Growing in holiness
I delivered the following message, based on chapter six of Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots by J. C. Ryle, at Grace Fellowship Church on Sunday, December 19, 2021.
In our study of J.C. Ryle’s book, Holiness, we come now to the chapter simply titled, “Growth.”
I’d like to take a page from pretty much every book on writing I’ve ever read, and I’ve read quite a few of them. If you want to write a book, some writing experts will tell you to create a detailed outline before you begin. Some will tell you to have the book’s basic ideas in your head but suggest you should skip the outline and just start writing. See what comes out. Regardless of which method they recommend, almost all of them will tell you to start with the ending. Write your ending first. Why? No matter which method of writing you choose, the process is a lot easier if you know where you’re going before you begin.
The question I’d like to pose this morning is, where are we going as Christians? Where do we hope to end up? What does the end look like for us?
Conformed to the image of his Son
To answer those questions, go with me, if you will, to Romans 8. I’ll read a familiar passage, which begins at verse 28. Paul writes:
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30)
Here we see the various parts of our salvation—God’s foreknowledge, predestination, the Spirit’s effectual call, justification, and ultimately, glorification. Now, what is the believer’s end according to Paul in this passage? Most would say glorification. Right? That’s correct, but look again at the text. Paul essentially defines what he means by glorification here.
Verse 29: “For those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Ro 8:29). In other words, God predetermined our destiny or destination, which is to be conformed to the image of his Son, Jesus Christ. That is essentially what it means to be glorified (Ro 8:30). To be glorified is to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.
In the story of God’s redeemed people, that’s the ending. That’s where we’re headed. That is God’s plan and purpose for us, and everything he does from predestination to justification and beyond are means by which he gets us to that place where we are perfectly conformed to the image of Christ.
Between justification and glorification
There appears, however, to be something missing in Paul’s list here. Practically speaking, there’s a pretty big gap between justification and glorification. I don’t know about you, but when I first believed and was justified, I didn’t walk away from that experience perfectly conformed to the image of Christ. Two decades later, I’m still nowhere near perfectly conformed to his image, and I’m not alone. You won’t find a saint on this earth, past or present, who bears the likeness of Christ thoroughly and completely. Even the great apostle Paul confessed in the previous chapter, “Wretched man that I am! When I want to do right, evil lies close at hand” (Ro 7:24, 21). On another occasion, he called himself the foremost of sinners (1Ti 1:15).
For those of us still living on this earth, still contending with our sinful flesh, assuming we are contending— Paul said, “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Ro 7:22, 23). True believers are war with themselves. If we are justified by faith in Christ, we are in a perpetual battle with our flesh. Our regenerated hearts want to do right while our flesh wants to continue in sin, so there is constant tension.
For those us still in this struggle, living somewhere between our justification and our future glorification, we should want to know where we are and what we are doing. For now, just keep this verse in mind: “Those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Ro 8:29). That’s ending for every justified believer in Christ.
I’ve noticed something else about my justification. Looking back at the time I first believed and trusted in Christ for my salvation, I can’t help but notice that God did not immediately whisk me away into heaven. He didn’t call me, justify me, save me, and promptly take me away for my glorification. Instead, he left me here. He’s left me here for two decades and counting. Why do you suppose that is?
Consider Israel’s story in the book of Exodus. After God rescued the people of Israel from their enslavement in Egypt, he did not lead them straight into the Promised Land. Far from it, he made them wander the wilderness for forty years. Why? Didn’t he save them to dwell in the Promised Land? Why, then, would he rescue them only to have them struggle through the wilderness for the next four decades? Perhaps a better question would be, what was happening during those forty years? What was God doing?
He was teaching the people of Israel. He was disciplining them. He was pruning them. In short, he was preparing them to be the kind of people they should be once they entered the Promised Land.
