spiritual maturity

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. Ephesians 4:11-16

“Personal growth” is a popular cultural concept; people often speak of growing as a person, and finding themselves. Maturity is in fact something everybody wants, at some level, although fear or complacency often get in the way of seeking it earnestly. Many Christians, too, mistakenly remain content as spiritual “infants” in both worldview and action.

When a baby is born, it is by nature physically and mentally immature. But, the baby grows. If the child does not mature there is a serious problem; if it remains infant-like it will never live anything like a full life. So it is with us. When a person puts their faith in Jesus, they are born for a second time: not out of a womb into the world but out of spiritual death into spiritual life. The simple message of God’s love for us in Christ becomes the new bedrock of the person’s life. Like a baby, everything feels new and scary; everything is handled by other people; all they really know and care about is that they are safe in the arms of their parent. It’s beautiful. It’s called being “born again.”

The whole culmination a human being’s life, however, is not their birth. When a parent speaks about their child, they speak not only about their birth but about how they’ve grown. We too cannot stay babies forever – we need to grow.

Spiritual maturity begins first with knowledge. We must know who God is, what matters to him, and what he has said to the world. We need to know who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. We need to know Jesus and his salvation, and the implications of his hold on our lives. Essentially we need to know what we believe, why we believe it, and how to articulate it. God has given us a “living and active” resource – the Bible – expressly so that we may know him more. Without knowledge, our love for God and our ability to influence other people will always be stunted.

Knowledge by itself, however, is completely useless. Paul said, “We know that ‘we all possess knowledge.’ But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know.” (1 Corinthians 8:1-2). In order for knowledge to really be worth something, it must be coupled with understanding. Understanding means that a person allows the knowledge of God to penetrate their heart and mind. To a person with understanding, the concept of the Redemption is not just a fact but the reality of their life. The Bible is not just words on pages, but God’s words of life to human beings. Knowledge is prattling off John 3:16; understanding is humbly explaining what it really means to say “God so loved the world that he gave his only son.”

If we stop at understanding, we are close. We are not, however, fully equipped. Spiritual maturity requires wisdom. Wisdom means applying the truth of God to human life. Wisdom sees through the first impression, the outer appearance, the surface-level words. Wisdom can awaken and refresh the life of another person by speaking God’s message into their own life and experience. Wisdom is a “tree of life” (Proverbs 3:18) which receives life and stability freely from God and passes them on freely and intelligently to others. And it takes a great deal of wisdom for anyone to keep a clear vision while navigating the struggles and pains of this life.

Watching a person “grow up” in Christ is like watching a child take their first steps, then say their first words, then write their own name: it is incredible. I have blessed by God to watch it happen over and over again in my friends. I have also been blessed by him with the privilege of knowing many Christians whose walk with God has defined their lives for decades. Their wisdom testifies to God’s faithfulness; and it is of great help to me, over and over again.

Real spiritual knowledge, understanding, and wisdom flow out of the persistent study and application of God’s word, and from prayer. They always express themselves by “speaking the truth in love.” Maturity is not passive, and it does not sit by while others continue on in sin and ignorance: conviction of the truth necessarily leads to real, living compassion for other people. Nor is spiritual maturity the goal of life in and of itself. The goal is simply this: to know and love Jesus, and to worship him.

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:7-14

grace

The Christian life is often a back and forth between despair and pride, self-loathing and self-righteousness. God’s answer to both is simply: grace.

Sometimes people feel that they need to “clean themselves up” before they can come before God in prayer, church, communion, or whatever else. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, they search for fig leaves with which to cover their nakedness and shame. If they feel that they can cover themselves up well enough or if they convince themselves they are not bare at all, then come pride and self-satisfaction: “God will be satisfied with my performance/listen to my prayer/not be mad at me because of all these things I did this week…”

If, on the other hand, no “fig leaves” feel big enough to cover their shame, then come despair and guilt. Feeling exposed, alone, disappointed in themselves, and intensely guilty, people will often withdraw from God altogether, or only come to him in a further attempt to placate their guilty consciences. They don’t truly come to prayer or church for God or true forgiveness, because they don’t believe themselves worthy of either. Enough time spent in the darkness of despair and bitterness at God may even result. As in James 1, they will claim that God is “tempting” them beyond what they can bear, or that his standard is simply too impossibly high for them. For others, maybe not. But it is certainly too high for them.

Both sides of the spectrum may feel holy. The self-righteous person feels just that – righteous. And the guilty person feels holy too, because they know God hates sin and therefore their self-loathing must somehow be right as well.

God, in his most wonderful way, completely does away with fig leaves altogether.

To the proud, self-satisfied heart he says, “You think you can have access to me because you managed to scrape out an offering this week? Nonsense – all your ‘righteous acts’ are like filthy rags before me. I owe you nothing and you owe me everything. You can come to me simply because I love you, I made you, and I have given grace to you, and for no other reason.”

To the despairing, withdrawing heart he says, “Is my arm too short to save you? Are you beyond my reach? Do you not know that I died for the very purpose of bringing sinners to myself? You have full access to me simply because of what I have done for you. My grace is sufficient for you. Come.”

God rejects our makeshift coverings of shame and instead clothes us with the very covering of Jesus’ blood, and Jesus’ righteousness. We are forgiven past, present, and future sins in his eyes because Jesus died to forgive us. We are declared pure and worthy in his eyes because Jesus lived perfectly in order to cover us. We do not get access to God or gain his approval through our performance and we do not lose it through our failures: fig leaves have nothing on grace.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. Hebrews 10:19-23

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves…
The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. Genesis 3:7, 21

brokenness

 

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Psalm 51:17

For this is what the high and exalted One says—
he who lives forever, whose name is holy:
“I live in a high and holy place,
but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly
and to revive the heart of the contrite.” Isaiah 57:15

We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 2 Corinthians 1:8-9

Have you ever been broken before God? Really seriously broken. Emptied. Crushed. Poured out. Resource-less, alternative-less, compelled to simply fall before the Father. This spiritual brokenness is one of the most essential qualities of the Christian life.

Here’s another question: have you ever been unbroken before him? You wouldn’t say proud, but just… “doing okay.” Having a pretty easy time lately. No real needs. No real thirst.

Brokenness can come in many ways, especially through these three major ones:

Conviction of sin: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Romans 7:24

Sorrows: “Have mercy on me, LORD, for I am faint; heal me, LORD, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in deep anguish. How long, LORD, how long? …I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes.” Psalm 6:2-3, 6-7 (see also all of Psalm 6)

Exhaustion: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering…” 2 Timothy 4:6

God uses all three – conviction of sin, sorrows, and exhaustion – to bring us to a place where we are broken. To a place where we do not, cannot, rely on ourselves anymore. To a place where we recognize that God’s grace is sufficient – and God’s grace alone. Spiritual brokenness is essentially total, desperate dependence on God for all of life.

It is through this desperate dependence that the Spirit breaks us of our self-will. I had a conversation with a friend the other day who said she didn’t go to church that weekend because she feels she “just doesn’t need, or want, God right now.” She said, “Maybe I’ll need him more when I get older.” Isn’t that just how we are? When life is easy and going well, when our sins are pretty minor and “acceptable,” it’s like we’re seeing the desert of our lives through a mirage. And when we feel that we are surrounded by water, our thirst for God dies down.

Now, God doesn’t usually let any Christian get away with this for too long. He breaks us with conviction, sorrow, exhaustion, or all three: and the “fruitfulness” of the breaking come out of the response. Will you fall before the “throne of grace,” give up your sense of ownership, and cling to the Father? Or will you stiff-arm God, become bitter, and continue to say “this is mine”?

Deuteronomy 8 is an amazing chapter. Consider these verses:

And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. Deuteronomy 8:3

Take care lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them…  you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery… Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. Deuteronomy 8:11-12, 14, 17-18 (ESV)

Jesus spoke a lot about brokenness as well. He said that the happy people, the people closest to God, are those who are “poor in spirit,” who “mourn,” who are “meek,” who “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Don’t miss how paradoxical it is to say “happy are those who are sad.” Jesus intentionally reverses our values: where before we prided ourselves in the ownership of our lives and patted ourselves on the back for our independence, may our prayer now be for God to hunger us so we will be full of him, to break us so we will be whole in him.

what it means to be a disciple

A disciple of Christ is one who intentionally and relentlessly pursues Christ. Disciples seek to know him more deeply, to love him more fully, and to witness to him more profoundly with their lives, every day. Disciples hold nothing back. They submit it all – time, money, plans, family, friends, talents, comforts, desires, needs, sickness, health, present, future, body, soul, everything – to the will of their Lord. He is the author and finisher of their faith. He is their “all in all.”

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’
“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out.
“Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” Luke 14:25-35

Characteristics of disciples:

1. singular trust
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.” John 14:1

Disciples do not trust in the vanity of this world. They do not trust the devil who accuses them, the world which tempts them, or their own flesh which lures them. They do not trust their own opinions, or their own interpretations of life. They do not trust their own righteousness or moral efforts. Their trust is in one place, and one place only: their Savior.

2. unattached to the world; wholly attached to Jesus
“…set apart for the gospel of God…” Romans 1:1

Disciples do not seek to gain the world, for their citizenship is already secure in heaven. They do not want what the world wants or fear what the world fears. To them, ambition, money, and worldly success only pale in comparison with the joy, peace, and satisfaction of knowing Christ.

3. sacrificial love
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34-35
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23

In order to love like Jesus, disciples give up their rights for the sake of others. They don’t insist on what they want, but humbly and quietly sacrifice their desires and needs so that other will benefit. They do this because of the way Jesus has loved them, giving up all his rights for their sake and taking up his cross for them.

