Over the last year or so I have been growing an avocado tree on my windowsill. I think this is my third or fourth attempt, because every time I tried to do this in the past I forgot about it and let the pip shrivel up. Literally, all I had to do was keep the water topped up, but that’s quite a challenge for me! Anyway, the process of watching this pip crack, grow roots, and sprout up has been a helpful illustration as I think about helping others grow in righteousness and love for the Lord.
There is quite a bit that can be unpacked here. Essentially, I want to help us think about what we need to be aware of and remember as we disciple others. It’s important to start by understanding a biblical definition of “righteousness”, as well as examining our own walk with God, before we seek to disciple and help others grow in righteousness.
The word “righteous” shows up at least 550 times in the Bible. However, we must distinguish the two different ways that the Bible talks about righteousness or we will get confused.
The word righteousness is generally used in two ways in the Bible:
1. Righteousness Christ gives us.
2 Corinthians 5:21 clearly says that “He made him who knew no sin (Jesus) to become sin on our behalf, so that we may become the righteousness of God in Him.” This is God’s righteousness that is imputed to us, an incredible gift, through the death and resurrection of Jesus. This righteousness is given to us through justification, the done deal at the cross. When sinners are justified, we are declared righteous through Jesus.
(other related verses: 1 Cor. 1:30; Rom. 1:17; Phil. 3:9)
2. Righteousness to which God calls us.
Once we have been “declared righteous through Jesus” we are called to grow in righteousness—as Jesus says in the sermon on the mount “to hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6). The biblical term for this righteousness is “sanctification”—the outworking of our salvation. We must get the order right though—this only comes after we are saved. If we are truly saved (declared righteous) we will have a deep desire to pursue righteousness.
(other related verses: 1 Pet. 2:24; Rom. 8:4; 1 Cor. 15:34)
It is impossible to grow in righteousness (sanctification) if we have not first been declared righteous through Christ (justification). As 1 John 4:19 says: “We love (only) because He has first loved us.” We can only grow in love for God and others if we first know God’s love for us poured out through Jesus.
Growing in Righteousness
Growing in righteousness and love for the Lord is ultimately a work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. That’s why it’s impossible, if we’re not saved, for us to truly love and grow in righteousness. Just as it would be impossible for me to grow an avocado tree without an avocado pip, water, or adequate sunlight.
However, it may also look, for a time, like we (or others) are growing. The stem starts to sprout, and the leaves appear. But going back to my wee tree—how will I know that this is an avocado tree? When I get avocados! The same is true for the genuine Christian: the proof is in the fruit.
Are we growing in genuine fruits of the spirit? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (in areas it is impossible for us to grow in without the Holy Spirit?) or are we just growing in good deeds, Christian language, Bible knowledge, and legalism?
We cannot grow in righteousness until we have been declared righteous.
Maybe you are reading this and thinking: Well how do I know if I have truly been “declared righteous”? How do I know if I am saved? Or maybe you are involved in discipling a new believer and thinking: How can we tell if their fruit is genuine works of the Spirit rather than empty religion?
Here is one simple sign we should be looking out for in our lives and the lives of those we are discipling: brokenness. Here’s what I mean.
A few weeks into growing my tree, something happened. It cracked right down the middle. I was pretty convinced it was dead, but as I watched it over the next few weeks, I realised this was necessary for the roots to start growing and the shoot to start spouting. The seed had to crack.
As we look at the Bible, we see the exact same pattern. Before we receive the gospel, we must be broken by our sin. We need to have conviction by the Holy Spirit that we are sinners before a Holy God. The only way we can come to Jesus is on our knees, broken by sin, in repentance and faith.
If you feel broken today—if you feel weak, lacking righteousness and love for the Lord but want to change and grow—be encouraged and run to Jesus. It’s there where Jesus meets you. It’s there where you grow, and it’s there where you can be used greatly as a witness to others.
Let me end with this quote:
“The mark of a true Christian is not that she feels righteous, but that she longs to be more righteous than she is.”Colin Smith, Momentum
This is part one of a series on helping others grow in righteousness and love for the Lord. Stay tuned for more!