But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall. The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree: he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon. I will be as the dew unto Israel: he shall grow as the lily, and cast forth his roots as Lebanon.
~ Malachi 4:2, Psalm 92:12, Hosea 14:5
But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is meet, because that your faith groweth exceedingly, and the charity of every one of you all toward each other aboundeth;
~ Ephesians 4:15, 1 Peter 2:2, Colossians 1:10, 2 Thessalonians 1:3
Growth in Grace, by William B. Sprague. This is from his work, “Lectures to Young People”, in the year, 1830.
But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and for ever. Amen.
~ 2 Peter 3:18
t is an error common with young Christians, that when the first joys of a renovated state have passed away, the current of their affections sets back strongly towards the world. Judging from their appearance, in many instances, we would say that they gave little promise of being faithful soldiers of the cross; that instead of guarding more closely against their spiritual enemies, and girding themselves more thoroughly for conflict, they were casting from them the armour with which they were actually furnished, and dismissing the sentinels already stationed at the door of their hearts. They would seem to be acting upon the conviction that the course of exercises through which they had passed, constituted certain evidence of regeneration; and that regeneration not only begins—but completes, their preparation for heaven.
Our text is adapted, my young friends, to guard you against this mistaken view of the pious life. It clearly implies that regeneration is but the beginning of true religion in the heart, and of course, leaves the subject of it but partially sanctified; that the Christian life is a life of constant improvement; and that this improvement is intimately connected with our own exertions. It is the design of this discourse to illustrate the nature, the means, the importance of growth in grace.
I. The nature of growth in grace. What is it to grow in grace?
The word grace is used in the New Testament with various shades of meaning; but in the text it evidently denotes practical piety, or the true religion of the heart and life. To grow in grace, therefore, is, in general, to make progress in true religion. More particularly,
1. It is implied in this duty, that you grow, not merely in the means of true religion—but in true religion itself.
The use of means always supposes that there is an end to be attained; and this holds true in respect to true religion, as well as anything else. But it would seem that this connection between the means and the end, is, by many professed Christians, in a great measure, overlooked; and that, for the actual attainment of grace, they substitute the means by which it is to be attained. In the regularity of their attendance on religious services, they seem practically to forget the purpose for which these services were designed; so that, instead of ministering to the growth of true religion, they serve only to cherish a spirit of self-righteousness. Think not that I would discourage the most diligent use of means. I would only put you on your guard against defeating the purpose for which they are designed, by an improper use of them. Let them be used, and used daily; but let it be with reference to the attainment of an end—the promotion of true religion in the heart and life; and so long as this purpose is not answered, remember that they have not exerted their proper influence. When the effect of them is to increase your love to God and man, to quicken your faith, to deepen your humility, and to cause you to abound more and more in every Christian virtue—then and only then, is their legitimate purpose accomplished.
Growth in grace, then, you perceive, involves not only a diligent use of the means of grace—but also the attainment of the end for which these means were designed. While the end is not, at least in the ordinary course of providence, to be attained without the means, the means are of no importance, except from their connection with the end. He who grows in grace, in the use of the one, attains the other.
2. The duty which we are contemplating, implies that you grow, not in some particular parts of true religion only—but in every part.
The Christian character, though made up of a variety of graces and virtues, is a well-proportioned and beautiful whole. But as there is a strong disposition to separate the means and the end in the pious life, there is a similar propensity often manifested to deform the Christian character, by neglecting to cultivate some of the traits of which it is composed. Hence we often see professed Christians, who, in some respects, seem to be closely conformed to the gospel standard, who, yet, in others, exhibit so little of the spirit of Christ, as to occasion distressing doubts whether they are really his disciples. Now, if you would comply with the duty enjoined in the text, you must guard against this evil. You need not indeed fear that you shall superabound in any of the virtues of the gospel; but take heed that there be none in which you are deficient. Let your standard of piety be as elevated as it may—but let your Christian character rise in just and beautiful proportions.
3. The duty enjoined in the text, moreover, implies that you should grow in true religion, not at particular times only—but at all times.
