5 Reasons Why Believers Do Not Grow

Kevin DeYoung, Pastor, Author

Hannah Whitall Smith's book, The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life, is an unfortunate classic. As  one writer has pointed out, Hannah's life was not happy and her theology provided no secret for Christian living. She makes a sharp distinction between God's work in holiness and our work. God's work is to make us holy. Our work is to continually surrender and continually trust (5). "All that we claim then in this life of sanctification," she wrote, "is that by a step of faith we put ourselves into the hands of the Lord, for Him to work in us all the good pleasure of His will; and that by a continuous exercise of faith we keep ourselves there. . . .Our part is trusting, it is His to accomplish the results" (7).

It was this sort of teaching that prompted J.C. Ryle to ask "whether it is wise to speak of faith as the one thing needful, and the only thing required, as many seem to do nowadays in handling the doctrine of sanctification? Is it wise to proclaim in so bald, naked, and unqualified a way as many do that the holiness of converted people is by faith only, and not at all by personal exertion?" (Holiness, xvii-xviii).  

Long before the Keswick controversy the Dutch theologian Wilhelmus a Brakel (1635-1711) expressed a similar sentiment in The Christian's Reasonable Service. In his chapter on "Spiritual Growth" a Brakel explores "Reasons why Believers Do not Grow as much as They Ought." He gives five reasons:  

1) They presume upon grace.  

2) They doubt their conversion.  

3) They are discouraged by their progress.  

4) They conform themselves to the world.  

5) They are lazy.  

Remembering our justification may be the antidote for reasons 2 and 3, but effort is required with number 5.  

Many Christians "are hindered in their walk solely by laziness." Later a Brakel observes, "We indeed desire to be in an elevated spiritual frame and to grow as a palm tree, but we are not willing to exert any effort-and thus we also do not receive it…  Therefore, Christians, to the task! Strive to grow in both habitual and actual grace." (Volume 4, 154)  

It is precisely this exhortation that I fear is missing from some quarters of evangelicalism.  

Martyn Lloyd-Jones made the same point more recently. After taking several sermons to unpack the glorious objectivity of our union with Christ in Romans 6:1-11, Lloyd-Jones turned to our efforts in 6:12-14. He emphasizes over and over that "holiness is not a constant appeal to us to surrender" (The New Man, 156). A little later he adds, "The New Testament teaching about sanctification is not just an appeal to us to ‘look to the Lord.'" Sanctification, he argues, requires personal exertion. When we are told "Let now sin therefore reign in your mortal body" this is "an exhortation addressed to us, an admonition, a call to a positive activity of the will" (157).  

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