On the front cover of Leadership Journal, Spring 2010, there is a picture of about fifteen baby bottles with the caption “Got Maturity? Nurturing a congregation beyond spiritual infancy.” The cover and the related articles serve to remind and challenge all spiritual leaders that they have a responsibility to mature personally and to challenge their congregations (classes, small groups, etc.) to do the same. Obviously the question “Got Maturity?” leads to another question, “How do I know if I am mature?” Or, “Is there a way I can evaluate my maturity?” The answer is yes; several passages of scripture present a list of qualifiers that can be used to evaluate maturity. For example, Paul gives both Timothy and Titus a list to use when selecting elders and deacons for the local church; and in Psalms 15, King David provides a substantial list articulating those who “dwell on [God’s] holy hill?” (15:1). Then for those who are indwelt with God the Holy Spirit, Paul provides a list of what fruit the Holy Spirit will manifest in the life of the believer in Galatians 5:22-26.
However, the most comprehensive list is found when one unpacks the virtues of Christ (or qualifiers of maturity) Paul presents in Colossians 3:12-17. Utilizing the structure presented in Steve Runge’s Lexham High Definition New Testament, a list can easily be seen in the bulletized line-by-line structure he presents from the Greek text. Paul tells all Christians to “put on” or possess these fourteen virtues of Christ beginning with
1) compassionate hearts, 2) kindness, 3) humility, 4) meekness, and 5) patience, 6) bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, 7) forgiving each other; (as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive) And above all these put on 8) love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And 9) let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And 10) be thankful. 11) Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, 12) teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, 13) singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, (with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (And whatever you do, in word or • deed,) 14) do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, (giving thanks to God the Father through him) [bold numbers mine].
Each of these fourteen marks of maturity provided the believers at the church at Colossae with indicators of steady progress toward maturity. However, three stand out as exceptionally important. By unpacking the depth of the virtues 3) “humility,” 8) “love” and 12) “teaching and admonishing,” all Christians can better understand how each of the fourteen virtues can be analyzed and used to evaluate a believer’s maturity in Christ.
The opposite of humility is pride, and pride is the deadly sin that caused Lucifer to be cast from heaven. Theologian John Cassian writes, “Lucifer, was cast out of heaven for no other sin but this [he was] pierced with the dart of pride.” In a chapter that glorifies Jesus as the one that God “has highly exalted” (Philippians 2:9), the reader is reminded that Jesus, the believer’s supreme model for life and godliness, “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (2:8). Being recognized as a humble person is a significant sign of maturity. Paul told Timothy when selecting elders that he cannot be a “novice” because immature converts are susceptible to being puffed up with pride. Elders should be models of maturity in the church and this model will be described by all as a humble person. Jesus said, “Whoever humbles themselves as a little child the same is the greatest in the kingdom of God” (Matthew 18:4). A mature Christian will need an abundance of God’s grace to be like Christ in this sinful world, yet James 4:7 says “God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble.” The mature Christian does not seek to exalt himself but trusts in the sovereignty of God to exalt him at whatever time God chooses. Jesus modeled this throughout his entire ministry. In Matthew 21:5 He is described as “humble” and sitting on a donkey. Becoming or being humble is hard work; it will take consistent practice. One will know spiritual formation is happening if he abhors pride and seeks to put on the humility of Christ as he dies to himself.
Paul makes it clear that “love” is the overarching virtue that distinguishes spiritual babes from mature Christians. He writes, “And above all these put on love which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:14). If there is but one virtue to work on, then work on diligently putting on love is what Paul is saying. This is a reoccurring theme throughout Christ’s ministry. When a Jew wonders what it means to love one’s neighbor and who that neighbor is, Jesus gives a complete sermon explaining what love looks like with the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37). In the parable, the reader is given a picture of what unconditional love looks like. Stein writes, “Jesus and Luke sought to illustrate that the love of one’s neighbor must transcend all natural or human boundaries such as race, nationality, religion, and economic or educational status.” The mature Christian must seek to rid his heart of all prejudice. He must strive to love his enemies and pray for those who persecute him (Matthew 6:44). The mature believer turns the other cheek (Luke 6:29). Loving one’s enemies does not come natural. When a Christian is able to love his enemy, he can be assured spiritual formation is happening.
