One of the Christian disciplines which is equal amounts essential though often eluded, is the call for Christians to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). The notion of “growth,” as we commonly understand it, brings with it all manner of ill-conceived ideas as to what actually constitutes “Christian growth.” Most often, this endeavor is filled with thoughts of progress and ascension and betterment, ultimately culminating in some realized perfection or level of completeness. What makes the concept of Christian growth so uncanny is the precise fact that its trajectory is downward. I’ve written about this previously, but I would contend that this is one of the prevailing frustrations in and among churchgoers everywhere.
We feel the need and the burden to grow in our faith, and rightly so. But as long as we assume that the growth we’re required to demonstrate is somehow tied to our efforts, we will forever be frustrated — precisely because we are utterly incapable of effecting the growth necessitated by the law in our own power. Much is often made of Jesus’s words regarding the necessity to “produce fruit,” even “much fruit,” in order to be called one of his disciples (John 15:1–8). But, more often than not, what’s neglected is the fact that such fruit-bearing is utterly impossible apart from the Vine. “I am the vine,” Jesus says, and “without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5).
This, then, establishes the means by which we, the branches, grow. Namely, by finding our roots and tendrils of our faith more firmly secured to the Vine. This process, of course, occurs over the course of our entire lives “under the sun.” Therefore, whereas the spiritual disciplines we are called to demonstrate provide the description of the fruit with which we are called to bear, they do not constitute the measure by which we realize “Christian growth.” Such, I think, is what Rev. Alexander Maclaren was getting at in his sermon, “Growth,” taken from 2 Peter 3:18. He asserts1:
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 consists in bringing to light the deep meaning, the far-reaching consequences of the fact of Christ’s incarnation, death, and glory . . . 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.
In other words, Christian growth is growth downward. The longer you live in the faith of Christ crucified and resurrected for you, the deeper you grow into that precise knowledge (2 Pet. 1:1–3; 3:18). This, then, reorients how we ought to perceive what it means to grow as a Christians — or, as it’s commonly called, the doctrine of sanctification. The fundamental concern of sanctification is not a growth away from dependence into a disciplined, independent faith. Rather, it is a growth into deeper and deeper recognition of our utter dependence upon the unmerited favor of our Heavenly Father, secured for us by his own Son’s blood. “Sanctification,” writes Presbyterian minister William James,2 “is nothing else but the natural and necessary effect of a free justification — growing out of it just as the branches of a living vine grow out of their parent stock.”
Therefore, as long as you live, let your efforts and endeavors to grow and progress in your faith never lose sight of the fact that Jesus Christ alone is simultaneously the Object of and the Gardener for our growth. “He is the Giver and the Author of the grace,” Maclaren continues. “He is the Object of the knowledge.”3 May we, then, keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2), and thereby “grow in every way into him who is the head,” even Christ Jesus our Lord (Eph. 4:15; cf. 1 Pet. 2:2; 1 Tim. 4:15). Maclaren sums it up nicely4:
Keep yourselves in touch with Christ; and Christ will make you grow.
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944), 16:2.238.
William James, Grace for Grace: Letters of Rev. William James, edited by S. W. H. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1875), 187.