Christian Progress

John Angell James, 1853


There is, perhaps, no greater hindrance on the part of some than a desponding fear of ever making progress in the divine life. They see so much in themselves that is imperfect—such ignorance, such corruption, such lukewarmness; so much in their situation and circumstances that is opposed to their advancement; so much of stagnancy or declension in others, that seems to render it unlikely that they shall succeed better than their friends and acquaintances; so much that renders it useless, as they suppose, for them ever to wish for progress—that they give it up in despondency. "Ah," they say, "it is indeed a desirable thing to grow in grace. Happy are they who can realize so covetable a condition of soul. I often long for it—but it is with the wishes of one who sees the object of his desire immeasurably above his reach. I sometimes sigh amid my low attainments in knowledge, faith, joy, and holiness, and pant for better things; but I end as I began, in desponding lamentations. I seem forbidden to hope for improvement." Forbidden! By whom? Certainly not by God. Discouraged! Why? Let your despondency yield to the following considerations.

I. To those who are really concerned about Christian progress, the SCRIPTURE is full of encouragement. How confident is the language of Job amid all his sorrows. "The righteous shall hold on his way, and he who has clean hands shall grow stronger and stronger." Job 17:9. Here is not only continuance, but progress. "Clean hands" are designed to denote a holy life. Among the ancient people of God, they were regarded as indicative of purity of heart. So that the language of Job is an assurance that a holy man would become still more holy. His very practice of righteousness tends to establish him in his way, to confirm his principles, and make that easy by habit, which is enjoined as duty. Piety, like everything else, strengthens by exercise.

How beautiful is the language of the Psalmist, "But the godly will flourish like palm trees and grow strong like the cedars of Lebanon. For they are transplanted into the Lord's own house. They flourish in the courts of our God. Even in old age they will still produce fruit; they will remain vital and flourishing." Psalm 92:12-14. The palm tree is indigenous to tropical and other warm climates. It grows to a considerable height and size, and presents a beautiful appearance. Its fruits, which are called dates, are much valued and are eaten both fresh and preserved, and are also pressed for syrup and wine. But it is not for its fruit alone that the palm tree is so valuable. From the boughs, which are yearly lopped off from the lower parts of the stem, are made baskets, bird cages, ropes, and sacks; from the leaves are made mattresses, sandals, etc. It is an evergreen, and lives to an extreme old age—the wood is durable and much used. How striking an emblem of a godly man. He shall flourish like the palm tree.

The cedar was considered by the Hebrews as the monarch of the vegetable world, on account of its magnitude, majesty, the number and extent of its boughs, and the durability of its wood, which was so remarkable that some supposed it to be incorruptible. Moreover everything about the cedar has a strong balsamic odor, and hence the whole forest is so perfumed with fragrance that a walk through it is delightful. Mount Lebanon was in ancient times covered with forests of cedars, of which however there are now only few remains. Again we say to the Christian, Behold your emblem. "He shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon."

Similar to this representation is the extraordinarily picturesque language which we find in the book of Hosea, "I will be to Israel like a refreshing dew from heaven. It will blossom like the lily; it will send roots deep into the soil like the cedars in Lebanon. Its branches will spread out like those of beautiful olive trees, as fragrant as the cedar forests of Lebanon. My people will . . . flourish like grain and blossom like grapevines. They will be as fragrant as the wines of Lebanon." Hosea 14:5-7. These verses contain gracious promises of God's favor and blessings upon his people. In the fifth verse it is described by that refreshment which copious dews give to the grass in summer. If we consider the nature of the climate and the necessity of dews in so hot a country, not only to refresh but likewise to preserve life; if we consider also the beauty of the oriental lilies; the fragrance of the cedars which grow upon Lebanon; the beauteous appearance which the surrounding olive trees afford; the exhilarating coolness caused by the shade of such trees; and the aromatic smell exhaled by the cedars; if we add to this the reviving of the grain with all the verdure of spring; and the blushing grapes pendant from the vine—we shall then partly understand the force of the metaphors here employed by the prophet—but their full energy no one can conceive until he feels both the need, and enjoys the advantage, of the particulars referred to in that climate where the prophet wrote.

