So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase.
– 1 Corinthians 3:7
“Growth” is the process of increasing. Growth can be good. Growth can be bad. When our muscles grow and we get in shape that’s “good.” When fat grows and we “grow out of” our clothes, that’s bad. Growing in knowledge of God is good. Growing in knowledge for the sake of knowledge and becoming proud about it is not good. When our paychecks grow, that’s good. If our taxes and expenses grow, that’s bad. Growing into holy relationships is good. Growing in unholy relationships is bad. Growing up from infancy, to adolescence, to teen age and young adulthood is good. Growing older and experiencing the gradual deterioration of our bodies is bad. Growing spiritually is good. Growing in carnality is bad. Churches that grow qualitatively are good. Churches that only grow quantitatively but not qualitatively are bad. Growth that comes from trusting God is good. Growth that comes from trusting things or people other than God is bad.
As a pastor, these last couple of areas of growth are vital. A good pastor wants his church flock to grow spiritually. They want people to grow in their relationship with Jesus. They want them to grow in the knowledge of God’s word. And they want people to develop and grow spiritually so that their “walk” in Christ matches their “talk” in Christ. “Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus” (Colossians 1:28). The word “perfect” (Greek telieos) speaks of spiritual maturity. To the Ephesian church Paul was inspired to write:
Ephesians 4:11–16 11 And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, 13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; 14 that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, 15 but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.
These inspired words speak of spiritual growth.
The lack of growth can be very discouraging. That’s especially true for pastors. Many a pastor has left the ministry because they didn’t “see” or perceive growth in their congregations. After years of feeling like they were banging their heads against the walls of the church, they quit. I think this is due in large part to confusing “good” with “bad” types of growth. It’s due in part to adopting a worldly view of what good growth is. To the world numbers and quantitative size of a congregation is the measure of “good” growth. But from God’s perspective that isn’t always true. A large church, a mega church congregation, can be a mile wide quantitatively but an inch deep in terms of real spiritual maturity and Biblical understanding. When that kind of growth is sought, the church becomes lukewarm and less than Jesus intended it to be. When quantitative growth is exalted as the supreme measure of “good” growth, then it frequently leads to compromises in scriptural teaching. Fear of decreased numbers of people can result in not challenging people to go deeper with the Lord. When big numbers are your end all, you aren’t going to speak about or deal with issues of life that risk offending people, seeing them leave or seeing them stay away.
The measure of “good” growth must come from the truth of God’s word. Everything we do in life should be approached through the lens of scripture. The Bible is God’s measure of what is “good” or “bad.” “Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You” (Psalm 119:11). “Turn away my eyes from looking at worthless things, and revive me in Your way” (Psalm 119:37). “Through Your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way” (Psalm 119:104). “Rivers of water flow down from my eyes, because men do not keep Your law” (Psalm 119:136). “I am small and despised, yet I do not forget Your precepts” (Psalm 119:141). What we need is a revival from the Lord. We need to be revived in our passion for and dependence upon God’s word as the only true measure of growth.
If you aren’t growing or don’t think you’re growing spiritually, that is cause for concern. If a church is not growing or increasing the way it should, that can be very discouraging to the pastor. The key is having the proper mindset or attitude about growth. Jesus spoke of the seed of His word received by some whose spiritual roots were short and shallow. He spoke of those whose roots were choked off by the things of this world including worldly perspectives. That’s the perfect example of what bad growth looks like. Good growth according to Jesus produces fruit and isn’t destroyed by trials and distractions (cf. Matthew 13:1-9 and 18-23).
The world pushes and pulls people to grow in the things of this world. The world wants you to grow in recreational activities. Grow in your knowledge of Hollywood productions. Grow in your TV watching and star worshipping. Grow in BIG crowds of people and the consumption of alcohol, drugs and sex. Grow in the pursuit of making an “event’ spectacular. Make a spectacle of yourself. Grow in your tolerance of evil and your intolerance of what God calls “holy.” Grow in breaking laws. Grow in immorality. Grow in freedom from God and His word even though such “growth” or “increase” means you are that much more a slave of “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2). That’s not good growth.
