Teaching series from Romans

Walking By the Spirit (Part 3)

Romans 8

Teaching t07946


We have been studying Paul's letter to the Romans, and have come to the section that focuses on spiritual growth. Paul says we can approach spiritual growth in one of two ways.

We can approach it under Law, which means focusing on God's commandments and trying to keep them by our own moral will-power. Although this makes intuitive sense, it is actually counter-productive (EXPLAIN).

Or we can approach it under grace, which means trusting the power of God's Spirit to gradually transform our lives to love God and others. Paul calls this second way "walking by the Spirit."

What does it look like to walk by the Spirit? Two weeks ago, we began a miniseries on this subject, studying Rom. 8:1-11 and the parallel passage in Gal. 5:16-6:9. In physical walking, there are three important elements: balance, locomotion, and direction. In walking by the Spirit, there are also three important elements.

Two weeks ago, we learned the first element--"setting your mind on the things of the Spirit" (read Rom. 8:5,6). We discovered that this means to choose to think about every major area of your life from the perspective of God's grace.

Last week, we learned the second element--"keeping in step with the Spirit" (read Gal. 5:25). We discovered that this means to be responsive to the Spirit's personal guidance in your life. If you weren't here for these two teachings, I urge you to get the tapes, because you need to understand all three elements for a balanced understanding of this crucial subject.

This week, we will learn the third element, which is found in Gal. 6 . . . 

Walking by the Spirit involves "sowing to the Spirit."

Paul began using an agricultural metaphor toward the end of chapter 5, describing the results of walking by the Spirit as the "fruit of the Spirit."  After explaining how to "keep in step with the Spirit" in 5:25-6:5, he returns to the agricultural metaphor in 6:7-9 (read). His point is obvious--you reap what you sow. This is not Paul's version of karmic law (what goes around comes around), but rather a basic principle of cause and effect in spiritual growth.

If you sow to your own fallen nature, you will reap "corruption"--which is not damnation, but the lifestyle described in 5:19-21a as the "deeds of the flesh" (read). If you sow to the Spirit, you will reap "eternal life"--which refers not to heaven, but to the "fruit of the Spirit" as described 5:22,23 (read). If you want to reap a good spiritual harvest in your life, you must sow consistently to the Spirit.

The key principle here is that the results don't show up immediately, but later--but they always show up. You may choose to get involved in a porn habit because it provides immediate pleasure and escape--but you will reap an eventual harvest of corruption (dissatisfaction with marital sex; bondage to sexual lust; arrested relational development). Or you may choose get involved in a spiritual habit like Bible memorization. It will not be immediately pleasurable--but you will reap an eventual harvest of spiritual health (Ps. 1 RESULTS).

"Sowing to the Spirit" is participating regularly in the "means of growth."

So what does it look like to "sow to the Spirit?" It means to consistently participate in those activities that the Bible says will eventually result in spiritual growth. Theologians often call these activities the "means of grace." We like to call them the "means of growth." Here's what John Stott, one of the greatest Bible teachers of the 20th century, says about this passage:

"(If Paul) speaks in Galatians 5:22 of the harvest of the Spirit, he writes in 6:8 that we are to sow to the Spirit, and then we reap what we sow. Whether we reap the fruit of the Spirit depends on whether we sow to the Spirit. The seeds we sow to the Spirit that produce this harvest are . . . a disciplined use of the means of grace. That is, daily prayer and meditation on the Scriptures, . . . reading Christian books, making Christian friends, and getting engaged in Christian service. It is by a disciplined use of these means of grace that we grow in grace, and the Holy Spirit within us is able to produce the beauty of holiness."1

If you want passage that captures most of these means of growth, look at Acts 2:42. 3000 people have just begun a relationship with God by receiving Christ and being indwelt by the Holy Spirit. In 2:43-47, Luke describes the dynamic spiritual vitality and fruitfulness of these people. In 2:42, he describes how they "sowed to the Spirit" (read).

Notice what they sowed:

"The apostles' teaching" - This refers to learning the Bible, especially the New Testament's teaching about God's grace.

"Fellowship" - This refers to sharing God's truth and love with one another in the context of Christian community and personal relationships.

"Prayer" - This refers to both individual, private communication with God--and also corporate prayer (see Acts 4,12).

NOTE: "The breaking of bread" is a little ambiguous. It may refer to the Lord's Supper, which then connects it to prayer and emphasizes thanksgiving. Or it may refer to having meals together (2:46), which then connects it with fellowship.

To these I will add a fourth means of growth--that of serving love. Love is not only a fruit of the Spirit; it is also a dynamic that produces fruit. You can see that Paul includes this in "sowing to the Spirit," because after enunciating this principle in 6:7-9, he says 6:10 (read). We should do good to all people--not just Christians, but also those who don’t know Christ. As we give ourselves away in love to serve others for Christ's sake, the Holy Spirit vitalizes us spiritually and gradually transforms our lives. And this would include sharing Christ through word and deed.