There is, I fear, an impression too common among young Christians, that the pious character is to be formed chiefly from the influence of great occasions. When, for instance, they are visited by severe affliction, they feel that it is a time for diligently cultivating true religion; but let the rod of God be withdrawn, and they too commonly relapse into a state of comparative indolence. Or let there be a revival of true religion in their immediate neighbourhood—and you will see them coming forth to the work in a spirit of humility and self-denial: but let carelessness resume its dominion over the surrounding multitude, and they too, in many instances, will be seen settled down to a point of freezing indifference. They doubt not that it is the duty of Christians to make progress in true religion; but they seem to imagine that, by extraordinary diligence at one time, they may atone for some degree of negligence at another.
Now we do not deny that there are occasions in the Christian’s life, and among them those to which we have referred, which are peculiarly favourable to his improvement, and for which he ought diligently to watch; but the notion against which we protest is, that there is any period, in which he may fold his hands in indolence. While you are to improve, with special care, those seasons which furnish peculiar advantages for the cultivation of piety, remember that true religion is to be the work of every day; that in seasons of prosperity as well as of adversity, in seasons of coldness as well as of revival, in every condition in which you may be placed, you are bound to grow in grace. If such be the nature, we will now inquire, secondly,
II. What are the means of growth in grace. These are very numerous: we will specify some of the more prominent.
1. We notice, first, the private duties of true piety, comprehending meditation, prayer, and reading the scriptures.
I would say, in general, in respect to all these duties, that, before you approach them, you should throw down the burden of worldly care and vexation. The bird which possesses the fleetest wing will never fly, if she is oppressed with an insupportable load; neither will the soul ever mount up to heaven in its contemplations, until it has broken away from earthly incumbrances. You should address yourself to these duties with great seriousness; for they bring you into the immediate presence of God, on an errand which deeply involves your immortal interests; and the absence of a serious spirit converts the external act into the most impious mockery.
Moreover, they should all be performed, as I have elsewhere had occasion to remark in respect to one, at stated seasons; and especially in the morning and evening of each day. But the performance of these duties, at stated seasons, should not supersede the occasional performance of them. As the circumstances in which you are placed, may furnish opportunity, or suggest occasion, for private pious exercises, you should consider it at once your duty and your privilege to engage in them.
We will dwell, for a moment, a little more particularly, on these several duties.
Of pious meditation, considered as a means of growth in grace, it may be remarked that it is not merely a speculative—but practical exercise: the object of it is, not merely to discover truth—but when discovered, to turn it to some practical advantage. If, for instance, the mind dwells on the infinite greatness and majesty of God—the heart kindles with a sentiment of holy admiration. If the mind contemplates the unparalleled love and mercy of God—the heart glows with a spirit of devout gratitude. If the mind contemplates the depravity and ruin of man, and particularly if it turns its eye inward on personal guilt—the bosom heaves with emotions of godly sorrow. And so in respect to every other subject to which the thoughts may be directed—the mind contemplates them not as subjects of abstract speculation—but of personal interest.
The subjects proper to exercise the mind in meditation, are almost infinitely various. Whatever God has revealed to us—whether through the medium of his works, his ways, or his word—may form a profitable theme of contemplation for the Christian. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handy-work.” The system of providence also, exhibits a constant divine agency, and in the minutest, as well as in the greatest, events, presents an impressive view of the character of God. And while the dispensations of providence in general furnish suitable subjects of reflection, this is especially true of those events which more immediately respect ourselves; whether they assume the form of mercies or afflictions.
But the Bible is an inexhaustible treasury of truth: it contains things into which even angels desire to look; and which will no doubt awaken the interest, and employ the curiosity, of angels, forever. Our own character and condition also, constitute, though not one of the most pleasant, yet to us one of the most important, subjects of meditation. From these various sources, then, you may derive materials for pious contemplation; and who will not say that here is enough to employ the mind in all the circumstances and periods of its existence?
One of the most important forms of the duty of which I am speaking, is self-examination; or meditating upon ourselves with a view to ascertain our own character and condition. You are to examine yourself in respect to your sins—the sins of your whole life; the sins of particular periods, especially of each passing day; the sins which most easily beset you; and all the circumstances of aggravation by which your sins have been attended. You are to examine yourself in respect to your spiritual needs; to inquire in which of the Christian graces you are especially deficient; through what avenue the world assails you most successfully, and, of course, at what point you need to be most strongly fortified. You are to examine yourself in respect to your evidences of Christian character—to inquire whether you have really the spirit of Christian obedience, and whether that spirit is daily gaining strength.
