Commentary on Spiritual Growth (Ch 1-4)
AW Pink (1886-1952)
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CHAPTER 01 – Introduction
The name which is usually given to our subject by Christian writers is that of “Growth in Grace” which is a scriptural expression, being found 2 Peter 3:18. But it appears to us that, strictly speaking, growing in grace has reference to but a single aspect or branch of our theme: “that your love may abound yet more and more” (Phil. 1:9) treats of another aspect, and “your faith groweth exceedingly” (2 Thess. 1:3), with yet another. It seems then that “spiritual growth” is a more comprehensive and inclusive term and more accurately covers that most important and desirable attainment: “may grow up into him in all things, which is the Head, even Christ” (Eph. 4:15). Let it not be thought from this that we have selected our title in a captious spirit or because we are striving after originality. Not so: we have no criticism to make against those who may prefer some other appellation. We have chosen this simply because it seems more fitly and fully to describe the ground which we hope to cover. Our readers understand clearly what is connoted by “physical growth” or “mental growth,” nor should “spiritual growth” be any the less intelligible.
This Subject Is a Deeply Important One
First, that we should seek to understand aright the Spirit’s teaching on this subject. There seems to be comparatively few who do so, and the consequence is that the Lord is robbed of much of the praise which is His due, while many of His people suffer much needless distress. Because so many Christians walk more by sense than by faith, measuring themselves by their feelings and moods rather than by the Word, their peace of mind is greatly destroyed and their joy of heart much decreased. Not a few saints are seriously the losers through misapprehensions upon this subject. Scriptural knowledge is essential if we are better to understand ourselves and diagnose more accurately our spiritual case. Many exercised souls form an erroneous opinion of themselves because of failure at this very point. Surely it is a matter of great practical moment that we should be able to judge aright of our spiritual progress or retrogression that we may not flatter ourselves on the one hand or unduly depreciate ourselves on the other.
Some are tempted in one direction, some in the other—depending partly on their personal temperament and partly on the kind of teaching they have received. Many are inclined to think more highly of themselves than they ought, and because they have obtained considerably increased intellectual knowledge of the truth imagine they have made a proportionate spiritual growth. But others with weaker memories and who acquire a mental grasp of things more slowly, suppose this to signify a lack of spirituality. Unless our thoughts about spiritual growth be formed by the Word of God we are certain to err and jump to a wrong conclusion. As it is with our bodies, so it is with our souls. Some suppose they are healthy while they are suffering from an insidious disease; whereas others imagine themselves to be ill when in fact they are hale and sound. Divine revelation and not human imagination ought to be our guide in determining whether or not we be “babes, young men, or fathers”—and our natural age has nothing to do with it.
It is deeply important that our views should be rightly formed, not only that we may be able to ascertain our own spiritual stature, but also that of our fellow Christians. If I long to be made a help and blessing to them, then obviously I must be capable of deciding whether they are in a healthy or unhealthy condition. Or, if I desire spiritual counsel and assistance, then I will meet with disappointment unless I know to whom to go. How can I regulate my course and suit my converse with the saints I contact if I am at a loss to gauge their religious caliber? God has not left us to our own erring judgment in this matter, but has supplied rules to guide us. To mention but one other reason which indicates the importance of our subject: unless I can ascertain wherein I have been enabled to make spiritual progress and wherein I have failed, how can I know what to pray for; and unless I can perceive the same about my brethren how can I intelligently ask for the supply of what they most need?
Our Subject Is a Very Mysterious One
Physical growth is beyond human comprehension. We know something of what is essential to it, and the thing itself may be discovered, but the operation and process is hidden from us: “As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child, even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all” (Eccl. 11:5). How much more so must spiritual growth be incomprehensible. The beginning of our spiritual life is shrouded in mystery (John 3:8), and to a considerable extent this is true also of its development. God’s workings in the soul are secret, indiscernible to the eye of carnal reason and imperceptible to our senses. “The things of God knoweth no man” save to whom the Spirit is pleased to reveal them (1 Cor. 2:11, 12). If we know so little about ourselves and the operation of our faculties in connection with natural things, how much less competent are we to comprehend ourselves and our graces in connection with that which is supernatural.
The “new creature” is from above, whereof our natural reason has no acquaintance: it is a supernatural product and can only be known by supernatural revelation. In like manner, the spiritual life received at the new birth thrives as to its degrees, unperceived by our senses. A child, by weighing and measuring himself, may discover that he has grown, yet he was not conscious of the process while growing. So it is with the new man: it is “renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16) yet in such a hidden way that the renewing itself is not felt, though its effects become apparent. Thus there is no good reason to be disheartened because we do not feel that any progress is being made or to conclude there is no advance because such feeling is absent. “There are some of the Lord’s people in whom the essence and reality of holiness dwell who do not perceive in themselves any spiritual growth. It should therefore be remembered that there is a real growth in grace where it is not perceived. We should judge of it not by what we experience of it in ourselves, but by the Word. It is a subject for faith to be exercised on” (S. E. Pierce). If we desire the pure “milk of the Word” and feed thereon, then we must not doubt that we duly “grow thereby” (1 Peter 2:3).
To quote again from Pierce: “Spiritual growth is a mystery and is more evident in some than in others. The more the Holy Spirit shines upon the mind and puts forth His lifegiving influences in the heart, so much the more sin is seen, felt and loathed as the greatest of all evils. And this is an evidence of spiritual growth, namely, to hate sin as sin and to abhor it on account of its contrariety to the nature of God. The quick perception and insight which we have of inherent sin, and our feeling of it, so as to look on ourselves as most vile, to renounce ourselves and all that we can do for ourselves, and to look wholly and immediately to Christ for relief and strength are growth in grace, and a most certain evidence of it.” How little is the natural man capable of understanding that! Having no experience of the same it sounds to him like a doleful delusion. And how the believer needs to beg God to teach him the truth about this! As we know nothing whatever about the new birth save what God has revealed in His Word, so we can form no correct comprehension about spiritual growth except from the same source.
Our Subject Is Also a Difficult One This is due in part to Satan’s having confused the issue by inventing such plausible imitations that multitudes are deceived thereby, and knowing this the conscientious soul is troubled. Under certain influences and from various motives people are induced suddenly and radically to reform their lives; and their absence from the grosser forms of sin accompanied by a zealous performance of the common duties of religion is often mistaken for genuine conversion and progress in the Christian life. These are the “tares” which so closely resemble the “wheat” that they are often indistinguishable until the harvest. Moreover, there is a work of the law, quite distinct from the saving effects wrought by the gospel, which in its fruits both external and internal cannot be distinguished from a work of grace except by the light of Scripture and the teaching of the Spirit. The terrors of the law have come in power to the conscience of many a one, producing poignant convictions of sin and horrors of the wrath to come, issuing in much activity in the works of righteousness, but resulting in no faith in Christ, and no love for Him.
Again: spiritual progress is difficult to discern because growth in grace is often not nearly so apparent as first conversion. In many cases conversion is a radical experience of which we are personally conscious at the time and of which a vivid memory remains with us. It is marked by revolutionary change in our life. It was when we were relieved of the intolerable burden of guilt and the peace of God which passeth all understanding possessed our souls. It was being brought out of the awful and total spiritual darkness of nature into God’s marvellous light, whereas spiritual growth is but the enjoying further degrees of that light. It was that tremendous change from having no grace at all to the beginnings of grace within us, whereas that which follows is the receiving of additions of grace. It was a spiritual resurrection, a being brought from death unto life, but the subsequent experience is only renewings of the life then received. For Joseph suddenly to be translated out of prison to sit upon the throne of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh, would affect him far more powerfully than to have any new kingdoms added to him later, such as Alexander had. At first everything in the spiritual life is new to the Christian; later he learns more perfectly what was then discovered to him, yet the effect made is not so perceptible and entrancing.
Further: the spiritual life or nature communicated at regeneration is not the only thing in the Christian: the principle of sin still remains in the soul after the principle of grace as been imparted. Those two principles are at direct variance with each other, engaged in a ceaseless warfare as long as the saint is left in this world. “For the flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other; so that ye cannot do the things that ye would” (Gal. 5:17). That fearful conflict is apt to confuse the issue in the mind of its subject; yea, it is certain to lead the believer to draw a false inference from it unless he clearly apprehends the teaching of Scripture thereon. The discovery of so much opposition within, the thwarting of his aspirations and endeavors, his felt inability to wage the warfare successfully, makes him seriously to doubt whether holiness has been imparted to his heart. The ragings of indwelling sin, the discovery of unsuspected corruptions, the consciousness of unbelief, the defeats experienced, all appear to give the lie direct to any spiritual progress. That presents an acute problem to a conscientious soul.
Our Subject Is Both a Complex and Comprehensive One
By this we mean that this is a tree with many branches, which bears a different manner of fruits according to the season. It is a subject into which various elements enter, one that needs to be viewed from many angles. Spiritual growth is both upward and downward, and it is both inward and outward. An increased knowledge of God leads to an increased knowledge of self, and as one results in higher adoration of its Object, the other brings deeper humiliation in its subject. These issue in more and more inward denials of self and abounding more and more outwardly in good works. Yet this spiritual growth needs to be most carefully stated lest we repudiate the completeness of regeneration. In the strictest sense, spiritual growth consists of the Spirit’s drawing out what He wrought in the soul when He quickened it. When a babe is born into this world it is complete in parts though not in development: no new members can be added to its body nor any additional faculties to its mind.
There is a growth of the natural child, a development of its members an expansion of its faculties with a fuller expression and clearer manifestation of the latter, but nothing more. The analogy holds good with a babe in Christ. “Though there are innumerable circumstantial differences in the cases and experience of the called people of God, and though there is a growth suited to them, considered as ‘babes, young men and fathers,’ yet there is but one common life in the various stages and degrees of the same life carried on to its perfection by the Holy Spirit until it issues in glory eternal. The work of God the Spirit in regeneration is eternally complete. It admits of no increase nor decrease. It is one and the same in all believers. There will not be the least addition to it in Heaven: not one grace, holy affection, desire or disposition then, which is not in it now. The whole of the Spirit’s work therefore from the moment of regeneration to our glorification is to draw out those graces into act and exercise which He hath wrought within us. And though one believer may abound in the fruits of righteousness more than another, yet there is not one of them more regenerated than another.” (S. E. Pierce)
The complexity of our subject is due in part to both the Divine and the human elements entering into it, and who is competent to explain or set forth their meeting-point! Yet the analogy supplied from the physical realm again affords us some help. Absolutely considered, all growth is due to the Divine operations, yet relatively there are certain conditions which we must meet or there will be no growth—to name no other, the partaking of suitable food is an essential prerequisite; nevertheless that will not nourish unless God be pleased to bless the same. To insist that there are certain conditions which we must meet, certain means which we must use in our spiritual progress is not to divide the honors with God, but is simply pointing out the order He has established and the connection He has appointed between one thing and another. In like manner there are certain hindrances which we must avoid or growth will inevitably be arrested and spiritual progress retarded. Nor does that imply that we are thwarting God, but only disregarding His warnings and paying the penalty of breaking those laws which He has instituted.
The Difficulty of Expounding Our Subject
The very complexity of our subject increases the difficulty before the one attempting to expound it, for as is the case with so many other problems presented to our limited intelligence, it involves the matter of seeking to preserve a due balance between the Divine and the human elements. The operations of Divine grace and the discharge of our responsibility must each be insisted upon, and the concurring of the latter with the former, as well as the superabounding of the former over the latter must be proportionately set forth. In like manner our contemplation of spiritual growth upward must not be allowed to crowd out that of our growth downward, nor must our deeper loathing of self be suffered to hinder an increasing living upon Christ. The more sensible we are of our emptiness the more we must draw upon His fulness. Nor is our task rendered easier when we remember what we write will fall into the hands of very different types of readers who sit under varied kinds of ministry—the one needing emphasis upon a different note from another.
That there is such a thing as spiritual growth is abundantly clear from the Scriptures. In addition to the passages alluded to in the opening paragraph we may quote the following. “They go from strength to strength” (Ps. 84:7). “The path of the just is as a shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day” (Prov. 4:18). “Then shall we know if we follow on to know the Lord” (Hos. 6:3). “But unto you that fear the Lord shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings, and ye shall go forth and grow up as calves of the stall” (Mal. 4:2). “And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace” (John 1:16). “Every branch in me that beareth fruit he purgeth it that it may bring forth more fruit” (John 15:2). “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18). “Increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:10). “As ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye abound more and more” (1 Thess. 4:1). “He giveth more grace (James 4:6).
The above list might be extended considerably but sufficient references have been given to show that not only is such a thing as spiritual growth clearly revealed in the Scriptures, but that it is given a prominent place therein. Let the reader duly observe the variety of expressions which are employed by the Spirit to set forth this progress or development—thereby preserving us from too circumscribed a conception by showing us the many-sidedness of the same. Some of them relate to what is internal, others to what is external. Some of them describe the Divine operations, others the necessary acts and exercises of the Christian. Some of them make mention of increased light and knowledge, others of increased grace and strength, and yet others of increased conformity to Christ and fruitfulness. It is thus that the Holy Spirit has preserved the balance and it is by our carefully noting the same that we shall be kept from a narrow and one-sided idea of what spiritual growth consists. If due attention be paid to this varied description we shall be kept from painful mistakes, and the better enabled to test or measure ourselves and discover what spiritual stature we have attained unto.
This Is an Intensely Practical Subject
From what has been pointed out in the last few paragraphs it will be seen that this is an intensely practical subject. It is no small matter that we should be able to arrive at the clear apprehension of what spiritual growth actually consists of, and thereby be delivered from mistaking it for mere fantasy. If there be conditions which we have to comply with in order to the making of progress, it is most desirable that we should acquaint ourselves with the same and then translate such knowledge into prayer. If God has appointed certain means and aids, the sooner we learn what they are and make diligent use of them the better for us. And if there be other things which act as deterrents and are inimical to our welfare, the more we are placed upon our guard the less likely we are to be hindered by them. And if Christian growth has many sides to it this should govern our thinking and acting thereon, that we may strive after a fitly-proportioned and well-rounded Christian character, and grow up into Christ not merely in one or two respects but “in all things” that our development may be uniform and symmetrical.
