Recently I have been listening to some preaching on YouTube. The first set of preachers were trying to justify why we should accept openly practicing homosexuals as brothers and sisters in Christ, since they claim that the biblical passages which seem to speak against homosexuality need to be re-examined and re-interpreted. The second preacher was telling us about his grand spiritual experiences, including how he separated his soul from his spirit and how he translocates by the power of the Spirit. All of these people have a keen following. As I was contemplating why Christians would be interested in listening to what is quite clearly heresy, the latter more obviously than the former, I concluded that one reason has to do with the way in which we conceive of Christian maturity.
There are several false paths to Christian maturity. These are attractive first of all because Christians are not clear on what Christian maturity is supposed to look like. What they all have in common is that they bypass the cross. To understand these false paths I will begin by outlining each of them and then I will explain the problems with each. After that we can look at the true path to Christian maturity. This of course involves being clear about what Christian maturity looks like. True Christian maturity involves being like Jesus.
There are at least four false paths to Christian maturity. The first involves doing things for God. This goes by another name – legalism. It is all about doing things to make yourself godly. In the epistle to the Galatians the problem was that the Galatians thought that Christian maturity came by obeying the Jewish law, particularly by being circumcised. Paul rebuked them. “Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (Gal 3:3). In Christian circles now it is not circumcision but obeying a particular set of rules which we think we get us to maturity – go to church on Sunday and be involved on a roster and serve on a team in church and tithe and give a firstfruits offering and etc. The rules might be different but they are still things we do to make ourselves righteous. Notice that none of these things are bad things to do. That is not the point. The point is that we imagine that doing a series of things to make ourselves mature according to our own standards equals Christian maturity. It does not. Doing things for God bypasses the cross by assuming that now I am a Christian I am the focus. I can do thing for God since I do not need him to do things for me. In this way the path of maturity is disconnected from what Jesus has done.
The second option for gaining maturity is the way of justice and inclusion. This insists that it is very important to be inclusive of everyone in the church. The example I started with is the uncritical inclusion of practicing homosexuals and transgender people. This project is one which would have Christians accept these things as part of the diversity of the good creation of God. This is touted as justice. They argue that it is not Christlike to exclude people from the Body of Christ. Justice must be done and the injustice and unloving attitudes of Christians towards homosexuals, transgenders and queer people must end. When this happens, they claim, we will have a world where love predominates and the glory of God will be evident in our diversity. This sounds almost right. The words love and justice are very Christian sounding. Is this what Christian maturity is about? No. This is not Christian maturity because it divorces justice from righteousness, which is biblically impossible. God is just because he is righteous. Secondly it assumes that love is simply niceness. But love calls people to repentance. God accepts us in Christ but he does not leave us in bondage to our sin, but rather calls us out of that sin to a place of holiness. The ‘justice and inclusion’ preaching bypasses the cross because it ignores holiness. It assumes that God’s justice does not require us to die to sin and live in righteousness. So the utopian vision of inclusion described here is not the path to Christian maturity.
The next popular path to Christian maturity involves gnosis or learning the secrets of God. There are a few preachers who preach as if they have discovered the secrets which no one else knows and which one has to be initiated into. The particular preacher I mentioned earlier suggested that other people cannot really understand what he is talking about without actually having the same experiences that he allegedly has experienced. It is an exclusive club which seems exciting. It seems that once you know the secrets you can be a genuinely mature Christian, but you can only find out the secrets from certain people. The secrets are not something which any one can find out, since they are deep secrets, carefully hidden in the Bible and you need to know how to find them. Yet the Bible is not so much a book of secrets as a book of revealed things. God has revealed himself in Christ. The mystery of the gospel is not a secret but a revealed mystery (e.g. 1 Cor 2:7; Eph 1:9, 3:3). Jesus said that God has revealed himself not the wise but to little children (Matt 11:25). The fascination with secret things comes not from the Spirit of God but from the devil (Rev 2:24). The Gnostic path to maturity distains the cross altogether. In this way of thinking the way of salvation is found through knowledge and the cross does not help us to find knowledge. The Gnostic way to maturity has an appearance of wisdom, but it does not mature you (Col 2:23).
The fourth false way of attaining Christian maturity is through experiences. There are many who believe that having various exciting experiences like visions or supposed manifestations of the Spirit are the way to maturity (cf. Col 2:18). If only we had more miracles, they think, then we would be mature people. If only we could have the same experience that so and so had, etc. Again I will hark back to my original example of the man who claims to have had all kinds of wonderful, so-called ‘spiritual’ experiences. This man preaches that we can be mature through experiencing the things he has supposedly done. Yet this is hardly the biblical picture. The apostle Paul, or a man he knew, had amazing experiences, being caught up into the third heaven and having revelations of God etc (2 Cor 12:1-4). Yet Paul was only interested in boasting about his weaknesses not about his glorious experiences. It was through his weaknesses that he experienced the grace of God and the power of God (2 Cor 12:9-10). Exciting experiences also bypass the cross, since they do not involve suffering but substitute excitement for true growth in holiness and godliness. The spectacular and exciting is not the path to Christian maturity.