What a glorious prophecy! How sublime, how energetic, how just! and this description is for all the true spiritual Israel of God. It may be there is a national reference—but all Christians have lot and portion in the matter. God sets his love upon us; pours down his grace upon us; and fulfils all this—to those who have faith to believe in the promise of his Spirit. It is not merely the poetic beauty of this passage that we hold up to notice, though this is surpassingly great, and is one of those gems of composition which so profusely stud the Bible, and commend it to taste as well as to piety—but it is the promises of grace and growth which it contains for the encouragement and consolation of all God's people to the end of time.

How full of encouragement is also the language of the prophet Isaiah, "Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint." Isaiah 40:31. This beautiful passage refers primarily, though not exclusively, to the captive Jews in Babylon, and encouraged the godly among them to exercise confidence in God's ability and willingness to accomplish his promises, and to wait with patience for his gracious appearance on their behalf. But it contains a general promise of continued supplies of grace and strength to all who really desire to serve the Lord with integrity and simplicity. The image of the eagle is a very fine one, and this is not the only place where it is employed. The prophet alludes to the strength of pinion and of vision possessed by this noble bird, whereby it ascends to a lofty height, untired and undazzled—soaring even above the fogs and mists of the lower regions of the air, mounting above the very clouds, undeterred by the lightning, and floating in the pure azure above. Thus shall all who wait upon the Lord rise higher and higher, upon the mighty pinions of strong devotion and with the unblinking eye of faith, into the regions of heavenly-mindedness; and shall approach nearer and nearer to God—the sun of our spiritual day.

Then the other expressions, if less figurative, are not less encouraging, "They shall run" in the heavenly race, for the crown of immortal glory, "and not be weary." Their strength, instead of being exhausted, shall, contrary to what occurs in bodily effort, be increased by exertion. No length nor greatness of labor shall be too much for them. God shall pour into their souls fresh energy for every fresh effort. They shall thus be enabled to press along the mark towards the prize of their high calling in Christ Jesus. "They shall walk and not faint." Their pilgrimage may be arduous; the road may be long and rugged; often up steep ascents, and down into deep and rocky defiles, where every step is a labor—but they shall not lose heart or hope; they shall not swoon, nor halt, nor turn back—but go forwards, sustained by a power greater than their own.

But perhaps a plain didactic and unpoetic quotation from the New Testament, will, after all, have more weight with some minds than this profusion of gorgeous oriental imagery. What then can be more consolatory than the apostle's words to the Philippian church, "Being confident of this very thing, that he who has begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Christ." Phil. 1:6. He will have respect to and delight in the work of his hands. He is honored and glorified by the perseverance of his people in faith and holiness, and will give all the supplies of grace necessary for the work. He loves to see his children grow in all that is excellent, even as does a wise and good earthly parent—and far more readily, will He contribute all that is necessary for this purpose.

II. Dwell upon the love and tenderness of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let me direct your attention first of all to that wonderfully beautiful and tender representation where it is said, "He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will carry the lambs in his arms, holding them close to his heart. He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young." Isaiah 40:11. Now you will notice who are here represented as the objects of his care, "the lambs," which means not only those of tender age—but of recent standing in true religion. They who are young in Christian experience; and also those whose spirits are naturally timid, whose strength is feeble, and whose danger is great. You, you, recently brought to Christ by repentance and faith, you are the objects of Christ's special attention, care, and solicitude. You are those whom he takes up in the arms of his power, and lays on the bosom of his love. He knows your weakness, your timidity, your dangers. He directs towards you his tenderest sympathy, and will exert for you his greatest vigilance, and his mightiest power.

This expression however not only conveys the idea of great care of the weak—but the exercise of that care with a view to their preservation and growth; it means not only that he cordially receives them, will provide for their safety, be concerned for their comfort, and will accommodate his conduct to their needs—but will also nourish them through their infant existence, and raise them up to maturity and strength. You should dwell upon the exquisite tenderness of the passage—but not only upon this—but upon its intimation that he will assist you in your growth. The Good Shepherd does not wish or intend that his lambs should be always lambs. His aim is that they should be full-grown sheep, and he will leave nothing undone that this might be accomplished; and it is for this reason as well as from pity and kindness that he takes such care of them. So it is with our Lord Jesus in reference to the young convert.

