“But grow in Grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).
These are the last words of an old man, written down as his legacy to us. He was himself a striking example of his own precept. It would be interesting study to examine these two letters of the Apostle Peter in order to construct from them a picture of what he became, and to contrast it with his own earlier self when full of self-confidence, rashness, and instability. It took a lifetime for Simon, the son of Jonas, to grow into Peter; but it was done. And the very faults of the character became strength. What he had proved possible in his own case he commands and commends to us, and from the height to which he has reached, he looks upwards to the infinite ascent which he knows he will attain when he puts off this tabernacle; and then downwards to his brethren, bidding them, too, climb and aspire. He is like some trumpeter on the battlefield who spends his last breath in sounding an advance. Immortal hope animates his dying injunction: “Grow! Grow in Grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour.” So I think we may take these words, dear friends, as the starting point for some very plain remarks about what I am afraid is a neglected duty of growth in Christian character.
- I begin first, with a word or two about the direction which Christian growth ought to take.
Now those of you who use the Revised Version will see in it a very slight, but very valuable alteration. It reads there: “Grow in the Grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour.” The effect of that alteration being to bring out more clearly that whilst the direction of the growth is twofold, the process is one. And to bring out more clearly, also, that both the Grace and the knowledge have connection with Jesus Christ. He is the Giver and the Author of the Grace. He is the Object of the knowledge. The one is more moral and spiritual; the other, if we may so say, more intellectual; but both are realized by one act of progress, and both inherent, and refer to, and are occupied with, and are derived from, Jesus Christ Himself. Let us look a little more closely at this double direction, this bifurcation, as it were, of Christian growth. The tree, like some of our forest trees, in its normal progress, diverges into two main branches at a short distance upwards from the root. First, we have growth in the “Grace” of Christ. Grace, of course, means, first, the undeserved love and favour which God in Jesus Christ bears to us sinful and inferior creatures; and then it means the consequence of that love and favour in the manifold spiritual endowments which in us become “graces,” beauties, and excellencies of Christian character. So then, if you are a Christian, you ought to be continually realizing a deeper and more blessed consciousness of Christ’s love and favour as yours. You ought to be, if I may so say, resting every day nearer and nearer to His heart, and getting more and more sure, and more and more happily sure, of more and more of His Mercy and love to you. And if you are a Christian you ought not only thus to be realizing daily, with increasing certitude and power, the fact of His love, but you ought to be drinking in and deriving more and more every day of the consequences of that love, of the spiritual gifts of which His hands are full. There is open for each of us in Him an inexhaustible store of abundance. And if our Christian life is real and vigorous there ought to be in us a daily increasing capacity, and therefore a daily increasing possession of the gifts of His Grace. There ought to be, in other words, also a daily progressive transformation into His likeness. It is “the Grace of our Lord Jesus,” not only in the sense that He is the Author and the Bestower of it to each of us, but also in the sense that He Himself possesses and exemplifies it. So that there is nothing mystical and remote from the experience of daily life in this exhortation: “Grow in Grace”, and it is not growth in some occult theological virtue, or transcendent experience, but a very plain, practical thing, a daily transformation, with growing completeness and precision of resemblance, into the likeness of Jesus Christ; the Grace that was in Him being transferred to me, and my character being growingly irradiated and refined, softened and ennobled by the reflection of the lustre of His. This it is to “grow into the Grace of our Lord and Saviour”; a deeper consciousness of His love creeping round the roots of my heart every day, and fuller possession of His gifts placed in my opening hand every day; and a continual approximation to the beauty of His likeness, which never halts nor ceases. “Grow in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour.” The knowledge of a person is not the same as the knowledge of a