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The Necessity of Progress

John Angell James

 

ALL spiritual good things tend to improvement. A right principle must, from its very nature, push outward and onward as long as there is in contact with it anything that is wrong, for there is an expansive power in all truth and virtue. It would be strange if this were not the case with religion. It is with goodness as with money, the possession augments the desire to possess more. So that they who are contented with such a measure of piety as they already suppose they possess give fearful evidence that they have none. And this ought to sound alarm at once in the ears of a very large number of persons. “Is it true,” they should say, “that a self-satisfied condition is proof of little or no religion; that a quiet, easy, contented mind, without any anxiety to advance, is an evidence that the soul is not in a good and safe state; then ought I not to fear that I am deluding myself, since certainly I know very little about such a solicitude as this? Have I not, since I made a profession, seemed to reach the summit of my hopes, and settled down into a state of religious competency upon a supposition that I am rich enough already?” It may be well for the fears of some to be thus excited; and that they should ask such questions about their real condition. An uninquisitive state of mind cannot be a safe one. It is too momentous an affair to be treated in this “free and easy” sort of manner. It would be far more rational for a young tradesman just or lately started in life to be careless and questionless about his advance or retrogression, than for a young Christian lately set out on the journey to heaven. “Am I making progress?” should be his inquiry. Just for this reason — Progress is the law of true religion. This appears —

First. From Scripture COMMANDS. We shall select only a few of the most prominent. How impressive is such language as the following: “That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height, and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God.” — Ephes. iii. 16-19. “That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; but speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: from whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.” — Ephes. iv. 14-16. Read also Phil. i. 9-11; Col. i. 9-11 Heb. vi, 1-3–xiii. 20-21; 1 Peter ii. 1; 2 Pet. i. 5; and especially 2 Pet. iii. 18: “Grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” May I request you to lay down this volume, open your Bible, and read these passages, remembering that it is God who speaks to you in every one of them, and commands you to go forward.

Secondly. Consider the scriptural ILLUSTRATIONS of the nature of true religion. We take one first from the Old Testament, and a beautiful one it is — the rise and progress of the SUN. “The path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.” — Prov. iv. 18. It is not the glimmer of the glow-worm — nor the transient blaze of the meteor — nor the wasting ray of the taper — but the grand luminary of heaven “coming out of his chamber and rejoicing as a strong man to run a race.” And a very beautiful sight it is, to see a soul rising out of darkness, not stopping on the verge of the horizon, but ascending higher and higher: not merely beginning its course and remaining amidst fogs, clouds, and mists, but shining brighter and brighter at every step with increasing knowledge, faith, and love. But is this shining light the picture of our path? There is no such command given as, “Sun, stand thou still:” therefore it rebukes a stationary profession. It is a rising and an advancing, not a declining, sun: therefore it rebukes a backsliding state. There may be an occasional cloud, or even in some cases, as of David and Peter, a temporary eclipse. But when did the sun fail of carrying on its early dawn to a perfect day? Be thankful then, for “the day of small things:” despise it not. But be not satisfied with it. Religion must be a shining and a progressive light.

Among these scriptural illustrations there is none more frequent or better known than LIFE. It is scarcely necessary to quote passages, they are so numerous, and so familiar. “He that believeth hath everlasting life.” “By this we know we have passed from death unto life.” “He came that we might have life, and that we might have it more abundantly.” “Your life is hid with Christ in God.” “When Christ who is our life shall appear.” Religion is a new, a spiritual, a divine, a heavenly life: the life of God in the soul of man. Now it is the law of all life to progress. It is so with vegetable and animal vitality, and it must of necessity be so with that which is spiritual. Mark the new born babe — there is a spark of life, always very feeble, sometimes scarcely distinguishable from death. Yet there is life. The babe becomes a child, the child a youth, the youth a man. Life is progressive, is not this, I say, the selected, the frequent emblem of the Christian? In support of this illustration of progress in religion, we may refer to one of the passages already quoted, — “As new-born babes desire the sincere milk of the word that ye may grow thereby.” Newly converted persons are babes lately born, little infants, feeble in every thing that pertains to spiritual life, yet there is life. They are not like still-born children, that cannot grow, but are quickened from a death of sin to a life of righteousness. What is dead cannot grow; as what is perfect does not need to grow. An unregenerated sinner can never grow in spiritual life. He must first be made alive; and when he is alive he must grow. This constitutes the difference between “living in the Spirit, and “walking in the Spirit. There is first the principle of life, then its manifestation in activity. So young Christians are very far from being what they are yet to be, even on earth; as all Christians are very far from being what they are to be in heaven. The child of God is born to grow as well as to live: and God, who has ordained the growth, has provided for it in the milk of the word. The representation of Archbishop Leighton in his exquisitely beautiful exposition of this passage is so striking that I shall introduce a long quotation from it, which no one will deem too long.

