Christian Progress

John Angell James, 1853

MISTAKES Concerning Christian Progress

Suppose a man were on a journey which was of considerable importance to all his temporal interests, on which it was every way desirable he should be going forward with all convenient speed. Imagine also that through some ignorance of the country, or through his lack of acquaintance with his rate of speed, he should conclude that he was advancing towards his destined point, while at the same time, though in constant activity, he was making no progress—but only wandering about in bye-lanes and crossroads, and still remaining near the spot from whence he started. In such a case, he might lose the end and purpose of his journey.

Now, there is something like this in the course of some people in regard to religion. They are in motion—but not in progress! The mistakes on this subject are very numerous, and require great pains in those who have to teach, to point them out; and also attention on the part of all who have any solicitude about their spiritual welfare, in order to be acquainted with them. The temptations of the father of lies, aided by the deceitfulness of the human heart, originate many very injurious errors concerning our spiritual condition, and lull us into a state of complacency, where we ought to be deeply solicitous and somewhat alarmed.

A. I will first enumerate and correct some mistakes of those who think they are making progress in godliness, but in reality are standing still, or declining.

1. It is not an infrequent case for people to conclude they are advancing, because they are not, in their own view of their case, actually receding. They do not see any outward and visible signs of backsliding. They have fallen into no grievous sin, and have brought no blot upon their character, nor discredit upon their profession. They are not conscious of any known departure from the way of rectitude, and have not fallen from their steadfastness. Their usual round of duties is performed, and they have not subjected themselves, by any part of their conduct—to rebuke or censure. All this may be so, and yet there may be no progress. Is it enough to stand still on our path? Would it satisfy the man on the journey just alluded to, if he could merely say, "I am not going backwards?" Would this prove he was advancing? It may be said, and we have already said it, that in one sense not to advance is to recede. But were it not so, surely to stand still is not to go forward. Have you more knowledge, more holiness, more love, more spirituality, than you had? Is your growth at all perceptible, though it be in ever so small a degree?

Do not compare yourselves with some who are rapidly going back, and imagine that in relation to them you are going forward, while you are standing still. Have you ever, when traveling in a steam carriage, while your own railway train was stopping at the station, and another was passing slowly in a contrary direction, imagined that it was you that were in progress? So is it in this case. You may be quite at rest, while, compared with others going back, you seem to be in motion forwards.

2. Some estimate progress by the TIME they have been in motion. Suppose a person unacquainted with the rate of speed of a ship at sea, and not understanding the influence of contrary winds, and the process of getting slowly on by tacking, were to calculate thus, "We have been so many hours or days at sea, and we must therefore be so far on our voyage." Suppose the man on the above journey to have fallen asleep, or loitered away his time—and then, taking out his watch, were to calculate that because he has left home so many hours, he must be getting on very well. Is there nothing like this in some professing Christians? It is so many months or years since they took up their religious profession. They have been all this while regular attendants at public worship, and communicants at the Lord's Supper. They have heard already innumerable sermons, and read many good books. They have outlived the novelties of a religious life, and the ways of God are now familiar to them. How can it be doubted, they say, that they who have been so long on the road, are advancing?

Ah, this is just calculating spiritual progress by time, rather than by distance. Be it known to you, that a professed Christian may be long, very long, in standing; yes, and after all, it is but standing without going. A dead stick, however long it may be in the ground, will not grow. Sign-posts stand for ages, and measure distances for travelers—but never advance an inch. Do not conclude, then, that because your conversion is supposed to have taken place long since, that, therefore, your sanctification must be far advanced. It is a pitiable sound, and argues an imbecile mind, as well as a diminutive body, to hear a poor dwarfed cripple say, "I must be growing for I am ten years old." Everybody else sees that the poor child's stature never increases an inch!

