By Brannon S. Howse
Hopefully, you will agree that Christians should be continually growing in godliness. The process of sanctification that begins in us when we are saved continues throughout our lives. But how do we recognize genuine maturity as we grow? Are there certain traits that reveal the level of maturity a believer has attained?
God’s Word is actually quite clear about what constitutes Christian maturity. I’ve identified in Scripture 15 different characteristics of maturity in Christ. Through Scripture, we know that God desires that we mature. First Corinthians 14:20 says, “Brethren, do not be children in understanding; however, in malice be babes, but in understanding be mature.” We are called to growth.
In the book of 1 John, John describes varying levels of spiritual growth as children, young men, and fathers, and it should go without saying that we don’t want to remain as children. In 1 Corinthians 13:11, Paul says, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Ephesians 4:14-15 also speaks of not being a child, spiritually:
[quote] [W]e should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ. [end quote]
And in Hebrews 5:12-13: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food.”
The Hebrews passage actually chides believers for not growing as they should. These believers apparently don’t even have a grasp of Christianity 101, yet the writer thinks his readers have been Christians long enough to be much further down the road than they are.
This should challenge all of us to wonder if we are where we should be with Christ. Are you “an approved workman, who need not be ashamed, rightfully dividing the Word of Truth” (2 Timothy 2:15)? Can you answer not only the Christianity 101 questions of your family and friends, but also go beyond? If not, why not? Do you have a desire to study God’s Word? Do you have an interest in growing in truth and in the knowledge of God’s Word? If not, you might question whether or not you’re really saved.
I don’t suggest this to be an alarmist, but Scripture says we are to examine ourselves to make sure we’re in the Faith. We’re to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. And what does that refer to? It references working out our faith through ongoing obedience. A true believer is going be faithful and obedient. A maturing Christian develops beyond Christianity 101. That’s why the Hebrews 5 writer is troubled. These Christians still need milk, not solid food.
Some folks might believe that Hebrews is saying, “You still are in the milk section of the Bible,” in the same way a grocery store has a milk aisle and a meat department. The Bible is not like that, though. There is not a milk section and a meat section in Scripture. The Bible is all meat. What the Hebrews passage indicates is that these Christians are not going deep but are still skimming the surface. The “milk” approach is to be content just reading quickly through a passage of Scripture, whereas if you want meat, you will more likely get out your Strong’s Concordance and commentaries, so you can understand the Greek and Hebrew and cross-reference your study, letting Scripture interpret Scripture. You dig into the meat of the Word. The question is: How deep are you going with the Word of God?
The Bible has a lot to say about being spiritually mature. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17 we see the goal of studying and knowing the Word of God: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (emphasis mine). Not remaining as children in the faith or staying as young men in the faith, but becoming grown spiritual men (and women) is what we’re intended for.
So how do you know when “you’re getting there”? That’s what the 15 hallmarks of maturity can tell you.
1. A spiritually maturing believer wants to know the will of God.
In Matthew 7:21, Jesus points out the importance of wanting God’s will in how God views us: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in Heaven.” Someone who gets to heaven does the will of God the Father. In order to do His will, of course, you have to know what it is. Romans 12:2 shows us the way to find out: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
To know God’s will, we must not fall into the world’s way of thinking, but be renewed through Scripture to grasp a biblical worldview. A Christian must study God’s Word.
One of the most common questions people ask me is, “How can I know the will of God for my life?” The way to know the will of God is through the study of God’s Word. When God’s Word fills your mind and heart, you begin to have godly desires, godly ambitions, godly goals, and pretty soon you don’t even have to wonder what the will of God is for your life, because God is placing His will in your life. He’s giving you the desire to do His will.
As I explained in the chapter on God’s sovereignty, it’s the sort of experience I had in planning the Contend 2014 Conference. I had come to want what God wanted, so putting on the conference became an obvious thing to do. So, if you have the desire to do something good and godly and you’ve been faithfully seeking God through His Word, your desire is from Him. That means carrying it out would be doing His will. For instance, a young person may think, “I’m in college and have the desire to go to seminary and become a Bible teacher or pastor who teaches the Word of God, defends the Church, and carries out the mandate of a biblical New Testament church. Even though my original goal was to be an attorney, over the last few years of studying God’s Word, I now have the desire to be a pastor.” That’s most likely from God.
I’ve seen this very thing happen in some surprising ways. A few years ago, a young man e-mailed me to say he was totally opposed to what we do here at Worldview Weekend. By his own admission, he was a false convert. Then, a few years later, he’d become a true believer and wrote me again. He had gone from planning to be an attorney, to wanting to be a pastor. Although he had intended from childhood to be an attorney, after studying God’s Word, all he wanted to do was go to seminary and teach Scripture. So, it is likely God’s will that he become a pastor. Why else would he now reject an earthly pursuit he’s had in mind for years and want to change his direction to become a Gospel preacher/teacher/shepherd/elder/expositor? It came from a change of his heart and mind, as described in Romans.
