Charles Stanley - Stages of Our Christian Life
The Christian life is not an event, it is a process, it is a journey. It has a beginning, and the truth is it never has an ending because once you and I leave this life as the children of God, forever and ever and ever we'll be walking in the way of the Lord Jesus Christ. And so, when God saved us, He saved us with a purpose in mind. The Bible says in Romans eight twenty-nine that He predestined you and me to be conformed to the likeness of His Son. So, in order for that to happen, then beginning at the moment that you and I were saved, it is His purpose and His plan to grow us up. That is, to grow us in the likeness of His Son.
So, all of the days of our life, you and I should be growing, becoming more and more Christlike in every aspect of our life. And that's what I want to talk about in this message today because I do believe there are stages in our Christian growth, stages in our spiritual walk. And what I want to talk about in this message is "The Stages of our Christian Life".
And so, I want you to turn, if you will, to Second Peter, a little book over toward the back of your Bible. Second Peter chapter three. And in this particular passage, we're admonished to do what the scripture tells us throughout, that we are to be growing in our relationship to our Lord. And so, he says, beginning in the fourteenth verse of the third chapter, having talked about the coming of the Lord and all the things that'll be happening in those days, he says, "Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things," the coming of Christ, the destruction of the earth and so forth, "be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless, and regard the patience of our Lord to be salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you".
Now, listen to what he says about Paul's writings. "As also in all his letters, speaking in them of things, in which are some things hard to understand". Now, if you have read some of Paul's epistles and said, "I'm not sure I understand that". Join Peter because he felt the same way. He says, "Which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. You therefore," brethren, or "beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard lest, being carried away by the error of unprincipled men, you fall from your own steadfastness, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen".
Now, the natural normal course for a person who is a believer is, once they're saved, to begin to grow in their Christian life, that means we grow in our understanding of who the Lord is. We grow in our understanding of how to live the Christian life. Many people will be saved and, somehow, either because they're untaught because nobody admonishes them, because no one encourages them, they just think somehow you trust the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal Savior. That is, you get saved, and then there you are. That's where you stay. That was never the intention of God. It's never the plan of God. But His plan and His purpose is that you and I would continually grow all the days of our life.
And when I think about the tragedy of people being saved and coming to church and just sorta sitting and listening to sermons and praying prayers and giving a little money, and somehow it never dawns on them that this is not enough. It never dawns on them that just being saved's just getting in the door. But there's a whole journey out there from the moment we're saved to the moment we die. That is the believer's journey. That is the believer's walk. These are our challenges in life. This is the period of time in which we grow into Christlikeness. Life is a school for the believer. We're learning how and learning who Jesus Christ is.
And when I think about all the translations that we have, and men of God who can explain and expound the words of God, there are so many ways in which you and I have the privilege of growing today that did not exist forty or fifty years ago. How many Christian bookstores were there then? How many translations of the scripture? We had the King James Version and that was it. And a lot of people read it and said, "I can't understand it," said, "Lay it down". There are so many seminars and books and schools and all kinds of things to help us grow in our Christian life. And yet, the church today is probably no stronger than it was then because God's people are too satisfied, don't have a deep enough hunger for the things of God, growing in the Christian life, learning the ways of God.
Tell me something any more valuable than to be able to know the ways of God. How does He operate? What motivates Him? Why does He do this? Why does He work in this person's life this way? And why that way? Well, I hope today this will help you understand sorta where you are. Because what I want to talk about now are those stages through which our Christian life moves us. Now, I'm gonna ask you to give them back to me, so I want you to memorize 'em quickly and don't be peeping now and cheating when I ask you to tell me what it is. Look me square in the eye and say, "The first one is this, the second one is this".
Don't be looking at your notes, all right, but I want you to take notes. Because somewhere today you've gonna find yourself. Let me say two things preliminary. Number one, this does not mean that everyone goes through this, all these stages at the same rate. It does not mean that it takes everybody the same length of time. It does not mean that you'd look around and say, "Well, I know that I'm more spiritual than he is because I'm in stage five". You just drop down. If that's your case, you just think you're in stage five because you're not there. We're not talking about being more spiritual than someone else. We're talking about our own life, our own personal relationship to our Lord.
So, what is the first stage in a person's spiritual life? Number one is, first stage is unbelief. We all began there. Turn to Ephesians chapter two, and what you'll find is you'll find in Ephesians chapter two the first three stages in our spiritual walk. Because this is where we used to be in some form or fashion. And whether you were saved when you were a child or saved when you were fifty, it makes no difference, because the heart was there and had not been saved.
