Discipleship 101: Three Stages of Spiritual Growth

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Christians are called to “grow up”—that is, to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:15). Sometimes we have growth spurts, but growth tends to be slow and gradual. From day to day, I don’t notice my son growing. But every few months, I wonder, “How did you grow up so fast?” I’m already lamenting, “You’re not a baby anymore!” While there is not an exact point at which a child passes from infancy into youth or adulthood, growth is typically measured in stages. The same is true for spiritual growth.

For centuries, Christian teachers have conceptualized the Christian life in terms of clear stages of spiritual growth. Disciples need goals, or they tend to get stuck. When they do not feel as though their Christian life is headed somewhere—when they think about themselves as just “saved and sanctified and waiting for heaven”—they are likely to end up like teenagers who never move out of their parent’s basement. Unless they understand what it means to be a spiritual adult, they are likely to rely completely on their pastors like teens rely on mom to do the laundry, never realizing that God has something more for them.

Three Stages of Growth in 1 John 2:12–14

T. A. Noble notes that in 1 John 2:12–14, “John gives us the earliest passage in Christian literature referring to distinct stages in growth in the Christian life, those of infancy, youth, and parenthood (2:12–14)”:

12 I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake. 13 I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I write to you, children, because you know the Father. 14 I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.

Basil the Great recognized three stages of growth in the Christian life by reflecting on the patterns of language across the canon of Scripture: “We have been taught in many passages of Scripture that [1] there is one state of the soul which is like a child, [2] another which is like a man in his prime, and [3] another which is like a man who is already old and venerable” (Prov. 13).

There are three distinct stages of growth in the Christian life: childhood, youth, and parenthood.

“For example,” Basil continues, “as we have learned from Paul, the Corinthians were babes; therefore they still needed milk—that is, the introductory and simpler teaching of the gospel—because they could not yet master the solid food of doctrine.”

Second, he describes spiritual adolescents: “That person is young in soul who is perfectly taught in all the branches of virtue, who is fervent in spirit [Acts 18.25], who is eager for the practices of piety, and who being in his prime is vigorous in every way for the performance of good works.”

Finally, he describes spiritual adults or elders: “But that person is old and venerable in soul who has been perfected in prudence. Such was Daniel, who while young in body showed that the honor which intelligence obtains is more respectable than every grey hair. Therefore, the men who were full of wicked days said to him: Come, sit among us, and tell us, for God has given you the right of a venerable elder [Dan 13.50].”

Basil uses young Daniel as an example of a spiritual elder to make it clear that being a spiritual adult is about spiritual maturity, not age. It is possible to be 70 years of age and a spiritual baby. It is possible to be 30 years of age and a spiritual elder.

Let’s consider these three stages of spiritual maturity.

  • Stage 1: Infancy/childhood (“little children”/“children”)
  • Stage 2: Youth (“young men”)
  • Stage 3: Parenthood (“fathers”)

Stage 1: Spiritual Childhood

John identifies “little children” as those whose “sins are forgiven for his name’s sake” and who “know the Father” (Jn. 2:12, 13c). New believers have their sins forgiven and are exploring a new relationship with God as their Father.

Those who are forgiven are also born again or regenerated into God’s family by the Holy Spirit (Titus 2:5; 2 Cor. 5:17). Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:5). As a child is formed in his mother’s womb, a Christian is supernaturally formed by the Spirit in the womb of the Church. In the new birth, those who were dead in sin are given new spiritual life within.

As a child is formed in his mother’s womb, a Christian is supernaturally formed by the Spirit in the womb of the Church.

John’s First Epistle tells us how we can know that we have been born again. We are born of God if we believe that Jesus is the Christ (1 Jn. 5:1), practice righteousness (1 Jn. 2:29), overcome the world (1 Jn. 5:4), and do not keep on sinning (1 Jn. 3:9; 5:18). Moreover, the Spirit witnesses with our spirits that we are children of God: ‘“You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Rom. 8:15). Like an infant who looks for his daddy and cries “Dada!” we have a new upward longing for God—new spiritual desire within.

The new birth is the most radical change that any person can experience. It is a 180-degree turn on the road of life. The believer stops traveling the Way of Death and begins walking on the Way of Life (see Didache Ch. 1). The old life of sin is put to death through baptism, and the believer rises to new life in Christ (Rom. 6:1–4). But despite this glorious change, a new believer is still a spiritual baby.

  1. Babies are immature and self-centered: “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants [nēpios] in Christ” (1 Cor. 3:1).
  2. Babies are ignorant and unskilled: “for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child [nēpios]” (Heb. 5:13).
  3. Babies are unstable and impressionable: “that we may no longer be children [nēpios], tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:14).
  4. Babies need milk: “Like newborn infants [brefos], long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Pet. 2:2).