All the good and godly things we desire come only from the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Having such desires is sanctification at work, because left to our old nature and flesh, we desire evil rather than good. As Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; Who can know it?” This is why study of God’s Word is necessary if God is to place good and godly desires on your heart. First Peter 4:2 tells what happens: “that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.” Once you become a believer, you no longer live to the flesh; you are no longer a slave to sin, ruled by your flesh. You are now a slave to Christ. In John 7:17, Jesus assures us that “if anyone wills to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine.” (The word doctrine means teaching or instruction.) And Ephesians 5:17 says, “Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” We’re commanded to know the will of the Lord.
2. A spiritually maturing Christian loves the truth of God’s Word.
By contrast to believers, non-believers do not love God’s truth. Second Thessalonians 2:10 makes this clear: “with all the deceit of unrighteousness in those who perish, because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.” Unbelievers don’t love the truth of the Gospel. They don’t love the truth that is, indeed, Jesus Christ, who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).
Truth is not a what. It is a Who. John 1:1, 14 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Hebrews 1 says that God spoke through His prophets but now speaks through His Son Jesus Christ, the revealed truth of the Gospel, particularly the New Testament. When a believer loves the Lord Jesus Christ, he or she is loving God’s Word. A true believer wants to know truth and to grow in it. This includes having the desire to defend truth and proclaim the Gospel.
Some religious leaders actually do not love the truth. They may say they do, but “talk is cheap.” People like this never study God’s Word, the source for discovering truth, and never seem to want to talk about spiritual things. They don’t defend the Gospel when it’s attacked and don’t proclaim the truth of God’s Word. These people are cultural Christians. Someone who does not love the truth is not a believer, let alone a spiritually growing and maturing Christian.
A man I’ve known for many years is fairly well known in religious circles here in the United States. As a religious broadcaster, he would be considered a leader of the New Religious Right. And at least two other people I know who have spent time with this man, have told me that “for a guy who’s supposedly a Christian leader, he doesn’t show much interest in spiritual things.” Everything he talks about is political, and he is disappointed that the Church in America is not politically active enough and that pastors aren’t preaching politics from the pulpit. He’ll take on the culture war, but if you try to discuss spiritual or biblical topics with him, he changes the subject or has nothing to add to the conversation. Once in conversation with him, I said of another person, “That guy can’t be a believer; he doesn’t believe Jesus is the only way.”
To which this Christian leader responded, “Well, you can be a believer without believing Jesus is the only way.”
Surprised by his comment, I simply replied, “No, you cannot.” I didn’t know what to say at that moment.
In another conversation, I once asked him, “When do you believe the rapture will occur?”
He turned to one of his family members and asked, “What do we believe?” He didn’t know.
A love of politics or a love for fighting the culture war are not signs of a true believer. A love for the truth of God’s Word must come first.
Believers certainly can be passionate about social issues. If you’re involved in pro-life work as a true believer, you’re there because you understand the truth of God’s Word on that topic, and your love for that truth motivates your biblical response to abortion. The same is true of same-sex marriage. Why do believers oppose same-sex marriage? Because we’re committed to the culture war? No. It’s because we’re committed to God’s Word. We honor what Scripture says about marriage and know what it says about same-sex relationships.
Whatever the issue, believers take a position based on our love of the truth of God’s Word and the principles it reveals. God ordained family structure, civil government, and church authority, so it isn’t a party platform that dictates our position on these things. We don’t decide what to think based on our desire to take dominion or establish God’s kingdom on Earth and to implement some kind of Christian Taliban in America via reconstructionism. We take stands on issues because we love God’s Word, and our response to Scripture defines whatever position we hold on the issue of the day.
Sadly, many people in the Religious Right do not grasp this. When they’re asked about same-sex marriage, they respond, “That has not been the culturally accepted standard for thousands of years.” Their rationale suggests that if homosexuality had been the culturally accepted standard for a number of centuries, then it would be an appropriate social structure. “Cultural standard,” though, has nothing to do with why we think homosexuality is wrong. Since God’s Word condemns it, the proper response for a believer is, “Thus sayeth the Lord.” God’s Word tells us what constitutes a marriage and how to think about abortion. The Bible explains the purpose of government and lays out the model for a New Testament church. Scripture reveals why we don’t embrace socialism or its first cousin, social justice.
It seems, though, that most people who make up the Religious Right, the New Religious Right, or Neo-Evangelicalism do not love the truth of God’s Word. They don’t study Scripture, and so, do not grow spiritually. Some even manifest the same fruit as unbelievers. Rather than defending Scripture when attacked, they often say nothing, or worse, they join in the attack, undermining the sufficiency of Scripture. They promote a false Jesus by partnering with Mormons, Roman Catholics, and the ecumenical crowd. Why? Because we agree on politics, and these “believers” become more committed to the culture war than to the truth. They love the culture war and the attendant politics. Yet if they loved God’s Word, they would be offended by anyone who preaches another Jesus or another Gospel.