CHAPTER 02 – Its Root
Before attempting to define and describe what the spiritual growth of a Christian consists of, we should first show what it is that is capable of growth, for spiritual growth necessarily supposes the presence of spiritual life: only a regenerated person can grow. Progress in the Christian life is impossible unless I be a Christian. We must therefore begin by explaining what a Christian is. To many of our readers this may appear to be quite superfluous, but in such a day as this, wherein spiritual counterfeits and delusions abound on every side, when so many are deceived on the all-important matter, and because of such widely-different classes, we deem it necessary to follow this course. We dare not take for granted that all our readers are Christians in the Scriptural sense of that term, and may it please the Lord to use what we are about to write to give light to some who are yet in darkness. Moreover, it may be the means of enabling some real Christians, now confused, to see the way of the Lord more clearly. Nor will it be altogether profitless, we hope, even to those more fully established in the faith.
Three Kinds of “Christians”
Broadly speaking there are three kinds of “Christians”: preacher-made, self-made, and God-made ones. In the former are included not only those who were “sprinkled” in infancy and thereby made members of a “church” (though not admitted to all its privileges), but those who have reached the age of accountability and are induced by some high-pressure “evangelist” to “make a profession.” This high pressure business is in different forms and in varying degrees, from appeals to the emotions to mass hypnotism whereby crowds are induced to “come forward.” Under it countless thousands whose consciences were never searched and who had no sense of their lost condition before God were persuaded to “do the manly thing,” “enlist under the banner of Christ,” “unite with God’s people in their crusade against the devil.” Such converts are like mushrooms: they spring up in a night and survive but a short time, having no root. Similar too are the vast majority produced under what is called “personal work,” which consists of a species of individual “buttonholing,” and is conducted along the lines used by commercial travelers seeking to make a “forced sale.”
The “self-made” class is made up of those who have been warned against what has just been described above, and fearful of being deluded by such religious hucksters they determined to “settle the matter” directly with God in the privacy of their own room or some secluded spot. They had been given to understand that God loves everybody, that Christ died for the whole human race, and that nothing is required of them but faith in the gospel. By saving faith they suppose that a mere intellectual assent to, or acceptance of, such statements as are found in John 3:16 and Romans 10:13 is all that is intended. It matters not that John 2:23, 24 declares that “many believed in his name but Jesus did not commit himself unto them,” that “many believed on him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him lest they be put out of the synagogue, for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God,” which shows how much their “believing” was worth. Imagining that the natural man is capable of “receiving Christ as personal Saviour” they make the attempt, doubt not their success, go on their way rejoicing, and none can shake their assurance that they are now real Christians!
“No man can come unto me except the Father which has sent me draw him” (John 6:44). Here is a declaration of Christ which has not received even mental assent by the vast majority in Christendom. It is far too flesh-abasing to meet with acceptance from those who wish to think that the settling of a man’s eternal destiny lies entirely within his own power. That fallen man is wholly at the disposal of God is thoroughly unpalatable to an unhumbled heart. To come to Christ is a spiritual act and not a natural one, and since the unregenerate are dead in sins they are quite incapable of any spiritual exercises. Coming to Christ is the effect of the soul’s being made to feel its desperate need of Him, of the understanding’s being enlightened to perceive His suitability for a lost sinner, of the affections being drawn out so as to desire Him. But how can one whose natural mind is “enmity against God” have any desire for His Son?
God-made Christians are a miracle of grace, the products of Divine workmanship (Eph. 2:10). They are a Divine creation, brought into existence by supernatural operations. By the new birth we are capacitated for communion with the Triune Jehovah, for it is the spring of new sensibilities and activities. It is not our old nature made better and excited into spiritual acts, but instead, something is communicated which was not there before. That “something” partakes of the same nature as its Begetter: “that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6), and as He is holy so that which He produces is holy. It is the God of all grace who brings us “from death unto life,” and therefore it is a principle of grace which He imparts to the soul, and it disposes unto fruits which are well pleasing unto Him. Regeneration is not a protracted process, but an instantaneous thing, to which nothing can be added nor from it anything taken away (Eccl. 3:14). It is the product of a Divine fiat: God speaks and it is done, and the subject of it becomes immediately a new creature.”
Regeneration is not the outcome of any clerical magic nor does the individual experiencing it supply ought thereto: he is the passive and unconscious recipient of it. Said Truth incarnate: “which were born not of blood [heredity makes no contribution thereto, for God has regenerated heathens whose ancestors have for centuries been gross idolators] nor of the will of the flesh [for prior to this Divine quickening the will of that person was inveterately opposed to God] nor of the will of [a] man [the preacher was incapable of regenerating himself, much less others] but of God” (John 1:13)—by His sovereign and almighty power. And again Christ declared, “The wind bloweth where it listeth and thou hearest the sound thereof [its effects are quite manifest] but canst not tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth [its causation and operation are entirely above human ken, a mystery no finite intelligence can solve] so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8)—not in certain exceptional cases, but in all who experience the same. Such Divine declarations are as far removed from most of the religious teaching of the day as light is from darkness.
The word “Christian” means “an annointed one,” as the Lord Jesus is “The Anointed” or “The Christ.” That was one of the titles accorded Him in the Old Testament: “The kings of the earth have set themselves and the rulers have taken counsel together against the Lord and against his anointed” or “Christ” (Ps. 2:2 and cf. Acts 2:26, 27). He is thus designated because “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 10:38), for induction into His office and enduement for the discharge thereof. That office has three branches, for He was to act as Prophet, Priest and King. And in the Old Testament we find this foreshadowed in the anointing of Israel’s prophets (1 Kings 19:16), their priests (Lev. 8:30) and their kings (1 Sam. 10:1; 2 Sam. 2:4). Accordingly it was upon entrance into His public ministry the Lord Jesus was anointed,” for at His baptism “the heavens were opened unto him” and there was seen “the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting upon him,” and the Father’s voice was heard saying “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16, 17). The Spirit of God had come upon others before that, but never as He now came upon the incarnate Son, “for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him” (John 3:34), for being the Holy One there was nothing whatever in Him to oppose the Spirit or grieve Him, but everything to the contrary.
But it was not for Himself alone that Christ received the Spirit, but to share with and communicate unto His people. Hence in another of the Old Testament types we read that “The precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, upon Aaron’s beard, that ran down to the skirts of his garments” (Ps. 132:2). Though all Israel’s priests were anointed, none but the high priest was done so upon the head (Lev. 8:12). This foreshadowed the Saviour being anointed not only as our great High Priest but also as the Head of His church, and the running down of the sacred ungent to the skirts prefigured the communicating of the Spirit to all the members, even the lowliest, of His mystical Body. “Now he who . . . hath anointed us is God, who hath sealed us and given us the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts” (2 Cor. 1:22). “Of his [Christ’s] fulness have we all received” (John 1:16).
When the apostles were “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” on the day of Pentecost, and some mocked, Peter declared “This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel” and concluded by affirming that Jesus had been by the right hand of God exalted “and having received of the Father he that shed forth this” (Acts 2:33). A “Christian” then is an anointed one because he has received the Holy Spirit from Christ “the anointed.” And hence it is written “But ye have an unction [or “anointing”] from the Holy One,” that is, from Christ; and again. “the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you” (1 John 2:20, 27), for just as we read of “the Spirit descending and remaining on him” (John 1:33) so He abides with us “forever” (John 14:16).
This is the inseparable accompaniment of the new birth. The regenerated soul is not only made the recipient of a new life but the Holy Spirit is communicated to him, and by the Spirit he is then vitally united to Christ, for “be that is joined to the Lord is one Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:17). The Spirit comes to indwell so that his body is made His temple. It is by this anointing or inhabitation the regenerate person is sanctified, or set apart unto God, consecrated to Him, and given a place in that “holy priesthood” which is qualified “to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). Thereby the saint is sharply distinguished from the world, for “If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his” (Rom. 8:9). The Spirit is the identifying mark or seal: as it was by the Spirit’s descent on Christ that John recognized Him (John 1:33) and “him hath God the Father sealed” (John 6:27), so believers are “sealed with that Holy Spirit.” (Eph. 1:13)
But since the individual concerned in regeneration is entirely passive and at the moment unconscious of what is taking place, the question arises, How is a soul to ascertain whether or not he has been Divinely quickened? At first sight it might appear that no satisfactory answer can be forthcoming, yet a little reflection should show that this must be far from being the case. Such a miracle of grace wrought in a person cannot long be imperceptible to him. If spiritual life be imparted to one dead in sins its presence must soon become manifest. This is indeed the case. The new birth becomes apparent by the effects it produces, namely, spiritual desires and spiritual exercises. As the natural infant clings instinctively to its mother, so the spiritual babe turns unto the One who gave it being. The authority of God is felt in the conscience, the holiness of God is perceived by the enlightened understanding, desires after Him stir within the soul. His wondrous grace is now faintly perceived by the renewed heart. There is a poignant consciousness of that which is opposed to the glory of God, a sense of our sinnership such as was not experienced formerly.
The natural man (all that he is as a fallen creature by the first birth) receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him, neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). By no efforts of his own, by no university education, by no course of religions instruction can he obtain any spiritual or vital knowledge of spiritual things. They are utterly beyond the range of his faculties. Self-love blinds him: self-pleasing chains him to the things of time and sense. Except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. He may obtain a notional knowledge of them, but until a miracle of grace takes place in his soul he cannot have any spiritual acquaintance with them. Fishes could sooner live on dry ground or birds exist beneath the waves than an unregenerate person enter into a vital and experimental acquaintance with the things of God.
The first effect of the spiritual life in the soul is that its recipient is convicted of his impurity and guilt. The conscience is quickened and there is a piercing realization of both personal pollution and criminality. The illumined mind sees something of the awful malignity of sin, as being in its very nature contrary to the holiness of God, and in its essence nothing but high-handed rebellion against Him. From that arises an abhorrence of it as a most vile and loathsome thing. The demerit of sin is seen, so that the soul is made to feel it has grievously provoked the Most High, exposing him to Divine wrath. Made aware of the plague of his heart, knowing himself to be justly liable to the awful vengeance of the Almighty, his mouth is stopped, he has not a word to say in self-extenuation, he confesses himself to be guilty before Him; and henceforth that which most deeply concerns him is, What must I do to be saved? in what way may I escape the doom of the Law?
The second effect of the spiritual life in the soul is that its recipient becomes aware of the suitability of Christ to such a vile wretch as he now discovers himself to be. The glorious gospel now has an entirely new meaning for him. He requires no urging to listen to its message: it is heavenly music in his ears, “good news from a far country (Prov. 25:25). Nay, he now searches the Scriptures for himself to make sure that such a gospel is not too good to be true. As he reads therein of who the Saviour is and what He did, of the Divine incarnation and His death on the cross, he is awed as never before. As he learns that it was for sinners, for the ungodly, for enemies that Christ shed His blood, hope is awakened in his heart and he is kept from being overwhelmed by his burden of guilt and from sinking into abject despair. Desires of an interest in Christ spring up within his soul, and he is resolved to look for salvation in none other. He is convinced that pardon and security are to be found in Christ alone if so be that He will show him favor. He searches now to discover what Christ’s requirements are.
A Christian is not only one “anointed” by the Spirit, but he is also one who is a disciple of Christ (see Matthew 28:19 margin, and Acts 11:26), that is, a learner and follower of Christ. His terms of discipleship are made known in Luke 14:26-33. Those terms a regenerate soul is enabled to comply with. Convicted of his lost condition, having learned that Christ is the appointed and self-sufficient Saviour for sinners, he now throws down the weapons of his rebellion, repudiates his idols, relinquishes his love of and friendship with the world, surrenders himself to the Lordship of Christ, takes His yoke upon him, and thereby finds rest unto his soul; trusting in the efficacy of His atoning blood the burden of guilt is removed, and henceforth his dominant desire and endeavor is to please and glorify his Saviour. Thus regeneration issues in and evidences itself by conversion, and genuine conversion makes one a disciple of Christ, following the example He has left us.
CHAPTER 03 – Its Necessity
We commenced the last chapter by pointing out that none can possibly make any progress in the Christian life unless he first be a Christian and then devoted the remainder to defining and describing what a “Christian” is. It is indeed striking to note that this title is used by the Holy Spirit in a twofold way: primarily it signifies an “annointed one”; subordinately it denotes “a disciple of Christ.” Thereby they have brought together in a truly wonderful manner both the Divine and the human sides. Our “anointing” with the Spirit is God’s act, wherein we are entirely passive; but our becoming “disciples of Christ” is a voluntary and conscious act of ours, whereby we freely surrender to Christ’s lordship and submit to His sceptre. It is by the latter that we obtain evidence of the former. None will yield to the flesh-repellent terms of Christian “discipleship” save those in whom a Divine work of grace has been wrought, but when that miracle has occurred conversion is as certain to follow as a cause will produce its effects. One made a new creature by the Divine miracle of the new birth desires and gladly endeavors to meet the holy requirements of Christ.
Here, then, is the root of spiritual growth the communication to the soul of spiritual life. Here is what makes possible Christian progress: a person’s becoming a Christian, first by the Spirit’s anointing and then by his own choice. This twofold signification of the term “Christian’ is the principal key which opens to us the subject of Christian progress or spiritual growth, for it ever needs to be contemplated from both the Divine and human sides. It requires to be viewed both from the angle of God’s operations and from that of the discharge of our responsibilities. The twofold meaning of the title “Christian” must also be borne in mind under the present aspect of our subject, for on the one hand progress is neither necessary nor possible, while in another very real sense it is both desirable and requisite. God’s “anointing” is not susceptible of improvement, being perfect; but our “discipleship” is to become more intelligent and productive of good works. Much confusion has resulted from ignoring this distinction, and we shall devote the remainder of this chapter to the negative side, pointing out those respects in which progress or growth does not obtain.
