Most Assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. – John 12:24
How does a person grow spiritually? How do they grow closer to God? How do they become more effective and better equipped to serve God? How does a church grow? These are important questions because growth is a sign of life. A lack of growth is a sign of death.
The human body goes through constant change during its seasons of life. From conception the human being grows for about nine months in the mother’s womb. Then the little boy or girl is birthed into the outside world. It’s a wonderful sight and should be cause for much celebration. If the child breathes and eats and thrives they progress in life. If they fail to take a breath, eat and thrive they die and life is short. The life of millions of children has been and continues to be cut short in the womb by the willful decision of a parent. This is called abortion. This is tragic.
Once born the young human progresses through infancy, toddling, pre-school, elementary school, adolescence, puberty, teens, and young adult. A human body grows through many changes; cells are used and die and others replenish the body. At around age 25 there is a major transition. Up until this point the replenishing living cells outnumber the dying cells. But at this point the replenishing cells stop keeping up with the dying cells. A deficit of replenishing cells marks the onset of death. Death begins at around age 25. Since the average life expectancy is around 80 years, life is proportionally more about death and preparing for it than it is about life. They say our life expectancy is increasing. Most people can’t live long enough. Death is a dark black hole of uncertainty for many. Many fear death. Death is definitely a big part of life.
Spiritually, death precedes life. In Hebrews it states Jesus came that, “through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Hebrews 2:14-15). Death is a part of life. But we need not fear death. In fact death is a big part of spiritual growth. Spiritually speaking, death precedes life.
Spiritually, death can be an instrument to introduce life. In the gospel of John Jesus demonstrates His power over death when he raises Lazarus from the dead (John 11). This was an incredible miraculous sign since Lazarus had already been dead for four days and his body had already started decaying. But as we continue in the gospel account we see that the death of Lazarus was used by God to draw people to Jesus. Lazarus became an attraction and when people came to see him their interest in the One who had raised him from the dead was perked (John 12:11). Those who had seen Lazarus raised from the dead told others about it (John 12:17). The enemies of Jesus hardened themselves against this sign and sought to kill Lazarus along with Jesus (John 12:9-10). Jesus had the solution to death. Jesus could take death and use it for His glory. Because of this death and resurrection it was being said, “the world has gone after Him!” (John 12:19). The death of Lazarus had become an instrument to bring life to the lost.
Signs get our attention. But the focus should always be on Jesus. Samuel Chadwick (1860-1932), a Methodist evangelist once said, “If God is at work week by week raising men from the dead, there will always be people coming to see how it is done. You cannot find an empty church that has conversion for its leading feature. Do you want to know how to fill empty chapel? Here is the answer: Get your Lazarus.” The key to a growing church is a ministry that raises people from their deadness in sin to new life in Christ (Romans 6:1-4; Ephesians 2:1-9). They came to see Lazarus, but then were introduced to the God of Lazarus; Jesus. Who will come to Jesus for new life, eternal life and then through the transformation of the Spirit become an attraction to bring others to Christ? Lift up Jesus. Be saved and transformed. Come to Jesus! Death precedes life.
As we continue in the gospel account we see more of how the death of Lazarus was used to bring people to Jesus. “Now there were certain Greeks among those who came up to worship at the feast. Then they came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida of Galilee, and asked him, saying, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip came and told Andrew, and in turn Andrew and Philip told Jesus.’ (John 12:20-22). This is evangelism; people coming to Jesus by word of mouth. Philip had a habit of bringing people to Jesus (John 1:41; 6:8, and 9). This really is the primary way that people come to Jesus. The Spirit perks their interest and then puts believers in their path to whom they can ask further directions on how to come to Jesus.
Spiritually, death is relevant to all people. We are in the final week leading up to the cross. Jesus is announcing the time of culmination for His redemptive mission (John 12:23). Jesus addresses these Greeks with a reference to grain and farming illustration. He addressed them in a way they would be able to relate to. To the Jews He referred to Old Testament scripture. To Greeks here He refers to what they could relate to. Jesus speaks a language that people can understand. And really what Jesus speaks about is relevant to all people. He speaks of death.