“The whole estate and course of the Christian’s spiritual life here is called their infancy, not only as opposed to the corruption and wickedness of their previous state, but likewise as signifying the weakness and imperfection of it at the best in this life, compared with the perfection of the life to come; for the weakest beginnings of grace are by no means so far below the highest degree of it possible in this life, as the highest degree falls short of the state of glory: so that, if one measure of grace is called infancy in respect of another, much more is all grace infancy in respect of glory. And sure as for duration, the time of our present life is far less to eternity than the time of our natural infancy is to the rest of our life; so that we may still be called but new or lately born. Our best pace and strongest walking in obedience here, is but the stepping of children when they begin to go by hold, in comparison of the perfect obedience in glory, the stately, graceful steps with which, on the heights of Zion, we shall walk in the light of the Lord; when ‘we shall follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth.’ All our knowledge here is but the ignorance of infants, and all our expressions of God and of his praises, are but as the first stammerings of children (which are, however, very pleasant both to child and parent), in comparison of the knowledge we shall have of him hereafter, ‘when we shall know as we are known;’ and of those praises we shall offer him, when that new song shall be taught us, ‘which is sung before the throne, and before the four living creatures, and which none can learn but those who are redeemed from the earth.’ — Rev. xiv. 3. A child hath in it a reasonable soul; and yet, by the indisposedness of the body, and abundance of moisture, it is so bound up, that its difference from the beasts, and its partaking of a rational nature, is not so apparent as afterwards; and thus the spiritual life that is from above infused into a Christian, though it doth act and work in some degree, yet it is so clogged with natural corruption still remaining in him, that the excellency of it is much clouded and obscured; but in the life to come it shall have nothing at all encumbering and indisposing it. And this is the Apostle Paul’s doctrine: ‘For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see, through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known.’ — l Cor. xiii. 9-12.

“And this is the wonder of divine grace, that brings so small beginnings to that height of perfection that we are not able to conceive of that a little spark of true grace, that is not only indiscernible to others, but often to the Christian himself, should yet be the beginning of that condition wherein they shall shine brighter than the sun in the firmament. The difference is great in our natural life, in some persons especially, that they who in infancy were so feeble, and wrapped up like others in swaddling clothes, yet afterwards come to excel in wisdom and in the knowledge of the sciences, to be commanders of great armies, or to be kings; but the distance is far greater, and more admirable, between the weakness of these new-born babes, the small beginnings of grace, and their after perfection, that fullness of knowledge that we look for, and that crown of immortality that all are born to who are born of God. But as in the faces and actions of some children, characters and presages of their after greatness have appeared, as a singular beauty in Moses’ countenance, as they write of him, and as Cyrus was made king among the shepherd’s children, with whom he was brought up, so also certainly in these children of God there be some characters and evidences that they are born for heaven by their new birth. That holiness and meekness, that patience and faith, that shine in the actions and sufferings of the saints, are characters of their Father’s image, and show their high original, and foretell their glory to come; such a glory as doth not only surpass the world’s thoughts, but the thoughts of the children of God themselves. ‘It doth not yet appear what we shall be; but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.’ — 1 John iii. 2.”

