Real Spiritual Growth
by Paul Hazelden


Our starting point this morning is a very familiar text: Matthew 28, "The Great Commission".

The commission Jesus gives us is to make disciples'. The is the task of the Church - the central, core task of the Church - which means it has got to be a central concern for each one of us.

Discipleship is about two things: God working in us, and God working through us. The two must go together.

Discipleship is the biggest challenge the church faces. We are to make disciples, but how do we do it? And why are do doing it so badly? Can you imagine what the church would be like if every bleiever was growing the way God intends? What Bristol would be like?

The Two Wings

If discipleship is our goal, perhaps we should look at what we need to do to get there. I believe that the three key activities in the normal life of the Church are prayer, evangelism and social action.

We need prayer, because our activity must be directed by and energised by God. Anything not directed by and energised by God is a waste of time in spiritual terms.

We need evangelism because God loves the world, and desires that everyone should be saved.

We need social action because it is not enough simply to tell people that God loves them - we have to demonstrate that love in the way we live.

The Church is like a bird: in order to fly, it needs two wings. The power to move the wings comes from prayer, and the two wings are evangelism and social action. People must hear and experience the love of God. The experience without the words is not understood; the words without the experience is not believed. Put together, it works.


But if this is what the church ought to be doing, why is it not working? After all, the church does get on with some prayer, evangelism and social action. But still, people are getting saved, but in far too many cases, they are not going on to maturity.

We see this very clearly at the Crisis Centre. A heroin addict who turns to Jesus is still an addict; a person who has no understanding of how to handle conflict other than by violence, when saved may still pick fights.

The problems are clear when the sins are obvious: the new convert is not living in a way that reflects the new life they have in Jesus. They have been justified, but not yet sanctified. They need to be discipled.

We face the same problem in the churches, but it is not so obvious. When nice people are saved, we are not troubled if they continue in their socially acceptable sins.

Of course, some changes do take place when people get saved. But mostly, what we see are external, superficial changes. People change their membership of organisations and social networks: they start to attend church services, housegroup meetings, prayer meetings if they are really enthusiastic; they develop new friends and gradually lose their old ones. But all this can happen without God's involvement.

What does not seem to change as quickly are the deeper issues, such as ethics and goals. Love your neighbour - the people you meet - as you love yourself; love one another as I have loved you. I wonder what our lives would look like if we really tried to live out those two basic ethical commands. Or how about this one - 'seek first the Kingdom of God'? We are allowed to try to be successful in our career, but we have to put the Kingdom before the career. We are allowed to want other people to like us, but we have to put the Kingdom first. We may want to be wealthy, but we have to put the Kingdom first. We may want to use the little money we have to make our lives comfortable and enjoyable, but we have to put the kingdom first.

How much does belonging to Jesus determine the way we relate to all other people and our basic goals in life?

How Does Change Happen?

So the vital issue we face is discipleship. How does change - real, deep, fundamental change - come about? How, in the traditional terminology, does a sinner change into a saint?

The traditional answer is that this change takes place as the sinner makes use of the means of grace. In Catholic circles, this means primarily partaking of the sacraments. In Protestant circles, we identify a few more ways. If you listen to most sermons on the subject of how to grow as a Christian, it generally comes down to some combination of five factors:

But the odd thing is this. While Protestant churches consistently preach these five means of grace, most of them don't actually believe it. If you sign up to a discipleship course, nine times out of ten, or probably more, you will find they adopt the academic model. You won't find it in the Bible, but it is what we do - Protestant and Catholic alike.

Academic training. Firstly, you learn the principles - the theories and doctrines - and then afterwards you put it into practice. Bible Colleges, Theological Colleges and Seminaries all do it this way. All the mainstream denominations require this training methodology for their ministers.

And then the same approach is carried through into the churches. Discipleship courses and programmes are developed and run. Over the years, I have been through several of them. They tend to be little more than a sermon series, delivered to a midweek group, and sometimes backed up by a few practical exercises.

If you ask, why is this being run as a special programme, you often get interesting answers. You might be told that it is deeper teaching, delivered to a committed group of believers, not to the more diverse and often uncommitted people who turn up on Sundays. And when you ask what part of this teaching is not suitable for preaching on a Sunday, you may get accused of being a troublemaker...

The other extreme are the people who tell you all they need is the Holy Spirit. If God has called me, and His Spirit is guiding me, what more can I possibly need? The problem is: change and growth are not easy. It generally requires commitment and discipline; you can't just sit back and assume that God is changing you in all the ways He would like.

There is another way for change to come about, but I will come to that in a minute.

If we go back to the traditional questions and answers for a moment, there is one more to consider. God wants to change us; we have and make use of the means of grace, whatever we understand them to be. So why are our lives not transformed?

The traditional answer is very clear. What gets in the way of God's grace and our growth is Sin. If I can just root out the sin in my life, the God can have His way, and everything will be wonderful. We are, in practice, no different from the Pharisees of Jesus' day, who believed that God's Kingdom would arrive if all Israel could keep the law perfectly for a single day.

This belief is, of course, completely back to front. Repenting of our sin may be the starting point, but living free from sin is the consequence of spiritual growth, not a condition for it to happen. It's like telling people they will never learn anything if they don't have any qualifications.

Back to the question: how does change take place?

The other approach is on the job training. Start doing the job, find out what you need, then get the help, support and training you need to do it better.

The Secret of Spiritual Growth

What do we need for Christian discipleship?

We need an impossible task

If we have a possible task, we can do it ourselves. We don't need God. We don't need to grow spiritually, so we won't.

I need a task that is beyond me, where I do not have the strength to do what I need to do, and even that is not enough to get the job done; where, perhaps, I don't know what needs to be done, or how to do it. But despite all this, it is my task, my calling.

When I don't understand what is happening, when I don't have the answers, when I don't have the strength or the courage I need, then I am driven back to God, to searching the Bible for answers, to relying on the Holy Spirit and the Body of Christ to meet my needs. When I desperately need answers, Bible Study and prayer become vital. When I reach the end of my resources, I know I need the Holy Spirit.

Before anyone gets the wrong idea about this 'impossible' task: it is the full task which is impossible, not every aspect of what you need to do.

In teaching and preaching, I can do many things. I can talk; I can explain the Bible; I can explore the relevance of different passages; and so on. But through my words, no matter how wise or insightful they may be, I cannot change your life. Only God can do that. And He will generally only do it with your cooperation and participation. The purpose of preaching is to see God touching and changing lives, and this is beyond the ability of any preacher. But we preach, because God chooses, sometimes, to take what we say, and use it.

Evangelism is another good example. No evangelist can save a single soul, the task is impossible. But if we do our part, then over and over again we find that God steps in and does a miracle and draws another soul to Himself.

So don't wait to be changed. Don't wait to be trained or equipped. Don't wait until you are holy enough. Get on with living the Christian life as fully as you can today. Get on with serving God and building His Kingdom. Attempt the impossible. As you do this, you will fail, but God will use you anyway. And He can use the failure to show you where He wants to help you change, so you will not fail as badly next time. This, I believe, is the only secret of real spiritual growth.

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