I believe the same is true for us. Outside of rare exceptions such as the thief on the cross and those who turn to Christ in the final moments of their lives, we have to spend our time in the wilderness. God redeems us from the bondage of sin just as he rescued Israel from their slavery in Egypt, but he doesn’t take us right into heaven. We remain here for a while to learn and grow. God disciplines us, teaches us, prunes us, and refines us. In a word, he sanctifies us. He sets us apart from the rest of the world more and more, little by little. We become increasingly holy. We become more and more like Christ. God slowly but surely prepares us to be the kind of people we will be when our day of glorification comes.
Paul puts it as succinctly as possible in 1 Thessalonians 4 when he writes:
Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification. (1 Thessalonians 4:1-3)
Please notice that Paul is writing to people who already strive to please God and walk in obedience to him, yhe wants them to do more and more (1Th 4:1). Then, he makes this straightforward declaration: “This is the will of God, your sanctification” (1Th 4:3). Clearly, he’s not referring to our ultimate sanctification at the end of time. He’s talking about the kind of practical, everyday sanctification we experience now. He’s talking about that gap between justification and glorification. He’s talking about our forty years in the wilderness as we learn, grow, and becoming increasingly holy.
Growing in grace
Most of you are probably thinking, This is all rather obvious. Of course, God is sanctifying us. Of course, he is molding us into the image of Christ. The thing is, there were people in J.C. Ryle’s day just as there are people in our day who don’t believe that. They don’t believe in what we sometimes refer to as progressive sanctification.
Several years ago, I was teaching a Bible study class on the subject of sanctification. During the lesson, I drew a graph on a marker board with a line meant to represent the spiritual growth and holiness of the typical Christian. The line was jagged and inconsistent. It rose and fell. It went up, then it went down, then it went up again, and so on. If you stood back and looked at the entire graph, you would see that, despite the many valleys and peaks, the line gradually moved upward.
Not long after, I was contacted by the pastor of another church who saw my notes from the lesson online. He wanted to write and make his objections clear. Specifically, he objected to any notion that implies God’s redeemed people are being practically and progressively sanctified. In fact, he called that teaching irresponsible because, according to him, it gives people the wrong idea that they working for salvation.
To be clear, that’s not what we’re talking about. What did Paul say? “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal 3:3). The answer is no. The doctrine of progressive sanctification does not imply we are working to gain or secure salvation. Perhaps this is why Ryle chose 2 Peter 3:18 as his starting text. Peter writes, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2Pe 3:18).
When we talk about growing in holiness and becoming more and more conformed to the image of Christ, what we are really talking about is growing in grace. We are growing in grace, and we are growing by grace. Let me show you.
In Hebrews 10, the author quotes from Jeremiah 31, who quotes God himself, who said, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds” (Heb 10:16). Similarly, Ezekiel foretold:
I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:26, 27)
For years, Israel failed to keep God’s commandments. They failed to remain loyal to him despite their vows and promises. Time and time again, God showed them mercy. He granted them repentance only to watch them fall again into sin and rebellion.
Finally, he announces the new covenant through his prophets such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and what does he say? If I may paraphrase, he says, “You will never obey me. You will never be able to keep my commandments. You will continue to fail over and over again as you’ve already proven. So, here’s what I’m going to do. I will do what I always intended to do. I will give you a new heart. I will put my Spirit within you. Why? If you want something done, you’ve got to do it yourself. I will cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Eze 36:27).
When we talk about growing in holiness or growing in grace, no one is suggesting we are working for salvation. I will also add that we are not working to become more saved or more justified. That’s not even possible. Through various means, which I’ll talk about in a moment, God sovereignly and providentially moves his people to become more holy. By his grace, he nourishes us to grow in grace.