We now, in prosecution of the scriptural illustrations of religious progress, take up the idea of a SPRING. “Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever shall’ drink of this water, shall thirst again; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” — John iv. 13, 14. Permit me to direct your fixed attention to the beauties of this passage. While the pleasures of the world, “the lust of the flesh, the pride of life, and the lust of the eyes,” are but as drops which excite rather than allay the thirst of the natural man after true happiness, or at best leave him unsatisfied; the grace of Christ in renewing and sanctifying the soul, leads it to time true fountain of bliss, and compels it in the fullness of satisfaction, to exclaim, “I have found it; I have found it.” And this source of happiness is not far off, for it is within and not without its possessor. “It shall be in him a well of water.” He carries the spring about with him. Hence it is said, “The good man shall be satisfied from himself.” And it is also abundant, an unfailing source, a constant supply, a well ever accessible and never dry. But it is not merely the satisfying but progressive nature of true religion which is here represented. It is a beautiful image — not a stagnant pool, nor a well so deep as that its waters cannot rise; but a spring whose sparkling and gushing ebullitions shall be ever bubbling up, and forming an ever-living fountain that flows at all seasons of the year, in heat or cold, and in all the circumstances of the weather, whether foul or fair, wet or dry. Religion always lives, always shows its beauties, and amidst all changes of external circumstances. But this inward spring of grace in the soul is represented as rising higher and higher, and never stopping till it reaches eternal life; swelling into a stream which refreshes others in its course to eternity, making all around it fruitful and pleasant; just like a river flowing through a country which irrigates the land and covers it on every hand with fertility and beauty.

I ask, Is this descriptive of our religion? Do we know anything of this indwelling of the Spirit of God? This inward supply from a divine source of sanctity and bliss? These holy ebullitions of sanctified feeling? This rising up of an inward principle to a divine source, an element of life issuing from the parent fountain, and returning to its primitive source — a something godlike, which aspires to God — heavenly, which aspires to heaven — eternal, which rests not till it has reached the eternal? What of all this is in us? Is it mystery, or plainness to us? It is immensely important that we give ourselves time and leisure to enquire into this matter.

The next illustration I borrow is that which we find in our Lord’s language; “The earth bringeth forth fruit of herself: first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear.” — Mark iv. 28. This language is rather a description of the growth of grace in the heart, than, like the grain of mustard seed, the advancement of the kingdom of Christ in the world. It is an allusion to one of the beautiful developments and slow processes of nature in regard to vegetable life. How gradually does the principle of vitality evolve, its first germinating being imperceptible to the most observant eye. Yet from that invisible germ, there grows up at length the strong and verdant blade. Then the ear gently and gradually comes forth from its envelopments. This under the genial influence of the heavens and the fertilizing power of the earth swells into the plump, ripe corn, ready for the reaper’s sickle. Instructive amid beautiful emblem of that more precious seed of the ‘Word of God which is sown in the heart of man by God’s regenerating work! It is at first small, feeble, tender, scarcely perceptible, like time first shoots of the grain in the earth. It may be the early impressions upon a child’s mind listening to his mother’s gentle admonition and familiar instruction. Or it may be a conviction lodged in the soul under some melting or alarming sermon. Or it may be a serious reflection occasioned by some painful visitation of Providence. God has various methods of entering by his grace into the soul of the unconverted sinner. The seed may lie long like the grain in the earth before any sign of vegetable life is perceptible; yet all this while the vital process may be going on. At length it rises above the ground and growth is visible, which continues till the result already described is apparent. But like that in its earlier stages, it needs the greatest watchfulness and care, for it is peculiarly susceptible of injury and destruction.

