Growing In Grace
Tim Temple

Introduction

For several weeks now we have been looking at the teachings of John the mender, the one whose ministry was to call people back to the foundations of the church much like he had been mending nets when the Lord called him to be His disciple. In this first letter, his main purpose is to restore Christians of every age and every place, even down to our day, to that intimate and restful relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ which John calls “walking in the light”—fellowship. This kind of fellowship with Christ ought to be the desire of every Christian, the goal of every Christian, because from that fellowship with Christ comes all of the power and effectiveness and satisfaction with our Christian life.

If you are not satisfied with your Christian life and you feel that you are not experiencing all that the Word of God promises, you are probably faced with a problem in the area of fellowship, and that would be the area to check out first in determining why your Christian life is not what you think it ought to be.

In the gospel that John wrote, which is at the beginning of the New Testament, he talked about the fact of our relationship with God. It begins with the moment of choice when we deliberately, willfully open our lives to the Lord Jesus Christ and accept Him and trust in Him as our Savior. The result of that is an attitude of faith, a dependence on the light of God and openness to the light of God that shines into our lives at work, at school, in the neighborhood—wherever it may be. In this letter at the end of the New Testament, John gives us some definite principles of what is ours since all of this is true. This relationship leads into fellowship, and John goes into a great deal of detail with an illustration in chapter 1 of walking in the light and what happens if we don't walk in the light. We referred to that by way of conditions of fellowship, things that are necessary for us to enjoy this fellowship with God.

In chapter 2 he takes it a step further and writes about the conduct of fellowship, the things that will characterize our lives when we walk in fellowship with Him consistently. In verses 1-11 he gave a description of that conduct and we could summarize those verses with one word—obedience . Obedience to God characterizes, summarizes, fellowship with Him.

In today's passage he is going to write about the thing that is distinctive about that conduct. This time it is summarized in two words—spiritual growth . As we are obedient to Him, as our conduct is described by obedience, that produces spiritual growth in Him. We are going to see that spiritual growth is really a process that takes place in our lives as we walk in the light of fellowship with the Lord. We will see next week that it results in the product of right relationship with the things that are going on in the world around us.

The Process Of Spiritual Growth

Let's think about the process of spiritual growth which John describes in verse 12 and the first part of verse 13. In these verses he introduces us to a third very important factor in the Christian life which follows the relationship and the fellowship that we talked about a minute ago. In the King James version this thing is often referred to as perfection , but as times have changed and vocabulary has changed and as new translations have come along, the basic idea is maturity. Instead of perfection , most of the new translations translate this word with the word maturity or full growth .

I believe that one of the biggest problems in the church down through the years has always been immature Christians—Christians who put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ, but, for whatever reason, stop their growth in the Lord soon after it begins. The Christian life is much more than just conversion. It is much more than just accepting Christ as Savior. That certainly is the beginning point, but the things that happen after that are really in a sense more important. Nothing can be more important than being saved, but in terms of what happens to our Christian life and how meaningful it becomes to us and others, the things that happen after salvation are extremely important. Christians who have never grown up are always a problem in the Body of Christ.

If you are a brand new Christian, I am not talking to you as I say what I am about to say. You are not a problem because there has to be a starting point somewhere. Everybody has to be a baby Christian to begin with. There is always room for babies in any family and new Christians are babies in Christ, so I do not mean to be critical of you. The problem is with people who are still babies after knowing the Lord for five, ten, fifteen, twenty years sometimes. There are people who have known the Lord for a long time, and they are still babies in Christ. They haven't grown. In fact in most cases, it is because they have refused to grow up spiritually. That is even more tragic and it is more sad and just as big a problem as in the human life babies who are not able to grow up. Though their physical bodies may grow, their mental and emotional state remains as a baby or a young child. We are familiar with those situations and we commiserate with families who have that situation; but it is just as tragic, or in a sense more tragic, when that happens spiritually and it happens very, very often. So John comes face-to-face with this problem, and in the verses that we are going to look at today, he describes three stages in this process of spiritual development—three levels of growth in the spiritual life. Look at I John, chapter 2, verse 12:

I John 2:

12I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name's sake.
13I write unto you, fathers, because ye have known him that is from the beginning. I write unto you, young men, because ye have overcome the wicked one…