Let the Christian not think of the years he has professed—but the actual attainments he has made. The length of his profession ought to be attended by an advance in all that constitutes vital godliness, proportionate to the advantages he has enjoyed, and the time he has had them; but alas, alas, how rarely is this the case? In the orchard or vineyard, young trees may be growing when they bear no fruit, and a stranger may be ready to say they make no progress—but the skilled gardener says, "Give them time and they will grow fruit." And when they do bear fruit, it is in proportion to their age. In the garden of the Lord young plants ought to bear some fruit immediately, and the fruits of righteousness should be also in proportion to their age. But is it so? How many whose eye shall read these pages will blush, if they have any holy shame, to compare the date of their planting in the courts of the Lord, and the fruit they produce!

3. There may be an increase of theoretic KNOWLEDGE, and of ability to talk with fluency upon the subjects of religion, and to defend the truth against gainsayers—without any corresponding advance in spiritual feeling and holy conduct. There is a great deal of very interesting matter in the Bible, apart from its spiritual and vital power as God's instrument of sanctification. Its history, its poetry, its sublimity, its chronology, its eloquence, its prophecies, its pathos—all may become subjects of study, and even of delightful study—without faith in its doctrines, or obedience to its precepts. Thousands and thousands of volumes have been written on religion by men whose hearts were never under its power. Some of the noblest productions of theology have issued from the pens of those to whom, it is to be feared, it was all mere theory. Like brilliant lamps, they lighted others on their way to heaven—but never moved themselves! Or to raise still higher the metaphor, they were like lighthouses, which directed ships on their course—but were stationary themselves!

In more private life, and less important attainments, how many have made themselves acquainted with the theory of divine truth, as taught in books, sermons, articles, creeds and catechisms, so as to be able to explain the orthodox system of doctrine, and to argue for it—whose hearts have never been sanctified by the truth! And even where it may be hoped the great change has been wrought, and a start made for salvation and eternal life, there may be a growth in 'knowledge' without a proportionate growth in 'grace'. Many young people are now happily engaged in Sunday-school teaching, the distribution of religious tracts, and various other operations of religious zeal—which give them of necessity a growing acquaintance with the system of religious truth. They can talk with more fluency and correctness on divine things. History, doctrine, and precept, are all more familiar to them, and at the same time their thoughts are more drawn to the subject of 'religion generally' as the matter of their teaching. Hence, there may seem to be to themselves, a perceptible progress. And so there is—in theory. But if at the same time there is no advance in holiness, Christian charity, conscientiousness, self-denial, and humility—these signs of advance may be, and are—all deceptive. Their knowledge has been collected, not as the materials of personal sanctity—but of activity. Such acquisitions may be only the "knowledge which puffs up," but not "the love that edifies."

There are people whose acquaintance with Scripture is surprising, and yet who, though they could quote most aptly from nearly all parts of the Bible, give too convincing proof that their knowledge is of the letter only, and not of the spirit. I knew a person who was so intimately acquainted with the Scriptures, that if you gave him any chapter or verse in most of the books of either the Old or New Testaments, he would immediately repeat the words—and yet he was altogether an unconverted man! And I was acquainted with another who was so fond of the study of prophecy that he became more conversant with the predictions of the books of Daniel and of the Apocalypse than anyone I ever knew—yet he was at the same time, entirely a man of the world.

Yet there are many who regard this increasing acquaintance with the text of the Bible, as an evidence of growth in grace. While, therefore, we would urge every young convert to make a longer and larger acquaintance with the Word of God, assuring them that there can be no growth in grace without some advance in knowledge, and that the more knowledge of it they have the more they are prepared to be useful, happy, and holy—provided they couple with it other things. Yet that at the same time there may be large increase of Biblical knowledge, without any growth in grace. Ask yourselves then the solemn question, and ask it solemnly too—whether in proportion as you store your minds with biblical texts and biblical ideas, you all the while are seeking to have your heart filled with biblical feelings, and your life with biblical actions? Is your advancing light attended with increasing warmth? As you grow in acquaintance with the character of God—do you reverence him more? As your ideas brighten on the person of Christ—do you love him more? As you become more acquainted with the perfection and spirituality of God's Word—do you delight in it more and more after the inward man? As you see more clearly the evil of sin—do you hate it with a more intense hatred? As your Biblical knowledge widens—do you become more profoundly humble, more tenderly conscientious, more gentle, more spiritual? Unless this be the case you are in a fatal mistake by supposing you are making progress in the divine life, merely because you are advancing in biblical knowledge.

