Wednesday, February 04, 2009


How does one measure spiritual growth?

The question assumes that we do grow spiritually, that there is something to be measured. But can I take that for granted? Scripture tells us to grow—“grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ,” says Peter. But I suspect that, with all our passion for bodybuilding and personal development, very few of us are seeking to grow in the way that Peter tells us to. So very few of us are actually doing so.

Human parents would be very upset if five or ten or 20 or 40 years after birth their babies were still babies; it must also grieve our heavenly Father when his born-again children are content to mark time in immaturity rather than aim at spiritual advance.

May God joggle our consciences, and joggle them hard, about this! Meantime, however, back to my original question: how may growth in grace be discerned? How may we know that we grow?

To get a handle on this question, we must start by asking: what are the changes in a person’s life that show sanctification in progress? This is a bigger question than can be properly answered here, but we can point to at least three areas of necessary change. Each is double-barreled.

First, growth in grace means increase in humility, and in the passion for praise. A pair-of-scales effect operates here. The closer one walks with God, the more sensitive one becomes to sin. One’s estimate of oneself sinks lower because of the depths of sinfulness that one now sees within oneself. As one’s view of oneself goes down, so one’s gratitude for God’s love in salvation raises up in greater adoration.

Those who are growing spiritually tread in their inner life the path of punctured pride and passionate praise, and become ever more ardent in effacing themselves in order to exalt their Savior-God.

Second, growth in grace means increase in faith that will forfeit worldly security.

Fifteen years ago a man in an electronics shop said to me, “what you have faith in is what you’d bet your life on.” He was right! Growing in faith in the God of all grace produces willingness at his call to enter situations of material insecurity and, by human thinking, of risk. Once it is clear that the call really is from God and is not just a foolhardy fancy of one’s own, those who are growing in grace will obey the summons and, as Oswald Chambers put it, “smilingly wash their hands of the consequences. “That is not irresponsibility; it is, rather, faith in action, the kind of faith by which, we are told in Hebrews, “Abraham obeyed when he was called . . . and . . . went out, not knowing where he was to go.” Such faith sees obedience as top priority, and trusts God’s care. It embraces the path of obedience as the place of real and ultimate safety, however hazardous and indeed ruinous it may look from outside. In this sense all who grow in grace bet their lives on God constantly.

Third, growth in grace means increase in love that gives. Folk wisdom divides humanity into two classes, the givers and the takers, and many born-again Christians seem to remain takers rather than becoming givers. But those who are advancing into Christ-likeness renounce self-absorbed self-seeking. They actively love God and others, giving up to the limit of their time, talents, and treasure to honor God and help humans. Cheerful self-denying generosity, that gives and goes on giving even then, marks all who are growing in grace.
On now to crunch-point. Physical growth is discerned by measuring height and weight; how is spiritual growth measured?

The true answer is that it cannot be measured. Growth in grace is a mystery of grace, which it is beyond us to monitor in either ourselves or others. Observables, like zeal, knowledge, self-image, and behavior patterns, are ambiguous: they may be carnal at bottom, though spiritual-looking on the surface. The heart of growth is growth in the heart, which only God can search and know.

However, something of our spiritual stature may be discerned by our responses to what we call crises of decisions and Scripture calls temptations. Those who deal with crises, or temptations, better than they once did show that they have grown in grace in the interim.

Abraham. Twice, early on in his life of faith, to save his skin he passed off his wife as his sister, free flesh ripe for the royal harem. Neither humility nor adoration nor obedience nor faith nor love was expressed in that action. But some decades later Abraham was ready at God’s call to sacrifice Isaac. The difference between that first response and later response to crises of decision showed that over the years Abraham had grown in grace.
Do you and I really grow in grace? I wonder.

This article was previously published in Eternity Magazine, January 1989.


Debbie said...

“The heart of growth is growth in the heart, which only God can search and know.” Oh, so true and what lies at the heart of Hebrews 4:12. We cannot accurately appraise our own growth –- our yardstick will inevitably appeal to our pride and lead us to believe that we somehow “measure up”. I love the way Packer succinctly stressed this with an “increase in humility, and in the passion for praise”. Thank you for this article.