This inquiry is to be conducted with great vigilance; otherwise, the heart is so deceitful, that you will deceive yourself in the very attempt to avoid being deceived. It must be prosecuted with unyielding determination; for the work is in itself so difficult, and withal, the discoveries which must result from it so painful, that, without this spirit, it will inevitably be abandoned. You must refer your character to the scriptural standard—to the law, if you would ascertain the extent of your departure from duty; to the gospel, if you would test your claim to the Christian character. And finally, in the spirit of humble dependence, let all your efforts be accompanied and crowned by the prayer—”Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts; and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way.”
The importance of self-examination, and of the more general duty of meditation, of which this is a part, as a means of growth in grace, it is not easy adequately to estimate. Meditation is necessary not only as a preparation for prayer—but as entering essentially into the nature of prayer; nay, it is essential to every act of faith. Meditation is the exercise by which the soul digests all the spiritual food which it receives. Moreover, it is of great importance, as tending to promote spiritual health. How many hours, and days, and years, of the Christian’s life, are lost, and worse than lost–from the fact that his mind has not been disciplined to a habit of meditation. A considerable part of your whole time is passed in solitude; many of these hours, at least, might be redeemed by meditation, for purposes of pious improvement. You may meditate not in the closet only–but in the field or the work-shop, in the lonely walk or the midnight hour. You may meditate in circumstances in which you can do nothing else; and thus, by this sweet and silent exercise of the soul, you may keep yourself constantly under a sanctifying influence. “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” Joshua 1:8. “My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises.” Psalm 119:148
In respect to the duty of private prayer, much of what might here naturally be said, has been anticipated in another discourse. Let me only add, that your private addresses at a throne of grace should be, in a high degree, particular; and should contemplate even the most minute circumstances of your condition. In social and public prayer, our petitions are necessarily, in some degree, of a general character; as they embrace needs which each individual has, in common with many others. But every Christian’s experience has something in it peculiar; and not only so—but it is subject to constant variation; and it is in the devotions of the closet alone, that this variety of experience can be distinctly recognized. Endeavor, then, by previous meditation, to gain an accurate knowledge of your necessities and sins, on the one hand; and a deep impression of the mercies which you have received, on the other; and by thus communing with your own heart, you will be prepared for close and particular communion with God.
In reviewing a given period, do you find that you have been betrayed into levity of conversation or deportment; or that you have remained silent, where you ought to have dropped a word in behalf of the cause of Christ? Do you find that your thoughts have been wandering on forbidden objects; or that you have yielded to the influence of some evil passion—have indulged in discontent, envy, pride, or revenge; or that, from the lack of vigilance, you have been overcome by some sudden temptation? Let all this be a matter of distinct and solemn confession in your closet.
Or have you received some signal manifestation of God’s kindness in preserving you from temptation, or strengthening you for arduous duties, or imparting new vigour to your pious affections, and thus brightening your hope of heaven? Let these, and all other private blessings, be a subject of devout thanksgiving in your closet.
Or do you find that you have easily besetting sins; or that duties await you, which must involve great self-denial; or that temptations are about to throng upon you, which mere human resolution can never successfully oppose? In the closet you are to seek for grace accommodated to these and all other exigencies of your spiritual condition. In short, here you are to unburden your whole soul with the confidence of a child. You have sins, and sorrows, and needs, which it might be neither desirable nor proper that you should bring before the world. But there is not a sin of which you are guilty, which you are not encouraged here to confess: not a sorrow can agitate your bosom—but you may venture here to tell it to a compassionate God: not a need can you feel—but you may here ask with confidence to have it supplied.
Let the exercise of private prayer be conducted in the manner which has now been described, and it cannot fail to exert a powerful influence in making you holy. But in proportion as it becomes general—overlooking the more minute circumstances of your condition, it will degenerate into formality, and thus defeat the great end which it is designed to accomplish.
Closely connected with private prayer, as a means of growth in grace, is reading the Scriptures. “Sanctify them through your truth,” is part of the memorable prayer which our Lord offered in behalf of his disciples, a little before he left the world; and the sentiment which it contains, has been verified in the experience of every Christian from that hour down to the present. Not only is the word of God the incorruptible seed of the renewed nature—but it is that from which the spiritual principle derives its nourishment; and accordingly we find that those who have attained the most commanding stature in piety, are those who have drawn most largely from this storehouse of spiritual bounty. But in order that you may realise the benefit which this exercise is adapted to secure, you must read the word of God with devout and earnest attention; for like the food which nourishes the body, it must be digested in order to its being a means of nourishment to the soul. You must read it as the word of God; with the most reverent regard for its author; with a firm persuasion that it contains the words of eternal life; and with a conscience lying open to the authority of Him who speaks in it.