There is a place for relevance in evangelism. The problem today is that we have used the idea of relevance to edit God’s Holy Scripture and that should never happen. God’s truth, God’s Word, is holy. Our job is to communicate the truth He has revealed in His Word in an understandable way while never diluting or diminishing the truth contained in it. That’s what Jesus did. So should we. But remember, the message is the same: death, burial, resurrection, to eternal life.
Spiritually, death precedes life; death is essential to growth. Jesus communicates a prime principle of spiritual growth. He says, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” (John 12:24). With these words Jesus provides the spiritual principle that death precedes life. There is life in Christ, but we enter into it by dying to self. We come to know this only by God’s grace. It is not something we think up or implement in our own strength. It is a work of God’s grace in and through us. Salvation is a work of God and then offered as a gift of God to be received by faith (e.g. John 6:29; Titus 3:4-7).
Spiritually we must die to self-reliance. We are saved by God’s grace. The dead can’t take credit for anything. The salvation God offers as a free gift is received by faith. Saving faith, by nature, involves repentance. Dying to self begins with repentance. Repentance means having a change of mind. It means turning from. Repentance is a course correction. It involves turning from our sinful lives. It means we admit and confess our sinfulness to God. Repentance involves turning from the idea that we can offset and self-atone for our own sins by doing good works. The Bible is very clear that we can’t work for our salvation (Romans 3:10, 23; Galatians 3:10-13; James 2:10). We have to repent, to die to the idea of relying on ourselves for salvation.
Spiritually death involves repentance. Repentance is a turning from something but it is also turning to Someone. We turn from self-reliance and sin to God through faith in Jesus Christ. We trust that Jesus and Jesus alone atoned for our sins (i.e. paid for us the just penalty incurred by our sins). He did that on the cross (cf. Isaiah 53). He paid our death penalty for us. He died for us so that we would not have to die (2 Corinthians 5:14-21). And it is in His death that we learn about the dying He does require from us. Our dying is tied up with His death (Galatians 2:20). Therefore it is only through faith in the Person Jesus as Savior and Lord that a person can receive new life in Christ. Without Jesus we are dead in our sins. With Jesus we experience eternal life. Jesus referred to this as being “born again” (cf. John 3). The Holy Spirit enters us and gives us spiritual life when we turn from our sins to Jesus as Savior in faith.
This spiritual principle of death precedes life is seen here in the agricultural illustration used by Jesus. A plant grows when a seed is buried in the ground, dies, but then gives birth to the plant. We could look at this scientifically and come up with detailed explanations for all that takes place in the birthing of a plant. But spiritually speaking the death precedes life principle involves a certain amount of mystery. That is because it involves the heart.
Spiritually we must die to self and receive the seed of God’s word. The rudimentary foundational parable Jesus used to communicate His message is the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13; Mark 4; Luke 8). In this parable Jesus speaks of sowing the seed of the word of God. The sown word hits four kinds of hearts. First it hits the rock hard heart of the person who rejects God’s word and won’t let it penetrate at all. This is the hardened atheist. Next it hits the shallow hearted person who responds to the word in a way that appears that they are saved but because of their superficial minimal concern for the word it is never allowed to take root and grow. When a trial hits them, they forsake the Lord and His word. The third soiled heart represents the person who also receives the word but not as something of priority or specialness. They just accept God’s word into their crowded lives and because of the cares of the world the word of God never grows. Remember, no growth, no life. But the fourth heart soil is the good one. This good hearted person receives the word and it takes root and grows. Growth is evidence of life. Only the heart that takes the word and lets it grow in them is the person who is genuinely saved. If there is no growth from the implanted word, there is no life. It’s as simple as that.
