Forgetting What is Behind and Reaching Towards What Is Ahead: A Framework for Spiritual Growth

Jacob Tanner

green plant on brown soil

There is a quote often wrongly attributed to Winston Churchill, but whose origins appear to be lost, that says, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” There is a great truth to it. It reminds one of the Apostle Paul’s words in Philippians 3:13–14: “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Past accomplishments should not and cannot dictate our futures. Failures must not determine our ends. Faith, courage, and hope firmly rooted in Christ, ultimately, are what count as we strain towards the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. We who are in Christ must press ever onward, toward the goal ahead of us, that we might finish the course of this life with joy and gladness. 

Of course, we ought never forget that our justification by faith alone is the very means of our security in Christ. We are in no danger of losing our salvation. We need not work to stay saved. However, this does not excuse us from actively living out our faith in practical obedience to the Lord; the one who is saved will work as the indication that they have been saved (cf. Eph 2:10; Jas 2:17). This means that our personal development and spiritual growth is essential. We are to never stop growing as Christians. Even elders in the church must strive toward spiritual growth. There’s always more Bible to learn, more habits to improve, more sin to kill, more souls to evangelize, more saints to disciple, and more to be done. If ever we find ourselves thinking that we have made it, or perfected our faith, then we will know that we have missed the mark. 

Consider pastoral leadership. A pastor who stops spiritually growing will eventually stop leading. A pastor cannot expect his people to continue to spiritually grow if he himself has stopped growing. After all, if he has stopped growing, one of two things will happen: either his people will stop caring to grow themselves and thus stagnate in the faith, or they will surpass and leave him behind. 

Yes, pastors must strive toward spiritual growth. But so too must all other Christians. Stagnation is never a positive thing. If a man is running a marathon and decides that he is comfortable where he is, but only ran half the marathon, then the race will remain incomplete. If a mountain climber says that they’re happy to have climbed only three-quarters of the way up the mountain, and now they’re content to stay where they are, then they will likely freeze to death.

So, too, the Christian cannot be content with their current spiritual growth. While we find perfect joy and contentment in Christ alone, we must simultaneously see the many improvements we must make in our walk with Christ and strive to push ever ahead. What then are we to do to forget what’s behind and reach towards what’s ahead? 

Our spiritual Growth Depends on Our Partaking of the Ordinary Means of Grace.

The very first step to take towards spiritual growth is profoundly simple, yet also the most important. In fact, this step ought to be repeated, to various degrees, daily. It holds true for elders, deacons, kitchen cleaners, sound system operators, janitors, children, elderly, and everyone else in between. 

Spiritual growth requires the ordinary means of grace. This means that studying the Scriptures, praying without ceasing, attending church, fellowshipping with the saints, and partaking of the Lord’s Supper are all simple, yet highly effective means of grace that God has gifted us with to mature us in Christ. 

Many miss these ordinary means of grace, though. Some are so busy seeking the next “big thing” that they miss what is lying right before them. They seek thrills and highs, hoping for miracles and revivals, while ignoring the biblical habits that are necessary to shape us into the image of Christ. They spend so much time seeking spiritual highs that they miss the seemingly ordinary things of this life that are actually quite extraordinary. It may seem a small thing to pick up the Bible and study it, and it may even appear to be impossible that doing so would cause any amount of spiritual growth to transpire. Yet, that is exactly what we’re called to do. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). That isn’t a trick, some sort of nasty deception, or a promise contingent upon spiritual elitism. No, the one who puts forth the diligence, effort, and hard work needed to study the Bible will be one who has no need of shame because they can rightly handle the Word. That’s a mark of spiritual maturity. 

Praising God, praying to God, and seeking the will of God are all essential tools too. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess 5:16–18). These are common things that every Christian should be doing. Amazingly, when we do them, we find ourselves in God’s will, and Jesus promised that “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:50). Simply rejoicing in Christ and praying to the Father puts us in God’s will, which brings evidence of the genuineness of our belonging to Christ’s Body. Spiritual growth occurs in moments like these.

Even simply attending church brings spiritual growth! “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb 10:24–25). As we attend church and fellowship with believers, we see iron sharpening iron as we exhort others to love and good works, and they do the same for us. A good church body not only fellowships together but exhorts and challenges one another with the Word to keep growing in the grace of the Lord through obedience to Christ. Not only so, but when we gather with our churches and partake of something like the Lord’s Supper (something we ought not to do alone), we engage in a means of grace that strengthens, encourages, and equips us in our service to Christ and his church.