4. In some people there is a growing knowledge of their CORRUPTIONS, and perhaps, an increase of lamentation over them, unattended by any disposition or effort to mortify them—and yet this growing light into the depravity of their nature, and this real vexation, for so it may be called, rather than godly sorrow, leads to no proportionate mortification of sin. There can be little doubt that many do know more and more of the plague of their own hearts, and are made continually more sorrowful by it, who content themselves with venting their unavailing regrets, and make no progress in removing the evils they deplore, and yet conclude that this growing self-knowledge is an evidence of growing piety. So it would be if it were followed up by 'amendment of life'. "Godly sorrow works repentance," that is reformation. And that sorrow is not godly sorrow, however pungent it may be, and however miserable it may make the man—which does not produce reformation. Many a holy Christian is made more and more holy with less of misery on account of sin, just because his grief, whether greater or less, leads to amendment; than he who, whatever may be his mortification of feeling, does not carry it on to a mortification of sin.

What would we say of a housewife who made herself continually miserable about the disorder and uncleanness of her house—but who took no pains to rectify the confusion and to cleanse the filth? It is to be greatly feared that very many professors of religion satisfy themselves with being made unhappy by the knowledge and experience of their sins. They are loud in their lamentations, ample in their confessions, and seemingly profound in their humiliations. But there the matter ends. They who heard their self-abasing acknowledgments yesterday—see them no better today. They are like some chronic invalids, whose diseases arise, in great measure, from their own self-indulgence , who are ever complaining of their ailments, and ever lamenting, as well as continuing, their harmful habits—but who will never exercise that self-denial which is the only way to restoration, and who yet imagine it is a sign of growing attention to their health, because there is an increasing disposition to lament their sickness and to confess their imprudence.

5. A very common error is to mistake a growth of SECTARIANISM, for an increase of grace. Perhaps there is no delusion more common than this. Ecclesiastical polity and sacramental observances, as matters of divine revelation, are both of some importance; yet it is perfectly clear, from the testimony of Scripture, that they are of less consequence in the divine life, than faith, hope, and love. "The kingdom of God is not food and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit." Rom. 14:17. "In Jesus Christ neither circumcision avails anything, nor uncircumcision; but faith which works by love." Gal. 5:6. If these passages mean anything, they teach us the entire subordination of what is ceremonial—to what is spiritual. To see a person more interested in, and more zealous for, some ritual observance, than the cultivation of charity—attaching more importance, both as matter of experience and controversy, to baptism and the external form of the church, than to the doctrines of justification, regeneration, and sanctification—marks a state of mind very different from that which is inculcated by the precepts, and manifested in the conduct, of the sacred writers. The great object of the apostles was to cherish in their converts the spirit of faith and the practice of holiness. Yet we very often see a different line of conduct, both in the teachers and professors of religion in the present day, by many of whom an extraordinary zeal is manifested for either established or unestablished churches, as the case might be; and for a more elaborate or a more simple ceremonial, while little concern is felt or expressed to inculcate "the fruits of the Spirit, which are love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance." Gal. 5:22.

We not infrequently see young professors, when their first concern about religion is over, taking up with the ardor of eager novices these secondary matters, and becoming zealots for supporting, defending and propagating them. This is sometimes especially apparent in those who have lately transferred themselves from one section of the universal church to another. Proselytes, as if to prove the sincerity of their conviction, and reconcile themselves to their new party, usually, in supporting their novel opinions, excel in zeal those by whom these notions have been long held. A change of this kind has, in some cases, effected a complete transformation of character, and they who were before all torpor, are now all activity and energy; not, indeed, for the great fundamental truths on which all Christians agree—but for those minor matters on which they differ. Churchmen, that as such were dull and lethargic, have, on becoming dissenters, been all life and energy, not so much for faith, love, and holiness—but for nonconformity. While on the other hand dissenters, who, while such, were supine and inert, on entering the established church, have become the zealous advocates and propagators of perhaps even high-church principles.