Let every lamb of the flock of Christ therefore go to him by faith and prayer, and say, "Blessed Jesus, I come to you a poor, weak, and trembling creature, doubtful of my own continuance, and alarmed at my numerous difficulties and enemies. I am but a lamb, and often fear I shall never be anything better—but perish as I am. But was it not in regard to such weakness that you have been pleased to utter these gracious and tender words? I believe what you have spoken, and will venture my soul upon it. I flee to you as the helpless lamb to its shepherd when hungry to feed it, when pursued by wild beasts that he may defend it. Lord take me in the arms of your power and lay me on the bosom of your love, though I am so poor and inconsiderable a creature. I will hope in your pastoral power and love, that I shall not only continue but grow, and that you will one day rejoice in me as one of the flock which you have purchased with your own blood."

III. But perhaps you may find some encouragement, even in your own experience. You are sometimes disheartened and cast down. You make little or no progress in godliness. You are no wiser, holier, or happier than you were years ago—and you fear you never shall be! You begin to be heartless and desponding. Deeply sensible of your deficiencies, you fear they will never be provided for—you feel your remaining corruptions, and have faint hopes of subduing them. You see heights above your head, which you doubt you shall ever reach. In the race you are no nearer the goal, and in the conflict gain few advantages over your foes. To remain as you are, is the utmost you now hope for! You put forth your strongest effort, just so that you don't go backwards! For you, progress is out of the question. Again I ask, Why? Only because you think so. I have referred you to the promises of God—to the grace and intercession of Christ—to the examples of others; but now let me refer you to your own history and experience.

I am supposing that you have experienced the converting grace of God; that you have really and in earnest commenced the great work of salvation; that, in short—you are not what you once were. Old things have passed away, and all things have become new. And if this be the case, is it for you to doubt whether you can advance? Is continuance to be despaired of, by him who has been enabled to begin? Is advancement be despaired of, by him who has been enabled to continue? Have you by grace taken the mighty step, stride, bound—for it is all this—from an unconverted to a converted state—and do you doubt whether you shall go on step by step afterwards? Have you pressed through the straight gate, and shall you not be able to press forward, also, in the narrow path? Is the Christian life more difficult, either to you or to God than regeneration?

Oh, think of all the difficulties that stood in the way when you first entered the road to glory. Recollect what you had to encounter from within and without. Have you forgotten the trembling apprehensions with which when the decision was to be made for Christ, salvation, and eternity—you doubted if it ever would be made? The anguish with which, on a survey of all you had to encounter, you exclaimed, "Who is sufficient for these things!" Yet it was made. God's grace was sufficient for you in this tremendous crisis of your spiritual and eternal history. And now can you doubt whether that grace which converted you, can carry you forward? What! planted and not be able to thrive? Born, and not be able to grow? Started the race, and not be able to run? Victorious, and not be able to conquer?

Will you so much disparage the grace that has been given—as to doubt its continuance; and the work it has wrought—as to fear its going forward? Have you learned no more from God's past wisdom, and power, and love—than to question whether they will help you onward in that course to which they have introduced you? Why one would be ready to suppose—that you would be ever full of joyful expectation and exultation too, exclaiming, "To what measure of knowledge, faith, holiness, joy, and usefulness—may I not hope to reach—since I have been translated by the power of God from darkness to light, and from the kingdom of Satan unto God?"