3. A maturing believer desires to glorify God.
In 1 Corinthians 10:31, Paul recognizes this succinctly. “Therefore,” he says, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
The believer should want to honor God at all times, in everything. Does that mean that we succeed? No. There are times when we really blow it and don’t bring much honor and glory to Him. We fail in our Christian walk and testimony. For true believers, though, that should be rare. Our lives should be marked more by obedience than disobedience. Even the Apostle Paul spoke about the struggle between his flesh and his desire to do the will of God. At the end of his life, he characterized himself as “wretched sinner that I am, the chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). The very fact, though, that our lives are marked more by obedience than disobedience is a way that we bring glory to God.
People sometimes wonder how we can bring glory to God in whatever we do. You can use whatever position you hold—a professional athlete, public official, business leader—as a platform to be a powerful example of a true believer. If you enjoy public policy and long to support a biblical framework for protecting Christians, keeping the pulpit unencumbered, and maintaining open airwaves for Christian broadcasting, that is a wonderful service to God if done because God’s Word directs you to do it. Whatever your occupation—plumber, carpenter, nurse, bus driver, truck driver, hotel desk clerk, waitress, or doctor—your ultimate goal as a believer is to bring glory to Christ.
Understanding this naturally leads to the question, “How do we bring glory to God?” Paul offers a key in Philippians 1:9-11:
[quote] And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. [end quote]
To bring glory and praise to God, you need to abound or grow in knowledge—the acquisition of truth. And “discernment” or “wisdom” means knowing how to apply truth.
Study of God’s Word brings this discernment. The result is “that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness” (Philippians 1:10). This sort of biblical fruit comes through Jesus Christ. He is the way we can live the victorious Christian life—because of His death, burial, resurrection and by placing our faith and trust in Him, repenting of our sins. As a slave of Christ, we can do good and godly things and be filled with the fruits of righteousness.
4. A spiritually maturing Christian confesses his or her sins.
The Apostle John explains starkly how important this is:
[quote] If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10, emphasis mine) [end quote]
While some people use this passage to say that once you confess your sins and are saved, you never have to confess your sins again, that’s not at all what it is saying. There is a single time at which you become a believer. No one gets saved over and over again. The doctrine of eternal security is correct—once saved, always saved.
Others teach that this passage means you might go to hell if you don’t confess every sin you ever commit. At the least, you will be held accountable for those sins later when you die. Yet that’s not correct, either. John teaches that we confess our sins out of an understanding of what Jesus Christ did for us. As we grow spiritually, we become increasingly aware of our sin, and through sanctification, we apprehend more of our depravity and the flesh warring within us. We become more aware of God’s holiness and the fate we deserve apart from Christ. This knowledge makes us more thankful that God saved us. The Holy Spirit shows the ways we need to conform to Him.
The ultimate goal of a believer is to conform to the character and nature of God. We do this through sanctification, and as we become more Christ-like, we learn the ways in which we are not like Christ. Therefore, the Holy Spirit, as we study God’s Word, illuminates Scripture and convicts us of areas we need to yield to God’s will. We die to self and pick up the cross of Christ.
Through the illumination of the Word, the Holy Spirit reveals areas where we need to become more like Christ. Whatever the issue—gossip, greed, envy, bitterness—believers can have problems and need to be wary. We should constantly be confessing sins, not for salvation, but for communion, in order to have a right relationship with Christ. We acknowledge our dependence on Him, thanking Him for what He’s done for us and acknowledging how amazing it is that He saved us. As Psalm 97:10 exhorts us, “You who love the Lord, hate evil!” And Proverbs 8:13: “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil.”
Apart from Christ, God looks at the righteous deeds of even the believer as filthy rags, but because of Christ, His perfect, sinless life has been imputed to us. The Apostle Paul doesn’t say, “Hey, when I became a believer, I stopped sinning.” No, in Romans 7:15-25, he says quite the opposite:
[quote] For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. [end quote]
I find then a law that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.
Paul acknowledges the ongoing struggle believers have in desiring to do the will of God, to walk in faithfulness and obedience, and to grow in sanctification.
5. The spiritually maturing believer is not easily offended but is gracious and longsuffering to persevere in faithfulness and obedience.
The scriptural basis for Point #5, as well as some of the other points to follow, lies in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 and has to do with the nature of love. Here’s how the Apostle Paul describes Christian love:
[quote] Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own; it is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (NASB) [end quote]
Take note of the first point, that “love is patient.” This is the fruit we are talking about in the spiritually maturing believer. Patience underlies the attitude of one who is not easily offended, as we’ll see in looking at the original Greek in this passage.
Perhaps you think of yourself as being a patient person. You might say, “I can stand in line at the grocery store and wait my turn, and it doesn’t really bother me. I can even handle it in the express lane, where you’re supposed to have ten items or less, and somebody in front of me has 15 or 20 items in his cart. I don’t get upset over things like that.” Is that the kind of patience being discussed in 1 Corinthians 13? The answer is yes and no.