creed or of a thought or of a book. We are to grow in the knowledge of Christ, which includes but is more than the intellectual apprehension of the truths concerning Him. He might turn the injunction into – “Increase your acquaintance with your Saviour.” Many Christians never get to be any more intimate with Him than they were when they were first introduced to Him. They are on a kind of bowing acquaintance with their Master, and have little more than that. We sometimes begin an acquaintance which we think promises to ripen into a friendship, but are disappointed. Circumstances or some want of congeniality which is discovered prevents its growth. So with not a few professing Christians. They have got no nearer to Jesus Christ than when they first knew Him. Their friendship has not grown. It has never reached the stage where all restraints are laid aside and there is perfect confidence. “Grow in the knowledge of your Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” Get more and more intimate with Him, nearer to Him, and franker and more cordial with Him day by day. But there is another side to the injunction besides that. We are to grow in the grasp, the intellectual grasp and realization of the truths which lie wrapped up and enfolded in Him. The first truths that a man learns when he becomes a Christian are the most important. The lesson that the little child learns contains the Omega as well as the Alpha of all truth. There is no word in all the Gospel that is an advance on that initial word, the faith of which saves the most ignorant who trusts to it. We begin with the end, if I may say so, and the highest truth is the first truth that we learn. But the aspect which that truth bears to the man when, first of all, it dawns upon him, and he sees in it the end of his fears, the cleansing of his heart, the pardoning of his sins, his acceptance with God, is a very different thing from the aspect that it ought to wear to him, after, say forty years of pondering, of growing up to it, after years of experience have taught him. Life is the best commentary upon the truths of the Gospel, and the experience teaches their depths and their power, their far reaching applications and harmonies. So our growth in the knowledge of Jesus Christ is not a growing away from the earliest lessons, or a leaving them behind, but a growing up to and into them. So as to learn more fully and clearly all their infinite contents of Grace and truth. The treasure put into our hands at first is discovered in its true preciousness as life and trial test its metal and its inexhaustibleness. The child’s lesson is the man’s lesson. All our Christian progress in knowledge consists in bringing to light the deep meaning, the far reaching consequences of the fact of Christ’s incarnation, death, and glory. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” The same truth which shone at first a star in a far off sky, through a sinful man’s night of fear and agony, grows in brilliance as we draw nearer to it, until at last it blazes, the central Sun of the Universe, the hearth for all vital warmth, the fountain of all guiding light, the centre of all energy. Christ in His manhood, in His divinity. Christ in His Cross, resurrection, and glory, is the object of all knowledge, and we grow in the knowledge of Him by penetrating more deeply into the truths which we have long ago learned, as well as by following them as they lead us into new fields, and disclose unsuspected issues in creed and practice. That growth will not be one sided; for Grace and knowledge will advance side by side – the moral and spiritual keeping step with the intellectual, the practical with the theoretical. And that growth will have no term. It is growth towards an infinite object of our aspiration, imitation, and affection. So we shall ever approach and never surpass Jesus Christ. Such endless progress is the very salt of life. It keeps us young when physical strength decays. It flames, an immortal hope, to light the darkness of the grave when all other hopes are quenched in night.
- Now, for a moment, look at another thought, viz., the obligation.
It is a command, that is to say, the will is involved. Growth is to be done by effort, and the fact that it is a command teaches us this, that we are not to take this one metaphor as if it exhausted the whole of the facts of the case in reference to Christian progress. You would never think of telling a child to grow any more than you would think of telling a plant to grow, but Peter does tell Christian men and women to grow. Why? Because they are not plants, but men with wills, which can resist, and can either further or hinder their progress. Lo! In the middle of the wood, The folded leaf is wooed from out the bud, And there Grows green and broad, And takes no care.
