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The Responsibility to Grow

by John Stott

Summary of a sermon preached by John Stott.

So put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander. Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation; for you have tasted the kindness of the Lord. (1 Peter 2: 1-3 RSV)

Some of Peter’s readers, both ancient and modern, may well be surprised to find themselves likened to “newborn babes,” Yet the reason for Peter’s choice of metaphor emerges in 1:23, “you have been born anew.” It is the new birth which makes us resemble newborn babies.

Now the major desire of parents for a newborn child is that he will grow into maturity. Just so, when God our heavenly Father begets us by his Word and Spirit, he has the same expectation. Like newborn babies we are to grow up.

Birth and growth belong together. Growth is impossible without birth and indispensable after it. Yet birth and growth must be distinguished from each other, for birth is an almost instantaneous event..

Of course the embryo develops for months during the period of gestation, and labor may last a few hours. But birth itself, the child’s emergence into independent life, is a sudden and dramatic event. Growth, on the other hand, is a slow and steady process. It takes only a few hours for a baby to be born; but it takes 18 years to attain legal majority, and to attain full physical and emotional maturity may take perhaps 25 years.

The pattern is similar in the Christian life. The new birth (when God begets us or imparts to us anew, spiritual and eternal life) is instantaneous, whether we are conscious of it or not. But it is followed by a lifetime of growth into maturity. It is this responsibility to grow which is our theme today.

Yet the very notion of Christian growth is distasteful to many. Some have such a static view of the Christian life that they neither grow nor expect to grow; they are at a standstill. Others are looking for a second crisis comparable to the new birth and are hoping that by it God will accomplish for them suddenly what he has ordained will grow gradually. So we need to consider carefully what Scripture teaches about the nature and conditions of Christian growth.

1. The Nature of Christian Growth (what it is)

Everybody understands physical growth, and most people have some grasp of the stages of emotional development. But many people have only the haziest concept of what is meant by spiritual growth.

The New Testament authors write of our need to grow in several areas of our Christian life – in knowledge (“grow in…… the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”), in faith (“Lord, increase our faith”), in love (“we exhort you to love one another more and more”) and especially in holiness (“we are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another”).

It is this last kind of growth on which the apostle Peter concentrates. His desire is that we “may grow up to salvation.” Some people are puzzled by this expression. “Surely,” they say “when we came to Jesus in penitence and faith, he saved us? Surely, we may claim (humbly but definitely) that we have already received salvation? How then can Peter write of growing up to salvation?” The answer to this question is that “salvation” is a big, broad and embracing word. It means not only deliverance from the penalty of sin and the judgment of God upon sin, but from the dominion and power of sin as well. In a word “salvation” includes holiness.

So in the first verse of this chapter Peter urges his readers to put away everything inconsistent with their profession to be God’s children – “all malice” (or ill will), “all guile and insincerity” (any form of deceit, pretence or dishonesty), “envy” (harboring jealous thoughts), “and all slander” (backbiting, gossip and speaking evil of people whether to their faces or behind their back). We are to be entirely rid of all these things in thought, attitude, word and deed. “Put them away,” Peter writes, and instead” grow up to salvation.” So these sins are marks of Christian immaturity. Malice, guile, envy and slander are babyish. If our lives are still characterized by such things, it means that we have never grown up.

By contrast, the chief mark of maturity in Christian character is love. “Love one another earnestly from the heart,” Peter has been urging (1:22). This is only logical, because God is love. If God is love, and if by the new birth we have become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), then of course we must exhibit this new nature in our character and conduct. Jesus said so in the sermon on the mount. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.” “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” In other words, since God is himself a peacemaker and loves his enemies, we must be the same. How can we claim to be God’s children, partakers of his nature, if our lives are not marked by love? All self-centeredness, preoccupation with our own silly little selfish ambitions, the inability to relate to other people and the reluctance to give ourselves to serve them are signs of immaturity, if not that we have never been born again. The maturity into which God wants us to grow is the maturity of love.

