Guest Post: What is Christian Maturity?
Today’s article is by a friend I met in 2018: Mr. Raymond Ndung’u (@RaymondNdungu). Raymond is a Pastoral Assistant at Emmanuel Baptist Church Nairobi, a contributor to TGC Africa, and the former National Students Executive Council chairperson for the Fellowship of Christian Unions (FOCUS).
Perhaps the most universal and noble desire for all Christians is to become Christ-like. Upon conversion and in our journey of faith, one thing becomes progressively clear: we are nowhere near where we should be in imaging Christ, and living out the reality of the amazing transformation that he has worked in us. A word that is often used to describe this much-coveted state is ‘Christian maturity’.
When I have encountered this concept of Christian maturity, it is often described as an attainable state where the constant struggles of sin come to an end, thus attaining perfection on this side of eternity. However, since it is written that we shall only be perfected when Jesus takes us home (Philippians 3:20-21), then this concept of Christian maturity, which Christians are encouraged to pursue diligently in the Bible, can be likened to a flying pig: unachievable and improbable.
How then, are we to decipher invitations such as: ‘Let those of us who are mature think this way…’ by Paul in Philippians 3:15?
To understand the concept of Christian maturity, we shall look into Paul’s definition of maturity within the context of Philippians 3:3-16 with the hope of securing a better grasp on this elusive yet important concept!
The Race Illustration
Christian Maturity is a Mindset, Not a Destination
Perhaps a good place to start is by suggesting that in Philippians 3:3-16, Paul does not present maturity as an attainable destination, but rather as a mindset that we should possess. In other words, if you think of the Christian life as a race, maturity is not the finish line but the mentality that we should have as we squeeze out energy from each muscle, aiming to hit that finish line. (Do you now understand why he calls the mature to ‘think this way’)?
Paul gives his frame of mind as the example before he calls the Christian church in Philippi to ‘join in imitating me’ (Philippians 3:17). I invite us to probe a few aspects of this mentality which Paul calls the mature to have …
“In other words, if you think of the Christian life as a race, maturity is not the finish line but the mentality that we should have as we squeeze out energy from each muscle, aiming to hit that finish line.”
Marks of Christian Maturity
1. Prizing Christ as the Ultimate Reward
As Christians, we always run the risk of treasuring the gifts of Christ more than we treasure Christ Himself. Many would think this distinction is splitting hairs, or making a fuss over nothing: “Christ and His rewards … what’s the difference?” You may ask. But there is a difference. In its most distorted state, this tendency is what leads to the allure of the prosperity Gospel, whereby God is treasured only as of the giver of material and financial gifts, a notion that should be vehemently shunned by all believers.
Reading Paul’s epistle, a deduction can be made regarding his mind. Paul was not predominantly focused on the gifts of Christ (even though these are eternally precious and we ought to rejoice over them) but he was supremely preoccupied with Christ himself.
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, so that I may gain Christ.
Let’s refer to our race illustration: For Paul, the winner’s medal was Christ Himself. Likening Paul’s mindset to the words of a contemporary hymn, “All I have is Christ!” This should be the song that we constantly sing despite life’s dims and distresses.
Paul’s mind was not predominantly focused on the gifts of Christ (even though these are eternally precious and we ought to rejoice over them)! He was supremely preoccupied with Christ himself.
2. Resting Upon Christ’s Accomplishments
“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.”
Paul describes his efforts as ‘straining forward’ and ‘pressing on’. Nonetheless, this does not mean that we have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, roll back our sleeves, and get to work lest we are disqualified. Interestingly, Paul’s drive and ambition did not flow out of fear of exclusion, but rather from the assurance of full inclusion!
Before he uses these action words, observe the kind of assurance he describes as the foundation for his constant striving:
Vs 12: “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…”
Vs 15: “Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.”
This resting upon the wonderful accomplishments of Christ as counting on your behalf is a key pillar of Christian maturity. You must rest in the truth that God is actually for you!
Going back to our race illustration: Oftentimes, we think that God’s grace buys us our spot on the line-up, but it is our work to get ourselves across the finish line. Yet the truth is that the Lord who qualifies us for the race runs with us, empowers us in every single step, picks us up when we fall, and guides us over the hurdles. And in truth, he has already secured the ultimate prize for us: everlasting life with him. So now we run with all our might that we might take possession of the ultimate prize, being completely assured that he has fully and finally taken possession of us!
3. A Single-minded, Unwavering Pursuit of Jesus
The illusion of having received our goal, which is to become like Christ, is perhaps the greatest threat to real Christian maturity. There is a real danger when a Christian begins to become proud because he can quote many verses accurately, or because she can articulate heavy theological concepts, or because they belong to a certain theological camp and can, therefore, look down upon others who are still ‘finding their way around these truths’.
Notice that an awareness of the need for growth is a critical part of the mindset that Paul is calling the church in Philippi to have and that this is what in turn feeds the almost obsessive pursuit to know the Lord more and to grow in His grace.
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. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.
Going back to our race illustration, you would not consider him much of an athlete who stops mid-race to take selfies with the fans. If we truly see that Christ is the ultimate prize, and we are assured that he will hold us fast, then every glance at our immaturity will have us striving to know him more, to love him more, and therefore, to obey him more.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments”
It was Jonathan Edwards who resolved to this effect:
“On the supposition, that there never was to be but one individual in the world, at any one time, who was properly a complete Christian, in all respects of a right stamp, having Christianity always shining in its true luster, and appearing excellent and lovely, from whatever part and under whatever character viewed: Resolved, to act just as I would do, if I strove with all my might to be that one, who should live in my time.”
Edwards was simply saying this: “If only one Christian could exist in each generation in whom true Christianity would be exemplified, I will strive to be that one individual in my generation.”
This kind of thinking is the picture of what Christian maturity is. May we gird up our loins, embark on pursuing God through his appointed means of grace—through the study of His word, private and corporate prayer, healthy church membership, evangelism, etc.—that we might know Christ. That we might count everything as loss for the sake of gaining Christ our Lord!