Biblical Metaphors for Spiritual Growth
We see a lot written in books, some contemporary and some old, concerning spiritual growth and development.
The terms can get confusing.
What terms does the Bible use for spiritual growth? —Ken
The Old Testament describes spiritual growth in many ways, including:
- having one’s way established to keep God’s statutes (Psa. 119:5),
- beholding more wonderful things from God’s word (Psa. 119:18),
- having one’s heart being enlarged to keep His commandments (Psa. 119:32),
- learning from affliction (Psa. 119:71),
- moving from folly and naivety to wisdom and understanding (Prov. 1:22-30), and
- gaining holiness from Yahweh’s discipline (Prov. 3:11-12; cf. Heb. 12:5-10).
The New Testament uses a range of metaphors to describe spiritual growth:
- infancy to adulthood (1 Cor. 3:1; Heb. 5:13),
- immature to mature (1 Cor. 14:20),
- pupil to teacher (Heb. 5:12),
- untrained to trained (Heb. 5:14),
- milk to meat (Heb. 5:13-14),
- elementary to maturity (Heb. 6:1),
- planting to harvest (1 Cor. 3:6),
- some fruit to much fruit (John 15:1-5), and
- foundation to final structure (Eph. 2:20-21).
It also speaks of growth in specific dimensions of the believer:
- knowledge of God (Col. 1:10),
- faith (2 Cor. 10:15),
- grace (2 Pet. 3:18),
- hope (Rom. 15:13),
- love for others (2 Thess. 1:3),
- love for God (Phil. 1:9-11),
- salvation (1 Pet. 2:2),
- body unity (Col. 2:19),
- Christlikeness (Eph. 4:13),
- pleasing God (1 Thess. 4:1),
- perfecting holiness (2 Cor. 7:1; Heb. 12:5-10),
- being renewed in knowledge according to the image of our Creator (Col. 3:10),
- building endurance (James. 1:2-3),
- growing “in every way” (Eph. 4:15), and
- ultimately becoming perfect, complete, lacking nothing (James 1:4).
Beyond its metaphors and specific terminology, Scripture sketches a picture of movement:
- from an old corrupt life to a constantly renewed life (Eph. 4:22-24),
- from purity to greater purity (1 John 3:3),
- from sons of God by adoption (John 1:12) to sons of God by characteristic behavior (Matt. 5:44-45; Luke 6:35; Eph. 5:1),
- from love for others to abounding love for others (1 Thess. 3:12; 4:9),
- from initial sanctification to resurrection perfection with entire sanctification as a notable milemarker on the journey and increasing maturity as a lifelong goal (1 Cor. 1:2; Phil. 3:11-12; 1 Thess. 5:23; Phil. 3:13-15).
The scriptural key to growth is desiring the genuine milk of God’s word (1 Pet. 2:2), receiving the soul saving implanted word (James 1:21), and implementing it (James 1:22). To paraphrase a Chinese saying, we grow by doing. Faith grows by believing despite doubts (James 1:2-3).
Appetite grows with eating. We must graze widely through God’s pastures so that we progress from milk to meat. The untrained have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil (Heb. 5:14).
Yet, growth is not one-sided with all the responsibility on us. Jesus tells His disciples that greater fruitfulness flows from greater dependence upon Him.
“I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
God must cause our love for others to increase and abound so that our hearts are established unblamable in holiness when Jesus returns (1 Thess. 3:12-13).
Growth is a cooperative progress of grace-enabled obedience and Spirit-empowered change. Entire sanctification, vital though it is, does not plateau our growth. As my predecessor, Leslie Wilcox, has noted, there is much territory to be taken “beyond the gate.”
Paul models a commitment to growth beyond entire sanctification and the development of Christlike maturity. He longs to know Christ both in the power of His resurrection and in the fellowship of His sufferings.
Maturity isn’t a place to retire. It is a platform for further growth. “Forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14). This is the mindset of the mature (Phil. 3:15).