Spiritually we die to self and receive the light of God’s word. In the context of Jesus giving the Parable of the Sower He also speaks of the need for light. Generally speaking a plant will not grow without light. God’s word is our spiritual light (Psalm 119:105; cf. also Psalm 19:8l 43:3; Proverbs 6:23; 2 Peter 1:19). If we cover God’s light up, there is no spiritual growth. That is why Jesus said, “Take heed what you hear” (Mark 4:21-25). The seed sown is the word of God. Spiritual growth comes as we take in the light of God’s word. There are no shortcuts or substitutes to the prayerful reading, study, meditation on and sharing of God’s word. Without God’s word there is no seed to germinate; there is nothing to grow.
Spiritually death preceding life involves mystery. Spiritual growth is something that takes place in the hidden recesses of the heart. The only way we know it is happening is by the outward changes that we can see. Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God in terms of planting. He said: “And He said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, 27 and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. 28 For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26-29). Jesus says of the sowing farmer, “he himself does not know how.” There is an element of mystery. Spiritual growth can’t always be explained. The way someone comes to the Lord can’t always be explained. Why a church grows can’t always be explained. What we can know is that when we sow the seed of God’s word He is faithful to produce spiritual growth. That is His promise.
The church has sought growth in many different ways. The church has sought to reduce growth to a formula or a particular “strategy.” There is an entire “Church Growth Movement” that has progressed over the years. The church has sought to grow through entertainment, Madison Avenue types of marketing and by using a lot of bells and whistles to attract people. But you can’t substitute smoke and mirrors for Holy Scripture. You may attract a crowd like that, but there won’t be much genuine spiritual growth. That’s exactly what we see in the church today.
Too often the church has watered down the word of God for fear of offending sinners. The idea is that we draw people in with entertainment or a soft message and then coax them along into deeper truth. The only problem is that they don’t bring the people deeper. Poke a hole in the reverence of Scripture and the breath of the Spirit is let out. With a diminished emphasis on God’s word, all you end up with is a compromised word and misrepresenting what the “church” is according to scripture. This is all an attempt to grow God’s church by human wisdom. It’s foolishness. God’s ways are not our ways (cf. Isaiah 55:8). We need to die to these self-reliant ways.
Spiritual die to self, sow the seed of God’s word and trust Him to work. Jesus speaks of spiritual growth in terms of scattering the seed of God’s word on the ground of people’s hearts. Then it speaks of resting in the Lord. Sow the seed of God’s word. Then as the farmer goes to sleep knowing the seed will grow, we can sleep on it resting in the faithfulness of God that His word will not return void. This is God’s promise. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, and make it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:9-11).
Spiritually, sown seed of the word of God will yield a crop. It may be gradual; “first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head” (Mark 4:28). But it will yield a harvest. We may not know how this happens. Just as we can’t see what happens when a seed is planted, so too we can’t see the workings of God’s word in the heart of a person until it is born. Our responsibility is to sow the seed of God’s word and trust Him to grow new believers. “So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:7). We are “God’s fellow workers” (1 Corinthians 3:9). All of this is a product of God’s grace (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:10-15). Death precedes life is the way God works.
The bottom line is that spiritual growth whether it is individual internal qualitative growth or group external quantitative numerical growth, is all a product of God using His word. It is the Spirit of God using the word of God to birth and build people of God. If we want spiritual growth we have to study, meditate on, pray over, preach, teach and counsel the word of God. Spiritual growth comes via the word of God. Without the word there is not spiritual growth. We have to die to our self-reliant ways and live to Jesus and His word.
Have you been sowing seed for a long time? Praying for a lost loved one who remains lost. Trying to train up a child in the word of God and they are resistant? Sharing the word with a friend, neighbor, family member and they just aren’t receptive? I want to encourage you to keep sowing the word of God. Sometimes a seed sprouts growth overnight like a Chia Pet. But sometimes, like palm trees, the seeds can take years to germinate and grow. Our responsibility is to sow the seed and trust God for the growth. So rather than staying up worrying all night, sow God’s word, and then entrust the situation to the Lord. Go to sleep. Maybe when you wake up there will be a magnificent new plant of a new life in Christ to harvest.