2. The Conditions of Growth (how it happens)

The two principal conditions for the growth of a child are diet and discipline. Both are stressed in the New Testament.

a} Diet. The first condition for the healthy development of a newborn baby is the regularity of a right diet. It must be right (milk) and regular (every four hours).

Now newborn babes in Christ also need milk. Indeed, we continue to need it even when we are grown up. This milk is not material but “spiritual” milk for the mind not the body, for the soul not the stomach. Or the Greek word may mean not “spiritual” but “rational” the milk of the Word. Already in 1:23 the apostle has shown that the God-ordained means of the new birth is “the living and abiding word of God” which he later identifies as “the good news which was preached to you” (v. 25). Now this same “word” (God’s revelation of himself in Christ and in Scripture) is the means of growth as of birth. God’s Word is seed causing birth and milk causing growth.

Nothing is more important in the process of Christian growth than the regular, thoughtful assimilation of God’s Word, the disciplined practice of Scripture meditation. We need to learn to sip, savor and digest it every day, indeed to “long for the pure spiritual milk.” The verb “long for” is a strong one, indicating intense desire. It was used, for example, in the Greek version of Psalm 42:1 “as the deer pants for the flowing streams, so my soul thirsts for you, 0 God”. One commentator suggests that the apostle Peter is wanting to describe “the ardor of the suckled child.” He goes on to say that “you have tasted the kindness of the Lord” (quoting Psalm 34:8). He seems to be saying that if we have had a taste, we must go on to get a thirst.

One of today’s most tragic phenomena is the jaded appetite of the average churchman. Once he may have tasted the graciousness of the Lord Jesus. Once he savored the Word of God and found it to be milk and honey. But now? His spiritual palate has become insensitive. He has lost his sense of taste. He no longer thirsts for the pure, spiritual milk. Yet the only people God promises to bless are those who hunger and thirst. If we are conscious of a jaded appetite, there is only one thing to do. We must humble ourselves before God and cry to him to stimulate our appetite until again our mouth begins to water and we thirst for the milk of His Word.

b) Discipline. There is no direct reference in my text to our heavenly Father’s discipline of his children, but it is very plainly taught in Hebrews 12:3-11. Here we are reminded that our heavenly Father loves His children and therefore wants to do them good. He is determined to nurture them so that they grow to maturity, and to this end he disciplines them.

Divine discipline may take a wide variety of forms. Sometimes it is a privation by which he denies us something we want to have, and sometimes a frustration by which he denies us something we want to do. Or it may be physical sickness or pain, or a psychological problem, some “thorn in the flesh” which (although in origin a messenger of Satan) is permitted by God in order to humble us, to make us aware of our dependence on his grace, and to convince us that his strength is perfected only in our weakness.

We must not despise the discipline of the Lord, or allow it to discourage us. When our Father disciplines us, He is treating us like sons. He is disciplining us for our good. True, it is painful for the moment, but “later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have trained by it.”

This willingness to suffer and to be disciplined by suffering is a good test of the strength of our longing for holiness. We say we want to be holy. We talk piously about becoming like Jesus. But are we willing to pay the price? Are we prepared for our heavenly Father to discipline us? Have we reached the point where we can say: “Father, I am in Your hands, like clay in the hands of the potter? Do to me anything You wish, however painful, if only I know that it will do me good, refine my character and transform me into the image of Christ. ”

God’s purpose (eternal, historical and contemporary) is not only to beget us so that we experience a new birth, but that we may grow up to salvation or grow into maturity. It is also the crying need of the church and of the world. My deepest impression in my travels overseas is the urgent need of the church for leaders, men and women who are mature in understanding, faith, love and holiness.

But the most neglected means of growth is that despised and even (at least to some modern young people) dirty word “discipline” – our own self-discipline in daily prayer and Bible reading, and the Lord’s discipline of us whatever form it may take. There can be no development without discipline. It is by discipline that we shall grow into maturity and so be able to serve God, his church and his world.




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Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.

2 corinthians 1:3-4