Growing to Spiritual Maturity
Correctly understanding the scriptural truth that the Holy Spirit is God's power that can transform our lives helps us better understand His purpose and will for us.
Paul wrote that "we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ" (Ephesians 4:15, NRSV). He also said, "Brethren, do not be children in understanding; however, in malice be babes, but in understanding be mature" (1 Corinthians 14:20).
This growth process involves overpowering the pulls of the flesh, replacing them with the character of Christ. Where do we begin?
John tells us: "Those who are God's children do not continue sinning, because the new life from God remains in them. They are not able to go on sinning, because they have become children of God" (1 John 3:9, New Century Version) The converted Christian does not habitually practice sin. He has, after all, determined to turn away from sin.
The sense here is not that, as a Christian, we will never sin (1 John 1:8), because we remain human and imperfect and can still be influenced by our nature and the degenerate world around us.
Instead, the sense is that a Christian will not make it his practice to sin. He or she will strive mightily to avoid sin, to the point of fleeing circumstances where one might be tempted into wrongdoing (1 Corinthians 6:18).
In Ephesians 4 Paul presents an easy-to-understand formula for overcoming sin. He illustrates the method with several examples so we may readily comprehend what is involved. When we examine these verses we notice three steps we need to take to shift from a sinful life to one that properly represents God's working with us and in us.
Paul's instruction regarding overcoming our inclination to sin is to "put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and ... put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness" (Ephesians 4:22-24, NIV).
Out with the old
The first step, says Paul, is to "put off your old self." To do this we must realize that the old person is our carnal, selfish nature, which is hostile to God (Romans 8:7).
The "old self" to whom Paul referred is both our unconverted mind and the individual acts of sin that spring from it. As discussed earlier, our former self must be put to a symbolic death through the waters of baptism (Romans 6:1-4).
Over time God can work miracles in changing the worst of us through the transforming power of His Spirit. He can free us from the many sins that imprison us—sins that we may think we can never overcome. We can be released from the bonds that have ensnared us and held us captive.
With God's help we are progressively liberated from a wrong way of life that Paul described as slavery (Romans 6:16). To break free of enslavement Paul tells us to "put to death ... whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry" (Colossians 3:5, NIV).
As we study God's Word, even after we are baptized and converted, we continue to see details of our human nature revealed to us. The Scriptures help us identify changes we still need to make. The Word of God, if we let it, powerfully cuts and penetrates to the core of our being "and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12).
God's Word helps us identify our wrong practices and thoughts (see "Why Bible Study Is Necessary for Spiritual Growth"). We can then turn away from them and think godly thoughts and do godly works. But we cannot do them alone!
We need to stir up the gift of God's Spirit within us (2 Timothy 1:6). That Spirit can renew us every day and will empower our new nature for the successful fight against sin (2 Corinthians 4:16). With the help of His Spirit we can "put to death the deeds of the body" (Romans 8:13).
Some flounder in their fight against sin when they attempt to overcome it by their own strength rather than putting to use the power God makes available through His Spirit. Paul acknowledges this human deficiency. He knew full well the impact of human nature on our conduct. "... Evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good," he wrote (Romans 7:21). This scripture describes the struggle of Paul—and every Christian—between his human nature and his new godly nature.
It is through Jesus dwelling in us (Galatians 2:20) that we can live a new, godly life. We can be redeemed "from every lawless deed" and purified as "His own special people, zealous for good works" (Titus 2:14). With God's help we can overcome.
In with the new
If we strive only to put off the old self, the process of overcoming is incomplete. Now comes the most challenging part. We must, with God's help, build into our character the positive traits that are the opposite of the flaws we have identified. As Paul explained, we must "put on the new self" (Ephesians 4:24) with all its godly attributes. We must focus our attention and effort on the godly behavior we desire to practice.
We must concentrate on the positive to eliminate the negative. This is where the examples Paul uses are so instructive and helpful: "Therefore, putting away lying, 'Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor' ..." (verse 25).
When is a liar not a liar? He doesn't cease being a liar just because he keeps his mouth shut. He is still a liar between lies, so to speak. The only way a liar can demonstrate a change in his character is to "speak truth with his neighbor."
