Spiritual Growth and the Power of the Word1
“Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for ‘All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.’ And this word is the good news that was preached to you. So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation – if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 1:22-2:3).
In the previous two articles we looked at three characteristics of God’s Word mentioned by Peter in 1 Peter 1:22-2:3. Here we look at the fourth.
(4) It is the catalyst and cause of spiritual growth and maturity (2:2).
Peter is not saying here in v. 2 that the Christians to whom he is writing were newly converted or that they were immature. He says they are “like” newborn infants insofar as they should crave life-sustaining spiritual milk even as a baby craves life-sustaining physical milk from his/her mother. We are all “infants” or “babies” insofar as we’ve all been begotten or born of the sovereign grace of our Heavenly Father.
And it is “by it,” that is, by means of the pure spiritual milk of the Word that we grow up into salvation, that we mature and deepen in our faith, that we come to trust God more and more each day, that we find the strength to resist temptation and the passion to serve the poor and the boldness to reach out to those who have no hope.
God has invested the biblical text with the power to change human lives and transform the experience of the church. If for no other reason we must think about, meditate upon, and study the Word.
This is a truth found in numerous other texts. For example, the Word of God is the spring from which the waters of faith arise. Paul says in Romans 10:17 that "faith comes from hearing" and that hearing comes "by the word of Christ." Skepticism and doubt and anxious unbelief are suffocating the people of God. We desperately need faith and renewed confidence in every promise and purpose of God. But faith doesn’t happen “willy-nilly” or appear miraculously out of thin air like manna from heaven. Faith comes only if and when and to the extent that we hear the word of Christ.
It is from or through the Scriptures that the Spirit imparts perseverance and encouragement. This is Paul’s point in Romans 15:4, "For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” So often we want to jump the chasm between our current discouragement and the promise of hope. What we fail to realize is that God has constructed a bridge, not a catapult, for his people. There is no easy way to be thrust across the valley of despair onto the mountain top of perseverance. It only comes if we are prepared to walk on the bridge of God’s written and revealed Word. The fruit of the vine, in this case perseverance and encouragement, is ours only by laboring in the vineyard of God’s inspired Word. There simply is no supernatural shortcut to endurance. We need a disciplined, systematic diet of the Word if we are going to fight successfully to persevere and not quit.
In a similar vein, Paul declares that it is from or through the Scriptures that joy and peace arise. He prays in Romans 15:13 that God would "fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope." It is only “as” you believe or “because” you believe or “in connection with” believing that these affections become yours. The point is that God will most assuredly not fill you abundantly with these affections if you don’t believe.
Both joy and peace are therefore the fruit of believing, which in turn yields hope. But believe "what"? Belief is confidence placed in the truth of what God has revealed to us in Scripture about who he is and our relationship to him through Jesus. It is a Spirit-induced knowledge and delight in the person of God as revealed in Jesus, a confident assurance of the promises of God, and a joyful reliance on the power of God to grant us all that is necessary for life and godliness.
This is not some ethereal belief that lacks boundaries and substance. The consistent witness of Scripture is that our belief must fix itself in the foundational truths of divine revelation. We believe all and only what God has revealed to us in his Word. We earlier saw in Romans 10:17 and 15:4 that the Word of God is the effectual source of both faith and perseverance. As I said, these virtues don’t fall like manna from heaven. They spring up from the soil of Scripture!
What this means is that “we look to the Word, we ponder, and we plead with God that the eyes of our hearts would be opened to see the superior glory and joy” (John Piper, 105).
The problem is that people want joy, peace, and faith without believing, or at least without the hard work that true believing requires. They expect it as their “spiritual birthright”. They pray for it. They are angry with God when it doesn’t happen. But the Spirit, to a large extent, restricts his faith-awakening, joy-imparting, peace-producing ministry to the Christ-centered Word.
The Word of God also accounts for the on-going operation of the miraculous in the body of Christ. We read in Galatians 3:5, "Does he then, who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?"
The instrument God uses to bring miracles into our midst is the faith that we experience upon hearing the Word of God! When we hear the Word of God (in preaching and teaching and private study), our thoughts and hearts become God-centered; our focus is on his glory and thus our faith in his greatness expands and our confidence in his ability to work miracles deepens, all of which is the soil in which the seeds of the supernatural are sown. Apart from the principles and truths of biblical texts, there will be little, long-lasting, Christ-exalting faith; and apart from such faith there can be no (or at best, few) miracles.
It is the Word of God, expounded and explained and applied, that yields the fruit of sanctification and holiness in daily life. Consider the following, taking careful note of the italicized words.
"And for this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received from us the word of God's message, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe" (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
"In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following" (1 Timothy 4:6).
"For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12).
Finally, and perhaps most important of all, the written and preached Word is the means by which the glory of God is revealed and imparted to those who listen with faith. This we see in 2 Corinthians. 4:3-6. There Paul declares that
“even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
Paul himself literally saw the glory of God revealed in the literal face of Jesus when he was encountered on the Damascus road. That which Paul saw, he now sets forth by means of "the truth" (v. 2) of the gospel addressed to the ears of his hearers (i.e., to the Corinthians, to you and me). When we by grace respond in faith, light from the glorified Christ shines into our darkened hearts (v. 6).
Don't miss this: the glory of God is present in the proclamation of the gospel (4:4-6)! This is why Paul is so appalled at the "peddling" (2:17) and "adulterating" (4:2) of the gospel by his opponents in Corinth. This is not a matter of mere words or a routine speech or a competitive attempt to appear more powerful or persuasive or verbally impressive than the other guy. It is not a platform for a preacher to enhance his reputation or pad his pocketbook or impress people with his eloquence.
A preacher or teacher must never open the Scriptures flippantly or casually, as if setting forth the truths of the gospel were no different from any other form of communication. The same applies anytime anyone shares the gospel with a passing stranger in a restaurant or distributes a tract to a friend. Just think of it: when you speak or write or share the message of the cross, "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God as revealed in the face of Jesus" (v. 6) is shining forth. What an awesome calling we have! What an exquisite treasure we carry (4:7)!
How does the Bible do all these things?
When we meditate on the Scriptures we see inspired portrayals of God’s indescribable goodness that infinitely transcends anything the physical perks of western society can supply.
When we study and muse on the Scriptures we hear infallible promises of God’s abiding presence no matter how lonely we may feel or how often others abandon us in time of need.
When we focus on the Scriptures we are reminded of stories of God’s faithfulness to others who have faced far worse than we have.
When we memorize the Scriptures we are later reminded of his inviolable purpose to bring us into glory through Jesus Christ no matter how resistant people may be or how determined they are to undermine our faith.
When we open our souls to the Scriptures we are alerted to stirring accounts of God’s power to defeat the most vile and vicious of enemies.
When we pray through the Scriptures we are nourished by poetic descriptions of his majesty and grandeur and love and kindness and splendor and glory.
And when we labor to understand the Scriptures we learn of simple and oft-repeated truths about his compassion for his children and his forgiving of their sins and his covenant faithfulness and his singing over them in passionate, heartfelt affection.