And so, listen to what he says in verses one through three here. He says, "And you," and I, "were dead in trespasses and sins, in which we formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all so formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest". There's not a single person who can boast of anything for the simple reason we were all lost. So that the first stage of our spiritual life is that we're lost. We're separated from God because of our sin, we're unbelievers. We're just doing what comes naturally. Nobody's taught us the truth. We never heard, maybe didn't hear any gospel. Nobody's explained to us our need of salvation.
So, here's what happened. There came a time in your life when somebody tried to witness to you and you said, "Not interested". "Want you to go with me to church". "Don't give me that stuff". "Do you ever read the Bible"? "Don't try to put a guilt trip on me". And so, you were absolutely uninterested. And so once in a while, maybe you'd turn on the television and some fellow's on there talking about something. Well, you cut it off, change station. You turn on your radio, listen to some kind of music, and all of a sudden, another program comes on and that's religious and you cut that off. Not interested.
And then somewhere along the way, something happens in your life, or somebody really gets to you, and all of a sudden you begin to listen. In fact, a young lady who sat down beside me this morning at the first service that I had helped understand the scriptures and she trusted Christ a few weeks ago. She sat down beside me and she says, "I want you to know that I brought my brother and his wife this morning". And she was so proud to introduce me to them. Then she said to me, she said, "My husband," who would not let her go to church, not interested at first, he said, she said, "My husband's not interested," but she says, "he's asking me lots of questions".
She was so excited because what's happening? He's watching a change in this woman's life. She's been saved by the grace of God. He's beginning to look. And he's beginning to listen. He's beginning to question what's going on. So, what happens? And so, somewhere along the way, somebody got your attention and mine and we began to listen. And we listened for a while, and then we got real interested. And then we wanted to know and thought about our sin and thought about our past and thinking, "God, could You possibly save me"?
There came a moment in time, listen, these were the progressive moments. But there came a moment in time when you, in one single moment, said yes to Jesus Christ, trusted Him as your personal Savior, looked at the cross and recognized He paid your sin-debt in full, and at that moment you received Jesus Christ as your personal Savior. From that moment on, you took the first step in your second stage of the spiritual walk. What is the first stage? Unbelief. We all started there. The second stage is salvation. Because at that moment, you trusted the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal Savior. Maybe somebody tried to explain it to you at first or maybe they didn't do a very good job.
And so, somebody said, "Well, I tried to get saved". Now, I've talked to some people who said, "Well, I've been trying to get saved". Boy, do I like to meet them! Because I want to say, "Your days of trying are over. Let me tell you how to do it. It's simple as it can be. God wants to save you. He wills to save you. He chooses to save you. He died to save you. Now's the time. Let's talk about it". And so there came a time when you made the most important, first most important decision in your life, and that is you trusted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior.
Well, once you trusted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior and you began to understand a few things and you were excited, the Bible says that you became a new creation in Christ Jesus. Old things are passed away, all things have become new. And, you began to think a little different. You wanted to go to church, wanted to read your Bible, wanted to pray. But after a while, you got so that you thought, "Well, you know, I'm not just satisfied doing this". When I think about all that God has done for me in the past, and you look back over your life, and some of you would have to say, "Well, I've wasted so much of my life. I don't want to waste the rest of it.
So much of my life has just been doing what I want to do and doing my thing. God saved me. I want to do something for Him". So, what happens? Brings us to stage number three. And that stage is the stage of service. Because it is natural and normal for a person who has been saved by the grace of God to want to do something for God. Now, back to Ephesians chapter two. Look, if you will, in verse eight. He says, "For by grace you have been saved through faith; that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, lest anyone should boast". So, we know that we were saved by His grace.
Now, sometimes a person may have been misinformed and someone may have said, "Now, trust the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, go to church, do these following things, and you'll be saved". Or, "Be baptized and you'll be saved". No, you were saved by the grace of God. So, let's say that you got that settled in your mind and heart in stage number two. Stage number three comes along, and that's the stage of service. And listen to what he says, if you will, in this tenth verse, "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for," what? For what? "Good works, which God prepared beforehand, that you and I should walk in them".
That is, He not only chose to save us, but He chose that you and I would serve Him in some fashion. You and I would serve Him according to the spiritual gifts and the talents that He's given us. Now, most people do not know how gifted they are and how talented they are and they'll never know until they are willing to step out and let themselves be put in the position whereby they exercise their spiritual gifts and talents. But what I want you to notice here, He says we're His workmanship. That is, God saved you and me. He says for what purpose? For good works. And he says which He foreordained. He prepared beforehand that you and I should walk in them. Before God ever saved you, He had something for you to do, an impact to make, some influence on someone.
