Posts Tagged 'immature believers'

1 Corinthians, Part 1

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Paul wrote a number of letters to the large metropolitan church in Corinth. That congregation was in trouble and needed some helpful advice, and it was up to Paul to set them straight.

In chapters 2 and 3, the great apostle writes about three different kinds of people: the person without the Spirit; the person with the Spirit; and infants in Christ.

The person without the Spirit

1 Corinthians 2:14 is a profound verse, and we’ll spend most of our time looking at it and it’s context –

The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. (TNIV)

The non-Christian, or the person without the Spirit, is incapable of understanding “the things that come from the Spirit of God.” What that means is explained in the verses that preceded verse 14.

Paul had been, more or less, defending his preaching and reminding the Corinthians about the basics of Christian doctrine.

Dear brothers, even when I first came to you I didn’t use lofty words and brilliant ideas to tell you God’s message. For I decided that I would speak only of Jesus Christ and his death on the cross. I came to you in weakness-timid and trembling. And my preaching was very plain, not with a lot of oratory and human wisdom, but the Holy Spirit’s power was in my words, proving to those who heard them that the message was from God. I did this because I wanted your faith to stand firmly upon God, not on man’s great ideas. (1 Corinthians 2:1 – 5 TLB)

There arose in the Corinthian church a misunderstanding: Paul did not preach his own ideas while he was with them. The truth was the exact opposite, as Paul pointed out. In fact, he did NOT come to them using “lofty” words and “brilliant ideas.” That’s quite a statement for him to make. He was a highly educated man; a man of broad scholarship and wide learning. But he made a conscious decision to frame his preaching of the Gospel using only divine revelation. Preaching God’s way is always the simplest way to preach, and that was the first characteristic of the apostle’s preaching: it was simple; it was just the Word of God. God have given Paul the Gospel and Paul in turn gave it to the people in Corinth. He didn’t use theological double-talk or oratorical tricks. He side-stepped human philosophy in favor of the simple Word of God.

Here’s the second characteristic of Paul preaching: it was simply Christ-centered. He didn’t tell a lot of stories to prop up the simplicity of Christ crucified. Morris comments:

Preaching the gospel is not delivering edifying discourses, beautifully put together. It is bearing witness to what God has done in Christ for man’s salvation.

Paul’s preaching was also marked by things like concern. The concern was for the people of the Corinthian church, located in a completely pagan and corrupt city. He wasn’t afraid to preach the Gospel there, but at the same time he was aware of the duty he had to perform.

He preaching was also marked with power, that is, the power of the Spirit. Paul understood something many preachers today would do well to remember: a spiritual work must be done by spiritual means. With that in mind, he simply preached the Gospel, in the power of the Spirit. His preaching was not designed to impress people but to win converts and to ground them in the Word of God through the power of the Spirit. This is important. An experience based only on a moving talk or clever arguments can be replaced by the same kind of message from somebody else. But, the Gospel of the Cross of Christ is an objective truth from God’s unchanging and unchangeable Word, given in love through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The person without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit can’t makes sense of the Gospel. To him, it’s essentially gibberish. It’s gibberish because the Gospel – God’s Word – didn’t originate in the mind of any man but in the mind of God.

No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. (1 Corinthians 2:7 TNIV)

God’s wisdom cannot be comprehended by the sinful mind because it’s a “mystery.” As Paul used it, the word “mystery” is not something mysterious or a “who-done-it” story. It’s not a secret. The word “mystery” as used in the Bible refers to something which was not known in the past but is now revealed, and Paul wrote that “we declare” this mystery; the “we” being himself and the other apostles who were preaching the Gospel of the Cross. So Paul’s “philosophy” is God’s wisdom as it pertains to the Cross.

However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived—these things God has prepared for those who love him”— for God has revealed them to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. (1 Corinthians 2:9, 10 TNIV)

Those two verses tell us something incredibly profound that is very disturbing to the modern liberal. According to Paul, there are just some things a person cannot learn using their senses. There are certain deep, spiritual truths that cannot be learned through reading (the eyes) or through hearing (the ears). There are certain things that no human being can grasp simply by human means. So nobody can “find” God by looking for Him and nobody can “learn themselves into salvation.” The things which God has prepared for those who love Him cannot be learned; they are revealed to a person through the Holy Spirit because only the Spirit knows the deep things of God.
That brings us to verse 14 and “the person without the Spirit,” or as the KJV says, “the natural man.” This unfortunate person cannot receive the things of God. Now, he may hear the things of God or he may read the things of God but without the work of the Holy Spirit, they are foolishness to him. The unsaved person finds the preaching of the Cross foolishness; the idea that one must be “born again” is foolishness to him.

