MSG: Strategy for Grace – Stages of Growth – 1 John 2:12-14

Two weeks ago, my wife and I took my mother-in-law to see her sister in Moline, Illinois on our way up to Minneapolis.  While we visited in Moline, I drove them over to the Farm and Fleet store and went with them inside.  I could see that I could easily be distracted looking at all the neat stuff, but I did not want to buy anything, so I walked out to read in my car.

There were two couples standing in front of the car next to me and one man, who had walked up to the other man, must have asked if the other man was angry. I remember hearing, “If I was angry, I will let you know.” Obviously, the first man must have seen some anger on the part of the other man. The conversation continued about ties (it was hard not to hear the conversation with my windows down!). The second man said, “Well, why didn’t someone tell me everyone else was going to wear a tie? I felt really out of place.” After about five more minutes the two couples parted company.  Is that what church is about, wearing or not wearing a tie?

God is all about growing up spiritually.  What you wear may speak of something about your heart, but your interest of growing in a relationship with Jesus is far more important.  In fact, God is primarily interested in you becoming a spiritual parent. But let us consider the physical growth process.

The conception and birth of a baby is one of God’s greatest miracles.  His infinite wisdom designed the reproduction of human beings.  God’s amazing creation of physical growth has four main stages.

We start out as helpless babies, totally dependent on parents.  The baby infant cannot provide, defend or do anything for himself.  Without caregivers, the baby would die, just like the seed that is cast on the rocky soil, but with loving, nurturing and protecting parents, a baby will survive and thrive. A baby is born with reflex actions like the startle reflex at loud noises, and the grasp reflex when an object is put in his hand. You may notice that lieutenant is reading an army manual.  That’s because the infant is more interested in a calm and soothing voice than content. The infant responds to warm touch, learns by imitating sounds and develops into a thinking, playing and growing child.

The 3-year-old child learns to balance, hop, skip, catch and to take care of necessary needs.  Slowly by imitation, the child learns to print and write, cut and paste, play ball and his most wonderful achievement – playing well with others.  An infant doesn’t know how to play with others.  A child needs to learn how to fish, skate on an icy lake, and go skiing down a mountain. We teach a child the world doesn’t revolve around him. The child is taught responsibilities to be a young adult or the child will remain a child.

The young adult realizes there is a whole world around him and he learns to adjust.  The young adult sees opportunities for education and training and tries to see what he’s good at and where he finds success. A parent may support the young adult in band practice, and celebrating events in relationships. The young adult engages in social conversations, work and refinement of values for living with others.   The young adult learns the importance of behavior that conforms to social values and authority, which is a good thing. However, you can’t consistently count on a young adult. They often do their own thing. Upon learning responsibility and commitment, the young adult leaves his parents and cleaves to a God-given partner and they often become parents.

The parent is the person who assumes responsibility for reproduction and raise children like himself. A key attribute is faithfulness. You can count on parents to be there. Parents die to themselves for the sake of the infant.  They provide unconditional warm touch, constant nurturing and protective care to a helpless infant who needs years of care, protection, instruction and training unto righteousness.

The same is true spiritually.  There are spiritual stages of growth that multiply people for the kingdom.  Without that multiplication, God’s kingdom does not grow.  What is the spiritual growth process of the new Christian?

1)    Unbeliever – Spiritually dead             Eph. 2:1-3

The first spiritual stage is the stage of being an unbeliever.  The unbeliever is spiritually dead. Paul wrote,

And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, 2 in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others. (Eph. 2:1-3 NKJ)

Every person begins life spiritually dead.  That is he is spiritually separated from God. He is able to make decisions between stealing and not stealing as an unbeliever. He is able to make decisions between lying and not lying, but he does so out of his own interests, not in order to obey God or please God. His decisions to not steal or lie, give him no better standing with God.

            Furthermore, in verse two, he walks or lives according to the course of this world, because he is blinded by the god of this world (2 Cor. 4:4).  That “god” or Satan continues to work in the sons of disobedience (the unbelievers). In verse three, Paul wrote, “…among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh…” We all did. The unbeliever does not know Jesus and has not accepted Him as Savior.  He is unbelieving and rebellious toward God.

At the point of salvation, the person becomes a spiritual infant. Every person begins at this spiritual stage.  Whether the person is eight or eighty, he begins as a spiritual infant.