Service of God is not a bad thing. Being inclusive is not necessarily a bad thing. Certainly experiencing God and seeing the miraculous is not in itself a negative. So it is not these things as such which are the problem, although I can find nothing good to say about the Gnostic idea of knowing secrets. What is much more problematic is the fact that the false paths are enticing because we misunderstand the goal of Christian maturity. In failing to grasp what Christian maturity is about we tend to attempt to bypass the cross and arrive at maturity without it. This is, of course, not possible. Christian maturity is not something separate to salvation, but an integral part of salvation. As such it can only ever be achieved through union with Jesus in his death and resurrection. It cannot be disconnected from the cross.
But now we come to the crux of the matter. I use the word crux intentionally since it comes from the Latin for cross. We cannot really know the path to Christian maturity without knowing what the goal of Christian maturity is. Nor can we know this without knowing how Jesus came to maturity. Let’s answer these one at a time. What is the goal? This might seem to be an obvious thing, but it seems to elude many Christians. The clue is actually in the name – Christian, that is, like Christ. Rom 8:29 “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Gal 4:19 “My dear children for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.” Eph 4:13 “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
I could go on but you get the picture. The goal which God our Father has for us is that we would be in every way like the Son Jesus Christ. The true goal of Christian maturity is sonship. Just as Jesus is the Son of God so we too are called to be sons (Gal 4:5-7; Rom 8:14). What is sonship? Sonship is not about privilege but about obedience in love for the Father. Jesus always obeyed (Heb 10:27) because he loved the Father (John 14:31). Jesus was concerned to obey his Father so much that he willingly died a horrible, shameful death in order to glorify his Father so that the Father might glorify him (John 17:1). A son obeys the Father and gives him glory. Mature Christians are sons. The goal is obedience; not doing things for God, not arranging our own justice, not knowing the secret things, and not having exciting experiences. Although service, justice, knowledge and experiences may happen along the way, they are not in themselves the goal. When they are seen as the goal we miss the point. These become substitutes for the real thing and idols instead of something which gives glory to God. But if we are to become like Jesus the question again is how does this happen?
The way of Christian maturity for us must be connected to the way in which Jesus matured as a human being. Jesus did not begin life as a fully mature person. As a child he “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke. 2:52). As a man he came to complete human maturity through the experience of the cross. “In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered” (Heb. 2:10). Jesus’ journey to the cross involved much suffering. He had to experience true temptation and overcome it. He experienced rejection by his own hometown (Matt 13:53-58), by his family (John 7:5) and by the crowds who followed him (Matt 27:20-23). At the end he was betrayed by a friend (Luke 22:3-4) and abandoned by those who were his closest disciples (Matt 26:31-35, 69-75). The most difficult suffering was the experience of seemingly being abandoned by God. On the cross he cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). But now Jesus has attained full human maturity. He now experiences the fullness of Sonship, since he has been raised from the dead (Rom 1:4).
Why was all that suffering necessary in order for Jesus to be fully mature? He did what Adam failed to do. Adam was commanded not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because the day he ate of it he would die (Gen 2:17). When the serpent tempted Eve, the humans were meant to believe the word of God to them and say no to the temptation. Jesus always believed the word of God to him and he willingly obeyed God even to the death on a cross. Adam failed to become mature, but Jesus is now fully mature because he willingly endured the cross. Rom 6:10 explains this in a different way. “The death he died he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives he lives to God.” This is also the way of maturity for us. Romans 6:6 “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.”
So Christian maturity will involve for us the same things it involved for Jesus. Ours is a journey to death and resurrection. We also must face temptation and learn to say no to the devil’s lies. We must continue to walk in obedience when a lot of other paths look a lot easier. We may well be rejected or betrayed by friends and family. We may be unpopular with many people. There may be times of feeling that we are abandoned by God. This is the path to death. But being crucified is the path to resurrection. All the old ways of being and doing must be brought to nothing in you so that Jesus might be formed in you. Jesus came to full maturity through obedience, overcoming temptation and willingly going to death on the cross. Now he is a risen, exalted, fully mature man, seated at the right hand of God. There is actually no shortcut to glory. The cross is the path he had to take and it is the path which we have to take. We all want to have an easy path to maturity, but there is really no such thing. We cannot bypass the cross in our growth to maturity. Since we are united to Christ we are always people shaped by the cross.