Let not people of this description mistake such sectarianism for advancement in the divine life. This holy vitality has reference rather to the principles on which all are agreed, than to those minor matters on which they differ. A mighty furor for religious forms, or a most impassioned zeal for religious establishments, may comport with very little vital godliness; yes, the former may go far to enfeeble the latter. Instead therefore of such a state of mind indicating progress, it manifests a retrogression. The man has become more of a dissenter or churchman—but perhaps less of a spiritual, humble, and simple-minded Christian. It is the human element in their religion, not the divine, that has strengthened; the shell that has thickened, not the kernel that has enlarged. There has been motion—but it is a lateral one from the straight line, not a progress in the right direction. It is a going backwards—from primary to secondary matters. A disfiguring growth has swelled upon the tree—but the tree itself has been hindered and not helped in its advance.

6. Much the same remark will apply to a growing attachment to some particular PREACHER, which is not always of itself a proof of progress in true religion. We are allowed our preference even in this matter—for though it is the message rather than the messenger—the truth rather than the preacher—that is to be the ground of our attachment, yet it cannot in the nature of things be otherwise than that we should prefer one minister to another. He may have been the instrument of our conversion, or the means of our establishment in the faith. Or, independently of these matters, he may more clearly explain, and more powerfully enforce God's truth. Or even without this, his natural abilities with equal orthodoxy and piety may be more to our taste; and on all these grounds preference, within certain limits, is allowed.

But nothing in a young convert requires greater care and effort to keep down excess, than 'ministerial attachment', lest it should degenerate into exclusiveness and spiritual idolatry. This is a danger into which multitudes run. They make this 'pulpit favorite' not only the standard of all excellence—but its monopolist. They think basely of everyone else. They can hear, at or any rate relish, no other. When he preaches elsewhere they follow him—or if they cannot do this, they make up their mind not to profit by his substitute. This actually grows upon them until he is everything, and all other ministers nothing. Now this very attachment is by some supposed to be a proof of progress; especially in the case of those who formerly cared nothing about this minister, or any other. They now feel pleasure in hearing him—but then it is confined to him, and this preference, instead of leading them to love him for the sake of the truth he preaches, leads them rather to love the truth for the sake of the preacher.

If with their preference for him, they united a delight in hearing all who preach the same truths; and his preaching had formed in them a taste for evangelical doctrines, instead of for one man who preached them, this would be a blessed result, and one that would prove advance in true religion. Perhaps there are few evidences more conclusive of progress than such a state of mind as is described in the following reflections, "At my first setting out in the ways of religion, I felt a preference for my minister so strong, that I could hear with pleasure no other. I was disappointed and discontented if I saw anyone else in the pulpit, and thought the sermon scarcely worth listening to. I now see it was more an attachment to the preacher himself than to his message. True, I was pleased with his doctrine—but still more with his manner of setting it forth. As my knowledge of divine truth increased, and I became more and more in love with this, I found my delight more and more drawn off from the preacher to his doctrine. Until now, with my preference for him above all others still remaining, I am so much taken up with the truth as it is in Jesus, and feel so much more the importance of the matter than the manner, that I can hear anyone with pleasure who, with tolerable ability, explains and enforces the glorious gospel of the blessed God. It is the man who opens most clearly to my judgment the truth of God's word, and enforces it most powerfully upon my heart and conscience, and carries on my growth in knowledge, peace, and holiness—that is the preacher I love most." There is no mistake here.

