Conversatio Divina

Part 2 of 12

The Reality of Christian Maturity

Nijay Gupta & James Samra

The first session of the 2024 Martin Institute Christian Formation Workshop involved a presentation by Dr. Nijay Gupta (Northern Seminary) and comments by Dr. James Samra (Calvary Church, Grand Rapids, MI). The session was hosted by Dr. Holly Beers (Westmont College). Dr. Gupta’s paper was titled “To Be a Christian ‘Grown-Up’: Formation as a Goal, Not Just a Practice.” This session set the conceptual stage for our workshop by contending for the biblical expectation of Christian maturation.

Below is a summary and some key quotes from Dr. Gupta’s paper. In the short video of Dr. Gupta from the workshop, he summarizes the points of his paper. A video of Dr. Samra’s response follows. We conclude with some application questions. Thanks to Dr. Michael DiFuccia for writing up this summary.

01.  Summary

Dr. Gupta claims that the “whole Bible” is about “growing up into a full human being through God—and the end goal is to conform completely to the image of Christ.” He surveys the historical and cultural context of Old Testament, Greco-Roman, Stoic, and primarily Pauline literature, to argue that spiritual formation is not to be thought of solely as practice, but as a goal, that of Christlikeness.

Dr. Gupta finds that the “Jewish tradition tends to represent life as a journey, walking step-by-step, and the right thing to do is stay close to the leader, the guide, in this case YHWH.” The wise are those who covenant with God, while the fool does otherwise. Dr. Gupta draws out similar themes in Jesus’ teaching. Jesus promises a “fruitful” life for those who “abide” in Him; they are those who love and keep his commandments. Drawing on Luke’s combining of tele (“end”) and phero (“carry”) (Lk 8:14), Dr. Gupta suggests that the biblical image of maturity (teleios) is found in, “the ability to bear fruit to maturity or completion.”

Dr. Gupta also finds “much overlap between the Greco-Roman Stoics and the early Christians, especially in terms of the importance of living a noble and worthwhile life, and committing to a path of progress towards the goal of maturity.” The subtle difference, however, lies in the means. Whereas the Greco-Roman Stoics emphasize knowledge, self-discipline, and a “motivated will,” early Christians stress the role of the indwelling Spirit of God.

Dr. Gupta then connects the Jewish and Greco-Roman understanding of maturity to Pauline literature.  He speaks of Paul’s “passion” and “obsession” with the formation and maturity of the believer found “practically everywhere in his letters.” Dr. Gupta details the Pauline vision of maturity in three categories:

  1. Images of Maturity | e.g., growing up, contrasting old and new clothing, cultivation and building, and military and athletic training.
  2. Ideals of Maturity | e.g., piety and holiness, resilience (long-suffering), transformed mind (wisdom or prudence), moral virtues/goods, and selflessness/other-centeredness.
  3. Means of Maturity | e.g., the attainment of moral virtues/goods via training or teaching.

He stresses that this Pauline vision of maturity is best understood in terms of Paul’s use of teleios (end or goal) and paideia (teaching or training). The goal is to become like Jesus, the ideal man, while the way is a kind of paideia(teaching or training) toward this image.

Dr. Gupta concludes with some points for further consideration:

  1. Conversion is not the end; it is the beginning.
  2. We (particularly evangelicals) need a robust new catechesis (or training).
  3. We need help understanding what is broken inside of us.
  4. We need formational rites of passage.
  5. We need accountability.

02.  Key Quotes

“Holiness is not a set of practices, it’s not even practicing avoidances of bad things; it is ultimately about drawing close to God and becoming more and more like God through his transformative presence. The closer we are to God, the more we will be changed by God into who we are meant to become.”

“Paul often called for maturity of thought and spiritual wisdom. Growth was not just a mind game, but the mind played an important role. Paul shared with the Romans that resisting conformity to worldly ways requires a transformation of the mind, an epistemological conversion, to truly discern right and wrong, good and evil (Rom 12:2).”

“The Philippians were invited to conform their thinking to the mindset of Christ (Phil 2:5). The virtuous model is explained in 2:3–4: ‘Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.’ I can’t help but imagine that if Paul visiting churches looking for maturity, this would be what he was wanting to see. The power to put aside ego and seriously invest in others for their good is a sight to behold.”

“Too many Christians today believe conversion is the goal—simply to be saved…and anything you do in the remaining time on earth is extra credit: go to church on and off, attend a Bible study here and there, give some money to the church, pop into a potluck, give to a charity. But our ancestors firmly believed that the new Christian isn’t in their final Christomorphic ‘shape’ at the beginning. The resources are there, but there must be a training program towards a teleios Anthropos, the mature and final being we were always meant to be.”

03.  Application Questions

  • Dr. Gupta insists that the fundamental and overriding goal for Paul’s churches was their members’ becoming like Christ. Is this the ultimate goal of your life or ministry organization?
  • Dr. Gupta points out that the Christian view of maturation centers on “keeping in step with the Spirit,” “wrapping our being around Christ,” “drawing close to God,” etc. How can this emphasis on relationship with God get lost in ministries that focus on spiritual formation? Alternatively, is caution needed in making spiritual formation all about cultivating a relationship with God and neglecting other parts of “putting off” vice and “putting on” virtue?
  • Dr. Gupta adds that Paul “often called for maturity of thought and spiritual wisdom” that resists conformity to worldly ways of thinking—“an epistemological conversion.” What are the thoughts, ideas, images, beliefs, and mindsets required for formation in Christ in our time?
  • Dr. Gupta notes that the paideia (training) in becoming like Christ is “more comprehensive than book knowledge or simple information acquisition.” It involves experiential learning from trials (Heb 12:7–8), discipline/correction, and following the example of a model (2 Tim 3:10–12). What have you found to be essential for training persons to become like Christ (i.e., catechesis)?
  • Dr. Gupta recognizes the need for therapy (soul care) as a means of repairing brokenness (e.g., undisciplined desire, anger and resentment, grief and despair). He calls for “systems and programs to teach every Christian to process what’s inside, and learn to discipline and direct desire.” Do you see the need for such therapeutic spaces in your ministry context? How do we develop the systems and programs Dr. Gupta recommends?