The primary goal of a parent (biological or spiritual) is the spiritual maturity of his or her children. But what exactly is spiritual maturity? How does the Bible define it?


There are a handful of passages that speak to this. I am going to draw primarily from three: Hebrews 6:1-2, Philippians 3:4-11, and Romans 12. These passages each identify various steps on the road to spiritual maturity. There is some overlap between them, so I’ve combined them into one expanded list.


1. Repentance from Dead Works (Hebrew 6:1, Philippians 3:4-9)

2. Faith in God (Hebrews 6:1, Philippians 3:9)

3. Knowing God (Philippians 3:10)

4. Sanctification / Mind Renewal (Hebrews 6:2, Romans 12:1-3)

5. Walking in Unique Gifts & Calling (Philippians 3:10, Romans 12:6-8, Hebrews 6:2)

6. The Fellowship of Christ’s Sufferings (Philippians 3:10)

7. Being Conformed to Christ’s Death (Philippians 3:10, Romans 12:14-21)


This list presupposes an initial surrender of overt, willful sin took place at conversion. Also, each of these steps is an area we (hopefully) continue to grow in our entire lives. I don’t want to give the wrong impression that one step must be fully conquered before moving on to the next. Now, let’s break down each step.


1. Repentance from Dead Works (Hebrew 6:1, Philippians 3:4-9)

The writer of Hebrews identified “repentance from dead works” as the “foundation” of Christianity. Every time we do something that appears “good” or “Christian” or “spiritual”, but subconsciously seek to feed our sense of self-worth or compensate for underlying guilt, we perform a dead work.


This does not mean we should not exercise discipline. It does not mean we should stop praying, reading scripture, or assembling with other believers if we do these things out of guilt or self-righteousness. But it does mean being honest with God and others about the condition of our hearts and asking Him to change us.


We can also use parenthood or our careers as dead works – anything we rely on to help us feel acceptable. However, dead works are especially toxic when infused with religion and spirituality. Dead works are at the heart of every false religion. Even atheists want to feel like good people and often expend a tremendous amount of effort to convince themselves they are.


In Philippians 3:4-9, Paul listed several factors from which he might have derived self-worth – his nationality, his family of origin, his impeccable moral behavior, his career advancement, his respectability in the eyes of his peers. Yet he gave up finding any value whatsoever in these things, saying:


“…those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ… I have suffered the loss of all things so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law [i.e. dead works]…”


Dead works are serious and dangerous. In a way, they are more deadly than overt sin because they are so deceptive. They have the appearance of righteousness. They cause some believers to think they are growing closer to God when they are actually pushing Him away. They cause other believers to think they can never be good enough for God and give up following Him under a cloud of condemnation.


Because repentance from dead works is so foundational, it is often the most heavily attacked area of a believer’s life. Satan constantly pressures us to try to earn God’s acceptance through moral performance, and then gets us to pressure others (including our children) in the same way. The way to combat this is found in the next step – Faith in God.


A Personal Story

Dead works are ingrained in our fallen nature even from childhood. When I was four years old, I stole several dollars’ worth of quarters from my dad’s home office. For the next two days, I felt physically sick with guilt. I was afraid to expose my sin to my father, so I secretly brought the money to church the next Sunday and put it in the offering, hoping to alleviate my guilt.


It seemed to work. I began to feel better. My relationship with my father had not been restored since I was still hiding something from him. But at least I could reason to myself that I was not a bad person since I ultimately gave the money away to a holy cause.


This is the quintessence of a dead work. It hides the truth of our condition. If I had the courage to tell my dad the truth, he would have reacted exactly as God does – he would have forgiven me and reaffirmed his love for me.


Incredibly, God kept my pursuing my little 4-year-old heart. The senior pastor of this large church happened to see me put the money in the offering and mailed a letter to my parents praising their son’s virtuous character! When my parents read it and began telling me how proud they were of me, I knew I was a fraud. God gave me a wonderful opportunity to come into the light and confess my sin, but I still chose not to out of fear. Nevertheless, it is a wonderful illustration of the deceptive nature of dead works.


2. Faith in God (Hebrews 6:1, Philippians 3:9)

Hebrews 6:1 and Philippians 3:9 identify the second step of maturity as “faith toward God” or “faith in Christ”. Faith in God does not just mean believing He exists; it is agreement with the Bible about what He has done and what He is like.


This means believing our sins are really forgiven, He really loves us, and our relationship to Him is the foundation of our purpose and value. When we believe this from our hearts, not just as an intellectual concept, dead works are no longer necessary—there is no reason to work for something we already have.


Jesus said in John 15:9-10, “Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love.” Christ loves us exactly as the Father loves Him – infinitely. It never changes or wavers in the slightest. Our obedience or disobedience to His commands doesn’t affect it one iota. It only affects whether we “abide” in it, which means we allow our lives to be directed and shaped by it.


