Assurance of growth in grace
From Religious Cases of Conscience (1755), by Samuel Pike and Samuel Hayward, ministers at London, England.
How may a Christian know that he grows in grace?
It is a question of some peculiar weight that I have before me. The resolution of it has a tendency to remove the Christian's fears, help him in examining his soul, and to stir him up to a holy diligence and watchfulness in his spiritual course, that he may not be trifling and slothful, but be pressing on towards the mark, and so be making some progress in his way to Zion. And here I shall,
I. Make a few observations, that may be necessary to clear this important point. And, II. Mention a few instances, wherein it will appear, that the Christian, notwithstanding all the opposition he meets with, really grows in grace.
I. I would make a few observations, that may be necessary to clear this important point. And, 1. Growth in grace is in general imperceptible to the Christian himself. It is, for the most part, part of a very gradual nature; like a plant which grows insensibly; or like a babe, which becomes stronger and taller, till at length he has all the proportions of a man: and yet you see not how this is done. You find in time an alteration, but you cannot perceive the steps by which he approaches nearer and nearer to manhood. Thus it is with the Christian. He is first a babe, being weak in knowledge and grace; then he is a young man and after that a father.* These bespeak great improvement; and yet this is in general so gradual, that the Christian is insensible of it. He is at first a plant; but afterwards may be compared to a tree, and so goes on oftentimes, till at length he becomes a tall cedar in Lebanon; and yet the steps by which he ascends to this height in stature are chiefly imperceptible.
2. Sometimes growth in grace is more quick and visible. God does great work in little time. Some Christians make great improvements, and come soon to a state of manhood. They ripen apace for a better world, and make great advances in the divine life. When God is as dew to their souls, they revive as the corn, grow as the vine, shoot forth their branches, and make a green and flourishing appearance. When the sun of righteousness arises upon them with healing under his wings, they go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall, Mal. 4:2. As the sun in his return from the winter solstice by his warmth nourishes frozen nature, and makes it look green and beautiful; so when the sun of righteousness, after some long time of withdrawment, comes to shine again upon the soul, he feels the warmth of his reviving beams, and finds a glorious and sudden alteration. He is then like calves of the stall, which are fitting for slaughter, and therefore make much quicker improvements than those that are in the open field: the Christian, like them, grows fat, and makes very visible advances in holiness. When God fills the pool of ordinances with his heavenly rain, we are sensible of it, feel the refreshment, and go from strength to strength.
3. We may, upon the whole, have made some progress in the Christian life, though for the present we may appear to be going backward. Some corruption may for the present harass our souls, and have led us aside. We may by some neglect or other have grieved the Holy Spirit, and he may have left us for a time, and so we may appear to be in a declining and withering condition, though upon the whole, we may have made some progress in grace, and may have got some cubits added to our spiritual stature, since we gave up ourselves to Christ. A child may have some indisposition, which may prevent his growth for a time; yet he may have got much strength, when compared with what he was at first. David lay asleep some time, and gave no evidences then of any growth in grace; yet doubtless he had made advances in a conformity to God, though now a corruption leads him into captivity. From all this then we learn, that we must not compare ourselves with yesterday, if we would know whether we have got any more steps in our way to heaven. It might be much better with us yesterday than today, as to the frame of our souls, and yet we may in general have got some ground. If we would know our growth, we must look back to the time, when we first gave up ourselves to the Redeemer, if we can remember it, and compare ourselves now with ourselves then.
4. We may grow in one respect, though we may not in all. A tree in winter may appear to be dead; but it is indeed alive, and is gathering strength, though it is not beautiful with blossoms, or loaded with fruit. Thus the Christian has his winter seasons, yet he is making some progress. In adversity, when under afflictive dispensations, the buffetings of Satan, under spiritual darkness and discouragements, he may grow, though his faith may not be so strong, his affections so lively, and his soul so comfortable as he could wish. Some dispensations may be more suited to bring one grace into exercise than another. If any grace is strengthened, and we are got in any measure nearer to Christ, we are then growing Christians. Some form to themselves marks and evidences of growth in grace, and if they come not up to that standard, they conclude that they are going backward; whereas, if we grow in one respect, we ought to be thankful, though we do not see that we grow in all.