You yourself, in what God has already done for you, are a proof of what he can and will do for you—if you will ask him, and trust him. Castaway then, all your desponding fears, your low expectations, your unworthy doubts; they dishonor God—as well as distress yourself. You are yourself the strongest proof that you can advance, for you have advanced. "He who has begun the good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ." Remember the words, and enter into the argument, of the apostle, "Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!" Romans 5:9-10


The subject—the ineffably, infinitely, eternally, momentous subject, is now before you, compared with which all other matters, even the most valuable of them—dwindle into insignificance, shrink into nothing, and fade into darkness. I have been speaking about progress—but progress in what? Not in science, literature, wealth, power, fame. No! These are important—but what are they to true religion? They relate to earth, this to heaven; they belong to time; this to eternity. Their value will cease at death; the value of this will then be perpetuated forever and ever. Every step you take in the course of godliness, is a step to glory, honor, and immortality; consequences hang on each step which no mind can comprehend, but that which grasps infinity and eternity. You are fearfully and wonderfully placed, for you are passing through a probation which must issue in torment—or in bliss—which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has ever entered into the imagination of the human mind. I have laid before you the necessity of that progress—its nature—its means—its hindrances—its mistakes—its motives—and its encouragements—which belong to true religion.

By the perusal of this book you have incurred a new responsibility, and are under a more solemn weight of obligation than you were before. If you should turn back in your course, it would have been better if you had never read it; or having read it, you would find it a mercy if you could blot its contents from your memory. But this you cannot do. No 'sea of oblivion' can help you to cast into forgetfulness, what you have read. Its coming into your hands will form a new fact in your existence, of great consequence to you; for it will be a new aggravation of the sin and condemnation of backsliding, or a new means of growth in grace. It may be neglected, and for a while lost sight of—but it will rise up again and again, if you go backwards—and will meet you like a frowning specter in your declining path. It will follow you into eternity, to give sharpness and venom to the tooth of the never-dying worm, and fierceness to the fire which never shall be quenched!

But "I hope better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though I thus speak." The motives I have suggested will, I hope, prevail to urge you to advance; and the encouragements will prevail to excite you to advance. Everything you can desire or imagine that would be helpful is with you and for you. The attributes of the eternal God—the character and offices of Christ—the influences and operations of the Holy Spirit—the ministry of angels—the labors of Christian ministers—the Christian literature of the age—the prayers of all godly men—are with you, to aid and encourage you in your progress. Is this nothing? Is it little? On the contrary—is it not much? Is it not everything? What more can you need—or can you have?

And now then let me conjure you to seek to advance in the divine life. You must not—you dare not—and I hope, by the grace of God, will not—be satisfied to be always what you now are—with no more knowledge, faith, holiness, or peace than you now have. What God commanded to be said to the children of Israel—that they should go forward, is said to you, go forward! By all the authority, the commands, the promises of God—by all the love, power, grace, and intercession of Christ—by all the work of the Holy Spirit, so sufficient for your need, I implore you to go forward! By all the value of your immortal soul and all the blessings included in its salvation, I entreat you to go forward! By all the pleasure of real religion now, and all the fitness it furnishes for eternal bliss hereafter, I beseech you to go forward! By all the regard you have to the credit of the Christian profession and the welfare of other men's souls, I plead with you to go forward! By all the solemnities of judgment—all the glories of heaven—all the torments of hell—all the ages of eternity, I beg you to go forward! To all these arguments and entreaties, so urgent as well as so numerous, let judgment, heart, will, conscience, respond, "Onwards, onwards, in the path to holiness, happiness, and heaven! Onwards, onwards, through the progression of eternal ages!"

Now lay down the book, and present in sincerity, faith, and fervor, the following prayer

"Almighty and most merciful Father, grant me, through Jesus Christ, the power of your Holy Spirit, to follow the directions laid down in this book. Impress me more and more deeply with the necessity of progress in the divine life. Enlighten me to understand its true nature. Preserve me from all mistakes on this momentous subject. Bless to me the use of appropriate means for growth in grace. Enable me to avoid and put aside all hindrances to progress. Stimulate me by the application to my conscience and heart of all the motives here suggested, and cheer me by the encouragements which have been held out to me. Of your infinite mercy never allow me to draw back unto perdition—but number me with those who believe to the saving of the soul. Help me to forget the things which are behind, and press forward to the mark for the prize of our high calling in Christ Jesus; and after continual increase of grace here on earth, bring me to the eternal progression of your saints in glory everlasting. Grant this according to the riches of your grace, through Christ Jesus. Amen."