Advancing to Spiritual Maturity

Christ-on-the-crossSpirituality is the life the Christian enjoys when properly living in dependence upon the Holy Spirit and walking according to Scripture. This advance assumes one has believed in Christ as Savior and has spiritual life (John 3:16; 6:28-29; 20:31; Acts 4:12; Rom 5:6-10; Eph 2:8-9; Tit 3:5; 1 Pet 1:3, 23). Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Only Christ’s atoning work on the cross is sufficient to satisfy God’s righteous demands toward our sin (1 John 2:2). No works are necessary for us to be saved. We need only Christ. When the Philippian Jailer asked the apostle Paul, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). Paul replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). Believing in Christ means we trust Him to do for us that which we cannot do for ourselves; to save us. It means we trust solely in Him and nothing more. Though good works should follow our salvation, they are never the condition of it.

Once we are born again, God desires that we advance to spiritual maturity, which glorifies Him and blesses us and others. The information taught in this article applies only to the Christian, for “The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14 NET; cf. John 8:43-44).[1]

Walking with GodThe advance to spiritual maturity is a process that takes time as Christians learn and live God’s Word on a regular basis. There is always opposition, for we live in a fallen world and are confronted with many obstacles and distractions that seek to push or pull us away from God. Though constant distractions are all around us, we move forward by “destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). Bringing our thoughts into captivity means focusing our minds on God and His Word (Isa 26:3; Prov 3:5-6; Col 3:1-2), and not allowing our thoughts to be bogged down and trapped with the cares of this world (Matt 6:25-34). Biblically, several things are necessary for us to reach spiritual maturity, and these are as follows.

Be in submission to God. Scripture tells us to “Submit to God” (Jam 4:7), and to “present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (Rom 12:1). Submission is a will surrendered to the will of another. Being in submission to God is a sign of positive volition that we’ve prioritized our relationship with Him above all else, and that we trust Him to guide and provide in all things. Like a good friend, He is naturally in our thoughts, and we live every day conscious of Him, being sensitive to what may offend, and making every effort to please Him through a life of faith. When we yield to God, His Word opens up to us, as Jesus said, “If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself” (John 7:17; cf. Luke 24:45; Acts 16:14; 1 John 5:20).

1Bible-study (1)Continually study God’s Word. Ezra, the priest, was one who “had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel” (Ezr 7:10). The growing believer is one whose “delight is in the law of the LORD, and in His law he meditates day and night” (Psa 1:2). As Christians, we understand that “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). We cannot live what we do not know, and learning God’s Word necessarily precedes living His will. From regeneration onward, we study God’s Word in order to grow spiritually, that we might reach Christian maturity. God helps His people by means of Pastors and Teachers (Eph 4:11), whom He has given to His church “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature person, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:12-13). Pastors and Teachers have an obligation to communicate God’s Word accurately. Christians have the individual responsibility of studying God’s Word in order to live the best life and grow to maturity (2 Tim 2:15; Heb 5:12-14; 1 Pet 2:2; 2 Pet 3:18).

without faith it is impossible to pleaseLive by faith. Faith as a verb (πιστεύω pisteuo) means to believe, trust, or have confidence in someone or something. It is used of trust in God (Heb 11:6; cf. Rom 4:3), Jesus (Acts 16:31; 1 Pet 1:8), and Scripture (John 2:22). Faith as a noun (πίστις pistis) often refers to that which evokes trust. It is used with reference to God who is trustworthy (Rom 3:3; 4:19-21), and of people who possess faith (Matt 9:2, 22; 21:21). It is also used of Scripture itself as a body of reliable teaching (Acts 14:22; 16:5; Rom 14:22; Gal 1:23; 2 Tim 4:7). Faith as an adjective (πιστός pistos), describes someone who is trustworthy or dependable. The word is used both of man (Matt 25:23; 1 Cor 4:17; Col 1:7; 1 Tim 1:12), and God (1 Cor 1:9; 10:13; 2 Tim 2:13; Heb 10:23; Rev 1:5). Living by faith means we trust God at His Word. Christian faith starts with knowledge, as Paul wrote, “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom 10:17 KJV). The writer to the Hebrews states, “But my righteous one shall live by faith; and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him” (Heb 10:38; cf. Heb 3:7—4:2), for “without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Heb 11:6). It is possible to learn God’s Word and not believe it. For example, the Exodus generation heard God’s Word and understood it; however, “the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard” (Heb 4:2). Our faith is effective when God’s Word is more real and dominant than our experiences, feelings, or circumstances.

