As a student of the Word of God and of theology, in general, I have found that two of my favorite theologians are John Wesley and Karl Barth. I know for you theologian enthusiasts this is a weird combination. When it comes to Barth, I connect to his understanding that revelation comes from God, and without God, there can be no real revelation. I also love the fact that he believed that Biblical studies without context were not true Biblical studies. But for me, John Wesley’s understanding of sanctification is one that I have always connected with throughout my life. Wesley was asked one time if sanctification was a one-time act or a life-long process, Wesley simply replied, “yes”. As one that has been in the church for over forty-nine years and has served in full-time ministry for over twenty-five of those years, I have come to realize that sanctification is something that we rarely talk about anymore. For many in the church, we have seemed to jump right over sanctification as if it were a hurdle we must discard on our way to receiving the power of the Holy Spirit. For others and maybe even the majority of church goers, it is a wall that they dare not try to climb and so they remain satisfied with stopping at just enough of Jesus to get them to heaven but not enough to cost them anything they enjoy here on earth. So what the church is left with are spiritual adolescents that have neither the drive nor the maturity to make a real contribution to the Kingdom of God. I am sorry I have had too much coffee this morning, and I am becoming a bit too direct for the postmodern cultural church.
Sanctification and spiritual maturity go hand and hand. When I was nineteen years old, Linnie and I had our first child, Ashley. She was one of the most beautiful baby girls I had ever laid eyes on, only equaled by her younger sister Alivia that would come seven years later. I remember holding her in the hospital when my father walked in. He told me something that I have never forgotten; he looked at her and said to me, “your life will never be your own again.” At the time it did not make much sense to me, but over the last twenty-nine years, I have come to understand what he was sharing with me. That day in the hospital I had to mature and continue to mature for the welfare of my family. Wesley believed the same was true for us as Christians. It was Wesley’s view that holiness was not imputed, but imparted. Wesley thought believers become holy, and that they continue to grow in that holiness throughout their lives, seeking to enter what he referred to as, complete sanctification. Now I know this is a bit heavy on the theological terminology so let me break it down. As Christians, we must continue to grow and mature into fully functioning followers of Christ. Maturity is not an act, but it is a process by which we become sanctified through a partnership that we have with Christ. Our holiness does not come just because we go to the altar and pray a prayer and God just hits us with a holiness bolt of lighting, but it comes through discipline, study, and yes effort. Maturity comes through the power of Holy Spirit as I align myself with Him and seek to know Jesus more. We have taught grace so much that we have failed to teach personal responsibility as being our part in the sanctification process. We have people that are in the church, but they are not growing. Growing is a byproduct of being healthy. The reason that the doctor’s office weighs and measure a child is to see if they are growing, because they know if they are growing then they are healthy. The same is true with us spiritually. If we are growing spiritually, then we are spiritually healthy. Like any growth, we must be active and moving forward. The Apostle Paul says, “Press to the high mark of God” which implies that we, at times, must put forth an effort to get to certain points in our walk with God.
So what does maturity look like in the life of a Christian? The truth is many changes will take place as we grow in Christ and as we move through the sanctification process. So let me just deal with a few that I think we need to examine our own life.
The Change from Selfishness to Selflessness
In our western culture, we are taught to be independent, and that success means doing what you want when you want. We celebrate the rebels, those that are carefree and living life doing what they want. We are consumerists who only care about what we have and what we can obtain as a society. This mindset has made its way in the church and so many in the church, without even realizing it, have come to see the church as a place that was created for them and their needs. They shop for churches based on what they can do to meet the needs of their family, rather than being lead by God and being used to make the kingdom better. The church is full of the consumer mentality, but that is not what it is supposed to be. What my father was telling me in that hospital room is the same thing that Jesus was saying to the disciples in Luke 22 when He tells them that to be great in the Kingdom one must serve others. Nothing that I have done in life has helped me to mature like being a father to three beautiful kids. I learned that as a father, my needs, dreams, and desires, have to become secondary to the needs, dreams, and desires of my children. I learned that real maturity was standing in my responsibilities and doing everything that I could to serve the needs of my family. The same is true as a Christian. We must see beyond our selfishness into the needs of others. We cannot simply do what we want or what we feel is right or fair, but we have to do what will benefit the kingdom of God. Maturity means seeing the needs of others over the needs of oneself and working to uplift the whole body rather than you and yours. Maturity is giving of oneself even when that is not really what you want to do. I never said growing up was easy, but it is the only way that you can make a real impact on the Kingdom of God.
