Growth In Grace
Adapted From a Sermon by John Angell James
But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. 2 Peter 3:18
The word grace, which occurs well over 100 times in the pages of the Holy Scriptures, is one of its key terms. And a right understanding of it is central to a right understanding of the whole volume. It stands for favor, free and unmerited. "by grace (or favor) you have been saved," Eph. 2:8 says Paul to the Ephesians. This is the primitive, prevailing, generic sense of the word, and is its meaning in such passages also as the following, and many others:
To the Romans in chapter 11, Paul writes: “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” (Rom 11:5-6)
And to Titus: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” (Titus 2:11)
But as in the ordinary use of language we sometimes call the effect by the name of the cause, the word grace is often used in this way.
For example take the word ‘generosity.’ It stands for the willingness to give. But in the sentence, ‘His generosity covered what we owed’, the term refers to a sum of money, which is the effect of a persons generosity, and not generosity itself. We could say instead: “The sum he donated covered what we owed.” In the first sentence, the effect, the donation of a sum of money, is referred to by the name of the cause, generosity: ‘His generosity covered what we owed’
And so the word grace is often applied in Scripture to several things which are the consequences and operations of Divine favor; in this way the aids of the Holy Spirit are called grace, as in that passage in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, "My grace is sufficient for you," 2 Cor. 12:9; (also 1 Cor. 15:9, 10) The help of the Holy Spirit is sufficient for you.
In our passage this morning, it has a meaning somewhat different from either of these, yet related to them, and stands for holiness, as the fruit and effect of God's grace—and the exhortation to grow in grace is a beautiful, all-inclusive, and instructive way of saying, grow in holiness; advance in piety. And there is certainly also a sense in which a believer may grow in the favor of God itself, as well as in its effects. It is said of Christ in his youth, that "Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man," Luke 2:52.
God, in his love, delights in his people on a twofold account; first, because of the work of his Son, which is rests on them for justification—and secondly, because of their spiritual graces, inasmuch as these are the work of his Holy Spirit; and therefore the more he sees of this work in them, the more he must love them. On account of their relation as children, he loves them all equally; but as regards their spiritual condition, he loves them in proportion to their degrees of conformity to himself. Therefore they may grow in his favor continually, that is, one person may have more in him, than another, that God loves, and that same person may have more in himself, at one time than another, that God approves. But since this supposes, as its ground, a growth in holiness, which is the object of Divine delight, it brings us to that view of growth in grace, which is the meaning of the passage, and our subject this morning—that is advancement in piety.
As we consider the text, several general principles must be kept in mind:
1. First, true religion in the soul is the work of God—it is the operation of God himself as the one who really does the work, no matter by who or what it may be carried out in practice. It is all due to the grace of God in us.
2. Second, all God's dealings with men, in regard to salvation and its benefits, are the result of pure favor. Man, as a sinner, merits nothing, and can merit nothing—it is grace that reigns throughout his whole salvation.
3. Next, in sanctification, God's favor shines as brightly as in justification. God's grace is as rich and free in delivering us from the power of sin—as from its punishment. God as effectually blesses us, and as truly loves us in the work of his Spirit, as in the work of his Son.
4. In the fourth place, sanctification is a progressive work. Growth necessarily implies progress. We cannot be more justified at one time than another, for there are no degrees in justification; but we can be more sanctified at one time than another, for there is such a thing as degrees in sanctification.
5. Lastly, inasmuch as every operation of God's grace is designed to bless us, sanctification is as much a Christian's happiness as justification, since it is no less an effect of Divine grace. Consequently, to grow in holiness is to grow in happiness.
Keeping these principles in mind, let us come to some exhortations, and encouragements to grow in grace. This implies, of course, that you have grace, for without this you cannot grow. Regeneration is the very first step in sanctification, sanctification is the progress of regeneration. Regeneration is the birth of the child of God, sanctification is his growth. Without life there can be no growth. Stones do not grow, for they have no life; and the heart of man before regeneration is compared to a stone.
Are you convinced you are born again of the Spirit? That the heart of stone is changed into warm, vital flesh? It is to be feared that the reason why so many professors never grow, is because they have no spiritual life. Consider this solemn warning: If you do not grow, you may question if you are born again, whether you are anything more than the picture or statue of a child.