If you refer to a resource like the Thayer and Smith Greek Lexicon, you’ll find that the synonym for patience is longsuffering. It means to not lose heart, to persevere in misfortunes and troubles, to bear the offenses and injuries of others, and to be mild and slow in avenging. This is more than just being able to wait your turn in line. That is fine, of course, but it’s another thing entirely to be patient when someone mistreats you, falsely accuses you, speaks evil against you that’s not true, and seeks to damage your reputation and credibility. This sort of patience requires serious Christian maturity.
Young children are often quick to retaliate or seek revenge when they’re picked on or mistreated by another child. Immature adults are similar. But one of the hallmarks of a spiritually mature or maturing believer is they can be insulted, verbally attacked, and relentlessly mistreated without cause. Yet he or she is not quick to retaliate or seek revenge. Paul reflects this in another way, in Ephesians 4:2 when he says that we should be, “with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love.”
We are called to be gracious with one another. Longsuffering with unbelievers also presents a good witness to those outside the Church. The Church’s first martyr, Stephen, modeled this even as he was stoned to death. Acts 7:60 records his last, gracious words, “Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not charge them with this sin.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”
Have you ever broken your arm, hand, or leg? Ever had your nose broken? Few things are more painful than getting smacked in the nose hard enough to break it. Most of us have endured some sort of physical injury. In 1999, I broke my back in a horse riding accident. It was extremely painful, and more recently I crushed my index finger, turning it purple and black.
If you multiply by many times the pain of whatever injury you experienced, you’ll have some idea of the suffering Stephen endured as his body was systematically broken to pieces with rocks. To compound the physical torment, he was being killed unjustly, having done nothing deserving of such punishment. He had merely been preaching the Gospel to lost people on their way to hell.
What would you do if a group of thugs started throwing rocks at you for no reason? Your natural flesh reaction would probably not be compassion and kindness. Then consider how much worse it would feel if you had been trying to help the people who started throwing rocks at you. This might be when your fleshly side would come out, right? But not necessarily so. Like Stephen, a spiritually maturing believer exhibits the biblical fruit of not retaliating or seeking to avenge when wronged.
I imagine we’ve all been wronged, but nothing compared to what happened to our Lord or to Stephen, both of whom were murdered. Stephen, in his flesh, might have said something like, “I tried to tell you guys, but now you’re gonna get yours. Go ahead and kill me. You can’t imagine what awaits you. Every one of you are on your way to hell, and you deserve it—big time! Frankly, I’m glad you’ll end up there after what you’re doing to me.” Instead, by the Holy Spirit in him, he prayed that God would forgive them for murdering him. It is similar to Jesus’ words on the cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Real spiritual maturity is seen in believers who do not seek to revenge or retaliate, even when they’re wronged.
This is also how God has treated us. As 2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (emphasis mine). The Lord exhibits this character. He is the example.
God Almighty gives humanity more time so that those whose names have been written in the Lamb’s Book of Life before the foundation of the Earth can come to faith and repentance. He’s delaying His Second Coming, that great and terrible Day of the Lord, when He will bring judgment, because He is longsuffering.
The Scriptures say God takes no pleasure in the destruction of the wicked. Jesus certainly didn’t, even at the cross. Luke 23:33-34 describes His concern for His killers:
[quote] And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” And they divided His garments and cast lots. [end quote]
He didn’t hurl accusations and warn that “you’re gonna get yours.” Rather, He begged God to forgive these people. First Peter 2:23 reflects on this same kindness of Jesus, “who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously.”
As you grow in your faith, you will find that you can be wronged and let it go. You may be able to pray for the person who wronged you. You might even find opportunities to show concern for them. Perhaps you can see where they’re coming from due to a difficult situation and be able to offer encouragement like, “I’m thinking of you and praying for you. I know your family’s going through a hard time.” Whatever the situation, as you grow spiritually, you’ll find that your natural tendency to retaliate becomes just simply, “let it go.”
I’ve done that with hostile listeners who send e-mails lambasting what we do at Worldview Weekend. Generally, I’ll write back something such as, “I appreciate your feedback and appreciate that you watch our program. I see that you don’t agree, but I thank you for taking the time to write to me. If I can answer any of your questions, I’d love to have the opportunity to do that.” In response to that, people have said, “I can’t believe you responded that way. Now let me ask you a couple of questions.” Some later become believers. You never know how a person may see a Christ-likeness in your life that becomes a powerful witness of the Gospel.
Your willingness to “let it go” is the Holy Spirit sanctifying your life. It’s nothing to brag about or boast about because it is His work in us. It’s an opportunity for humility, to see the Holy Spirit working in your life to bring out the fruit of the Spirit.
6. A spiritually maturing believer is kind.
You’ll notice this is another trait of love enumerated in 1 Corinthians 13. Again, kind is an English word that doesn’t quite translate all that is meant here. Strong’s Concordance defines the Greek word used as “being full of service to others.” This is more than cheerily exchanging pleasantries with someone.