The person with the Spirit

The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments… (1 Corinthians 2:15 TNIV)

Remember why Paul wrote 1 Corinthians and this verse will make all the sense in the world to you. He was writing to people caught up in their own pride and boasting.  Here in this church, the wealthy, powerful, and talented people had come to trust in themselves rather than in God. That’s not to say all wealthy and powerful people are in need of these kinds of admonitions, but the temptation for a person with talent and means to rely on those things rather than on God is a great one.

The unsaved person is totally unable to receive God’s Word, but the spiritual man – the born again person – can. The unsaved person judges the Word against the conclusions of his own bias because he doesn’t have the Spirit. By contrast, to the person with the Spirit, the things of the Spirit are plain. The Spiritual person is the opposite to the person without the Spirit because he is a new creation in Christ. His old life – his unspiritual self – is gone, having been replaced with a new nature and having been filled with the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised would “teach them all things” (John 14:26).

This verse goes one step further than we’d expect, however. Not only can Spirit-filled people grasp spiritual things, but they are also capable of making judgments about “all things.” Does Paul mean to say that Christians are smarter than non-Christians? 1 Corinthians is a letter of contrasts: Worldly versus Spiritual, immature versus mature, and so on. The Spiritual person may or may not be more educated than a person without the Spirit, but he has something extra operating in his life: wisdom from above. It’s wisdom and discernment Paul is talking about here. The natural man doesn’t think straight about many things because he is unable to comprehend their true nature and purpose. This person is unable to see things in perspective because he either magnifies these things out of all proportion or their significance escapes him. The spiritual man, though, is able to see things in perspective, judging them against the standard of God’s Word. James wrote about exactly the same thing, but he used different terminology –

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. (James 3:13 – 17 TNIV)

But there’s more. If you think that’s surprising, how about this: The Christian, the spiritual man, is able to “judge,” that is, “investigate and value aright” the unsaved man, but not vice versa. When the unsaved make judgements of the saved, they’re wrong and make fools of themselves. It can’t be otherwise; he knows nothing of spiritual things, so how can he know anything about spiritual people? That’s why, for example, your unsaved friends and co-workers or even family members think you’re odd when you give generously to your church or when you go to church two or three times a week, or when you abstain from certain activities when they don’t see anything wrong with them.

To buttress this view of the saved versus the unsaved, Paul writes that what was true of God is also true of God’s people –

…for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:16 TNIV)

Infants in Christ

The third type of person on earth is introduced in chapter three –

Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere human beings? (1 Corinthians 3:1 – 3 TNIV)

Are all Christians wise like the ones Paul wrote about? The evidence of our own experiences says no; there are plenty of Christians as dull witted as non-Christians. How is this possible?  The answer is simple: There are Christians who are worldly; they behave like people without the spirit, and Paul refers to these folks as “worldly,” or “mere infants in Christ.” These are what J. Vernon McGee calls “they unnatural Christian” or “the unnatural man.”

We learned about the natural man, also we learned about the spiritual man – whom we might call the supernatural man. Here we have the unnatural man. He is unnatural because while he is a Christian, he is still carnal.

The so-called carnal Christian, the “infant in Christ,” is the Christian who hasn’t grown up spiritually and by his worldly behavior he shows that he lacks spiritual discernment. This isn’t because he doesn’t have the Holy Spirit dwelling within; it’s because he is not growing in grace and in the knowledge of Christ. This happens when a Christian has little or no relationship with the Word of God and the Body of Christ. The worldly Christian has the ability to be a wise believer, but no desire to do what he has to do to achieve that wisdom. A baby has the desire to be an adult and to do adult things, but he has to do the things to get there – like drinking milk and eating healthy and getting exercise, and so on.

Lenski’s comments are priceless:

A person of this kind may be “in Christ” yet such a one ought to change this (worldly) condition as soon as possible. To have too much flesh is to have too little of the Spirit or the new life in Christ. Unless the flesh is greatly reduced and the Spirit increased, the latter will soon be smothered and killed.

These “infants in Christ” drove Paul crazy. Here was a prophet; a preacher of the Word whose desire was the desire of every preacher: To lead his congregation deeper into the things of God. But he couldn’t do that with these people! They hadn’t grown up, as evidenced by their baby-like behavior. This put Paul’s ministry with them in a kind of holding pattern. He had to continue spoon-feeing them spiritual baby food because they weren’t ready for the real meat-and-potatoes of the Word.