Perhaps some will ask what are the signs of growth. In answer, growth may be considered either as general, in reference to the whole work of grace in the soul, or to some particular part of it. If we consider the general case, it can be seen by a general improvement of the whole religious character; an increasing, obvious, and conscious development of the principle and power of spiritual vitality in all its appropriate functions and operations; an increase in the vigor and purity of religious affections, so that the heart is really more intensely engaged in piety; the inward life is more concentrated, sprightly, and energetic—so that the Christian has more of youthful energy in the service of God, and is driven by a more intense and practical ardor.
In this state of general growth in grace, faith becomes more simple, unhesitating, and confiding; less staggered by difficulties, less clouded by doubts and fears, and more able to disentangle itself on its way to the cross—from self-righteousness, and dependence on current feelings and emotions.
Love to God, though it may contain less of glowing emotion, has more of fixed principle; and is more prompt, resolute, and self-denying in obedience.
Joy in believing, if it has not so much occasional transports of lofty emotion, has more of habitual, calm, and peaceful rest.
Resignation to the will of God is more absolute, and we can bear with less unrest and agitation of mind—the crossing of our will, and the disappointment of our hopes.
Patience and meekness towards our fellow creatures and fellow Christians become more conspicuous and controlled. At first, the believer can scarcely cross over a shallow of troubles—but now he can swim in a sea of them; formerly he was oppressed by the lightest injury—now he can bear a heavy load; once he could scarcely endure the unintentional offences of his friends—now he can forgive and pray for his enemies.
An increase of humility is a sure and necessary sign of spiritual growth. At first we were ready to think many worse than ourselves—now we are as ready to think all better than ourselves. Then we saw some of our defects, and they appeared small—now we see many, and they are strikingly magnified. Then we knew little but the sins of the 'conduct'—but now the corruptions of the 'heart' are continually abasing us. He who is growing in humility is growing indeed; for the growth of grace is as much downward at the root, as upwards in the spreading and towering branches. "Other virtues aspire upwards—but humility looks downwards. We say of the others, the higher they grow the better—but humility is best at the lowest. Faith and hope have a holy ambition, they look not lower than heaven, nothing can content them but an immortal crown; but humility pleases herself with abasement, and you will find her with Job in the dust, in that school of morality. Yet even there she grows, and that in the favor of God—the deeper she roots, the higher she sprouts."
Zeal increases with everything else, and he who grows in grace, advances in love to God's service, being more constant in attendance upon God's house, advancing from pleasure on Lord’s-day ordinances—to delight in weekday ones; and from regular private prayer—to habitual spontaneous prayer.
The beauty and purity of external holiness advance in proportion to internal spirituality and heavenly-mindedness; and the profession becomes more and more free from the spots of even God's children.
Conscience, instead of becoming more clouded in its vision, sees clearer and clearer to discern the evil of even little sins—and a greater sensitivity of taste to loathe them.
Generosity becomes more abounding, and covetousness is mortified by a longer acquaintance with the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Love, that heavenly virtue, without which the greatest gifts are but as a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal, (1 Cor 13:1) bears not only a richer crop of blossoms—but of good ripe fruits. From loving a few, and those of our own party, we go on to the spirit of the apostle, and say, "Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible." (Eph 6:24) Those who are outgrowing the prejudices of party and of ignorance, and are rising higher and higher in the strength and stature of love, give, perhaps, the fullest proof of all, of growth in grace.
This is general growth in grace; for grace in one word comprehends all others—it is the genus of which all Christian virtues are the species. Faith is grace; penitence is grace; love is grace and so are patience, humility, and zeal—so that when we are called to grow in grace, we are not restricted to any particular disposition—but enjoined to practice them all.
But there is also a particular growth in grace, or a growth in some particular branch of a Christian duty, to which we must now turn our attention, as an important and central matter—and that is our advance in those things in which we are more than ordinarily deficient.
Almost all people have, in addition to their other sins, some one sin which may be called their besetting sin, or some neglect which may be called their prevailing deficiency. Now the putting to death of these sins, and the supply of these defects, should be considered as our special aim, object, and duty; and nothing can more decisively mark our improvement in religion than the putting away of these habitual corruptions, and the taking up of these neglected branches of Christian obligation. And it is to be feared that many who use this phrase, not only in conversation but even in prayer, and who suppose that they are sincere and earnest in asking to grow in grace, are at the same time making no effort to put to death their besetting sin; and while holding some vague and indefinite notions about spiritual advancement, forget that, in their case, to grow, means to put away that one sin especially.
