We are all familiar with stories of people who grew up on a farm or working in a family business. I am a baby boomer, but my generation was raised on stories of life during the Great Depression and World War II. When times were hard, or fathers or sons were absent, younger family members suddenly had a great deal of adult responsibility placed on their shoulders. Hard work was certainly expected, but more than chores was involved. Very young children had to leave their carefree childhood and understand the importance of their labor to the family. They often had to accept responsibility for the care of livestock, use of a tractor, delivering goods to customers, and the like. Often, a substantial amount of work took place before the school day. Some had to quit school altogether to work full time for the family’s needs. Children of that era typically obediently did what they were told, but the family’s wellbeing necessitated their understanding of the gravity of the situation. Understanding their responsibility was necessary to the development of maturity, and its conscientious performance developed character.
Maturity in the Christian
Maturity in the Christian life also demands both an understanding of personal responsibility and faithfulness in its performance. Several of the parables of Jesus were about the faithful performance of assigned responsibility in the absence of the master. The parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30) shows that more than a minimal obedience is expected that a faithful servant proactively engages his efforts into advancing his lord’s interests.
Yet sinful man often avoids responsibility and work. Affluence is often cited as the cause, but it is no more than an enabling circumstance; the need to survive forces many to labor even if their character is inclined to indolence. Affluence merely removes that incentive to enterprise.
Affluence has allowed modern man to place an importance on adolescence never known in history. It is seen as a period of youthful pleasure without responsibilities, one which has been extended into the college years and beyond. It is not hard to find individuals who never outgrow childish priorities, who avoid maturity and responsibility. Many see work only as a necessary means of funding their recreation, and their accumulation of toys (not to mention debt) witnesses to this.
The avoidance of maturity is also evident in the church. Young people’s church groups and Christian colleges often sing the same children’s choruses taught in primary school classes. Modern worship is now in terms of what the churchgoer finds entertaining. It is increasingly a show. Sermons tend to be shallow because the faith is seen as shallow, with limited application. There is an avoidance of marriage; the minivan is, as the station wagon before it, a hated symbol of the responsibilities of family life that are eschewed.
Babies Can Only Digest Milk
Paul confronted immaturity in the Corinthian church by calling them “babes in Christ” who couldn’t digest meatier teaching so had to be served “milk” instead (I Cor. 3:1-15). Their problem was more than being new to their faith. They saw individuals and factions as important, thereby placing personal feelings above the faith. They were immature because they were not growing; they failed to see the larger picture of the Kingdom of God meeting their culture, so Paul immediately began explaining about the importance of Kingdom work: “For we are laborers together with God … let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon” (vv. 9-10). “Every man’s work shall be made manifest,” Paul added (v. 13). It is the Christian’s calling to be part of God’s family and to be “laborers” in the building of His Kingdom. Their petty squabbles showed the Corinthians did not understand their larger responsibilities in the Kingdom so they had not engaged themselves in God’s service.
The writer of Hebrews reprimanded believing Jews who were apparently not yet willing to break out of the perspective that plagued their unbelieving countrymen (Heb. 5:11-14). Again, they are acting immaturely, as “babes” (v. 13) who were “dull of hearing” (v. 11). The “strong meat” of teaching had to wait until they were able, as mature believers, “to discern both good and evil” (v. 14).
Immaturity is, for believers, more than a “failure to launch.” It is a moral failure, a character issue, one that can only be overcome by a willingness to see and accept one’s responsibility to faithfully work in his heavenly Father’s business.
The problematic Arminian emphasis on free will extends beyond the theology of redemption, because it is accompanied by continuing calls to make more decisions: “getting right with God,” rededicating one’s life, etc. It begins with the primacy of man’s will in salvation and continues with that focus, one that tends to center the faith on man rather than God. Regeneration that is enabled by the “effectual” calling of the Holy Spirit means, rather, that same power now commands our sanctification, our growth in grace. Maturity and growth, therefore, are our expectation of ourselves and those who claim to be regenerated by the blood of Jesus. Salvation is then not the goal of Christian work but its starting line. When we put a charger on a dead car battery, it is with the expectation of powering that car to go someplace. Where are we going in the service of our Lord? When the brother of Jesus said, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:20), he was offering an oxymoron, saying that such thinking was “vain,” empty and non-sensical.