7. Somewhat analogous to this, some mistake a growing delight in some particular DOCTRINE, or some particular parts, aspects, and subjects of the Bible, for progress in the divine life. "All Scripture," to quote this passage again, "is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works." But all Scripture is not equally adapted to foster the strength and promote the health of the soul. Now it is clear to anyone who will attentively study the New Testament, that the truth by which we are to be sanctified—the doctrine which is according to godliness—the "perfection," which is distinguished from first principles—is the mediatorial character and work of Christ. This seems to be plain from our Lord's words, "I assure you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life within you. But those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them at the last day. For my flesh is the true food, and my blood is the true drink. John 6:53-55. This is a most momentous passage, and deserves the very serious attention of all, and especially of young converts.

It is of vast consequence, in bodily nutrition, to know what is the most nourishing food, and what will sustain the strength and increase the stature of the body. Can it be less so in the nutrition of the soul? Here then, by Him who came to give life—by the great Physician of the soul—we are told upon what food the growing Christian must live. In these words our Lord did not, could not, mean to be understood literally. By his flesh and blood, he meant his body offered up in sacrifice, and his blood shed as an atonement for sin; and by eating his flesh and drinking his blood, he intended nourishing the divine life by the knowledge, the faith, the contemplation, of his atoning death as it is set forth in the Scriptures. The study of everything that stands connected with the atoning death of Christ, whether it be in the types of the ceremonial law, the predictions of the prophets, the narratives of the Gospels, the doctrines of the epistles, or the sublime visions of the Apocalypse—this is the food of the soul—the manna from heaven—the bread of life. This is "food indeed," and "drink indeed." Whoever with hungry appetite feeds upon this will grow—and whoever neglects this will become lean and weak.

Now there is a proneness in some to neglect this, and endeavor to support their spiritual strength by something else. It is not the study of the Biblical history, or chronology, or historical facts, or beautiful poetry, or pathetic narratives, or sublime compositions of the Bible—that will best sustain our strength—and yet some are thus attempting it. They see many beauties in the Bible to which they were formerly blind. They are enamored with the sublimities, for instance, of the book of Job or Isaiah. They admire the wondrous wisdom of the book of Proverbs. They luxuriate amid the pathos of the history of Joseph, or the morality of the Sermon upon the Mount. Their attachment to those parts of revelation is rather growing than declining, and in proper measure all this is highly commendable. Such books as Gilfillan's "Bards of the Bible," and Kitto's "Daily Readings," should be read, and cannot be read without admiration, and exquisite delight, and valuable information. And many do read them with these feelings, and hence they imagine they are progressing in true religion, although they have little relish, perhaps, for the doctrines of the Gospel—the mediation of Christ—the salvation into which the prophets inquired diligently, and into which the angels desired to look. They do not feed on the flesh and blood of the great Sacrifice.

8. There may be a mistake made, by the mortification of some ONE SIN while others are left unsubdued. It is so far an advance if one enemy of our soul, from right motives and by right means, be destroyed. And in the work of spiritual improvement it is wise and well, instead of losing our time and wasting our energies in mere general and unsystematic mortification, to select occasionally some one sin to begin with in the way of more direct and concentrated attack—and no doubt the crucifixion of that corruption—the cutting off of that right hand, or the plucking out of that right eye, is a gain in sanctification—a step in advance and a means of gaining other victories.

But what I am anxious to guard you against is, the supposition that because some one evil to which you may be more strongly tempted is abandoned; or some practice which may militate against your health, or interest, or comfort, is given up—that you are progressing in godliness. Sin may be discontinued for various reasons. A drunkard may give up his inebriety, not because it is sinful—but hurtful. Another may discontinue some fraudulent practice, not because it is forbidden by God—but is disgraceful in the estimation of man. A young professor may give up some ensnaring worldly amusements, not because be is afraid of their influence upon his spiritual welfare—but because they make too great inroads upon his purse. It is not therefore the abstract abandonment of a sin—but the motive which leads to it, which is a proof of the work of grace. "How shall I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?" This sentiment must lie as the motive at the base of all mortification of sin. And then moreover, the destruction of any one sin must be viewed and carried on as a part of the purpose and the act for the destruction of all sin.

