"Grow in grace."—2 Peter 3:18
Progress is a great law in the universe of God. Nothing either in the world of mind, or matter, is stationary—with One exception. In the midst of His vast material creation, and of the myriads of His spiritual intelligences, God alone never knew and never can know what progress is. He being infinitely perfect, is incapable alike of decrease or increase in bliss, knowledge, power, glory. It is well known that the familiar river of Egypt possesses this peculiarity amid its compeers, that during a course of more than a thousand miles to its delta, it is indebted to not a single rill or tributary. While the other rivers of the world, issuing as tiny streamlets from their mountain-bed or glacier-cradle, are swollen with innumerable such, before they reach the ocean; this father of earthly rivers, as he sweeps by the tombs of Memphis and the minarets of Cairo, has received no accession to his volume during all that vast distance he has majestically traversed.
So (with reverence we say it) is it with the Supreme Being, the great Father of all. While others, constituting His offspring, are susceptible of progress—of receiving fresh rills, fresh accessions of intelligence and happiness, He remains from everlasting to everlasting unchangeably the same. The angels who excel in strength, we believe are still more and more excelling—reaching higher and yet higher stages of advancement—nearer and still nearer to God; and yet, the nearer they come, feeling more the infinite and untraveled distance separating between Creator and created. The saints—the redeemed from the earth—will, we doubt not, through all eternity be progressing in the divine life and likeness, growing in grace, climbing from height to height and altitude to altitude. But though approaching always nearer the infinite Brightness—that brightness still being "light inaccessible and full of glory,"—the confession ever made, as each new eminence is attained—"Between us and You, O God, there is a great gulf fixed!"
This, however, is growth in Glory. Let us descend for a little from the heavenward to the earthward contemplation to which the Apostle summons us; when, (speaking of progress in the Church below) he urges on his readers to "grow in grace."
We are met at once by similar analogies in nature. We cannot fail to note the constant manifestations in the outer world of this law of progress or advancement—that the Creator and Ruler does nothing suddenly; rather that His vast processes move on silently—slowly—imperceptibly. Let the heavens declare this "glory of God" in the grandeur of its progressive operations. We need no other illustration than the breaking of the morning light and its brightening into perfect day. If we sought more recondite testimony and illustration, we might find it in what astronomers tell us of the process in the great planetary system, by which, as was the case with our own earth, vast globes like Jupiter and Saturn, from "liquid seething masses of fiery heat," as they at present appear to be, are, in all probability, being gradually consolidated, until an outer crust is formed to fit them for becoming living habitations.
Is it the vegetable world? On a minuter but not less real scale, how gradual the development! First the blade, then the ear, then the full kernel in the ear. The inserted grain does not rush up all at once, and become immediately ready for the sickle—it is matured by the husbandman's laborious culture. After a long appliance of means—moistening rains, gentle dews, fructifying heat—that tender seed struggles upwards through the overlying clods of earth, to the gladsome light. Then comes a fresh conflict with atmospheric influences—But on it progresses. Spring nurses the embryo blade; Summer smiles on the bursting ear; Autumn opens her lap to receive from the sickle the full kernel in the ear. It is Nature's great parable on the law of advancement in the material world. May I quote the child-words—
"'Little by little,' an a kernel said,
What grows suddenly, dies suddenly. The ever welcomed snow-drop rushes up from its bulb in a few weeks, but its life-time is as brief.
In animal life, we see the same law in operation. To take at once the highest type in sentient being. The Infant does not attain, in a moment, the full growth and dignity of manhood; like the ancient Greek's ideal of human perfection in the case of their patron goddess, said to have sprung at once, fully armored, from the head of Jupiter. It is a progressive development. The bones and muscles and sinews grow with the child's growth and strengthen with its strength; until the helpless arm that can scarce grasp the toy in its cradle, is, in the course of years, able to sustain the ponderous weight—it may be to ply the hammer, or guide the plough, and give, or ward off, the warrior's blow.
Turn to the world of mind—there is similar progressive development there. The lisping stammerings, the playful prattle of infancy, are succeeded by the buoyancy of childhood. This again merges into the thoughtfulness and high aspirations of hopeful youth. Then comes manhood, with its maturer judgment and experience and power—and every different and successive stage in that mental history is one of progress. Mark, yet once more, it is not by one vast bound that the mountain can be ascended and the summit reached; but by the same slow day-by-day, step-by-step process. By no fitful efforts, but by many an hour of toilsome application, have the great masterminds, who guide the destinies of empires and of mankind, been disciplined and matured. The statesman, the philosopher, the historian, the man of science, can traverse in memory those years of student life, when in the secluded chamber the midnight lamp met the hues of morning. When others were slumbering, or pursuing the 'phantom of pleasure', there they were, storing the mental citadel with treasures which at some future day would make the earth they live in wiser and better.