Maturity means we are developing as a “new creature” in Christ (II Cor. 5:17) in knowledge, faith, and obedience. Pietistic religion loves to emphasize faith in the Christian walk, because it is, like its ethics, a subjective standard. Jesus had a more objective standard in view when He said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). The Old Testament prophets used disobedience as the evidence of the Jew’s unfaithfulness. My father’s thesis in The Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) was that the law of God was our means of sanctification, our measure of our faithfulness and growth in grace. It is a sad commentary on the modern church when we so commonly see its preachers and parishioners piously denouncing the law of God as unspiritual (or worse).
In our sanctification, the Kingdom must develop in our minds as well as our hearts. Just as many a father has carefully explained to his child the importance of his work to the family’s wellbeing, we must first know what God expects of us. Then, like a child, we assume the responsibility of the duties assigned us. God starts us with a few talents, but we must develop so our productivity increases, and we can teach another generation after us the responsibilities that come with our Father’s business.
The Christians at Corinth did not understand the work at hand. They could see no further than the personalities and factions in the church, as though the faith was a contest with rival teams. Their lack of understanding the Kingdom work and their own duties evidenced immaturity; they were acting like children in the faith. Paul was willing to teach them, but only at the most rudimentary level, because he wanted them to see their inability and its cause.
The Remnant Remains Faithful
The idea of the remnant is a recurring one in Scripture. God repeatedly told His people that His purposes would come to pass with or without them. A generation died in the wilderness. The ten northern tribes largely disappeared from history, then God warned the people of Judah that so many would die that there would be no one to bury the dead: the birds of the field would eat their flesh. Later, He destroyed the monarchy, Jerusalem, and the temple while sending the people into a foreign country.
Yet, a small remnant did return, and God’s promises went forward. When their apostate descendants rejected the Messiah they claimed to be expecting, a believing remnant took the gospel to the Gentiles with the message of the Kingdom. God’s purposes will go forward, and His Kingdom will grow to fill the earth, because His Spirit’s work is effectual. Our work in the Kingdom is a privilege. The work is that of the Spirit; we are called to faithfulness, which can only be measured by self-conscious obedience to God. Like a child who learns the performance of his duties from his patient father, we must heed God’s Word and be His remnant in our lifetime.
One of the most beautiful and effective teachings of the Reformation was “the priesthood of all believers.” It contrasted with the perspective that to really serve God one had to be a monk, nun, or priest. This idea has returned in Protestantism. When I was young, “full-time Christian service” was urged on those who were truly interested in serving God, ignoring the importance and even depreciating the validity of other callings. In the idea of the priesthood of all believers, the Reformers said a man’s calling, however humble, was his means of serving God.
That teaching caused an economic revolution that resulted in an explosion of economic development in Europe. Men took pride in their calling and work. In Europe and America, it resulted in the “Protestant work ethic,” famous for quality and business deals bound by a handshake, because men felt their service to God was measured by the integrity displayed in their work.
Sometimes our work is not directly involved in Kingdom advancement. Sometimes it is hard for us to see what good our labors are for God. Even then, God has provided a mechanism whereby all our labors serve His Kingdom—the tithe, which is the necessary funding mechanism of Kingdom work.
I have often wondered if the parents of Martin Luther or John Calvin doubted the value of any contribution they could make in God’s service. We are the workers of the Kingdom, not its planners or directors. Like the farm boy learning his responsibilities, we apply our shoulders to the wheel and follow our Father’s instructions because we know that our “labor is not in vain in the Lord.” That is the maturity He expects of His Children.