Christian Progress

John Angell James, 1853


The description of the people for whose benefit this work is intended, and to whom it is addressed

"If there be one word," says a writer in one of the ablest of our evangelical periodicals, "which more than another now commands the ear of the British public, that word is—'PROGRESS.' It has fallen like a spark among the inflammable mass of the working and thinking classes. This mighty watchword of the newest and most potential eras has run through the mighty chain of hearts and minds with electric intensity." This is true of science, of literature, of arts, of commerce, of law, and of politics. It would be strange if religion, considered as a practical system, could be justly exempted from this law of progress. We are to expect no new revelations, and cannot look for any new doctrines to be brought out of the old ones. That these Christian doctrines however have yet to develop themselves still more clearly; that new treasures are to be brought out of this inexhaustible mine, and a new power to be exerted by this mighty instrument for the world's regeneration—who can doubt?

It is not, however, of the progress of theological science, as it is found in the systems of divines, and as it shall clear away the clouds and mists which hang over men's minds, and hide the glory of the great luminary of the world, that I now write; but of the progress of truth in the individual mind, and heart, and character; of that blessed growth in spiritual life which is to be the supreme object of everyone who has passed through a state of religious solicitude; and which carries forward the soul of "the Anxious Inquirer" to the condition of the established believer.

This work takes it for granted that the reader has decided, in his own opinion at any rate, in the great business of religion, to look for salvation by faith in Christ alone. It is not my design now to urge him to surrender at the foot of the cross to God. I consider this as done. He has also become the professor of the faith he has exercised. His difficulties have been removed, his mistakes rectified, and seeing his only way of salvation to be by trust in Christ, he is now to be led forward in the ways of the Lord.

It is the confession and lamentation of the horticulturist that many of the most promising and beautiful blossoms of his trees do not result in fruit—and that many which do, never ripen to maturity. Precisely similar cases occur to the spiritual husbandmen in the garden of the Lord. Where is the faithful minister of Jesus Christ who has not often in sadness and disappointment, to adopt the language, and to sympathize in the feeling of surprise, grief, and disappointment, of the Apostle Paul, where he said, "I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain. My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you, I desire to be present with you now, and to change my voice; for I stand in doubt of you. You did run well; who hindered you, that you should not obey the truth?"—Gal. 4:11, 19, 20; 5:7. How often, when through God's grace, as we fondly hoped—we had led the penitent to the cross, directed the eye of faith to the Lamb of God, assisted him in the exercise of "a good hope," and left him in possession of a quiet consciousness of the great change—have we seen him leave his "first love," and instead of advancing into a fuller development of Christian character, relinquishing the solicitude he once possessed, and sinking into a state of lukewarm indifference!

Of the multitudes who are confirmed in the Church of England, after the greatest pains have been taken, even by the most spiritual and devoted clergymen, to prepare them for that rite, how many are there who disappoint their hopes! They had given to them much sound instruction. They had explained to them the nature of spiritual religion as distinguished from that which is ceremonial, and laid open to them the only ground of a sinner's hope of acceptance with God in the atonement of Christ. They had read the Scriptures to them and explained their contents. They had prayed with them and for them; and as the result of all this, had seen their pupils brought to concern, to conviction, to profession. They have welcomed them to the table of the Lord and rejoiced over them for a while with great joy as the fruit of their ministry, and the rich and blessed reward of their labors. Alas, the delight was premature, for all this goodness was "as the morning cloud and early dew which passes away."

Similar disappointments attend the ministers of Christ of other denominations. By their godly labors, religious concern is awakened in the minds of some of their hearers. Conviction of sin by the law is produced, and the great question with its accompanying solicitude is awakened, "What shall I do to be saved?" The anxious inquirer is instructed in the way of salvation. He professes to understand and receive "the truth as it is in Jesus." His solicitude subsides into peace. He becomes a professor of religion; is received into the fellowship of the church; and considers himself, and is considered by others, a Christian. It might be expected that he would now grow in grace—that he would be continually advancing in the divine life; that his attainments would be always increasing; that progression would be the law of his new existence. But is not the contrary to this, the case with many of those who make a profession? Do they look like learners in the school of Christ who are making great proficiency in divine knowledge? On the contrary, does it not appear too evident that in many cases, the young disciple instead of remaining the anxious believer and progressive Christian, has subsided into the careless professor? As if their solicitude was to make a profession, not to maintain it; to be called a Christian, rather than be one; to enjoy church privileges, rather than to feel individual obligations.

It might seem strange that when a false profession is so awfully denounced, and the Lord's table guarded as if by the flaming sword of a cherub in that woe pronounced by the apostle upon the unworthy receiver, anyone should be so rash and reckless as to expose his soul to the perilous stroke of that fearful weapon. Yet many do, by partaking in an unfit state of mind of the sacred supper.

