A. W. Pink
Consider your occupation with Christ and remember that growth in grace is commensurate with your growing in the knowledge of Him (2 Pet. 3.18). That knowledge is indeed a spiritual one, yet it is received via the understanding, for what is not apprehended by the mind cannot profit the heart. Nothing but an increasing familiarity and closer fellowship with Christ can nourish the soul and promote spiritual prosperity. There can be no real progress without a better
acquaintance with His person, office and work. Christianity with such a better acquaintance is more than a creed, more than a system of ethics, more than a devotional programme. It is a life: a life of faith on Christ, of communion with Him and conformity to Him (Phil. 1.21). Take Christ out of Christianity and there is nothing left. There must be constant renewed acts of faith on Christ, yet our faith is always in proportion to the spiritual knowledge we have of its object. “That I may know Him” precedes “and the power of His resurrection”. Christ revealed to the heart is the Object of our knowledge (2 Cor. 4.6), and our spiritual knowledge of Him consists in the concepts and apprehensions of Him which are formed in our minds. That knowledge is fed, strengthened and renewed by our spiritual and believing meditations on Christ and those being made effectual in the soul by the power of the Spirit.
The Object of our faith is a known Christ, and the better we know Him the more we shall act faith on Him. The Christian life consists, essentially, in living on Christ: “the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God”. The particular acts of this life of faith are beholding Christ (as He is presented in the Word), cleaving to Him, making use of Him, drawing from Him, holding free communion with Him, delighting ourselves in Him. Alas, the great majority of Christians seek to live on themselves and feed on their experience. Some are forever occupied with their corruptions and failures, while others are wholly taken up with their graces and attainments. But there is nothing of Christ in either the one or the other, and nothing of faith; rather does self absorb them and a life of sense predominates. All genuine “experience” is a knowing ourselves to be what God has described us in His Word and having such an inward realization thereof as proves to us our dire need of Christ. It consists too of such a knowledge of Him as that He is exactly suited to our case and divinely qualified and perfectly fitted for our very lack. No matter how “deep” may be your “experience”, it is worth nothing unless it turns you to the great Physician.
How often we read in the diaries and biographies of saints, or heard them say, O what a blessed enlargement of soul I was favoured with, what liberty in prayer, how my heart was melted before the Lord, what joy unspeakable possessed me! But if those “mountain-top experiences” be analysed what do they consist of? what is there of Christ in them? It is not spiritual views of Him which engages their attention, but the warmth of their affections, a being carried away with their comforts. No wonder such ecstasies are so brief and are followed by deep depression of spirits. Measure your spiritual growth rather by the extent you are learning to look away from both sinful self and religious self. Christian progress is to be gauged not by feelings but by the extent to which you live outside of
yourself and live upon Christ – making fuller use of Him, prizing Him more highly, finding all your springs in Him, making Him your “all” (Col. 3.11). It is a consciousness of sin and not of our graces, the burden of our corruptions and not delighting ourselves in our enlargements, which will move us to look away from self and behold the Lamb.
Consider the path of obedience and what progress you are making therein. That which distinguishes the regenerate in a practical way from the unregenerate is that the former are “obedient children” (Pet. 2.14), whereas the latter are entirely dominated by the carnal mind, which is “enmity against God, and is not subject to the law of God, neither can it be” (Rom. 8.7). The very first criterion in the epistle which is written in order that believers may know they have eternal life is, “Hereby we know (are divinely assured) that we know Him (savingly), if we keep His commandments” (1 John 2.3). Conversion is a forsaking of the path of self-will and self-pleasing (Isa 53.6) and a complete surrender of myself to the Lordship of Christ, and the genuineness thereof is evidenced by my taking His yoke upon me and submitting to His authority. If we truly submit to His authority then we shall seek to comply with all He enjoins and not pick and choose between His precepts. Nothing less than whole-hearted and impartial obedience is required from us (John 15.14). If we do not sincerely endeavour to obey in all things, then we do not in any, but merely select what is agreeable to ourselves. Then is there any such thing as progress in obedience? Yes.