2)    Spiritual Infant – Focused on self     1Thes. 2:7-8; 1 Cor. 3:1-3

As a spiritual infant, this person has accepted Jesus as His Savior and is connected in a relationship environment for the purpose of Biblical discipleship.  He is dependent on others for learning God’s Word. He is focused on himself, but hopefully there are spiritual parents who will come alongside and nurture him with the milk of God’s Word as he grows. Paul wrote,

7 But we were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children. 8 So, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us. (1 Thes. 2:7-8 NKJ)

The spiritual infant is like the nursing babe and must be nurtured or it will not thrive let alone survive. Spiritual parent believers must deny themselves and impart the gospel of God’s Word along with their own lives. As a spiritual parent loves the infant, the infant as a miracle of God becomes very dear.

Yet, every infant is living by his flesh rather than the Holy Spirit.  He is considered fleshly in living or carnal, because he has not been taught or learned to serve and take care of others.  He is not expected to care for others, for he is a babe. Paul wrote about this person,

And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; 3 for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? (1 Cor. 3:1-3 NKJ)

The babe in Christ is not characterized as spiritual, because he does not live by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit indwells him, but does not control him. Rather he lives according to his flesh, because he does not know how to control his flesh. Whatever his flesh wants, he lets others know by crying. He is not able to learn great biblical truths, because as a spiritual infant, he is not able to understand them. You can tell a spiritual infant, because they cause divisions through their envy and strife.

            Yet, if the spiritual babe is nurtured, then he will become a spiritual child and a whole new world opens up to him of excitement, learning and growing in relationships with others. 

3)    Spiritual Child  –  What can I get?      1 Jn. 2:12a,13c; 1 Thes. 2:10-12

The spiritual child is excited to read and learn God’s Word.  He connects with other Christians. He is learning discipleship. Yet, life is often about him in what he wants to learn, how he worships and who he is around him. He is often self-centered, prideful, idealistic and has either a high or low view of self because he lives by pride or emotions. Sometimes there are many discouragements that pull a child down. John wrote, “I write to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for His name’s sake.” (1 John 2:12 NKJ) Often, a child needs the encouragement that his sins are forgiven, because the enemy sows seeds of doubt about his future and his identity.  He knows he messes up, he sins, and he may wonder if he can be used of God. Assurance of forgiveness is a great message of hope to press on. Additionally John wrote, “I write to you, little children, because you have known the Father.” (1 John 2:13 NKJ)

Every child begins to know the Father, because the Father is exhorting him to press on. Every child also needs to be reminded that it is the Father’s plan he is in, so he can trust the Father in whatever he may face. The child must be exhorted to move on and grow up. John wrote,

10 You are witnesses, and God also, how devoutly and justly and blamelessly we behaved ourselves among you who believe; 11 as you know how we exhorted, and comforted, and chargedevery one of you, as a father does his own children, 12 that you would walk worthy of God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory. (1 Thes. 2:10-12 NKJ)

A child needs to be exhorted to God’s purposes instead of the world’s distractions. He needs to be comforted in the face of troubles and charged to forget what lies behind and press on to what lies in the future. A child left by himself will remain self-focused.  A child, who is raised by a godly spiritual parent will learn to walk worthy of God.

If the child will learn to play well with others, learn that life is not about him and learn responsibilities to help others, he will grow up to be a spiritual young adult.

4)    Spiritual Young Adult – Willing to serve       1 Jn. 2:13b,14b; Gal. 5:13-14

The spiritual young adult is moving from self-centeredness to God- and other-centeredness.  He recognizes his part in the body of Christ.  He is becoming equipped for service and mission by interdependence. He learns to push on when discouraged. He is learning faithfulness and responsibility. He is learning those, because that transition is very difficult, yet that is what being a young adult is all about – overcoming the distractions of his flesh and of the devil, while living in the distractions of the world. John wrote, “I write to you, young men, because you have overcome the wicked one.” (1 John 2:13 NKJ) His biggest enemy is the evil one, because the enemy can leave an infant and child to their own selfishness; the devil has bigger fish to catch and fry with the young adult and spiritual parent. 

Now as a young adult, the enemy takes notice and seeks to discourage and defeat the young adult.  However, the young adult who trusts in the Lord Jesus will overcome. John wrote, “I have written to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the wicked one.” (1 John 2:14 NKJ) The young adult is strong, because he is depending on the Lord and he has learned to trust God’s Word.