Have you noticed that we live in a culture in which people don’t particularly want to serve others? Ours is a “selfie” generation. Everyone takes pictures of themselves and maintains a Facebook account to brag about whatever they’re up to—a cool trip, an impressive purchase, a big accomplishment. It’s all about self.
In our self-esteem-focused world, people think serving others is not a hallmark of success. More likely, ruling over others, getting even, settling the score, and being type A’s who get ahead of others is the respected path. Yet the Bible proclaims that a spiritually mature person is eager to serve others. So why do we have many people in the Church who don’t seem to have any kind of ministry? They never have anyone into their homes to eat a meal. They never take a meal to someone in need, never make hospital visits, and don’t visit shut-ins. People want to be served, but they don’t want to serve. Why? The answer is simple: Because we have a lot of immature Christians who are still drinking milk instead of digging into the meat of the Faith. Another reason is that our churches are filled with false converts.
I’m shocked at how often I talk to people in ministry—especially pastors—who say they never get invited to anyone’s home for a meal. I’ve talked to pastors who say, “Even here in the ‘Bible Belt,’ getting invited to a person’s home for dinner is a super rare occurrence.”
Perhaps my wife and I do invite people in because we’re both extroverts and like to entertain. We love fellowshipping with people. We also do that because we saw our parents do it. It’s a practice that has been passed down to us. And what about you? Are you exhibiting that to your children and grandchildren?
I think of a sweet lady from our church who has now gone to be with the Lord, but she was continually opening her home, making meals, and serving people. She knew how to throw out a spread. Served on fine china that she would have to hand-wash later, the food just kept coming, and she would hardly ever sit down. Then after the salad and main course, she brought out desert, tea, and coffee. This woman had the spiritual gift of service. But even if you don’t have that specific gift, it doesn’t exempt you from serving others. All of us should seek to serve others—to be kind.
It should start with the people closest to us. In discussing the need to be kind, a man told me about an “a-ha” moment he had. “Now I realize,” he said, “I need to know what I can do to be kind or of service to my wife. How can I serve my wife?” That’s what it really means to be kind. God models this attribute of service:
"Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?" (Romans 2:4, emphasis mine)
In His goodness (i.e., kindness), God leads us to repentance. He is kind, gentle, serving. As Jesus told His disciples, He did not come to be served but to serve (Matthew 20:28). The Lord continues to call sinners to stop trying to save themselves and surrender to Him. This is how Jesus called to people:
[quote] Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30) [end quote]
What a kind, gracious, longsuffering God.
7. A spiritually maturing believer is not jealous of others.
Again, 1 Corinthians 13 assures us that love is not jealous of others. At first blush, that may sound fairly easy. We tend not to recognize, though, some of the subtle ways jealousy shows up in our lives. John MacArthur points out what we often miss:
[quote] Jealousy or envy has two forms. One form says, “I want what someone else has.” The worst kind says, “I wish they didn’t have what they have.” The second sort of jealousy is more than selfish; it is desiring evil for someone else. [end quote]
The Corinthians verse wants us to avoid both kinds.
The parable of the laborers in Matthew 20 reflects jealousy at work. An employer negotiates with several sets of workers who begin work at different times of the day. Until the end of the day when they are paid, the workers do not know they have all been offered the same wage, regardless of how long they worked. Those who had worked all day begin to grumble and complain; they are jealous because they do not want the folks who showed up late in the day to get the same amount of pay they received. But the landowner in the parable retorts, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?” (Matthew 20:15). An evil eye is a jealous eye.
First Kings 3:16-28 presents another example of not just wanting what someone else has, but not wanting that person to have as much. King Solomon faces two women arguing over a child:
[quote] Now two women who were harlots came to the king, and stood before him. And one woman said, “O my lord, this woman and I dwell in the same house; and I gave birth while she was in the house. Then it happened, the third day after I had given birth, that this woman also gave birth. And we were together; no one was with us in the house, except the two of us in the house. And this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. So she arose in the middle of the night and took my son from my side, while your maidservant slept, and laid him in her bosom, and laid her dead child in my bosom. And when I rose in the morning to nurse my son, there he was, dead. But when I had examined him in the morning, indeed, he was not my son whom I had borne.”
Then the other woman said, “No! But the living one is my son, and the dead one is your son.”
And the first woman said, “No! But the dead one is your son, and the living one is my son.” Thus they spoke before the king.
And the king said, “The one says, ‘This is my son, who lives, and your son is the dead one’; and the other says, ‘No! But your son is the dead one, and my son is the living one.’” Then the king said, “Bring me a sword.” So they brought a sword before the king. And the king said, “Divide the living child in two, and give half to one, and half to the other.”
Then the woman whose son was living spoke to the king, for she yearned with compassion for her son; and she said, “O my lord, give her the living child, and by no means kill him!”