It may have been Sunday School teacher. You may have been out in the parking lot assisting people in some way and helping them feel welcome. Or you may be singing in the choir and or playing in the orchestra, teaching Sunday School. There's a thousand things you can do in the Lord's work. Witnessing and sharing, intercessory prayer, helping the poor and so forth, whatever it may be, whatever God has called you to do. There's no such thing as God having saved you and stopped at salvation. There's no such thing as God ever, listen to this, skipping any one of these stages. God doesn't skip stages for anyone.
You see, unbelief followed by salvation is to be followed by service. And here's what He says. He says we are His workmanship created in Christ Jesus, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them, which means it is our lifestyle, our natural, normal lifestyle to serve God. So, when somebody says, "Well, you know, I'm saved and I'm satisfied". Well, you may be satisfied, but you're also in a mess for the simple reason, if you are satisfied, you don't know any more scripture than to be...think that you can be saved and satisfy God and never expend, never exercise those God-given gifts and talents He's given you for His glory, you've missed the point. God has called every single one of us to serve Him. That's one of the stages in the Christian life. It's one that you never get over. Now, what happens when you and I begin to serve the Lord? Well, the fourth stage is frustrated inadequacy.
You say, "Well, my, where did that stage come from"? Just listen, you've been there whether you know it or not. Frustrated inadequacy. Well, what do we mean by that? Simply this: two things, two areas of our life in which we become frustrated, which is a part of God's plan, I believe. Number one, let's say, for example, now that you're serving the Lord. Boy, you're so excited, you get in the choir and, man, I mean, they're calling you to have a solo, whatever it might be, and you get up and you do fantastic. Next thing you know, you think you're pretty good. And so, what happens? God has to give you a dose of frustrated inadequacy. Because you know what happens? Any time you and I think we can handle this, we got this one down, then you're just about ready to have a good dose of frustrated inadequacy because God knows, listen, while He may be using you in a wonderful way, He knows one of the greatest, listen, one of the greatest threats to God using anybody is getting self-confident and cocky about it.
Now, I don't ever want to walk out here on a Sunday morning at any time thinking, "Now Lord, I know that one. I've got that down. I understand all of that". No, I want to walk out here just like I do every Sunday. "God, if You don't do it, it's gonna be a mess. If You don't say it, God, if You don't make it clear, if You don't make it crystal clear, if You don't make it plain, if You don't make it simple, it's just gonna be a mess, God. If You don't do it, Lord, it's not gonna work". Because I've had enough failures in my life to know if God doesn't do it, it won't work. You can take the same words without the Spirit of God, you can take the same plan, the same outline, whatever it may be, unless the Spirit of God is in it, it's not gonna stick.
Unless the Spirit of God is in it, it's not gonna reach somebody's heart. Because you preach to a man's conscience, you preach to a woman's conscience, not to their feelings, but to their conscience. What is right? What is wrong? Is this the truth? Is this not the truth? And so what does God do? He gives us enough frustrated inadequacy to bring us to the realization in our life: we cannot serve God in our own strength. That, listen, that is not a demotion, it is not a failure, it is not a setback. It is a step forward in your Christian walk. When you and I learn that it is, listen, he never intends for us to do it apart from Him.
What's the first stage? Unbelief. Second stage. Third stage. Fourth stage. Fifth stage. Spiritual dependency. God, You must do it. I'm gonna trust You to do through me, Father, what I cannot do because it's very evident, Lord, I can't do it. It means it's no longer my strength. It's no longer my energy, my power. It's no longer what you and I know. It is what Almighty God knows. And the Spirit of God given to every single believer, not only sealing us as one of His children, but equipping us, enabling us. When you and I wake up in the morning, we wake up with the Spirit of God. No matter what we face in a given day, the Spirit of the Living God is there to energize us, release that energy through us, give us wisdom and direction for every single thing we need in life. What a wonderful, wonderful life, the Spirit-filled life.
And so, that is a stage. It is available to every single person. And I think about people who live their whole life doing what? Trying to live the Christian life, trying to understand the Word of God, trying to be better, trying to do better, trying to do better. I know how frustrating that is because that's exactly the way I grew up. I grew up in a church that taught me I had to do better. And when I didn't think I did better, I thought God doesn't love me. That's what I thought, God doesn't love me 'cause I didn't do better. In fact, I sinned against God. How could He love me when I sin against Him? Not realizing, nobody ever told me for years and years and years that I... not realize, that it is the work of the Spirit of God, enabling us no matter what He calls us to do.