B. I now proceed to enumerate and to correct some mistakes of a contrary nature to those just considered. I mean such as are committed by those who are making progress, and yet are somewhat anxious and distressed under supposition that they are not; and even fearing that they are declining.

The cases are perhaps not numerous of people deeply concerned about salvation, really earnest in true religion, and yet harassed with the apprehension that they are at a standstill, or even going back. There is a sincere desire to advance in holiness, and to increase in spirituality; and they are even diligent in the use of means to accomplish that end. In reference to them, I do not hesitate to say that their very state of mind is itself an evidence of progression. This solicitude is itself advancement. The very desire of improvement, the will to go on, the longing after greater attainment, is progress. It is itself an impulse—a forgetting the things that are behind, and a reaching forward unto those things that are before. There cannot be a more convincing proof of halting or retrograding, than complacency in ourselves. While on the other hand, a growing disposition to find fault with ourselves, and humble ourselves, and really improve ourselves, is one of the brightest indications of our going forward, provided there is all diligence in the use of the means of self-improvement.

1. Some are fearful that they are not making progress because their feelings are not so vividly excited in religious matters as they formerly were. They are not easily and powerfully wrought upon either in the way of joy and sorrow, hope and fear, as they once were. They have not those lively and ecstatic states of mind which they formerly experienced when they began the divine life.

Here we must just glance at the constitution of our nature. True religion exerts its influence over all the faculties of the soul—it calls into exercise the understanding, engages the determination of the will, moves the affections, and quickens the conscience. The same differences of natural constitution will be observable in some degree in the new or spiritual nature as existed in the old or physical one. A person of great sensibility in ordinary things, will, after conversion, be so in spiritual ones; while they of little emotion in the former will exhibit the same phase of mind in the latter. The sensibility or emotional state of the mind depends very much therefore on our physical organization. Now it is a very wrong criterion of the reality and degree of our true religion to judge of it only by the exercise of the affections. Some people of excitable natures are easily moved to joy and sorrow, hope and fear. The power of poetry or eloquence, of sights of distress or raptures—over their feelings is irresistible; while at the same time their judgments are not proportionately employed, their wills not in the same measure engaged, and their conscience but little moved. Take, for instance, the sentimental readers of novels, how by fits they are melted to tears, or excited to ecstasies. Yet how idle and unemployed are all the other faculties of the soul. There is no virtue in all this. It is mere sentimental emotion. Now look at the philanthropist. He may not be a man of tears, or of strong and vivid emotions of any kind—but he is a man of principle. His understanding comprehends the circumstances of some case of deep distress, and he judges it is right to pity and relieve it. His heart, though not wrought up to extreme anguish, so as to fill his eyes with tears, and his mouth with loud lamentations, feels for the miserable object; his will resolutely determines at once to help the sufferer; and his conscience, which would condemn him if he did not, approves the determination. You will particularly notice what constituted the virtue of the good man; not wholly the emotional excitement, for there was very little—but the dictates of the judgment, the determination of the will, and the action which was performed under these conjoint powers.

So it is in true religion, which consists partly of the exercise of all the faculties—but chiefly of the judgment, will, and conscience. The heart is of course, engaged, for we must love God and hate sin—we must delight in Christ and fear the wrath to come; but the amount of vivid emotion is of little consequence, compared with an enlightened judgment, showing us clearly what is right and wrong; a determined will to avoid the evil and perform the good; and a tender conscience shrinking from the least sin. Emotion is, to a certain extent, instinctive, involuntary, and irrepressible. Not so with judgment, will, and conscience. It is not, therefore, the amount of feeling—but of willing and doing, and approving or condemning, that determines the state of true religion.

There is such a thing I know—and, alas, it is a very common one—as losing "first love," and it is marked by our Lord with his disapprobation in his address to the church at Ephesus; but many distress themselves on this account who have no need to do so. Their ardor perhaps, at first was in some measure the excitement of animal feeling, which will soon die away of course, though their real practical love may not be diminished—but may be growing stronger. When a son returns home after a long absence, especially if he be a reclaimed prodigal, and meets his parents, brothers, and sisters, there is a glow of feeling, a joyousness of emotion, which cannot be expected to continue always, and which he may never be able to recall again, though he may be ever growing in real attachment to his friends and his home.

From all this it will be seen that the emotional part of true godliness may be, and is by many, overestimated. The question is not merely what we can feel—but what we can do, for Christ; not how many tears we can shed—but how many sins we can mortify; not what raptures we can experience—but what self-denial we can practice; not what happy frames we can enjoy—but what holy duties we can perform; not simply how much we can luxuriate at sermon or at sacrament—but how much we can exhibit of the mind of Jesus in our communion with our fellow-men; not only how far above earth we can rise to the bliss of heaven—but how much of the love and purity of heaven we can bring down to earth—in short, not how much of rapt feeling we can indulge—but how much of godly principle we can bring to bear on our whole conduct.

It is evident, therefore, there may be progress where there is a fear that there has been declension. The vividness of feeling may have subsided—but if the firmness of principle has been strengthened, it is only like the decadence of the blossom when the fruit has set. The joy might not be so great—but it may be more intelligent, more solid, and more sober. Just as the exuberant delight of the child, when it passes off, leaves the pleasure of the youth less noisy—but more rational. The frames and feelings may be less rapturous—but they may at the same time be less idolized, less depended upon, less put in the place of Christ. The growing Christian is less pleased with self—but sees more of the glory of the Savior—his own righteousness appears more imperfect and defiled, and is therefore less loved—but the righteousness of the Savior comes out before him more beautiful, glorious, and necessary.

2. Distress is sometimes felt in consequence of mistaking a clearer view and deeper sense of depravity, for an actual increase of sin. This is by no means an uncommon case. The young Christian seems sometimes to himself to be growing worse, when in fact it is only that he sees more clearly what in fact he really is. In the early stages of true religion we have usually but a slender acquaintance with the evil of our sin or the depravity of our heart. The mind is so much taken up with pardon and eternal life, and even, indeed, with the transition from death to life, that it is but imperfectly acquainted with those depths of deceit and wickedness which lie hidden in itself. And the young convert is almost surprised to hear older and more experienced Christians talk of the corruptions of their nature. It is almost one of the first things one would suppose they would feel, yet it is one of the last they effectually learn, that true religion is a constant conflict in man's heart—between sin and holiness.

At first they seem to feel as if the serpent were killed—but they soon find that he was only asleep—for by the warmth of some fiery temptation, he is revived and hisses at them again, so as to require renewed blows for his destruction. Nothing astonishes an inexperienced believer more than the discoveries he is continually making of the evils of his heart. Corruptions which he never dreamt to be in him, are brought out by some new circumstances into which he is brought. It is like turning up the soil, which brings out worms and insects that did not appear upon the surface. Or to vary the illustration, his increasing knowledge of God's holy nature, of the perfect law, and the example of Christ, is like opening the shutters, and letting light into a dark room, the filth of which the inhabitant did not see until the sunbeams disclosed it to him.

3. Sometimes the young convert is discouraged, because he does not increase as fast as he expected; and supposes because he does not accomplish all, and as speedily as he looked for, that he does not advance at all. The expectations of young Christians are sometimes as irrational as the child's who sowed his seed in the morning, and went out in the evening to see if it was above ground. The recent convert sometimes imagines that sanctification is easy to work. He imagines that advance is a thing to be accomplished by a succession of strides, if not, indeed, by one bound after another. But the remains of old Adam within him soon prove too strong to allow this unimpeded course of Christian progression. He knew he had difficulties to surmount—but he calculated on getting over them with ease—that he had enemies to conflict with—but then he hoped to go on by rapid victories from conquering to conquer. He is disappointed—and now imagines he makes no way at all. But why should he so hastily decide against himself? All growth is slow, and that is slowest of all which is to last the longest. The mushroom springs up in a night—so did Jonah's gourd—and in a night it perished! The oak requires centuries for its coming to perfection.

