Do Not Mistake Mental Ability for Spiritual Maturity

Ever since I was little, I have had a very easy time memorizing things. During Sunday school, this meant that I always knew the right answer, and was often the one to raise my hand and share it. And in Sunday school, knowing the right answer can seem an awful lot like being a spiritual elite.

I was also always able to read on a grade level that was above my actual age. As a result, I enjoyed reading from the Bible during Bible classes. I often volunteered to do so, while other children, who struggled with reading and often needed to take long pauses to sound out words did not volunteer very often to read for the class. And as we all know, volunteering to read in class is a mark of spiritual maturity, right? At least, it felt that way.

I also had a general knack for public speaking. I was hardly nervous even the first time that I appeared before a large group to deliver a devotional. I am strong at thinking on my feet, and could speak articulately with minimal notes. And as we all know, a young man who excels as speaking is spiritually mature, right? And public prayer is public speaking, too, so of course I was always ready to volunteer for that, as well.

I got a perfect score at Bible bowl. After that, I was the standard that others were encouraged to emulate. “He has such a love for God’s Word!”

I made good grades at a Christian university, too. Excelling at a “Christian college” is spiritual, right?

But these accomplishments, as much as they have to do with memorization, reading ability, articulating thoughts verbally, etc., have virtually nothing to do with spiritual maturity. Reciting facts from a book, or dictating a book aloud, are mental skills, not spiritual ones. Repeating sound doctrine is important. But LIVING sound doctrine is what really counts, and I have never been an expert at that.

I share all of this for a couple of reasons.

One reason is that I wonder how many young people who are average or below average in their ability to read aloud, or memorize facts, or speak publically, have been wrongly made to feel spiritually inferior. What a shame, to turn someone off to the church for reasons like those.

But another reason is because all of that praise about how much I loved God’s word, and how well I spoke and how I was such a leader in the youth group, etc.; it kind of sunk in. And because of that, I kind of did feel like I was spiritually mature. And that blinded me from my own spiritual brokenness. But we must all realize our own brokenness before we can appreciate Chris’s sacrifice for us, and before we can understand the narrow way that He now calls us to follow.

Whether you feel like you are “smart” or “dumb” by worldly intellectual standards, do you know God? Do you talk to Him? Do you listen to Him? Do you obey Him? Do you trust Him when things get tough? Will you follow Him anywhere? Will you step out of your comfort zone? Will you confess your sins to your brothers and sisters? Are you spreading the gospel? Do you even believe the gospel? Are you a doer of the word, rather than a reciter of it? Are you doing what is in the best interest of your family, of your church, and of the lost, or are you serving yourself first and foremost?

These are the questions I am convinced we need to be asking. Not how well we perform on academic exercises.

I will leave you with a final teaching from the mouth of Jesus in Matthew 21:

“‘But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, “Son, go work today in the vineyard.” And he answered, “I will not”; but afterward he regretted it and went. The man came to the second and said the same thing; and he answered, “I will, sir”; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you.'”

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Are Christians Better than Other People?

One common complaint raised against Christians is that “you think you are better than everyone else.” The typical response, often offered preemptively before this objection is even raised, is that “I do not think I am better than anyone else just because I am a Christian. I am just as bad as you are. The only difference is that God looks on Christ’s righteousness instead of my sins.”

So is it true? Do Christians really think they are better than other people? And should they? Are they actually better than other people?

That depends on what you mean by “better.”

Does a Christian have more intrinsic worth in God’s eyes than a non-Christian does? The Biblical answer is “no.” We derive an objective value from being a soul created in God’s image, whether Christian or not (Genesis 1:26, Genesis 9:6, Acts 17:28).

Does God love a Christian more than a non-Christian? If love means wanting what is best for a person, and acting in their best interest, then once again, the Biblical answer is a resounding “no.” Contrary to the conclusions of some Calvinist theologians, God is “patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).”  He illustrates this love by the story of a father who runs out to welcome home his rebellious son (Luke 15:11-31). After all, Jesus died for sinners (Romans 5:8), not people who were already holier-than-thou. (Mark 2:17)

Does a Christian deserve God’s grace more than a non-Christian does? If the key word is deserve, then the answer is “no,” yet again. A Christian is not someone who has earned their salvation. It is a free gift (Ephesians 2:8, Romans 6:23). This fact led Paul to conclude, “What then? Are we better than they? Not at all” (Romans 3:9). When it comes to deserving our salvation, we are not better than anyone else.

But there is a real sense in which Christians are better than other people. Or at least, we sure ought to be.

A chief aspect of God’s work in the life of a Christian is to conform him to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). There is no reasonable way to understand the concept of “being conformed to the image of Christ,” through a process of “transformation by the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:1) that does not include becoming a better person.

Ephesians 4:22-24 states it plainly: “Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

If you have not become a better person since becoming a Christian, something is seriously wrong.

In conclusion: Do Christians have more intrinsic worth than others? No. Does God love Christians more than others? When love is understood as an unconditional, active desire for the wellbeing of another, clearly not.   Do Christian’s deserve to be saved more than others? No.

But do Christians behave better than others? The answer had better be “yes.” We ought to be a people unusually full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. We ought to be a people unusually forgiving, unusually meek, unusually pure and upright and gracious and harmonious. Shame on us when we are not.

May we be growing in holiness in a way unlike anything that we experienced before our conversion. May we look more like our God every day. In that sense, may we be better than we were prior to our conversion.