What's the first stage? Unbelief. Second stage? Salvation. Third stage? Service. Fourth stage? Frustrated inadequacy. Fifth stage? Spiritual dependency. All right, now watch this next stage because this next one you think, "What in the world is that"? Well, it's gonna be there if it hasn't come to you yet, it is coming and it may come soon. Preprogrammed bondage. Stage number six. Preprogrammed bondage. What in the world is preprogrammed bondage? Well, let's take you through the stages now. There was a time when you were in unbelief, but you got saved. And then you wanted to serve the Lord and God began to use you. And you began to realize, "Hey, something's missing in the Christian life here. Somehow, it's not, just not able to do what I ought to do".
And so you came to the stage there of spiritual dependency and you realize... or frustrated inadequacy. And you realize you needed more, and then the Spirit of God came into your life and you became filled with the Spirit. And you say, "Well, this is it! Praise the Lord! Hallelujah, this is it! Walking in the Spirit". And then somewhere along in your life, you began to have to deal with things that you never thought about before. Not situations that were necessarily sin, but things in your life that maybe hadn't cropped up before. And I think oftentimes this comes a little later in life to some people than others, and you can't ever put anybody in these categories and these stages and say, "You ought to be here and you should be there". No. Because it depends upon that individual and personality.
Now, what do I mean by preprogrammed bondage? I mean the things that you and I learned, the things that we were taught as children, either by our school teachers or by our parents. For example, things that they did not necessarily purposely teach us but we learned them from them. For example, let's say that here's a person who was physically abused. And they were told, "You're not worth anything. We didn't want you anyway. You were an accident in this family".
My friend, you can be saved, you can serve the Lord Jesus Christ, you can be filled with the Holy Spirit, and until God deals with that preprogrammed bondage that your parents said to you, "You're not worth anything. You don't matter," here's what'll happen. All through your Christian walk, that tape is gonna play, that idea is gonna keep popping up in your mind. "I know that the Spirit of God is within me, but God, I feel so inadequate. I feel so unworthy". And what happens is, you strike against your own self-esteem. And one of the struggles you'll have in serving God is that that old tape keeps playing back there. You can still hear your daddy say, "You'll never amount to anything". You can hear your mother say, "Why, we didn't want you anyway".
And so, until that is dealt with, that, listen, that's preprogrammed bondage. It is bondage a person lives in. It is a bondage a person lives with, and somehow oftentimes they shove that aside and they say, "Well, that's meaningless and that doesn't count and that doesn't bother me". Yes, it does! For example, children who grow up in alcoholic homes, I'm here to tell you, my friend, people who grow up in alcoholic homes, they deal with baggage and bondage years and years and years of their life. Some are wise enough to, early in life, somebody gets to them, explains some things, explains the Christian life. You don't have to take years and years and years to go through these stages. But for most people, that's exactly what happens.
And the reason I'm putting 'em in stages is because I know that so many of you are wondering, "Well now, I know that I'm saved, know I've been filled with the Holy Spirit. Why do I still have these struggles? Why do these things still bother me"? Because there are issues, preprogrammed bondage back there that started way back yonder in your life. And listen, God wants to surface it, and here's what usually He does. When you think things are just moving along and you're praising the Lord and you've gotten through some of these stages, then God begins to bring them up. He doesn't always wait that long. You can go from unbelief to salvation to service. You can move along in those very rapidly.
At some point, this preprogrammed bondage you have to deal with, and the best way to deal with that is to recognize it. And that is, if something keeps bothering you, that is an issue. That is something that you need to deal with. And it may, as I say, the thing that's so deceptive about it is sometimes it's not a matter of sin, it's an attitude, it's a feeling that you have, it's something that you can't, you can't jerk it out of your heart and lay it out there and say, "Here's what it is". And so, it is so deceptive. And yet it hinders God's people in their spiritual growth. And so, what happens is they say, "Well, you know, I just thought I was full of the Spirit. I just thought God could use me. No". Yes, He can! We all have those tapes. We all have those tapes running. And they run at different levels, at different speeds, at different times with different messages in all of us.
And so often, it is a negative feeling that has to do with our sense of self-esteem and our sense of worth. I want to tell you, my friend, it doesn't make any difference who you are, God says you're so worthy He stretched out His Son on the cross and said, "You're worthy of Me dying in your behalf". The seventh stage is what I call the exchanged life. What in the world is that? Here's what it means. It means that you and I in our spiritual walk, we come to the realization that God never intended for us to live the Christian life. That the truth is that when He came into our life and saved us, He came in, listen, when people say, "Well, I let Jesus in my heart".