1. Christian progress does not signify advancing in God’s favor. The believer’s growth in grace does not further him one iota in God’s esteem. How could it, since God is the Giver of his faith and the One who has “wrought all our works in us” (Isa. 26:12)! God’s favorable regard of His people originated not in anything whatever in them, either actual or foreseen. God’s grace is absolutely free, being the spontaneous exercise of His own mere good pleasure. The cause of its exercise lies wholly within Himself. The purposing grace of God is that good will which He had unto His people from all eternity: “Who hath saved us and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began” (2 Tim. 1:9). And the dispensing grace of God is but the execution of His purpose, ministering to His people: thus we read “God giveth more grace,” yea, that “he giveth more grace” (James 4:6). It is entirely gratuitous, sovereignly bestowed, without any inducement being found in its object.
Furthermore, everything God does for and bestows on His people is for Christ’s sake. It is in no wise a question of their deserts, but of Christ’s deserts or what he merited for them. As Christ is the only Way by which we can approach the Father, so He is the sole channel through which God’s grace flows unto us. Hence we read of the “grace of God, and the gift of grace (namely, justifying righteousness) by one man, Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:15); and again, “the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:4). The love of God toward us is in “Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39). he forgives us “for Christ’s sake” (Eph. 4:32). He supplies all our need “according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). He brings us to heaven in answer to Christ’s prayer (John 17:24). Yet though Christ merits everything for us, the original cause was the sovereign grace of God. “Although the merits of Christ are the (procuring) cause of our salvation, yet they are not the cause of our being ordained to salvation, They are the cause of purchasing all things decreed unto us, but they are not the cause which first moved God to decree these things unto us.” (Thos. Goodwin)
The Christian is not accepted because of his graces, for the very graces (as their name connotes) are bestowed upon him by Divine bounty, and are not attained by any efforts of his. And so far from these graces being the reason why God accepts him, they are the fruits of his being “chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world” and, decretively, “blessed with all spiritual blessings in the heavenlies in Christ” (Eph. 1:3, 4). Settle it then in your own mind once for all, my reader, that growth in grace does not signify growing in the favor of God. This is essentially a Papish delusion, and though creature-flattering it is a horribly Christ—dishonoring one. Since God’s elect are “accepted in the beloved” (Eph. 1:6), it is impossible that any subsequent change wrought in or attained by them could render them more excellent in His esteem or advance them in His love. When the Father announced concerning the incarnate Word “This is my beloved Son [not “with whom” but] in whom I am well pleased” He was expressing His delight in the whole election of grace, for He was speaking of Christ in His federal character, as the last Adam, as head of His mystical body.
The Christian can neither increase nor decrease in the favor of God, nor can anything he does or fails to do alter or affect to the slightest degree his perfect standing in Christ. Yet let it not be inferred from this that his conduct is of little importance or that God’s dealings with him have no relation to his daily walk. While avoiding the Romish conceit of human merits, we must be on our guard against Antinomian licentiousness. As the moral Governor of this world God takes note of our conduct, and in a variety of ways makes manifest His approbation or disapprobation: “No good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly” (Ps. 84:11), yet to His own people God says “your sins have withholden good things from you” (Jer. 5:25). So, too, as the Father He maintains discipline in His family, and when His children are refractory He uses the rod (Ps. 89:3-33). Special manifestations of Divine love are granted to the obedient (John 14:21, 23), but are withheld from the disobedient and the careless.
2. Christian progress does not denote that the work of regeneration was incomplete. Great care needs to be taken in stating this truth of spiritual growth lest we repudiate the perfection of the new birth. We must repeat here in substance what was pointed out in the first article. When a normal child is born into this world naturally the babe is an entire entity, complete in all its parts, possessing a full set of bodily members and mental faculties. As the child grows there is a strengthening of its body and mind, a development of its members and an expansion of its faculties, with a fuller use of the one and a clearer manifestation of the other; yet no new member or additional faculty is or can be added to him. It is precisely so spiritually. The spiritual life or nature received at the new birth contains within itself all the “senses” (Heb. 5:14) and graces, and though these may be nourished and strengthened, and increased by exercise yet not by addition, no, not in heaven itself. “I know that whatsoever God doeth it shall be forever: nothing can be put to it nor anything taken from it” (Eccl. 3:14). The “babe” in Christ is just as truly and completely a child of God as the most matured “father” in Christ.
Regeneration is a more radical and revolutionizing change than glorification. The one is a passing from death unto life, the other an entrance into the fulness of life. The one is a bringing into existence of “the new man which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Eph. 4:22), the other is a reaching unto the full stature of the new man. The one is a translation into the kingdom of God’s dear Son (Col. 1:13), the other an induction into the higher privileges of that kingdom. The one is the begetting of us unto a living hope (1 Peter 1:3), the other is a realization of that hope. At regeneration the soul is made a new creature” in Christ, so that “old things are passed away, behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). The regenerate soul is a partaker of every grace of the Spirit so that he is “complete in Christ” (Col. 2:10), and no growth on earth or glorification in heaven can make him more than complete.
3. Christian progress does not procure a title for heaven. The perfect and indefeasible title of every believer is in the merits of Christ. His vicarious fulfilling of the law, whereby He magnified and made it honorable, secured for all in whose stead He acted the full reward of the law. It is on the all-sufficient ground of Christ’s perfect obedience being reckoned to his account that the believer is justified by God and assured that he shall “reign in life” (Rom. 5:17). If he had lived on earth another hundred years and served God perfectly it would add nothing to his title. Heaven is the “purchased possession” (Eph. 1:14), purchased for His people by the whole redemptive work of Christ. His precious blood gives every believing sinner the legal right to “enter the holiest” (Heb. 10:19). Our title to glory is found alone in Christ. Of the redeemed now in heaven it is said, they have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb: therefore are they before the throne of God and serve Him day and night in His temple” (Rev. 7:14, 15).
It has not been sufficiently realized that God’s pronouncement of justification is very much more than a mere sense of acquittal or non-condemnation. It includes as well the positive imputation of righteousness. As James Hervey so beautifully illustrated it: “When yonder orb makes his first appearance in the east, what effects are produced? Not only are the shades of night dispersed, but the light of day is diffused. Thus it is when the Author of salvation is manifested to the soul: he brings at once pardon and acceptance.” Not only are our “filthy rags” removed, but the “best robe” is put upon us (Luke 15:22) and no efforts or attainments of ours can add anything to such a Divine adornment. Christ not only delivers us from death, but purchased life for us; He not only put away our sins but merited an inheritance for us. The most mature and advanced Christian has nought to plead before God for his acceptance than the righteousness of Christ: that, nothing but that, and nothing added to it, as his perfect title to Glory.
4. Christian progress does not make us meet for heaven. Many of those who are more or less clear on the three points considered above are far from being so upon this one, and therefore we must enter into it at greater length. Thousands have been taught to believe that when a person has been justified by God and tasted the blessedness of “the man whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” that much still remains to be done for the soul before it is ready for the celestial courts. A widespread impression prevails that after his justification the believer must undergo the refining process of sanctification, and that for this he must be left for a time amid the trials and conflicts of a hostile world; yea so strongly held is this view that some are likely to take exception to what follows. Nevertheless, such a theory repudiates the fact that it is the new-creative work of the Spirit which not only capacitates the soul to take in and enjoy spiritual things now (John 3:3, 5), but also fits it experimentally for the eternal fruition of God.
One had thought that those laboring under the mistake mentioned above would be corrected by their own experience and by what they observed in their fellow Christians. They frankly acknowledge that their own progress is most unsatisfactory to them, and they have no means of knowing when the process is to be successfully completed. They see their fellow Christians cut off apparently in very varied stages of this process. If it be said that this process is completed only at death, then we would point out that even on their death-beds the most eminent and mature saints have testified to being most humiliated over their attainments and thoroughly dissatisfied with themselves. Their final triumph was not what grace had made them to be in themselves, but what Christ was made to be unto them. If such a view as the above were true, how could any believer cherish a desire to depart and be with Christ (Phil. 1:23) while the very fact that he was still in the body would be proof (according to this idea) that the process was not yet complete to fit him for His presence!
But, it may be asked, is there not such a thing as “progressive sanctification”? We answer, it all depends on what is signified by that expression. In our judgment it is one which needs to be carefully and precisely defined, otherwise God is likely to be grossly dishonored and His people seriously injured by being brought into bondage by a most inadequate and defective view of Sanctification as a whole. There are several essential and fundamental respects in which sanctification is not “progressive,” wherein it admits of no degrees and is incapable of augmentation, and those aspects of sanctification need to be plainly stated and clearly apprehended before the subordinate aspect is considered. First, every believer was decretively sanctified by God the Father before the foundation of the world (Jude 1). Second, he was meritoriously sanctified by God the Son in the redemptive work which He performed in the stead of and on the behalf of His people, so that it is written “by one offering he hath perfected forever them that are sanctified” (Heb. 10:14). Third, he was vitally sanctified by God the Spirit when He quickened him into newness of life, united him to Christ, and made his body His temple.
If by “progressive sanctification” be meant a clearer understanding and fuller apprehension of what God has made Christ to be unto the believer and of his perfect standing and state in Him; if by it be meant the believer living more and more in the enjoyment and power of that, with the corresponding influence and effect it will have upon his character and conduct; if by it be meant a growth of faith and an increase of its fruits, manifested in a holy walk, then we have no objection to the term. But if by “progressive sanctification” be intended a rendering of the believer more acceptable unto God, or a making of him more fit for the heavenly Jerusalem, then we have no hesitation in rejecting it as a serious error. Not only can there be no increase in the purity and acceptableness of the believer’s sanctity before God, but there can be no addition to that holiness of which he became the possessor at the new birth, for the new nature he then received is essentially and impeccably holy. “The babe in Christ, dying as such, is as capable of as high communion with God as Paul in the state of glory.” (S. E. Pierce)
Instead of striving after and praying that God would make us more fit for heaven, how much better to join with the apostle in “giving thanks unto the Father who hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light” (Col. 1:12), and then seek to walk suitably unto such a privilege and dignity! That is for the saints to “possess their possessions” (Obad. 17); the other is to be robbed of them by a thinly-disguised Romanism. Before pointing out in what the Christian’s meetness for heaven consists, let us note that heaven is here termed all inheritance.” Now an inheritance is not something that we acquire by self-denial and mortification, nor purchased by our own labors or good works; rather it is that to which we lawfully succeed in virtue of our relationship to another. Primarily, it is that to which a child succeeds in virtue to his relationship to his father, or as the son of a king inherits the crown. In this case, the inheritance is ours in virtue of our being sons of God.
Peter declares that the Father hath “begotten us unto a living hope . . . to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that fadeth not away” (1 Peter 1:4). Paul also speaks of the Holy Spirit witnessing with our spirit that we are the children of God, and then points out: “and if children, then heirs; heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:16, 17). If we inquire more distinctly, what is this “inheritance” of the children of God? the next verse (Col. 1:13) tells us: it is the kingdom of God’s dear Son.” Those who me joint-heirs with Christ must share His kingdom. Already He has made us “kings and priests unto God” (Rev. 1:5), and the inheritance of kings is a crown, a throne, a kingdom. The blessedness which lies before the redeemed is not merely to be subjects of the King of kings, but to sit with Him on His throne, to reign with Him forever (Rom. 5:17; Rev. 22:4). Such is the wondrous dignity of our inheritance: as to its extent, we are “joint-heirs with” Him whom God “hath appointed heir of all things” (Heb. 1:2). Our destiny is bound up with His. O that the faith of Christians would rise above their “feelings,” “conflicts,” and “experiences,” and possess their possessions.
The Christian’s title to the inheritance is the righteousness of Christ imputed to him; in what, then, consists his “meetness”? First, since it be meetness for the inheritance, they must be children of God, and this they are made at the moment of regeneration. Second, since it is the inheritance of saints,” they must be saints, and this too they are the moment they believe in Christ, for they are then sanctified by that very blood in which they have forgiveness of sins (Heb. 13:12). Third, since it is an inheritance “in light,” they must be made children of light, and this also they become when God called them “out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Nor is that characteristic only of certain specially favored saints; “ye are all the children of light.” (1 Thess. 5:5) Fourth, since the inheritance consists of an everlasting kingdom, ill order to enjoy it we must have eternal life; and that too every Christian possesses: “he that believeth on the Son of God hath everlasting life” (John 3:36).
“For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26). Are they children in name but not in nature? What a question! It might as well be supposed they have a title to an inheritance and yet be without meetness for it, which would be saying that our sonship was a fiction and not a reality. Very different is the teaching of God’s Word: it declares that we become His children by being born again (John 1:13). And regeneration does not consist in the gradual improvement or purification of the old nature, but the creation of a new one. Nor is becoming children of God a lengthy process at all, but an instantaneous thing. The all-mighty agent of it is the Holy Spirit, and obviously that which is born of Him needs no improving or perfecting. The “new man” is itself “created in righteousness and true holiness” (Eph. 4:22) and certainly it cannot stand in need of a “progressive” work to be wrought in him! True, the old nature opposes all the aspirations and activities of this new nature, and therefore as long as the believer remains in the flesh he is called upon “through the Spirit to mortify the deeds of the body,” yet in spite of the painful and weary conflict, the new nature remains uncontaminated by the vileness in the midst of which he dwells.
That which qualifies the Christian or makes him meet for heaven is the spiritual life which he received at regeneration, for that is the life or nature of God (John 3:5; 2 Peter 1:4). That new life or nature fits the Christian for communion with God, for the presence of God—the same day the dying thief received it, he was with Christ in Paradise! It is true that while we are left here its manifestation is obscured, like the sunbeam shining through opaque glass. Yet the sunbeam itself is not dim, though it appears so because of the unsuitable medium through which it passes; but let that opaque glass be removed and it will at once appear in its beauty. So it is with the spiritual life of the Christian: there is no defeat whatever in the life itself but its manifestation is sadly obscured by a mortal body; all that is necessary for the appearing of its perfections is deliverance from the corrupt medium through which it now acts. The life of God in the soul renders a person meet for glory: no attainment of ours, no growth in grace we experience, can fit us for heaven any more than it can entitle us to it.