“Good” growth, “bad” growth, growth is a part of all aspects of life. What does the Bible say about growth or “increase”? In 1 Corinthians 3:7 it states, “So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase.” The Greek term for “increase” is auxano and means to grow, enlarge, to become greater, or increase. The Complete Biblical Library Greek-English Dictionary says the following about “increase” (Greek auxano):
The basic meaning of this verb is “to grow,” that is, the natural increase in the plant kingdom (lilies: Matthew 6:28; Luke 12:27; mustard: Matthew 13:32; Luke 13:19; wheat-barley: Mark 4:8) and the animal kingdom. John the Baptist and Jesus grew as children grew (Luke 1:80; 2:40). The word is also used figuratively: (1) of the increase of Jesus’ influence as compared to that of John the Baptist (John 3:30); (2) of the enlarging sphere of the saving power of the Word (Acts 6:7; 12:24; 19:20); (3) of the increase, spread, and growth of the Church (Acts 7:17; 1 Corinthians 3:6,7; Ephesians 2:21; Colossians 2:19); and (4) of the spiritual growth and maturation of believers and groups of believers (2 Corinthians 9:10; 10:15; Ephesians 4:15; Colossians 1:10; 1 Peter 2:2; 2 Peter 3:18).
How can we grow properly, in a “good” way? How can we guard against “bad” growth? How can we assure that the growth and increase in our lives is for the good and not bad? 1 Corinthians 3:7 tells us the proper view of growth and increase. This verse gives us the proper perspective on increase in our lives. And the context in which this verse is set provides the right perspective on “growth.”
First, if you want growth from God you have to know your place. Our verse says, “So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, . . .” It doesn’t say we are “nothing.” It does say we aren’t “anything.” If Paul said we were “nothing,” then we’d just sit back and wait for God to bring growth. It would also imply a lack of worth. God doesn’t see us as worthless. He values us so much that He sent Jesus to die to redeem us from our sinful state. We are God’s “workmanship” (Greek pŏiēma) or literally His poetry. God loves us (John 3:16). We are precious to God (e.g. 1 Peter 3:3-4). But “anything” speaks of a focus. Our focus or reliance isn’t to be upon the one who plants or waters in the mission. Our focus is to be on God – “God who gives the increase.” If God so desired, He could bring growth without us. But He chooses to use us and for that we should be thankful.
This means that if we plant God’s word in ministry and then follow up with watering it, (caring for and ministering to those with implanted seeds by washing them in the water of God’s word, e.g. Ephesians 5:26), then any growth that comes is the responsibility of God. Growth depends on God not us. Yes, we plant and water, but the growth, the miraculous growth, comes from God. If that is true then it means no one should be taking credit for or lusting for the spotlight associated with “the increase” that comes from God. We shouldn’t esteem the planters or waterers when the growth comes from God. We shouldn’t take credit or seek the credit for something that God has done. All we can do is to offer God thanks and a love offering of our appreciative praise for the growth He has brought about. Pastors will know exactly what I mean by this.
The world worships those who can draw a big crowd. They worship those who can hold an audience’s attention and entertain them. That’s the measure of “good” in the world. Why then do those in the church so often live by the same worldly measure of “good”? God tells us in His word, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever” (1 Jon 2:15-17). The growth that comes from God is the only growth we should be seeking. And when it comes, we should glorify the God who brought it. No person should be exalted for the growth God does. There should be no “stars” in ministry. If you’re a “star” or a groupie of a ministry “star,” just remember, the name “Lucifer” means light-bearer, or star. We need to take our proper place. “Therefore let no one boast in men” (1 Corinthians 3:21a). Whatever “growth” comes by way of God including us in His plans, it is only “according to the grace of God which was given me” (1 Corinthians 3:10). When it comes to growth and increase we aren’t “anything” compared to the One Who blesses with the increase. Growth comes by God’s grace and that, like our salvation, is “not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:9).