But the other said, “Let him be neither mine nor yours, but divide him.”
So the king answered and said, “Give the first woman the living child, and by no means kill him; she is his mother.”
And all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had rendered; and they feared the king, for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him to administer justice.
The mother of the dead son was not only jealous that the other woman’s son was alive, she was so jealous that she didn’t want the other woman to have a child, either. In her jealousy, she was willing to see the child killed rather than given to his rightful mother.
This sort of jealousy is incredibly evil, and James 3:14-16 explains why:
[quote] But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. (emphasis mine) [end quote]
Jealousy comes from the devil, so clearly a maturing believer will have no part of it.
8. A spiritually maturing believer is not arrogant but is humble and thankful for what God has bestowed upon him or her.
Believers don’t brag. They realize that anything good they have has come from the Father above (James 1:17). Every good thing that comes into my life is there only because God has providentially allowed it.
Any gift or ability is given to me by God. It’s called a gift because I didn’t earn it. I can’t boast, for instance, that I have written a few books because the ability to write, reason, discern, and learn come from God. It’s only because of God’s graciousness in my life that I can take another breath much less have the ability to write a book.
As a child, I was diagnosed with dyslexia, and my elementary school teachers saw me struggle even to hold a pencil. I had been born many weeks premature, came down with pneumonia, and had a hiatal membrane. I was behind developmentally, and my teachers would probably be shocked if they knew I had gone on to write books. I could barely write a sentence, but I can’t be arrogant about that because it is God’s grace at work in my life. Only God's grace allowed me to overcome the obstacles to do what I do today. His grace granted me repentance and the Holy Spirit in my life. The only reason I am now regenerated and have the discernment to write what I do is because of God’s grace.
And the same is true of you. Whatever your gift—architect, accountant, doctor, teacher, engineer—you have no reason to boast in your ability. If you are an excellent electrician—(I would electrocute myself if I tried to work on the wiring in my home)—your ability is a gift from God.
Christ was astoundingly humble about His place in the Father’s plan. Philippians 2:6-8 characterizes Jesus as Someone:
[quote] who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant and being made in the likeness of men, being found in appearance as a man. He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross. [end quote]
Jesus was God incarnate, divine yet He was not arrogant about it and was the perfect example of humility.
One of the reasons a maturing believer can be humble is because he or she does not love this world, in accord with 1 John 2:15:
[quote] Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. [end quote]
“The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” are not hallmarks of a believer. These are traits of those who love the world system ruled by Satan, the god of this world—for now.
In the Garden of Eden, Eve manifested the lust of the eyes when she looked at the forbidden fruit. She was drawn in by her eyes for the fruit which she was not supposed to eat. That is how the lust of the eyes works. We see something, and our flesh says we have to have it. As a result, some people get involved in immorality. Some see material things they want, and go into debt to get them because they think the stuff will make them look important or seem successful. Together, the lust of the flesh and the eyes, and the pride of life lead a person to a lifestyle that says, “Look at me. Look at what I’ve accomplished.”
The true believer is not ruled by love of such a world system. They assimilate for themselves the truth of 1 Corinthians 4:7 which says: “For what makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” James 1:17 echoes the same theme: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.”
So, spiritually maturing believers are not going to brag or become arrogant. They’re humbly thankful for what God has given them.
9. A spiritually maturing believer is not rude but is gracious and mannerly.
Again, this comes from 1 Corinthians 13:4-5. Titus 3:2 also notes that we should “speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men.”
We live in a rude society, don’t we? People seem to have forgotten manners. They no longer know what it is to be a gentleman or a lady. Even children used to go to classes to learn good manners and proper decorum, but this is not so common anymore.
While manners and decorum may seem outdated in many ways, they are not. If you ever get invited to a White House state dinner, you’ll need to know the protocol for guests. The White House, in fact, has an entire Office of Protocol, and heads of state in other countries make comparable preparations for proper treatment of visiting officials. People in such realms of government service know how essential it is to maintain appropriate treatment of dignitaries.
Many in the unsaved world still know there’s a proper way to conduct oneself. Late-night talk show hosts wear a suit and tie even though most of these guys are foul-mouthed. Still, they understand that they’re on television and should look professional. The same is true of news anchors all over the country. Men wear suits, and women dress in appropriately professional clothes. Many executives also wear a suit every day. And yet, how do many self-professing Christians conduct themselves at church? Many pastors now “dress down”—no coat and tie—to be cool. They miss the concept that there should be some respect and honor for what we’re doing as we come together and study God’s Word. There should be a respect that says, “What I’m doing is important enough to mandate professional dress to set the tone for the message I am to deliver.” It also communicates respect for the audience, acknowledging the importance of their taking time to show up. This is gracious and mannerly.
The way you dress for dinner at someone’s house communicates your consideration of the host family. If they have taken the time and trouble to open their home and prepare a meal for you, you communicate appreciation for that by how you dress. As ours becomes a more violent, debased, immoral, rude culture, Christians must be careful not to become desensitized and lose the capacity for graciousness and good manners.
