By Mark Kreitzer, PhD
College of Theology
June 20, 2019
Spiritual formation can be described as growth from spiritual infancy to mentorship. The Apostle John sets out three stages of spiritual growth in 1 John 2. He indicates that a person enters the first stage of growth when he or she becomes a baby Christian by trusting in the Father though Christ (1 John 2:12-14). As a Christian grows, he or she eventually becomes a young warrior (vs 13b, 14b). After learning spiritual warfare in this stage, a person progresses to become a seasoned warrior and later a father-mentor in the faith (13a, 14a).
Phases and Stages
John discusses the key attributes for each stage. For the child stage, he says, “You have come to know the Father and that your sins have been forgiven for Jesus’ name’s sake” (1 John 2:11). This speaks to every person’s need for a good and wise Father and knowledge that he or she has been once and for all declared righteous and accepted in the beloved.
The second stage, young warrior, results in experiencing that he or she is strong, the memorized Word lives in them and they have fought and overcome the wicked one. This implies learning spiritual warfare and knowing one’s identity and union with Christ in his death, resurrection, ascension along with his present reign over all demonic authorities. The mentor stage involves a deep relationship with the Lord Jesus, he “who is from the beginning” (14a).
An interesting parallel is Paul’s description of the armor of God in Ephesians 6:10-18. Here, Paul uses a similar phrase as John does when he describes the second phase of growth. He writes, “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (6:10). Paul’s summary of God’s armor describes nine pieces in three sets of three. From a practical perspective, each of these correlates with the three growth stages in 1 John 2–three pieces of armor for each growth stage.
Baby Christians need to learn to rely on Father-God’s inerrant truth (“belt of truth”). Second, they need to know they have been declared righteous in Christ and can never come under any accusation or condemnation (“breastplate of righteousness”). Out of this experiential knowledge, baby Christians evangelize (“feet prepared with the Gospel of peace”). As they mature into young warriors, the three pieces of armor repeat themselves at a deeper level. Girding oneself with God’s truth moves into trusting the absolute faithfulness of Father-God’s promises and character (“shield of his faithfulness”). Next, a deep understanding of God’s saving righteousness rebuilds one’s thought life (“helmet of salvation”). Third, the feet ready to evangelize are correlated with the sword of the spoken Word of God.
The mentor stage involves building upon the first two layers of armor. “Praying at all times in the Spirit” involves using God’s faithful Word promises (Ephesians 6:18a). The breastplate and helmet correlate with corporate prayer for all the saints. This is similar to the “turtle formation” used by the Roman army when a whole platoon surrounded themselves with shields that looked like a tortoise from a distance. Finally, Paul asks for prayer for himself, like we should ask, to use his ready feet and the sword of the Word so that he could proclaim the Gospel boldly.
Paul and John challenge us to learn spiritual warfare as we grow from the baby to mentor stage. The second stage is desperately neglected in modern, evangelicalism here, keeping many believers bound in the baby stage and preventing them from maturing into mentors.