We are improving in obedience when it becomes more extensive. Growth in grace appears when my obedience is more spiritual. One learning to write becomes more painstaking, so that he forms his letters with greater accuracy: so as one progresses in the school of Christ he pays more attention to that word “Thou hast commanded as to keep thy precepts diligently” (Ps. 119.4). So too superior aims and motives prompt him: his are less servile and more evangelical, his obedience proceeding from love and gratitude. That, in turn, produces another evidence of growth: obedience becomes easier and pleasanter, so that he “delights in the law of the Lord”. Duty is now a joy: “O how I love thy law”.
Consider the privilege of prayer and how far you are improving in that exercise. Probably not a few will exclaim, Alas, in this respect I have deteriorated, for I am neither as diligent in it nor as fervent as I used to be. But it is easy to form a wrong judgment upon the matter, measuring it by quantity instead of quality. Devout Jews and Papists spend much time on their knees, but that is simply the religion of the flesh. There is often more of the natural than the spiritual in the devotional exercises of the young convert, especially if he be of a
warm and ardent temperament. It is easy for enthusiasm to carry him away when new objects and interests engage him, and for emotionalism to be mistaken for fervour of spirit. Personally we very much doubt if the Lord’s people experience any true progress in their prayer life until they make the humbling discovery that they know not how to pray, though they may have attained to considerable proficiency in framing eloquent and moving petitions as men judge. “We (Christians!) know not what we should pray for as we ought” (Rom. 8.26); did we realize that in our spiritual childhood? The first sign of growth here is when we are moved to cry, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11.1).
As the Christian grows in grace prayer becomes more of an attitude than an act, an attitude of dependance upon and confidence in God. It becomes an instinct to turn to Him for help, guidance, wisdom, strength. It consists of an increasing looking to and leaning upon Him, acknowledging Him in all our ways. Thus prayer becomes more mental than vocal, more ejaculatory than studied, more frequent than prolonged. As the Christian progresses his prayers will be more spiritual; he will be more intent upon the pursuit of holiness than of knowledge, he will be more concerned about pleasing God than ascertaining whether his name be written in the Book of Life, more earnest in seeking those things which will promote the divine glory than minister to his comfort. As he learns to know God better his confidence in Him will be deepened, so that if on the one hand he knows nothing is too hard for Him, on the other he is assured that His wisdom will withhold as well as bestow. Again, growth appears when we are as diligent in praying for the whole household of faith as for ourselves or immediate family. Our heart has been enlarged when we make “supplication for all saints” (Eph.6.18).
Consider the Christian warfare and what success you are having therein. Here again we shall certainly err and draw a wrong conclusion unless we pay close attention to the language of Holy Writ. That which we are called to engage in is “the good fight of faith” (1 Tim. 6.12), but if we seek to gauge our progress therein by the testimony of our senses a false verdict will inevitably be given. The faith of God’s elect has the Scriptures for its sole ground and Christ as its immediate Object. Nowhere in Scripture has Christ promised His redeemed such a victory over their corruptions in this life that they shall be slain, nor even that they will be so subdued their lusts will cease vigorously opposing, no not for a season, for there is no discharge nor furlough in this warfare. Nay, He may permit your enemies to gain such a temporary advantage that you cry “iniquities prevail against me” (Psa. 63.3), nevertheless you are to continue resisting, assured by the Word of promise you shall yet be an
overcomer. Satan’s grand aim is to drive you to despair because of the prevelancy of your corruptions, but Christ has prayed for you that your faith fail not, and proof of His prayer being answered is that you weep over your failures and do not become a total apostate.
The trouble is that we want to mix something with faith – our feelings, our “experiences”, or the fruits of faith. Faith is to look to Christ and triumph in Him alone. It is to be engaged with Him and His Word at all times no matter what we encounter. If we endeavour to ascertain the outcome of this fight by the evidence of our senses -what we see and feel within – instead of judging it by faith, then our present experience will be that of Peter’s “when he saw the wind boisterous” while walking on the sea toward Christ, or we conclude “I shall now perish” (1 Sam. 27.1). Did not Paul find that when he would do good, evil was present with him, yea, that while he delighted in the law of God after the inward man, he saw another law in his members warring against the law of his mind and bringing him into captivity, so that he cried, “O wretched man that I am”. That was his “experience”, and the evidence of sense. Ah, but he did not, as so many do, stop here. “Who shall deliver me?” “I thank God through Jesus Christ” (Rom. 7), he answered. That was the language of faith! Is it yours? Your success in this fight is to be determined by whether – despite all failures – you are continuing therein and whether you confidently look forward to the final issue -that you will triumph through Christ.
