One of the most interesting aspects of the disciple life is that it consists of constant growth and development. Jesus Himself had to learn obedience while He was a man on earth (Hebrews 5:8), and He underwent spiritual growth: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” Luke 2:52.
Even though the journey is unique and personal for each disciple, there are various stages of development that all disciples go through. Each stage leads deeper into God’s plan of salvation, which transforms us into a new creation – to be like Christ!
The forgiveness of sin and what follows
We start to seek God because He has called us. We become aware of and tired of sin, the world, and the emptiness of life without God. The wages of sin and of the world were a bad conscience and a soul in darkness. We seek God and turn away from darkness, from sin, and from the world, and God receives us. We ask for, and receive forgiveness of sins by faith in Christ Jesus. We are given a chance to start our life with a clean slate.
The consciousness of having our sins forgiven fills us with the joy of salvation. Salvation leads to a genuine love for our Master. It produces a longing to heed His words and follow His footsteps – a longing to become His disciple.
As we begin to obey His Word, we realize that the lusts and desires in our flesh continue to exist after our conversion. We are still tempted as before, and we do not have the strength to break free from them. We are trapped in making the same mistakes and falling in the same weaknesses again and again, and we go to God in prayer to receive forgiveness. God forgives gladly.
Many believers live in this stage without ever making any further progress. They complain about their weaknesses, wandering in the cycle of sinning and forgiveness. They gradually fall into a state of apathy, believe that life cannot be otherwise. Generally speaking, they are content with daily devotions and regular Christian routines. Some of them devote themselves to intensive Christian and charitable work, which gives them a certain degree of joy and satisfaction. The inner, spiritual desire that should have found fulfillment through an inner growth and progress gradually diminishes, and they become rooted in their current stage of development.
When God shows us our weakness, it is not the intention that we remain there. We need to make progress. Receiving the forgiveness of sins is a great gift leading to life, but the intention is to follow Jesus and come to an overcoming life. When we as disciples see our weakness, a desire for power to overcome is awakened in us. We become more and more tired of the cycle of sinning and forgiveness, without real victory. Eventually we come to full acknowledgement of our complete inability to overcome sin in our flesh in our own strength. (Romans 7:15-24) When we no longer trust in our own human strength, we are ready to subject ourselves to God’s will in obedience of faith, and receive the power to overcome that God can provide, and that Jesus promised: the power of the Holy Spirit. (John 14:15-18; John 14:26; John 15:26)
Live and walk in the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is given to each disciple who seeks to do God’s will. Some experience the baptism of the Spirit as a dramatic event. God’s power flows noticeably through the entire body – accompanied by an infinite blessedness that manifests itself in exceeding happiness and joy. For others, the experience of receiving the Holy Spirit can happen more gradually over a period of time. One who has received the Holy Spirit enters a state of spiritual well-being, and there is a danger that he comes to rest in this state, without making the progress that the Holy Spirit was sent to help him come to.
We have a tendency to rejoice over the fact that we are glad, that we have received power, that we have peace. By rejoicing over many victory over outward things, the inner life is often overlooked. But Jesus’ life always goes deeper. He wants to lead us into a deeper acknowledgment so that we can attain to a higher life. That is why Paul exhorts disciples: “If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” Galatians 5:25.
With the Spirit, Christ becomes the motivating force in a disciple’s life. The Spirit gives revelation. Large portions of the Scriptures that had been obscure are now made clear. Striving to serve Christ is being replaced by the motivating power of the Spirit. Now disciples have victory in areas where they previously suffered defeat. The fearful become bold, the weak become strong, and the wavering become assured.
Jesus said that the Holy Spirit shall lead us to the whole truth. (John 16:13) The Holy Spirit reveals more of the sin in disciples’ human nature, which they were not aware of earlier. The Spirit often uses external circumstances to open disciples’ eyes to the depth of pride, impatience, impurity, lack of love, etc. in their flesh, even though they are whole-hearted in following Christ. This leads to poverty of spirit and need, and God’s strength can be made perfect in this weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:9) Disciples follow Jesus’ exhortation to take up their cross, denying their self-will, and dying to sin. The resulting victory is not in their own strength, something to boast of, but the result of obedience to the Spirit and through the power of God. The new creation that results is the work of God alone. (2 Corinthians 5:17; 1 Peter 4:19)
Some believers in this stage draw back because they are afraid to lose what they already have. They want to be strong, but the Spirit brings them to poverty and weakness, which leads to suffering. When they begin to sense the judgment, and joy is blended with suffering, they can ask, “Why is it not as in the beginning when I was baptized with God’s Spirit?” Instead of coming to a deeper life, many become entrenched in their first experiences with the Holy Spirit. They transform these experiences into empty doctrines and emotional worship, continuing to build further on rational conclusions and outward forms, without developing further in the inner life as a disciple.
In order to continue on the way that Christ went, disciples must love the truth and God’s judgment. The eternal and abundant life in Christ can only be obtained at the cost of the disciples’ self-life.