Satan as ruler of this worldDo not Love the World. The apostle John warns Christians, saying, “Do not love the world nor 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 and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world” (1 John 2:15-16). When John writes and tells the Christian “Do not love the world”, he’s not talking about the physical planet. The Greek word κόσμος kosmos as it is used by the apostle John and others most often refers to “that which is hostile to God…lost in sin, wholly at odds with anything divine, ruined and depraved.”[2] The world, or world-system, originated with Satan and consists of those philosophies and values that perpetually influence humanity to think and behave contrary to God and His Word. The world-system is mankind and society functioning without God, and is first and foremost a mindset that is antithetical to divine viewpoint. Lewis S. Chafer explains:

The kosmos is a vast order or system that Satan has promoted which conforms to his ideals, aims, and methods. It is civilization now functioning apart from God-a civilization in which none of its promoters really expect God to share; who assign to God no consideration in respect to their projects, nor do they ascribe any causality to Him. This system embraces its godless governments, conflicts, armaments, jealousies; its education, culture, religions of morality, and pride. It is that sphere in which man lives. It is what he sees, what he employs. To the uncounted multitude it is all they ever know so long as they live on this earth. It is properly styled “The Satanic System” which phrase is in many instances a justified interpretation of the so-meaningful word, kosmos.[3]

Satan’s world system is a spiritual darkness that envelopes and permeates the human race, influencing every aspect of thought and behavior in such a way that the depraved nature of man is magnified while God is excluded. We should be careful to understand that Satan’s system is a buffet that offers something for everyone who rejects God, whether he is moral or immoral, religious or irreligious, educated or simple, rich or poor. Satan is careful to make sure there’s even something for the Christian in his world-system, which is why the Bible repeatedly warns the believer not to love the world or the things in the world. We are to be set apart (Col 2:8; Jam 1:27; 4:4; 1 John 2:15-16). Robert Lightner states:

The world is the Christian’s enemy because it represents an anti-God system, a philosophy that is diametrically opposed to the will and plan of God. It is a system headed by the devil and therefore at odds with God (2 Cor 4:4). Likewise, the world hates the believer who lives for Christ (John 17:14). The Lord never kept this a secret from his own. He told them often of the coming conflict with the world (e.g., John 15:18-20; 16:1-3; 32-33; cf. 2 Tim 3:1-12). It is in this wicked world we must rear our families and earn our livelihoods. We are in it, yet are not to be a part of it.[4]

Do not Quench the Spirit. Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica and said, “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Th 5:19). The word “quench” translates the Greek word σβέννυμι sbennumi which means to “stifle or suppress.”[5] The word carries the idea of dowsing water on a fire so as to extinguish it. To “quench the Spirit” is to resist His revealed will and not follow as He leads. The Holy Spirit wants to work in our lives, but we must let Him have His way, and this means yielding, or submitting to Him on a regular basis, as opportunity permits; however, the Spirit does not force us to be spiritual, therefore He can be resisted. John Walvoord states, “Quenching the Spirit may simply be defined as being unyielded to Him, or saying, ‘No.’ The issue is, therefore, the question of willingness to do His will.”[6]

Do not Grieve the Spirit. To the church at Ephesus, Paul wrote, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph 4:30). The Spirit is a Person, and He is grieved with us as Christians when we sin and act contrary to His holy character. Our sin hurts our relationship with Him and hinders His work in our lives. Grieving the Spirit is a willful act on our part when we think and behave sinfully. John Walvoord writes:

The Scriptures often testify to the fact that the Spirit of God is holy and that He is a person. The indwelling presence of this holy person constitutes the body of a believer a temple of God. In the nature of the case, the presence of sin in any form grieves the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, when the Christian is exhorted to “grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, in whom ye were sealed unto the day of redemption” (Eph 4:30), it is an appeal to allow nothing in his life contrary to the holiness of the Spirit. It is clear that the one cause of grieving the Holy Spirit is sin.[7]

When the Christian is walking as he should, according to Scripture, then the Holy Spirit can work through him to touch the lives of others. When the Christian commits sin, then the Spirit is grieved and His ministry to others is diminished, and the Spirit must then begin to work on the heart of the Christian to bring him back into fellowship. Lewis S. Chafer states, “Sin destroys spirituality. It is necessarily so; for where sin is tolerated in the believer’s daily life, the Spirit, who indwells him, must then turn from His blessed ministry through him, to a pleading ministry to him.”[8]

Restore Broken Fellowship with God Through Confession of Personal Sin. All believers sin, and there are none who attain perfection in this life (Pro 20:9; Eccl 7:20; 1 John 1:8-10). For this reason, familial forgiveness is necessary for a healthy relationship with God. David understood the folly of trying to conceal his sins, which resulted in psychological disequilibrium and pain; however, when he confessed his sin, God forgave him (Psa 32:2-5). John wrote, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). God forgives because it is His nature to do so, for He “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness and truth” (Psa 86:15; cf. Psa 103:8-14). And He is able to forgive because Christ has atoned for our sins at the cross, satisfying the Father’s righteous demands regarding our offenses. The apostle John wrote, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2). The challenge for many believers is to trust God at His word and accept His forgiveness and not operate on guilty feelings. William MacDonald states:

The forgiveness John speaks about here [i.e., 1 John 1:9] is parental, not judicial. Judicial forgiveness means forgiveness from the penalty of sins, which the sinner receives when he believes on the Lord Jesus Christ. It is called judicial because it is granted by God acting as Judge. But what about sins which a person commits after conversion? As far as the penalty is concerned, the price has already been paid by the Lord Jesus on the cross of Calvary. But as far as fellowship in the family of God is concerned, the sinning saint needs parental forgiveness, that is, the forgiveness of His Father. He obtains it by confessing his sin. We need judicial forgiveness only once; that takes care of the penalty of all our sins—past, present, and future. But we need parental forgiveness throughout our Christian life.[9]

Be Filled with the Spirit. Paul wrote to Christians, “don’t get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless actions, but be filled by the Spirit” (Eph 5:18 CSB). If a believer consumes too much alcohol, it can lead to cognitive impairment and harmful behavior. But the believer who is filled with the Spirit will possess divine viewpoint and manifest the fruit of godliness, worship, and thankfulness to the Lord (Eph 5:19-20). Being filled with the Spirit means being guided by Him rather than our own desires or the desires of others. The Spirit’s guidance is always according to Scripture. Being filled with the Spirit does not mean we have more of Him, but that He has more of us, as we submit to His leading. Warren Wiersbe comments:

“Be filled with the Spirit” is God’s command, and He expects us to obey. The command is plural, so it applies to all Christians and not just to a select few. The verb is in the present tense, “keep on being filled”, so it is an experience we should enjoy constantly and not just on special occasions. And the verb is passive. We do not fill ourselves but permit the Spirit to fill us. The verb “fill” has nothing to do with contents or quantity, as though we are empty vessels that need a required amount of spiritual fuel to keep going. In the Bible, filled means “controlled by.” “They… were filled with wrath” (Luke 4:28) means “they were controlled by wrath” and for that reason tried to kill Jesus. “The Jews were filled with envy” (Acts 13:45) means that the Jews were controlled by envy and opposed the ministry of Paul and Barnabas. To be “filled with the Spirit” means to be constantly controlled by the Spirit in our mind, emotions, and will…But how can a person tell whether or not he is filled with the Spirit? Paul stated that there are three evidences of the fullness of the Spirit in the life of the believer: he is joyful (Eph. 5:19), thankful (Eph. 5:20), and submissive (Eph. 5:21–33). Paul said nothing about miracles or tongues, or other special manifestations.[10]