If a person is by nature covetous, or passionate, or proud—to grow in grace is to become liberal, meek, and humble. If they have neglected family prayer, or week-day services of religion, or the right discharge of any social duty, or private prayer—to grow in grace means, in their case, to correct this defect. And perhaps we can better determine whether we are growing, by inquiring into the state of our souls with regard to these besetting sins or defects, than by examining the wide range of the whole Christian character.
In going round the whole circle of duty we are apt to become confused, and we arrive therefore at no definite conclusion—but in concentrating our attention upon one point, we can better determine whether or not we are making progress. If we are growing in this one point, we are in all probability growing in others; and, on the other hand, it is this general growth that aids us in the particular one, just as the cure of one specific disease in the body is aided by the improvement of the general health, and the cure of the specific disease reacts on the general health.
We move on now to consider the means of growth.
And here it important that we should consider a too prevailing mistake, that is the idea that as growth is carried on by the influence of the Holy Spirit, it is a matter of pure sovereignty on God's part to grant it—and of privilege on ours to enjoy it. God's Spirit is indeed necessary—but he has promised to grant the Spirit in answer to believing prayer; and if we do not have him, it is because we do not ask, or else we ask wrongly. It is, therefore, our duty to grow, as well as our privilege. It is in fact a sinner's duty to live, and of course it is a believer's duty to grow. The promise of the Spirit is not to be thought of as starting point of our obligation—but only as providing the effective means of carrying it out.
There are some methods which God uses, besides those which we ourselves are to use, which we ought to pause and consider. Sometimes he afflicts his people—severely and variously afflicts them—and what for? To promote their growth in grace. "Every branch in me," says the Savior, "that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit," John 15:2. It is delightful assurance to the sorrowing disciple, and also instructive and edifying, to be told that affliction is only a pruning-knife to cause the vine to grow the better, and to be more fruitful. Afflicted Christian, are you, then, growing in grace in your sorrows? If not, you are losing the very end of them.
Having heard what God does, now hear what you are to do for your spiritual growth.
In speaking of the means which you are to make use of, we will consider the subject by a figurative, though, hopefully, not too fanciful image. Taking up the very common simile by which a Christian is set forth in the word of God, that is as a fruit-bearing tree, we will see what is essential to the growth and fruitfulness of such a plant.
i) It must be planted in a good and favourable soil.
This is your privilege, for you are planted in the courts of the Lord's house, in the church of the living God, and this, like a rich and fruitful soil, contains all advantages and helps for growth—here are public ordinances, and returning sacraments, which we should constantly, devoutly, and anxiously attend—here is the communion of saints, which the more we cultivate, the more we will be strengthened—here is doctrine to instruct, pastoral oversight to guard, and discipline to correct. Value and improve your church privileges, then, if you would advance in piety.
ii) The growth and fruitfulness of a tree depend much upon proper nutriment being supplied to the roots,
And so does the growth of the Christian; and that which nourishes the root of his piety is the word of God, daily read, correctly understood, warmly believed, spiritually meditated upon, and judiciously applied. The apostle, when setting forth the growth of grace by another metaphor, says, "Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow," 1 Pet. 2:2. Good books alone will not do; hearing sermons alone will not do; we must have the pure word. The reason why the trees in the garden of the Lord do not grow to greater height, stature, and fruitfulness, is because the soul is not sufficiently fed by knowledge—these two are united in the precept—"Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ;" we are to grow in grace and in knowledge, which means by knowledge.
iii) A tree requires pruning if it grow and flourish;
And so does our soul. We must put sin to death. Grace cannot grow in a heart where corruptions are allowed to sprout profusely. Could a grape-vine flourish and bear fruit, if all kinds of parasitic weeds were allowed to spring up and entwine around its branches? Impossible! Just as impossible is it for piety to advance, if the corruptions of the heart are permitted to reign unopposed. It is heart-sins we ought to particularly consider; sins of temper and disposition, pride, envy, jealousy, malice, revenge, impurity; sins of distrust, rebellion, unbelief, discontent; too many of which are often found in the hearts of professors. Vain and hypocritical are all prayers and wishes for growth in grace, if we do not diligently apply ourselves to the crucifixion of the flesh, with its affections and lusts. And we must also clip the wild growths of our earthly affections.
iv) If a delicate and tender tree is to flourish, it must enjoy the watchful care of the gardener.
