How to Grow Spiritually

By Ryan Itzel

            All people are born dead in their trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1). The severity of man’s condition demonstrates that we are incapable of responding to any spiritual stimuli. Yet God, by the greatness of his love and mercy, made His elect alive by the power of His might through the regenerating work of the Spirit (Titus 3:5). The act of salvation is miraculous and completely of God. But God did not save us that we might live like nothing happened. God’s desire for every Christian is described in Romans 8:29, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” This post will focus on how believers are sanctified through the process of mortification of sin and vivification of the spirit as seen in 1 Peter 2:1-2. 


            Sanctification is the process of being made holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16); it is to be set apart from the way of the world and to walk in the way of our God. J.C. Ryle describes sanctification in this way, 

Sanctification is that inward spiritual work which the Lord Jesus Christ works in a man by the Holy Ghost, when He calls him to be a true believer. He not only washes him from his sins in His own blood, but He also separates him from his natural love of sin and the world, puts a new principle in his heart, and makes him practically godly in life.[1]


Sanctification can be split into two subcategories, mortification and vivification. The former is described in 1 Peter 2:1, which says, “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.” If we are to grow spiritually, we must first remove the entangling sins that infect our lives. Sin is everywhere, and as Paul stated in Romans 7:20, sin dwells in us. Christ died to save us from sin, paying the penalty for our sin, and bearing the wrath meant because of our sin. Yet, as believers,'' we are not without the presence of our unredeemed flesh, which plagues our daily lives. Thus, if we are to practically become more like Christ, we must “put away” the sins of our former ignorance. Peter uses the word “all” 3 times regarding the putting off of former ways. This emphasizes the need to kill sin in its totality. The reason for that is seen in the progression of sin in verse one. Malice (an all-inclusive word for wickedness) leads to deceit, for those who are in sin try to hide it.[2] Deceit leads to hypocrisy, for those who must hide sin also must live a contradicting life. Hypocrisy leads to the envy of the genuine, and envy to the slander of others for prideful puffing up. Sin always multiplies, so the Christian must actively kill sin by the Spirit of God with the Word of God. 

So, how do we actually mortify the flesh? We fight sin by the grace of God through faith. The prophet Habakkuk, writing the words of God said, “the righteous shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4), and Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:7, “for we walk by faith, not by sight.” The believer is to live righteously, fighting sin and pursuing holiness by living a life of faith. This is to hear what God has said, to believe what God has said, and to obey what God has said. Often, we fail to kill sin in our lives though we claim to believe God’s Word, because we do not submit to it and obey. Mortifying the flesh means believing that sin is evil and deserving of God’s wrath, and humbly submitting to God through repentance and obedience to God’s Word. Faith is vital for mortification, for without it, we are attempting to be strong in our own strength rather than the might of God (Ephesians 6:10). Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:7, “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.” For any believer to progress his practical holiness to be more like his positional holiness, he must mortify the flesh by faith. 


            Uprooting sin in our lives is a vital part of sanctification. If the Christian does not actively mortify the lusts of the flesh in their totality, holy living will always be far off. Sin is serious, serious enough that Christ went to the cross to atone for it. However, if the Christian lives his life only focused on stamping out sin, the believer will not effectively grow in the faith. The Bible points to another facet of sanctification, the vivification of the spirit. If mortification is the pulling up of weeds, vivification is the planting of seeds. When mortification takes place, the time that was previously spent pursuing the things of this world must be replaced with things of our holy God. Peter says in verse 2 of chapter 2, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation.” Here Peter describes how we replace the passions of our former ignorance with the things of God. 

First, we must acknowledge our need. Verse 2 uses the phrase “like newborn infants.” This shows an emphasis on the fact that all people are weak, and unable to provide for themselves what they need spiritually. As a baby must rely on its parents for nutrition, so must the Christian rely on his heavenly Father for his spiritual need. Next, the believer must “long for the pure spiritual milk.” This is to realize your need but also the source where your need can be met. Peter makes clear what this “pure spiritual milk” is in chapter 1:23, “since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” The Word of God makes the man of God complete (2 Timothy 3:17), it is the power of God to save (Romans 1:16), it is the nourishment by which men live (Matthew 4:4), and it is the guide for the path of a Christian’s life (Psalm 119:105). The thing that makes us grow, sustaining us in our spiritual walk, is the same thing that God used to bring about our spiritual birth, the Word of God. Paul affirms this understanding of the Word of God in Romans 10:17, which says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” The Scriptures are God’s tool for bringing salvation and sanctification to His sheep. Finally, we must not forget our source if we are to grow spiritually. Peter concludes verse 2 with the phrase, “by it you may grow up into salvation.” A baby needs milk if it is to avoid malnourishment. In the same way, Christians must not neglect the Word of God if they are to avoid spiritual immaturity. We must strive to cultivate a pattern of holiness by the power and strength of God. 

Some will say, however, “I read my Bible but am not growing.” Just as mortification is actualized by faith, so too vivification is an act of faith. For us to grow through the Word of God, we must believe what is says. If we come to God’s Word doubting, we doubt the one who authored it. James speaks to this idea of coming to God without faith in James 1:6-8, “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” Though this is in reference to asking God for wisdom, the principle is seen throughout Scripture that coming to God without faith will produce nothing. Hebrews 11:6 tells us, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Therefore, we must long for the spiritual milk of the Word, believing and obeying it by faith.


When a Christian kills his unredeemed flesh by striving to put away sin in its totality and cultivates in his redeemed spirit a longing for the Word of God by faith, the believer will progressively grow to be conformed into the likeness of Christ. Spiritual growth is ultimately a work of the Holy Spirit, but this does not negate the necessity for the believer to strive for holiness (Philippians 2:12-13). We do this by faith in God and all that He has said in His Word. When we walk by faith, believing and obeying what God’s Word says, we will find the power to kill sin and pursue maturity. Thus, by faith mortification and vivification are effective for spiritual growth.

[1] J. C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties and Roots (London: William Hunt and Company, 1889), 23–24.

[2] John MacArthur, The MacArthur Commentary: Unleashing God’s Truth, One Verse at a Time (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 1907.