Bears much fruit
Granted, we do not all grow at the same pace. We do not all reach the same heights. As J.C. Ryle says:
When I speak of “growth in grace” I only mean increase in the degree, size, strength, vigour, and power of the graces which the Holy Spirit plants in a believer’s heart. I hold that every one of those graces admits of growth, progress, and increase. I hold that repentance, faith, hope, love, humility, zeal, courage, and the like, may be little or great, strong or weak, vigorous or feeble, and may vary greatly in the same man at different periods of his life. When I speak of a man “growing in grace,” I mean simply this - that his sense of sin is becoming deeper, his faith stronger, his hope brighter, his love more extensive, his spiritual-mindedness more marked. He feels more of the power of godliness in his own heart. He manifests more of it in his life. He is going on from strength to strength, from faith to faith, and from grace to grace. I leave it to others to describe such a man’s condition by any words they please. For myself I think the truest and best account of him is this - he is “growing in grace.”
As branches on the vine of Christ, we are supplied with life, and a vital sign of life is growth and fruitfulness. Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). And what does he say about those who bear no fruit? “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away. He is thrown into the fire, and burned” (Jn 15:2, 6).
My point is that Scripture not only exhorts to grow, but it also denies any notion that true believers will fail to grow. Even when we aren’t growing for a season, Jesus says, “Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (Jn 15:2).
This is the will of God, your sanctification (1Th 4:3).
4 reasons to acknowledge spiritual growth
Since I’ve spent a fair amount of time addressing the reality of our spiritual growth, let me share with you a few reasons why it’s important that we acknowledge this fact.
First, spiritual growth is the best evidence of spiritual life.
I won’t say much about this now because Ryle devotes an entire chapter to the subject of assurance, which we’ll come to next week. Suffice it to say that nothing better demonstrates life than growth. As Ryle says, “In a child, or a flower, or a tree, we are all aware that when there is no growth there is something wrong. Healthy life in an animal or vegetable will always show itself by progress and increase.”
By the way, this is one of the dangers of denying the doctrine of progressive sanctification. There are plenty of people today who believe they are saved, but they bear no fruit. They show no signs of life. Even so, some pastors are more than willing assure them that they must be saved because maybe they once made a public profession of faith. Paul, on the other hand, would say, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2Co 13:5). And what is the test? Growth in holiness is, at least, one part of it. Hebrews 12 says, “Strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14). Similarly, 1 John says, “Everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1Jn 3:3).
If we want evidence of life— If we want assurance of salvation, we should expect to see spiritual growth in ourselves.
Second, the reality of growth is important because it brings us joy and peace to experience that growth.
If, however, we deny the reality of spiritual growth, we won’t have assurance, and we’ll deprive ourselves of the peace and joy that comes with it. Revelation says, “Blessed, or happy, is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on” (Rev 16:15). Happy is the one who stays vigilant, not apathetic. Happy is the one who strives to learn more and more about his Lord and Savior and follow him as closely as possible.
Third, the reality of growth makes us useful in Christ’s kingdom.
Someone who is not growing is probably not doing much good for the Lord’s cause, the church, or even the world around him. He has little chance of encouraging other Christians or being a positive influence to unbelievers.
Fourth, our spiritual growth pleases God.
Just as a farmer is excited to see the fruit of his labor, God is pleased to see our spiritual fruit. Jesus said, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (Jn 15:8).
5 marks of spiritual growth
In the time remaining, I want to address the practical side of this. We all want to know (1) whether we are growing and (2) how to grow.
First, how do we know whether we are growing? Chances are, you aren’t the same person today that you were when you first believed. You’ve learned since then. You’ve grown since then. If you examine your former self in light of your present self, you will likely see some notable changes in the way you think and behave.
For example, I didn’t have many Christian friends when I first became a believer myself, so I continued to spend a lot of time with my unbelieving friends. I had certainly changed, but I was also still in the process of changing. When my friends wanted to go out to the bars and drink, I would still go along. I just wouldn’t drink. As time passed, however, I hung out with them less and less. I grew disinterested in the things that interested them. I stopped going to the bars because, whether I was drinking myself or not, that environment made me feel uncomfortable. It wasn’t long before I would rather be at church with people twice my age than with my old friends at a bar.