3. Knowing God (Philippians 3:10)

The apostle Paul in Philippians 3:10 sets apart “…that I may know Him…” as distinct from other steps. This refers to knowing God relationally and experientially. It means having a unique personal history together. Like any relationship, it means two-way interaction.


Relationship with God can be hard to define since He is invisible and inaudible, but it is probably more familiar to each of us than we might initially realize. For example, ask yourself the following questions:


·         Have you ever experienced God giving you wisdom about a situation in your life?

·         Has He changed your desires or priorities over time?

·         Has He ever orchestrated circumstances in a way that His hand was evident?

·         Have you ever gone to church and the message “coincidentally” addressed exactly what you were going through?

·         Have you ever felt His presence in a palpable way?

·         Has He ever opened your eyes to a sinful pattern you were previously oblivious to?

·         Has He ever healed you from a past emotional wound?

·         Has He ever comforted you during a time of grief?

·         Has He ever empowered you to overcome a fear or anxiety or bitterness that previously seemed insurmountable?

·         Has He ever guided you through an important decision, perhaps by imparting a sense of peace or clarity about what to choose?

·         Has He ever touched you with overwhelming emotions during a time of worship?

·         Has He opened your mind to understand a scripture you did not previously understand?

·         Has He shown you how to pray for someone by guiding your thoughts during the prayer?

·         Has He given you just the right thing to say to a hurting friend in need of encouragement?

·         Have you ever had a dream you felt was from the Lord?

·         Has He ever spoken something timely and personal to you through His word, during prayer, or through other believers?


Most believers have experienced several, if not all, of these. Knowing God is our source of life. It is what enables us to live out every other step. It is how biblical truth moves from our minds to our hearts.


No matter how much we agree intellectually with correct doctrines, we will only give up dead works to the extent we experience how much God loves and values us. We will only find freedom from guilt to the extent we experience His forgiveness. We will only be sanctified or fulfill our calling to the extent we experience His grace at work in our lives.


I’m not saying there isn’t a place for exercising faith when our feelings or experiences don’t seem to line up with biblical truth. But there is nevertheless a maturation that only takes place as a result of time and experience.


Christians are encouraged to read our Bibles, spend time in prayer, and assemble in community. However, we are not as frequently told why to do them. These are primary vehicles through which God’s Spirit interacts with us. They are food and water. We cannot grow spiritually without these things any more than we can grow physically without eating or drinking.


4. Sanctification / Mind Renewal (Hebrews 6:2, Romans 12:2-3)

The next maturity step listed by the author of Hebrews is, “instructions about washings”, which refers to the process of sanctification. Sanctification means letting go of sinful habits and attitudes and replacing them with righteous ones. Similarly, Paul wrote in Romans 12:2, “…do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” Mind Renewal refers to letting go of false, worldly beliefs and replacing them with righteous ones.


Let’s break up Sanctification / Mind Renewal into four categories:


1)      Exercising Self-Control

2)      Responding to Conviction

3)      Viewing God Accurately

4)      Viewing Ourselves Accurately


Exercising Self-Control

Part of sanctification is exercising self-control. This is why “self-control” is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23). Self-control means repeatedly rejecting sinful thoughts, words, and actions and instead choosing righteous ones until they become habitual. This pursuit is greatly affected by what media, relationships, and biblical teaching (or lack thereof) we let into our lives.


Proverbs 24:16 says “a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again”. People don’t form new habits instantly. It is simply impossible. It takes time and practice. There is no shame in stumbling if we get up and keep going. God is very patient and gentle with our sincere attempts to grow in righteousness.


Responding to Conviction

Conviction is a wonderful gift. It is the most loving thing God can possibly do when we are in sin and don’t realize it. Or maybe we do realize it, but don’t realize how serious it is.


Conviction is cause for rejoicing. It is like a wise doctor seeking you out on his own initiative and telling you you have a very early, very treatable form of cancer. Then he offers to remove it for you first thing tomorrow morning free of charge. Wouldn’t you be filled with gratitude toward such a doctor?


God never convicts us without providing grace to overcome our affliction. The very fact that He is convicting us means He is also offering us the power to change. This is why conviction is cause for celebration even though it may initially feel grievous.


There is an awesome picture of this in Nehemiah 8. When Ezra began reading God’s law to the people they were deeply convicted. They began to weep because they had disobeyed for so long. However, Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites said to them:


“This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep. …Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. …Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.”


After this word, they celebrated with a great festival. The people understood that God’s goal was not to weigh them down with sorrow, but to offer them a new beginning. Conviction stands in stark contrast to Satan’s counterfeit – condemnation – which points out a problem but offers no solution. Condemnation leaves us ashamed and discouraged, but conviction is accompanied by hope.


