Spiritual maturity is not a destination but rather a process. In fact, the essence of spiritual maturity is a persistent striving to grow more in maturity. In Philippians 3, the Apostle Paul shares his supreme desire of knowing Jesus and becoming like him. And then he asserts:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)
Paul wants to make it clear that there is not a finish line or destination for maturity this side of heaven. He embraces the fact that he needs to press on towards the goal of Christlikeness. And then he continues to say,
“let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.” (Philippians 3:15-16)
Paul shows that the way true maturity “thinks” is to embrace and know that we still have a long way to go. In this way, maturity is similar to humility. The moment someone declares themselves to be humble, it reveals a lack of humility. Likewise, the more you grow in maturity, the more you understand you have a long way to go. It’s like a mountain climber who reaches a false summit only to find that the summit is higher. Every mountain top this side of heaven is a false summit in the pursuit of spiritual maturity.
In Colossians 1:28, Paul states that he wants to “present everyone mature in Christ.” This is our mission as well: to glorify God by making mature disciples. Knowing that spiritual maturity is a process and not a destination, we need to ask how we can know we are on the right path in the process. Even though we will never get to the top of the mountain, we need markers that tell us we are on the right trail. To that end, our church has identified Seven Characteristics of a Mature Disciple.
Most of these seven characteristics are found in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. Paul tells the Thessalonian believers that he knows they have been chosen by God because the gospel came to them not merely in word but in the power of the Holy Spirit. The evidence supporting his claim is that they were moved to “full conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5). We can take the idea of “full conviction” to be synonymous with spiritual maturity.
In the rest of chapter one, Paul lays out the evidences of full conviction or spiritual maturity. He notes that the Thessalonians became followers of the Word and examples through suffering, were consistently sharing their faith in all places, turned from idols to serve God, and were waiting for Jesus as their only hope. So, let’s walk through the Seven Characteristics of a Mature Disciple. For simplicity, I’ll use “him,” but these characteristics apply to men and women, boys and girls.
1. A Mature Disciple is Grounded in a Deep Understanding of the Gospel
A mature disciple understands and embraces that his salvation is owing solely to the sovereign grace of God and not to any merit in himself. This deep understanding of grace is the fuel that causes a mature disciple to put the interests of others before himself and in compassion to seek out the lost in order to win them to Christ.
2. A Mature Disciple is Communing Regularly with Jesus in Prayer and Time in the Word
In John 15, Jesus declares that he is the vine and we are his branches and the only way to bear fruit is to abide in him. A mature disciple is one who understands his need to regularly abide in Jesus through prayer. Just as Jesus himself relied on the Father in prayer, we must do the same. A mature disciple also pursues a relationship with Jesus through time in the Scriptures. The Scriptures point us to Jesus in order to find life in him and guide us as a lamp shining in a dark place (2 Peter 1:19).
3. A Mature Disciple is a Student and Practitioner of the Word and Sound Doctrine
A mature disciple knows how to apply Scripture to his life and to the lives of others. He has a growing understanding of how all the Bible points to Jesus and fits together. He grows in his discernment of truth as he applies Scripture to his life (Hebrews 5:14).
4. A Mature Disciple is Connected in Community, Fighting Sin and Enduring Suffering Together
A mature disciple is deeply involved in authentic, transparent community where he is known and knows others. In so doing, a mature disciple fights sin through confession and accountability with other believers and endures suffering through the mutual encouragement of the saints. A mature disciple is committed to practicing the “one anothers” of Scripture, exhorting and encouraging fellow believers. (Heb. 3:13)
5. A Mature Disciple is Identifying and Employing His Gifts for the Building Up of the Body
Ephesians 4 tells us that every member of the church has been given a gift by the Holy Spirit and when that gift is employed in the church, the church grows in health. A mature disciple is not a consumer in the church, but an active participant using his gifts to help the church grow.
6. A Mature Disciple is an Ambassador for Christ Through Evangelism
A mature disciple embraces the call of an ambassador, actively sharing his faith in the community. A disciple is by nature a disciple-maker. A mature disciple understands that God has placed him in unique places in our community to proclaim the gospel there.
7. A Mature Disciple is Living for What Lasts with an Eternal Perspective
A mature disciple understands that life is short and the mission of advancing the gospel is paramount. He understands that this world is not where we must place our ultimate hope and therefore, he invests and stores up his treasures in heaven. He lives life with an ever-present awareness of Christ’s return and lives to please Christ alone.
It is important to state again that we need to keep in mind that these are not destinations but rather part of the journey and the upward climb. We could even say that these are the Seven Characteristics of a Maturing Disciple. The goal of our lives is to know Jesus, make him known, and become more and more like him. May we all continue striving for Christlikeness on our spiritual journey! (2 Cor. 3:18)