Psalm 139:23-24

olan strickland said...

Steve, I agree with Packer that growth in faith (trust in God) can be measured by crises in faith as we trust the Lord with all our hearts and lean not on our own understanding. And I agree that an increase in faith will cause one to forfeit wordly security.

However, I believe that Packer's definition of faith doesn't exactly line up with the biblical definition. Packer's definition of faith is reduced down to a bet - Fifteen years ago a man in an electronics shop said to me, “what you have faith in is what you’d bet your life on.” He was right! Faith isn't a bet; faith is a certainty (Hebrews 11:1. Faith is based on objective truth (Romans 10:17 and therefore cannot be reduced down to a bet. Many lost religious people have the type of faith that they are "betting" their lives on but it isn't biblical saving faith.

Faith is trusting and obeying inspite of consequences because we are certain about God and His faithfulness, and that certainty comes from His Word. Subjective faith that is saving and obeying faith comes from objective truth - the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.

I'm not meaning to be nit-picky; it's just that what Packer had to say about faith in his second point would have been on spot without his opening illustration and closing sentence.

The Blainemonster said...

Hmmm that's so good. It is cause for wonder and concern that so many Christians don't seem to pursue growth.

I must admit that I do not always, because growth often means discomfort or even pain, just as it does in our physical bodies. (I remember those "growing pains" that drove to climb in bed with my parents at night as a child!)

Discipline, either the self-imposed kind or the type that comes from our faithful Father, is often the thing that spurs growth, and "no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." (Heb 12:11)

In the end, I'm so glad that God is gracious toward me - I loathe my stubborness and long for growth! :)

Anonymous said...

I like what Luther had to say in his explanation of the third article of the Apostle's Creed in his Small Catechism"

"I believe that by my own underatanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to Him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with His gifts and sanctifies me as He does the whole Chriatian cjurch on earth..."

I trust that He is making me grow in His grace...even when I cannot tell that it is happening.

N.C. said...


Do you work as a pastor or on a church staff? Just wondering.


Terry Rayburn said...

Wow. A real magazine article from a real pre-Internet magazine.

I used to love Eternity Magazine. This article must be one of the last before they went out of business.

Didn't James Montgomery Boice edit it?

Anyway, as to Packer's questions...

We would have a better grasp of growing in the "grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ" if we weren't infected with the traditional view of sanctification as somehow getting "better" or more "sinless".

Most occurrences of the word translated "sanctify" or "sanctified" indicate that we are already sanctified, or set apart, perfected in our spirit.

But so-called "progressive sanctification" should be understood biblically not as growing "better", but as growing in the understanding of eternal truths and living accordingly.

For example, we all know Romans 8:28, and agree intellectually that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him.

But do we really believe that? To the extent that we do, we can "measure" our sanctification.

Do we really believe that we are "dead to sin" (Rom. 6:6, 11)? If we walk by sight, we have to admit that it doesn't look true. But to the extent that we really believe it, we can see our sanctification.

Do we really believe in grace, after salvation? That God's love and acceptance of us are utterly unrelated to our performance? That there is nothing we can do to make Him love us more, and nothing we can do to make Him love us less?

To the extent that we do, we have measurably grown in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

But to the extent that we gaze upon ourselves, watching for "improvements" and better "performance" which we think will earn God's favor...

To the extent that we think God is angry and frowning on us when we sin and fail, and that maybe our sins really aren't cast into the sea and put away as far as the East is from the West...

To that extent we have a long way to go in our growing in grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And yet, our eyes may be opened, and the brilliant light of God's radical grace and love may shine brightly in our hearts in an instant, and such growth may spring up at a rate that is surprising.

Especially when the legalism of performance-based Christian life is boldly countered with the truth that having begun by the Spirit we're sure not going to be improved by the flesh (Gal. 3:3).

janice said...

To my brother Terry, thank you for always encouraging my spirit with truth!!! It truly sets me free again!!....and gives me such peace and I know that I am tenderly loved by Abba. How sad when believers don't truly know that; but line upon line....Love from JC, your sister.

SJ Camp said...

I agree with you. Sometimes our attempts at what we think is a good illustration doesn't represent the biblical truth of it all.

Good insight...