Now in all these, and manifold other illustrations which might be given, is there no analogy in the spiritual and divine life? Yes. This law of advance and progress—exemplified in the outer world, and in the constitution and growth of our own bodily and mental frames—illustrates God's dealing in the higher economy. We speak of "the life of faith"—"life in the Soul." Here also is there an infancy, youth, teenage, manhood, maturity. Peter in his First Epistle speaks of "babes in Christ"—those who are to be fed on milk. They could not bear stronger nutriment. They are in the earliest, the incipient stage of the spiritual existence. A brother Apostle speaks of "little children," "I write unto you, little children, because you have known the Father" (1 John 2:13); of "young men," "I have written unto you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you" (1 John 2:14); of "fathers"—saints grown grey in the service of their Heavenly Master—"I have written unto you, fathers, because you have known Him who is from the beginning" (v. 14).
We find our blessed Lord Himself recognizing these same stages of advancement in the case of His own disciples—"Have I been so long time with you, and yet have you not known Me?" (John 14:9). And to the same effect, "I have many things to say unto you, but you cannot bear them now" (John 16:12).—As if He had said, "There is a time coming—an ulterior stage in your spiritual existence, when you will be able to understand and appreciate these mysteries of the kingdom—but not yet!"
Perhaps in the case of none of the Apostolic band was this spiritual progress more perceptible and better illustrated, than in the case of Peter, who penned the words of our text. See him at first the "little child." As a child, petulant, fretful. See him in full manhood; attained to much, yet having much to learn; full of rash impulses—sensitive, impetuous. Venturing on the water, yet sinking; faithful, yet fearful; loving, yet doubting—and at last, frailest moment of all, when that devoted Master most needed his loyal adhesion and sympathy, becoming unfaithful and renegade. But mark him in the mellowed sunset of his career. That sun had waded, during life's long day, through mist and cloud and tempest, alternately brightened and obscured; how tranquil now is his "going down" behind the mountains of Israel! Calm as an infant that has been rocked asleep on its mother's lap, or as some well-known flowers fold their leaves when the night-shadows begin to fall! As we read of him in the gospels, we meet there with a bold, fiery, passionate soul—the grace and prayer of Christ alone between him and ruin—"Simon, Simon, behold Satan has desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat—but I have prayed for you, that your faith fail not" (Luke 22:31, 32). Thirty years after this, he wrote his Epistles. How changed the man! we scarcely recognize his personal identity. How grace has molded him, softened, subdued, chastened him! His every breathing in these letters is gentleness and love. He had himself felt the benefit of the purifying, refining furnace; and therefore thus he writes—"That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perishes, though it be tried with fire, may be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 1:7).
See, as has been noted by more than one writer, how his humility appears in undesigned coincidences. We know that he had much to do in the writing of Mark's Gospel. What does he say of himself there? Everything is suppressed that would savor of self; everything brought in that would humble him and exalt his Lord. His walking on the water—suppressed; the special blessing Jesus gave to him as "Simon Bar-jonas," recorded in Matthew, suppressed; the word "bitterly," inserted by the first evangelist when he records the intensity of Peter's repentant sorrow when "he went out and wept," suppressed; and more than all, that dark sorrowful story of his denial is more fully recorded in this second Gospel than in any of the others.
Then see when he comes to die—What is the testimony of the man who was once afraid of death?—he who shook with terror in the water as he felt himself sinking—he who cowered with more than womanish fears when his Lord was buffeted, lest he might be dragged to share His cross and sufferings! Hear the old man speak! Hear the softened, calmed, heavenly-minded apostle, with his grey-hairs and furrowed brow—how he writes about death—that event so terrible to all. It has lost its dread. "I must put off," says he, "this my tabernacle, even as our Lord Jesus Christ has showed me" (2 Peter 1:14). Christ showed him how he was to die. He had foretold the painful and ignominious manner of his decease—that he was to follow Him in crucifixion; meet the King of Terrors in his most revolting form. But how does the aged champion contemplate this?—He speaks of it as the laying aside of an old cloak (so the word may mean)—a useless outer garment! To speak so of death, and such a death, showed surely that this "righteous man"—once called by his Lord "fearful" and of "little faith,"—once a poor reed shivering in the wind, had now, by the power and growth of divine grace, become bold as a lion!