The logical question we should be asking ourselves is this: What kind of person am I?

Biblical Church Growth, Conclusion

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Here’s what Jesus said about church growth:

And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18 NKJV)

Our Lord made it crystal clear that it is His church and He is One building it. We forget that. The church you attend isn’t “your church.” The church I pastor isn’t “my church.” All churches belong to the Lord. They form His Body – the Body of Christ. Jesus is interested in His church growing, both in terms of spiritual maturity and in numbers, and He has given His church certain gifts to make that growth happen. Jesus builds His church but He does it through its members as they take advantage of the many gifts the Lord has given. Here is a sampling of those gifts:

Some of us have been given special ability as apostles; to others he has given the gift of being able to preach well; some have special ability in winning people to Christ, helping them to trust him as their Savior; still others have a gift for caring for God’s people as a shepherd does his sheep, leading and teaching them in the ways of God. (Ephesians 4:11 TLB)

God has given each of us the ability to do certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, then prophesy whenever you can—as often as your faith is strong enough to receive a message from God. If your gift is that of serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, do a good job of teaching. If you are a preacher, see to it that your sermons are strong and helpful. If God has given you money, be generous in helping others with it. If God has given you administrative ability and put you in charge of the work of others, take the responsibility seriously. Those who offer comfort to the sorrowing should do so with Christian cheer. (Romans 12:6 – 8 TLB)

To one person the Spirit gives the ability to give wise advice; someone else may be especially good at studying and teaching, and this is his gift from the same Spirit. He gives special faith to another, and to someone else the power to heal the sick. He gives power for doing miracles to some, and to others power to prophesy and preach. He gives someone else the power to know whether evil spirits are speaking through those who claim to be giving God’s messages—or whether it is really the Spirit of God who is speaking. Still another person is able to speak in languages he never learned; and others, who do not know the language either, are given power to understand what he is saying. It is the same and only Holy Spirit who gives all these gifts and powers, deciding which each one of us should have. (1 Corinthians 12:8 – 11 TLB)

There are other spiritual gifts, but these are the ones most Christians are familiar with. God has given all Christians spiritual gifts to be used within the context of a local church. These gifts aren’t used in your office or at the library or in line at the grocery store. If you are a Christian, then you have at least one spiritual gift, but probably more than one, that God wants you to use in your church. When church members are obedient to the Lord in using their gift or gifts in their church, then their church will grow. It has to. God said it would.

Mature and immature members

As a church grows in both spiritual maturity and in numbers, all of a sudden there will be a mixture of mature and immature members in that congregation. It takes time for a Christian to become spiritually mature and we all mature at different speeds. Some Christians never mature. These “babes in Christ” love the Lord, they’re born again, they’ll go to heaven if they drop dead tomorrow, but even though they’ve been saved for 25 years, they’re still immature. Who knows why? These “babes in Christ” are the bane of my existence, and they may be yours, too. What do you do with them?

The Bible tells us that we who are strong must bear with those who are weak. Church growth takes place when strong members understand the weakness in others. For example:

  • There will always be a segment of the church that will be immature. They are the new converts who haven’t had time to grow yet. They are the worldly-minded members who make it to services on Sunday but that’s it. They don’t really have a relationship with the Body of Christ outside of that one, single hour on a Sunday. They are the members who rarely study or even read the Bible at home during the week. There will always be members like this in every congregation, and we who are strong must bear with them and help them to grow. We can’t punish them or ignore them.
  • As a church grows, sometimes things can get messy. Proverbs 14:4, in its own quaint way, gives us a precedent: Where no oxen are, the trough is clean; but much increase comes by the strength of an ox. Just so.
  • New members may be rough around the edges. Maybe they’ve had no good Christian role models and no discipleship since they found the Lord. Sometimes these new members are part of families that don’t understand what the Biblical roles of husband/wife/father/mother/children should be.