10. A spiritually maturing believer is not selfish.
We get this from 1 Corinthians 13:5, “Love does not seek its own,” and from Philippians 2:4, “Let each of you look out not only for his own interest, but also for the interest of others.” And 1 Timothy 6:17-19 addresses the need for unselfishness specifically among those who are wealthy:
[quote] Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life. [end quote]
If we see someone in church with a financial need, we’re to meet it. By contrast, we don’t see anywhere in the Scripture that we are to redistribute wealth to the unsaved believer. If you choose to help a neighbor as a platform for the Gospel, that’s all right, of course, but the idea that the New Testament Church should collect a percentage of everyone’s money and redistribute it to the unsaved poor is simply not biblical. Although some people try to justify this thinking with selected Old Testament verses, the scriptures there relate to the theocracy of Israel. We are not Israel, though. Social justice is not the true calling of the Church.
According to the New Testament, we are to make sure that no one within the walls of a New Testament church is in need. If a man leaves his wife, for instance, and she has children, her family is to care for her. But if her family doesn’t, the Bible says the church is to step in and take care of her. We should be quick to help and to serve.
11. A spiritually maturing believer is not easily provoked to anger or irritation.
In 1 Corinthians 13:5, we are “not provoked.” Strong’s tells us that the word for provoked is “arouse,” “anger,” or “irritate.” You’ve probably been in a situation when a friend says to you of someone else, “Oh, he’s just trying to irritate you” or “she’s just trying to provoke you.” The antagonist wants to see if he or she can make you lose your cool.
But the Bible says the maturing believer is not easily angered. Why? Because anger usually comes from pride. We get angry because we think our rights have been violated or because we didn’t get our way. But that’s just selfishness. Some people rationalize it as “righteous anger,” but anger qualifies as such only if the Gospel or the truth has been attacked or if an injustice is being perpetrated. Righteous anger is very different than selfish, prideful, arrogant anger. Again, Christ models this for us, as 1 Peter 2:21-24 explains:
[quote] Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: “Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth”; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed. [end quote]
Word of Faith people misconstrue this verse to say we should be guaranteed physical healing. If you are a believer who has some kind of physical ailment that cannot be cured or an issue you were born with, you will eventually be healed. A day will come when you receive a new body and will be made whole and complete, but that’s not now. For the time being, the healing is spiritual. Later, it will be physical.
This passage says that Christ “committed no sin” and that we should follow in the steps of Jesus Christ when He was crucified. Even Pilate told the Jews, “I can find no fault in Him,” so they crucified an innocent man. Jesus, though, did not make threats or revile them. Jesus’ controlled, loving response is likely one reason the centurion at the cross said, “Truly this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54).
12. A spiritually maturing believer does not keep a record of evil or offenses.
This trait is extremely important in these days of social media and the gossip and slander that finds its way onto the internet. A spiritually mature believer does not assume the worst of someone without cause. I especially like the New American Standard Bible translation of this portion of 1 Corinthians 13: “[Love] does not take into account a wrong suffered.” A true believer does not look for a chance to get even or to pay someone back. The Wesley Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:5 explains the mandate this way:
[quote] Love thinketh no evil—Indeed it cannot but see and hear evil things, and know that they are so; but it does not willingly think evil of anyone; neither infer evil where it does not appear. [end quote]
This does not mean we shouldn’t be aware of evil. We are supposed to call out things contrary to the character and nature of God. Exposing evil is the right thing to do. But we are not to assume someone has done wrong simply based on gossip or on appearances. You should always know the real facts of a situation and not assume someone has done something wrong unless you know it to be true.
If you know an accusation to be true, then you can judge it for what it is. And if a believer has committed the wrong, you should go to him or her privately and try to restore the person. Our point here, though, is that you should not attribute evil to someone just because you’ve “heard something.” Don’t judge another’s motive without really knowing. For this 1 Corinthians passage, the J. B. Phillips New Testament reads that love “does not keep account of evil.” Even if someone has wronged you, don’t keep a list of what they have done and become bitter or angry. Sometimes that means you must forgive people even if they never ask for forgiveness.
13. A spiritually maturing believer does not rejoice at the sin of others.
It seems as though people are always trying to knock you off the ladder. As you climb higher, they try to knock you off because they’re envious of your success. We see this in the reaction to leaders who commit some sort of public moral failure. Too many people rejoice in that. True believers, though, never rejoice in the sin of others. Instead, they pray for them. They grieve over what the sin has done to the person’s Christian testimony and for what a bad example it is to the unsaved world.
We shouldn’t even rejoice in the sin of unbelievers, because we realize what sin is doing to them, has done to them, will do to them, and what it will mean for them eternally if they don’t repent and place their faith and trust in Christ. This includes people such as a politician you don’t like, who supports ungodly, evil policies. When you hear that politician has cheated on his or her spouse and now is in big trouble, you still shouldn’t rejoice. Your reaction should be compassion. After all, Christians should realize more than anyone that “there is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10). We all deserve God’s wrath, and only by the grace of God is anyone saved.
One thing we never do at Worldview Weekend on our radio or TV shows is to evidence any kind of glee when we hear of people in the world going through problems because of their sin. In fact, we make it a point to pray that what they’re going through will break them and cause them to arrive at an understanding of their sinfulness and depravity, so they will come to Christ.
Still, far too many self-professing Christians rejoice in the sin of others—not only the sin of unbelievers whose wealth or popularity they may be jealous of, but also the sins of people in the church that becomes fodder for gossip about the failures of others in the community.
We should so much want godly things that we can’t accommodate any gladness over evil. The New American Standard Bible says that love “does not rejoice in unrighteousness,” and the King James says it “does not rejoice in iniquity or sin.”
The Wesley Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:6 also reinforces this point: “Yea, weeps at either the sin or folly of even an enemy; takes no pleasure in hearing or in repeating it, but desires it may be forgotten forever.”
14. A spiritually maturing believer rejoices in the truth.
We rejoice in that which is consistent with the character and nature of God—as 1 Corinthians 13:6 says, “in the truth.” The opposite of rejoicing in sin is to rejoice in truth or in righteousness.
At first glance, 2 John 9-11 may not seem to address this point, but take a look at the scripture, and then I’ll explain how it applies:
[quote] Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds. [end quote]
The opposite of rejoicing in truth is rejoicing in sin or openly taking part in sin. And in the context of 2 John 9-11, a false teacher has come to town, and he wants to stay in the home of a prominent family. In those days, people avoided hotels if possible because they were often seen as houses of ill repute—dangerous places where you could be robbed or assaulted. So, even false teachers didn’t want to stay there. Besides, staying in the home of someone prominent would add to the teacher’s credibility. Yet we’re told in 2 John not to let the person have a place to stay, not to “give a spiritual greeting of solidarity to a false teacher or you’re going to take part in their evil deeds.” Contending for the Faith and rejoicing in the truth means that you do not take part in anything that promotes untruth.
Romans 16:17 reflects the same idea: “Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them.” Part of rejoicing in the truth is that you live in truth, which means you also have to reject that which is not true. That’s why 2 Corinthians 6:14-15 also admonishes us:
[quote] Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? [end quote]
15. A spiritually maturing believer does not gossip.
This derives from the description in 1 Corinthians 13:7 that love “bears all things.” The Greek word for bears is stegó which the Thayer and Smith Greek Lexicon defines this way:
[quote] To protect or keep by covering; preserve; to cover over with silence; to keep secret; to hide, conceal the errors and faults of others by covering; to keep off something which threatens; to bear up against, hold out against, and so endure; bear or forbear. [end quote]
The key concept here lies in the first part of the definition: “To protect or keep by covering; to preserve; to cover over with silence; to keep secret; to hide, conceal the errors and faults of others.” It’s the opposite of gossip wherein you reveal the errors and faults of others. Spiritually mature believers seek to cover the faults of others. They don’t want to embarrass others or “talk behind someone’s back.”
Gossip is destructive to a community and especially in the New Testament Church. That’s why, even in case of needed discipline, Matthew 18 instructs that the first step in correction is to go to an errant brother or sister privately, not to run around town and tell everybody about it. Even step two limits the involvement of others to two or three witnesses. You don’t tell ten other people and then take two with you. You go with as few others as possible and implore the person to repent. And if he or she does repent, you cover it. You keep it quiet. Isn’t that how any of us would want to be treated if we fall into sin? Telling everyone you know is hurtful and disrupts harmony in the Church. Only if a person refuses to repent do you go to step three and involve the church. Even then, only the absolute minimum detail required should be presented. And if someone really did do something wrong, you still don’t gossip about it.
True believers desire what is best for the testimony of the church and other believers, so they will give cover for the person who needs it. They will seek to preserve the person’s testimony and credibility for future ministry. The mature Christian looks after the reputation of others, as 1 Peter 4:8 points out: “Above all, love each other deeply, for love covers over a multitude of sins.”
No End to Growth
When my friend John Whitcomb turned 90 years-old, he told me how much he desires to keep growing in his faith and maturing spiritually. He’s been studying the Word of God as a theologian longer than I’ve been alive, and yet he still wants to grow.
Like him, I hope you have the same vision for yourself and that the 15 hallmarks I’ve outlined can help you assess your progress. Think of them as marks on the wall, much as people sometimes mark the growth of their children and grandchildren on a special door frame. Each mark shows progress and gives the children a visual reminder of how much they’ve grown.
So, use these guidelines to take spiritual measurements. I hope it will be an encouragement to you.
Copyright 2015 ©Brannon Howse. This content is for Situation Room members and is not to be duplicated in any form or uploaded to other websites without the express written permission of Brannon Howse or his legally authorized representative.