This spiritual progress, so singularly illustrated in the case of him who exhorts us in our text, is (must be) the distinguishing characteristic, more or less, of all God's true people. And as there were seasons in the life of the Apostle, so also are there in ours, when a gracious and salutary impulse is given to spiritual advancement. The Lord's Supper is intended to be a strengthening as well as a commemorating Ordinance. The nutritive and sustaining qualities in the natural elements of bread and wine are doubtless intended to be symbolic of a higher truth—that of feeding and stimulating the graces of the Christian character—promoting sanctification and holiness. Our Church will never be arraigned for any unwarrantable leanings towards what is known as "Sacramentarian efficacy." But a Standard whose authority we all own and reverence, leaves us no doubt what its compilers considered the relation which the Divine rite bears to our text today, as being one special means of fostering and promoting the life of God in the Soul. We are "by faith made partakers of His body and blood, with all their benefits to our spiritual nourishment and growth in grace."
Yet, while, we trust, this divine growth may form the ardent aspiration, the grand practical result of our hallowed season, let no humble Christian, let no believing communicant, leave these sacred courts under a misapprehension. Let none go away cast down or discouraged, under some humbling conviction that with them there has been no such thing as advancement in grace—that relapse rather than progress—from weakness to weakness rather than "from strength to strength is and has been their mournful and saddening experience. Who among us, brethren, is free from the haunting suspicion, that if tried and tested by this spiritual growth, we would have good cause, humbled and conscience-stricken, to evade the scrutiny?
But are there not many of God's true people who are apt, in this respect also needlessly, to write bitter things against themselves? We believe, indeed, that often the Christian may seem to himself to be retrograding, when all the while it is the reverse—no apparent continuity of progression, yet ultimately and really periods of advance. You may at times have stood on the sea-shore, and watched the incoming tide—wave after wave laving the beach; only to retreat into the bosom of the former wave. It seemed receding; murmuring for a moment at your feet—and then back again to nestle in its watery bed. As, however, the briny tears came sweeping over the sand or rock, you saw that the ripple-marks were gradually diminishing; that, despite of these refluent waves, the tide was making, and the boat moored dry on the shore would be soon buoyant on the water.
So it is with the ebbings and the flowings in the spiritual life. You may be ever and anon in doubt and despondency. Temptation after temptation, like wave upon wave, may tell of nothing but apparent relapse. The tide of the divine life may appear to recede; while, in truth and reality watched by the unerring discriminating Eye above—it is rising—the old marks of sin are being submerged under the advancing waves. "The righteous shall hold on his way." "Though he falls, he shall not be utterly cast down, for the Lord upholds him with His hand." "He gives more grace." "He who has begun a good work in you, will perform it unto the day of the Lord Jesus."
"Why is that plant"—ask this question of the experienced gardener—"making no advance? Though healthy in appearance, its growth seems arrested." "No—not so," would be his reply. "Externally, and to the outward eye, it makes no progress. But it does better—it is mooring its unseen roots all the firmer and deeper in the soil."
And now, what remains, in closing, but to exhort and encourage you, as God's votive and covenanting people, to aspire after increasing attainments. By startling providences, as well as by revolving seasons, we are solemnly reminded that our present fleeting opportunities will soon be gone, and gone forever. "The night is far spent, the day is at hand." Time is rushing on, swift-winged to Judgment. He puts no arrest on his revolving wheels. He stops no grain in the diminishing sand-heap. Day follows day; Sabbath treads on the heels of Sabbath; Communion season on Communion season; and the sun, like a vast pendulum, as he swings from East to West, seems to proclaim—"Nearer Eternity!" "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord." "Be not weary in well-doing; for in due season you shall reap if you faint not!"
Members of the Sacramental host of the Great Captain of Salvation! be yours especially the noble resolution of the man, who exhibited on the vastest and grandest scale the practical power of the resolution of our text—"I count not myself to have apprehended; but this one thing I do—forgetting the things that are behind, and reaching forth unto those that are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus!"
"By the grace of God we are what we are." May we leave His courts today, feeling that by that same grace we may grow into something higher, nobler, holier, diviner still.
"Your vows renewed; go seek His mercy only,