Second, why don’t we trust God for growth? Do you believe God enough to trust Him for growth and increase? Whatever your circumstance, do you trust God to bring increase? Why don’t we trust God to bring increase? So many people, pastors included, when they don’t see the “increase” they desire, turn to worldly means or their own means to achieve the growth they want.
There is a pervasive underlying lust in the church and its leaders. The lust is that “we want a big church.” The bigger the congregation supposedly, the better the church. The bigger the congregation supposedly, the better the pastor. But did you ever consider, really consider, that God may not always want a church to be “BIG”? The church where Billy Graham got saved was a tiny little country church, but that church and the preacher was in the perfect strategic position to be used by God to convert a man that would lead countless people to salvation in Jesus Christ. What if that preacher had thought to himself, “I’m not going out there to preach to a handful of people. It’s not worth my time. There’s a bigger crowd in the next county”? Sometimes the Lord calls people to serve Him in what He views as very strategic positions. Some ministries are like a Navy Seal Team sent in to perform a special mission. That mission is just as important, even critically important to the overall plan.
If the size of congregation was the measure of God’s blessing, then what of the Old Testament prophets? The prophets of God were elected by Him to call God’s people to repentance. And for the most part the prophetic message was not well received. The Lord specifically warned Jeremiah, “They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you. For I am with you,’ says the LORD, ‘to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1:19). How many “star” ministers today would be willing to accept such a calling from God? Perhaps not many. How could the prophets of old and the apostles and the early believers in both Testaments be a part of God’s growth process when it seemingly offered so little? Because they knew that in reality in God’s growth process they weren’t “anything.” They trusted God to grow His redemptive plan. They weren’t looking to build their own kingdoms. They were looking to be a part of God’s kingdom.
The point here is that, God determines the place and station of calling, not us. Paul commented, “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3). And again, Paul is inspired to write, “Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:1-2). Serve where God calls you to serve and rejoice that He has called you at all. It’s a privilege to serve the King of kings and Lord of lords.
If we look at the context of 1 Corinthians 3:7, we see that the prime reason Paul was teaching about such things is that the Corinthians were carnal; they were self-centered; selfish. He said of them, “And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; 3 for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? 4 For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal?” (1 Corinthians 3:1-4). When we focus on people as the source and cause of growth, it exposes a spiritual childishness and immaturity. When our focus is on people as the source of growth it leads to factions, prejudices, division, in-fighting in the church. Wherever there’s a split in the church, you can be sure it was because people got their eyes off of God and onto themselves or others. We don’t trust God for growth because we are spiritually immature. We need to stop being cry babies and grow up in our understanding that growth comes from God.
The Church needs to come together and seek the Lord for growth. The Church needs to seek the Lord for growth and then be satisfied with the growth He provides. That isn’t an excuse for complacency. That’s a reason to be content and satisfied in the mission God calls you too. That’s reason to put aside your grumbling and complaining and march in the ranks God has put you. That’s serving faithfully to the glory of God. Remember, it was the grumblers and complainers who were barred from entering the Promised Land.
Third, we need to dig deep in our understanding that growth comes from God. When we dig into the context of 1 Corinthians 3:7 we see a number of shovels full of valuable treasure pertaining to understanding that growth comes from God. It is the Lord who “gives to each one” their position of calling as well as the tools to minister (1 Corinthians 3:5). Paul was a great church planter and Apollos was a tremendous orator (Acts 18:24), but still these greatly used men of God knew it was God Who “gave the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). When you dig deep you begin to realize that we aren’t competing against one another but we are competing alongside each other. We “are one” (3:8a). And “each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor” (3:8b). We are “fellow workers” with God (3:9). We take our orders from Him. And it is “according to the grace of God which was given me, as a wise master builder” that we labor on (3:10a). Serving God is a gift of His grace.
All our work and ministry rests on the foundation of Jesus (1 Corinthians 3:11). We build on Jesus which means we build in line with how He builds. He came, not to be served, but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many, so should we (Mark 10:45). Like Paul our attitude should be, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand” (2 Timothy 4:6). We should be seeking to be spent for the Lord. It is by being poured out for the Lord that we are to find our worth and reason for being. Success in ministry, true growth that is from God, is being poured out for Him. That’s oftentimes a very hard lesson to learn. We have to dig deep.