You know what really happened? What really happened is you died to your old way of life and the Lord Jesus Christ, Himself, in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit came to live on the inside of you. "And now it is no longer I that live," Paul says, "but Christ lives within me". Look in that second chapter of Galatians and look at the twentieth verse. The scripture says it in different ways in different parts of the Word, but this second chapter of Galatians the twentieth verse, Paul says, he says, "I have been crucified with Christ". What does that mean? It means that when Jesus Christ died two thousand years ago, listen, God the Father had the Apostle Paul in mind and, listen, when Jesus died, the old Apostle Paul died with Him because he was created in newness of life. All of us who've been saved could say the same thing. I've been crucified with Christ.
"It's no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me now; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me". Here's what's happening. Every single, listen, every single one of us who is a believer, we have the Lord Jesus Christ living His life through us. Now, what is this exchange business? Here's what I'm talking about. We come to the place in life to realize, "God, I can't live this life. You never intended for me to".
I can remember the day that I learned that truth. I can remember how liberating and freeing it was. I can remember driving to church that next morning, sitting in the parking lot in my car, and looking at the church building and thinking, "Whew! Thank God! This is no longer my responsibility. I don't have to make this grow. It doesn't have to be a big church. I don't have to be a big preacher. Thank God, I don't have to be anything, Lord, but whatever You choose to live through me". That was one of the most liberating moments of my life, to think it's no longer Charles, but it's Jesus, living on the inside of me. It was no longer my responsibility. It was no longer my task. It was no longer my labor. It was no longer my work. It was no longer my ministry. It was His work and His ministry and His task and His responsibility.
What is mine? Just to live in continuous surrender, decision after decision. Because you see, the exchanged life is an exchange of the old life that we used to have for a brand-new life. And, listen, not only did that exchange take place, but understanding that it took place, and claiming by faith that Christ is my life. And so what happens? When you and I understand what it means for Christ to be our life and it's no longer our life, from that moment on, here's what happens. We just grow deeper in our understanding. We grow deeper in our love and submission to Him. We grow more able to receive His love, more able to give His love.
What we do then is we do it with such joy and a sense of contentment and happiness and peace in our life, that no matter what kind of storms whirl around us, there is an anchor to the soul. That anchor is Jesus. There is a rest in the midst of all the turmoil. There is a peace that cannot be explained. That's what Paul was talking about in Philippians chapter four. He says, "That surpasses all human understanding". When Christ becomes our life, somehow our view and perspective on other things begin to change, even though we may have been a Christian a long time.
So, I simply want to say to you: wherever you are in your walk, you don't have to stay there. And if you've never trusted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, if you happen to have been wise enough to have jotted these things down, it won't take you long to move right along. And if you find yourself one of those persons who says, "You know, I was saved two years ago, five years ago, twenty years ago, and to tell you the truth, pastor, I don't think I've grown very much," then start. Right now is the time to start. How do I start? Get in the Word of God. How do I start? "God, show me where You want to use me, in any way, whatever".
You see, listen to this carefully. You listening? Say amen to this one, now, amen? Watch this. At the point God says, "Here's where I want you to serve," and you say, "Nothing doing," that's where you stop growing. Listen carefully, you cannot grow around disobedience. You cannot grow around a rebellious spirit. When God says, "Here's what you ought to be doing in My service," and you say, "God, I'm not gonna", you know what I found? It doesn't make any difference what kind of excuse I give Him, it's unacceptable. No excuse is acceptable. At the point in my life where I say, "I'm not gonna do that," that's where I stop growing.
My friend, listen to me carefully. There's not anything under God's heaven worth stopping your spiritual growth for. Nothing! Because we're gonna spend eternity with God. And I want to plead with you in Jesus's name, if you are a believer, take those seven simple little principles, those stages, find yourself. And listen, wherever you are, move on. Do not stay where you are.
Let me ask you a question: how many of you want to stay where you are financially? Raise your hand high. Right! Not a single person in here. Which is more important? Your financial condition or your spiritual condition? Then let me ask you a question. What are you doing about the stage you're in? You would improve, you'd change your financial condition today if you could do it. Are you just as hungry to change your spiritual condition? You can do that too, if you're willing to say:
Lord, today I surrender everything that I am and everything I have to You, no matter what. I choose to obey You. God, move me on to the next level in my spiritual walk. Let me never be satisfied where I am. Keep me moving and progressing and growing in Christlikeness till the moment You let my heart beat the very last time.