Birth and Growth by Tony Cooke

Birth and Growth
Tony Cooke

Tony CookeI recently saw what I thought was an interesting quote by the late Dallas Willard, and I posted it on Facebook. His statement was:

"In many seeker-sensitive churches, the focus is on getting people to confess Christ as a basis for going to heaven when they die. I don’t want to diminish the importance of that, because you’re going to be dead a lot longer than you’re alive, so you ought to be ready for that. But it is possible to lose sight of character transformation as a serious element for the people you’re bringing in. We need to do both of those things."

As people responded, I realized that for many, the critical issue was the usage of the phrase “seeker sensitive.” To some, that phrase means an abdication of the gospel and a renunciation of the involvement of the Holy Spirit. To others, it simply means that churches should think through how their message and ministry is coming across to unbelievers, and endeavor to communicate the gospel effectively to them.

With this and other hot-button topics, it is absolutely essential that we define our terms. For example, the term “faith movement” was a bane to some, while to others, it was a blessing. Some saw it as a materialistic, name-it-claim-it attempt to manipulate God, while others saw it as a refreshing emphasis on the integrity of God’s Word and a rediscovery of wonderful, scriptural truths such as our identity in Christ, the authority of the believer, and our redemptive rights and privileges.

When you stop and think about it, it’s not a term itself that’s right or wrong. It’s how we apply the concepts and ideas—whether we stay scripturally accurate—that determines whether we are staying true to God and His Word.

Having said that, please go back to the above quote by Willard, try not to get hung up by the term “seeker sensitive,” and consider what he says.

The insight I thought was helpful in this quote was that our focus, as ministers of the gospel, should include both “new birth” and “growth.” I don’t want to just see people born-again (although I recognize that is primary and essential). I also want to see people grow in Christ, hence, “character transformation.”

These dual, complementary goals of ministry are seen consistently throughout the New Testament.

In Galatians 4:19, Paul said, “My little children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you…” He had labored (in the gospel, by the power of the Spirit) for them to have been born-again to begin with, and now his goal is to see them continue in Christ unto maturity.

In Colossians 1:28-29, Paul states, “Him [Christ] we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus. To this end I also labor, striving according to His working which works in me mightily.”

The dual-focus of new-birth and growth is also seen in Colossians 2:6-7: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught…”

Paul admonished the Romans to, “…be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” (Romans 12:2). The point? While we want people to be Spirit-born, Spirit-filled, and Spirit-led, we also want to promote people being Spirit-formed.
Peter also promoted character transformation/development among those to whom he ministered (2 Peter 1:5-8): “…for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

All spiritual life and growth is a work of the Holy Spirit and is based on the redemptive work of Christ. However, that does not make us passive, distant, or uninvolved observers in the process. Peter said, “…Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby” (1 Peter 2:1-2). Apparently, we have some role in the process. I don’t believe we are our own “source” in any way, but we do cooperate with God, yielding to what He has done for us and is doing in us.

Of course, we look to the ministry of the Word and the Holy Spirit to see the new birth and spiritual growth (or character transformation) take place. It is not something we do apart from Him, but we do have a part to play. Paul said, “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God…” (2 Corinthians 3:5).

When I have the privilege of preaching the gospel and seeing people respond to God, I recognize that “I” did not save that person. What brought about the new birth in that person is the power of the Holy Spirit working on their heart through the gospel. When I teach the word of God and people are helped, strengthened, or grow spiritually, I recognize that “I” am not their source or the real “change agent” in the process, but all of us, as ministers and encouragers, are privileged to be a part of that process. I think this idea is reflected in Paul’s statement, “…we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

Again, the insight I thought was helpful in Willard’s quote was that our focus, as ministers of the gospel, should include both “new birth” and “growth.” May God bless you richly as you labor to see all of God’s plan fulfilled in the lives of people.