He must put off the old by putting on the new. When a former liar consistently begins telling the truth, his old ways of dishonesty and evasion begin to shrivel up and die. This is what happens when, with the help of God's Spirit, we strive to overcome our old ways of living and replace them with God's ways.
Paul lists another example, that of stealing. When is a thief not a thief? Someone who is not at this moment stealing something may be a thief between jobs. The only demonstrable proof that a thief has changed his ways is if he begins consistently to do the opposite.
Stealing is simply the act of unlawfully taking. The opposite approach to a selfish, thieving attitude is giving. With God's help a thief should learn to work "that he may have something to give him who has need" (verse 28).
Destructive or constructive words?
Paul cites yet another example of the way we communicate. Our tongue is often an accurate indicator of our dominant nature, whether good or bad. Jesus noted that "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matthew 12:34). James tells us that the unbridled tongue is "a world of iniquity" (James 3:6).
Keeping silent so that no corrupt communication slips out may be a step in the right direction. But keeping our mouth shut is not proof in itself that our nature has changed. After all, "even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace" (Proverbs 17:28). Our nature has fundamentally changed when we begin using our tongue in a positive way. "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen" (Ephesians 4:29, NIV).
To overcome the wrong use of speech, we need to ask God, through the power of His Spirit, to help us concentrate on encouraging and building up others instead of berating them or tearing them down. Our words should spring from "a well of life" (Proverbs 10:11). Our talk should be as "choice silver" (Proverbs 10:20). We should pray to God that our speech be "always with grace, seasoned with salt" (Colossians 4:6).
We can overcome our base traits by concentrating on upright behavior. Apply this formula and, with the help of God's Spirit, change becomes a lasting part of our character.
Which spirit will be with you?
God's Spirit is contrasted with the spirit of "bitterness and wrath" in Ephesians 4:31-32: "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you." When we indulge the nature of the old man with all its corrupt practices, we "give the devil a foothold" (verse 27, NIV). When we are kind and forgiving we reflect the Spirit of God.
Perhaps now we can understand why we quench God's Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19) if we refuse the leading of God's Spirit and indulge in stealing or corrupt communication such as lying. Satan thrives in such an environment.
But, when we put on the spirit of the new man, the opposite results prevail. Satan hates godly behavior and cannot prevail in such a setting. God's Spirit, however, flourishes in a person who lives a godly life.
All this beautifully illustrates some simple yet profound truths: When we "submit to God" and "resist the devil," he will flee from us (James 4:7). As Paul explained: "Walk in the spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh" (Galatians 5:16).
The simplest way to remove the air from a glass is by filling it with water. Likewise God can overcome our human nature by filling our minds with His nature and its many wonderful attributes.
This does not mean we will never sin again, because as long as we are physical we remain subject to human weakness. However, we need not become discouraged in the face of our sins. Indeed, we should rejoice that we are mindful of them, because awareness is the first step toward their eradication.
Paul shares with us that he never attained perfection in his efforts to eliminate sin from his life. But he gives us this perspective: "Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:13-14).
From the book of Hebrews come these encouraging words: "Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need" (Hebrews 4:14-16, NIV).
"Therefore ... let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart" (Hebrews 12:1-3, NIV).
Our ultimate transformation
The entire conversion process concerns the wonderful transformation that God—through Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit—makes in us. The final and most dramatic aspect of our transformation will occur at the resurrection of the dead when Jesus returns.
The apostle Paul reveals what will happen to the "called, chosen and faithful" disciples of Christ at that time: "What I mean, my friends, is this: flesh and blood can never possess the kingdom of God, the perishable cannot possess the imperishable. Listen! I will unfold a mystery: we shall not all die, but we shall all be changed in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet-call.
"For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will rise imperishable, and we shall be changed. This perishable body must be clothed with the imperishable, and what is mortal with immortality. And when this perishable body has been clothed with the imperishable and our mortality has been clothed with immortality, then the saying of scripture will come true: 'Death is swallowed up; victory is won!'" (1 Corinthians 15:50-54, REB).
Daniel also speaks of this marvelous occurrence: "And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament [heavens], and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever" (Daniel 12:2-3).
Finally, Paul describes the wonderful conclusion to all that God is doing for us: "... Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body" (Philippians 3:20-21, NIV).
Therefore, says Paul, by "denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works" (Titus 2:12-14).
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