Growing Toward Spiritual Maturity

In many schools, all students get their pictures taken annually. After a few weeks, the school’s photographer sends home a sample, and then the parents decide if they want to purchase some. Each year the photos remind us of the subtle but remarkable growth of our children toward adulthood. A catalog features a picture frame with 12 little windows titled “School Days.” It is designed to hold each year’s student picture in sequence from grade 1 to 12. Seeing them together shows a fascinating process of growth.

Likewise, after God gives us new birth through salvation, we are to grow toward maturity in Christ. Biblical counseling has this as one of its primary goals.[1] It is possible for the believer who is excitedly discovering the Abiding Life in Christ to overlook the importance of continued spiritual growth. Unlike physical growth–which is predetermined by the body’s DNA–we are required to cooperate with God in order to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 3:18).[2]

Let’s consider what the Scriptures teach about growing toward spiritual maturity. Three essential factors in spiritual growth include learning, obedience, and time. These components are included in Hebrews 5:8-14:

“Though He [Jesus] was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected [reaching His goal], He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him, called by God as High Priest ‘according to the order of Melchizedek,’ of whom we have much to say, and hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.”


Notice the importance of learning. By this time the Hebrew believers should have been more knowledgeable of the Scriptures, yet they still needed basic teaching. Their lack of interest was compared to being “dull of hearing” (NIV translates this “slow to learn”). And maturity is described as being “skilled in the Word of righteousness.” Timothy was exhorted to mature in this area: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).

Peter encouraged spiritual growth by using the imagery of a baby feeding on its mother’s milk: “Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the Word, that you may grow thereby” (1 Peter 2:1-2).

We saw that Hebrews 5:8-14 compares basic teaching to “milk” and more in-depth teaching “solid food.” Similarly, Paul said to the Corinthians, “I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able” (1 Cor. 3:1-2).

We expect a baby to begin with milk and then eat soft food later on. But how strange it would be to see a man drinking from a baby’s bottle, or a woman eating at a high chair with a bib!
Therefore, we need to have a plan to regularly read and study God’s Word throughout our lifetime (Joshua 1:8-9).


However, intellectual knowledge of the Scriptures does not equate with spiritual maturity. There needs to be application of God’s Word to our heart and life. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). It’s better to read and apply 10 minutes of Bible reading daily than to earn a doctorate in theology without applying God’s Word personally.


Time is also a factor in spiritual maturity. Even abiding in Christ with Bible study, worship, fellowship, ministry, does not catapult the believer to spiritual maturity. We never “arrive” in this life; there is always more to learn. As Paul declared,

“Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:12-14).

Another helpful passage is 1 Timothy 3:1-13. These character qualities are valuable, not only as guidelines for appointing of elders and deacons, but also as a portrait of spiritual maturity. This maturity should be the goal of every believer, not just church leaders! And one of the factors of the mature believer is that he is “not a recent convert.”

If physical maturity involves reaching the full stature of adulthood, then spiritual maturity has a goal also–ultimate conformity to the moral likeness and character of the Lord Jesus. “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:28-29). This goal is not based on trying to imitate Christ, but is a result of abiding in Him. In this way the Holy Spirit gradually transforms us: “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18).


Our spiritual growth can also be greatly assisted by a mentoring relationship. Paul embraced the responsibility of discipling those he led to Christ: “Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus. To this end I also labor, striving according to His working which works in me mightily” (Col. 1:28,29; See Gal. 4:19).[3]

Some families annually mark the height of each child on a wall or door jam [like: “Billy, age 9 —-” ; “Sarah, age 7 —-” ]. If they don’t paint over it, there ends up being a series of marks that trace the child’s stages of growth unto full stature.

In his book on the biblical strategy for church ministry, Bob Smith lists the following “Marks of Maturity.” These can help specify evidences of spiritual growth:

1. Stability and consistency (1 Peter 1:13)
2. Walking by faith (Romans 8:14)
3. Openness to correction (1 Peter 5:5-6)
4. Non-defensive attitude (1 Peter 5:5-6)
5. A teachable spirit (1 Corinthians 2:6-13)
6. Honesty before God (1 John 1:5-10)
7. Love extended without reservation (John 13:34-35, Matthew 5:48)
8. Acceptance of conflict and suffering as part of the growth pattern (Romans 5:3)
9. Freedom from fear (1 John 4:17-18)
10. Knowing good from evil in subtle distinction (Hebrews 5:14)
11. Confidence (1 Timothy 3:13)
12. Knowing and exercising right priorities (John 11:9-10)
13. Willingness to surrender one’s rights for Christ’s sake (Philippians 2:5-9)
14. Accepting an obscure place without requiring praise to keep going (2 Corinthians 4:5)
15. Faithfulness in assuming and fulfilling assignments, availability and follow-through (1 Corinthians 4:2)
16. Submission to authority (Romans 12:1-3)
17. Liberty resulting from obedience (John 8:34) [4]

Members of the Body of Christ [the Church] are also called to mature corporately. This will include unity, stability, and harmony:

“… till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head – Christ” (Eph. 4:13-15).

So, may we keep growing toward spiritual maturity, anticipating the Day when we will be glorified (1 John 3:2).


[1] Other goals of biblical counseling are salvation (Rom 10:9-10), [and for believers] the Exchanged Life (Gal 2:20), and freedom in Christ (John 8:32).

[2] Of course, even physical growth involves our cooperation, such as eating, drinking, exercising, etc.

[3] Mentoring resources: Dynamic Life Handbook ( ); Design for Discipleship (Navigators); Steps to Spiritual Maturity (Campus Crusade for Christ).

[4] Bob Smith, When All Else Fails, Follow the Directions (Word Books), p.139.

Copyright 2001 by John Woodward. Permission is granted to reprint for noncommercial use if credit is given to the author and Biblical quotations are from The Holy Bible, New King Kames Version (copyright by Thomas Nelson).

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