Forgetting What is Behind and Reaching Towards What Is Ahead: A Framework for Spiritual Growth
Each day, we must proclaim the gospel to ourselves and others. We must defend the faith against those who assault it. We must commit ourselves to Christ and, by his grace, keep striving towards maturity and Christ-likeness in him. Most importantly, we mustn’t permit ourselves to stagnate or wallow in laziness. Like Paul, we “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
There is a quote often wrongly attributed to Winston Churchill, but whose origins appear to be lost, that says, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” There is a great truth to it. It reminds one of the Apostle Paul’s words in Philippians 3:13–14: “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Past accomplishments should not and cannot dictate our futures. Failures must not determine our ends. Faith, courage, and hope firmly rooted in Christ, ultimately, are what count as we strain towards the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. We who are in Christ must press ever onward, toward the goal ahead of us, that we might finish the course of this life with joy and gladness.
Of course, we ought never forget that our justification by faith alone is the very means of our security in Christ. We are in no danger of losing our salvation. We need not work to stay saved. However, this does not excuse us from actively living out our faith in practical obedience to the Lord; the one who is saved will work as the indication that they have been saved (cf. Eph 2:10; Jas 2:17). This means that our personal development and spiritual growth is essential. We are to never stop growing as Christians. Even elders in the church must strive toward spiritual growth. There’s always more Bible to learn, more habits to improve, more sin to kill, more souls to evangelize, more saints to disciple, and more to be done. If ever we find ourselves thinking that we have made it, or perfected our faith, then we will know that we have missed the mark.
Consider pastoral leadership. A pastor who stops spiritually growing will eventually stop leading. A pastor cannot expect his people to continue to spiritually grow if he himself has stopped growing. After all, if he has stopped growing, one of two things will happen: either his people will stop caring to grow themselves and thus stagnate in the faith, or they will surpass and leave him behind.
Yes, pastors must strive toward spiritual growth. But so too must all other Christians. Stagnation is never a positive thing. If a man is running a marathon and decides that he is comfortable where he is, but only ran half the marathon, then the race will remain incomplete. If a mountain climber says that they’re happy to have climbed only three-quarters of the way up the mountain, and now they’re content to stay where they are, then they will likely freeze to death.
So, too, the Christian cannot be content with their current spiritual growth. While we find perfect joy and contentment in Christ alone, we must simultaneously see the many improvements we must make in our walk with Christ and strive to push ever ahead. What then are we to do to forget what’s behind and reach towards what’s ahead?
Our spiritual Growth Depends on Our Partaking of the Ordinary Means of Grace.
The very first step to take towards spiritual growth is profoundly simple, yet also the most important. In fact, this step ought to be repeated, to various degrees, daily. It holds true for elders, deacons, kitchen cleaners, sound system operators, janitors, children, elderly, and everyone else in between.
Spiritual growth requires the ordinary means of grace. This means that studying the Scriptures, praying without ceasing, attending church, fellowshipping with the saints, and partaking of the Lord’s Supper are all simple, yet highly effective means of grace that God has gifted us with to mature us in Christ.
Many miss these ordinary means of grace, though. Some are so busy seeking the next “big thing” that they miss what is lying right before them. They seek thrills and highs, hoping for miracles and revivals, while ignoring the biblical habits that are necessary to shape us into the image of Christ. They spend so much time seeking spiritual highs that they miss the seemingly ordinary things of this life that are actually quite extraordinary. It may seem a small thing to pick up the Bible and study it, and it may even appear to be impossible that doing so would cause any amount of spiritual growth to transpire. Yet, that is exactly what we’re called to do. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). That isn’t a trick, some sort of nasty deception, or a promise contingent upon spiritual elitism. No, the one who puts forth the diligence, effort, and hard work needed to study the Bible will be one who has no need of shame because they can rightly handle the Word. That’s a mark of spiritual maturity.