If the regeneration of Christians be complete, if their effectual sanctification be effected, if they are already fitted for heaven, then why does God still leave them here on earth? Why not take them to His own immediate presence as soon as they be born again?
Our first answer is, There is no “if” about it. Scripture distinctly and expressly affirms that even now believers are “complete in Christ” (Col. 2:10), that He has “perfected forever them that are sanctified” (Heb. 10:14), that they are “made meet for the inheritance of the saints in light” (Col. 1:12), and more than “complete,” “perfect” and “meet” none will ever be. As to why God—generally, though not always—leaves the babe in Christ in this world for a longer or shorter period: even if no satisfactory reason could be suggested, that would not invalidate to the slightest degree what has been demonstrated, for when any truth is clearly established a hundred objections cannot set it aside. However, while we do not pretend to fathom the mind of God, the following consequences are more or less obvious.
By leaving His people here for a season opportunity is given for: 1. God to manifest His keeping power: not only in a hostile world, but sin still indwelling believers. 2. To demonstrate the sufficiency of His grace: supporting them in their weakness. 3. To maintain a witness for Himself in a scene which lieth in the Wicked One. 4. To exhibit His faithfulness in supplying all their need in the wilderness before they reach Canaan. 5. To display His manifold wisdom unto angels (1 Cor. 4:9; Eph. 3:10). 6. To act as “salt” in preserving the race from moral suicide: by the purifying and restraining influence they exert. 7. To make evident the reality of their faith: trusting Him in sharpest trials and darkest dispensations. 8. To give them an occasion to glorify Him in the place where they dishonored Him. 9. To preach the gospel to those of His elect yet in unbelief. 10. To afford proof that they will serve Him amid the most disadvantageous circumstances. 11. To deepen their appreciation of what He has prepared for them. 12. To have fellowship with Christ who endured the cross before He was crowned with glory and honor.
Before showing why Christian progress is necessary let us remind the reader once more of the double signification of the term “Christian,” namely, “an anointed one” and “a disciple of Christ,” and how this supplies the principal key to the subject before us, intimating its twofoldness. His “anointing” with the Spirit of God is an act of God wherein he is entirely passive, but his becoming a “disciple of Christ” is a voluntary act of his own, wherein he surrenders to Christ’s Lordship and resolves to be ruled by His sceptre. Only as this is duly borne in mind shall we be preserved from error on either side as we pass from one aspect of our theme to another. As the double meaning of the name “Christian” points to both the Divine operations and human activity, so in the Christian’s progress we must keep before us the exercise of God’s sovereignty and the discharge of our responsibility. Thus from one angle growth is neither necessary nor possible; from another it is both desirable and requisite. It is from this second angle we are now going to view the Christian, setting forth his obligations therein.
Let us illustrate what has been said above on the twofoldness of this truth by a few simple comments on a well-known verse: “So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Ps. 90:12). First, this implies that in our fallen condition we are wayward at heart, prone to follow a course of folly; and such is our present state by nature. Second, it implies that the Lord’s people have had a discovery made to them of their woeful case, and are conscious of their sinful inability to correct the same; which is the experience of all the regenerate. Third, it signifies an owning of this humiliating truth, a crying to God for enablement. They beg to be “so taught,” as to be actually empowered. In other words, it is a prayer for enabling grace. Fourth, it expresses the end in view: “that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom”—perform our duty, discharge our obligations, conduct ourselves as “Wisdom’s children.” Grace is to be improved, turned to good account, traded with.
We all know what is meant by a person’s “applying his mind” to his studies, namely, that he gathers his wandering thoughts, focuses his attention on the subject before him, concentrates thereon. Equally evident is a person’s “applying his hand” to a piece of manual labor, namely, that he get down to business, set himself to the work before him, earnestly endeavor to make a good job of it. In either case there is an implication: in the former, that he has been given a sound mind, in the latter that he possesses a healthy body. And in connection with both cases it is universally acknowledged that the one ought to so employ his mind and the other his bodily strength. Equally obvious should be the meaning of and the obligation to “apply our hearts unto wisdom”: that is, diligently, fervently, earnestly make wisdom our quest and walk in her ways. Since God has given a “new heart” at regeneration, it is to be thus employed. If He has quickened us into newness of life then we ought to grow in grace. If He has made us new creatures in Christ we are to progress as Christians.
Because this will be read by such widely-different classes of readers and we are anxious to help all, we must consider here an objection, for the removal of which we quote the renowned John Owen. “It will be said that if not only the beginning of grace, sanctification, and holiness from God, but the carrying of it on and the increase of it also be from Him, and not only so in general, but that all the actings of grace, and every act of it, be an immediate effect of the Holy Spirit, then what need is there that we should take any pains in this thing ourselves, or use our own endeavors to grow in grace and holiness as we are commanded? If God worketh all Himself in us, and without His effectual operation in us we can do nothing, there is no place left for our diligence, duty, or obedience.”
“Answer. 1. This objection we must expect to meet withal at every turn. Men will not believe there is a consistency between God’s effectual grace and our diligent obedience; that is, they will not believe what is plainly, clearly, distinctly, revealed in the Scripture, and which is suited unto the experience of all that truly believe, because they cannot, it may be, comprehend it within the compass of carnal reason. 2. Let the apostle answer this objection for this once: ‘his Divine power has given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of his that hath called us to glory and virtue; whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises that by these we might be partakers of the Divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust’ (2 Peter 1:3, 4), If all things that pertain unto life and godliness, among which doubtless is the preservation and increase of grace, be given unto us by the power of God; if from Him we receive that Divine nature, by virtue whereof our corruptions are subdued, then I pray what need is there of any endeavors of our own? The whole work of sanctification is wrought in us, it seems, and that by the power of God: we, therefore, may let it alone and leave it unto Him whose it is, whilst we are negligent, secure and at ease. Nay, says the apostle, this is not the use which the grace of God is to be put unto. The consideration of it is or ought to be, the principal motive and encouragement unto all diligence for the increase of holiness in us. For so he adds immediately: ‘But also for this cause’ [Greek] or because of the gracious operations of the Divine power in us; ‘giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue,’ etc. (v. 5).”
“These objectors and this apostle were very diversely minded in these matters: what they make an insuperable discouragement unto diligence in obedience, that he makes the greatest motive and encouragement thereunto. 3. I say, from this consideration it will unavoidably follow, that we ought continually to wait and depend on God for supplies of His Spirit and grace without which we can do nothing; that God is more the Author by His grace of the good we do than we are ourselves (not I, but the grace of God that was with me): that we ought to be careful that by our negligences and sins we provoke not the Holy Spirit to withhold His aids and assistances, and so to leave us to ourselves, in which condition we can do nothing that is spiritually good: these things, I say, will unavoidably follow on the doctrine before declared; and if any one be offended at them it is not in our power to render them relief.”
Coming now more directly to the needs-be for spiritual growth or Christian progress. This is not optional but obligatory, for we are expressly bidder, to “Grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18)—grow from infancy to the vigor of youth, and from the zeal of youth to the wisdom of maturity. And again, to be “building up yourselves on your most holy faith.” (Jude 21) It is not sufficient to be grounded and established in the faith, for we must grow more and more therein. At conversion we take upon us the “yoke” of Christ, and then His word is “learn of me,” which is to be a lifelong experience. In becoming Christ’s disciples we do hot enter His school: not remain in the kindergarten but to progress under His tuition. “A wise man will hear and increase learning” (Prov. 1:5), and seek to make good use of that learning. The believer has not yet reached heaven: he is on the way, journeying thither, fleeing from the city of destruction. That is why the Christian life is so often likened unto a race, and the believer unto a runner: “forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize” (Phil. 3:13, 14).
1. Only thus is the triune God glorified. This is so obvious that it really needs no arguing. It brings no glory to God that His children should he dwarfs. As sunshine and rain are sent for the nourishment and fructification of vegetation so the means of grace are provided that we may increase in our spiritual stature. “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the Word that ye may grow thereby” (1 Peter 2:2) —not only in the intellectual knowledge of it, but in a practical conformity thereunto. This should be our chief concern and be made our principal business: to become better acquainted with God, to have the heart more occupied with and affected by His perfections, to seek after a fuller knowledge of His will, to regulate our conduct thereby, and thus “show forth the praises of him who hath called us out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). The more we evidence our sonship, the more we conduct ourselves as becometh the children of God before a perverse generation, the more do we honor Him who has set His love upon us.
That our spiritual growth and progress is glorifying unto God appears plainly from the prayers of the apostles, for none were more concerned about His glory than they, and nothing occupied so prominent a place in their intercession as this. As we hope to allude to this again later, one or two quotations here must suffice. For the Ephesians Paul prayed, “that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God” (5:19). For the Philippians, “that your love may abound yet more and more, in knowledge and in all judgment . . . being filled with the fruits of righteousness” (1:9-11). For the Colossians, “that ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (1:10, 11). From which we learn that it is our privilege and duty to obtain more spiritual views of the Divine perfections, begetting in us an increasing holy delight in Him, making our walk more acceptable. There should be a growing acquaintance with the excellency of Christ, advancing in our love of Him, and the more lively exercises of our graces.
2. Only thus do we give proof of our regeneration. “Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit: so shall ye be my disciples” (John 15:8). That does not mean we become the disciples of Christ as a result of our fruitfulness, but that we make manifest we are His by our fruitbearing. They who bear no fruit have no vital union with Christ, and like the barren fig tree, are under His curse. Very solemn is this, and by such a criterion each of us should measure himself. That which is brought forth by the Christian is not to be restricted unto what, in many circles, is called “service” or “personal work,” but has reference to that which issues from the exercise of all the spiritual graces. Thus: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:44, 45), that is, that you may make it evident to yourself and fellows that you have been made “partaker of the Divine nature.”
“Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these,” etc., “but the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Gal. 5:19, 22, 23). The reference is not directly to what the Holy Spirit produces, but rather to that which is born of the “spirit” or new nature of which He is the Author (John 5:6). This is evident from its being set over against the “works of the flesh” or old nature. It is by means of this “fruit,” these lovely graces. that the regenerate make manifest the presence of a supernatural principle within them. The more such “fruit” abounds, the clearer our evidence that we have been born again. The total absence of such fruit would prove our profession to be an empty one. It has often been pointed out by others that what issues from the flesh is designated works,” for a machine can produce such; but that which the “spirit” yields is living “fruit” in contrast from “dead works” (Heb. 6:1; 9:14). This fruit-bearing is necessary in order to evidence the new birth.
3. Only thus do we certify that we have been made partakers of an effectual call and are among the chosen of God. “Brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10) is the Divine exhortation—one which has puzzled many. Yet it should not: it is not to secure it Godward (which is impossible), but to make it more certain to yourselves and your brethren. And how is this to be accomplished? Why, by acquiring a clearer and fuller evidence of the same: by spiritual growth, for growth is proof that life is present. This interpretation is definitely established by the context. After enumerating the bestowments of Divine grace (vv. 3, 4) the apostle says, now here is your responsibility: “And besides this, giving all diligence, add to your faith [by bringing it into exercise] virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness love” (vv. 5-7). Faith itself is ever to be operative, but according to different occasions and in their seasons let each of your graces be exercised, and in proportion as they are, the life of holiness is furthered in the soul and there is a proportionate spiritual growth (cf. Col. 3:12, 13).
4. Only thus do we adorn the doctrine we profess (Titus 2:10). The Truth we claim to have received into our hearts is “the doctrine which is according to godliness” (1 Tim. 6:3), and therefore the more our daily lives be conformed thereto the clearer proof do we give that our character and conduct is regulated by heavenly principles. It is by our fruits we are known (Matthew 7:16), for “every good tree bringeth forth good fruit.” Thus, it is only by our being “fruitful in every good work” (Col, 1:10) that we make it manifest that we are the “trees of the Lord” (Ps. 104:16). “Now are ye light in the Lord, walk as children of light” (Eph. 5:8). It is not the character of our walk which qualifies us to become the children of light, but which demonstrates that we are such. Because we are children of Him who is light (1 John 1:5) we must shun the darkness. If we have been “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:2) then only that should proceed from us which “becometh saints” (Eph. 5:3). The more we progress in godliness the more we adorn our profession.
5. Only thus do we experience more genuine assurance. Peace becomes more stable and joy abounds in proportion as we grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and become more conformed practically to His holy image. It is because so many become slack in using the means of grace and are so little exercised about growing up into Christ “in all things” (Eph. 4:16) that doubts and fears possess their hearts. If they do not “give all diligence to add to their faith” (2 Peter 1:5) by cultivating their several graces, they must not be surprised if they are far from being “sure” of their Divine calling and election. It is “the diligent soul,” and not the dilatory, who “shall be made fat” (Prov. 13:4).
It is the one who makes conscience of obedience and keeps Christ’s commandments who is favored with love-tokens from Him (John 14:21). There is an inseparable connection between our being “led [forward] by the Spirit of God”—which intimates our voluntary occurrence—and His “bearing witness with our spirit” (Rom. 8:14, 16).
6. Only thus are we preserved from grievous backsliding. In view of much that has been said above this should be quite obvious. The very term “backsliding” denotes failure to make progress and go forward. Peter’s denial of Christ in the high priest’s palace was preceded by his following Him “afar off” (Matthew 26:58), and that has been recorded for our learning and warning. The same principle is illustrated again in connection with the awful fall of David. Though it was “at the time when kings go forth to battle” he was selfishly and lazily taking his ease, and while so lax succumbed to temptation (1 Sam. 11:1, 2). Unless we “follow on to know the Lord” and learn to make use of the armor which He has provided, we shall easily he overcome by the Enemy. Only as our hearts are kept healthy and our affection set upon things above shall we be impervious to the attractions of this world. We cannot he stationary: if we do not grow, we shall decline.
