Growth takes time

field of wheat

If you’re like me, you’ve undoubtedly been frustrated when you’ve not seen your growth in godliness proceed at a quick enough pace. It seems to take a long time to become Christlike, doesn’t it? Is there any way this can go faster?

According to J.C. Ryle, the answer is no:

Gradual growth in grace, growth in knowledge, growth in faith, growth in love, growth in holiness, growth in humility, growth in spiritual-mindedness—all this I see clearly taught and urged in Scripture, and clearly exemplified in the lives of many of God’s saints. But sudden, instantaneous leaps from conversion to consecration I fail to see in the Bible.[1. J. C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties and Roots (London: William Hunt and Company, 1889), xxiv.]

I think Ryle is bang-on here, because what he offers is a picture of maturity. He understood that becoming mature takes time, and it doesn’t happen uniformly. This is a point I have to remind myself of over and over again, especially when I’m getting frustrated with myself (and others). No matter how hard I try, growth takes time, and I can’t change how long it takes. But I can strive to appreciate where I am in the present, knowing that each day, by God’s grace, I am being remade in the image of his son.

The source of real holiness


During our public school days, Emily and I always felt overwhelmed. There were always so many rules for us to follow—about holidays, clothes, and even lunches. And the lunch rules were the worst. The expectation was that lunch be garbage free, healthy, and absolutely free of any nut products of any kind. (We later learned from a friend that it’s actually gotten worse—now the schools find it easier to send a list of what’s permitted rather than what’s not, because the approved list is shorter.)

Trying to keep in step with these requirements was a giant pain. In fact, we kept running out of ideas of what to even send with Abigail. We like peanut butter. We don’t have a nut-free environment. And pre-packaged snack foods which are nut free generally aren’t all that healthy. We found ways to meet the requirements (at least two out of three), but it didn’t make us happy people, nor did it help Abigail enjoy eating lunch in general.

Now, obviously there are some valid reasons for rules like these—if a kid has a severe nut allergy, we don’t want them to go into shock. But often, our obsession with rules goes beyond trying to protect individuals from harm and into trying to make us certain kinds of people. The problem, though, is it doesn’t work, because that’s not what rules are meant to do.

Christians should know this, but we’re prone to forgetting. The rules trap—legalism—is just too easy (because it’s easy, in theory if not in fact). We have rules about kissing dating goodbye. About what music to not listen to. Movies to not watch. Books to not read. Beverages to not consume…

And while the reasons behind the don’ts might be good and right and true, if all we have is don’t, what are we trying to accomplish? At best, the rules, and our attempts to keep them, make us try harder; we white knuckle our way through the things we know we’re supposed to do (including avoiding the things we aren’t supposed to). More often, though, they make us want to give up. Despite our intentions, we don’t become more holy, joyful people—people who increasingly find sin unattractive because Jesus is ever-increasingly attractive to us. Instead, we’re just people who are happy they’re not in trouble.

This is why we should thank God for the gift of the Holy Spirit, as Ray Ortlund reminds us in Supernatural Living for Natural People. He writes:

What generates real holiness is not fear of punishment but fullness of heart. When you sin, when I sin, there is always a reason. We sin because we believe that it is simply the price we have to pay for a taste of happiness. But sin is deceiving us. It does not deliver on its promise. It leaves only the bitter after-taste of death. God promises us life. The Spirit moves in our hearts to trust God enough to fight for life and happiness and all we desire not in sin but in the ways of God. The Spirit arouses our thirst for Jesus, so that we come to him and drink, until rivers of living water flow from our inmost beings (John 7:37-39). The Spirit shows us how wide and long and high and deep is the love of God. He helps us to know this love that surpasses knowledge, so that we are filled with all the fullness of God (Eph. 3:14-19). And when we live in that holy atmosphere, sin is a lot less attractive. (Kindle location 436)

What makes sin less attractive is not more rules, but new desires—and this is what the Spirit creates in us. He gives us a new affection for Christ, a greater desire to know him and be like him. And because of that, we can see that sin and legalism always over-promise and under-deliver. But the good news is, God’s Spirit never will. Real holiness comes from a fullness of heart. And this is what the Spirit gives us.

You’ve got to know God’s character


One of the things that’s always astounded me is how we don’t seem to really think deeply about God’s character. We might look at attributes such as God’s love–which is absolutely essential to our understanding of him—but if we do, we tend to elevate that to his essence. We don’t bother to get to the core of who God is.

But the thing about God is, he wants us to know his character and rejoice in it.

The chief attribute of God

Just think about Abraham for a moment. Abraham is one of the only men to be called a friend of God. He is the one to whom the great promise of an offspring who would be a blessing to all the nations was given. He was the one who miraculously was given a son when he and his wife were well beyond childbearing years. He knew God—he understood his character. And he wasn’t afraid to approach God on that basis. Consider Genesis 18:22-26:

So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the LORD. Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the LORD said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

This is astounding isn’t it? Look at what he says in this bold appeal: “Far be that from you that the righteous be swept away along with the wicked,” he says. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”

What is he basing this appeal on?

God’s character—he knew God was (and is) just. We know of his hatred of sin from Genesis 18:21, a sin so great that he came to personally judge it. Because he is a holy God, he would administer justice. He could do nothing else.