It will perhaps be asked, Why do the ministers of religion permit it? We reply, Can they search the heart? Can they discern between the sincere and the self-deceived communicant? Is not a credible profession a sufficient warrant to any minister to admit a person to the communion?

In an age like ours, when evangelical religion bears no stigma, and its professors are called to endure no persecution, it is natural to suppose that some, yes many, will say, "Lord, Lord"—who do not obey the will of our Father in heaven. Many there are who sufficiently feel the obligation to make a profession of religion—who have no just sense of what it includes and requires. The persuasion of friends, and their own wish to be associated with them, may also lead to this; and thus the conscience is appeased, a sense of religious decorum indulged, and godly relatives pleased—while at the same time, there is no adequate idea of the obligation which the assumption of the Christian name involves.

With many people there seems to be a radical mistake as to the true nature of the Christian life. It is regarded too much in the light of a mere profession rather than a practice—a state, rather than a habit—a fixed point, rather than a continuous line—a resting place, rather than a field of labor—the goal, rather than the starting point. A profession has been looked forward to with great concern, as a something which is to fix and determine the character—to give a religious status—to secure certain blessings. The mind in prospect is perhaps somewhat serious, agitated, and solicitous. The table of the Lord is approached, and perhaps with some solemnity and self-surrender. And it is now regarded as a thing done. The Christian character is formed. The mind is at ease. The inward consciousness is, "I am a professor."

In too many cases, solicitude is from that hour at an end. Instead of a trembling concern to be all that they profess—to do all that is required of them—to develop all that is contained in the Christian character—to supply all the defects in knowledge, faith, and holiness, which might be supposed to exist in one so young in religion—to demonstrate to all around the reality, by the growth, of their piety—they settle down at ease upon their profession, and in many cases are never more in earnest, and in not a few, less so than when they first began to seek the Lord.

But without supposing such extreme cases as these of self-satisfaction in the first stages of religion; there are others of a somewhat more hopeful character, but which still require the cautions, directions, and admonitions of such a work as this. And to put these more clearly before the reader, I may observe there are four successive states of mind in reference to religion—

1. absolute indifference;

2. concern, attended by conviction of sin;

3. faith in Christ, bringing relief to the burdened and troubled conscience;

4. the work of faith in its continuous influence on the Christian life and character.

I am supposing now the case of one who has reached the third stage. His indifference has given place to solicitude, his solicitude has obtained relief by faith. The young disciple has discovered, to his delight, the way of pardon, peace, and eternal life, through the atonement of Christ. There he is, lying down in peace at the foot of the cross. The oppressive burden of his guilt is lost. The tormenting fear which it produced has been cast out by love. He is now ready to say—

Sweet the moments, rich in blessing,
Which before the cross I spend,
Life, and health, and peace possessing,
From the sinner's dying Friend.

"Here I'll sit, with transport viewing
Mercy's streams, in streams of blood,
Precious drops my soul bedewing,
Plead and claim my peace with God."

All this is well, good, happy—but it is not enough! Even he, this relieved soul, is but too apt to forget that he has "not yet attained, and is not yet perfect." Even he is but too apt to consider that the great transition from a state of nature to a state of grace; that the mighty bound from impenitence to conversion; that the wondrous translation from the power of darkness to the kingdom of God's dear Son—is, if not all that is required, yet all that need make him concerned. He is so taken up with his justification through faith, and the peace with God which it brings with it, that his sanctification is too little thought of. He is ready to say of Calvary what Peter did of Tabor, "It is good to be here," not considering how much yet remains to be done.

It is indeed a blessed thing to be pardoned—who can deny it? To look up and see the brow of Deity not clothed with a frown, but radiant with a smile—to see the heavens all serene and cloudless, and to feel the bright beams of mercy diffusing warmth as well as light over the conscience. "Oh, the blessedness of the man whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sin is covered, to whom the Lord imputes not iniquity." But this is not the whole of religion—nor the end of it—nor the highest glory of it. There is the purpose for which this very pardon is granted to be accomplished. There is all the subsequent work of grace, of which this is only the commencement, to be carried on and completed.

O, you blessed penitent—you relieved anxious inquirer—you rejoicing young believer—I would not dash the cup of consolation from your lips, nor drop into it wormwood and gall. I would not affirm your joy is premature. On the contrary, I would say, "Rejoice in the Lord! Rejoice in the Lord always!" "The joy of the Lord is your strength." "Go on your way rejoicing." Yes, but then, Go on. Carry your joy with you, even joy and peace in believing. But still I say, Go on. Onwards! Onwards, is the Christian's watchword. How blessed a night was it to the Children of Israel when they celebrated the paschal feast on the eve of their flight from the house of bondage. Yes, but they were to eat it with their swords in their hands, and with other emblems of progress. How jubilant were their feelings when they found themselves safe on the farther shore of the Red Sea. Yes, but there they were not to linger, but must move onwards. All the length of the wilderness stretched between them and the promised land. Privations were to be endured; enemies to be encountered; difficulties to be surmounted; and dangers to be escaped before they could set their foot on Canaan!

