Getting the Word and Growing in Grace

Calvin once said that we listen to ourselves too much, and we talk to ourselves too little. Specifically, Calvin meant telling ourselves the truth of the Word of God. Many Puritans followed Calvin in this encouragement, including Thomas Hooker

Use the Word of God aright. For as you must, in all things that concern your soul, repair to the Word, so you must consider your own uprightness by it, and see what work is in your soul that is able to answer the Word, and to testify that the work of grace is there. And here be sure to take your soul at the best. Do not always pore upon the worst that is in it, nor upon your failings, nor that which can only accuse you; but if there is any thing there that may justly speak for you, do not neglect that. It is an injustice for any court to hear one side and not another. The Scripture is a text of justice, and the Lord does not look for the worst in his children, but takes them at the best. In Romans 4:22, it is therefore said that Abraham believed the promise, and it was imputed to him for righteousness. Indeed, in Genesis 12, he had some doubtings; but God took him at the best, and speaks this of his faith. So Sarah is spoken of as a gracious woman, and a pattern for women, by calling her husband lord; which was a sign of reverence to her husband, and a humble heart to the Lord. Yet we read that she derided the message of the Lord by the angel (Genesis 18:12). The Lord buries that, and only speaks of that which was to her commendation, and so took her at her best too. 

Now as the Lord dealt with these, so should we with ourselves. Whatsoever is found sincere and upright in us, that should we observe as well as that which is not so; nay, that rather and before the other. If a man should have his cause handled in any court of justice after this fashion, namely, that there should only be observed what is failing in the cause, and never that which makes for it, the best cause might go to the ground. Therefore the court will read every bond or bill that shall come in, and every matter of agreement; briefly, everything. The cry will be, “Let all be read.” 

Again, suppose a man has a bond or other instrument in court, and the lawyer only opens and reads its failings, and that which seems to make against the party. If the judge only hears that, how can it but go against that side? Therefore that party says, “Good lord, hear all.” Now when all is read, those defects are corrected and the cause goes well, which had not been so if that bond or deed, or other instrument had been read to halves, not thoroughly. So when men shall bring in so many and main indictments against themselves and say, “Oh, what pride and stubbornness is in my heart! Oh, how weak am I, dull, dead, and backward to holy duties! Oh, how careless of enjoying communion with God! How negligent in sifting and trying my own heart, in watching over my senses, and mourning in secret for my daily failings!” Though this were so, yet if men will see no more, and these too much, no marvel if they trouble their own house, or if Satan by their own words judges them. 

There was such a misunderstanding of the nature of sanctification that the Puritan preachers found it necessary to remind their people over and over, as did the Apostle Peter, of the slowness of that process. So Joseph Symonds consoles:

Men think they grow not, and hence conclude sadly against themselves. They think the time has been when they thrived more in grace, and that therefore they are in this deplorable state of which we speak. But here may be a great mistake, and for the relief of such let me propound some considerations tending to rectify their judgment in this case:

1. The growth in some graces, sometimes in weak spirits, hinders the discerning of growth in others. Besides that spiritual poverty and humility which I have spoken of, the increase of light proves sometimes an impediment. 

The more light, the more weight lies upon the soul concerning the matters of eternity, which sometimes raises up care and solicitousness to such a height that a man is disposed to fear and jealousy concerning his condition. 

The more light, the more duties are discovered. A Christian sees not all his work at first. God raises up His way to his eye by degrees. A child is put at first to such things as are proportionate to his age and strength, and as he grows in years to more capacity and ability, so he is put on to greater things. Now the godly, finding still a disproportion in their strength to their work, think that they grow not. This would be as if he who takes the measure of his height in a tree, coming afterwards to measure his growth again and finding that he does not exceed, yea, scarcely reaches his mark, should conclude that he has not grown. This would be no good reasoning, because the tree has grown also. Or, as if one who tries his strength by shaking a tree when it is young comes back some years later, and upon trial, finding that he cannot stir the tree more, yea, it may be, not so much, should conclude he has not increased in strength. He would be judging amiss, because he is not considering that the tree is also grown more strong, and is less apt to be moved. The task of a godly man grows; his relations, state, temper, calling, company, temptations, and such like things cause great variations in his work. And God uses a gracious indulgence in not imposing so much in the infancy as in the progress of His people. As many things are not imposed at first, so the spiritualness and exactness of duties are more and more discovered. Hence it is that the godly, laboring still with weakness and disproportion of strength, think (though causelessly) that they grow not.

2. There are different growths. 

There is a growth upward in hope, peace, and joy.

There is a growth downward, as a tree that grows in the root. So many grow in humility and lowliness, and hence, as I have shown, they are apt to think meanly, yea, more meanly of themselves than is fitting.

There is a growth in bulk, as when a tree grows bigger.

There is a growth in maturity, as a child who grows for a great while more in bulk and quantity than in ripeness and dexterity; but afterward he grows more in perfection of parts than extension of parts. He grows more strong, active, apprehensive, and wise. So a godly man grows at first much in the bulk of knowledge and grace, but after these he becomes more mature to know the things which he knows better, more practically and vitally, and to be able to do what he did more spiritually and perfectly. An apple, for a time, grows bigger and bigger; but afterward it grows better and sweeter. Now men, not discerning this, are apt to think that they grow not when they do.

3. Men often mistake in the judgment of their growths by being too hasty. Proper judgment of growth is by comparing oneself with oneself; but if a man measures himself one day, and a week hence measures himself again, his growth, though it is real, will be imperceptible. When you compare yourselves with yourselves, if you find no growth, then look upon yourselves at a great distance. If you cannot discern growth by comparing yourselves with what you were a year ago, then see what you were two years, or three years, or several years past. And now tell me if you find not yourselves better, if not sensibly increased in the bulk, yet at least in maturity and spiritualness of your graces?

The Puritans understood that saints, weak as they are in faith and in knowledge, are apt to denigrate their worth and standing before God. This often is the result of focusing on the wrong things. The proper focus should be on Christ, as we will see in our next post.


Dr. Don Kistler (DonKistler.org) is an ordained minister residing in Orlando. He is the founder of the Northampton Press, and the author of A Spectacle Unto God: The Life and Death of Christopher Love and Why Read the Puritans Today? The editor of all the Soli Deo Gloria Puritan reprints, Kistler has edited over 150 books and is a contributing author for Justification by Faith ALONE!; Sola Scriptura; Trust and Obey: Obedience and the Christian; Onward, Christian Soldiers: Protestants Affirm the Church; and Feed My Sheep: A Passionate Plea for Preaching.


Related Links

"Grace in Salvation" by Mark Johnston

"Fear and the Lord’s Amazing Grace" by Christina Fox

"The Puritans and Their Evangelistic Model" by Joel Beeke

The Gospel: What? Why? How?, with Sinclair Ferguson, Harry Reeder, Ligon Duncan, and Robert Godfrey

"Grace Alone: Salvation as a Gift of God" by Carl Trueman