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Growing to Spiritual Maturity

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“Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection” (Hebrews 6:1 Hebrews 6:1Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on to perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God,
American King James Version×
).

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.

The entire conversion process concerns the wonderful transformation that God—through Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit—makes in us.

Paul wrote that “we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15 Ephesians 4:15But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ:
American King James Version×
, 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 1 Corinthians 14:20Brothers, be not children in understanding: however, in malice be you children, but in understanding be men.
American King James Version×
).

This growth process involves overpowering the pulls of the flesh, replacing them with the character of Jesus 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 1 John 3:9Whoever is born of God does not commit sin; for his seed remains in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.
American King James Version×
, 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 1 John 1:8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
American King James Version×
), 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.

Note this paraphrase translation of 1 John 3:9 1 John 3:9Whoever is born of God does not commit sin; for his seed remains in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.
American King James Version×
: “People conceived and brought into life by God don’t make a practice of sin. How could they? God’s seed is deep within them, making them who they are. It’s not in the nature of the God-begotten to practice and parade sin” (The Message).

A truly converted Christian will stumble and sin at times, but his or her life will be one of striving mightily to avoid sin. This will involve learning not only to resist temptation, but to flee circumstances where one might be tempted into wrongdoing (1 Corinthians 6:18 1 Corinthians 6:18Flee fornication. Every sin that a man does is without the body; but he that commits fornication sins against his own body.
American King James Version×
).

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 this: “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 to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24 Ephesians 4:22-24 22 That you put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; 23 And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; 24 And that you put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.
American King James Version×
, 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 Romans 8:7Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.
American King James Version×
).

The “old self” to whom Paul referred is both our unconverted mind and the individual thoughts and 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 Romans 6:1-4 1 What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? 2 God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? 3 Know you not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
American King James Version×
).

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 Romans 6:16Know you not, that to whom you yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants you are to whom you obey; whether of sin to death, or of obedience to righteousness?
American King James Version×
). 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 Colossians 3:5 Mortify therefore your members which are on the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry:
American King James Version×
, 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 Hebrews 4:12For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.
American King James Version×
).

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 2 Timothy 1:6Why I put you in remembrance that you stir up the gift of God, which is in you by the putting on of my hands.
American King James Version×
). That Spirit can renew us every day and will empower our new nature for the successful fight against sin (2 Corinthians 4:16 2 Corinthians 4:16For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.
American King James Version×
). With the help of His Spirit we can “put to death the deeds of the body” (Romans 8:13 Romans 8:13For if you live after the flesh, you shall die: but if you through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, you shall live.
American King James Version×
).

Some stumble in their fight against sin when they attempt to overcome it by their own strength rather than relying on 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 Romans 7:21I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.
American King James Version×
). 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 that we can live a new, godly life (Galatians 2:20 Galatians 2:20I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
American King James Version×
). We can be redeemed “from every lawless deed” and purified as “His own special people, zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14 Titus 2:14Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify to himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.
American King James Version×
). 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 Ephesians 4:24And that you put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.
American King James Version×
) 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’ ” (Ephesians 4:25 Ephesians 4:25Why putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbor: for we are members one of another.
American King James Version×
).

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 Matthew 12:34O generation of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.
American King James Version×
). James tells us that the unbridled tongue is “a world of iniquity” (James 3:6 James 3:6And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.
American King James Version×
).

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 Proverbs 17:28Even a fool, when he holds his peace, is counted wise: and he that shuts his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.
American King James Version×
). 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 Ephesians 4:29Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace to the hearers.
American King James Version×
, 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 Proverbs 10:11The mouth of a righteous man is a well of life: but violence covers the mouth of the wicked.
American King James Version×
). Our talk should be as “choice silver” (Proverbs 10:20 Proverbs 10:20The tongue of the just is as choice silver: the heart of the wicked is little worth.
American King James Version×
). We should pray to God that our speech be “always with grace” (Colossians 4:6 Colossians 4:6 Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer every man.
American King James Version×
).

We can overcome our base traits by concentrating on upright behavior. Through applying this formula 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 Ephesians 4:31-32 31 Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: 32 And be you kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.
American King James Version×
: “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 our old self with all its corrupt practices, we “give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:27 Ephesians 4:27Neither give place to the devil.
American King James Version×
, 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 1 Thessalonians 5:19Quench not the Spirit.
American King James Version×
) if we refuse its leading and indulge in stealing or corrupt communication such as lying. Satan thrives in such an environment.

But, when we put on the new man led by God’s Spirit, the opposite results prevail. Satan hates godly behavior and cannot prevail in such a setting. God’s Spirit, however, flourishes in a person who strives to live 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 James 4:7Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
American King James Version×
). As Paul explained, “Walk in the spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16 Galatians 5:16This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.
American King James Version×
).

The simplest way to remove the air from a cup 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.

As 2 Peter 1:5-8 2 Peter 1:5-8 5 And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; 6 And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; 7 And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. 8 For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that you shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
American King James Version×
tells us:

“Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (NIV).

This does not mean we will never sin again, for 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 be thankful 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 Philippians 3:13-14 13 Brothers, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth to those things which are before, 14 I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
American King James Version×
).

From the book of Hebrews come these encouraging words: “Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession [the faith we profess]. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16 Hebrews 4:14-16 14 Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. 15 For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.
American King James Version×
).

“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 Hebrews 12:1-3 1 Why seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which does so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, 2 Looking to Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest you be wearied and faint in your minds.
American King James Version×
, NIV, 1984).

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 1 Corinthians 15:50-54 50 Now this I say, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither does corruption inherit incorruption. 51 Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. 53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. 54 So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.
American King James Version×
, REB).

Daniel 12:2-3 Daniel 12:2-3 2 And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.
American King James Version×
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 [the sky], and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever.” (To learn more, please read our free Bible study aid booklet What Is Your Destiny? )

Finally, Paul describes the wonderful conclusion to all that God is doing for us: “We eagerly await a Savior from [heaven], 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 Philippians 3:20-21 20 For our conversation is in heaven; from where also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ: 21 Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like to his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things to himself.
American King James Version×
, NIV).

Therefore, Paul writes in Titus 2:12-14 Titus 2:12-14 12 Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; 13 Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ; 14 Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify to himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.
American King James Version×
, 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.”

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