So is it with the Christian; his conversion is but his flight from Egypt; and amid all the joy of his first faith and first love, he must be reminded of the journey through the wilderness, and be prepared to make it.

The journey is in fact to the latter what it was to the former—the great test of character. Of all those six hundred thousand who started so joyfully from Egypt only two crossed the Jordan. All the rest found graves in the wilderness. Of those who now seem so hopefully to set out for heaven, and make a good profession before many witnesses, how many are satisfied with merely beginning well. In them the Christian character is never developed. They make no progress. Not going forward, they turn backwards. Instead of progress it is retrogression with them. They are like evergreens transplanted in the spring, which for a while look as vigorous and fresh as the other shrubs all around them; but they send out no shoots, though retaining for a while their verdure. The gardener as he looks upon the plant has his fears, and shakes his head; until as the season advances, the signs of decay are but too apparent, and the leafless skeleton proclaims the work of death. So is it with some who make a profession of religion in youth.

The design of this volume, then, will now be clearly seen, and the people for whom it is intended be correctly understood. It is a sequel to "The Anxious Inquirer after Salvation directed and encouraged," and takes up the Christian pilgrim where that leaves him, and offers to guide him onward in his perilous and eventful course. To change the illustration from the flight of Israel out of Egypt—to that of Lot from Sodom, and to connect it with the former work above alluded to, I might say that if the intent and effect of that little work, in every case where it is successful, is to pluck the sinner from the condemnation of the law, and thus to perform the office of the angel who brought the patriarch out of the city doomed to destruction; the purpose of this is to say to the rescued fugitive, "Escape for your life—look not behind you, neither stay in all the plain—escape to the mountain lest you be consumed!"


Before you proceed to read another page, pause, ponder, and examine. Solemnly, as in the presence of God; seriously, as taking up the most momentous subject in the universe; honestly, as wishing to know your real state, ask yourself the question, "Am I stopping in a mere profession? Have not I hastily taken up the Christian name without duly considering what it is to be a Christian? What strictness and earnestness it implies; what obligations it imposes; what duties it requires; and what progressive improvements it demands? Have I really studied the Word of God to obtain a correct idea of the nature of religion? Of its holiness, spirituality, heavenliness? Do I understand it to be a growing fitness for, and a steady advance towards celestial glory? Have I not concluded I am a Christian too hastily? Or, have I not settled down into a state of carelessness, while I ought to be still in a state of anxiety and effort? Or, supposing I have experienced a change, have I not taken up the idea that religion is a 'fixed state' rather than a progress?"

Reader, put these questions to yourself. Be honest. Wish, long, be intensely anxious, to be right. Tremble to your very soul's center at the idea of self-deception on so momentous an affair. Before you read another chapter, put down the volume, fall upon your knees and agonize in prayer, that the perusal may be blessed to your soul. Take the book with you into your closet. Read it in your most serious hours, in your greatest privacy, and in the most solemn manner. I would recommend these and some such other directions for its perusal as are found in "The Anxious Inquirer."

In books for spiritual edification much depends upon the manner in which they are read. If taken up carelessly and read in a light mood, or in the company of others, they are likely to do little good. The attention will not be fixed, nor the heart engaged, nor the conscience awakened. You must be somewhere alone with God; where you can have leisure and opportunity to commune with your own heart and with him; where you can pause, reflect, and pray, unobserved by a single fellow-creature; where you can stop, examine, meditate, and it may be, weep.

You must read this work, if you would get any good from it, in some such serious manner as this. I have been very serious in writing it. It has lain with great weight upon my spirit, and has been the subject of much earnest prayer to God. I have seen much of the evils it is intended to remove, and felt much of the need of some such work. And as every page has been written more or less in the spirit and exercise of prayer—so I feel anxious that every page should be read in the spirit of prayer. Offer, therefore, some such supplication as this–

"Father of mercies and God of all grace, since you have put it into the heart of your servant to write this little work for my edification, grant me, through Jesus Christ, my only Mediator and Advocate, the teaching and help of your Holy Spirit, that I may derive spiritual advantage from the perusal of it. Rouse my too dull and flagging soul to consider the importance of the subject. I give you sincere and hearty thanks that you have awakened in me a deep concern about salvation, and enabled me to look for the mercy of God, through Jesus Christ, unto eternal life. But as the work of grace is only just begun in me, I earnestly pray that I may be deeply impressed with the indispensable need of progressive improvement. Make me desirous to grow in grace and may this book, through your blessing, greatly conduce to that end. Help me to fix my attention upon what I read; to understand what I attend to; to treasure up what I understand in my memory; and to practice what I remember, so that I may have cause to bless You that ever this work came into my hand. Thus, while I am thankful for the instrument, yours shall be the glory, through our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen."