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