You must read it as being addressed particularly to yourself. You must apply what you read for your personal instruction or admonition, as truly as if it had been spoken immediately to you by a voice from Heaven. You must read it with a spirit of dependence on God, as the author of all holy illumination; often sending up the prayer—”Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” Read the Bible in this way, my young friends, and while new glories will constantly be unfolding to your delighted vision, as the stars thicken upon the eye at evening; the principle of spiritual life will be continually growing more vigorous, and the evidence of your title to heaven more unquestionable.
In connection with reading the scriptures, I may mention reading other books also, of a serious and practical nature. There are books which are designed immediately to illustrate the meaning, and to exhibit the harmony, of the scriptures. There are other books whose more immediate object is to present a detailed view of the doctrines of the Bible; to show their connection with each other, and their practical bearings both upon God and man. And there are other books still, which are especially fitted to awaken and cherish a spirit of devotion; to withdraw the soul from the influence of external objects, and bring it to commune with spiritual and invisible realities. Books of either of the kinds to which I have now referred, you may read with much advantage; though you are always to recollect that, as the productions of uninspired men, they are to be tried by the law and the testimony. They are the lesser lights in true religion, which borrow all their luster from the sun.
It deserves here to be remarked, that the different private exercises of which I have spoken, are intimately connected, and are fitted to exert a mutually favourable influence on each other. Meditation, while it composes the mind to a devotional frame, and brings before it subjects for prayer, applies the truths of God’s word as means of sanctification. Prayer not only leaves the soul in a state most favourable to meditation—but spreads over the sacred page an illuminating and heavenly influence. Reading the scriptures at once furnishes materials for meditation, and kindles the spirit, while it supplies the language, of prayer. Let these several duties, then, be joined together, so far as possible, in your daily practice; and while each will contribute to render the others more interesting and profitable, they will together exert a powerful influence in your Christian improvement.
2. Another important means of growth in grace, is Christian fellowship. The utility of social fellowship has been felt in every department of knowledge and action. He who desires to make distinguished attainments in anything, can scarcely fail highly to estimate the society of kindred minds engaged in a similar pursuit; and accordingly we find that some of the most brilliant discoveries in science, have resulted from the fellowship which great minds have had with each other. And as it is with other things, so it is with true religion—hardly anything can serve more effectually to invigorate our pious affections, or to heighten the interest with which we regard the objects of faith, than a close and fraternal fellowship with Christian friends; whereas, the neglect of such fellowship is at once a cause, and a symptom, of spiritual declension.
That your fellowship with Christian friends may be profitable, let it be frequent. Every consideration which should induce you to cultivate this fellowship at all, should induce you to engage in it frequently: and besides, if true religion is made the topic of conversation only at distant intervals, the almost certain consequence will be that such conversation will never awaken much interest, or be prosecuted with much advantage; whereas, by being frequently introduced, it can hardly fail, through the influence of habit, on the one hand, and an increased degree of pious feeling, on the other—to become a most pleasant and edifying exercise.
Let a few Christian friends appropriate an hour of each week to the interchange of pious sentiments and feelings, to compare with each other their spiritual progress, and to strengthen each other for their spiritual conflicts, and let this exercise be continued regularly and perseveringly, and you may expect that its influence will be felt in a rapid and vigorous growth of piety. The place of such a meeting will soon come to be regarded as a bethel; and the hour consecrated to it, will be hailed with devout joy and gratitude.
But these are by no means the only seasons in which you should avail yourselves of this privilege. In the common and daily walks of life, there are occasions constantly occurring, on which you may take sweet counsel with your fellow-Christians. Why may not the friendly call, and the social interview, instead of being perverted to purposes of idle or vain talk, be made subservient to spiritual improvement? Is it not far more grateful to review an hour passed with a friend in conversing on topics connected with Christian experience, or with the kingdom of Christ, than one which you have frittered away in mere trifling talk, without having uttered a word worthy of your Christian character or Christian hopes?
Moreover, this fellowship should be more or less unreserved, according to circumstances. I would not, by any means, recommend an indiscriminate disclosure of your pious exercises: this would not only appear to be—but there is reason to fear that it would actually be, the operation of spiritual pride; than which, nothing can be more offensive either to God or man.