Spiritual babies are immature, self-centered, ignorant, unskilled, unstable, impressionable, and need milk.

This is understandable. We are not frustrated when children stumble and fall. They need time to learn and grow. But there comes a point at which this behavior is unacceptable. Too many Christians remain babies forever. It is possible to be a Christian for 20 or 30 years and still be a spiritual child. The author of Hebrews expressed his frustration over the delayed maturity of his spiritual children:

About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. (Heb. 5:11–13)

The Hebrews should have been spiritual parents who were mature enough to raise other spiritual children in the church; however, they were still spiritual infants. This is not God’s will! God wants us to grow up!

Stage 2: Spiritual Youth

Spiritual growth is the norm, not the exception. A healthy baby will grow. If a baby is not growing, he is probably malnourished, sick, or dying. A spiritual child should soon grow into a spiritual youth.

Spiritual youth “are strong, and the word of God abides in them, and they have overcome the wicked one” (2:14b, cf. 2:13b). “‘Young men’ refers to those in the stage of completing their full maturity in spiritual understanding” (Karen H. Jobes, ZECNT 1, 2, & 3 Jn.).

Every Christian needs to be closely connected to a local church because we grow in Christ as we are connected to a life-giving body.

When God gives us the Holy Spirit, he connects us to Jesus, the head or source of spiritual life, and to his body, the church. From Christ the head, spiritual life flows to the body. As spiritual life flows, the body grows. This is why it is so important for every Christian to be closely connected to a local church. We grow in Christ as we are connected to a life-giving body.

Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Eph. 4:15–16)

Hold fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. (Col. 2:19)

A spiritual youth is learning to bear mature spiritual fruit (Gal. 5:16–25) and please God more and more (1 Thess. 4:1–5, 9). He is becoming mature in his thinking (1 Cor. 14:20), and developing spiritual discernment as he trains his heart and mind by the word of God:

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Php. 1:9–11)

It is exciting to be a spiritual youth. But just like actual adolescence, it comes with a unique set of dangers.

  1. Youth tend to have more zeal than wisdom. They are like James and John who want to call fire from heaven on Samaritans who did not receive Jesus (Lk. 9:54). They need to give serious attention to the Book of Proverbs: “To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth— Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance” (Prov. 1:2–5).
  2. Youth tend to act like “know-it-alls.” As they increase in knowledge, they may assume that they are experts on Scripture and theology when in fact they have only scratched the surface.
  3. Youth tend to be naive when interacting with others in the body. As they get more involved in the church’s life, they may overreact when they encounter depravity and hypocrisy in the church.
  4. Youth tend to fixate on issues. They lack the maturity to see the big picture and take the long view on matters that frustrate them in the church or in their relationships.

If spiritual youth are humble, teachable, and disciplined as they press on to full maturity in Christ, they will be able to resist delayed adolescence and achieve spiritual parenthood.

If spiritual youth are humble, teachable, and disciplined as they press on to full maturity in Christ, they will be able to resist delayed adolescence and achieve spiritual parenthood.

Stage 3: Spiritual Parenthood

Spiritual fathers “know him who is from the beginning” (2:13a cf. 2:14a). They have a mature and intimate knowledge of God. They are able to think mature thoughts (Php. 3:15).

This is what a pastor desires for every member of the church: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). The maturity of the church is the focus of pastoral praying (Col. 4:12). It is the reason why pastors were given to the church:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ. (Eph. 4:11–15)

Pastors are not primarily called to make spiritual children; they are called to equip believers to be spiritual parents who make disciples.

John refers to mature Christians as parents rather than adults. Mature Christians are able to train others in Christian living.

John refers to mature Christians as parents rather than adults. “His address to ‘fathers’ reflects a call to those who are mature enough to be training others in Christian living” (Jobes). Healthy churches have Christians at every stage of spiritual growth, but they must have spiritual parents. When an unstable and immature spiritual infant or youth tries to train others in Christian living, disaster often ensues. But those who are spiritually stable and doctrinally sound are able to reproduce mature disciples.

In contrast to spiritual babies and spiritual youth,

    1. Parents are stable and reliable. They are “no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves” (Eph. 4:14).
    2. Parents are knowledgeable and able to teach others. They are “teachers,” skilled in the word of righteousness (Heb. 5:12–13), and may qualify to be elders or teachers in the local church, since elders are required to be “able to teach” in addition to having exemplary character (1 Tim. 3:1–7; cf. Titus 1:5–9).
    3. Parents are discerning. “The mature … have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:14).
    4. Parents are wise and have control of their passions.

The church needs more spiritual parents. If your church is filled with spiritual children, be careful of focusing on outreach—bringing more spiritual children into the family of God—instead of discipleship—helping others to learn and obey all that Christ has commanded so that they can become mature and teach others. Without spiritual parents, a church can never be healthy.

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.