Stepping Up to Maturity
As a person who likes to experience new things, I appreciate that in the Gospel we can always find new depths, new heights, and new lessons with the Lord. It is never boring at all. In fact, it can be difficult to keep up! The life of a Christian is one of continual spiritual progress until the day we make it to our final destination in glory.
To continue advancing in the Gospel takes effort. Our progress is based on our knowledge of God’s Word and obedience to it. If we will determine to increase our knowledge and obey, we will always be moving forward spiritually, and this should be the purpose of every believer.
It starts with a start
Before we can think about making progress in any endeavor, we must have a starting point. I have never seen anything start well in the middle; there must be a beginning, and from there we can advance.
So it is in the Christian journey. My walk with the Lord did not initiate with becoming a preacher; the start was getting saved, and that is the same spiritual beginning for everyone. Salvation takes place when one experiences godly sorrow for his sins, recognizing that he has sinned against God. He must then confess his sins to God and ask for forgiveness, believing in Christ for salvation. Then God will apply Jesus’ Blood to the heart, pardoning his sins for Christ’s sake. That is the start of the Christian life.
There is a parallel between the beginning of a physical life and that of a spiritual life. Jesus explained this to Nicodemus when He said, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Every man and woman, regardless of age, starts the Christian journey as a babe in Christ. It may sound a little humiliating for a grown man or woman to be referred to as a baby, but this is where each one must begin.
The early stages of development
The parallel between physical life and spiritual life continues beyond the moment of birth. For example, we know that newborns cannot eat meat; initially they can only digest milk, which is what their bodies need in order to grow. Later, as they get older, parents begin to feed them cereal and other solid foods, until eventually they can eat meat. A progression takes place.
We do not have to be babes in Christ forever. There is advancement in the Gospel, and as a new believer studies the Scriptures, he will begin to grow.
In 1 Peter 2:2-3 we read, “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: if so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious.” This tells us that newborn Christians also require special nourishment: they must be fed with the “milk” of the Bible—the simplicity of the Word of God. That is what they need in order to develop to the point that they can handle more challenging spiritual lessons. This is great news because it means we do not have to be babes in Christ forever. There is advancement in the Gospel, and as a new believer studies the Scriptures, he will begin to grow.
As with babies, there will come a time when a Christian must start exercising. Babies will first kick and wiggle their arms and legs, then sit when propped up, and finally sit alone. Parents who have seen their children go through this progression know that it is exciting. One day, their baby is sitting alone on the floor, and then all of the sudden, he pulls himself up and is standing and holding onto the coffee table. Dad or Mom gets in there and encourages him to take his first step, and he does! Everyone is delighted.
The Gospel is similar to that. Once a person has started by receiving salvation, he begins to take in the nourishment of the sound Word of God, and also to do some spiritual exercising. That exercise could be deciding to pray, both at home and at church. It could be setting aside time to study the Word of God, and applying what is learned to one’s choices in life. If a new convert was formerly accustomed to staying at home on Sundays, or maybe engaging in secular activities, he will need to alter his habits after salvation. He will choose to go to church on Sundays to worship God and fellowship with other believers. That is spiritual exercise. The new Christian will develop in a similar way as a child who learns to sit, and then crawl, and then stand, and then walk. It is exciting!
In the life of a healthy, growing Christian, everything may not always look perfect. Consider a child who is just starting to walk. He falls many times, but he quickly gets back up again. On occasion he may take a hard fall and cry until an adult comes and lifts him up and comforts him. This is part of the normal process of growth.
Spiritually speaking, there will be times along the way when a young believer will stumble and fall. I’m not referring to turning away from God in deliberate sin, but to the mistakes that happen when learning something new. The important thing is that we do not stay down; we must get up again, or cry out to our heavenly Father for help. If we will keep pressing on, eventually we will learn to walk with stability, and from there we can learn to run! This is progress.
Milestones along the way
From the starting point of salvation, new converts are encouraged to immediately seek the experience of sanctification by consecrating their lives fully to God. Sanctification occurs when God responds to that act of consecration by eradicating the nature of sin and imparting His divine nature in its place. This is a critical step forward in one’s spiritual growth.
While the experience of sanctification is wonderful, God has even more in store. As the sanctified believer continues seeking God, He will baptize him with the Holy Spirit. This is the third definite Christian experience, and it is powerful. The baptism is a huge step of spiritual advancement. Yet, one can still move forward from there!
In 2 Peter 1:5-7, we find step-by-step instruction for continuing to make progress with God. It says, “And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.” These qualities are not the type that we can simply check off a list and move on; they can always be developed more deeply in our lives. Those who obey these verses will keep growing, keep progressing, and keep advancing spiritually.