But that is not how we grow. “In the sweat of thy brow,” with pain and peril, with effort and toil, and not otherwise, do men grow in everything but stature. And especially is it so in the Christian character. There are other metaphors that need to be taken into consideration as well as this of growth, with all its sweet suggestions of continuous, effortless, spontaneous advance. The Christian progress is not only growth, it is warfare. The Christian progress is not only growth, it is a race. The Christian progress is not only growth, it is mortifying the old man. The Christian progress is not only growth, it is putting off the old man with his deeds and putting on the new! “First the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear,” was never meant for a complete account of how the Christian life is perfected. We are bidden to grow, and that command points to hindrances and resistance, to the need for effort and the governing action of our own wills. The command is one sorely needed in the present state of our average Christianity. Our Churches are full of monsters, specimens of arrested growth, dwarfs, who have scarcely grown since they were babes, infants all their lives. I come to you with a very plain question: Have you any more of Christ’s beauty in your characters, any more of His Grace in your hearts, any more of His truth in your minds than you had a year ago, ten years ago, or at that far off period when some of you grey-headed men first professed to be Christians? Have you experienced so many things in vain? Have the years taught you nothing? Ah, brethren! For how many of us is it true: “When for the time ye ought to be teachers ye have need that one teach you which be the first principles of the oracles of God”? “Grow in Grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour.” And we need the command because all about us there are hindrances. There is the hindrance of an abuse of the Evangelical doctrine of conversion, and the idea that springs up in many hearts that if once a man has “passed from death unto life,” and has managed to get inside the door of the banqueting hall, that is enough. And there are numbers of people in our Nonconformist communities especially, where that doctrine of conversion is most distinctly preached, whose growth is stopped by the abuse that they make of it in fancying if they have once exercised faith in Jesus Christ they may safely and sinlessly stand still. “Conversion” is turning round. What do we turn round for? Surely, in order that we may travel on in the new direction, not that we may stay where we are. There is also the hindrance of mere indolence, and there is the hindrance arising from absorption in the world and its concerns. If all your strength is going thither, there is none left to grow with. Many professing Christians take such deep draughts of the intoxicating cup of this world’s pleasures that it stunts their growth. People sometimes give children gin in order to keep them from growing. Some of you do that for your Christian character by the deep draughts that you take of the Circean cup of this world’s pleasures and cares. And not infrequently, someone favourite evil, some lust or passion, or weakness, or desire, which you have not the strength to cast out, will kill all aspirations and destroy all possibilities of growth; and will be like an iron band round a little sapling, which will confine it and utterly prevent all expansion. Is that the case with any of us? We all need – and I pray you suffer – the word of exhortation.
- Now, again, consider the method of growth.
There are two things essential to the growth of animal life. One is food, the other is exercise; and your Christian character will grow by no other means. Now as to the first. The true means by which we shall grow in Christian Grace is by holding continual intercourse and communion with Jesus Christ. It is from Him that all come. He is the Fountain of Life; He gives the life, He nourishes the life, He increases the life. And whilst I have been saying, in an earlier part of this discourse, that we are not to expect an effortless growth, I must here say that we shall very much mistake what Christian progress requires if we suppose that the effort is most profitably directed to the cultivation of specific and single acts of goodness and purity. Our efforts are best when directed to keeping ourselves in union with our Lord. The heart united to Him will certainly be advancing in all things fair and lovely and of good report. Keep yourselves in touch with Christ; and Christ will make you grow. That is to say, occupy heart and mind with Him, let your thoughts go to Him. Do you ever, from morning to night, on a weekday, think about your Master, about His truth, about the principles of His Gospel, about His great love to you? Keep your heart in union with Him, in the midst of the rush and hurry of your daily life. Are your desires turning to Him? Do they go out towards Him and feel after Him? It will take an effort to keep up the union with Him, but without the effort there will be no contact, and without the contact there will be no growth. As soon may you expect a plant, wrenched from the soil and shut out from the sunshine to grow, as expect any Christian progress in the hearts which are disjoined from Jesus Christ. But rooted in that soil, smiled upon by that sun, watered by the perpetual dew from His Heaven, we shall “grow like the lily, and cast forth our roots like Lebanon.” The secret of real Christian progress and the direction in which the effort of Christian progress can most profitably and effectually be made, is simply in keeping close to our Lord and Master. He is the Food of the Spirit. “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” Communion with Christ includes prayer. Desire to grow will help our growth. We tend to become what we long to be. Desire which impels to effort will not be in vain if it likewise impels to prayer. We may have the answer to our petition for growth in set ways; we may be but partially conscious of the answer, nor know that our faces shine when we go among men. But certainly if we pray for what is in such accordance with His will as “growth in Grace”, we shall have the petition that we desire. That longing to know Him better and to possess more of His Grace, like the tendrils of some climbing plant, will always find the support round which it may twine, and by which it may ascend. The other condition of growth is exercise. Use the Grace which you have, and it increases. Practice the truth which you know, and many things will become clearer. The blacksmith’s muscles are strengthened by wielding the forge hammer, but unused they waste. The child grows by exercise. To him that hath – truly possesses with the possession which only use secures -shall be given. Communion with Christ, including prayer, and exercise are the means of growth.
