Teaching and Guiding a Rising Generation - Part 1: THE SPIRITUAL BALANCE
Part 1: THE SPIRITUAL BALANCE
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of discipling others is knowing how much time should be committed to the spiritually lethargic. Not every Christian matures as he or she ought to. However, every true child of God will grow and bear fruit to some extent; this is evidence of salvation, Jas. 2. 17. There are various possible reasons for a lack of maturity. The sluggish believer may not be spending time in the word of God as he or she ought, due to a preoccupation with temporal things and activities. Others may be grieving the Holy Spirit through unconfessed sin. Of course, the problem might also lie with the mentor; that is, his or her instruction may be incomplete or inaccurate, or his or her example may be inconsistent. A lack of growth in a believer may well be caused by any combination of the above reasons. Yet other professing believers may not be truly saved at all; these are like the stony and the thorny ground upon which the gospel seed fell in the parable the Lord told, Matt. 13. 1-8. Their outward presentation looks good for a while, but, because there was never any root of faith in their hearts, in time they are shown to be counterfeits.
It is my opinion that those who discontinue discipleship training often do so because they were never truly born again. The shepherd does not want to be guilty of entertaining goats while neglecting the Lord’s sheep, so it is important to assess the spiritual state of the individuals being mentored. Only the Lord knows the heart, and we can easily be fooled in this matter, as I have been many times. However, as the Lord Jesus foretold, Matt. 7. 17-23, there will be many on the Day of Judgement who will learn that knowing about the Lord and doing works in His name are not the same as trusting Him for salvation and following after Him. Those who know Christ as Saviour do works of righteousness for Him, Matt. 7. 21, while those who don’t work to be seen by others, 7. 22. Humility and faithfulness are marks of a believer. A true profession of faith is evident, in time, by good and consistent fruit-bearing, 2 Cor. 7. 10. True believers may indeed fall from time to time, but there is a consistent testimony of God’s life within them which cannot be hidden; a good tree bears good fruit.
With this said, we also don’t expect a baby to be earning income for the family two weeks after birth. In fact, newborns don’t do much more than sleep, eat, cry, and soil nappies/diapers for quite a while. Eventually, however, they begin to smile, then jabber, crawl, and walk; before long, the nappy/diaper brigade transitions into a helpful workforce in the home! Likewise, new Christians need frequent feedings of the sincere milk of the word, 1 Pet. 2. 2, but, in time, they should move on to solid food and become labourers for Christ, Heb. 5. 12-14. So what do you do with someone who has professed Christ, but after months of investment, this person remains spiritually lethargic? Of course, there are many individual variables that should be considered, but Paul does provide us with two truths which bound the answer to this question. The first illustrates the need of patient and persistent care for a spiritual charge; the second addresses the need to commit to reliable people who will be faithful to what they are taught.
‘But we were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children. 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 Thess. 2. 7-8 NKJV
‘Thou therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also’, 2 Tim 2. 1-2.
In these verses we notice Paul’s example of nurturing the Thessalonian believers and his exhortation to Timothy to invest only in those who would be faithful to the truth. Striking the balance between these two bookends is one of the difficult tasks of discipleship. Those who profess Christ as Saviour will require tender care and regular feeding of the sincere milk of the word, that is the rudiments of the Christian faith,1 to encourage their growth, yet maturity must be realized. Maturity is evidenced by a deepening devotion to Christ, being a witness for Christ, spending time in Bible study and prayer, repenting and forsaking sin, and faithfully attending the meetings of the church.
False professors or the apathetic can absorb our time and distract us from fulfilling the great commission. If professing believers do not exhibit spiritual growth after a few months of nurturing, it would be appropriate to commit them to the Lord, and to discontinue meeting with them.2 A shepherd must be like a nurse who cherishes her children, but who also has the discernment to commit to those who will be faithful to what is taught and who will pass on what they know of the Saviour to others.
A new convert’s first year is a critical time. It has been my experience that those who receive good spiritual care in the early months will go on for Christ, while those who are neglected seem to develop lethargic behaviour patterns that cripple their spiritual vigour for life. In the same way that a newborn needs frequent feedings, bathing, nappy/diaper changes, etc. to develop physically, a new believer requires frequent care to mature spiritually. A good spiritual nursery for a newborn in Christ includes a shepherd who lives sound doctrine as an example to follow and is available to spend time with the one being nurtured.3 It is my goal to get a new believer in at least two Bible studies a week, preferably three, for the first six months of spiritual life.
The Lord Jesus exhibited tremendous patience as He prepared Peter to become an apostle. The Lord called Peter to follow Him on three separate occasions and, after each time, Peter dedicated more of himself to Christ. First, Peter forsook his fishing nets to follow Christ at His bidding, Mark 1. 18. Later, Peter forsook all to pursue the Saviour, Luke 5. 11. After Christ’s resurrection, the Lord again called Peter to follow Him, with the understanding that it would cost Peter his life, John 21. 15-19. A few days earlier, Peter had vehemently denied the Lord to protect himself from harm, but it is at this juncture that Peter settled ‘the death question’ once and for all. He had learned that it was harder to live for the Lord than to die for Him. In Acts chapter 2 we do not see a shrinking, denying Peter, but a fully restored, Spirit-filled disciple preaching Christ to the saving of 3,000 souls. The Lord’s patience with Peter is an encouragement to all those who are involved in training others. As previously discussed, a shepherd must be discerning, but also patient and tender. New believers need ‘breathing room’ – don’t try to convict them and conform them to your pattern of Christianity before the Holy Spirit works in their hearts or they might turn into a religious legalist instead of a disciple of Christ. Prioritize needful exhortations; not everything needs to be corrected all at once, and often the less serious matters will resolve themselves as the young believer submits to the leading and conviction of God in his or her life.
Beware of Tumbleweeds
A tumbleweed is created when a densely branched plant, such as amaranth, breaks off from its root at the end of its growing season and then rolls on the ground in whatever direction the wind blows. Tumbleweeds are dead; they have no root. In the same manner, today there are many who just blow from church to church without ever developing a root system. Accordingly, ‘tumbleweeds’ are rarely a productive part of a church meeting. Although these people are quite willing to take part in the privileges of church life, they avoid its responsibilities and shun commitment. Shepherds should be cautious of investing much time in those who will just ‘blow on’ in a year or two.
Over the past twenty-five years, my wife and I have been sharing the gospel, teaching those who respond to it, and witnessing new church meetings begin. In our experience, new believers do not usually cause the problems in the local assembly; rather, contentions typically come from those who ‘bounce around’ from church to church. Initially, ‘tumbleweeds’ may be enthusiastic and energetic, but that excitement can be quickly transposed to some other new idea, movement, or meeting, and in a short time they blow on to the next thing that catches their interest. A new assembly, which requires a group of dedicated believers to see the effort of church planting through its initial difficulties, is better off without ‘tumbleweeds’.
Paul’s example and instruction provides us with guidance as to how much time we should invest into the lives of others. Gentle, personal, and consistent care of newborns is a must; the first six months is key to establishing spiritual patterns for life – we cannot neglect new converts. In time, those who are truly saved will increase in their understanding of scripture and be more apt to following Christ. Those who are not moving forward to maturity must be committed to the Lord and the mentor must move on to help those who will profit from his or her efforts. This is often a painful experience, but our sojourn here is brief and we don’t want to waste what little time we do have on those who are not benefiting from our ministry.
- See 1 Pet. 2. 2; Heb. 5. 12.
- It is important to leave them with an open invitation for further study in the future, should they decide to commit to spiritual things.
- See 2 Thess. 3. 7-9; Acts 11. 25-26.