Lewis S. Chafer wrote:

To be filled with the Spirit is to have the Spirit fulfilling in us all that God intended Him to do when he placed Him there. To be filled is not the problem of getting more of the Spirit: it is rather the problem of the Spirit getting more of us. We shall never have more of the Spirit than the anointing which every true Christian has received. On the other hand, the Spirit may have all of the believer and thus be able to manifest in him the life and character of Christ. A spiritual person, then, is one who experiences the divine purpose and plan in his daily life through the power of the indwelling Spirit. The character of that life will be the out-lived Christ. The cause of that life will be the unhindered indwelling Spirit (Eph 3:16-21; 2 Cor 3:18).[11]

Charles Ryrie states:

To be filled with the Spirit means to be controlled by the Spirit. The clue to this definition is found in Ephesians 5:18 where there is contrast and comparison between drunkenness and Spirit-filling. It is the comparison which gives the clue, for just as a drunken person is controlled by the liquor which he consumes, so a Spirit-filled Christian is controlled by the Spirit. This will cause him to act in ways which are unnatural to him, not implying that such ways will be erratic or abnormal, but asserting that they will not be the ways of the old life. Control by the Spirit is a necessary part of spirituality.[12]

Walk in the Spirit. Paul wrote, “walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Gal 5:16). In this passage walking is a metaphor for daily living, which can be influenced by God (Deut 5:33; 10:12), other righteous persons (Prov 13:20), sinners (Psa 1:1; Pro 1:10-16; 1 Cor 15:33), or one’s own sin nature (Gal 5:17-21). To walk in the Spirit means we depend on His counsel to guide and power to sustain as we seek to do His will. The Spirit most often guides us directly by Scripture. Jesus, speaking of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, said, “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit helps the Christian know the Word of God, and to recall Scripture when needed for guidance. The Holy Spirit also works through mature believers—whose thinking is saturated with God’s Word—to help provide sound biblical advice for others. Warren Wiersbe states:

The New Testament calls the Christian life a “walk.” This walk begins with a step of faith when we trust Christ as our Savior. But salvation is not the end—it’s only the beginning—of spiritual life. “Walking” involves progress, and Christians are supposed to advance in the spiritual life. Just as a child must learn to walk and must overcome many difficulties in doing so, a Christian must learn to “walk in the light.”[13]

Charles Ryrie adds:

Constant dependence on the power of the indwelling Spirit of God is essential to spiritual growth and victory. By its very nature, walking is a succession of dependent acts. When one foot is lifted in order to place it front of the other one, it is done in faith—faith that the foot that remains on the ground will support the full weight of the body. You can only walk by the exercise of faith. You can live the Christian life only by dependence on the Holy Spirit. Such dependence will result in the Spirit’s control over the deeds of the flesh (Gal 5:17-21) and the Spirit’s production of the fruit of the Spirit (vv. 22-23). Dependence on the power of God and effort on the part of the believer are not mutually exclusive. Self-discipline and Spirit-dependence can and must be practiced at the same time in a balanced spiritual life. Dependence itself is an attitude, but that attitude does not come automatically; it usually requires cultivation. How many genuine Christians there are who live day after day without even sensing their need of dependence on Him. Experience, routine, pride, self-confidence all tend to drag all of us away from that conscious dependence on God which we must have in order to live and act righteously.[14]

Accept God’s Trials. Paul wrote, “we exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope” (Rom 5:3-4). James said, “Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing” (Jam 1:2-4 CSB). The Lord uses the fire of trials to burn away the dross of our weak character and to refine those golden qualities consistent with His character. The growing believer learns to praise God in and for the trials, knowing He uses them to strengthen our faith and develop us into spiritually mature Christians. Trials can make us bitter or better, depending on how we respond to them.

