We all like to see progress being made. This is true in every sphere of life and activity in which we are involved. Parents are thrilled at the ongoing development of their children, as they master new skills and cope with the challenges of growing up. Teachers rejoice when ‘the penny drops’ and students surge forward to glowing academic achievements. In the world of business there is understandable satisfaction whenever a new deal is struck, or whenever the success of the enterprise is advanced. Such words as these might be uttered: ‘There are some who would say we should spend time consolidating. But consolidating means standing still, and standing still means going backwards.’ A typical snapshot of today’s attitude! Progress in the human realm always seeks to move from a state of weakness and dependence to one of strength and growing autonomy.
And progress is a biblical concept too. Speaking of the public work of preaching and teaching, Paul encouraged Timothy to ‘practise these things, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress’ (1 Timothy 4:15). The Apostle Peter set his readers something of a ‘progress development programme’ when he urged them to ‘make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love’ (2 Peter 1:5-7).
But what about our individual progress in the Christian life? As so often, the usual expectations and assumptions which we carry with us have to be challenged and even turned on their heads. Far from moving from a position of dependence towards one of proud and self-reliant autonomy, the believer continually needs to learn to travel in the opposite direction. It is in a growing distrust of our own capabilities and resources, and in a clearer view of Christ and all that he has done for us, that we grow as Christians. If I am truly making progress in the spiritual life then I will learn more keenly that ‘False and full of sin I am; Thou art full of truth and grace.’
So we must not be ashamed of our weaknesses, certainly not before the Lord. We must see them as opportunities to increase our level of dependence upon him. His will is for our sanctification: that each of us might become increasingly like our Saviour. And what was our Saviour like? It was the Lord Jesus Christ who spent long nights of communion with God the Father and who was filled with the Spirit without measure. No proud self-reliance from the Son of God!
John Newton puts it so wonderfully:
Thus we are gradually prepared to live more out of ourselves, and to derive all our sufficiency of every kind from Jesus, the fountain of grace. We learn to tread more warily, to trust less to our own strength, to have lower thoughts of ourselves, and higher thoughts of him.1
- The Works of John Newton, Volume 1 [1820, reprinted Banner of Truth 1985], pp.430-1. The Works of John Newton are being reprinted in four volumes in the early part of 2015.
Paul Yeulett is Pastor of Shrewsbury Evangelical Church.
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