7. Only thus shall we preserve the cause of Christ from reproach. The backsliding of His people makes His enemies to blaspheme—how many have taken occasion to do so from the sad case of David! When the world sees us halting, it is gratified, being bolstered up in their idea that godliness is but a pose, a sham. Because of this, among other reasons, Christians are bidden to “be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom shine ye as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:15). If we go backward instead of forward—and we must do one or the other—then we greatly dishonor the name of Christ and fill His foes with unholy glee. Rather is it “the will of God that with well-doing we put to silence the ignorance of foolish men” (1 Peter 2:15). The longer they remain in this world, the more apparent should be the contrast between the children of light and those who are the subjects of the Prince of darkness. Very necessary then, from many considerations, is our growth in grace.
CHAPTER 04 – Its Nature
We have now arrived at what is really the most important part of our subject, but which is far from being the easiest to handle. If we are to be preserved or delivered from erroneous views at this point it is very necessary that we should form a right concept of what spiritual growth is not and what it actually is. Mistaken ideas thereon are widely prevalent and many of God’s own people have been brought into bondage thereby. There are those who have made little or no advancement in the school of Christ that fondly imagine they have progressed considerably, and are very hurt if others do not share their opinion; nor is it any simple task to disillusion them. On the other hand, some who have grown considerably know it not, and even conclude they have gone backward; nor is it any easy matter to assure them they have been, needlessly disparaging themselves. in either case the mistake is due to measuring themselves by the wrong standard, or in other words, through ignorance of what spiritual growth really consists.
If the reader met a half dozen people out of as many different sections of Christendom whom he is warranted in regarding as children of God, and asked them to define for him their ideas of spiritual growth, he would probably be surprised at the diversity and contrariety of the answers given. As the reception of one part of the Truth prepares us to take in another, so the admittance of error paves the way for the coming in of more. Moreover, the particular denomination to which we belong and the distinctive form of its “line of things” (2 Cor. 10:16), has a powerful effect in determining the type of Christians reared under its influences—just as the nature of the soil affects the plants growing in it. Not only are his theological views cast into a certain mold and his concept of the practical side of Christianity largely determined thereby, but his devotional life and even his personal demeanor are also considerably affected by the same. Consequently there is much similarity in the “experience” of the great majority belonging to that particular party. This is largely the case with all the principal evangelical denominations, as it is also with those who profess to be “outside all systems.”
Just as a trained ear can readily detect variations of inflection in the human voice and locate by a person’s speech and accent which part of the country he hails from, so one with wide interdenominational associations has little difficulty in determining, even from a brief talk on spiritual things, which sect his companion belongs to: no label is necessary, his affiliation is plainly stamped upon him. And if in the course of the conversation he should ask his acquaintance to describe what he considered to be a mature Christian, his portrayal would naturally and necessarily be shaped by the particular ecclesiastical type he was best acquainted with. If he belonged to one particular group, he would picture a somber and gloomy Christian; but if to a group at the opposite pole, a confident and joyous one. The kind most admired in some circles is a deep theologian; in others, the one who decries “dry doctrine” and is occupied chiefly with his subjective life. Yet another would value neither theology nor experience, considering that the soul’s contemplation of Christ was the beginning and end of the Christian life; while still others would regard as eminent Christians those who were most zealous and active in seeking to save sinners.
In attempting to describe the character of Christian progress, or as it is more frequently termed, growth in grace, we shall therefore seek to avoid a mistake often made thereon by many denominational writers—a mistake which has had most injurious effects on a large number of their readers. Instead of bringing out what the Scriptures teach thereon, only too often they related their own experiences; instead of treating the essentials of spiritual growth, they dwelt upon circumstantials; instead of delineating those general features which are common to all who are the subjects of gracious operations, they depicted those exceptional things which are peculiar only to certain types—the neurotic or melancholy. This is much the same as though artists and sculptors took for their models only those with unusual deformities, instead of selecting an average specimen of humanity. True, it would be a human being that was imaged, yet it could convey only a misrepresentation of the common species. Alas that, in the religious as well as the physical realm, a freak attracts more attention than a normal person.
We shall not then relate our own spiritual history. First, because we are not now writing to satisfy the unhealthy curiosity of a certain class of readers who delight in perusing such things. Second, because we regard the private experience of the Christian as being too sacred to expose to the public view. It has long seemed to us that there is such a thing as spiritual unchastity: the inner workings of the soul are not a fit subject to be laid bare before others—”The heart knoweth his own bitterness, and a stranger doth not intermeddle with his joy” (Prov. 14:10). Third, because we are not so conceited as to imagine our own particular conversion and the ups and downs of our Christian life are of sufficient importance to narrate. Fourth, because there are probably some features about our conversion and some things in our subsequent spiritual history which have been duplicated in very few other cases, and therefore they would only be calculated to mislead others if they should look for a parallel in themselves. Finally, because as intimated above, we deem it more honoring to God and far more helpful to souls to confine ourselves to the teaching of His Word on this subject.
But before proceeding we must anticipate an objection which is almost certain to be brought against what has been said in the last paragraph. Did not the apostle Paul describe his conversion. And may not, should not, we do so too? Answer: first, Paul is the only New Testament writer who gave us any account of his conversion or related anything of his subsequent experiences. It would be a reversal of all sound reasoning to make an exception into a rule or conclude that an isolated case established a precedent. The very fact that Paul’s case stands alone, indicates it is not to be made an example of. Second, his experience was not only exceptional but unique: the means used was the supernatural appearance to him of the ascended Christ, so that he had a physical sight of Him and heard His voice with his natural ears—a thing which none has done since. Third, the account of his conversion was not made to intimate Christian friends, nor before a local church when applying for membership, but instead before his enemies (Acts 22), and Agrippa—virtually his judge—when making a defense for his life. Thus the circumstances were extraordinary and afford no criterion for ordinary cases. Finally, his experience on the Damascus road was necessary to qualify him for the apostolic office (Acts 1:22; 1 Cor. 15:8, 9; cf. 2 Cor. 12:11).
Once more it seems advisable to take up first the negative side of our subject ere turning to the positive. So many mistaken notions now hold the field that they need uprooting if the ground is to be prepared: or to drop the figure, if the minds of many are to be fitted to take in the Truth. Our readers differ so much in the type of ministry they have sat under, and some of them have formed such fallacious views of what spiritual growth consists of, that if we now described the principal elements of Christian progress, one and another would probably consider, according to what they have imbibed, that we had omitted the most important features. We shall therefore devote the remainder of this chapter to pointing out as many as possible of those things which, though often regarded as such, are not essential parts of spiritual growth, in fact no part thereof at all. Though this may prove rather wearisome to some, we would ask them to bear with us and offer up a prayer that it may please God to use the paragraphs which follow to the enlightenment of those who are befogged.
1. Weight of years. It is often considered that spiritual growth is to be measured by the calendar, that the length of time one has been a Christian will determine the amount of progress he has made. Certainly it ought to be so, yet in fact it is frequently no index at all. God often pours contempt on the distinctions made by men: out of the mouth of “babes and sucklings” has He perfected praise (Matthew 21:16). It is generally supposed that those with snowy locks are much more spiritual than young believers, yet if we examine what is recorded of the closing years of Abraham, Isaac, David, Hezekiah and others of Israel’s kings, we find reason to revise or qualify such a conclusion. True, some of the choicest saints we have ever met were “patriarchs” and “mothers in Israel,” yet they have been exceptions rather than the rule. Many Christians make more real progress in piety the first year than in the next ten that follow.
2. Increasing knowledge. We must distinguish between things that differ, namely, a knowledge of spiritual things and actual spiritual knowledge. The former can be acquired by the unregenerate: the latter is peculiar to the children of God. The one is merely intellectual and theoretical; the other is vital and effectual. One may take up “Bible study” in the same way as another would the study of philosophy or political economy. He may pursue it diligently and enthusiastically. He may obtain a familiarity of the letter of Scripture and a proficiency in understanding its terms, far in advance of the hard-working Christian who has less leisure and less natural ability; yet what is such knowledge worth if it affects not the heart, fails to transform the character and make the daily walk pleasing to God! “Though I understand all mysteries and all knowledge . . . and have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2). Unless our “Bible study” is conforming us, both inwardly and outwardly, to the image of Christ, it profits us not.
3. Development of gifts. An unregenerate person taking up the study of the Bible may also be one who is endowed with considerable natural talents, such as the power of concentration, a retentive memory, a persevering spirit. As he prosecutes his study his talents are called into play, his wits are sharpened and he becomes able to converse fluently upon the things he has read, and he is likely to be sought after as a speaker and preacher: and yet there may not be a spark of Divine life in his soul. The Corinthians grew fast in gifts (1 Cor. 1:4, 7) yet they were but “babes” and “carnal” (3:2, 3), and needed to be reminded of the “more excellent way” of love to God and their brethren. Ah, my reader, you may not have the showy gifts of some, nor be able to pray in public as others, but if you have a tender conscience, an honest heart, a forbearing and forgiving spirit, you have that which is far better.
4. More time spent in prayer. Here again, to avoid misunderstanding, we must distinguish between things that differ: natural prayer and spiritual. Some are constitutionally devotional and are attracted by religious exercises, as others are by music and painting; and yet they may be total strangers to the breathings of God’s Spirit in their souls. They may set aside certain parts of the day for “a quiet time with God” and have a prayer list as long as their arm, and yet be utterly devoid of the spirit of grace and supplications. The Pharisees were renowned for their “long prayers.” The Mohammedan with his “praying mat,” the Buddhist with his “praying wheel,” and the Papist with his “beads,” all illustrate the same principle. It is quite true that growth in grace is ever accompanied by an increased dependence upon God and a delighting of the soul in Him, yet that does not mean that we can measure our spirituality by the clock—by the amount of time we spend on our knees.
5. Activity in service. In not a few circles this has been and still is made the test of one’s spirituality. As soon as a young person makes a Christian profession he is set to work. It matters not how ill qualified he is, lacking as yet (in many instances) even a rudimentary knowledge of the fundamentals of the faith, nevertheless he is required or at least expected to engage forthwith in some form of what is plausibly termed “service for Christ.” But the Epistles will be searched in vain for a warrant for such things: they contain not so much as a single injunction for young believers to engage in “personal work.” On the contrary they are enjoined to obey their parents in the Lord (Eph. 6:1) and the young women are to be “keepers at home” (Titus 2:5). Many have reason to lament “they [not God!] made me the keeper of the vineyards, but mine own vineyard [spiritual graces] have I not kept” (Song of Sol. 1:6).
6. Happy feelings. Considerable allowance needs to be made for both temperament and health. Some are naturally more vivacious and emotional than others, of a more lively and cheerful spirit, and consequently they engage in singing rather than sighing, laughter than weeping. When such people are converted they are apt to be more demonstrative than others, both in expressing gratitude to the Lord and in telling people what a precious Saviour is theirs. Yet it would be a great mistake to suppose that they had received a larger measure of the Spirit than their more sober and equable brethren and sisters. A shallow brook babbles noisily but “still waters run deep”—yet there are exceptions here as the Niagara Falls illustrate. Increasing holiness is not to be gauged by our inward comforts and joy, but rather by the more substantial qualities of faith, obedience, humility and love. When a fire is first kindled there is more smoke and crackling, but after, though the flame has a narrower compass, it has more heat.
7. Becoming more miserable. Yet, strange as it may sound to some of our readers, there are not a few professing Christians who regard that as one of the principal elements of spiritual growth. They have been taught to regard assurance as presumption and Christian joy as lightness, if not levity. Should they experience a brief season of peace “in believing” they are fearful that the Devil is deceiving them. They are occupied mostly with indwelling sin rather than with Christ. They hug their fears and idolize their doubts. They consider that the slough of despond is the only place of safety, and are happiest when most wretched. This is by no means an exaggerated picture, but sadly true to a certain type of religious life, where long-facedness and speaking in whispers are regarded as evidence of a “deep experience” and marks of piety. True, the more light God gives us the more we perceive our sinfulness, though humbled thereby, the more thankful we should be for the cleansing blood.
8. Added usefulness. But God is sovereign and orders His providences accordingly. Unto one He opens doors, unto another He closes them, and to His good pleasure we are called upon to submit. Some streams He replenishes, but others are suffered to dry up: thus it is in His dealings with His people—by providing or withholding favorable openings for them to be of spiritual help to their fellows. It is therefore a great mistake to measure our growth in grace and our bringing forth of good fruit by the largeness or smallness of our opportunities of doing good. Some have larger opportunities when young than when they become older, yet if the hearts of the latter are right, God accepts the will for the deed. Some that have the most grace are stationed in isolated places and are largely unknown to their fellow Christians, yet the eye of God sees them. Shall we say that the flowers on the mountain side are wasted because no human eye admires them, or that the songs of birds in the forests are lost on the air because they regale not the ears of men!
9. Temporal prosperity. Though it is shared by few of our fellow ministers, yet it is the firm conviction of this writer that, as a general rule, temporal adversity and straitened circumstances in the present life of a Christian is a mark of God’s displeasure, an evidence that he has choked the channel of blessing (see Ps. 84:11; Jer. 5:25; Matthew 6:33). On the other hand we should certainly be drawing an erroneous conclusion if we regard the flourishing affairs of an unregenerate professor as a proof that the smile of heaven rested upon him, rather would it be the case of one who was being fattened for the “day of slaughter” (James 5:5). Many such an one receives his good things in this world, but in the world to come is tormented in the flame (Luke 16:24, 25). Even among God’s own people there may be those who yield to a spirit of covetousness, and in some cases the Lord gratifies their carnal desires, but “sends leanness into their souls” as He did with Israel of old.