4. Some mistake by supposing they do not advance at all because they do not get on so fast as some others. We would by no means encourage neglect, indifference, or contentment with small measures of grace. On the contrary, we urge the greatest diligence. We say go on unto perfection. They who are contented with what grace they suppose they have, give fearful evidence that they have none at all. To be self-satisfied is to be self-deceived. Still, as in nature so in grace, all do not grow with equal rapidity, or advance to equal strength and stature. It is so with flowers in a garden; trees in a plantation; children in a family; boys at school; ships at sea; or travelers upon the land. There is progress in all—but in different degrees. Yet of which of all these can it be said, they make no advance because they do not advance as fast as the foremost. The use we should make of the superior attainments of the more eminent of God's servants is neither to envy them, nor to discourage our hearts—but to find in them a stimulus and an encouragement to seek larger measures of faith and holiness for ourselves.


Reader, this is an unspeakably important chapter for you to ponder. You must not pass from it in haste—but linger, and muse longer and deeper. You must now take up the candle of the Lord, as I have said, and go down into the very depths of the soul, to search its hidden recesses. Nor should you trust to your own inspection and scrutiny. Like David, you should earnestly pray to God to search you, and reveal your real state to you. "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life." He knew how prone we are to self-love and self-deception; how sin lies hidden in the folds of the heart's deceit, and therefore he begged the trial and scrutiny of eyes more piercing and less partial than him own. So must you. We are all liable to judge too favorably of our own case. Do, do, consider the fatal, the dreadful, the eternal consequences of a mistake on this subject.

Oh, the idea of imagining we are going on to heaven, when step by step we are advancing to hell! Is this possible? It is! And the very possibility should awaken our alarm. Is it probable? It is! And this should increase our alarm. Is it certain? It is! And this should raise still higher our anxiety. Is it common? It is! And this should carry our solicitude to the highest pitch. What did Christ say on this matter? Read with awe and trembling. "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'" Matthew 7:21-23. Read, I say, this passage in which our Lord with his own hand, sounds the alarm through the whole church. Ought you not to examine? Is not there need of it? Is it not all but madness to go on without it? Mistake! What in such a matter as salvation? Mistake! What in a matter in which an error will require, as I have often said, an eternity to understand, and an eternity to deplore it!

Are you quite sure this is not your case? Take up the subject, then, and put the following questions to your soul.

Am tolerably sure that I am truly converted to God? Am tolerably sure that I am a real Christian?

If I am a true Christian, am I really an advancing one—or am I mistaking a declining state for an advancing one?

Am I mistaking a lengthened time of profession—for a genuine growth in grace?

Am I putting an increase of knowledge, and of ability to talk about religion—in place of an increase of holiness?

Does it satisfy me to grow in knowledge and lamentation of my corruptions—without mortifying them?

Am I mistaking sectarianism—for true piety? Am I mistaking attachment to some preacher—with love to the truth? Am I mistaking zeal for some favorite doctrine—with real love for the gospel?

Is my mortification of sin confined to some one corruption, which interest, ease, or reputation may require me to surrender; or is it directed against all sin?

Is my religion a mere excitement of the emotions, and my growth only a greater excitability; or is my will more and more determined for God, my conscience more tender, and my life more holy?

Inquire, I beseech you, into these things. Be determined, by God's grace, to know the real state of your soul, and to be under no mistake. Be this your prayer, "O God of truth, you who search the hearts and examine the thoughts of the children of men, you know I would not for ten thousand worlds be deceived about my spiritual state. You know me through and through. Make known to me what I really am in your sight. Painful as it would be to find out that I have been deceiving myself, this would be infinitely better than for me to go on in error until the mistake is past being rectified. I want to know my real state. Even if I am a Christian, and yet mistaking declension for progress, I wish to know this also. Let my spiritual insight be clear, my self-acquaintance be accurate. Do not allow me to deceive myself—as regards my spiritual progress or decline."