The Path of Christian Maturity
Last Sunday I had one of those revelations where a lot of confused ideas suddenly came to clarity.
Part of the problem that I had is that christians can be very lazy in their thinking and in their use of words. For example it is common in some places to describe all christians as “believers.” This is a very deceptive practice as it lumps every Christian into the same basket and makes it seem that all of the promises of God are available immediately to everybody who confesses some kind of belief.
This concern was in the back of my mind after I read the book “The Supernatural Path of Royalty” by Kris Valloton and Bill Johnson. This book tries to encourage christians to see ourselves for what we are- children of the King of Kings. Instead of seeing ourselves as redeemed sinners hanging out for heaven and beating ourselves up for every sin, we need to walk in the authority and dignity of royalty.
While there was nothing wrong with any of the doctrine in the book I had this nagging feeling that there was a part of the story missing. Ironically it was a talk by Eric Johnson, who is Bill Johnson's son, that put into place one of those missing pieces.
Progressions in Maturity
What we often miss, I believe, is that there is a progression in Christian maturity. By emphasising the need to “make a decision” and “get saved”, evangelicals have lost sight of the need to progress in our walk with God. It is not enough to move people from the down escalator to the up escalator, we have to equip them to live for Jesus and to bring others into the kingdom of God. If it were just about salvation then why would God not immediately translate everyone to heaven when they say the salvation prayer?
This results in people wrongly believing that they should be able to pray in a particular way or engage in particular forms of ministry without first having the necessary anointing, gifting or character for the task.
In 1 John 2:12-14, we see the language of maturity as differing groups in the church are described as “dear children”, “young men” and “fathers.” Each of those groups have different attributes and have achieved various developmental milestones in their relationship with the Lord.
In Australia we have a particularly egalitarian culture. We don't find it easy to recognise high achievers. In fact we have what is called the “tall poppy syndrome” whereby anyone who is seen to rise above the common masses is cut down to size. God's version of the “tall poppy syndrome” is that through honouring one another we should raise everyone to the highest possible level of maturity.
The Bible shows us that even Jesus, the divine Son of God, was in some way matured or perfected through his suffering:
“Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” Hebrews 5:8-9
The term “believers” is a long way from the original sense of the term in scripture. Today we use the word believe to suggest an intellectual affirmation, perhaps of something that is not necessarily provable or perhaps not even true.
The word faith is often seen as being in the same category. Some people place faith almost as an opposite to true knowledge.
The New Testament speaks of believing and faith in a very different sense. Yes the word pistis means faith in the sense of believing something is true. It also uses the word in the more active sense of trusting in someone.
When we use the word believer we should not be thinking of someone who assents to the fact that Jesus died for their sins. As James reminds us even the Devil is a believer in this sense (James 2:9).
A believer is someone who trusts in Jesus as Lord and Saviour. They have started the journey of faith and now are entrusting their life into the hands of God.
The New Testament uses the term disciples to describe people who are actively following Jesus. The word translated as disciple is mathetes which literally means a learner. A disciple is someone who is trying to imitate Jesus, spending as much time as possible in his presence and trying to become as much like Jesus as possible.
Disciples spend quality time in the presence of God, reading the Word, praying and worshipping. They listen to God in their quiet place. They let the Holy Spirit direct their paths. They let the Scriptures determine their thoughts and their actions. They allow God to challenge all of their assumptions about life and ministry.
Disciples submit their plans and desires into God's hands. They seek God's will for all of their important decisions. They have learned that life is more joyful when lived at the centre of God's will.
Sons and Daughters
The place of maturity comes when a disciple is so committed to God's desires that they have attained God's trust. Not only do they have a deep faith in God, they have in a sense earned God's trust of them.
Now all of the promises of the Kingdom are available to them. They have learned to submit to God in everything and now God is free to entrust important things to them. They can be trusted to prophesy, to speak and act, to make declarations on behalf of the King because they have become like Him in character and have surrendered all of their own independence.
I heard Eric Johnson describe a time when he was seeking the Holy Spirit's guidance about ministry opportunities that were offered to him. He had several choices before him all of which he found equally appealing. He prayed and sought God's direction, sincerely wanting to just be where God wanted him to be. He said that in the midst of all this God said to him, “I will honour whatever you decide.”
This is the place of maturity where God allows us to act out of our own sense of what is right. This is not to say that we get to go back to doing what we want to do. The point is that the son or daughter is so surrendered to God's will that they will instinctively choose what is right and God gives them a measure of autonomy.
As mature christians we are given increasing areas of authority commensurate with our yieldedness to God.
In an earthly kingdom the princes are given areas of authority and responsibility as they mature. This is wise preparation for when they take possession of the rulership. God does this with his people also giving us greater levels of authority in prayer and in ministry.
Problems arise when people take authority that they are not yet equipped for. We see this in acts where some people tried to cast out demons and were beaten up by the demons. (Acts 19:13-16).
Pastors might make spiritual claims that they are not really entitled to make and thus hinder rather than release the Holy Spirit in a place. People might try to pray with authority that is not theirs making them vulnerable to spiritual oppression. Others might foolishly test God in an area of provision or miracles and find themselves left worse off.
The Pathway to Maturity
The way forward to maturity is to follow Jesus through the pathway of humility and obedience.
In Philippians 2:5-11 we read this:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus, the divine Son of God, stripped himself of every claim to divinity, every glory, every pretension of power to become a human being, a servant.
When we learn the way of humility we stop being a believer and start on the pathway to discipleship. We must die to our own selfish desires, our desires to be elevated above others and simply walk as a servant. This means learning to listen to the voice of God whether in the scriptures or the “still small voice.” This is about fellowship with God lived out in our relationships with others.
The second step is the kind of obedience that goes even to the cross. Jesus' elevation to glory came after the cross. In the same way, we have to learn to obey the Lord without flinching, even to the point of death. When obedience to the will of God becomes a habit to us then He can entrust us with the authority of sons.
Hebrews 12 reminds us that out heavenly Father disciplines those whom He loves:
“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all.”
Discipline is the way we learn to walk as mature sons of the King. We must learn to be under God's authority in order to exercise authority.
The kings of the world recognise this. That is why they send their sons into the military forces. The way to learn to exercise authority is to first learn to be under the authority of others. There is no environment like the armed forces for developing discipline.
Having learned to live under the discipline of the Father we can then grow to be free in the power and anointing of the Holy Spirit. When we submit to external discipline and grow in maturity in that place, then self-control bears fruit in our lives and we walk with the bearing and demeanour of sons of the King.
Grow in the Spirit
We need to understand where we are in this process of maturity. The church has been bedevilled by spiritually immature people taking authority that is not yet theirs to take. This leads to spiritual injury and moral failings. Equally we have millions of people who are living as new believers but have been christians for decades and are failing to progress because they will not enter into the process of discipleship.
Wherever you are, it's time to move on towards the goal of maturity in Christ.