When we ignore God’s conviction (as we all have), it is like telling the wise doctor we don’t want to address the cancer he found just yet. Instead, we tell him the operation sounds inconvenient and uncomfortable. We’re not ready to give up the lifestyle that caused the cancer in the first place. We put it off. The longer we wait, the more serious it becomes. The operations required to remove it grow more numerous, painful, and expensive. Eventually, it becomes deadly. The cancer of unrepented sin can kill our relationships, our calling, and even our faith. Therefore, a major part of Christian maturity is learning to embrace and celebrate God’s conviction.


Viewing God Accurately

God is not a Restrictor, but a Fulfiller. He does not withhold good things from us; He protects us with wise boundaries. There is nothing in the universe God cannot give us or would not give us. Romans 8:32 says, “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” James 1:17 says, “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” The ironic truth is that the vast majority of sins Christians commit are in pursuit of things God already plans to give us!


Below is a list of several common sins followed by short descriptions of the godly desires they seek to fulfill:


·         Sexual Immorality – Godly desire for sexual fulfillment

·         Witchcraft – Godly desire to connect to the spiritual realm, since God is a spirit, as are we.

·         Greed / Jealousy – Godly desire to steward wealth/possessions, provide for loved ones, exercise generosity; enjoyment of a home, food, travel, experiences, and everything money can buy.

·         Pride / Envy – Godly desire to be affirmed and feel valuable or significant

·         Fear / Anxiety – Godly desire to make wise plans and see them fulfilled

·         Substance Abuse – Godly desire for encouragement, refreshment, and relief from pain or stress

·         Unforgiveness – Godly desire for healing and a restored relationship

·         Idolatry – Godly desire for any good thing that is not prioritized above our desire to know God and obey Him


Satan’s tactic since the beginning of creation was to offer a forbidden shortcut to something God already planned to give. In Genesis 3, he said to Eve, “In the day you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” God wanted Adam and Eve’s eyes to be opened eyes (ex. Ephesian 1:18). He wanted them to be like Him (ex. Ephesians 5:1). He wanted them to discern good and evil (ex. Hebrews 5:14). Each of these attributes would have increased in them the longer they walked with God.


Satan tried the same thing with Jesus. He offered Him authority over the earth if He would bow down and worship him (Matthew 4:9), even though God already planned to give Jesus this authority.


Sin is often pleasurable. The Bible doesn’t deny this. Hebrews 11:25 says Moses chose to abstain from “the passing pleasures of sin”. However, the path to freedom often feels like bondage at first, and the path to bondage often feels freedom at first. If we were allowed to indulge our most base desires (lust, greed, pride, etc…) as much as wanted for as long as we wanted, it might initially feel like freedom, but it would quickly grow into an addiction, resulting in slavery. Not only would it no longer fulfill us, but we would need it in ever greater measures just to feel ok.


However, if we trust God’s boundaries and pursue the good things we desire His way, our ability to enjoy them is richer and deeper. By learning how to make God our primary source of fulfillment, the joy we derive from all our secondary desires is magnified.


It is true that not all of our desires will be fully or even partly fulfilled in this life. This is where an eternal perspective is vital. 2 Corinthians 4:17-18 says:


“For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”


This life is very short compared to the endless millennia we will exist beyond it. The depths of joy, peace, love, fulfillment, etc… we will experience in the future is far beyond anything we can imagine right now. Having an eternal perspective is crucial when we must lay down a deeply-felt desire, either temporarily or permanently, in order to follow Jesus.


Part of sanctification is learning the Lordship of Christ, which means to see Him as our King and Judge. It means we would do or surrender anything we knew with confidence He was asking of us, even if it involved pain or sacrifice, because He created us and paid for us. We belong to Him and we are accountable to Him.


View Ourselves Accurately

Paul wrote in Romans 12:3, “…I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment…” Another part of Sanctification / Mind Renewal is replacing trust in ourselves and our abilities with dependence on God. The truth is that we are all far more dependent on God’s grace and protection than we realize. If God gave the enemy full access to us, allowing him to orchestrate any temptation he wanted for as long as he wanted, we would all fall headlong into bondage. The perfect combination of temptations, wounds, and weaknesses is all that stands between us and the sin we think we could never commit.


We also have no ability to accomplish anything of eternal significance apart from God’s empowerment. This is why Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 3:5, Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God.” God exalts the humble (James 4:10), displays His strength through our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9), and makes wise the simple (Psalm 19:7). However, he opposes the proud (James 4:6), debases human strength, and nullifies human wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:27-29). He even does this with His own children – not just the lost. If we feel self-confident and capable to accomplish what God is calling us to, we are not ready. However, if we feel vulnerable and aware of our weaknesses and limitations, that is the safest place to be.



In the next chapter, we’ll examine the remaining steps on the road to spiritual maturity. What we uncover may lead to you conclude, as I did, that a spiritually mature Christian is perhaps the rarest kind of person in the world.