5. We are not to judge of our spiritual growth, by the growth of others. Some with whom we are acquainted have perhaps made great advances in grace. They have great knowledge, can reason solidly about the gospel: their zeal is lively, their faith is strong, their hearts appear warm, and they seem to have much communion with God. Because we find not the same gifts and measures of grace in ourselves, but perhaps a coldness, a sad indifferency, etc., we are ready to conclude that we have no grace, especially that we are far from being growing Christians, not considering that there are different degrees in different persons. Nay, we do not consider that these have their corruptions, their inward struggles, their dead seasons, as well as others. Because we are not all Pauls, must we therefore say that we are not Christians at all? Because we do not find the same degrees of love ordinances as David did, must we say that we have none at all? These would be strange and very unfair conclusions. Thus, these things being observed, I now come,
II. To show when the Christian may be said to grow in grace. Amongst other things, I would mention these following: as,
1. Growth in grace discovers itself in an increase of spiritual light and knowledge. To see more of sin is (as we have observed under another case) a real sign that the work is carrying on. It was by the light of the Spirit alone, that we first saw the wickedness of our hearts, and a loathsomeness in sin; and it is by this light that our views of it grow clearer and more distinct. When the commandment came, the boasting Pharisee saw himself a sinner, Rom. 7:9. To see more and more of ourselves tends to bring us into a more evangelical frame, and so to make us appear more like the followers of Christ. As we see more of ourselves, so, as the work is carrying on in us, we see more of Jesus Christ, the greatness and amiableness of his person, the virtue of his sacrifice, the triumphs of his cross, and the importance of his intercession. Upon the whole, when we see more vileness in ourselves, and more beauty in Christ, more of our own emptiness and of his fullness, more of our own weakness and of his strength, more of the insufficiency of our own righteousness to justify us before God and of the glory of his, and, in a word, more of our wretchedness and nakedness and of his suitableness and excellency, we may be said to grow in grace.
2. When we are enabled to go more out of ourselves, and depend more upon Christ, we may be said to grow in grace. The young Christian is ready to place too much dependence upon his frames. If in duties his affections are not sweetly raised, he is ready to conclude such duties to be lost. When he finds a dullness, a contraction, a straitness in his frame, he fears that he has no experience of the grace of God. He is too ready to depend upon his resolutions. When led aside by any corruption, he resolves against it, and goes too much in his own strength. Under spiritual darkness, or afflictive dispensations, he gives too much way to discouragement, and often refuses to be comforted. If then we are enabled to lay a less stress upon frames, and look more to Christ, leaving our souls with him; if we are more sensible of our weakness, and depend more upon the strength of the great Redeemer; if, when Satan buffets, and God afflicts, we are enabled to leave ourselves with Christ, pleading his righteousness, and waiting for his salvation; if under a deeper sense of our emptiness we go to Christ's fullness, cleave to and trust in him, resolving, that if we perish, to perish at his feet, it is a sign that we are growing in grace.
3. We are making some advances, when we find a true relish for duties, and grow more spiritual in them. Young Christians have generally more fire than solidarity. They are, says Dr. Goodwin, like new musical instruments, they have more varnish than old ones, but they give not so sweet a sound. Their zeal and affection often carry them beyond their duty. They are ready to think that they must pray so often, spend so much time in duties, or they cannot be Christians. But, as they grow in grace, they find a relish for duty, see its great importance, and attend to it in its proper place. They grow more settled and solid. They have juster conceptions of God. Their obedience flows more from love. Their services are more evangelical. They attend to duty more in its proper season, and give every duty its just weight. When indeed we find a growing coldness to duty, an indifference, carelessness and negligence, we have reason to fear a decline: but when we have a true relish for duties, and are more spiritual in them, it is a sign we are making progress in holiness.
4. We make advances in grace, when we are more humble, submissive and thankful. An humble frame is that which the whole gospel is calculated to bring us into, and which the Spirit by all his works in us promotes. The more we are sunk in our own apprehensions then, the lower we lie, the more detestable we appear, and the more we show of the Christian. The growing Christian has more of an humble submission to the dispensations of providence. When afflictions first come upon us, we are like bullocks unaccustomed to the yoke; our proud rebellious hearts are ready to rise against God; but, as we make advances, we are brought to justify God, and to acquiesce in all his proceedings. "Lord, this proud heart would fain rebel; but, oh, take thine own way with me. Wherefore should a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins? I would be dumb, not opening my mouth against any part of thy conduct, but cheerfully giving up myself and my all to thy disposal, saying, Choose my inheritance for me." As the Christian grows, he is brought into a more thankful and admiring frame. He admires the riches of grace, and this is more and more his language: "Lord, why me? Why was my name enrolled in the book of life? Why didst thou call, renew and sanctify me? Am I an heir of God? Will heaven be my inheritance? Oh, the grace, the infinite grace and compassion of God!" etc. This is the very frame of the saints in heaven. Who more humble than they are, who more thankful? They are ever adoring divine grace, placing the crown upon their Redeemer's head, and giving God all the glory, Rev. 5:9-13. The more therefore we are brought into this frame, the greater progress we are making in the Christian life.