Let's stop there in the middle of verse 13. Obviously, there are three groups of people represented here—children, fathers and young men. We need to understand, and I am sure that you do understand just by looking at it, that these have no relationship to physical age whatsoever and really not even to gender. It is possible for a man who is fifty years old in the flesh to be six months old in the Lord, and it is possible for a woman to be a father or a young man in the sense of the way John is using those terms here. A young man of thirty might be a child, a father or a young man according to the way John uses this term. These terms have no relationship to the length of time that you have been a Christian or even to the position that you may hold as a Christian. They have entirely to do with our progress in the Christian life, the process of growth that John is describing. There are people who have been believers for years and may even hold important positions within the Body of Christ—elders or deacons or pastors or some other position of influence—who, when the chips are down, are shown to be totally immature Christians. By the same token, we sometimes see a person who has not known the Lord very long and, in the terms of this passage, is a young man, yet he has a very powerful walk with the Lord.

The Stage Of Little Children

Let's look at these terms more closely and see what John wants to tell us about this process of spiritual growth. If you are a Christian, you belong somewhere in these successive stages of the Christian life. John categorizes all Christians on this progression in their walk with the Lord in one of these three stages. They are introduced by the title little children. Look at verse 12 again:

I John 2:

12I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name's sake.

The term little children is a translation of a Greek word which means “to be born” or as a man it would mean “little born one.” So he is talking about babies. He is talking about newborn babies, spiritually or physically, and he is referring to the fact that even though they are young and immature, as he says in verse 12, they are in the family. They have become part of the family of God. You cannot get into a family without birth, can you? That same thing is true spiritually. We ought never to forget that. Jesus said to Nicodemus in John, chapter 3, verse 7, “You must be born again.”

John Wesley, that great English preacher from a previous generation, went all over England teaching the text “You Must Be Born Again.” Every sermon would deal with that text, and finally someone said to him, “Mr. Wesley, why do you continue to repeat that text?” He said, looking them right in the eye, “Because you must be born again.” That is the only way to come into the family of God—to be born again, receiving Jesus Christ, being born spiritually, just as you were born physically.

John immediately describes the experience of those newborn Christians, the experience of all Christians. He said:

I John 2:

12I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name's sake.

That is the basic Christian position. Every person who has accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Savior, a newborn baby, a young man or a father, wherever you are in the Christian life, there is one thing that is true of every one of us if you have been saved five minutes or five years or whatever. The one thing that is true of all of us is that our sins have been forgiven. Praise the Lord! It is true of all Christians. Our sins have been forgiven. That is the first thing of which Christians become aware when they come to know the Lord. Do you remember how that was? How long has it been since you thought about what it was like when you first accepted Christ as Savior? There was that lifting of that load of guilt, and that solving of the problem of eternity and facing God. The forgiveness of sins—what a wonderful experience that was. I hope you still remember that and we should all reflect on it every now and then, no matter how old we get or how far along we get in the Christian life.

John doesn't mention here the negative aspects of infancy. His focus is on that one consistent, positive condition of all who come to Christ—our sins are forgiven. He doesn't mention that like physical babies new Christians can sometimes be a little bit of a problem for the rest of us. They can be rude. They can be emotionally unstable. They can be overly dependent on other Christians as they try to learn more about this Christian life. That is the way babies are. They have many negative qualities if we were to stop and analyze it that way, but the one thing that is universally true of new Christians is that they are in the family. They have life. They are part of us.

Think about some of the things that are true about babies' personalities. When visiting in Kentucky, we saw our great niece who was about six months old. Since I have been studying this passage about babies, I particularly noticed little Sarah, a beautiful little baby. But she was very rude. She didn't hesitate to burp, and she didn't apologize for it. She and her mother were there with us at Grandmother's house for several hours, and she never did stand up and walk anywhere. She just laid around the whole time—lazy, let other people carry her everywhere. She didn't care whether she was interrupting somebody's conversation. She was totally unconcerned about any of that. Her mother told us that she was very uncooperative. Sometimes she wakes up in the middle of the night and doesn't even care that somebody has to get up and do whatever it is that she is insisting be done. But you know, there is one thing about all babies, and that is they know who their mother and daddy is, don't they? That makes everything okay for the mothers and daddies, and the rest of us put up with it for their sakes.

John is going to say, in the latter part of verse 13, which we are not going to get to today, “I write to you children because you know the Father.” No matter what else may be true of a new Christian, it is true that their sins are forgiven, and they know who their Daddy is. Parents don't worry about the baby's rudeness or laziness or lack of cooperation. They don't say, “Well, if that is what a human being is, I just don't want to be one.” We accept the fact that they are babies, and we look forward to what they are going to be, not only what they are now.