It takes time for Christians to grow and mature in the Lord and we who are strong must work with them. It’s not just the job of the pastor or of the elders. The apostle Paul – a strong member – understood this:

Now we who are strong have an obligation to bear the weaknesses of those without strength, and not to please ourselves. Each one of us must please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. (Romans 15:1, 2 HCSB)

Spiritually weak and immature Christians are always, without exception, the cause of problems within a local church. That’s not to say that’s their intent, mind you. Sometimes it may be – some immature members are so because they are troublemakers – but generally speaking, in their ignorance these spiritual infants cause problems arising from their immature state. The solution to this problem are the mature believers in the congregation. As Paul wrote, “we who are strong” ought to be the ones reaching out to those who are weak. We are the ones who are to take the initiative. Paul uses the strongest word possible: obligation. The apostle is not making a suggestion here. Strong Christians are to bear with the shortcomings of the weak in love and understanding.

Does this mean if a weak member is engaging in some sin, we who are strong ought to ignore it? Of course not! Paul’s admonition here must be taken in context. Here is what he is getting at. We who are strong may have no issue with, say, listening to secular music on AM radio. But an immature believer may take issue with it – he may view it as being a sinful habit. We who are strong need to take HIS issue into consideration. When he is present, we refrain from turning the radio on. In love, we respect his feelings on the matter. To do the opposite – to keep the secular music blaring while he is present or to make fun of his belief as being infantile – is viewed as “self pleasing” or selfish.

This is what Paul means by “pleasing your neighbor,” or fellow member of the Body of Christ. In time the weaker member, with growth and maturity, may very well change his views on secular music. In the meantime, because we who are strong reigned in our freedom in Christ (to listen to secular music, for example), we kept a weaker member in church; we didn’t offend him and cause him to leave.

I used the example of secular music, but there are hundreds of things as innocuous as that hackneyed example that challenge a weaker believer’s faith.

Restoration

What if a fellow member has fallen into some sin? Does the church simply write him off? Again, we turn to Paul for a dose of ecclesiastical theology:

Dear brothers, if a Christian is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help him back onto the right path, remembering that next time it might be one of you who is in the wrong. Share each other’s troubles and problems, and so obey our Lord’s command. (Galatians 6:1, 2 TLB)

It’s supposed to take a lot of work to be a member of a church! All this caring and respecting; it’s a lot more than just showing up to listen to a sermon. We’re supposed to be watching out for each other’s spiritual well-being. Being a member like that is, as Paul put it, “obeying our Lord’s command.”

To another church, with a whole different set of problems, Paul wrote this pithy admonition:

Dear brothers, warn those who are lazy, comfort those who are frightened, take tender care of those who are weak, and be patient with everyone. (1 Thessalonians 5:14 TLB)

Nowhere in that verse do you see the words “mock” or “cajole.” Instead, we get the impression that, again, the onus is on we who are strong to respect, care for, and love those who aren’t. The tendency is for the strong to expect too much from the weak. No church will grow in that atmosphere.

Don’t get frustrated!

It sounds like the spiritually mature and strong members of a church have a heavy responsibility. They do indeed.

And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith. (Galatians 6:9, 10 NKJV)

Paul wrote that because from time to time we do get tired. It’s not easy being a mature believer sometimes. It takes constant effort. But if you want your church to grow and if you want to honor the Lord, you’ll do what Paul says. You won’t grow weary. You’ll find the strength in your spiritual gifts.

The problem some churches have is that its strong members get weary. And they get frustrated and they get disheartened. Their solution is to just up and leave. They want to find a church where they’ll be appreciated.

But that’s not God’s solution.

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 15:58 NKJV)

Look at the words that describe spiritually mature Christians: “steadfast,” “immovable,” “always abounding in the work of the Lord.” To be “steadfast” means to be “personally faithful,” it means you will “stick to it.” Being “immovable” suggests staying faithful no matter what. It means remaining clearheaded and objective. It means remaining grounded on the Word of God. And “abounding” means that if you are a mature Christian you will always go beyond the minimum requirements. It means you’ll do more than enough.

And you’ll have to. There are plenty of immature believers in our churches and it’s our job to help them grow and mature in the Lord. There are more of them than there are of us. We have our work cut out. But Paul encourages us to keep on doing the work of the Lord; it will pay off.

There is help

…glory be to God, who by his mighty power at work within us is able to do far more than we would ever dare to ask or even dream of—infinitely beyond our highest prayers, desires, thoughts, or hopes. (Ephesians 3:20 TLB)

Whatever you need, God is able to supply in abundance. You need wisdom? He’ll give you more than you think you need. You need strength? He’ll give you more than you ask for. You want to do more for your church and for other believers? God will supply you with what they need.

And that’s why a church that allows the Holy Spirit to move and work within its members is a church that grows, both in spiritual maturity and in numbers.

 


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