The Change in Attitude and Behavior
When I first started as a Senior Pastor, I was very young and had a lot of learning to do. There was an older gentleman in the church that was also a minister and had thrown his name in for the position when I did. He was not licensed and had no experience in ministry and so was not considered for the position. I had known him for many years and had an excellent relationship with him up until this point. For a while everything was good, and there were no problems, or so I thought. Come to find out he had started a “he’s way too young campaign” against me. When that did not work, he left the church and talked badly about me. I was so hurt and upset, and I thought if I ever see him I am going to give him a piece of my mind. Well, a few months later, as luck would have it, he came walking through the door of the auto parts store where I worked. I thought to myself this is it I am going to unload and teach this man something about Jesus, which was not my intention at all. All of the sudden the Holy Spirit came over me and spoke to me and said: “This is not what I have called you to be, this is not what I would have you to do.” All of the sudden I realized that growing up meant acting like a grown up. So I smiled and through the love, grace, and mercy of the Holy Spirit I was able to talk to him as if nothing had ever happened, and did so every time I saw him. Years later he would come and apologize to me. He said, “I don’t know if you knew what I said but I am sorry.” I told him that I did know but it was all right, and I had forgiven him years earlier.
You see when you grow in Christ your attitude has to change. You cannot hold onto grudges and bitterness and be sanctified. I know it is hard and may be the hardest part of spiritual growth, but it is vital if you are going to go through the sanctification process. So many people in the church are sitting ineffective because they refuse to let go of past hurts and attitudes. They make excuses like “this is just the way I am” or “I have a right to be hurt” which all may be true, but that is why we must have the Holy Spirit as our partner so that the things that we cannot accomplish, He can. I have heard good people in the church say, “I want to reach the lost” and in the same breath complain because someone came to church that they did not like. The Apostle Paul calls such things, childish things. What I learned from my experience was that just because I have a reason to be upset does not mean that I have a right to be angry. If I am growing in Christ, then I am becoming more like Him, and therefore I must be willing to forgive the way He forgives. The way I behave and the attitude that I have toward people has to look more and more like Jesus and less and less like me.
The Willingness to Give it all to Him
I remember another situation early in my first pastorate where the church had finally started to grow. That Sunday morning we had a special service for the community, and we had some city officials with us in service. During the worship service the spirit started moving (that means church started getting exciting for all my non-Pentecostal friends), and as I stood there trying to look as dignified as I could, the Holy Spirit said: “worship me.” I thought to myself, “ I am praising you Lord”, but again the Holy Spirit said, “No I mean, worship Me.” I that moment I realized I was more interested in impressing the people than I was pleasing God. I realized that growing up meant that I had to please the only One that mattered even if it meant giving up what I wanted most. So I worshipped. I am not sure what effect it had on those that were there if any, but for me, it was a move in the right direction as in that moment I was willing to give Him everything.
Maturity is about the willingness to put everything that you want on the line and giving it away so that you can give the one that matters everything. As you grow in Christ you come to realize that the most important thing that you do as a Christian is pleasing Him. All of your hope, your peace, your power, and your life are within Jesus and as you please Him, all these things come into your life. In Matthew 6 Jesus is teaching the disciples, He tells them that they must first “seek the Kingdom of Heaven” and not the things of this world. As we grow in Christ, there has to be a willingness to give ourselves completely to Him and His will for our life. That means when we come to church and gather, it must be all about Him. Worship must become a part of our daily lives, knowing Him must be the drive that consumes us daily. Seeing that people see and hear the gospel message through us must be the pursuit of our life. When these things happen then church, Bible study, prayer, witnessing, etc. they are no longer chores that we must accomplish, but they become passions that we have the opportunity to achieve.
Now let me conclude this by saying that maturity is a need within the church. You may say why do you believe we do not have this? In a recent study that I read over 60% of Americans identified themselves as Christians. Now that is a significant number of people, which would make you think that we are a Christian nation. Look at our society. Did you know that we lead the world in the most people incarcerated? We continue to build more prisons because we are overcrowded in all of them. Can anyone say that the racial issues of our country are better today than they were at any time in history? Is crime at an all time low? What about alcoholism, drug addiction, or sexual immorality? Is the divorce rate lower than it has ever been? I mean prisons are full, and many churches are empty, and we think that there is nothing wrong with our spirituality. The truth is we need a move of God, and it is easy to preach revival, but revival without discipleship and sanctification is nothing more than a flashlight with weak batteries. If we are not willing to change, we can have exciting services only to lose the fire as fast as we obtained it. There has to be maturity; there has to be a revival of sanctification that comes into the church. The church has to grow inwardly if it is going to make an impact outwardly. Today I pray that it starts with me, I pray it starts with you.