The last illustration I take up is that of a RACE. “The most splendid solemnities which ancient history hath transmitted to us were the Olympic Games. Historians, orators, and poets abound with references to them, and their sublimest imagery is borrowed from these renowned exercises. The games were solemnized every fifth year by an infinite concourse of people from almost all parts of the world. They were observed with the greatest pomp and magnificence; hecatombs of victims were slain in honor of the heathen deities, and Elis was a scene of universal festivity and joy. We find that the most formidable and opulent sovereigns of those times were competitors for the Olympic crown. Even the lords of Imperial Rome and emperors of the world entered their names among the candidates, and contended for the envied palm; judging their felicity completed and the career of all human glory and greatness happily terminated if they could but interweave the Olympic garland with the laurels they had purchased in the fields of war.” Alas for the littleness of earthly ambition and the narrow range of human vanity. It is not to be wondered at that an institute so celebrated should be employed by the sacred writers to illustrate the sublimer objects which they had to propose, and to stimulate the desires which they were anxious to awaken. Hence the impressive language of the apostle: — “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown: but we an incorruptible.” — l Cor. ix. 24-25. No subject could be more familiar than this to the minds of the Corinthians, who were often spectators of similar games celebrated upon the isthmus on which their city was situated, and hence denominated the Isthmian. Among these games the foot race sustained a distinguished place. To this, express allusion is made by the apostle in writing to the Hebrews, among whom these national festivities had been introduced by Herod the Great. “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, arid the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.” — Heb. xii. 1-2. Every expression in these two passages is allusive and instructive. The enrolled competitor underwent for several months, like the men who engage in those disgraceful feats, our prize fights, a rigid system of physical training. Hence the expression, “He that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things.” The candidates were obliged to keep in the course marked out, and to observe all the rules prescribed; wherefore it is said, “If a man strive for masteries yet is he not crowned except he strive lawfully.” — 2 Tim. ii. 5. The racers laid aside their garments and ran nearly naked. Hence the exhortation: “Let us lay aside every weight (every unnecessary care, every lust both of the flesh and of the mind) and the sin which doth so easily beset us.” The race was carried on amidst an immense crowd of spectators, — hence the language: “We also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses.” The prize was merely honorary, consisting only of a chaplet of leaves, which withered ere it was worn — hence it is said, “They do it to obtain a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible.” How finely does this illustrate that sublime passage in the epistle to the Philippians: “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Jesus Christ. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” — Phil. iii. 12-14. Every term here employed refers to the ancient foot race, and the whole passage beautifully represents the ardor which fired the competitors when engaged in the contest.

Such, and so impressive, is the description given us by the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures, of the nature of religion; of the Christian life; and it is sufficient to make all somewhat anxious about their own state and to reveal the utter worthlessness and hollowness of the pretensions of many to the possession of true piety. Does not this illustrative figure set forth more forcibly and vividly than any mere language could do, that the Christian life is a state of self-denial — intense desire — deep solicitude; — of strenuous, unremitted, unwearied action; — and of constant progress? How was the soul of the racer filled and fired with the hope of success? How patiently were the necessary privations borne? How was every muscle strained and the speed quickened to the uttermost by the fear of defeat and the prospect of victory? Reader, whosoever you are whose eye shall wander over these pages, pause, I beseech you, and ponder this subject. This is the inspired description of religion, and must, therefore, be the correct one. Does your religion answer to this? Know you aught of such solicitude for the salvation of your soul, such labor to attain it, as are implied in this representation? Is your religion really a race? Does your eye often gaze upon the crown of life, and your bosom swell with the mighty aspiration after glory, honor, and immortality? Oh, do not deceive yourself. Look at this, there is something more than profession here. Something more than the easy and careless bearing of the Christian name which many exhibit.

But it is PROGRESS that the subject now leads us especially to contemplate. The racer was not only in action, but in progress. It was with him not merely bounding off with a vigorous start; nor exerting himself to the uttermost of his strength for a part of the course; but a continual going onwards. Hence the beautiful language of the apostle: “Forgetting the things that are behind, and reaching forth unto those which are before.” One who was running in the ancient race would not stop to look back to see how much ground he had run over, or which of his companions had fallen or lingered on the way. He would keep his eye fixed on the goal and the prize, and strain every nerve to reach them. If his attention were diverted for a single moment it might hinder his speed and might be the means of his losing the crown. Onwards, onwards, was the mighty impulse which stimulated him in his course. So was it with the apostle. He fixed his eye intently on the prize, and allowed no past attainments as a Christian, or success as a minister, to make him linger on the way. So must it be with us. No measure of knowledge, of faith, or holiness, must satisfy us, but we must be ever making advances in the divine life.

