There are few things more exciting to witness than a new Christian who is enthusiastic about their faith. They suck in Bible teaching like a Shop Vac.
But a problem often arises during this early season of their spiritual journey. When your initial spiritual growth spurt coincides with learning a lot about the Bible and the Christian faith, it’s easy to equate spiritual growth primarily with knowledge growth.
Measuring spiritual maturity merely by what you know can have disastrous results. Someone thinks she lives a great Christian life because she’s in three Bible studies, but she isn’t sharing the gospel with unbelievers. A leader at the church is regarded as the resident theology expert, but has anger issues at home. Small groups dig deep into God’s word, but don’t dig deep into each other’s lives and hearts. Focusing on the head over the heart and the hands results in a drastically imbalanced Christian life.
Lots of Bible knowledge, little spiritual fruit
Jesus often ran into people who knew the intricacies of Scripture but were far from God. The Sadducees asked Jesus a technical question about how marriage laws works in the resurrection, and Jesus responded, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:29). To the Jews he said, “You search the Scripturesbecause you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). Jesus even berates Nicodemus, who was close to becoming a follower, because he couldn’t understand the simple fact of the new birth, despite being “the teacher of Israel” (John 3:10).
I’m not saying it is not wrong to enjoy digging into the details of the text, or the cultural background to passages. But I am saying that Jesus had the harshest things to say to people who did that, and thought they were more spiritual than everyone else because of it.
Jesus was never impressed by anyone’s expansive biblical intellect. He was impressed, however, by simple faith (Luke 7:9) and sorrow over sin (Luke 7:44-50).
So is it better to have little knowledge and simple faith?
Even though spiritual growth is not to be equated with biblical learning, that doesn’t mean that spiritual growth has nothing to do with learning more about God, the Bible, and the gospel. Yet some fall into the temptation of swinging to the other extreme, insisting that too much knowledge is a bad thing, and we need to focus more on the heart. We are supposed to love God with all our heart and our mind, so the point can’t be to avoid knowledge.
Even though simple faith is saving faith, it is not God’s ideal that we remain at that level. Peter writes, “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love” (1 Peter 1:5-7). Sometimes people claim that too much theological knowledge necessarily pushes love, care, and holy living to the margins. Peter shows us that this is not the case. We need all of these qualities lest we become “ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:8).
So how do we move from attaining biblical knowledge for itself to seeking it along with all these other aspects of the Christian life?
The goal: biblical knowledge that doesn’t stay in your head
So far we’ve covered two important points: 1) having expansive biblical knowledge does not necessarily mean you are spiritually mature, but 2) in order to grow in your spiritual maturity, you need to grow in your knowledge. How do you bring those two things together?
The psalmist shows us an important goal for growing in knowledge when he writes, “Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart” (Psalm 119:34). Notice here that understanding is not an end in itself, but it is a way to more thorough keeping of the law as well as more genuine keeping of the law. He is not satisfied just to learn it. He wants to live it.
Paul gets at this idea in Philippians 3:10-11, “That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I mat attain the resurrection from the dead.” Paul is not content to know merely the facts of Christ’s death and resurrection, he wants to experience the power of that gospel reality, even if it means suffering.
Don’t stop studying!
My goal is not for you to stop learning, but to give you a more expansive purpose for it. As you grow in your knowledge of the Bible and the beliefs of the Christian faith, don’t be pleased merely to know these things. The mark of spiritual maturity is not to know, but to love – to love God and neighbor.
How can you take the things you’ve learned to become more loving and humble before God and others? Once you find some answers to that question, get ready for another spiritual growth spurt.
Eric McKiddie serves as Pastor for Gospel Community at the Chapel Hill Bible Church He helps pastors grow as well-rounded ministers of the gospel at his blog, Pastoralized, and through sermon coaching. Follow him on Twitter: @ericmckiddie.