Pray to God. Prayer is essential to spiritual growth as we need to have upward communication with God to express ourselves to Him. Prayer is the means by which we make requests to God, believing He has certain answers ready for us, and that we just need to ask (Jam 4:2). Scripture directs us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Th 5:17), and “pray at all times in the Spirit” (Eph 6:18; cf. Jude 1:20). To pray in the Spirit means we pray in the power of the Holy Spirit as He directs and energizes our prayer life.

Worship and Give Thanks to the Lord. The writer to the Hebrews stated, “let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name” (Heb 13:15). And Paul wrote to the Christians at Thessalonica, saying, “in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Th 5:18). To give thanks (εὐχαριστέω eucharisteo) is to have a daily attitude of gratitude toward God for His goodness and mercy toward us. Part of this attitude comes from knowing “that God works all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28). God does this because He “is for us” (Rom 8:31).

Fellowship with Other Believers. The writer of Hebrews states, “let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Heb 10:24-25). Spiritual growth ideally happens in community, for God expects us to exercise our spiritual gifts for the benefit of others (see Rom 12:10-13; 14:19; Eph 4:32; Phil 2:3-4; 1 Th 5:11-15).

Serve Others in Love. We are part of the body of Christ and God calls us to love and serve each other. Paul wrote, “you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal 5:13), and “while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Gal 6:10). Peter states, “As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Pet 4:10). As Christians, we are told, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4).

time-fliesTake Advantage of the Time God Gives. Time is a resource we should manage properly. Paul writes, “Be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil” (Eph 5:15-16). Solomon wrote, “Whatever you find to do with your hands, do it with all your might, because there is neither work nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom in the grave, the place where you will eventually go” (Ecc 9:10 NET). God has determined the length of our days, as David wrote, “in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for my life when as yet there was not one of them” (Psa 139:16). Every moment is precious and we must make sure our days are not wasted on meaningless pursuits, but on learning God’s Word, living His will, and loving those whom the Lord places in our path.

As Christians, we will face ongoing worldly distractions in our lives which are designed by Satan to prevent spiritual growth. We have choices to make on a daily basis, for only we can choose to allow these distractions to stand between us and the Lord. As Christians, we experience our greatest blessings when we reach spiritual maturity and utilize the rich resources God has provided for us. However, learning takes time, as ignorance gives way to the light of God’s revelation. Frustration is often the handmaiden of ignorance, but spiritual success comes with knowledge of God and His Word.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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[1] Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New American Standard Bible, 1995 Update, published by the Lockman Foundation.

[2] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., rev. and ed. Fredrick William Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 562.

[3] Lewis S. Chafer, “Angelology Part 4” Bibliotheca Sacra 99 (1942): 282-283.

[4] Robert P. Lightner, Handbook of Evangelical Theology: A Historical, Biblical, and Contemporary Survey and Review (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1995), 206.

[5] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 917.

[6] John F. Walvoord, The Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI., Zondervan Publishing, 1977), 197.

[7] Ibid., 200.

[8] Lewis S. Chafer, He that is Spiritual (Grand Rapids, Mich. Zondervan Publishing, 1967), 70.

[9] William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments, ed. Arthur Farstad (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 2310-11.

[10] Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary: New Testament, Vol. 2 (Colorado Springs, Col., Victor Publishing, 2001), 48.

[11] Lewis S. Chafer, He that is Spiritual (Grand Rapids, Mich. Zondervan Publishing, 1967), 43-44.

[12] Charles C. Ryrie, “What is Spirituality?” Bibliotheca Sacra 126 (1969): 206.

[13] Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary: New Testament, Vol. 2, 479.

[14] Charles Ryrie, Balancing the Christian Life (Chicago. Ill., Moody Press, 1994), 198.

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