We are conservatives, so the language of progress at times is anathema to us, and rightly so. We long to conserve our faith—protecting and hemming in the doctrines that are precious to us, doctrines often won through hard-fought and even deadly battles.
Yet, as Christians, we live with this paradox: while faithfully contending for the faith that was “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), we have to be men and women of progress. The healthy Christian is one who is growing, pressing on, and pursuing. We are not chasing the latest doctrinal fad, of course—that is the mark of those with “itching ears” (2 Tim. 4:3). However, when it comes to godliness, our pursuit must be without boundary and never lacking energy.
Holding fast to one thing while actively pursuing another is no easy task. That’s why so many, in the sincere desire to be those who grow, leave the truth behind. For those of us for whom historical doctrine is precious, there is the opposite temptation: to remain static (or, we might say, stagnant) in our walk with our Savior.
Some growth as a believer is almost inevitable and happens without noticing. I passed my U.K. driving test thirty-two years ago. It was a seminal moment in my life, for me at least, as it meant no more driving exams. I had the piece of plastic that confirmed my status as being lawfully permitted to drive a “Class B motorized vehicle.”
Every insurer in the country, however, recognized that my skills behind the wheel were basic, to say the least. Statistically, I was a danger on the roads, and my insurance premiums reflected the fact. As time has gone on, I have (I hope) become a better driver. I have certainly become an older one. Insurance companies now woo me for their business rather than turning me away.
Growth, in other words, has happened, simply from my being in the car and being around others. It is what we might call an incidental growth. I never took another course; I don’t remember ever making intentional decisions to improve. However, I’m a better driver for all that, and I’m thankful for it.
Christians can and do grow in this way. Hanging out with believers and finding our place within the community of believers expressed in the local church has this kind of effect. Things rub off on us. We grow almost by a kind of osmosis, particularly in a healthy church where the kind of mutual building that Paul has in mind in, say, Ephesians 4, operates.
However, I want to suggest that we cannot be content with such haphazard sanctification. The theme of Scripture, expressed again and again in different ways, is that we need to take deliberate, purposeful action to ensure that we make progress. Indeed, progress is the very word that Paul uses in 1 Timothy 4:15: “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.”
The phrase “these things”—most commentators agree—refers to the preceding paragraph: Pastor Timothy must practice both godliness expressed “in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (v. 12) and gifting (v. 14). Elsewhere, Paul’s language to the young man is expressed very forcibly: “fight,” “pursue,” and so on. The Apostle, of course, applies the same language to his own struggle to be more like Christ.
However, we must not think that such godly chasing is reserved for those called to the ministry. Paul’s exhortations to press on are found throughout his letters, with “pursue what makes for peace” (Rom. 14:19) and “pursue love” (1 Cor. 14:1) being just two examples.
No Denial of Grace
Such a pursuit is not an antithesis to grace. That’s what many fear. Yet the Bible holds together the apparent contradiction: the godly believer pursues godliness, yet he does so entirely dependent on the empowering of the Spirit. We must not confuse—as some seem to do—justification with sanctification.
We are always and only ever justified by faith alone—and this faith itself is a gift from God. I bring nothing to salvation; He does it all. This is a truth we must constantly reaffirm. Yet we must not confuse it with the godly desire to progress and grow in faith, something to which the Scriptures constantly exhort us in our sanctification.
Where does this desire to progress ultimately come from? It comes from the right kind of discontentment. I confess to struggling with being content as a believer. Some of the most helpful Christian books I have read are about contentment. I find TV advertisements and billboards extremely distracting, playing as they do on my Western mindset of never having enough.
Yet in all my pursuit of contentment in almost every area of life, here is one where discontent is actually right and proper. I must never be satisfied with where I am as a believer; rather, I must pursue progress with a single-minded ambition and determination.
In the final reckoning, I do this not because I am seeking glory for myself or out of some misplaced pride and vanity. Rather, I do it because the gospel lifts my eyes to see my Savior in all His awe-inspiring beauty and holiness. The gospel shows me Christ as He really is. The Spirit comes to transform me into the “same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).
That is real progress, and I long for it with all my heart.
Make Progress Your Watchword
So, enough with the ungodly contentment. Enough with the pleasure we derive from standing still as Christians. Enough being fulfilled at growing only by church-based osmosis. Rather, let’s embrace the language, desire, and intentionality of Scripture and pursue godliness with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. May progress be our watchword as we “stir one another to love and good works.”