Thirdly. If anything more be necessary to convince us of the necessity of progress, consider Scriptural REBUKES. How often did our Lord reprove his disciples for the infantine feebleness of their faith; and with what just severity did the apostle reproach the believing Hebrews for their want of progress. “When,” said he, “for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and have become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.” — Heb. v. 12. Could anything be more reproachful of their culpable negligence, their shameful indolence, their voluntary backwardness in seeking after divine knowledge? They were babes when they ought to have been, and might have been, of full and matured strength. They were content with the very rudiments of Christianity, the alphabet of religion. It satisfied them just to have light enough to grope after salvation, and to walk on in dim twilight. Alas! alas! How many are like them. How many are content with the veriest elements of knowledge and experience. Talk with them, observe them years after they have made a profession of religion, and you will find them possessed of only the crudest notions and the most unsettled feelings. They are no further on in the divine life than they were: yea, they have gone back.

Read also the pungent rebukes of our Lord to the churches in the Apocalypse. He thus addresses the church at Ephesus. “I know thy works, and thy labor, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil; and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles and are not, and hast found them liars: and hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast labored, and hast not fainted.” How exalted a character! How rich a piety! How fine an eulogium! Surely there is nothing here to condemn. Yes, there is. Mark what follows. “Nevertheless, I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.” See that. Dwell upon it. No attainments, no eminence, can compensate for a decline of “first love.” Christ will allow no plea of extenuation to be put in; much less any defence to be set up. Hence what follows, “Remember, therefore, from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do thy first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.” — Rev. ii. 5. But perhaps it will be said, all that Christ required in this case was that they should only recover lost ground, return to their former state, and continue as they were. Ah, but what must have been their first love, when their diminished affection was so great? What must have been their first works, when their secondary ones were so signal? And moreover the rebuke did not necessarily imply that they were to be satisfied with even this. They had declined just because they had neglected to advance, and it was therefore strongly implied that they must advance in order that they might not again recede.

If these things do not prove the necessity of progress, it is hopeless to prove anything. We should give to them their due weight and act under their influence.

ADDRESS TO THE READER

You have now learnt from the Word of God, the necessity of progress? What think you of it? Has it ever thus occurred to you before? Does it strike you now? Can you deny or doubt this necessity? Can you be indifferent to it, or trifle with it? Perhaps you have overlooked it. You have never entered into the subject; but have had all your attention directed, and all your solicitude awakened to make a good beginning, a public profession, a favorable start. But is this all that is necessary? Does this answer to the description of religion, as a race, a spring, a growing child, or tree? Can you really satisfy yourself that your religion is real if it be unattended with a conviction that it should be progressive? Do, do study afresh, I beseech you, the representations given in this chapter. Ask yourself the one question, “Am I laying aside every weight and the sin that does so easily beset me, and so running the race that is set before me, as to obtain the prize of eternal glory?” Are you? Is there that intense desire after the crown, that vigorous effort to obtain it, that eager hope to receive it, which shall impel you onward with the speed of the ancient racer? Oh, are you convinced that it is not a faint endeavor, but a mighty conflict that must gain eternal life? Are you saying to yourself, “I must forget the things that are behind and press towards the mark for the prize of my high calling? I cannot be satisfied to be always as I am. I pant to be holier.” Again, I say, pause and pray. Read no more till you have entered your closet, and have put up the prayer of faith for a deeper conviction of the necessity of progress.


Author

John Angell James was one of the outstanding Nonconformist preachers of nineteenth-century England. He held a single pastorate, preaching and writing at Carr’s Lane Church, Birmingham, for fifty years.



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