As a general direction, I would say that, while you may profitably hold pious fellowship with all Christians, that of a more close and confidential kind should ordinarily be confined to intimate friends—those who will at once value and reciprocate your Christian confidence. You are, by no means, of course, to decline pious conversation with a Christian friend, because there may be those present, who are not interested in it; but you are so far to regard their presence, as to endeavour to give the conversation that direction which shall be most likely to minister to their profit, as well as your own.
And finally, I would say that all your pious fellowship ought, so far as possible, to be accompanied or followed by prayer. This will serve at once to strengthen the tie that binds your hearts together, to give additional interest to your fellowship, and to draw down upon it the blessing of God. Is it not the melancholy fact that this most delightful duty is often neglected, in the circumstances of which I speak, because it is considered a matter of delicacy? God forbid, my young friends, that you should ever, for a moment, yield to such a sentiment. Surely that is not only false—but criminal delicacy, which, by forbidding you to kneel down with a companion in the Christian life at the throne of mercy, would intercept some of the richest blessings of God’s grace.
3. I notice as another of the means of growth in grace, public worship. On this subject, it must be acknowledged that there prevails, extensively, a lamentable deficiency in Christian practice. It is no part of your errand here to engage in worldly civilities; or hear worldly news; or count the number of strangers, and prepare to comment upon their appearance. Your business here lies between God and your own souls; and it will never advance, while your attention is absorbed by external objects. Guard then against the idle gaze, and the wandering imagination; make the prayers and the praises which are here offered, your own; let every truth which is here delivered, be applied for your instruction, admonition, or consolation; and feel best satisfied when, on retiring from the sanctuary, your thoughts have been least upon your fellow-mortals, and most upon God. And let not the good impressions which you may have received, be effaced by worldly conversation at the close of the service, or on the way to your dwelling. Decline all conversation which will be likely to exert such an influence, even though it should be solicited; for it is far safer to offend man than God. And avail yourself of the first opportunity to enter your closet, to supplicate the blessing of God to follow the service in which you have been engaged, and to bring home the truths which you have heard more impressively to your own soul. “They who wait upon the Lord” in this manner, “shall renew their strength;” and shall have just occasion to say, “A day in your courts is better than a thousand.”
In connection with this article, let me direct your attention for a moment, a little more particularly, to your duty in relation to social pious exercises during the week. So chilling is the atmosphere of the world to pious feeling, that the Christian greatly needs the aid which these weekly services are fitted to impart, to keep alive the spirit of devotion. They who fear the Lord will desire not only to speak often one to another—but to unite their hearts in prayer, and to open them to the reception of the truth. While, therefore, you regard such exercises as matter only of Christian prudence, you should consider them important helps in the pious life; and if, at any time, you grow weary of attending them, it will be well to inquire whether there is not a proportional decline in respect to other Christian duties.
No doubt services of this kind may be multiplied to an improper extent, so as to interfere with duties of paramount claims; and no doubt they may be rendered unprofitable, and even injurious, by being improperly conducted. At the same time, I am constrained to believe that objections to these services have arisen more frequently from lack of true religion, than anything else; and that the spirit which treats them with contempt, would, if it were armed with power, bring every institution of God into the dust.
4. The last means of growth in grace which I shall here notice, is attendance on the Lord’s supper. That you may receive the benefit which this ordinance is fitted to impart, endeavour to gain a deep impression of its nature and design. It is a commemorating ordinance; in which we are to remember “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, who, though he was rich—for our sakes became poor.” It is a confessing ordinance; by which we profess ourselves to be the disciples of Christ, and openly renounce the world as our portion. It is a communicating ordinance, in which the blessings of God’s grace are communicated for the renovation of our spiritual strength. It is a covenanting ordinance; in which God declares himself our God, and we devote ourselves anew to his service. The more you reflect on the nature and design of this institution, the more you will discover in it of wisdom and grace; the more you will derive from it of light, and strength, and comfort.
Endeavor, moreover, to be faithful in your immediate preparation for this ordinance. This preparation consists generally in all the private pious exercises of which I have spoken; but more especially in self-examination. “Let a man examine himself,” says the apostle; “and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.” The public service which has been instituted in our churches as preparatory to this ordinance, you are also devoutly and punctually to attend; and let me say that, if you are voluntarily and habitually absent from that service, you not only wrong your own soul—but carry upon you the mark of a backslider. Cases may indeed occur in which the Lord’s table may be spread before you unexpectedly, and in which you have no opportunity for immediate preparation; and then it is no doubt your duty to partake, and you may hope for the blessing of God. But where preparation is voluntarily neglected, you may expect that the ordinance will be to you a mere dead letter; and it will be well, if you do not eat and drink judgment to yourself.