How do we know we’re growing? How much have we changed for the better? How much more do we look like Christ than when we began? Keep in mind that often the people closest to us have a better vantage point than we do of ourselves. As much as I may strive to examine myself, it would be particularly useful to ask my wife once in a while.
Better yet, let me share with you something Danae and I have done since we were married. We keep a shared notebook full of letters to one another. Whenever either of us has a concern, confession, or an affirming word to share with the other, we write a letter in the notebook, which actually helps to facilitate conversations later. I may not want to admit out loud that I’ve recently being too impatient with her and the kids, but I can write it down, which prompts us to talk about it later.
I mention our notebook because it has proven to be a great resource for measuring our spiritual growth. When we read back through it and see the confessions and concerns we shared with one another in the past, it becomes much clearer whether or not we’ve grown since then. I suppose an individual journal would accomplish something similar, but the shared notebook provides an additional layer of accountability and perspective. It’s helped us anyhow.
Let’s be specific, though. Ryle provides a list of six areas worth examining to see whether we’ve grown as disciples of Christ. This list may not be exhaustive, but it’s extremely helpful nonetheless.
One mark of growth is increased humility.
After we’ve been Christians a little while, we all face the temptation of self-righteousness. We may develop a Pharisaical holier-than-thou attitude, thinking, We’ve arrived. We’re holy now. We’ve got our act together. We may begin to feel qualified to judge others with a harsh spirit and commend ourselves for our righteousness. But that’s certainly not the pattern of the saints in Scripture. Again, the apostle Paul confessed, “Wretched man that I am!” (Ro 7:24). When John the Baptist reached the height of his ministry and his popularity was at its peak, he pointed his followers always from himself, saying, “Christ must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30).
Though it may seem counter-intuitive to the world, our pride and self-righteousness should decrease with spiritual growth. Our humility should increase. We should become increasingly affected by our sin. We should become increasingly aware of our sinfulness. Rather than growing more self-righteous, we should grow more dependent on Christ and his grace.
Another mark of growth is increased faith and love towards Christ.
Our affection for him should run deeper. Our trust in him should grow stronger. Much like a husband and wife grow closer over the years, we as the bride of Christ should grow closer to him. Granted, this one can be difficult to measure.
As for our love, perhaps we should consider how much time and attention we give our Bridegroom. How often do we sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to his teaching? (Lk 10:39). How much time do we spend learning about him in his word? How much time do we spend meditating on him? How much time do we spend praying to him?
As for our faith, I think our response to trials and difficulties serves as a pretty good test. It’s easy to say we trust him when everything is going right, but what if everything is going wrong? What is our impulsive in a moment of difficulty? Do we respond like Paul and say, “I will boast gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me”? (2Co 12:9). Or, do begin cursing and fuming, forgetting God’s abundant grace and failing to trust his will?
How did you respond to trials a year ago? How do respond to trials today? Only you can answer this, but are you growing?
A third mark of growth is increased holiness in the ways we think, speak, and behave.
As J.C. Ryle says, “The man whose soul is growing gets more dominion over sin, the world, and the devil every year. He becomes more careful about his temper, his words, and his actions. He is more watchful over his conduct in every relation of life. He strives more to be conformed to the image of Christ in all things.”
To be clear, our trajectory toward bearing the image of Christ is not a straight line. We do not continually move upward without ever falling back. Years ago, a friend shared with me a short video of an elderly gentleman stepping onto an escalator. I’m not entirely sure what happened, but as the escalator went up, the man fell onto his back. He remained on the escalator, though, so as he flailed around and attempted to get back to his feet, the escalator continued carrying him up. The caption under the video simply said, “Sanctification.”
There’s a lot of truth to that video. As we flail around trying to become a holier people, God is slowly but surely moving us in the right direction despite ourselves.
A fourth mark of growth is an increased desire for holy things.
We may join in worship on Sunday morning, but has our love and desire for worship grown? We may read through the Bible in a year, but has it become less of a chore and more of a thrill over time? As growing, maturing Christians, our affections shift away from the things we formerly loved to Christ and holy things more and more.
