5 Principles for Christian Growth
By J.C. Ryle
The words of James must never be forgotten: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). This is no doubt as true of growth in grace, as it is of everything else. It is the “gift of God.” But still it must always be kept in mind that God is pleased to work by means. God has ordained means as well as ends. He that would grow in grace must use the means of growth.
This is a point, I fear, which is too much overlooked by believers. Many admire growth in grace in others and wish that they themselves were like them. But they seem to suppose that those who grow are what they are by some special gift or grant from God and that, as this gift is not bestowed on themselves, they must be content to sit still. This is a grievous delusion and one against which I desire to testify with all my might. I wish it to be distinctly understood that growth in grace is bound up with the use of means within the reach of all believers and that, as a general rule, growing souls are what they are because they use these means.
Let me ask the special attention of my readers while I try to set forth in order the means of growth. Cast away forever the vain thought that if a believer does not grow in grace it is not his fault. Settle it in your mind that a believer, a man quickened by the Spirit, is not a mere dead creature, but a being of mighty capacities and responsibilities. Let the words of Solomon sink down into your heart: “The soul of the diligent shall be made fat” (Prov. 13:4).
1. One thing essential to growth in grace is diligence in the use of private means of grace. By these I understand such means as a man must use by himself alone, and no one can use for him. I include under this head private prayer, private reading of the Scriptures, and private meditation and self–examination. The man who does not take pains about these three things must never expect to grow. Here are the roots of true Christianity. Wrong here, a man is wrong all the way through! Here is the whole reason why many professing Christians never seem to get on. They are careless and slovenly about their private prayers. They read their Bibles but little and with very little heartiness of spirit. They give themselves no time for self–inquiry and quiet thought about the state of their souls.
It is useless to conceal from ourselves that the age we live in is full of peculiar dangers. It is an age of great activity and of much hurry, bustle and excitement in religion. Many are “running to and fro,” no doubt, and “knowledge is increased” (Dan. 12:4). Thousands are ready enough for public meetings, sermon hearing, or anything else in which there is “sensation.” Few appear to remember the absolute necessity of making time to “commune with our own hearts, and be still” (Ps. 4:4). But without this, there is seldom any deep spiritual prosperity. Let us remember this point! Private religion must receive our first attention, if we wish our souls to grow.
2. Another thing which is essential to growth in grace is carefulness in the use of public means of grace. By these I understand such means as a man has within his reach as a member of Christ’s visible church. Under this head I include the ordinances of regular Sunday worship, the uniting with God’s people in common prayer and praise, the preaching of the Word, and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. I firmly believe that the manner in which these public means of grace are used has much to say to the prosperity of a believer’s soul. It is easy to use them in a cold and heartless way. The very familiarity of them is apt to make us careless. The regular return of the same voice, and the same kind of words, and the same ceremonies, is likely to make us sleepy and callous and unfeeling. Here is a snare into which too many professing Christians fall. If we would grow, we must be on our guard here. Here is a matter in which the Spirit is often grieved and saints take great damage. Let us strive to use the old prayers, and sing the old hymns, and kneel at the old communion rail, and hear the old truths preached, with as much freshness and appetite as in the year we first believed. It is a sign of bad health when a person loses relish for his food; and it is a sign of spiritual decline when we lose our appetite for means of grace. Whatever we do about public means, let us always do it “with our might” (Eccl. 9:10). This is the way to grow!
3. Another thing essential to growth in grace is watchfulness over our conduct in the little matters of everyday life. Our tempers, our tongues, the discharge of our several relations of life, our employment of time—each and all must be vigilantly attended to if we wish our souls to prosper. Life is made up of days, and days of hours, and the little things of every hour are never so little as to be beneath the care of a Christian. When a tree begins to decay at root or heart, the mischief is first seen at the extreme end of the little branches. “He that despises little things,” says an uninspired writer, “shall fall by little and little.” That witness is true. Let others despise us, if they like, and call us precise and over careful. Let us patiently hold on our way, remembering that “we serve a precise God,” that our Lord’s example is to be copied in the least things as well as the greatest, and that we must “take up our cross daily” and hourly, rather than sin. We must aim to have a Christianity which, like the sap of a tree, runs through every twig and leaf of our character, and sanctifies all. This is one way to grow!
4. Another thing which is essential to growth in grace is caution about the company we keep and the friendships we form. Nothing perhaps affects man’s character more than the company he keeps. We catch the ways and tone of those we live and talk with, and unhappily get harm far more easily than good. Disease is infectious, but health is not. Now if a professing Christian deliberately chooses to be intimate with those who are not friends of God and who cling to the world, his soul is sure to take harm. It is hard enough to serve Christ under any circumstances in such a world as this. But it is doubly hard to do it if we are friends of the thoughtless and ungodly. Mistakes in friendship or marriage engagements are the whole reason why some have entirely ceased to grow. “Evil communications corrupt good manners.” “The friendship of the world is enmity with God” (1 Cor. 15:33; James 4:4). Let us seek friends who will stir us up about our prayers, our Bible reading, and our employment of time, about our souls, our salvation, and a world to come. Who can tell the good that a friend’s word in season may do, or the harm that it may stop? This is one way to grow.