In your attendance on the ordinance, be careful that you cherish the feelings, which the occasion is adapted and designed to awaken. You should yield yourself to devout admiration of that grace, and wisdom, and glory, which shine forth in the plan of redemption, and which seem concentrated around the Redeemer’s cross. You are to behold with fervent gratitude the amazing sacrifice which constituted the price of all your joys and hopes—the price of your immortal crown. You are to look inward with deep humility upon your own sins, as part of the guilty cause of your Redeemer’s sufferings. You are to look upward with holy joy to a reigning Savior, and to a bright inheritance. You are to renew your resolutions of devotedness to Christ, and to determine in the strength of his grace, on a course of more unyielding self-denial. You are to cherish the spirit of brotherly love towards your fellow-Christians, and a spirit of good will towards the whole family of man; and you are to let your benevolent affections go out in fervent prayer for the revival of God’s work.
Thus you are to wait upon the Lord at his table; but that you may not, after all, defeat the design of your attendance, carry the spirit of the ordinance back with you to your closet, and there let it be fanned into a still brighter flame. Carry it with you into the world, into scenes of care and temptation, and let it certify to all with whom you associate, that you have been with Jesus.
I proceed to the third and last division of the discourse, in which I am briefly to illustrate,
III. The importance of growth in grace.
1. Growth in grace is important—as constituting the only satisfactory evidence of piety.
I well know that there is a tendency in the backslider and self-deceiver to be perpetually looking to past experience. When they are rebuked, as they cannot fail sometimes to be, by the consciousness of being far from God and from duty, they call to mind the days in which they were cheered, as they suppose, by the manifestations of the Saviour’s love; and by connecting experience, which is at best equivocal in its character, and long since gone by—with a sad perversion of the doctrine of the saints’ perseverance—they arrive at the welcome conclusion that, though fallen from their first love, they have yet the love of God in their hearts. Beware, my young friends, of this delusion.
The Christian character is, in its very nature, progressive. If then you make no sensible progress in piety—much more if you are on the decline, and have allowed your affections to become wedded to the world, you have no right, from your past experience, to take the comfort of believing that this is only the occasional lapse of a child of God, from which his grace is pledged to bring you back. You have reason rather to conclude that you have been resting upon the hypocrite’s hope, and that you are yet in your sins. But if, on the other hand, the principle of true religion in your heart is constantly gaining strength, then you have evidence on which you may confidently rely, that you have been born of God.
The grain of mustard seed, when cast into the earth, is so small as almost to elude observation; but when it shoots up into a tree, and gradually lifts its boughs towards heaven, no one doubts the reality of its existence. In like manner, the principle of true religion, when first implanted in the heart, is so feeble, that even its existence may be a matter of question; but as it gathers strength, and advances towards maturity, the evidence of its reality becomes decisive.
2. Growth in grace is important, as constituting the only solid ground of comfort. We have already seen that it constitutes the only satisfactory evidence of piety. But without evidence of piety, you have no right to indulge the hope of heaven: and without that hope, where in the universe will you look for comfort? If you do not grow in grace, you must either be sunk in spiritual lethargy, or else you must be occasionally at least harrowed with fearful apprehensions in respect to the future; and who will say that either situation has anything in it that deserves the name of enjoyment. If, on the other hand, you grow in grace, you have, with the evidence of piety which is thus gained, a right to hope that you are an heir to the glories of the upper world. Is there anything in this hope that is transporting? As you value its consolations, grow in grace.
Moreover, the growing Christian finds comfort not only in the hope of heaven—but in the daily exercise of the Christian graces; but if you do not grow in grace, you have not more to expect from this latter source of comfort than from the former. In the exercise of love to God, and faith in the Saviour, and many other Christian graces—yes, even in the successful struggles of the soul with sin, there is sometimes a joy which mounts up to ecstasy. But to all this, the sluggish and backslidden Christian (for such, at best, must he be who is not growing in grace,) is, of course, a stranger. He cannot have the comfort of the Christian graces, because he has not the exercise of them. Grow in grace, then, as you would avoid the languor and apathy of spiritual declension, on the one hand, and as you would rejoice in the inward experience of God’s love, on the other.
