be without trials. He only promised to help us through those trials, and since He has all power and authority in heaven and earth this is an incredible promise (Matt. 28:18). It can be easy, though, to lose sight of the big picture and get distracted by all sorts of nasty things that cling to us, weighing us down and making it hard to keep moving forward. We might wonder how to get unstuck, or even if it’s possible.
The Cage Door Is Open
One thing I’ve realized is that most of the things that are holding onto me are also, at least to some extent, things that I’m holding onto right back. Jesus promises to make us free and to wash us clean of any sin. If we stay in a cage or keep rolling in the dirt, then it’s not because He has failed in some way. It’s because we’re still susceptible to the attacks of the enemy and the pulls of the world.
I don’t say this to make us feel guilty or ashamed (that’s another thing that weighs us down, and shame is not a productive emotion). I want to encourage you to shift your perspective. Instead of seeing yourself as a victim trapped in a locked cage made from whatever’s holding on to you (fear, past sins, personal shortcomings, etc), you can picture yourself as someone in an open cage where God is holding the door and asking you to come out. He knows it’s hard. He knows it’s frightening. He knows there are often circumstances outside your control that keep pulling you backwards. But He isn’t giving up and He’ll be there patiently helping you for as long as it takes. Read more →
“I am Yahweh who exercises loving kindness, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for I delight in these things,” says Yahweh.
I quoted this scripture from Jeremiah 9:24 in last week’s post and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. God defines Himself by using these three concepts and says He delights in them. If they’re that important to Him, then they should be important to us.
I feel like we talk fairly often about the fact that God balances justice/judgement and mercy/loving kindness. But sometime we’re puzzled about how exactly that works. Back in Medieval times, theologians wondered how a God of judgement and justice could also be one of mercy. Now we ask how a God of love and mercy could also be one of judgement. I think taking God’s characteristic righteousness into account — as well as studying the Hebrew word meanings — can help answer those questions.
We in the Christian churches today often start with the New Testament when trying to understand a concept. It can be useful, though, to start with the Old Testament because that’s the foundation the New Testament writers built on. In Hebrew, words for justice, judgement, government, and ordinances are all interconnected in the root word shapat (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, entry 2443).
We tend to think of judgement/justice as a judicial concept. In Hebrew thought, though, the functions of government were’t divided as we so often do today. The primary meaning “of shapat is to exercise the process of government” in any realm or any form.
When the Bible speaks of God’s judgement or justice it’s also referencing all aspects of His government, not simply judicial laws. To quote TWOT again, “although the ancients knew full well what law … was, they did not think of themselves as ruled by laws rather than by men … The centering of the law, rulership, government in a man was deeply ingrained.” Apply that concept to God, and the notion of justice has to do with Him as the center of true law, rulership, and government. He is the source of real authority and has the absolute right to rule as He chooses.
What does your heart feel like? If it’s hurried and anxious, as mine often is, then you’re not alone. Our world pushes us to hurry, to perform, to keep up appearances. It’s exhausting. But scripture has encouragement for us.
“Strengthen the weak hands and make the staggering knees firm. Say to those who are hasty of heart, ‘Be strong; you must not fear! Look! your God will come with vengeance, with divine retribution. He is the one who will come and save you.’” (Is. 35:3-4, LEB)
In the midst of all that, faith offers us an oasis of calm. God gives us a new perspective on reality that brings joy, hope, and peace to our hearts. There are times, though, when we’ll still feel hurried, attacked, and afraid. When that happens, there is a specific promise we can turn to. Read more →
A couple days ago, I shared Part One of a two-part post about Paul’s epistle to the Galatians. In this letter, he combats a destructive heresy spread by Jewish legalists in the early church. If you haven’t read that post yet, you’ll want to start there before you continue reading.
I like writing these “Crash Course In …” posts because it’s so important to look at context when figuring out what passages of scripture really mean. With Galatians, it’s easy to misinterpret if you don’t look at the whole of Paul’s purpose for the argument he makes in this letter. It also helps to look at some of Paul’s other letters, like we did last week by comparing Romans to Galatians.
Truly Fulfilling The Law
Now that he’s laid the ground work for his argument, Paul starts to clarify what it means to walk by faith as people who are no longer under the law. It’s kind of a weird balance to wrap our minds around. Much of Galatians 5 parallels Romans 12-13 in showing how walking in the Spirit means we’re fulfilling the true meaning of the law. However, Paul also makes it quite clear that we should not seek “to be justified by the Law” (Gal. 5:1-6). To say that we could earn salvation by our own works introduces a harmful doctrine that spreads like leaven and corrupts the truth (5:7-12).
For you, brothers, were called for freedom. Only don’t use your freedom for gain to the flesh, but through love be servants to one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” … But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you won’t fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, that you may not do the things that you desire. (Gal. 5:13-14, 16-17)