Rev. VanOverloop is pastor of Georgetown Protestant Reformed Church in Bauer, Michigan.
No one likes to be told that he is immature. Children want to be older, so they may be allowed to do the things they see their parents or older siblings doing. Young people want to be considered adults, or old enough to be allowed to do certain things.
And no one likes to be told he is an immature Christian. At least twice in the New Testament, Christians were called immature. The apostle Paul charged the Corinthian Christians with being “babes in Christ” (I Cor. 31). Paul declares that the envying, strife, and divisions that existed in their congregation were because they were immature Christians. And inHebrews 5 the Hebrew Christians were told that they “ought to be teachers,” but they “still have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.” Those who are “unskillful in the word of righteousness” are babes, “but strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age” (Heb. 5:12-14).
No Christian would like to hear these biblical statements written or said of him. It is one thing to be immature physically—that is not sinful. It is another thing to be an adult physically, but to act immaturely—that is often foolish. But it can be a serious sin to be immature spiritually. Every adult believer wants to be mature spiritually.
Godly parents seek to train their children so they will be mature Christians. The apostle Paul prayed that the Philippians would ever grow. “And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; that ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ; being filled with the tits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:9-11). This passage clearly implies that we must never stop growing.
What does it mean to be a mature Christian?
There is always the danger of misidentifying spiritual maturity. First, there is the error of equating having membership in a local congregation for a certain length of time with spiritual maturity. Church membership, in itself, has nothing to do with spiritual maturity because church membership, in itself, does not mean spirituality. All who are spiritually mature will seek church membership, but not all who hold church membership are spiritual.
Secondly, there is the danger of equating a certain length of time in the faith with spiritual maturity. But maturity, while it often does come over a period of time, does not automatically do so. It depends on what you do with the time. Maturity has to do with attitude, not with time.
Thirdly, the perversity of the “body of this death” (Rom. 7:24), which remains with every believer until he enters eternal glory, is great. Therefore there is the constant, serious danger that what was once an activity of great purpose and zeal becomes routine. It is wrong to equate habit and custom with maturity. That one attends church services regularly (or even faithfully) does not necessarily mean spiritual liveliness and strength. Regular and faithful attendance can just as easily come out of empty custom, meaningless form, and/or a jaded spiritual sensitivity. Regular and faithful attendance could as easily indicate a kind of commitment to a church building, or to a congregation or denomination in which one grew up, as it could be an indication of spiritual maturity. It is so easy to become complacent in one’s walk with God.
It is so easy to take for granted the precious heritage of the faith of our spiritual fathers. It is so easy for the wonderful words and concepts of Scripture to become only words, little understood and even less appreciated. It is so easy for the repeated petitions of our prayers to be only the movement of the lips without the movement of the heart.
Spiritual maturity is determined by considering one’s attitude toward God. I Corinthians 3:1, 2 teaches that our attitude toward God will be manifested in our attitude toward God’s people; and Hebrews 5 teaches that our attitude toward God will be manifested in our attitude toward His teachings and commandments. There may be daily and even hourly fluctuations of mind and heart, but the judgment of maturity considers not these fluctuations (no one is perfectly consistent or totally unaffected by the circumstances of divine providence). Rather, what is my basic attitude toward God? What is my basic attitude toward God’s people? And what is my basic attitude toward God’s Word?
An equally interesting question is: How should my attitude toward God, His commandments, and His people, change as I accumulate years in the kingdom of God? Should God grow larger as I know Him better? Should God’s teachings inspire more awe, the more I study them? Should God’s people become more the object of my love, the more I understand what God has done for them? Or does increased familiarity cause complacency?
Spiritual maturity once attained is not automatically kept. Unlike physical maturity, we must constantly grow spiritually. Spiritual maturity is not something you reach and then you will have it until death. We need ever to grow. We need to “abound yet more and more” (Phil. 1:9). We need always to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (II Pet. 3:18). The presence of sin in every believer makes this necessary.
It is normal that the initial experience of the knowledge of the Savior and forgiveness in Him is accompanied with great enthusiasm. There is what is called “first love.” It is also normal that growth in the knowledge of the Savior and of Him who sent Him is accompanied with deeper humility and hence less outward expressions of enthusiasm. This difference has been equated to a stream, which makes a lot of noise and show when it is shallow, but runs quietly when it is deep.
Our concern is that the quietness of a professing mature Christian is not that of the cemetery, but of waters which run deep. Depth does not mean routine or complacency, for where the waters run deep (and without a lot of noise) there is a great volume of running water. But mere frequency can make for habit.
Some believers who profess maturity seem to be of the opinion that their maturity gives them mastery. Of course, this professed mature believer would never admit to such a mastery—he knows well that to say such would indicate pride. Nevertheless his attitude toward God’s people shows his pride. In God’s Word and in the preaching of that Word he finds more material for showing the weakness of others than he finds fresh and vital nourishment to his own soul. God’s Word is his guide for theology and life, but it is most often used to show off knowledge and ability, especially over against others. To such supposedly mature Christians the awe and wonder and excitement exhibited by others is considered immaturity.
The maturity desired is not intellectual sophistication, but a high level of spiritual sensitivity and discernment. As I truly “grow in the grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (II Pet. 3:18) the things of the Lord grow. God’s Being, His most high majesty, and His glory become greater. He is seen increasingly as worthy to receive glory and praise via my obedience. His love becomes deeper and sweeter. His character becomes more awesome and wonderful. New depth is given to old truths so they are fresh, and these truths are more precious than silver and gold. The importance and value of God’s Word as described in Psalm 119 is frequently appreciated.
For those growing in an understanding of theology, not only does the Word of God grow more enriching, but also all the commands of our Father grow in importance and vitality. To attend worship services is considered a blessed privilege, not just something to be done, or a duty, or a face-saving measure with an eye to those we know are watching us. Worship is considered a privilege because it is praise given to Him who is so worthy, because it is communion with the One who is so gracious, and because it is gratitude to One so wise and loving. Worship services are happily anticipated, and approached with the assurance that they will be greatly edifying and richly satisfying.
For those growing spiritually, to love and forgive their fellow-saints is also considered a privilege, and not just a duty. It is a privilege to love those so loved by God that He redeemed them at an infinite cost to Himself. As we grow in grace and in knowledge of Christ, the rest of God’s children grow more lovely to us. We learn more and more to see them in Christ and to see more of Christ in them. It becomes easier to prefer them before ourselves, because we see who is in them. We find ourselves more and more hesitant to criticize their persons because nothing can be laid “to the charge of God’s elect,” for “it is God that justifieth” (Rom. 8:33).
Along with growth in an understanding of the worship of God and of God’s people, many other things grow in depth and magnitude as we grow in Christ. Prayer is more and more an amazing privilege. Faith grows stronger as it is exercised. Also the power of Satan and sin grows in our minds as we grow in Christ. And God’s creation gives increasing evidence of the handiwork of its Creator.
What is your attitude about God? His people? His church? His Word? Have you lost your first love? Do you find yourself attending church services and Bible studies more out of habit than because of sincere gratitude? Are you abounding still more and more? Have you gone beyond the basics in doctrine? Do you find yourself responding to differences with your fellow church members with hatred and by shouting?
Length of church membership should not mean complacency, but it should be the occasion for increased growth. Increased knowledge of God should show with increasing clarity His infinite greatness and glory, not less. Increased maturity should give us greater appreciation for God’s people, not less. Continued spiritual growth gives rise to increased confession and humility before God and others, and to an increased joy and gratitude at the miracle of forgiveness.