10. Liberality in giving. We do not believe any heart can remain selfish and miserly where the love of God has been shed abroad in it, but rather that such an one will esteem it a privilege as well as duty to support the cause of Christ and minister to any brother in need, according as God has prospered him, yet it is a very misleading standard to judge a person’s spirituality by his generosity (1 Cor. 13:3). For some years we lived in districts where the principal denominations taught that the church’s spirituality was measured by the amount it contributed to missions; yet while numbers of them raised very considerable sums, vital godliness was most conspicuous by its absence. Millions of dollars are given to the “Red Cross Society” by those making no Christian profession at all! Never were the coffers of the churches so full as they are today, and never were the churches so devoid of the Spirit’s unction and blessing.
All sound teaching, like the safest method of reasoning, proceeds from the general to the particular, and therefore we shall attempt to show the principles from which spiritual growth issues and the main lines along which Christian progress advances, before we enter into a detailed analysis of the same. God first gave Israel His law, and then because His “commandment is exceeding broad” (Ps. 119:96) supplied amplification through the prophets and a still more specific explication of its contents through Christ and His apostles. Spiritual growth is the development of spiritual life, and spiritual life is communicated to a sinner at the new birth, so the more clearly we are enabled to understand the nature of regeneration, the better prepared we shall be to perceive the character of spiritual growth. Admittedly regeneration is profoundly mysterious, but there are at least two things which afford us help thereon: the fact that it is a “renewing” (Titus 3:5), and that it is a real and radical (though not complete or final) reversal of what happened to us at the fall. The old creation gives us some idea of the new creation, and the order in which the former was wrecked prepares us to grasp the order in which the latter is effected.
Natural man is a composite being, made up of spirit and soul and body. The “spirit” seems to be the highest part of his nature, being that which capacitates for God-consciousness or the knowledge of God—He being “spirit” (John 4:24). The “soul” or ego appears to be that which, expressing itself through the body, constitutes what is termed our “personality,” and is the seat of self-consciousness, and by it man has communion with his fellows. The body or physical organism is that which provides the soul with a habitation in this world, and it is the seat of sense-consciousness, being that through which man has contact with material things. The order of Scripture is “spirit and soul and body” (1 Thess. 5:23), but man with his customary perversity invariably reverses it and speaks of “body, and soul and spirit.” How that reveals what man has degenerated into: the body, which he can see and feel, which occupies most of his concern, and comes first in his consideration and estimation. His “soul” receives little thought and still less care, and as to his “spirit” he is unaware that he has any.
“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). God is triune, there being three persons in one and indivisible Divine essence. And it was in the image of the triune God that man was made, as the plural pronouns plainly connote. Thus man was made a triune creature. His “spirit” which is the intellectual principle and highest part, was capacitated for communion with God and was designed to regulate (by its wisdom) the soul, in which resides the emotional nature or the “affections.” The soul in turn was to regulate the body, as it received through the physical senses information of the external world. Hilt at the fall man reversed the order of his creation: making a “god” of his belly he henceforth became enslaved to the lower world, and the soul instead of directing the physical mechanism became to a large extent the lackey of its senses and demands. Communion with God being severed, the spirit no longer functioned according to its distinctive nature, and though not extinguished, was dragged down to the level of the soul.
What has just been pointed out should be clearer to the reader by pondering it in the light of Genesis 3. In assailing Eve, Satan made his attack upon her spirit—the principle which receives from God—for he first called into question the Divine prohibition (v. 2) and then, replying to her objection, assured her “ye shall not surely die,” and added as an inducement “in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (vv. 4, 5), thereby seeking to weaken her faith, and flatter her ambition by promising greater wisdom. Hearkening to his lies, the Woman was “deceived” (1 Tim. 2:14). Her judgment became clouded through doubting God’s threat, and once the light of God in her spirit was lost, all was lost. Her affections became corrupted so that she now “desired” or lusted after the forbidden fruit—not by the prompting of her spirit, but by the solicitation of her physical senses: and her will became depraved so that she “took” thereof.
Now, from the experimental side of things, regeneration is the initial work of God in reversing the effects of the fall, for its favored subject is then “renewed in knowledge, after the image of him that created him” (Col. 3:10): that is to say, spiritual perception is restored to him, so that he now has again what he lost in Adam—a vital, powerful, direct knowledge of God. In consequence of this he is brought back again into communion with God, restored to a conscious fellowship with Him. One aspect of this mysterious but blessed work is brought before us in Hebrews 4:12 where we are told, “the Word of God is quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit.” We understand that last clause to signify that the regenerated person’s “spirit” is now freed from its Immersion into the soul and is raised to its own superior level, being placed en rapport (brought into harmony with) God Himself. Thus Paul declares “I serve [God] with my spirit” (Rom. 1:9)—not “soul”; and “my spirit prayeth” (1 Cor. 14:14). In distinction therefrom “purified your souls [affections] in obeying the truth” (1 Peter 1:22).
Though the above may sound recondite and, being new to our readers, somewhat difficult to grasp, yet it should, we think, be more or less clear that in order for us to answer to what God has wrought in us, in order to live as becometh Christians, the body should take second place to the soul and be ruled thereby: and the soul in turn be subordinated to the spirit, which is to be enlightened and controlled by God. Unless the body be made subservient to the soul, man lives his life on the same level as the animals; and unless the Christian’s “affections” and emotions be regulated by wisdom from the spirit, he lives on the same plane as the unregenerate. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). That means, make the things of the spirit your paramount concern, and your lower interests will be automatically subserved. If the mind or spirit be “stayed on God,” the soul will enjoy perfect peace, and the soul at rest will act beneficially on the body. Thus, in proportion as our lives accord with what took place in us at the new birth will be our spiritual growth and prosperity.
Nothing but a knowledge of God can satisfy the spirit of man, as nought but His love can content the soul. Man’s supreme happiness consists in the exercise of his noblest parts and faculties on their proper objects, and the more excellent those objects be, the more real and lasting pleasure do they give us in the knowledge and love of them. Thus it is that, when God has designs of mercy toward an individual, He begins by shining upon his understanding and attracting his heart unto himself. As that work of grace proceeds that individual is enabled to see something of “the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13), how it has deluded him into vainly imagining that the things of time and sense could afford him satisfaction, until he discovers that (to use the figurative language of the prophet) he has “spent his money for that which is not bread” and “labored for that which satisfieth not.” (Isa. 55:2) Therefore does God say unto him, “hearken unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.” Until God becomes our “Portion” the soul is left with an aching void.
Here, then, is what occurs at regeneration: God “hath given us an understanding that we may know him that is true” (1 John 5:20)—and this He does by quickening the “spirit” in us. And again we read “For God who [in connection with the first creation, Gen. 1:3] commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath [in His work of the new creation] shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). Thus, Christian progress must consist in our advancing in a personal and experimental knowledge of God, and consequently when the apostle prayed for the spiritual growth of the Colossians he made request that they might be “increasing in the knowledge of God” (1:10). Simultaneously with this communication of a supernatural knowledge of Himself, the “love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 5:5) and therefore spiritual growth consists of a deeper apprehension and fuller enjoyment of that love with a more complete response thereto; and hence when making request for the same on behalf of the Ephesians Paul prayed that they might “know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge” (3:19).
It is not our immediate design to give as full a description as our present light affords of the precise nature of regeneration, but only to point out those of its principal elements which the better enables us to grasp what spiritual growth consists of. We will therefore mention but one other feature of the new birth, or that which is at least an inseparable adjunct of it, namely, the impartation of faith. Nor shall we now attempt to define what faith is: sufficient for the moment to acknowledge that it is a blessed “gift of God” (Eph. 2:8), in nowise originating in the exercise of the human will, but communicated by “the operation of God” (Col. 2:12), and therefore it is a supernatural principle, active in its favored recipient, bringing forth fruit after its own kind, and thereby evidencing its Divine source. It is “by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7) the Christian walks: as said the apostle “the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God [He being its Object], who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). This it is which distinguishes all the regenerate from the unregenerate, for the latter are “children in whom is no faith” (Deut. 32: 20; cf. 2 Thess. 3:3).
The Christian life begins by the exercise of a God-given faith, namely, an act whereby we receive Christ as our own personal Saviour (John 1:1). We are “justified by faith,” and by Christ “have access by faith into this grace [i.e., accepted into God is favor] wherein we stand” (Rom. 5:1, 2). We are “sanctified by faith” (Acts 26:18), that is, made actual participants of the ineffable purity of Christ. Through the Spirit we “wait for the hope of righteousness by faith” (Gal. 5:5; cf. 2 Tim. 4:8). It is by “the shield of faith,” and that alone, we are able to “quench all the fiery darts of the wicked” (Eph. 6:12). It is “through faith and patience” that we “inherit the promises” (Heb. 6:12). It was by faith that the Old Testament saints “obtained a good report” (Heb. 11:3) and wrought such wonders as the remainder of that chapter demonstrates. It is by faith we successfully resist the Devil (1 Peter 5:9) and overcome the world (l John 5:4). From all of which it is very evident that the Treasure of our Christian progress will be very largely determined by the extent to which this principle he kept healthy and remains operating in us.
To sum up what has been pointed out above: regeneration is both a “renewing” and a “new creation.” As a “renewing” it is a continual process, as 2 Corinthians 4:16 clearly shows. This aspect of it is a partial reversal of and recovery from what happened to us at the fall. It is a Divine quickening, which necessarily presupposes an entity or faculty already existing, though in need of being made alive or revived. This “renewing” is of the inner man, which includes both spirit and soul or “the mind” arid “heart.” It is an initial and radical act, followed by a repeated but imperceptible process whereby the nobler or immaterial parts of our beings are elevated or refined. This does not mean that “the flesh” or evil principle in us undergoes any improvement, but that our faculties are spiritualized; and thus spiritual growth will consist of the mind being more and more engaged with Divine objects, the affections being increasingly set upon things above, the conscience becoming more tender, and the human will being made more amenable to the Divine, and thereby the inner man more and more conformed to the holy image of Christ.
But regeneration is something more than a “renewing” or quickening of parts and faculties already in existence: it is also a “new creation,” the bringing into existence of something which did not exist before, the actual bestowment of something to the sinner in addition to all that he had as a natural man. That “something” is variously designated in Scripture (and by theologians) according to its different relations and aspects. It is termed “life” (1 John 5:12), yea life “more abundantly” (John 10:10) than unfallen Adam enjoyed. It is named “spirit” because “born of the Spirit” (John 3:6) and therefore is to be distinguished from our natural spirit; arid “the spirit of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7). It is called “the earnest of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 1:22), being a token or firstfruits of what will be ours when glorified; and “grace” (Eph. 4:7) as an inward principle. Theologians designate it “the new nature,” and many allude to it under the composite term of “the Christian’s graces,” which is warranted by John 1:16, and is probably the easiest for us to comprehend. Considered thus, spiritual growth may be said to be the development of our graces: the strengthening of faith, the enlarging of hope, the increasing of love, the abounding of peace and joy: see 2 Peter 1:3 and carefully note verses 5-8.
Thus far we have been dwelling almost entirely upon the internal aspect of our theme, so we will now quote one verse which directs attention to the external side. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). Here is the response which we are required to make unto the new birth. God’s purpose in our new creation or regeneration is that we should “walk in good works” that we may make manifest the spiritual root which He then implanted by bearing spiritual fruit. Such was the design of Christ in dying for us: to “purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.” (Titus 2:14) From which it plainly follows that, the more zealous we are of good works and the more steadfastly we walk in them, the more do we rightly answer to what God has wrought in us. Now the performance of our daily duties are so many “good works,” if they be done from faith’s obedience to God’s requirements and with an eye to His approbation and glory. Hence the more faithfully and conscientiously we discharge our obligations toward God and toward our fellows, the more true Christian progress we are making.
All that has been before us above receives simplification when it is viewed in the light of conversion and its proper sequel. Regeneration is entirely the work of God, wherein we are passive, but conversion is an act of ours; the one being the effect and consequence of the other. The word “conversion” means to turn around, it is a right-about-face. It is a turning from the world unto God, from Satan unto Christ, from sin unto holiness, from being absorbed with the things of time unto devotion to our eternal interests. At regeneration we received a supernatural knowledge of God, and as the consequence, in His light we see ourselves as depraved, lost and undone. At regeneration we received a nature which is “created in righteousness and true holiness” (Eph. 4:24), and as a consequence we now hate all unrighteousness and sin. At regeneration we were given an understanding that we might know Him that is true (1 John 5:20) and our response is to yield ourselves unto His dominion and trust in His atoning blood. At regeneration we received Divine “grace” as an indwelling principle, and the effect is to make us willing to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily and follow Christ. The proper sequel to such a conversion is that we steadfastly adhere to the surrender we then made of ourselves unto the Lord Jesus, and the more we do so such will be our spiritual progress.
We have sought to show the principles from which spiritual growth issues and the main lines along which Christian progress advances, pointing out that spiritual growth is the development of the spiritual life communicated at regeneration. Now we shall look at the particular, seeking to set out in some detail of what that development actually consists.
1. Spiritual growth consists of an increase in spiritual knowledge. God works in us as rational creatures, according to our intelligent nature, so that nothing is wrought in us unless knowledge paves the way. We cannot speak a language unless we have some understanding of the same. We cannot do work with an implement or machine nor play on a musical instrument until we have a knowledge of them. The same obtains in connection with spiritual things. We cannot worship intelligently or acceptably an unknown God. He must first reveal Himself and be known by us, for we could not love or trust One with whom we had no acquaintance. Therefore does God’s Word declare “They that know thy name will put their trust in thee” (Ps. 9:10). It cannot be otherwise: once God is revealed to us as a living reality, the heart at once confides itself to Him, as being definitely worthy of its fullest reliance and dependence. It is spiritual ignorance of God which lies at the foundation of all our distrust of Him, and therefore of all our doubts and fears: “Acquaint now thyself with, him and be at peace” (Job 22:21).