If we received a letter from a native of Greenland’s icy mountains asking us to give him as accurate and vivid a word picture as possible of an English apple-tree and its fruit, we would not single out for our description one that had been artifically raised in a hothouse, nor would we select one which grew in poor and rocky ground in some desolate hill-side; rather would we take one that was to be found in average soil in a typical orchard. It is quite true the others would be apple-trees and might bear fruit, yet if we confined our word picture unto the portraying of either of them, the Greenlander would not obtain a fair concept of the ordinary apple-tree. It is equally unfair and misleading to take the peculiar experiences of any particular Christian and hold them up as the standard by which all others should measure themselves. There are many kinds of apples, differing in size, colour and flavour. And though Christians have certain fundamental things in common, yet no two of them are alike in all respects. Variety marks all the works of God. Above we have referred to seven different phases of the Christian life by which we may test our progress. In what follows we mention some of the characteristics which pertain more or less – for in germ form they are found in all – to a state of Christian maturity.
Prudence. There is a well-known adage – though often ignored by
adults – that “we cannot put old heads on young shoulders”. That is true spiritually as well as naturally: we live and learn, though some learn more readily than others – usually it is because they receive their instruction from the Scriptures while others are informed only by painful experience. The Word says “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help”, and if we heed that injunction we are spared many a bitter disappointment; whereas if we take people at their word and count on their help, we shall frequently find that we leaned upon a broken reed. In many other ways the young convert’s zeal becomes tempered by knowledge and he conducts himself more prudently. As he becomes more experienced he learns to act with greater caution and circumspection, and to “walk in wisdom toward them that are without” (Col. 4.5), as he also discovers the chilling effects which frothy professors have upon him, so that he is more particular in selecting his associates. He learns too his own peculiar weakness and in which direction he needs most to watch and pray against temptations.
Sobriety. This can be attained unto only in the school of Christ. It is true that in certain dispositions there is much less to oppose this virtue, yet its full development can only be under the operations of Divine grace, as Titus (2.11, 12) plainly shows. We would define Christian sobriety as the regulation of our appetites and affections in their pursuit and use of all things – we can be righteous “over much” (Eccl. 7.16). It is the governing of our inward and outward man by the rules of moderation and temperance. It is the keeping of our desires within due bounds so that we are preserved from excesses in practice. It is a frame or temper of mind which is the opposite of excitedness. It is a being “temperate in all things” (1 Cor. 9.25), and that includes our opinions as well as conduct. It is a holy seriousness, calmness, gravity, balance, which prevents one becoming an extremist. It is that self-control which keeps us from being unduly cast down by sorrows or elated by joys. It causes us to hold the things of this life with a light hand, so that neither the pleasures nor the cares of the world unduly affect the heart.
Stability. There is a spiritual childishness as well as a natural one, wherein the young convert acts more from impulse than principle, is carried away by his fancies, and easily influenced by those around him. To be “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4.14) is one of the characteristics of spiritual immaturity, and when we waver in faith and are of a doubtful mind then we halt and falter in our duties. Even that love which is shed abroad in the hearts of the renewed needs to be controlled and guided, as appears from that petition of the apostle’s, “I pray that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all
judgment” (Phil. 1.9). As the Christian grows in grace he becomes ‘rooted and built up in Christ and established in the faith” (Col. ‘.7). As he grows in the knowledge of the Lord it can be said of him ‘He shall not be afraid of evil tidings: His heart is fixed, trusting in the Lord” (Psa. 112.7). He may be shaken, but will not be shattered by bad news, for having learned to rely on God, he knows no change of circumstances can do more than lightly affect him. No matter what may befall him, he will remain calm, confident in his Refuge:
since his heart be anchored in God his comforts do not ebb and flow with the creature.