Paul is moved by the Spirit to insert an illustration in the context of 1 Corinthians 3:7. He cautions, “But let each one take heed how he builds on it” that is, the foundation of Jesus (3:10b). He contrasts building, “with gold, silver, precious stones” versus building with, “word, hay, straw” (3:12). He speaks of “the Day” when all our efforts lives will be accountable to the Lord. One day we will all stand before the Lord Jesus and “each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire” (3:13). The gaze of Jesus Who humbly gave His all will see right through efforts made that were nothing more than building personal kingdoms. That built with carnal motives and shallow faith is like the “wood, hay, straw,” it’s that found on the surface and is easily picked. If you’re ministry or walk with the Lord was a mile wide and an inch deep, those efforts will be burned up “but he himself will be saved, yet so through fire” (3:15).
There is work done, that is like precious jewels to the Lord. “Gold, silver, precious stones,” are all objects that require mining; digging deep. This describes ministry wherever God calls one to serve, that knows and lives selflessly by faith with the understanding that it is “God who gives the increase.” There is a treasure for those who choose to dig deep.
Fourth, the treasure of understanding that growth comes from God is a product of the Spirit. Paul speaks of digging deep and then takes out the shovel and spade of the Spirit Who is the One Who teaches us that growth comes from God. Paul says, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? 17 If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). Planting and watering, working with the understanding that growth comes from God and trusting Him for such growth, is all a product of the Holy Spirit residing in the believer. All that we do is a product of the Holy Spirit’s work in and through us. How silly and obtuse it is when believers in any way take credit or silently receive the accolades for what God has done through them (and often in spite of them). It really is offensive when people, small tiny people, weak people, carnal and selfish people, take credit for what God has done. Our mandate is to give glory to God, not take it to ourselves. “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). That is what the Spirit desires our attitude to be.
A final warning. Herod stood by and received the accolades of, “The voice of a god and not a man!” And he was struck down and eaten by worms (Acts 12:20-23). If that were to happen today, we’d probably have a lot of healthy worms to go fishing with. The world’s allure can be very deceiving. Am I seeking for sinners to be saved and disciples being made according to God’s increase? Or am I simply seeking to build up my church to go full time in ministry? Am I seeking a crowd to glorify me or God? Truly we should dig deep into our soul and heart and answer these questions.
There’s nothing wrong with a BIG church. BIG churches are able to do powerful things in God’s plans. Their corporate organization can be used for the glory of God. There is a place for BIG churches. But if BIG congregations are nothing more than crowds where people’s anonymity and lack of serving God is excused, then that is not good. Smaller churches bring a personal interactive atmosphere. They provide opportunities to serve and participate. They are like families. But families can degenerate into cliques. People in small churches can fight against the growth God desires to do. They can settle and be satisfied with their friendships as is, and subtly resist reaching outsiders who need the Gospel.
The final words of Paul in this chapter sum up the proper attitude toward growth that comes from God. He writes, “Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their own craftiness”; 20 and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” 21 Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours: 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come—all are yours. 23 And you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Corinthians 3:18-23). “You are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” I like that. Even if we mess up and get our growth wires crossed, still “you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” Follow the leading of the Holy Spirit and He will help you find the growth that is from God.
There is good growth and there is bad growth. There are good churches and bad churches of all sizes. Truly it isn’t a matter of the size of the church at all, its seeking out and being satisfied with the growth that comes from God. Leave the size of your church or whatever you are doing for the Lord, up to Him. Focus on the God Who gives growth. Plant, water, and trust God to bring the increase. That is something only the Holy Spirit can show you. That is something only the Holy Spirit can help you understand. But that is something, when found and enjoyed, that will glorify God.
 Complete Biblical Library Greek-English Dictionary, The – The Complete Biblical Library Greek-English Dictionary – Alpha-Gamma.