We must feel concerned for its growth, often examine it, and remove from it whatever would hinder it from thriving. It must be protected from injury by damage from man and beast; devouring insects must be removed; and all harmful things must be kept off and put away. Nothing is so delicate and tender as grace in the soul of man. It is a heavenly exotic plant, and exposed to numberless poisonous influences, and requires therefore the most anxious and ceaseless vigilance of its possessor. No duty is more frequently enjoined in Scripture than watchfulness; none is more needed. The increase of piety must be matter of deep and trembling care.
v) The light and warmth of the sun are essential to the growth of vegetable life, and those trees flourish most which are placed most fully in its beams.
And is not Christ the brightness of our spiritual day, the Sun of righteousness, whose radiance is necessary to our growth? Place yourself, then, in the warm, bright splendor of his beams, by the contemplation of his glory, and meditation upon his love. Grace grows best near the cross. Let your religion be full of Christ. Dwell upon his Divine glory as God; his perfect holiness as man, and as our example; his mediatorial office and work as Prophet, Priest, and King. Daily come to him by faith. Yield your heart to his constraining love. Feel him to be precious as he is, to those who believe. Search for him in the Scriptures. Look for him in ordinances. Make him the Alpha and Omega of your thoughts. The more your minds are conversant with Christ, the more your piety will increase, for he is the sun that ripens our graces.
vi) Nor can vegetable life be preserved without moisture.
Running streams, and fruitful showers, and the morning dew, are essential and necessary. In allusion to which God has promised the dew of his grace, the pouring out of his Spirit, as the early and the late rain. It is only as the Spirit of God helps us by his influence that we will grow—but this influence will be granted to any extent we desire and ask for in believing prayer. The promise of the Spirit is not to make us lazy—but diligent; give yourselves then to prayer, and let the burden of your prayers be for more grace. "Prayer," says an old author, "is a key to open the gate of heaven, and let grace out—and prayer is a lock to fasten our hearts, and keep grace in." In vain do we expect those gifts of grace for which we do not beg.
And now, as we come to a close, let us pause to examine yourselves. Are you advancing in the Divine life? Is it your desire, your constant and earnest desire to grow, or are you contented to be as you are? Do you feel it to be more and more a matter of serious concern, and are you even afraid of being no holier than you are? Do you hunger and thirst more than you did after righteousness? Do you take more notice of God in everything than you did, in providential dispensations, and in the means of grace?
Is your religion more vigorous at the root, and more abundant in its fruits? Do you grow, not only more tenderly conscientious in little things—but more universally conscientious in all things? Is piety, while more retiring for private meditation, more prominent in its public influence; does it follow you more and more out of private mediation, into your houses, shops, and relationships? Does it dwell with you more at home, and journey with you more constantly from home? "Does it buy and sell for you, and has it the casting vote in all you do?"
Are you more punctual, lively, serious, and happy in ordinances? Do you abound more than you did in the most self-denying duties of religion? Are you more resolute in the putting to death of sin, more ready and patient in bearing your cross? Is your conscience more quick to discern sin, and more easily wounded by it? Do you find your sorrows more to arise from your sins, and less from your trials, than you did? Do you find the spirit of love gradually supplanting the spirit of fear? Are you more zealous, generous, and public spirited than you were? Test yourself by these things. Here are signs of growth, clear, decisive, unmistakable.
Do you need motives? How many are at hand. Since growth is the law of life, what strong proof can you have of life without growth? Growth is both your duty and your privilege. Think of the advantages you by growth. Consider how long some of you have been planted. Remember what God expects from all his culture. See how much others have outgrown you. Recollect how soon growing time will be over; and how exactly the degrees of glory in heaven will be proportioned to the degrees of grace on earth.
Do not be deceived in this matter of life and death; do not be satisfied with much talk about religion, and little practice. It is no good sign for a tree when all the sap runs up into the leaves, and is spent that way; nor in a Christian, when all his grace is thrown off in words. What are leaves to the fruit? Rather give us fruit on a low shrub, than a tree that can reach the clouds, with nothing but leaves.
The lofty tallness of some trees with a glorious flourish of leaves is pleasant to the eye; but the good fruit of the lower plants is more acceptable to the taste. The eminence of some notoriously zealous professors may make them much admired; but the good fruits of mercy in men, silent, and less notable, makes them more beloved. The former may grow in applause—but the latter grow in grace—and this growth, O Lord, give me and those here present this morning.