5. There is one more thing which is absolutely essential to growth in grace, and that is regular and habitual communion with the Lord Jesus. In saying this, let no one suppose for a minute that I am referring to the Lord’s Supper. I mean nothing of the kind. I mean that daily habit of communion between the believer and his Savior, which can only be carried on by faith, prayer and meditation. It is a habit, I fear, of which many believers know little. A man may be a believer and have his feet on the rock, and yet live far below his privileges. It is possible to have “union” with Christ, and yet to have little if any “communion” with Him. But, for all that, there is such a thing.
The names and offices of Christ, as laid down in Scripture, appear to me to show unmistakably that this communion between the saint and his Savior is not a mere fancy, but a real true thing. Between the Bridegroom and His bride, between the Head and His members, between the Physician and His patients, between the Advocate and His clients, between the Shepherd and His sheep, between the Master and His scholars, there is evidently implied a habit of familiar communion, of daily application for things needed, of daily pouring out and unburdening our hearts and minds. Such a habit of dealing with Christ is clearly something more than a vague general trust in the work that Christ did for sinners. It is getting close to Him and laying hold on Him with confidence, as a loving, personal Friend. This is what I mean by communion.
Now I believe that no man will ever grow in grace who does not know something experimentally of the habit of communion. We must not be content with a general orthodox knowledge that Christ is the Mediator between God and man, and that justification is by faith and not by works, and that we put our trust in Christ. We must go further than this. 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. This is the way that Paul lived “The life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God.” “To me to live is Christ” (Gal. 2:20;Phil. 1:21). It is ignorance of this way of living that makes so many see no beauty in the book of Canticles. But it is the man who lives in this way, who keeps up constant communion with Christ—this is the man, I say emphatically, whose soul will grow.
a. One mark of growth in grace is increased humility. The man whose soul is growing feels his own sinfulness and unworthiness more every year. He is ready to say with Job, "I am vile," and with Abraham, "I am dust and ashes," and with Jacob, "I am not worthy of the least of all Your mercies," and with David, "I am a worm," and with Isaiah, "I am a man of unclean lips," and with Peter, "I am a sinful man, O Lord" (Job 40:4; Gen. 18:27; 32:10; Ps. 22:6; Isa. 6:5; Luke 5:8). The nearer he draws to God and the more he sees of God’s holiness and perfections, the more thoroughly is he sensible of his own countless imperfections. The further he journeys in the way to heaven, the more he understands what Paul meant when he says, "I am not already perfect," "I am not meet to be called an apostle," "I am less than the least of all saints," "I am chief of sinners" (Phil. 3:12; 1 Cor. 15:9; Eph. 3:8; 1 Tim. 1:15). The riper he is for glory, the more, like the ripe corn, he hangs down his head. The brighter and clearer is his light, the more he sees of the shortcomings and infirmities of his own heart. When first converted, he would tell you he saw but little of them compared to what he sees now. Would anyone know whether he is growing in grace? Be sure that you look within for increased humility.
b. Another mark of growth in grace is increased faith and love towards our Lord Jesus Christ. The man whose soul is growing finds more in Christ to rest upon every year and rejoices more that he has such a Savior. No doubt he saw much in Him when first he believed. His faith laid hold on the atonement of Christ and gave him hope. But as he grows in grace, he sees a thousand things in Christ of which at first he never dreamed. His love and power, His heart and His intentions, His offices as Substitute, Intercessor, Priest, Advocate, Physician, Shepherd and Friend, unfold themselves to a growing soul in an unspeakable manner. In short, he discovers a suitableness in Christ to the wants of his soul, of which the half was once not known to him. Would anyone know if he is growing in grace? Then let him look within for increased knowledge of Christ.
c. Another mark of growth in grace is increased holiness of life and conversation. 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 and to follow Him as his example, as well as to trust in Him as his Savior. He is not content with old attainments and former grace. He forgets the things that are behind and reaches forth unto those things which are before, making "Higher!" "Upward!" "Forward!" "Onward!" his continual motto (Phil. 3:13). On earth he thirsts and longs to have a will more entirely in unison with God’s will. In heaven the chief thing that he looks for, next to the presence of Christ, is complete separation from all sin. Would anyone know if he is growing in grace? Then let him look within for increased holiness.
d. Another mark of growth in grace is increased spirituality of taste and mind. The man whose soul is growing takes more interest in spiritual things every year. He does not neglect his duty in the world. He discharges faithfully, diligently and conscientiously every relation of life, whether at home or abroad. But the things he loves best are spiritual things. The ways and fashions and amusements and recreations of the world have a continually decreasing place in his heart. He does not condemn them as downright sinful, nor say that those who have anything to do with them are going to hell. He only feels that they have a constantly diminishing hold on his own affections and gradually seem smaller and more trifling in his eyes. Spiritual companions, spiritual occupations, spiritual conversation appear of ever–increasing value to him. Would anyone know if he is growing in grace? Then let him look within for increasing spirituality of taste.
f. One more mark of growth in grace is increased zeal and diligence in trying to do good to souls. The man who is really growing will take greater interest in the salvation of sinners every year. Missions at home and abroad, efforts of every kind to spread the gospel, attempts of any sort to increase religious light and diminish religious darkness—all these things will every year have a greater place in his attention. He will not become "weary in well–doing" because he does not see every effort succeed. He will not care less for the progress of Christ’s cause on earth as he grows older, though he will learn to expect less. He will just work on, whatever the result may be—giving, praying, preaching, speaking, visiting, according to his position—and count his work its own reward. One of the surest marks of spiritual decline is a decreased interest about the souls of others and the growth of Christ’s kingdom. Would anyone know whether he is growing in grace? Then let him look within for increased concern about the salvation of souls.