A maturing Christian is striving with all he has to love the Lord his God with his heart, soul, mind, and strength (Luke 10:27). From 1 Corinthians 13, the mature Christian is able to evaluate whether he is patient, kind, not envious, not arrogant (or humble), and not resentful (or forgiving). He learns that the greatest of faith, hope and love is love (13:13). D.A. Carson says, “Love has the top place, for reasons that are clear in vs. 1–7.” In fact, Paul is quite unified in his message between 1 Corinthians 13 and Colossians 3 where he states that believers must bear each other’s burdens and forgive one another even as Christ has forgiven us. Love manifested in the ability to genuinely forgive after one has been “stabbed in the back” is a true mark of being conformed to the image of God’s Son. When the believer is able to say, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34) he or she can be assured God the Spirit is doing an incredible work of maturity in their heart and soul and they are learning to love like Christ loves. Ultimately, because God is love and perfect love comes from God, the believer who is striving to love like Christ loves can be assured spiritual formation is happening in his life. Jesus said all men would know who was his disciples by their love for one another (John 13:35). Essentially, the more I love the more I know Christ is being formed in me. Philippians 1:9 provides ideal transition from the virtue of love to the virtue of knowledge to teach. Paul writes that his prayer is that the Philippians Christian’s “love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment.”
Finally, a Christian can evaluate his own personal maturity by asking himself (herself) can I teach the Word of Christ to another person? This does not mean the believer must be able to preach or teach large audiences. One does not have to be gifted, like Beth Moore, in order to be able to disciple another toward spiritual growth. However, if a person feels completely inadequate to communicate the message of the gospel and its implications into all aspects of life, then he or she should not evaluate themselves as mature. The inability to give an answer for the hope that lies within someone should serve as a red flag that more work must be done in letting the “word of Christ dwell” in them (Colossians 3:16). The single qualification between an elder and deacon is an ability to teach the Word (1 Timothy 3).
The mature Christian knows that he does not live by bread alone (Matt 4:4). He understands that spiritual growth comes from the Word of God; he feeds upon the Word through preaching, teaching, personal Bible study and supplemental reading. The author of Hebrews 5:12–14a puts it plainly with:
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature (ESV).
The believer who is lost when solid food is delivered or has no interest in solid food needs to evaluate themselves as a babe in Christ and seek to change that. Peter commands believers to grow in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18). Yet Richard Foster reminds us “we come to the scripture to be changed, not to amass information.” Citing 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Foster notes “that the central purpose” of scripture is “inner transformation.” Who can argue against the reality that the greatest way to learn something is to have to teach it? Therefore, one can be assured that in the process of teaching the Word of God one could hardly keep from growing.
It takes a mature person to have the character to “admonish” other Christians in the grace and faith of the Lord Jesus Christ. When to admonish, how to admonish, and what to say to admonish all requires significant spiritual maturity. Melick writes, “Admonishing differs from teaching. Admonishing has the element of strong encouragement. It is generally practical and moral.” A spiritually immature person could lash out at someone or rebuke someone but this is not admonishment. Admonishment has a very positive connotation to it—it is spirit filled, gospel-centered, biblically sound encouragement.
Growing in Christ is not optional. Paul’s emphasis on the importance of spiritual formation is seen in what he writes in Galatians 4:19. When Paul says that he “travails in birth again” or is going through birth pangs “until Christ be formed in you,” his reader must recognize how important Paul views the Christian growing in the virtues of the One who saved him from the power and penalty of sin. Each of the virtues he presents in Colossians 3 are marks one can use to analyze if he is yielding to and cooperating with God’s transforming work in his life (Philippians 1:6). Hopefully by presenting how three of the marks can be further studied in light of rest of the Word of God, the reader can see how each virtue can be studied and used to measure spiritual growth or conformity to the image of the Son (Romans 8:29). The Bible is full of exhortations for God’s people to submit to His work in their lives. For example, James exhorts his reader to let perseverance do “its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:4). In Opening Up James, Roger Ellsworth writes, “Every Christian is interested in spiritual maturity. No one can be a Christian and not be interested in growing in the things of the Lord.” Perhaps the most important reason why every Christian should continually be examining whether they are becoming more like Christ is that there is no greater assurance of one’s salvation than to experience the sanctifying work of God in one’s life.
Carson, D. A. Carson, New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.
Ellsworth, Roger. Opening Up James. Leominster: Day One Publications, 2009.
Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1998.
Melick, Richard R. Philippians, Colossians, Philemon: The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001.
Robert H. Stein, Luke, The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001.
Runge, Steven. The Lexham High Definition New Testament: ESV Edition. Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2008.
Schaff, Philip, Editor. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Vol. XI. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997.