3. Growth in grace is important, as constituting the only pledge of pious action. I am well aware that many actions externally good, and fitted to exert a benign influence on the world, are performed by men whose hearts have never been touched by a sanctifying influence: there are broad and deep streams of public charity, flowing from fountains into which the salt of divine grace has never been cast. Thanks to that Providence which has ordained that it should be so; which causes bad men sometimes to do good—giving the contribution their hands, even while they withhold their hearts. But who does not perceive that in all cases of this kind, there is not—cannot be, a pledge for continued exertion in the cause of Christ? As there is no love to that cause, whence shall come that constraining influence, which shall nerve the hands for unrelaxed and persevering effort? Who can feel any assurance that the person who serves God today, by his property or his influence, from merely selfish motives, will not tomorrow, upon a change of circumstances, become a persecutor of the faith which he now labours to promote?
Far otherwise is it with the person, who lives in the growing exercise of grace. With him, to do good is a matter of principle; and in every variety of circumstances, it is the business of his life. Do you fear that he will grow weary of well-doing? Never, so long as he continues to grow in grace—for it is only the outward operation of the inward principle. Place him in circumstances the most unfavourable to benevolent action; let him, for his master’s sake, be shut out from the light of heaven, and chained in dreary solitude, where he can have no access to a human being—and is his benevolent influence no longer exerted? I tell you, No. That man is doing good even in his dungeon: he has in his bosom a principle whose operations no tyrant can check, and no dungeon confine. Though his communication with the visible world is cut off, he has communion with the invisible God; and the influence of his prayers may not only change his dark abode into a habitation for the Most High—but may carry the blessings of God’s grace to many souls. Cultivate, then, this holy principle, that yours may be a life not only of sincere—but of persevering benevolence; and that it may hereafter be said of you, as of your Master—that you went about doing good.
4. Growth in grace is important, as constituting the only adequate preparation for Heaven. You hope you have been renewed in the temper of your mind: but even if you are not deceived in this hope, you cannot be insensible that there is much of corruption still lodged in your heart; and that a mighty change is yet to take place in your character, before you are prepared to inhabit the regions of perfect purity. You still sometimes feel the risings of a spirit of rebellion; sometimes you are brought under the power of evil affections; and not un-frequently, when your soul would rise to heaven in pious contemplation, it is weighed down to the dust by the most oppressive sluggishness. But this spirit of rebellion, and these evil affections, and this oppressive sluggishness, you can never carry with you to heaven: hence the necessity of growing in grace, that you may be prepared for heaven. But do you say that eternal life is promised to all who have been renewed; and that, die when they will, God will see to it that they are completely sanctified? Be it so—but let it not be forgotten that, in the ordinary course of his providence, He accomplishes this object by bringing them to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. And besides, though there is a pledge that all the regenerate shall be received to heaven, yet the measure of their joy in that happy world is to be proportioned to their present attainments. Would you then, Christian, be ready for your entrance into rest; would you aspire to a place in heaven near your Redeemer, where the beams of his glory shall illuminate your soul with brightest effulgence—then, grow in grace—press forward to the mark of the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
Let me, in the conclusion of this discourse, my young friends, impress upon you, in one word, the importance of aiming at high attainments in true religion. Whether you are to be a sluggish or an active Christian; whether you are to cheer the region around you by the light of a holy example, or to be a stumbling block in the path of sinners—depends much on the resolutions which you now form, and the course which you now adopt. Oh resolve—and supplicate God’s grace to enable you to execute the resolution—that you will exemplify the character of a constantly growing Christian. Make all your worldly employments subordinate, and, so far as possible, subservient to your progress in piety. Think yourself more happy when you have gained the victory over a besetting sin, than if you should see an empire at your feet. Let nothing allure you—let nothing drive you—from the straight and narrow path of duty. If the world should come and court you with its smiles, turn your back upon it, or meet it only as a tempter. If it should cast its chilling frown upon you, and call your zeal wild enthusiasm, and your devotion hypocrisy, remember that it is enough for the disciple that he be as his master. Be it your grand object to become a spiritually mature person in Christ Jesus. Keep your eye steadily fixed on heaven, as the eagle’s eye fastens upon the sun—and let your spirit constantly press upward, as the eagle’s wing lifts itself towards the orb of day.