Newton breaks the life of a believer into three basic stages of spiritual growth. It isn’t the Bible, but it is interesting:
- Baby Christians
- Youth Christians
- Adult Christians
A new Christian feels God’s grace and love, but still does not understand it very well… Baby Christians tend to base their justification on their sanctification (rather than visa versa). In other words, they take their confidence that God loves them from their avoidance of major sins, their faithfulness in prayer and growth in Christian knowledge, and especially in their feelings of nearness to God.
When I was first introduced to the great gospel that we stand in, I was filled with zealous passionate joy. But Newton pegged me right. My confidence in my relationship with God was entirely based on my ability to avoid major sins. If I didn’t see myself growing, or if I saw terrible sin in my life I felt discouraged and unsure of His love and affection for me.
There are dangers for this stage. A new Christian who finds themselves failing may find themselves driven to despair of the power of Christ in their lives. They may feel like the gospel has proved untrue. On the flip side, if they find themselves walking in victory over some ‘large’ sin, they may become puffed up with pride and begin to both preach and trust in a gospel of works. They may find it hard to give grace to those who are battling sin around them.
In this stage Christians begin to face troubles and temptations that shake any potential to find their righteousness in themselves. They are forced to face the truth that they are justified by grace alone – and they are forced to grasp this – not just cognitively but in the very desperate depths of their being.
They begin to see the very great depths of their depravity. They see their sinful motivations even in their ‘good’ works.
In other words, we cannot emotionally stand to see our sin unless our consciences are at least somewhat supported by an understanding of justification by grace alone. Without the gospel, a knowledge of how selfish and sinful our hearts are would be too traumatic—we would simply deny it.
This stage reminds me of my favorite Jonathan Edwards quote:
“Though it seems to me, that in some respects, I was a far greater Christian for two or three years after my first conversion, than I am now; and lived in a more constant delight and pleasure; yet, of later years I have had a more full and constant sense of the absolute sovereignty of God, and delight in that sovereignty; and have had more of a sense of the glory of Christ, as a mediator revealed in the Gospel.”
Again, there are dangers. At this stage, some Christians either become angry at themselves or the church. They navigate their way around their own failure by accusing the church of being judgmental, or they just try harder to pull themselves up by their boot straps and get their act together.
Some may find their sense of sin overwhelm’s them and if they do not have a firmly grounded hope in Jesus they will turn to the world or themselves to save them from the feeling of conviction.
This stage is marked by using the gospel on yourself, not just in crises, but in every day life. This produces a deep stability and steady character growth and moves you into more abiding and rich experience of God’s presence in prayer.
Eventually, a Christian has learned not only to face the routine “negatives” with a sense of God’s love, but has also plumbed the depths of his or her own sinful heart and come to profound self-knowledge. And through reflection and prayer, such a Christian has found that the knowledge of sin has not dimmed but brightened his joy in the grace of God. This kind of Christian is now equipped for good and bad times and so is not subject to the great “spiritual mood swings” of [the other stages].
[The Christian has] learned to rest in the finished work of Christ, and has come to see the false trusts and idols that have been the source of pride and insecurity. [They] have learned to use the gospel of the finished work of Christ habitually in their daily lives. As a result, they experience a habitual joy and a quickness to repent with joy.
This stage presents its own dangers. The minute one begins to consider themselves mature, they have revealed their deepest weakness and prove themselves immature.
If we are not moving forward and pressing on toward the prize of Christ we are moving backwards. The minute we become complacent in our relationship with God we are swept down stream.
A routine can settle in and we can mistake that routine for a relationship with the living God.
The encouragement for you today is this: the gospel is real and true and a firm foundation wherever you find yourself. Stand in it today.
How have you seen these stages play out in your own life?