- Lastly, observe the solemn alternative to growth.
It is not a question of either growing or not growing, and there an end; but if you will look at the context you will see that the exhortation of my text comes in in a very significant connection. “Behold! Beware, lest being led away … ye fall from your own steadfastness.” “But grow in Grace.” That is to say, the only preventive of falling away from steadfastness is continual progress. The alternative of advance is retrogression. There is no standing still upon the inclined plane. If you are not going up gravity begins to act, and down you go. There must either be continual advance or there will be certain decay and corruption. As soon as growth ceases in this physiology disintegration commences. Just as the graces exercised are strengthened, so the graces unexercised decay. The slothful servant wraps his talent in a napkin, and buries it in the ground. He may try to persuade his Master and himself with “There Thou hast that is Thine”; but He will not take up what you buried. Rust and Verdigris will have done their work upon the coin – the inscription will be obliterated, and the image will be marred. You cannot bury your Christian Grace in indolence without diminishing it. It will be like a bit of ice wrapped in a cloth and left in the sun, it will all have gone into water when you come to take it out. And the truth that you do not live by, whose relations and large harmonies and controlling power are not being increasingly realized in your lives; that truth is becoming less and less real, more and more shadowy, and ghostlike to you. Truth which is not growing is becoming fossilized. “The things most surely believed” are often the things which have least power. Unquestioned truth too often lies “bedridden in the dormitory of the soul side by side with exploded error.” The sure way to reduce your knowledge of Jesus Christ to that inert condition is to neglect increasing it and applying it to your daily life. There are men in all Churches, and there are some whole communions whose creeds are the most orthodox, and also utterly useless, and as near as possible nonentities, simply because the creed is accepted and shelved. If your belief is to be of any use to you, or to be held by you in the face of temptations to abandon it, you must keep it fresh, and oxygenated, so to say, by continual fresh apprehension of it and closer application of it to conduct. As soon as the stream stands, it stagnates; and the very manna from God will breed worms and stink. And Christian truth unpractised by those who hold it, corrupts itself and corrupts them. So Peter tells us that the alternative is growth or apostasy. This decay may be most real and unsuspected. There are many, many professing Christians all ignorant that, like the Jewish giant of old, their strength is gone from them, and the Spirit of God departed. My brother, I beseech you, rouse yourself from your contented slothfulness. Do not be satisfied with merely having come within the Temple. Count nothing as won whilst anything remains to be won. There is a whole ocean of boundless Grace and truth rolling shoreless there before you. Do not content yourselves with picking up a few shells on the beach, but launch out into the deep, and learn to know more and more of the Grace and truth and beauty of your Saviour and your God. But remember dead things do not grow. You cannot grow unless you are alive, and you are not alive unless you have Jesus Christ. Have you given yourselves to Him? Have you taken Him as yours? Given yourselves to Him as His servants, subjects, soldiers? Taken Him for yours as your Saviour, Sacrifice, Pattern, Inspirer, Friend? If you have, then you have life which will grow if you keep it in union with Him. Joined to Him, men are like a “tree that is planted by the rivers of water,” which spreads its foliage and bears its fruit, and year after year flings a wider shadow upon the grass, and lifts a sturdier bole to the Heavens. Separated from Him they are like the chaff, which has neither root nor life, and which cannot grow. Which, my friend, are you?