5. We grow in grace, when we find our corruptions weaker, and the power of sin more and more subdued in us. There was a time, Christian, when thy poor, silly, foolish heart was ready to fall in with every temptation; when thy corruptions were strong, and often leading thee into captivity. But hast thou by divine grace got a greater freedom from them? Hast thou been enabled to mourn over them, pray against them, and to bring them to the cross of Christ, and get them mortified and slain? Do pride, passion, envy, discontent and carnality not reign as much as usual? Art thou then more upon thy guard, and dost thou find thy soul more at liberty than before? This is a sign of growth in grace.
Finally, when we find less of an earthly, and more of a heavenly disposition, we may be said to grow in grace. When our esteem for this world is sinking, our attachment to it weaker; when our affections are often withdrawn from it, and we find greater desires to converse with God, and to look above; when heaven grows more pleasing and familiar, and we, something like the inhabitants above, are filled with a warmer zeal for God, and desire to honor him by a more active and lively obedience; when we find a growing concern to be dead to present things, and to have a greater love to Jesus, a stronger faith in him, and an increasing conformity to him, we may comfortably conclude that we grow in grace. I would conclude this subject by a reflection or two. And,
1. How awful is their case, who are absolute strangers to the grace of God! To be conformed to God is the greatest happiness of a creature. What can render us more amiable, than to have the divine image in us; what can more contribute to our real felicity? It is heaven to be like Christ, I John 3:2. It is absolutely necessary to our communion with him on earth, to our full enjoyment of him above. You then, who are strangers to the new creature, have no degree of fitness for a better world. What would heaven be to you, but a tiresome place? Could you exult in God as your highest happiness? Could you join the church triumphant in cheerful, unwearied and everlasting ascriptions of praise to God and to the Lamb? Sit but down, and seriously consider this, and thou must soon be convinced that thy hopes of happiness are absolutely vain, inasmuch as thou art under the power of sin, hast no relish for spiritual services and consequently no real fitness for heaven. Let me beseech thee to consider thy present dangerous and awful condition; and oh, seek to be a Christian indeed, that thou mayest not be pleasing thyself with expectations of salvation, and at last meet with a disappointment. This has been the case with many. They thought themselves rich, and increased with goods, when they were poor, and miserable, and blind, and naked. They rejected every admonition, turned off every exhortation from themselves, and would not believe the awful truth, that they were children of wrath, and dead in trespasses and sins; but cried peace, peace, till sudden and everlasting destruction came upon them, and it was too late to seek for grace, and look for mercy. This, deplorable as it is, will be thy condition, O graceless soul, if death should come upon thee, whilst thou are persuading thyself that all is well. Let me beseech thee, therefore, to consider the things that belong to thy peace, before they are ever hid from thine eyes. To be summoned before the tribunal of God, there to be weighed, and pronounced too light; to hear the awful word, depart; to see the bottomless pit opening, and no way of escape, no deliverer near; but to see the now compassionate Jesus, then refusing to stretch forth his arm to help thee, to hear him crying, "Thou infatuated creature, thou are ruined forever; I once called, but thou didst refuse; I once stretched out my hand, but thou didst not regard it; I now will laugh at thy calamity, and mock now thy fear cometh upon thee; thou mayest now call, but I will not answer; thou mayest seek me earnestly, but thou shalt not find me." O think, think, I entreat thee, of this melancholy and distressing scene; and let a consideration of it engage thee to look into thy heart, and to seek with the utmost diligence after an experience of the grace of God to fit thee for the enjoyments above, and after an interest in the righteousness of Christ, to give thee a title to them. Give God no rest; but earnestly beg, that he would send his Spirit to make everything new in thy heart, proclaim liberty to thy captive soul, lead thee to the feet of thy almighty Redeemer, and prepare thee for the enjoyment of him.