4. a passion for the poor, oppressed, and lost
Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Luke 14:12-14
Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Mark 2:17

Jesus spent the great majority of his time on earth with sick people, societal outcasts, nobodies, and the poor. He preached about how difficult it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, and he demanded that his followers give up everything they owned in order to follow him. Christ’s disciples compassionately and intentionally seek out the poor, the oppressed, and the lost in order to provide for their physical needs, love them, and tell them the gospel of Jesus, the “man familiar with suffering” who is nonetheless “making all things new.”

5. sharing the love of Christ and making other disciples; being “salt and light”
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20

Disciples know that Jesus is in charge of the universe and their lives; they know he loves them and will never leave them. Therefore, they go. They go and they take his message with them.

 

Jesus warned us: count the cost. The road will not be easy. It will be marked with suffering and identified by sacrifice. It will require daily struggle, daily repentance, and daily surrender. But it will be the journey of a lifetime. It will conquer the universe.

the gospel

gospel = good news that brings great joy

There is no other place to start than with the gospel. The gospel is the central message of Christianity and the grand theme of the Bible. It is the starting place and ending place of the whole Christian life. It’s a story, and it begins with God…

Get a bigger idea of God than the one that you have. God exists: he is completely self-sufficient, independent, perfect, pure, and eternal. He exists in an eternal fellowship of three persons in one essence, whom we call Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. John 5:26

As for God, his way is perfect: the LORD’s word is flawless. Psalm 18:30

Who has understood the mind of the LORD, or instructed him as his counselor? Isaiah 40:13

God created the universe out of nothing, from the vastest galaxy to the protons and electrons of the smallest atom. He created spirits and a spiritual world. He created the earth and everything that lives on it. He created all these things for his own glory and purposes, and for the love and joy of his creation. At the pinnacle of his creation on earth he created humans to “bear his image” (represent his qualities; hold in themselves a reflection of who God is) and to rule the earth: not autonomously, but in everything dependent on God; loving him, praising him, loving and helping each other, and willingly submitting their wills to his.

You alone are the LORD. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you. Nehemiah 9:6

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27

Humanity rebelled, and has continued to rebel to this day. Humanity’s rebellion against God, called sin, is an exchange of the worship of God for the worship of self and things God has created. God hates it, for it is a perversion and distortion of what he has made. Its results are suffering, misery, evil, and, ultimately, death and the holy wrath of God.

They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Romans 1:25

All humans participate in this rebellion. Not just occasionally, when they lie or steal, but constantly, whenever they fail to worship God with everything in them, or when they love themselves more than other people. All humanity has turned away from God and gone their own way, and as a result, the world is evil, violent, self-serving, and corrupt. All of us have rejected God and pretended we were gods instead. And all of us deserve nothing other than his anger and judgment.

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. Ephesians 2:1-3

[God,] your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Habakkuk 1:13

It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Hebrews 10:31

Now, God – eternal, independent, all-powerful, self-existent, glorious – did not leave it at that. He never planned to leave it at that. In all love, in all kindness, in unimaginable grace, God the Son entered time and space as a man, a real man. He was conceived miraculously, was born naturally, lived sinlessly, was murdered unjustly, and was resurrected to life again after three days. His name was Jesus, which means “God saves.”

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14

Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. Acts 2:22-24

Through Jesus and only through him, reconciliation to God and freedom from sin and death are freely available. He lived perfectly so that those who believe can be credited before God with his perfect record. He died on a cross so that their debt to God can be paid for and their sins forgiven by his own taking on of the wrath of God. He rose from the dead because death could not hold him. God accepted his sacrifice on our behalf and promises the same kind of resurrection life to all who believe.

He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. Colossians 2:13-14

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” John 11:25-26

Through Jesus, the image of God in a person, once broken and distorted by sin, is restored. Through Jesus, sinful humans are recreated into what we were always meant to be. Through Jesus, the judgment of God is turned away and the love of God is lavished on us. Through Jesus, the unapproachable Deity becomes freely accessible; we are adopted into his family. Through Jesus, the Holy Spirit of God lives in us and changes us. Through Jesus come peace, joy, hope, freedom, value, and meaning. Through him comes true, indestructible life. He is the answer to our need, and the purpose of our lives. His love is the most incredible, truest reality in the whole world.

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 2 Corinthians 5:14-17

In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. Ephesians 3:12

It is through faith – belief and trust in what Jesus has done – that any person receives this free gift of God called redemption. No one can earn it; any good thing a person does is merely what they ought to have been doing all along. And even the good things we do outside faith are distorted by wrong motives and self-love. If you think God will save you from judgment because you are “good enough” or because you try to love him, understand that you not good enough and that you hardly love him. Instead, understand, know, and believe that Jesus is in all ways good enough and that he has loved you first.

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 1 John 4:9-10

“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Mark 1:15