This is one of the attributes Abraham recognized—the attribute which is arguably the defining one of God. It is the one angels sing of (Isaiah 6:1-3), which prevents him from even looking at sin and not taking action (Habakkuk 1:13), of hating wickedness in all its forms (Psalm 5:5; 11:5).

But this same holiness also undergirds his compassion.

Holiness and compassion

That’s why Abraham could ask with complete integrity, “If there are fifty righteous people in the city, will you spare it?” And then again presume to ask about sparing the city for the sake of 45, 40, 30, 20 and 10. God in his compassion, his merciful loving kindness, would execute justice, but he would not destroy the righteous along with the wicked—and in fact, he was even willing to spare the wicked for the sake of the righteous!

That’s the sort of amazing God we serve—one who is generous as to extend mercy to the wicked for the sake of the righteous.

And that’s the gospel, isn’t it? For the sake of the true righteous one, Jesus Christ, wicked people such as you and me are spared what we are due and instead not only given pardon, but welcomed into God’s family. We are declared more than friends—we are children!

But that’s the thing about God: if we don’t do our best to grasp what we can of his character—understanding the natural limits we all face—we wind up with a lopsided view of him, one that doesn’t represent him at all. You and I, we have got to know God’s character as best as we are able. We have got to do our best to know and be thankful for every aspect of him, his overwhelming love and his perfect justness. His incomparable holiness and his unimaginable kindness.

We need it all. All the time. No matter what.

Celebrating a Pilgrim's Progress

Today marks the 332nd anniversary of the publication of John Bunyan‘s classic The Pilgrim’s Progress, the best-selling book in history (aside from the Bible).

First published on February 18, 1678, The Pilgrim’s Progress tells the tale of Christian, “a man clothed in rags…with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back,” on a journey to the Celestial City. This allegorical tale of the Christian life has been a powerful influence on believers throughout the last 300 years.

What The Pilgrim’s Progress taught me is that blessing comes with perseverance. The difficulties of Christian’s journey, the temptations that threatened to ensnare him, the despair he felt as he made his way through the Valley of Humiliation and Death, persecution he faced in Vanity Fair—all of these made his arrival at the Celestial City that much sweeter, where the King of Kings would welcome him home.

Now I saw in my dream, that these two men went in at the gate; and lo, as they entered, they were transfigured, and they had raiment put on that shone like gold. There was also that met them with harps and crowns, and gave them to them; the harps to praise withal, and the crowns in token of honour. Then I heard in my dream that all the bells in the city rang again for joy, and that it was said unto them, “Enter ye into the joy of your Lord.” I also heart the men themselves, that they sang with a loud voice, saying, “Blessing, honour, glory and power be to him that sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb, for ever and ever.”

The Pilgrim’s Progress, p. 197, (Whitaker House edition)

Is this your goal? To be welcomed home to the Celestial City, and hear those words, “Enter into the joy of your Lord”? To sing alongside those who have entered before us, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (Rev. 5:13)

Is this the cry of your heart? To join Christ there because,

“…it is there that I hope to see alive my Savior who hung dead on the cross. It is there that I hope to be rid of all those things that to this day are an annoyance to me. They say that in that place there is no death, and I will dwell there with the company that I like best. For, to tell you the truth, I love Him because He eased me of my burden. I am weary of my inward sickness. I desire to be where I will die no more, with a company that will continually cry, ‘Holy, holy, holy!’”

The Pilgrim’s Progress, p. 77, (Crossway edition)

I hope it is. My hope for us all is that we do not grow weary of persevering. I want to be there alongside Bunyan and all the saints who have come before and will come after me, singing, “Holy, holy, holy!”

And I want to see you there, too.

Made in the Image of God: Holiness

“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…” Genesis 1:26

One of our most important shared attributes with God is holiness. The Scriptures repeatedly speak of God as being holy:

Psalm 22:3 says, “…you [God] are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.”

Psalm 89:18 calls God “the Holy One of Israel.”

Psalm 99:9 says, “the Lord our God is holy!”

Isa. 6:3 says, ““Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

The Prophet Habbakuk calls God, “my Holy One” (Hab. 1:12).

1 John 1:5 says, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.”

His name is holy (Ezek. 36:22). His words are holy (Jer. 23:9). His Spirit is holy (Luke 1:35). Absolutely everything about God is holy. It is unique, set apart, pure, good and true. There is no malice in Him. No evil, “no darkness,” is in Him at all. He is perfect.

More than 600 times, the word “holy” appears in the ESV translation of the Bible. Every time, it refers to God’s name, character, covenant, dwelling place, offerings, statutes, law… and His people.

“You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16, Lev. 11:44)

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Blogging the Psalms: Psalm 10

For the wicked boasts of the desires of his soul,
and the one greedy for gain curses and renounces the Lord.
In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him;
all his thoughts are, “There is no God” (Psalm 10:3-4).

His ways prosper at all times;
your judgments are on high, out of his sight;
as for all his foes, he puffs at them.
He says in his heart, “I shall not be moved;
throughout all generations I shall not meet adversity” (v. 5-6)

The helpless are crushed, sink down,
and fall by his might.
He says in his heart, “God has forgotten,
he has hidden his face, he will never see it” (v. 10-11)

Psalm 10 centers around the prosperity of the wicked. This theme appears a number of times within the Psalms: Why do the wicked always seem to escape judgement? Why do they prosper when the righteous suffer?

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