The Christian life begins in knowledge, for “the new man is renewed in knowledge” (Col. 3:10). “This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3). There has been much difference of opinion among commentators as to the scope of these words. When, we wrote thereon many years ago we adopted the view of the majority of Christian writers, namely, a declaration of the way and means by which eternal life is obtained: just as the words that follow “this is the condemnation” in John 3:19 do not define the character of that condemnation, but rather tell us the cause of it. While we still believe in the legitimacy and soundness of the interpretation we gave formerly, yet a more mature reflection would not restrict the meaning of John 17:3 to that explanation, but would also understand it to signify that “eternal life” (of which we now have but the promise and earnest) or everlasting bliss and glory will consist of an ever-increasing knowledge of the triune God as revealed in the Person of the Mediator.
This knowledge does not consist in theological thoughts or metaphysical speculations about the Godhead, but in such spiritual understanding of Him as causes us to believe in the Lord God, to cast our souls upon Him, and center in Him as our everlasting Portion. “The renewed understanding is raised up and enlightened with a supernatural life, so that what we know of the Lord is by intuitive knowledge which the Holy Spirit is most graciously pleased to give. Hence believers are said to be called out of darkness into marvellous light, and Paul says ‘ye were sometime darkness but now are ye light in the Lord.’ As the knowledge of the Father, Son and Spirit is reflected upon the renewed mind in the person of Christ, so it is received into the heart.” (S. F. Pierce) This spiritual apprehension of God is such as no outward means can of themselves convey: no, not even the reading of the Word or hearing it preached. In addition thereto, God by His own light and power conveys to the human spirit such an effectual discovery of Himself as radically affects the understanding, conscience, affections and will, reforming the life.
As the Christian life begins in spiritual knowledge so it is increased thereby: “But grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18), upon which we quote again from the excellent Pierce. “I conceive that by grace here all those faculties, graces, habits, dispositions, which are wrought in us by the Holy Spirit are to be understood. And to have our spiritual faculties, graces, habits, and dispositions exercised distinctively and supernaturally on their proper objects and subjects is to ‘grow in grace.’ What follows in the text is explanatory: ‘and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.’ He is the Object on which all our graces are to be exercised. He is the life of all our graces. Therefore growing into a greater knowledge of Him, and the Father’s love in Him, is to ‘grow in grace,’ for thereby all our graces are quickened, strengthened, exercised and drawn forth to the praise of God.” While we do not think that exhausts the meaning of 2 Peter 3:18, yet such an interpretation is borne out by the second verse of the Epistle: “Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord”—not by the knowledge of God alone, nor of the Lord Jesus alone, but of God in Christ the Mediator, which is also the force of John 17:3.
One of the ways by which we may ascertain what spiritual growth consists of is by attending to the recorded prayers of the apostles and noting what it was for which they made request. Being very eminent themselves in grace and holiness, it was their earnest desire that the churches and particular individuals to whom their Epistles were addressed, might increase and greatly flourish in those Divine bestowments. Accordingly in his prayer for the Ephesians we find Paul petitioning that the Father of glory would give undo them “the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him,” that the eyes of their understanding might be enlightened that they might know what is the hope of His calling (vv. 17, 18). It should be obvious that in asking for such favors for those saints there was no implication that they were entirely devoid of them or that he sought the initial bestowment of them—any more than John 20:31 signifies the Fourth Gospel was addressed to unbelievers (1:16 proves otherwise) or that his First Epistle was sent to Christians lacking in assurance; rather does 1 John 5:13 connote “that ye may have a clearer and fuller knowledge that eternal life is yours.”
No, in making those petitions on behalf of the Ephesian saints Paul requested that a larger degree of heavenly light might be furnished unto their minds, that they might have a more spiritual apprehension of the One with whom they had to do, of His wondrous perfections according to the revelation, He has made of Himself in the Word, and of his varied relationships to them. It was that they might discern the wonders of His grace and power toward, in, and for them. It was that they might have an enlarged conception and perception of their vivication when they were in a state of death and sin. In like manner, he prayed that the love of the Philippian saints might “abound yet more and more in knowledge and all judgment” (1:9). So for the Colossians, that they might be “increasing in the knowledge of God” (1:10), which is to be taken in its fullest sense: increasing in the knowledge of God in the manifestation He has made of Himself in creation, in providence and in grace; in knowledge of God in His three Persons, in His Christ the Mediator, in His law, in His gospel; in the knowledge of His holy will.
This knowledge of God, which distinguishes the regenerate from the unregenerate, which the apostle solicited on behalf of his converts, and which is the basic element in all real Christian progress, is something vastly different from and superior to the mere possession of a correct opinion about God or any speculative view concerning Him. It is a supernatural and saving knowledge. A mere theoretical knowledge of God is inoperative and ineffectual, but an experimental acquaintance with Him is dynamical and transforming. It is a knowledge which deeply affects the heart, producing reverential awe, for “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10). It is such a knowledge as strengthens the Christian’s graces and calls them forth into lively exercise. Since that Divine light and power is communicated to the saint by the Spirit through the Scriptures, it causes him to search and ponder them as he never did previously, and to mix faith with what he reads and takes in. It is such a knowledge as promotes holiness in the heart and piety in the life. It is a knowledge which produces obedience to the Divine commandments, as 1 John 2:3, 4 plainly teaches. Yet there can be no such knowledge of God except as He is apprehended through Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).
Such a knowledge of God lies at the foundation of everything else in the spiritual life, being both essential and introductory. Without such a knowledge of God we cannot know ourselves, how to order our lives in this world, nor what awaits us in the world to come: until made acquainted with Him who is light (1 John 1:5) we are in complete darkness. Calvin evinced the profundity of his spiritual insight by commencing his renowned Institutes in saying, “True and substantial wisdom primarily consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves.” Without a personal and spiritual knowledge of God we cannot perceive the infinite evil of sin and the fearful havoc it has wrought in us: it is only in His light that we “see light” (Ps. 36:9) and discover the horribleness and totality of our depravity. Then it is that we both behold and feel ourselves to be just as God has described us in His Word, Equally so it is only by such knowledge of God that we can appreciate the Divinely-provided remedy: either in discovering wherein it consists or realizing our dire need of the same. “The way of the wicked is as darkness” (Prov. 4:19).
From all that has been pointed out above we may see how completely dependent the Christian is upon God: no spiritual progress is possible except as He continues to shine upon us. Neither a powerful intellect, the artificial aids of philosophy, nor a thorough training in logic, can contribute one iota unto a spiritual apprehension of Divine things. True, they are of use in enabling the teacher to discourse thereon, to express himself more readily and fluently than the illiterate, but as to discovering to him Divine truth they are of no value whatever. The reason of this is evident: celestial things are high above the reach of carnal reason, and therefore it can never attain unto an acquaintance with their true nature. Heavenly grace is required for an entrance into heavenly things, and the meanest capacity is as susceptible to heavenly grace as the most capacious mind. Moreover, the things of God are addressed to faith, and that is a grace of which the unregenerate, be he the most accomplished savant, is utterly devoid. Divine mysteries are hidden from the naturally wise and prudent, but they are supernaturally revealed to spiritual babes (Matthew 11:25)—revealed by the Holy Spirit through a Divinely-imparted faith.
An uneducated Christian may not be able to enter into the subtle niceties of theological metaphysics, he may not be competent to debate the Truth, with ingenious objectors, but he is capable of understanding the character and perfections of God, the person and work of Christ, the mysteries and wonders of redemption so as to obtain such a gracious vie\v thereof as to excite in his mind a holy adoration of the Father and a love for and joy in the Redeemer. And such a knowledge, and that alone, will stand us in stead in the time of trial, the hour of temptation, or the article of death. Yet it is only as the Holy Spirit is pleased to give fresh light and life to the believer’s mind by bringing home anew by His own unction and efficacy what is already known that he can increase in the spiritual knowledge thereof. What God has revealed in His Word must be applied again and again by the Spirit if it is to be operative in us and bear fruit through us. The believer is as much dependent upon God for any increase of spiritual knowledge as he was for the first reception of it, and constantly does he need to bear in mind that humbling word “without me ye can do nothing.”
If we added nothing to the last paragraph we should present a most unbalanced view of this point, conveying the impression that we had no responsibility in the matter. As there is a radical difference between the Christian and the non-Christian, so there is between our first spiritual knowledge of God and our increase in the same. “But grow in grace and In the knowledge of our Lord” is a Divine exhortation, intimating both our privilege and our duty. We are required to make diligent use of the means God has provided, for He places no premium on slothfulness. Though we are dependent upon the Spirit to apply the Truth to us, yet that does not signify that it will make no difference whether or not we keep the things of God fresh in our minds by daily meditation upon them. Only God can bring His Word home to our hearts in living power, nevertheless we must pray “quicken thou me according to thy Word” (Ps. 119:25). Moreover it is our obligation to abstain from whatever would grieve the Spirit and thereby weaken the assurance which enables us to say “my Father” and “my Redeemer.” If we increase not in the knowledge of God the fault is ours.
2. Spiritual growth consists of a deeper delight in spiritual things and objects. This is ever the accompaniment and effect of spiritual knowledge—affording us another criterion by which we may test the kind of knowledge we have. A merely speculative knowledge of Divine things is cold and lifeless, but a spiritual and experimental acquaintance with them affects the heart and moves the affections. One may accept much of God’s Word (through early training) in a traditional way, and even be prepared to contend for the same against those who oppose it, yet it will avail nothing when the Devil assails him. Hence we are told that when) the Wicked One is revealed, whose coming is after the working of Satan, with all power and signs and lying wonders, God permits him to work “with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish,” and His reason for this is stated to he: “because they received not the love of the truth that they might be saved” (2 Thess. 2:10). At best they had only a letter acquaintance with the truth: it was never enshrined in their affections. But different far is it with the regenerate: each of them can say with the Psalmist “O how love I thy law: it is my meditation all the day” (Ps. 119:97).
Spiritual delight necessarily follows spiritual knowledge, for an object cannot be appreciated any further than it is apprehended and known. Spiritual knowledge of spiritual things imparts not only a conviction of their verity and the certainty of their reality, but it also produces the soul’s adherence to them, the cleaving of the affections unto them, a holy joy in them, so that they appear inexpressibly blessed and glorious unto those granted a discovery of the same. But not having been admitted into the secret thereof, the unregenerate can form no true concept or estimate of the Christian’s experience, and when he hears him exclaiming of the things of God “More are they to be desired than gold, yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey or the honey-comb” (Ps. 19:10), he can but regard such language as wild enthusiasm or fanaticism. The natural man lacks both the power to discern the beauty of spiritual things and a palate to taste their sweetness. Nor is the believer’s relish for God’s Word confined unto the promises and comforting portions: he also declares “I will delight myself in thy commandments, which I have loved” (Ps. 119:47).
The more the believer advances in spiritual acquaintance with the excellency and beauty of heavenly things, the more solid satisfaction do they afford his mind. The more the Christian enters into the importance and value of God’s eternal Truth the more his heart is drawn out unto the glorious objects revealed therein. The more that he actually tastes that the Lord is gracious (1 Peter 2:3), the more will he delight himself mi Him. The more light he is granted upon the sublime mysteries of the Faith, the more will he admire the wondrous wisdom which devised them, the power which executed them, the grace which conveyed them. The more he realizes the Scriptures are the very Word of God himself, the more he is awed by their solemnity and impressed with their weightiness. The more the ineffable perfections of Deity are revealed to his spirit, the more will he exclaim “Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods [or “mighty ones”], who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders!” (Ex. 15:11). And the more his heart is occupied with the person, office, and the work of the Redeemer, the more will he enter into the experience of hint who said, “I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:7).
It is true that, through slackness and folly, the believer may to a considerable extent lose his relish for spiritual things, so that his reading of the Word affords him little satisfaction and delight. One who eats and drinks unwisely upsets his stomach, and then the palate no longer finds the choicest food agreeable to him. It is thus spiritually. If the believer be out of communion with God and turns to the world for satisfaction, he loses his appetite for the heavenly manna. Wherefore we are bidden to “lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness and receive with meekness the engrafted word” (James 1:21): there must be this “laying apart” before there can be an appreciative reception of the Word. So again 1 Peter 2:1 shows us that there are certain lusts which have to be mortified if we are to “as new-born babes desire the sincere milk of the Word that ye may grow thereby.” If such exhortations be duly heeded, and the Word of Christ dwells in us richly, then shall we be found “singing with grace in our hearts to the Lord” (Col. 3:16) with an ever-deepening joy in Him.
3. Spiritual growth consists in a greater love for God. When pointing out the various aspects of regeneration (in chapter 6) we quoted Romans 5:5: “the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given unto us.” Contrary to the commentators we do not regard the reference there as being to God’s love for His people, but rather one of the blessed effects or consequences of the same. First, because the scope and unity of the whole context requires such an interpretation. In 5:1-11 the apostle enumerates the sevenfold result of our being justified by faith: we have peace with God (v. 1), we are established in His favor (v. 2), we rejoice in hope (v. 2), we are enabled to benefit from trials (vv. 3, 4), we have a hope that fails not (v. 5), our hearts are drawn out to God (v. 5), we are assured of final preservation (vv. 8-10). Second, the relation of the second half of v. 5 (“because”) to the first leads to the same conclusion: it is our love to God which furnishes evidence that our hope is a valid one. Third, God’s love for us is in Himself, and though manifested unto us could scarcely he said to be “shed abroad in our hearts.” Verse 8 clearly distinguishes His love toward us.
By nature the elect have not one particle of love for God; nay, their very minds are “enmity” against Him (Rum. 8:7). But He does not leave them forever in that fearful state. No, having from eternity set His heart upon them, He has determined to win their hearts unto Himself. And how is that accomplished? By shedding abroad His love in their hearts, which we understand to denote, by communicating from Himself a spiritual principle of love which qualifies and enables them to love Him. Faith is His gift to them (Eph. 2:8), and the evidence of that principle being in them is that they now believe and trust in Him. Hope is also His gift to them (2 Thess 2:16), for prior to regeneration we had “no hope” (Eph. 2:12), and the evidence of that principle being in us is that we have a confident expectation of the future. In like manner, love is also a Divine gift, and the evidence of that principle being in an individual is that he now loves God, loves His Christ, loves His image in His people. Note how in Romans 5 we have the Christian’s faith (v. 1). hope (vv. 4. 5) and love (v. 5)—which are the thee great dynamics and regulators of the Christian life.