The same thing needs to be true in our Christian life. We who are older Christians need to be very careful that we don't become critical of new Christians and just people who are trying to learn and people whom we are really there to help. Now, if a person has been a baby Christian for a long time, as I have said before, that is a different story; but let's be careful around these new believers, these babies in Christ and give them the same kind of acceptance that we give to human babies who have all of those needs that we don't even think of as problems. There must be a beginning in the Christian life, but it is only a beginning. We are intended to move on, to go on, to grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ as Peter said in II Peter, chapter 3, verse 18.

The Stage Of Fathers

Coming back to our text in the first part of verse 13, John moves on to look at the other end of the growth process. He has been talking about the babies. Now he mentions, in the middle of this list, the fully matured Christian, the fathers. He say in verse 13:

I John 2:

13I write unto you, fathers, because ye have known him that is from the beginning…

Obviously, he is talking about mature Christians. He was talking about new Christians as babies; when he comes to fathers, he is talking about mature Christians. Here is the chief characteristic of the Christian who could be called a father: “You have known Him who is from the beginning…” Now, who is “him that was from the beginning?” You remember the phrase with which he opened this letter. He said in chapter 1, verse 1:

I John 1:

1That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life;

You remember that we talked about the fact that he was talking about Jesus Christ there, and he used some of that same terminology in the gospel that he wrote. The mark of a father-type Christian is that he has come to know Jesus Christ. The word know in verse 13 is from a Greek word that carries the implication of knowing by experience. As I have mentioned so many times before, the value of the Greek text is that it has specific words that have different shades of meaning, whereas in English one word covers a whole range of things. This is a word for knowledge that has to do with knowledge that is gained by experience. Obviously, experience takes time. A father is one who comes to know the Lord Jesus Christ fully over a long period of time.

There are two factors about this kind of knowledge. First, the word in the Greek implies this more than the English word does; it implies a close, intimate fellowship, a personal fellowship with Jesus Christ. It is knowledge that comes over a long period of time. No one can become a father, in the spiritual sense, overnight. There must be years, probably, spent in fellowship together with the Lord. But the inevitable results of a relationship like that is resemblance, a mutual identity that grows out of this long relationship and personal acquaintance. We see this on the physical level a lot of time, don't we? I am told that people who have been married for a long time tend to begin looking like each other. Janice and I have been married for a long time. Thirty years used to sound like a long time, and I am sure to many of you it still sounds like a long time. I hope that Janice hasn't begun looking more like me in all those years, and I am pretty sure I haven't begun to look like her; but we do see a resemblance in people, don't we, when they have known each other for a long time?

People who have been part of an organization for a long time tend to have a certain kind of identity even when they are out of that organization. You can almost always tell a person who has been in the military. That is because of that knowledge that they gained in that organization and having that experience. You always know an Age whenever you meet one, and most of the other schools the same way. You can always tell a Longhorn or a Bear, or whatever it is. They have that identity from sharing that experience in that school or on that team, whatever it may be. That is the idea that John is promoting here.

Just recently a friend of mine was telling me about a time when he and his wife were first married and they were going to go out to dinner with this couple who had been married a long time. They went in the other couple's car, and when they got to the restaurant, it was closed. Nobody realized it was going to be closed, so the older man who was driving turned to his wife and said, “Well, there is that other restaurant, how about that?” The woman said, “Yes, that is exactly the one it should be.” Without saying another word, they went to the other restaurant. They both knew what they were talking about. My friend and his wife had no idea where they were going, but the other couple, without mentioning the name, knew where they were talking about because they had that shared identity. Over a long period of time, they had become like each other.

Spiritual fathers are like that with Christ. Mature Christians think like He thinks. They respond like He responds. They live like Jesus Christ. John uses that as their chief characteristic. “You that have known the Father…” They have a great deal of the disposition of Jesus Christ. They have left behind the kinds of immaturity and they have become stable. They are not juvenile in their attitudes, unstable or petty. They have become steady and thoughtful and competent, easy to live with.

