GROWING IN GRACE
J. Angell James
“Grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 3.18.
Imagine that a man is travelling to a place where he has important business. It is imperative that he arrives as soon as possible. But because the route is completely strange to him, he is unwittingly wandering about in a maze of minor roads.
Time slips by and he hardly realises it. He thinks he must be almost at his destination, but in reality he is just a stone’s throw from where he set out. He is making no progress at all!
How similar this is to some of us on the Christian pathway. We are certainly in motion – but not in progress.
All too often people assume they are advancing simply because they do not see themselves going backwards. They see no obvious signs of backsliding, no great blot on their conduct, they attend services regularly, and keep up some avenue of Christian service. But all this is not necessarily an indication of progress.
You have no doubt sat at some time in a train which was stationary at a platform. As another train passed in the other direction, you felt as though you were going forward. Do not compare yourselves in the Christian life with those who are going backwards or you have an illusion of progress!
Some believers estimate their progress by the length of time they have been on the road. It is many years since they took their stand as Christians and all that time they have been consistent in their support of the meetings. They have heard innumerable sermons and read many good books. They have experienced the novelties of the Christian life and the way is familiar to them. So they have no doubt about their progress. But they are calculating progress by time rather than by distance! A dead stick, however long in the earth, will not grow.
Let the Christian not think in terms of his years, but in terms of his attainments. Has he advanced to godliness?
Many rate knowledge as an indication of progress. There may be an increase of theoretical knowledge and of the ability to talk fluently and to defend the truth in argument. But is there a corresponding advance in spiritual feeling and holy conduct? The Bible contains vast quantities of very interesting matter apart from its spiritual power as God’s instrument for sanctification. Its poetry, history, chronology, eloquence and prophecy may each become the most absorbing subjects for study without obedience to the whole Word.
Thousands of volumes have been written on biblical subjects by men whose hearts were never under its power. Knowledge may easily grow without a proportional growth in grace.
Many Christians are happily engaged in Sunday School teaching, speaking, evangelistic activities – all of which make it necessary for them to know more and more of the Bible. They can increasingly talk on its background and its meaning and they feel that this is progress. But if, at the same time, there is no advance in holiness, Christian love, conscientiousness, self denial and humility, all supposed signs of progress are entirely deceptive.
The knowledge was clearly collected for the sake of activity, not personal sanctity. This can only be the “knowledge that puffeth up” not that “which edifieth”. I once knew a man who knew more about the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation than anyone else I have met – yet he was completely worldly.
Ask yourselves sincerely: As you store your minds with texts and teaching, do you at the same time seek to have your heart stored with biblical feelings and your life with biblical actions? As you learn more of God do you reverence Him more? As you gain more knowledge of the person of Christ do you love Him more? As you become more acquainted with the spiritual nature of God’s Law do you want it more and more in your innermost self? As your whole horizon of knowledge widens do you grow more humble, more gentle, more spiritual, more conscientious? Unless this is so, there is no real progress whatever.
Sorrow not enough
A more subtle illusion of progress comes to some believers who are deeply conscious of corruption within. Surely, they feel, this is a sign of growth in grace; a sign of developing spiritual perception. So it would be – if it was followed up by a real effort to overcome the evil. But so often it does not produce the slightest inclination to amend. No sorrow for sin, however deep, is progress unless it produces reformation, for “Godly sorrow worketh repentance”.
Progress may be made with much less misery when the grief over sin (however great or small) leads to amendment. There are too many believers who are loud in their lamentations, profuse in their confessions, and profound in their humiliation, but there the matter ends. Those who heard their self-abasing confession yesterday see them no better today.
A very common error is to mistake growing fervour in ‘secondary’ matters for growth in grace. Church government is important, and so are the ordinances and how they should be administered. But they, and a host of other ‘secondary’ matters are not nearly so important as faith, hope and love. If passages such as Galatians 5.6 teach us anything, they teach the subordination of things ‘ceremonial’ to things spiritual.
To see a person attaching more importance to baptism and church government than to new birth and sanctification marks a state of mind very different from that of the apostles. The great object of Paul was to cherish in his converts the spirit of faith and the practice of holiness. Do we not often see young believers taken up like eager novices? Suddenly they are all activity and energy! But holy vitality, true progress, has to do with godliness.
Some believers rest content that they are making progress simply because they have given up some particular sin. Of course, in the work of our spiritual progress it is a wise procedure not to spend our energies in a general attempt at self-improvement, but to select individual sins for our attack, and to break with them one by one. Our Lord exhorts us to cut off that right hand, or to pluck out that right eye – signifying great individual gains or steps forward in the Christian pathway.
The fault of some brethren is that they think they are making progress when they have only abandoned one sin to which they were strongly tempted. The surrender of a single sin is a very suspicious matter. If we look a little beneath the surface we often find that the sin has been given up for reasons other than spiritual ones.
A man may, for example, give us some deceit or fraudulent practice not because his conscience tells him that it is forbidden, but because he does not want to be exposed and disgraced in the eyes of men. A young believer might give up some worldly amusement not because he is afraid of its influence on his spiritual life, but because he cannot afford it.
True progress is shown by the progressive abandonment of sin because the heart says, “How can I do this great wickedness and sin against my God?”
So much for believers who imagine they are making progress when in fact they are standing still. Some are in the precisely opposite position. They are sincerely afraid that they are not making progress, and are very cast down about it. Yet, their very anxiety -their intense fear that they make no progress – is probably the best sign there is of true progress! For the longing after holiness is progress. It is an impulse; a forgetting of what lies behind and a reaching forward to those things that are ahead. Complacency is a mark of a static believer; concern for progress is evidence of movement.
Some are worried, feeling they are making no progress, because they do not feel so vividly as they used to do. They are not so readily and dramatically moved by the things they hear and read.
It should never be forgotten that grace exerts an influence over ALL the faculties of the soul. It affects the understanding, the will,
the affections and the conscience. It is a very wrong thing to judge the operation of grace in our lives by its effect on only one of these faculties. A man might be very easily moved to joy or sorrow, hope or fear, because these were his natural tendencies even before his conversion. But his will, his understanding and his conscience may be correspondingly unresponsive. Feelings are not everything.
Look at the people who read sentimental novels. One moment they are melted to tears, the next they are excited to ecstacies – but all the time the other faculties of their souls are idle.
True spiritual progress exercises all the faculties of the soul, but mostly it extends our understanding, reforming our sense of sound spiritual judgment; it determines our wills, and it develops our consciences. Emotional feelings are widely overestimated in the Christian walk. The question is not – what do we feel? It is, what do we do? What sins do we conquer? What self-denial and duties do we perform? How much do we exhibit the character of Christian grace to our fellow men?
These are the questions we should be asking ourselves. Take up the candle of the Lord and go down into the very depths of your soul. And do not trust in your powers of inspection. Pray, like David, that God might search you and reveal your state to you.
Am I putting an increase of knowledge and ability to talk about religion in place of true holiness?
Does it satisfy me to grow in the knowledge of my sins without doing anything about them?
Am I confusing enthusiasm and zeal for some favourite doctrinal point with real personal progress?
Is my energy to deal with sin really directed earnestly, to all sin?
Is my Christian life mere emotional excitement, or is my will effected, being made more determined for the Lord? Is my conscience made more sensitive? Is my understanding extended and my judgment refined? Is my life made more holy?