Verse 8 concludes, “For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” If we exercise these qualities, we will be fruitful—we will produce something useful. This also brings to mind the illustration of a growing child. As he gets a little older, he gains knowledge and skills that enable him to produce something of value. Spiritually speaking, when we use the knowledge God has given us, we come to a place where we can become contributors to God’s work. This is another step forward in our Christian journey.
Chastening leads to progress
When a child is misbehaving, he needs to be corrected, and it is a parent’s responsibility to do that. Similarly, if we have stepped out of line in our Christian walks, or done something outside of the boundaries of God’s Word, then chastisement is needful. This is also part of the process of moving forward in the Gospel.
Hebrews 12:5-11 explains this thoroughly. It begins, “My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of Him.” This verse may be a little difficult to embrace, because we know a reprimand must hurt—it could not be effective if it did not. A child will only misbehave more if the consequence is not in some way unpleasant.
That is why God corrects us—because He loves us. If He did not care, He would let us go our own way and we would walk right into spiritual disaster. God does love us, so He chastens us.
Likewise, correction from God cannot feel good, yet we know it is good for us. The writer goes on to tell why: “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons” (verses 6-7). That is why God corrects us—because He loves us. If He did not care, He would let us go our own way and we would walk right into spiritual disaster. God does love us, so He chastens us.
What should be our reaction when God chastens us? Hebrews 12:9 says, “Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them much reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits and live?” We should subject ourselves to God and obey when He corrects us. Not all earthly parents have their children’s best interests in mind when they discipline, but God always does. His intention is to make us holy, or as the writer put it, to make us “partakers of his holiness,” because without holiness “no man shall see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:10,14). If something we do is causing separation between us and God, He will tell us, and reprimand us if necessary, because He does not want us to be separated from Him.
Hebrews 12:11 says, “Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.” It never feels good when the Word of God pierces down into the heart and reveals a shortcoming in our lives. However, it does feel good to accept the correction and then feel the Father’s loving embrace. It feels good to take another step in the right direction, and to advance a little further in the Gospel.
Hebrews 5:14 reads, “But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” Being “of full age” does not refer to chronological age or how many years one has been in the Gospel, but to how much spiritual growth a person has attained. There are some who have been saved over twenty years but are still like babes in Christ, only able to take in milk. That is not a healthy Christian, but a Christian who is in a dangerous state of stagnation.
When we are growing properly, there will come a time when we have matured enough to have a discerning spirit. We will be able to recognize the spiritual dangers around us in this sinful world. A new believer may need to ask his pastor, “Is this choice spiritually unsafe?” But the mature Christian will be able to know where to safely draw the line. That is one who has been fed with meat, and digested it. He is able to stand up and resist the enemy.
As we become spiritually mature, we are able to receive what we need from God without depending on others. This aspect of spiritual growth reminds me of a lesson from my youth. When I was a teenager, my brother and I had our own fishing boat. My dad was a commercial fisherman, and he told us where to set our nets for a good catch. We set the nets where we thought he had told us, and when we pulled in the nets we did catch some fish, so we thought we were on the mark. But when we set them out again, many more times, we did not catch any more fish. Dad came to check on us and we learned that actually we were not on the mark. The only reason we had caught something on the first try was because of the time of day; the fish were moving from the shore to the deeper water and we just happened to have a net in when they passed by.
Almost anyone can receive a blessing in a time of revival, but it takes a mature Christian to be able to receive from God at any time.
That experience shows that anyone can catch fish if it happens to be the right time of day, but only a skilled fisherman can catch fish at any time of day. In a similar way, almost anyone can receive a blessing in a time of revival, but it takes a mature Christian to be able to receive from God at any time. As we grow in Christ, we mature to the point where we no longer rely on catching a “spark” from somebody else’s spiritual flame in order to get a prayer through, but we can pray down the blessing ourselves.
Ephesians 4:14 says, “That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive.” This epistle is a message about unity in the Church, but the writer brings out the important point that we should reach a place in our Christian walks where we are not being pulled all over the place or going around in circles. As mature Christians, we have a focus. We have established our goals and we are working toward them. We know where we are going because we are not children anymore; we have matured in Christ and are moving forward.
The Gospel is challenging. The spiritual journey begins at salvation as a babe in Christ, and from there we are constantly presented with opportunities for learning and growth. We will never reach a place where our relationship with God cannot develop further, or where we have exhausted Scripture of the lessons it can teach us. Truly there are no limits to what we can attain with God!
How far do you want to go in the Gospel? If you are willing to take another step today, look to Him in prayer. As you seek God, He will take you further still.