The Stage Of Young Men

There is a third stage that John describes. He started with the youngest stage, jumped to the oldest stage, but then there is a third stage that is in the middle. He describes it as young men . In the middle of verse 13 he said:

I John 2:

13I write unto you, fathers, because ye have known him that is from the beginning. I write unto you, young men, because ye have overcome the wicked one…

The major characteristic indicated is that a young man has overcome the wicked one. Obviously, the young man in the picture that John is painting for us is that Christian who is beyond infancy stage, but not yet at the maturity stage. Perhaps many of us here today are in that middle stage. We are in the process of maturity. We might be teenagers or young adults, but the mark of those who are growing, who are becoming more and more strong and moving into maturity, is as John says, “They have overcome the evil one.”

What does that mean? Obviously, the evil one is one of the terms the Bible uses to describe Satan, his power and his work. So if there is a group of Christians who are learning to overcome the evil one, it means several things. First, it means that their eyes have been opened as to the nature of our true struggle. In Ephesians, chapter 6, verse 12, Paul says, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood…” and Christians who are maturing, Christians who are young men in the faith, have moved beyond infancy. One of the things that is true of them is they have begun to realize that our struggle is not really with flesh and blood. People are not really our problem. I don't want to step on anybody's toes and I don't have anybody in mind when I say this, but it is a mark of immaturity for a person to say, “You know, if so-and-so would just leave me alone,” or “If I didn't have to put up with so-and-so,” or “If I didn't have to put up with that guy,” or “If I didn't have to put up with that organization, I would be okay in the Christian life. It is people that get me off track.”

Anyone who is growing and maturing as a Christian, John says, has learned how to overcome the evil one, and he has learned that people are not our problem. Our problem is not flesh and blood. Paul goes on to say in Ephesians, chapter 6, verse 12:

Ephesians 6:

12…but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

Our fight is with Satan and with his forces. Obviously, he uses people and he may even use some of the people that we refer to as our problem, but our problem is not really those people. Our problem is what Satan is trying to do with those people. I don't mean those people who are demon possessed or anything like that, I just mean that Satan uses circumstances and people and situations to try to get us off track, and it is a mark of maturity when we come to understand that. Our struggle is not just with these outward circumstances. Our struggle is with Satan and his forces. Since Satan has not been able to succeed in keeping us from coming to know Christ, since Satan has not been able to keep us from getting into the family of God, the next best thing he can do is keep us from growing in that family. The best thing that he can do after we are saved is to keep us from becoming mature and that is what he is after. That is what our problem is in the Christian life, and the one who is maturing has at least begun to realize that. The battle is with ideas, with attitudes, with temptations, with responses, rather than just those outward circumstances. That's where the true battle is. Young Christians, men and women who are considered young men spiritually, have had their eyes opened to the true nature of that struggle, and they are coming to grips with the true nature of our enemy.

Another thing that we know about these young men who have overcome the evil one is that in the process of doing that, they have learned to live deliberately and consistently and step-by-step in fellowship with the Son of God. They have learned to walk at the direction of the Spirit. We have talked about this before, this process of taking a step at a time and responding to what God reminds us of His Word when we face a temptation. The Spirit is there to remind us of the truth that faces that temptation; and as we take a step in obedience to the reminder from the Holy Spirit, we have taken a step in the Spirit. God tells us in Galatians, chapter 5, verse 17, to walk in the Spirit which is a series of steps. The young man has begun to understand that, and he has begun to be able to overcome the wicked one step-by-step, day-by-day, in fellowship with the Lord. Of course, that is the only way we can overcome the evil one—day-by-day, experience-by-experience. We cannot do that in our own might, and those of us who are young men in the Lord at least know that much. We have tried everything that we can to resist in our own strength and we failed; but if we abide in Christ, as we walk in His strength and as we obey His Spirit, we begin to overcome the wicked one. Paul put it in Ephesians, chapter 6, verse 10:

Ephesians 6:

10Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.

Jesus said, “Without Me, you can do nothing,” and young men are those who have begun to learn that and practice that. Notice carefully, though, that these young men are not fathers yet. Fathers, we said, represent the mature Christian. They are not babies, but neither are they fathers. They are on their way to maturity.

This is kind of a technical distinction, and I want to ask you to think carefully with me when I say that these young men are spiritual, but they are not mature yet. Those are two Christian terms that we can easily get confused. There is a lot of confusion in the minds of Christians about this point. There is a big difference between spirituality and maturity. Maturity in Christ is the ultimate goal for Christians. We want to grow up in Christ. We want to be fathers. We want to be mature Christians, and that is what God wants for us. God's aim for you and me is to be grown-up, mature, experienced fathers, to use John's terms. But spirituality, walking at the direction of the Holy Spirit, is the process that brings maturity. We talk about someone's being a very spiritual Christian, and we may mean by that that they are mature; but the Biblical terminology is that spirituality is what leads to maturity. You can't become mature without being spiritual, but there is a difference between the two.