Paul includes a great warning to the Galatians that is very fitting for the young adult.  The young adult loves his new felt and new found freedom, to which Paul warned that the Christian is not to use freedom for self, but for serving others (Gal. 5:13-14).

Now if the young adult learns to be faithful with his responsibility, he will be motivated to want to pour his life into other people as disciples.  He will become a spiritual parent to reproduce himself for the sake of the kingdom.

5)    Spiritual Parent   – Reproducing                    1 Jn. 2:13a,14a; 2 Tim. 2:2

The key for being a spiritual parent is faithfulness and responsibility.  The spiritual parent can be counted on in ministry and thinks in terms of reproducing.  He can feed himself and intentionally recruits people for personal growth and reproducing disciple-makers on the church team. He deals with the rejection of others and the failures of others who are spiritual babes in Christ, because he has a hope that God will help them grow up to become parents themselves. John wrote about fathers, I write to you, fathers, because you have known Him who is from the beginning.” (1 John 2:13 NKJ) John repeats these exact words, except the “write” becomes “written.” Why does he write the same thing? Because the spiritual parent, or father, is totally focused on pleasing God the Father.  The spiritual parent is willing to face the troubles of discipling spiritual infants and children, because he knows the will of the Father is to help raise the next generation of spiritual parents, who are able to raise the next generation of spiritual parents.

It is not enough to go to church and bring your children.  You must proactively teach your children as well as your disciples, to grow up through learning God’s Word and depending on God the Holy Spirit for spiritual empowerment. 

(These stages are not based on a person’s amount of Bible knowledge, but on growth toward making disciples)

 There are three columns that provide a basic understanding of these different spiritual stages. The first column explains the beliefs, behaviors and attitudes. Notice the characteristics of the spiritual infant stage.

Beliefs, Behaviors  &Attitudes

Unbeliever -Unbelief , rebellion, blind to truth-Belief in one God, but many ways to get to Him

-Anger toward Christians / Church

-Ignorance and or confusion about God, Jesus and the Church

-Misinformed about spiritual/biblical truth; spiritual blindnessSpiritualInfant-Lack knowledge about what they need spiritually and what the Bible says about life-Lack knowledge about or frustrated toward Christianity and the church

-Belief that Christians should make no mistakes ever or they complain

-Unrealistic expectations of others

-Confusion about the Christian life

-Mixing Christianity and other religions and not knowing it.SpiritualChild-Excitement of deeper relationships-They appreciate spiritual changes

-Understand Christian lingo, but:

=Have high expectations of others

=Believe feelings are most important, which leads to spiritual highs and lows

=Compare themselves to others and compete with them

=Lack wisdom how to use what they are learning- for example too aggressive when sharing their faith or too legalistic in their approach to dealing with friends and family

=Believe people do not care for them enoughSpiritualYoung Adult-Desire to serve for others’ good and the glory of God-Feel responsible for how others respond to the gospel message

-Possible pride if a person accepts the message and possible discouragement if they don’t

-Desire to serve but not strategic about how to train others

-Black and white about what should happen in a churchSpiritualParent-Has a coach’s mindset-Wants to see people mature

-Reproduces disciples

-Can feed themselves

-Values the church team

How do you know what stage a person might be in? We are not here to classify people, however, you can tell where someone is by their words and their actions. The second column identifies different phrases that are said from the different stages. Notice the phrases that are often stated from a spiritual infant.

“Phrase” from the Stage

Unbeliever I don’t believe there is a god.The Bible is just a bunch of myths.

Evolution explains away God.

God is just a crutch.

Jesus is only one way.Spiritual InfantI believe in Jesus, but my church is when I’m in the woods.I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.

I gave my life to Jesus and I go to church, but I don’t need to be close to other people.

I pray and read my Bible; that is good enough for me.SpiritualChildI didn’t like the music today.  If only they did it like…”I am not coming to church anymore.  It has become too big; it has too many people.

Who are all these people coming to my Church? Tell them to go somewhere else!

I love my small group; don’t add any more people to it.SpiritualYoung AdultI think I could lead a group with a little help. I have three friends I have been witnessing to, and this group would be too big for them.Randy and Rachel missed group and I called to see if they are okay.  Their kids have the flu, so maybe our group can make meals for them. I’ll start.

I am so exhausted this week I called all sixty men from men’s breakfast to see how they were.SpiritualParentThis guy at work asked me to explain the Bible to him.  Pray for me.We get to baptize someone from our small group tonight. When is the next Belonging class? I want to get her plugged into ministry somewhere.