Patience. Here we must distinguish between that natural placidity which marks some temperaments and that spiritual grace which is wrought in the Christian by God. We must also remember that spiritual patience has both a passive and active side to it. Passively, it is a quiet and contented resignation under suffering (Luke 21.19), being the opposite of acting “as a wild bull in a net” (Isa. 51.20). Its language is “The cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?” (John 18.11). Actively, it is a persevering in duty (Heb. 12.1), being the opposite of “turning back in the day of battle” (Psa. 78.9). Its language is “be not weary in well doing” (2 Thess. 2.13). Patience enables the believer meekly to bear whatever the Lord is pleased to lay upon him. It causes the believer quietly to await God’s hour of relief or deliverance. It prompts the believer to continue performing his duty in spite of all opposition and discouragement. Now since it is a tribulation (Rom. 5.3) and the trying of our faith (James 1.3) which “worketh patience”, much of it is not to be looked for in the spiritually inexperienced and immature. We are improving in patience when more spiritual considerations prompt us thereto.
Humility. Evangelical humility is a realization of my ignorance, incompetency and vileness, with an answerable frame of heart. As the young believer applies himself diligently to the reading of God’s Word and acquires more familiarity with its contents, as he becomes better instructed in the Faith, he is very apt to be puffed up with his knowledge. But as he studies his understanding is enlarged, and as he learns to distinguish between an intellectual information of spiritual things and an experimental and transforming knowledge of them, he cries, “that which I see not, teach Thou me” and “teach me Thy statutes”. As he grows in grace he makes an increasing discovery of his ignorance and realizes “he knows nothing yet as he ought to know” (I Cor. 8.2). As the spirit enlarges his desires, he thirsts more and more for holiness, and the more he is conformed to the image of Christ the more will he groan because of his sensible unlikeness to Him. The young Christian attempts to perform many duties in his own strength, but later discovers that apart from Christ
he can do nothing. The father in Christ is self-emptied and self-abased and marvels increasingly at the longsufferance of God toward him.
Forbearance. A spirit of bigotry, partisanship and intolerance is a mark of narrowmindedness and of spiritual immaturity. On first entering the school of Christ most of us expected to find little difference between members of the same family, but more extensive acquaintance with them taught us better, for we found their minds varied as much as their countenances, their temperaments more than their local accents of speech, and that amid general agreement there were wide divergencies of opinions and sentiments in many things. While all God’s people are taught of Him, yet they know but “in part” and the “part” one knows may not be the part which another knows. All the saints are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, yet He does not operate uniformly in them nor bestow identical gifts (1 Cor. 12.8-11). Thus opportunity is afforded us to “forbear one another in love” (Eph. 4.2) and not to make a man an offender for a word or despise those who differ from me. Growth in grace is evidenced by a spirit of clemency and toleration, granting to others the same right of private judgment and liberty as I claim for myself. The mature Christian, generally, will subscribe to the axiom “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity”.
Contentment. As a spiritual virtue this is to have our desires limited by a present enjoyment, or to find a sufficiency in and be satisfied with my immediate portion. It is the opposite of murmurings, distracted cares, covetous desires. To murmur is to quarrel with the dispensations of Providence: to have distracted cares is to distrust God for the future: to have covetous desires is to be dissatisfied with what God has assigned me. God knows what is best for our good, and the more that be realized the more thankful shall we be for the allotments of His love and wisdom – pleased with what pleases Him. Contentment is a mark of weanedness from the world and of delighting ourselves in the Lord. The apostle declared ‘I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content” [Phil. 4.11), and as Matthew Henry said, that lesson was learned Â•not at the feet of Gamaliel, but of Christ”. Nor was it something he acquired there all in a moment. By nature we are restless, impatient, envious of the condition of others: but submission to the Divine will and confidence in God’s goodness produces peace of mind and rest of heart. It is the mature Christian who can say “Thou hast put gladness in my heart, more than in the time their corn and wine increased”.