The key to all of this is understanding that none of these things are a one and done deal. If you read your Bible yesterday, great! Now, do it again today. You prayed earlier? Wonderful! Now continue to pray, for we are to pray without ceasing. You attended your local church last Sunday? That’s good; now you must bring your family again this Sunday, and the Sunday after that, and so on, until the Lord calls us home or returns.

This is not a perversion of adding works to the gospel, or a teaching of legalism. We are truly saved by faith in Christ alone, but these are the tools and weapons of our faith by which God has equipped us to grow. Through these ordinary means of grace, we ought to remain convinced that the Lord will continue to bring about spiritual growth in our lives for His glory (Phil 2:12–13).

Our Spiritual Growth Depends on Humbly Knowing That We Don’t Know It All.

The Christian ought to be one of the first to admit that the more we learn, the less we know. That’s not to say we should adopt some nihilistic posture relating to study or the accumulation of knowledge, but rather that we should realize that our understanding will always be limited. God simply has not revealed all that there is to know to us. In fact, he really has not even revealed all that there is to know of himself. After all, who among us can really begin to fully grasp or fathom the eternality of God? Such a grand doctrine—God’s eternality—demands an honest admittance that our feeble human minds will never fully grasp something so grand and wonderful as this.

Knowing that we don’t know everything produces humility, and humility causes us to submit ourselves more fully to God. Only under submission to him and his Lordship can we truly grow. Whereas pride will cause us to reject the authority of God in favor of our own selfish and sinful ambitions, humility submits us to his will.

We need to learn to humbly depend on God. The knowledge that we don’t know it all, yet God does, is the exact sort of tool needed to point us in this direction. Consider Agur, the writer of Proverbs 30. In verses 2–4 he laments his own lack of knowledge and wisdom, writing, “Surely I am too stupid to be a man. I have not the understanding of a man. I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the Holy One. Who has ascended to heaven and come down? Who has gathered the wind in his fists? Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is his son’s name? Surely you know!”

Here we have a man who devoted himself to the study of wisdom and knowledge. God blessed this man with such great wisdom and knowledge that, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Agur was led to pen a section of God’s inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word. Even more amazingly, the section that Agur penned was placed within the book of Proverbs—the book of Wisdom. Yet, reflecting on all his wisdom and knowledge, Agur was forced to say, “I am too stupid. . . . I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the Holy One.”

This is, of course, hyperbole. If Agur was too stupid, or hadn’t learned any wisdom, or hadn’t gained any knowledge of God, then he would not have been able to pen these words. More importantly, God would not have permitted him to contribute to Scripture if he didn’t know God.

No, it’s not that Agur was more foolish than most or that he knew less than others. On the contrary, his accumulation of wisdom and knowledge must have been wonderful. But when he compared himself, as a creature, to the Creator, he recognized his own short comings and knew he needed the knowledge and wisdom that only comes through knowing Christ and being know by him.

When we humble ourselves to depend on God because we don’t know everything, we will grow in the faith through that same dependence. This is the fertile grounds in which the Holy Spirit loves to sow, plow, and reap spiritual maturity in the saints.

Our Spiritual Growth Depends on Pressing Ever Onward Toward Christ.

Just like Bible study, prayer, church attendance, and the seeking of humility, following Christ is not a one and done deal, either. Jesus’s call that “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24) was not intended to be understood as something we only do once. We don’t just say a prayer, walk an aisle, or sign a card, then say, “I’ll see you when I see you.” Following Christ marks us for the entirety of our lives. Once we step through the Gate and step on the path that is straight and narrow (Matt 7:13–14), there’s no turning back. Jesus will not let us because he cannot lose any of those the Father has given to him (John 6:37).

When Paul said, in 1 Corinthians 15:51, “I die daily,” he meant it. As we press on toward Christ, we are to daily die to selfish ambitions and sinful desires. We are to daily “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt 6:33), because our spiritual maturity depends on it.

Each day, we must proclaim the gospel to ourselves and others. We must defend the faith against those who assault it. We must commit ourselves to Christ and, by his grace, keep striving towards maturity and Christ-likeness in him. Most importantly, we mustn’t permit ourselves to stagnate or wallow in laziness. Like Paul, we “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

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Jacob Tanner

Pastor Christ Keystone Church

Jacob Tanner is pastor of Christ Keystone Church, a Reformed Baptist church plant in Central Pennsylvania. He lives with his wife and two sons and is the author of Union with Christ: The Joy of the Christian’s Assurance in the Doctrines of Grace.