This Divine virtue which is communicated to the hearts of all Christians is that which moves their affections to cleave unto God in Christ as their supreme Good, it is designated “the love of God” because He is the Bestower of it, because He is the Object of it, and because He is the Increaser and Perfecter of it. It is first stirred unto action or drawn out to God, then the soul apprehends His love for him, for “we love God because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19), for so long as we feared this wrath we hated Him. This particular grace is the one which most affects the others: if the heart be kept right the head will not go far wrong; but when love cools, every grace languishes. Hence we find the apostle praying for the Ephesian saints that they might be “rooted and grounded in love” (3:17). As the Christian grows he learns to love God not only for what He has done for him but chiefly for what He is in Himself—the infinitely glorious One, the Sun of all perfection. Yet our love for Him is easily chilled—through the heart’s being turned unto other objects. In fact, of all of our graces this one is the most sensitive and delicate and needs the most cherishing and guarding (Matthew 24:12; Rev. 2:5).
The force of what has just been pointed out appears in that exhortation “keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 21). Negatively, that means, avoid everything which would chill and dampen it: careless living soon dulls our sense of God’s love. Eschew whatever would grieve the Spirit or thereby give Him occasion to convict us of our sins and occupy us with our waywardness, instead of taking the things of Christ and showing them unto us (John 16:14). Shun the embraces of the world, keeping yourselves from idols (1 John 5:21). Positively, it signifies: use the appointed means for keeping your affections warm and lively, set on things above. Familiarize yourself with God’s Holy Word, regarding it as a series of letters from your heavenly Father. Cultivate communion with Him by prayer and frequent meditations on His perfections. Keep up a fresh sense of His love for you, sunning your soul in the enjoyment of it. Above all, adhere strictly to the path of obedience. When the Lord Jesus bade us “continue ye in my love” he at once went on to explain how we may do so: “If ye keep my commandments ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (John 15:9, 10; cf. 1 John 5:3).
A deeper and increasing love for God is not to be ascertained so much by our consciousness of the same as by the evidences it produces. There are many who sing and talk about how much they love Christ, but their walk gives the lie to their avowals. On the other hand there are some who bemoan the feebleness of their love and the coldness of their affections whose lives make it manifest that their hearts are true to Him. Feelings are no safe criterion in this matter: it is conduct which is the surest index to it. Moreover it must be borne in mind that the holiest saint who ever walked this earth, who enjoyed the most intimate fellowship with’ the Lord, would be the first to acknowledge and bewail the inadequacy of his affection for Him whose love passeth knowledge. Nevertheless there is such a thing as a growing love for God in Christ, and the same is demonstrated by a stronger bent of soul toward Him, the mind being more stayed upon Him, the heart enjoying more communion with Him and greater delight in Him, and the conscience increasingly exercised in our care to please Him. The more we are spiritually engaged with God’s love for us, the more will our affections to Him be enflamed.
4. Spiritual growth consists of the strengthening and enlarging of our faith. Faith is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8), by which is signified that it is a spiritual principle, grace or virtue which He communicates to the hearts of His elect at their regeneration. And as His “talents” are bestowed upon us to trade with, to profit by and increase, so the principle of faith is given us to use and employ to the glory of God. Its first act is to believe Christ, trust in Him, and as Colossians 2:6 bids us, “As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in Him.” This is a most comprehensive and summarized exhortation, and would require many details in order to furnish a full explanation of it. For example, it might be pointed out that the Christian is called upon to walk humbly, dependently, submissively or obediently; yet all of these are included in faith itself. Faith is a humbling and self-emptying grace, for it is the stretching forth of the beggar’s hand to receive God’s bounty. Faith is an acknowledgment of my own insufficiency and need, a leaning upon One who is mighty to save. Faith is also an act of the will whereby it surrenders to the authority of Christ and receives Him as King to reign over our hearts and lives. Thus, though there is much more in it than this, yet the prime and essential force of Colossians 2:6 is: as ye have become Christians at the first by an act of faith in Christ Jesus the Lord, continue trusting in Him and let your life be regulated by faith—”walk” denotes progress or going forward.
In Hebrews 10:38 we are told “now the just shall live by faith.” A very elementary statement is that, yet one which is turned into a serious error the moment we tamper with or change its pronoun. We are not justified because of our faith, but because of the imputed righteousness of Christ, but that righteousness is not actually reckoned to our account until we believe—instrumentally we are “justified by faith” (Rom. 5:1). Nor are the justified bidden to “live upon their faith,” though many vainly try to do so. No, the believer is to live upon Christ, yet it is only by faith that he can do so. Let us be as simple as possible: I break my fast with food, yet I partake of that food by means of a spoon. I feed myself, yet it is the food and not the spoon I eat. It was said of Esau, “by thy sword shalt thou live” (Gen. 27:40), not on thy sword—he could not eat it. Esau would live on what his sword brought in. The Christian makes a serious blunder when he attempts to live upon the faith he fancies he can find or feel within himself: rather is he to feed upon the Word, and this he does only so far as his faith is operative—as faith lays hold of and appropriates its holy and blessed contents.
“Now the just shall live by faith” (Heb. 10:28) may well be regarded as the text of the sermon which follows immediately in the next chapter, for in Hebrews 11 we are shown at great length and in considerable variety of detail how the Old Testament saints exercised that God-given principle, how they lived by faith, and wrought great wonders by it. Nothing is there said of their courage, zeal, patience, but all their works and triumphs are attributed to faith: the reason for this being that their courage, zeal, and patience were the fruits of faith. As it was with them, so it is with us: we are called to “walk by faith” (2 Cor. 5:7) and the extent to which we do so will determine the measure of success or failure we have in our Christian lives. As the Lord Jesus declared unto the two blind beggars who besought His mercy, “according to your faith be it unto you” (Matthew 9:29) and to the father of the demon-possessed child “all things are possible to him that believeth,” (Mark 9:23). If we are straightened it is not in God but in ourselves, for He ever responds to reliance in and counting upon His intervention. He has expressly promised to honor those who honor Him, and nothing honors Him more than a firm and childlike faith in Him.
“The life which I now live in the flesh,, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Such a testimony from the chief of the apostles shows us the place which faith has in the Christian life. This expression “the faith of the Son of God” signifies that He is the grand Object of faith, the One on whom it is to be exercised—which should help the reader to a better understanding of “the love of God” in Romans 5:5 and our remarks thereon. The Christian) life is essentially a life of faith, and in proportion as his faith is not operative does he fail to live the Christian life. A life of faith consists of faith being engaged with Christ, drawing on him, receiving from Him the supply of every need. The life of faith begins by looking to Christ, trusting in Him, relying wholly upon Him as our righteousness before God, and it is continued by looking to and trusting in Him for everything else. Faith is to look to Christ for wisdom that we may be able to understand all that He has revealed concerning God, concerning ourselves, salvation, and various duties. Faith is to lay hold of His precepts and appropriate His promises. But more especially, faith is to look to Christ for strength to perform His precepts acceptably. As we have no righteousness of our own, so no strength: we are as dependent upon Him for the one as for the other, and each is obtained from Him by faith.
But at this most vital point many of the Lord’s people have been grievously misled. Under the guise of debasing the creature and exalting Divine grace, they have been made to believe that they are quite helpless in this matter: that as God alone is the Imparter of faith, so He alone is the Increaser of it, and that they have to meekly submit to His will as to the measure of faith He bestows or as to what He withholds from them. The consequence is that so far from their faith increasing, they are for the most part left to spend their remaining days on earth in a state full of doubting and fears. And what is still worse, many of them feel no blame or reproach for the feebleness of their faith, but instead, blatantly attribute it to the sovereignty of God. If such people rebuked a godless drunkard for his intemperance, they would be justly shocked were he to reply “God has not given me grace to overcome my thirst”; and yet when they are reproved for their unbelief they virtually charge God with it, by saying that He has not granted them a larger measure of faith. What a wicked slander! What a horrible misuse of the truth of God’s sovereign grace! The blame is theirs, and they should honestly acknowledge it and penitently confess it before Him.
It is perfectly true that God is the Increaser as well as the Giver of faith, but it certainly does not follow from this that we have no responsibility in the matter. The littleness and weakness of my faith is entirely my own fault: due, not to God’s unwillingness to give me more, but to my sinful failure to use what He has already given me! to my not crying earnestly unto Him “Lord, increase our faith” (Luke 17:5), and to my woeful neglect in making a proper use of the means He has appointed for my obtaining an increase of it. When the disciples were filled with terror of the tempest and awoke their Master, crying “carest thou not that we perish” (Mark 4:38), He reproved them for their unbelief, saying “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” (Matthew 8:26): that was far from inculcating the deadly delusion that they had no responsibility concerning the measure and strength of their faith! On another occasion He said to His disciples “O fools and slow of heart to believe” (Luke 24:25), which plainly signified that they were to blame for their lack of faith and were to be admonished for their unbelief.
If I have surrendered myself to the Lordship of Christ and trusted in Him as an all-sufficient Saviour, then Christ is mine, and I may know He is mine upon the infallible authority of God’s Word. Since Christ is mine, then it is both my privilege and duty to obtain an increasing knowledge of and acquaintance with Him through the Scriptures. It is my privilege and duty to “trust in him at all times” (Ps. 62:8), to make known to Him my every need and to count upon Him to graciously supply the same. It is my privilege and duty to make full use of Christ, to live upon Him, to draw from His fulness (John 1:16), to freely avail myself of His sufficiency to meet my every want. It is my privilege and duty to store up His precepts and promises in my memory that the one may direct my conduct and the other support my soul. It is the office of faith to obtain from Him strength for the former and comfort from the latter, expecting Him to make good His word “Ask, and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you (Matthew 7:7). It is my privilege and duty to “mix faith” (Heb. 4:2) with every recorded sentence that fell from his sacred lips, and according as I do so shall I be “nourished up” (1 Tim. 4:6)—my faith will be fed, thrive, and become stronger.
But on the other hand, if I walk by sight, if I constantly take my eyes off their proper Object, and am all the time looking within at my corruptions, I shall go backward and not forward. If I am more concerned about my inward comforts than I am about by outward walk in the pleasing of Christ, in earnestly seeking to follow the example He has left me, then the Holy Spirit will be grieved and will cease taking of the things of Christ and showing them unto me. If I form the habit of attempting to view the promises of God through the darkened and thick lens of my difficulties, instead of looking at my difficulties in the light of God’s promises then defeat rather than victory will inevitably follow. If I turn my eyes from my all-sufficient Saviour and am occupied with the winds and waves of my circumstances, then like Peter of old I shall begin to sink. If I do not make it my daily and diligent business to resist the workings of unbelief in my heart and cry out to Christ for strength to enable me to do so, then faith will surely suffer an eclipse, and the fault will be entirely my own. If I neglect feeding upon “the words of faith and good doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:6), then my faith, will necessarily be weak and languishing.
We say again that the Christian life is a life of faith, and just so far as the believer is not actuated by this spiritual principle does he fail at the most vital point. But let it be said very emphatically that a life of faith is not the mystical and nebulous thing which far too many imagine, but an intensely practical one. Nor is it the monopoly of men like George Muller and those who go forth to preach the gospel in foreign lands without any guaranteed salary or belonging to any human organization, trusting God alone for the supply of their every need; rather is it the birthright and privilege of every child of God. Nor is it a life made up of ecstasies and rapturous experiences, lived up in the clouds: no, it is to be worked out on the common level of everyday life. The man or woman whose conduct is regulated by the Divine precepts and whose heart is sustained by the Divine promises, who performs his or her ordinary duties as unto the Lord, looking to Him for wisdom, strength and patience for the discharge thereof, and who counts upon His blessing on the same, is living a life of faith as truly as the most zealous and self-sacrificing preacher.
It is true we must be on our guard against unwarrantably exalting the means and making them a substitute for the Lord Himself. The doctrine, the precepts and the promises of Scripture are so many windows through which we are to behold God. It is our privilege and duty to look to Him for His blessing upon the means, and since He has appointed the same to count upon Him sanctifying them to us, expecting Him to make them effectual. But we must conclude our remarks upon this point by mentioning some of the evidences of a deepening and increasing faith. It is a proof of a stronger and larger faith: when the soul is more established in the truth; when there is a steadier confidence in God; when we make greater use of the promises; when we are less influenced and affected by what other professing Christians believe, resting our souls alone on a “thus saith the Lord” (1 Cor. 2:5); when we live more out of ourselves and more upon Christ; when many of His unregenerate disciples are turning away from Christ and He says “Will ye also go away?” and we can answer “to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life” (John 6:66-69); when we have become more conscientious and diligent in the performing of our duties, for faith is shown by its works (James 2:8).
5. Spiritual growth consists of advancing in personal piety. This matter would be sadly incomplete if we omitted all reference to progress in practical godliness. As various aspects of this will come before us under the next branch of our subject, there is the less need now to enter into much detail. As the Christian obtains an enlarged spiritual apprehension of God’s perfections, not only is his heart increasingly affected by His wondrous goodness and grace, but he is more and more awed by His high sovereignty and ineffable holiness, so that he has a deeper reverence for Him and His fear a larger sphere in his heart, ever exerting a more potent influence in his approaches to Him and on his deportment and conduct. In like manner, as the Christian becomes better acquainted with the person, offices, and work of Christ, he obtains not only a fuller realization of how much he owes to Him and what he has in Him, but he is made more and more conscious of what is due unto Him and what becomes one who is a follower of the Lord of glory. The better he realizes that he is “not his own, but bought with a price,” the more will he resolve and endeavor to glorify God in Christ “in his body and in his spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19, 20), longing more ardently for the time when he will be able to do so without let or hindrance.