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20 February, 2013

Christian Progress - Part 2

Written by John A. James, in 1853

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.