Notice how they sowed:

"They were continuously devoting themselves to . . ." Luke goes out of his way to emphasize that they initiated this sowing ("devoted themselves to") and they did this consistently ("continually"). This is the open secret to their vitality and fruitfulness.

SUMMARY: "Sowing to the Spirit" means building a lifestyle that centers around these means of growth. This is also the context in which you will get more personal guidance from the Spirit (ELEMENT #2). In my experience, the most common cause of spiritual stagnation and sickness is neglect of the means of growth (MY DAUGHTERS WITH EATING). We like to think our spiritual problems have obscure, exotic causes--but this is always the first place to look.

Practical tips concerning the means of growth

Be sure you approach the means of growth under grace. Two weeks ago, we saw that the first element of walking by the Spirit was viewing every major area of your life from the perspective of God's grace, rather than apart from grace. Here is another key area.

What does it look like to view these apart from grace? As a young person, I was familiar with these practices--but I viewed them in a superficial, formalistic, impersonal way. God expected me to go to church, hear Bible readings, and recite some memorize some prayers. I assumed that I had to perform these arbitrary religious practices to get or keep God's acceptance. They had no personal relevance to my life. Not surprisingly, I hated them, and ran from them as soon as I was old enough to say "No" to my parents.

It's amazing how my perspective changed once I personally received Christ. Now I knew that God had permanently accepted me. Now I had God's Spirit indwelling me and introducing me to a personal relationship with God that I could enjoy anywhere and any time. Now I viewed the means of growth as avenues through which I could relate personally with God and receive his life-changing power.

Maybe that's what you need to do today. Before you profit from sowing to the Spirit, you need to receive God's forgiveness and his Spirit as a free gift (GOSPEL).

It is possible to be a true Christian and still approach the means of growth apart from grace. To the extent that you participate in them simply out of mindless habit, or so you can be socially acceptable to your Christian friends, you are doing this and they will become dry and lifeless. But this is so easy to turn around . . . 

You will probably need to cultivate a taste for some (or all) of the means of growth. This point tempers the first point with some needed realism.

I started running about 21 years ago because I was starting to gain weight and I knew I needed to get in cardiovascular shape. I found out that I could get the biggest bang for my buck by maintaining my target heart rate for 20 minutes, three times a week. The cheapest way to do this was jogging. It was (to say the least) not that enjoyable to begin with. I was out of shape, my stride was poor, and all I thought about the whole time was how much my muscles hurt and how much farther I had to go. But after a while, as I began to experience less stress, better sleep, more vigor, etc., I came to enjoy it more and even increase my running distance. Today it is one of the most enjoyable activities in my life. I run even in weather like this, and I genuinely miss it when I can't run.

If you understand what I am saying about physical exercise, the same principle applies to the means of growth--only with much greater benefits (read 1 Tim. 4:7b,8). For a variety of reasons (newness, fleshly aversion), it is normal to initially find these activities uncomfortable and intimidating. But as you stick with them by faith, you experience the good results and develop increasing enjoyment of them.

WORD: Especially personal study seems confusing at first. This is why teaching helps so much. After you get the picture, its gets clearer and more exciting (SAURAT PAINTING).

PRAYER: Especially prayer with may feel strange to begin with--but it will help you to learn how to pray and it can become a wonderful way to relate to God and your Christians friends simultaneously. You will also learn how to pray much more quickly.

Remember that you need all of the means of growth. Because of the previous point, the temptation is to specialize in those means of growth that you find easiest and most enjoyable, while neglecting the ones that are more difficult for you. You may be tempted to believe that your specialization in some will compensate for your neglect of others. This is a serious error.

The means of growth are like FOOD GROUPS. You need a balanced diet for healthy growth. Neglect of any one can eventually result in a complete breakdown in spiritual growth. The means of growth are also interconnected, so that genuine progress in any one requires involvement in all (EXAMPLES).

Do you want one practical step that will give you the biggest bang for your buck in learning how to "sow to the Spirit?" Get involved in a home group. Why do I say this?

You will automatically get exposure to all of the means of growth through a home group in a way that will never happen in a meeting like this.

You get access to people who can help you learn how to pray, study God's Word, build Christ-centered friendships, and share your faith.

You don't have to take my word on this--listen to the folks on this video, and notice how the means of growth are interwoven through their testimonies.

For some of you, this is the next step that God’s Spirit is prompting you to take . . .  

Next: one more means of growth


1 John R. W. Stott, "The Unforbidden Fruit," Christianity Today, August 17, 1992, p. 36.

Copyright 2000 Gary DeLashmutt