A fifth mark of growth is increased charity.
Ryle adds a sixth mark, which is calls “increased zeal and diligence in trying to do good to souls,” but I’ll put these two together for the sake of time. In short, if we are growing as Christians, our love for others should be growing as well. Whether our charity shows itself in the form material good or spiritual good, whether we are providing food and clothing to someone or sharing the gospel with a soul in need, our love for others should increase with time.
I don’t know whether I can stress the mark of charity enough. When we think about holiness, I fear that we have a tendency to think mostly about so-called religious activities. We think about going to church, praying, reading the Bible, and so on. These are all wonderful, holy things, but they are not the only things that fall into this category of holiness.
Think of the Pharisees, who excelled at practicing their religion. For example, they were zealous about tithing. In fact, they’d pick off ten percent of the leaves in their herb garden and give it to God, but what did Jesus say about them? “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Mt 23:23). While the Pharisees were meticulous about practicing their religion, their religion, as it turns out, was woefully incomplete.
We could turn to many places in Scripture to learn that selfless care for others is a vital mark of holiness. After all, Jesus is the embodiment of absolute holiness, and he loved us and gave himself up for us as a sacrifice to God (Gal 5:2). As a result, Paul says, “Therefore be imitators of him” (Gal 5:1).
4 means of spiritual growth
With the time remaining, I’ll attempt to answer that second question I asked. How do we grow? What are the means of our growth? Again, I can’t provide you with an exhaustive list, but perhaps the few things I mention will be helpful.
First, we should make use of what Ryle calls “private means of grace.”
He’s referring to those spiritual activities we can do alone—praying, reading and studying Scripture, meditating, self-examination. Remember that we have to make time for these things. We have to proactively build them into our daily routines.
Second, we should make use of public means of grace.
We should be active in the life of the church. We should worship with the church as often as possible. We should pray with the church. We should hear the preaching of the word from our pastors. We should be here to encourage and be encouraged. We should share in the Lord’s Supper. We should sacrifice for one another. We should hold one another accountable.
A couple of week ago, I was meeting with a gentleman at the funeral home, and he said to me, “I don’t need to go to church to be a good Christian.” Since I’ve heard that line a million times, I was prepared to respond.
I said, “Let me ask you this. Does one need to read and believe the Bible to be a good Christian.”
“Yes,” he said.
“Then, you have a problem,” I said, “because the Bible is pretty clear. Many times in many ways it tells us we must be part of the church.”
He just grinned at me and said, “Something tells me you’ve been reading your Bible more than I’ve been reading mine.”
We absolutely need the church. We cannot grow without our brothers and sisters in Christ. We can’t grow without the corporate worship and fellowship the church provides.
A third means of growth is careful, constant evaluation of those things and people that influence us on a daily basis.
Reading the Bible each day, for example, is likely to have a positive impact on us. Watching an hour of television may have the opposite effect. Spending an evening with fellow Christians may be conducive to growth, but what happens when we spend our time with unbelievers? We need to always be vigilant regarding the various influences in our lives.
A fourth means of growth is—and this one is absolutely imperative—consistent communion with Christ.
While this may fall under the banner of “private means of grace,” it’s worth stressing. I’ll let Ryle speak to this point. He says:
We must seek to have personal intimacy with the Lord Jesus, and to deal with Him as a man deals with a loving friend. We must realize what it is to turn to Him first in every need, to talk to Him about every difficulty, to consult Him about every step, to spread before Him all our sorrows, to get Him to share in all our joys, to do all as in His sight, and to go through every day leaning on and looking to Him.
He goes on to quote Paul, who said, “To me to live is Christ” (Php 1:21).
Press on toward the goal
I’ll leave you with a passage that seems to summarize the mindset we should all regarding spiritual growth. When Paul writes to the Philippians, he speaks of attaining the resurrection from the dead (Php 3:11). Then, he says in Philippians 3:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)