2. We see what should be our great concern as Christians. Not to be grasping after honor, riches, and the emoluments of earth and time; not to gratify our appetites in the pleasures of sense, but to be pursuing the glory of God, and the prosperity of our souls. Is this, Christian, what thou hast in daily view? Whilst thou art attending to the affairs of thy family, art thou not neglecting thy soul? Dost thou ever inquire whether that is starving or flourishing? Is it thy greatest care to grow in grace? Art thou watchful therefore against every sin, much in prayer, frequent in meditation and self-examination; and art thou looking to Christ daily for all suitable supplies, to enable thee to make advances? Is it matter of humiliation, that thou findest so much of the body of sin within thee, such coldness to duties, such degrees of ignorance, so much carnality, spiritual pride? etc. Dost thou mourn before the Lord, that there is so little of a divine temper, of thy Redeemer's image, in thee? Dost thou breathe after holiness, pray earnestly for the Spirit of sanctification to cleanse thy heart, and add some cubits to thy spiritual stature? To live a natural life only, is not to live: it is only to breathe. Ye slothful Christians, awake, and consider: your character, your happiness, your usefulness, all call upon you to seek after progress in grace. Oh, may this be your motto, For me to live is Christ! Seek after more of Christ with you, and in you. Be not contented to be always babes, but be thirsting after an increase of strength, of knowledge, of faith, of love, of every grace, that it may be evident to all that you are not only Christians indeed, but that your souls are in a healthy and prosperous condition, and that it is your greatest delight to be growing in holiness and usefulness.
3. If we have any reason to hope that we are growing in grace, we should ascribe all the glory to God. He is the author and finisher of faith, Heb. 12:2. The same grace, that said unto us live, continues this life. The same power, that brought us first to God, must still be exerted, or else we shall soon return to folly. It is not enough for grace to be implanted; the Spirit must help us to bring it into exercise. Has any corruption been subdued, any cubit added to thy stature? It is God who has done it. The smoking flax would soon be quenched, and the bruised reed entirely broke, if God was not to stand by thee, and help thee. Thy salvation is all of grace. Grace chose thee from eternity, grace called thee in time; grace sanctifies thee, and carries thee on from strength to strength; and at last the same free grace will finish the work, and bring thee into the immediate presence of God. No wonder then, the saints will forever sing, grace, grace. May we learn the song here, and walk under a deep sense of unmerited grace, till we come to that world, where we shall put the crown upon our Redeemer's head, and ascribe unwearied and everlasting praises to him that sitteth upon the throne, and the Lamb.
4. How glorious must heaven be, where the work, which God begins and carries on here, will be perfect! The end of ordinances is, "for the perfecting of the saints, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ," Eph. 4:11, etc. We are at best but babes here, when compared with what we shall be. We are now under age, and have our inheritance in prospect, not in possession. Here we are fatigued with numberless conflicts and struggles with sin and Satan. Now and then we get a victory, but again we are overcome. We make but slow progress in our way. It is difficult to get near to God, and to grow into his likeness. "But see, my soul, heaven is before thee: heaven, where all thy corruptions will be perfectly destroyed, and thou wilt have no more enemies to contend with, no more victories to gain, no more struggles with thy own heart, but the conquest will be fully thine, and the top-stone will be laid in thy salvation. See, heaven is just at hand; where the new creature will be perfect, and appear in all its beautiful and just proportions; where thy understanding will be freed from all the remains of darkness, thy will be in sweet and everlasting subjection to God, and that heart glow and burn with the purest flame of divine love. O happy hour! desirable period! when I shall put off the body of sin, and start into perfection in a moment; when I shall no longer see through a glass darkly, but face to face; when I shall no longer be a babe in Christ, but a perfect man." Awake, ye saints, lift up your heads, for your redemption draweth nigh. Get upon Mount Pisgah, and view the heavenly land, where your weary souls will be at everlasting rest, and all your longings will be eternally satisfied with the most perfect and exalted enjoyments.
* The apostle John addresses Christians according to their rank and standing in religion. He writes to babes, or to those who are young Christians, and therefore weak in faith and understanding; to young men, or to such as were stronger, more vigorous and lively, and therefore fit to encounter with difficulties; and to fathers, or to those of age and experience in Christianity, in all which he alludes to the different stages of the natural life, from one to the other of which there is a gradual ascent, I John 2:12-14, 18.