The Distinguishing Traits of Christian Character
Gardiner Spring, 1829
17. GROWTH IN GRACE
How beautiful is the light of the morning! Behold it hovering over the distant edge of the horizon and shedding its cheerful beams upon the hills. It is a morning without clouds.
But how soon is the prospect overcast! The atmosphere is obscured by vapors and the sun is darkened by a cloud.
Again the mists are fled; the clouds have passed over, and the sun is still advancing in his course. Thus he rises; now, behind the cloud, now in all the greatness of his strength, shining brighter unto the perfect day. Such is the path of the just.
In the present world, godly men are very imperfect. The best of men have reason to complain bitterly of the body of sin and death, and the best of men too have the most ardent desires that the body of sin and death may be crucified with Christ. The highest point of Christian experience is to press forward. It is a distinguishing trait in the character of every godly man that he grows in grace.
There are various similitudes used by the inspired writers that are significantly expressive of the advancement of Christians in knowledge and in piety. The young convert is likened unto one that is newly born. There is a point of time in which he begins to live. At first he is a babe; then a child, until he finally attains unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13).
The Kingdom of Heaven is also compared to seed which is cast into the ground. First comes up the tender blade, then the thriving stalk, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear, ripening for the harvest, and preparing for the barn of the gardener (Mark 4:28-29).
It is also compared to a well of water, springing up into everlasting life (John 4:14). No imagery in nature can more fully illustrate the growth of grace in the heart.
"The righteous," says Job, "shall hold on his way, and he who has clean hands shall wax stronger and stronger" (Job 17:9). This is the prominent feature in the character of the good man— "he shall hold on his way."
"The youth," says the evangelical prophet, "shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall; but those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, and they shall walk and not faint" (Isaiah 40:30-31).
With inimitable beauty is the godly man described by the Psalmist: "And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither, and whatever he does shall prosper" (Psalm 1:3).
Grace in the heart as certainly improves and advances as a tree thrives in a kindly and well-watered soil. It flourishes in immortal youth, and blooms forever in unfading beauty. The certainty of the believer's progress, however, rests on a surer foundation than either the degree or the nature of his religion. "We are not sufficient," says the apostle, "to think anything as of ourselves, but our sufficiency is of God" (2 Corinthians 3:5).
Covenanted grace is the support of the believer through every step of his pilgrimage. There is nothing in the nature of holiness that is incapable of corruption. Adam fell, angels fell; and such is the awful depravity of the human heart that left to himself, the holiest saint on earth would draw back unto perdition. Still, he shall progress in holiness throughout the interminable ages. It is the economy of divine grace that where God has begun a good work, He will carry it on until the subject is ripened for glory (Philippians 1:6).
The hypocrite, when once he imagines himself to be a Christian, views his work as done. He is satisfied. He is rich and increased in goods.
But it is far otherwise with the true Christian. Conversion is but the first step. His work is all before him. His graces are increasingly constant and increasingly vigorous. The more he loves God, the more he desires to love Him. The more he knows of His character, does he contemplate the manifestations of His glory with rising delight. "As the deer pants after the water brooks, so does his soul pant after God" (Psalm 42:1). Having once tasted that the Lord is gracious, is not enough to satisfy him. He will ever remain unsatisfied until he reaches the fountain-head and drinks to the full of "the river of life which flows from the throne of God and the Lamb" (Revelation 22:1).
The more he sees of the evil of sin, the more he desires to see. The more he hates it, the more he desires to hate it.
The more he sees of himself the more he abhors himself, and the more does he desire to abhor himself. The more he is emptied of himself, the more does he desire to be emptied of himself; the more he desires to become poor in spirit, to feel that he is cut off from every hope, and to rest on Christ alone.
The more he is engaged in duty, the more delight he finds in performing it.
The more severe his conflict with the enemy, the harder he urges it and the more vigorous his resolution to maintain it to the last.
There are some things in which the increase of grace is more visible, both to the world and the subject than others.
Particularly have the people of God less and less confidence in themselves. They cherish an increasing sense of their dependence. They have been so often disappointed in their false confidences, that they have in some good measure become weaned from them. They know by bitter experience the folly of trusting to themselves and daily taste the sweetness of that heavenly precept "In all your ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct your paths" (Proverbs 3:6).
They are more and more patient in sufferings. The more they are accustomed to the yoke, the less do they repine under the weight of it.
They are also more and more charitable in their opinions of others. Young Christians are too often very uncharitable and censorious. They are more apt to take notice of the infirmities of their brethren, than their graces; and the infirmities of others, than their own. But the more they know of themselves the more reason do they see to exercise charity toward others. They fear to judge lest they themselves should also be judged (Matthew 7:1). They walk "with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love" (Ephesians 4:2). They have also the more full government of their passions. They are "slow to anger" (James 1:19).