I realized discipleship happens at home… will you hold me accountable to disciple my kids.

Will you help me as I cast vision for these three guys I have discipled to disciple other guys?

 The third column identifies what the needs are for the different spiritual stages. Every spiritual stage has different needs. Even the spiritual parent has needs. The spiritual parent needs to be in an ongoing relationship with fellow laborers. They face great discouragement from the complaints of spiritual infants and children as children fuss and fight that life is not going their way. They need a church family, where they can bring their disciples to learn how to get along and for encouragement in their own discipleship challenges. Yes, everyone has legitimate needs, which God supplies in His household of faith (Eph. 2:19).

 Spiritual Needs of the Stage

Unbeliever Secure relationship with a growing believerA picture of the real Jesus

Answers, evidences for Christ

An explanation of the gospel

An invitation to receive ChristSpiritualInfantIndividual attention from a spiritual parentProtection

An explanation of truth from God’s Word

An explanation and modeling of the habits of growing believersSpiritualChildA spiritual familyHelp to start feeding themselves

Teaching who they are in Christ

Teaching about how to have relationships with othersSpiritualYoung AdultA place to learn to serveA spiritual parent who will debrief them about ministry

Ongoing encouraging relationships and accountability

Guidance regarding expectations of people they will serve

Spiritual skills trainingSpiritualParentsAn ongoing relationship with co-laborersA church family

Encouragement in discipleship


Do we expect a person who trusts in Jesus Christ, who is over 15, to act in a godly way within a few weeks?  How long does it take to raise a physical baby? We accept them where they are and seek to help them grow.  The question is who is helping whom grow?

God calls each of us to become

spiritual parents.

(Disciple-makers of all the nations Matt. 28:19-20) 

Ask yourself these questions:

In what spiritual stage am I?

There are two warnings. First, it is my generation that is letting America down now.  The previous generation let my generation down, because they did not disciple my generation to godliness. They were more interested in things and my generation of hippie loving, drug dealing, success pursuing orphans were not trained to disciple others. But the previous generation was not discipled either.  Now my generation is enjoying the wealth of this nation traveling all over the world, buying whatever they want and living in luxury and comfort. We need to put a stake down, repent and start making disciples.

Secondly, people think to highly of themselves.  If you interview America, 85% will claim they are committed Christians. If that were the case, then how is it we are in such a downward spiral? I’m not here to categorize you, but to press on to where God wants me.  I’m also going to spur you on to loving Jesus and grow up to be spiritual parents if you are not there. 

Do I know how to grow to the next stage? 

Are those whom I’m discipling in Christ discipling others?

            Jesus calls each of you to be His disciple.  Matthew records, “And He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matt. 4:19) If you seek Jesus and let Him do His work, He will transform your life to become a spiritual parent – one who is discipling those who are discipling others.

            You see, Jesus loves His children. He puts His children under His own commandment. He removes the authority of the Mosaic Law and places His children under a new commandment. He said, “34A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 NKJ) That’s how an infant is going to grow – a whole lot of divine love.  In that love a child grows and learns to abide in Jesus. The growing child and young adult are learning, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5 NKJ)

            Every parent trains his child to the next level, but he cannot take the child farther than he has gone or farther than the child can understand. Jesus said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” (John 16:12 NKJ) Ultimately, the Lord’s purpose is that His family, all the generations of believers worshiping together in a local church be united as one Bride of Christ. He said, “And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one.” (John 17:22 NKJ)

Next week, we’re going to look at how that it done.  In the mean time ask yourself these questions: 

  • In what spiritual stage am I? 
  • Do I know how to grow to the next stage? 
  • Are those whom I’m discipling in Christ discipling others?

Answer those questions to Jesus and He’ll take you to the next level and help you disciple those who are discipling others. God’s goal for you is to disciple others just as Jesus was discipling His disciples, so that they would be ready to disciple others.


Message Based Discussion Questions

 In what physical stage of growth does someone have the most joy?

Digging Deeper:

  • What happens when children do not grow up?
  • How would you help a person to understand the blessing of being a parent? What are some of the challenges of being a parent? How are those overcome?
  • Why is it important to understand the Spiritual needs of each stage?  What are the needs of spiritual infants and children?

Application of the message to life:

  • What are differences between a child and young adult? 
  • What are at least four things you could do to ensure you are growing up spiritually?
  • If you want to be considered spiritually mature, what needs to be true?


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