Maturity is produced by time spent in fellowship with the Father in obedience to Him. That is why you can live for years as a Christian and never become mature if you don't spend that time in walking in fellowship with the Lord. It is not just a matter of how long you have been saved; it is what you have done with that time you have been saved.

Think about how this works on a physical level. You fathers, suppose your little boy came up to you and he said, “Daddy, I want to grow up to be just like you. I want to become big and strong like you are, and I want to be a man. I want to be as tall as you are and as big as you are, and I want to do the things you do. How can I do that?” What would you say to that? Of course, you would be happy to hear that, but would you say to that son, “Well, you go out and you try hard to grow and you think about it all the time. Concentrate on growing and try as hard as you can to get big and be stretching and work at it and that is the way to grow.” That is not what we tell our kids, is it? We would say to our son, “Well son, if you eat right and exercise and get enough sleep and rest, you will grow up to be like me. You don't have to give that a lot of thought. You just keep doing the things that lead to growth, and you will grow.” Of course, happily or not, many of us discover that that child grows up to be bigger than we are, and most of us as dads like that. The kids do, too, but we don't grow physically by always being in a growth mode and always thinking, “I am going to get big.” We just do the things that lead to growth physically, don't we?

That is how we grow physically. Now try that in the Christian life because it is equally true. There is no shortcut to being an adult physically and the same things is true spiritually. We grow spiritually by spending time in the Lord's presence, spending time in fellowship with Him. Let's apply this idea of physical growth. We eat right. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” We eat Christ to grow spiritually. Obviously, I don't mean literally, but we take in things about Christ. We read His Word. We read comments on His Word. We grow in knowledge of Him. We think about Him; we talk about Him; we meditate on Him; we communicate with Him; we eat right.

Then we sleep. There is rest in the spiritual life. We begin to believe that God's promises will come true. We rest in His strength. We rest in His promises. We quit struggling and trying to get it all done ourselves. We just ask Him to show us what to do and we rely on His strength. We rest in Him. We exercise. Do you know what spiritual exercise is? I love what Mary said to the servants at the wedding where Jesus did His first miracle of turning water into wine. She said to the servant, “Do whatever He tells you to do.” What a tremendous instruction that was for Mary to give those servants. That is what God says to us: “Do whatever He tells you to do.” Peter tells us that in His Word are contained all things that pertain to life and godliness. That is how we grow. We exercise. We make deliberate decisions, “I am going to do what God tells me to do. I face this thing, and it is not really the way I would like to do it, but I will do it the way God wants me to do it.” We exercise toward godliness.

Paul wrote to Timothy that bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable to all things. So to grow spiritually, we eat right, we rest, and we exercise and we grow spiritually. Look for things to do to serve the Lord. Look for ways to be His servant. Open your eyes to the suffering that is around you, the needs that other people have. Sometimes all you may be able to do for them is to pray for them, but do that. Serve the Lord. Exercise, and when you do, you will discover that you have overcome the evil one or at least you are in the process of overcoming the evil one. You are becoming more like Jesus Christ and you are growing spiritually. Someday you will find that you have come to maturity. You have become an adult Christian. Little by little you have become more like Jesus Christ Who is the most attractive, the most fascinating, the most compelling person who has ever lived on the face of the earth.

We have been talking about the process of spiritual growth here in verses 12 and the first part of verse 13, but we are going to see in our next study that we are going to come back over these same verses because John goes back over these same three stages and he tells us the procedure for growth that is involved in each of these stages. We have touched on them with the young men, but we will see that for infancy and for young men and for fathers there is the procedure that brings that growth that we have only touched on today.

Conclusion

As we wind this up, let me say that maybe there is someone today who is discouraged in their Christian life. You are disappointed in your progress. You need to remember that spiritual life is a step-by-step process. It is a growth process just like physical growth. Don't be like the fad dieter who tries this diet and that diet and winds up gaining back more weight than they lost until they just give up on dieting entirely. The thing to do is not to give up on good health but instead to begin to do the things that lead to good health. Don't give up on your Christian life just because you kept trying and failed and have become disappointed in yourself and maybe in the Christians around you. Get back up and begin to eat right and exercise and get plenty of rest and let the Lord grow you into His likeness.


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