They are more and more punctual in the performance of the home duties. Young Christians are apt to neglect them. They allow the duties they owe immediately to God to swallow up those that belong to their neighbors. But as they advance in the divine life, they become more uniform in the exercise of grace, and more punctual in the discharge of all duty. They do not love God less, but they love their fellow men more.
As they grow more fervent and more constant in their devotional exercises, so they become more circumspect and unexceptionable in their relationships with the world.
Perhaps there is no one point in which growth in grace is more visible than in that harmony and consistency of character which are too often lacking in young Christians, but which shine with so much beauty in those who are advanced in the Christian course.
In everything that belongs to the excellence of real religion, the true believer is in a state of progression. He seeks and strives, he wrestles and fights, he is ever aiming at the prize. View him in the early part of the divine life, follow him through the various stages of his progress—and you will find that notwithstanding all his doubts and declensions, he makes a gradual advance. "Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me." (Philippians 3:12).
"This one thing I do," says Paul, "forgetting the things which are behind, and reaching forth to those things that are ahead, I press toward the mark of the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:13-14).
Where is the Christian that does not make the spirit of the apostle his own? Tell me, you who have just begun the heavenly race; tell me, you who are verging toward the goal: was there ever a Christian that felt satisfied with present attainments? Is not the unvarying voice, both of early and long-tried piety responsive to the language of Paul? Yes, it is both the highest point of Christian experience, and the clearest evidence of Christian character to press forward. It is his grand inquiry how to be and how to live more like a child of God.
Mark the way of the upright. As you trace his steps through this dreary pilgrimage sometimes he wanders from the path; sometimes he halts and tires. His progress is far from being uniformly rapid, and often far from being perceptible either by himself or others. Sometimes his motion is retrograde. There are seasons when, instead of advancing, he is the subject of great defection. Still it is true that on the whole he advances. If you compare his present state and character, with what they were a considerable length of time past—you will find that he has made gradual progress.
I know there are seasons—dark and gloomy seasons, seasons of guilt and declension—when the real Christian will make this comparison at the expense of his assurance. Seasons of guilt and declension ought to be seasons of darkness. I know too there are seasons when he is liable to discouragement, because he does not always experience that light and joy which crowned the day of his conversion. There is a glow of affection, a flush of joy which is felt by the young convert as he is just ushered into the world of grace which perhaps may not be felt at any future period of his life.
You cannot draw from this the inference that he has made no advance. All this may be true while there is a power of feeling and a strength of affection in the saint who has passed through the wilderness and knows the trials of the way to which the young convert is a stranger. As he ascends the mount, his eye is fixed, his step is more vigorous, and his path brighter and brighter. He remembers his devious steps and how he traced them back with tears. But the trials of the way are forgotten. He is rising to that brightness of purity which "sheds the luster of eternity" on his character and aiming at the crown of righteousness which never fades away.
Here then is another test of the genuineness of your religion. I am aware that it is a severe one. But it is one which bears the seal of truth, and we must not shrink from it. Professing Christians are apt to place too much confidence on their past experience and think little of the present; to think much on what they imagine to have been their conversion, their first work, and then give up the business of self-examination, and allow themselves to droop and decline.
But the question is what is your present character? "Grace is the evidence of grace." I know it is true that he who is once a Christian is always a Christian, but it is also true that he who is not now a Christian, never was a Christian. "Examine yourselves, therefore, whether you are in the faith" (2 Corinthians 13:5).
The best evidence in the world that you are a true believer, is that you grow in grace. No man living in spiritual sloth and making no new advances ought to flatter himself that he is a partaker of the blessings of the great salvation. The man who is satisfied because he thinks he is safe, who feels that he has religion enough because he thinks he has enough to save him from Hell—is as ignorant of the power as he is a stranger to the consolation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A careful study of the key passages which set forth the evidences of regeneration and true conversion will reveal that in the great majority of cases we are commanded to look for present evidences. Consult the following as typical:
John 10:27. "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me."
Matthew 7:19-21. "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. "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.
1 John 2:3-4. "We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, "I know him," but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him."
1 John 3:10-14. "This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother. This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother's were righteous. Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death."
"He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him" Hebrews 5:9
The widespread practice in our day is to look back to some "evidence" or "decision" or "sinner's prayer" and to rest upon that as a sufficient ground of assurance in spite of the glaring absence of present reality.
"All who value their souls, and all who would be true watchmen over the souls of others, must diligently seek to conform their thinking to the biblical pattern on this most crucial point." The Editors.