Let me take it for granted that we do not question the reality of growth in grace, and its vast importance. So far so good. But you now want to know how anyone may find out whether he is growing in grace or not? I answer that question, in the first place, by observing that we are very poor judges of our own condition — and that bystanders often know us better than we know ourselves. But I answer further that there are undoubtedly certain great marks and signs of growth in grace — and that wherever you see these marks — you see a growing soul. I will now proceed to place some of these marks before you in order.
1. One mark of growth in grace, is increased HUMILITY. The man whose soul is growing, feels his own sinfulness and unworthiness more every year.
He is ready to say with Job, "I am vile!" And with Abraham, "I am dust and ashes!" And with Jacob, "I am not worthy of the least of all Your mercies!" And with David, "I am a worm!" And with Isaiah, "I am a man of unclean lips!"
And with Peter, "I am a sinful man, O Lord!" (Job 40:4; Genesis 18:27; 32:10; Psalm 22:6; Isaiah 6:5; Luke 5:8). The nearer he draws to God, and the more he sees of God's holiness and perfections — the more thoroughly is he sensible of his own countless sins and imperfections. The further he journeys in the way to Heaven — the more he understands what Paul meant when he says,
"I am not already perfect!" "I am not fit to be called an apostle!" "I am less than the least of all saints!" "I am the chief of sinners!" (Philippians 3:12; 1 Corinthians 15:9; Ephesians 3:8; 1 Timothy 1:15).
The riper he is for glory, the more, like the ripe corn — he hangs down his head. The brighter and clearer is his gospel light — the more he sees of the shortcomings and infirmities of his own heart. When first converted, he would tell you he saw but little of them — compared to what he sees now. Would anyone know whether he is growing in grace? Be sure that you look within for increased humility.
2. Another mark of growth in grace, is increased FAITH and LOVE towards our Lord Jesus Christ. The man whose soul is growing, finds more in Christ to rest upon every year, and rejoices more that he has such a Savior. No doubt he saw much in Him, when first he believed. His faith laid hold on the atonement of Christ, and gave him hope. But as he grows in grace, he sees a thousand things in Christ of which at first he never dreamed!
His love and power, His heart and His intentions, His offices as Substitute, Intercessor, Priest, Advocate, Physician, Shepherd and Friend
— unfold themselves to a growing soul in an unspeakable manner. In short, he discovers a suitableness in Christ to the needs of his soul, of which the half was once not known to him! Would anyone know if he is growing in grace? Then let him look within for increased knowledge of, and love to Christ.
3. Another mark of growth in grace, is increased HOLINESS of life and conduct. The man whose soul is growing, gets more dominion over sin, the world and the devil every year. He becomes more careful about . . . his temper, his words and his actions. He is more watchful over his conduct in every relation of life. He strives more to be conformed to the image of Christ in all things, and to follow Him as his example — as well as to trust in Him as his Savior. He is not content with old attainments and former grace. He forgets the things that are behind, and reaches forth unto those things which are before, making "Higher!" "Upward!" "Forward!" "Onward!" his continual motto (Philippians 3:13). On earth, he thirsts and longs to have a will more entirely in unison with God's will. In Heaven, the chief thing that he looks for, next to the presence of Christ — is complete separation from all sin. Would anyone know if he is growing in grace? Then let him look within for increased holiness.
4. Another mark of growth in grace, is increased SPIRITUALITY of taste and mind. The man whose soul is growing, takes more interest in spiritual things every year. He does not neglect his duty in the world. He discharges faithfully, diligently and conscientiously — every relation of life, whether at home or abroad. But the things he loves best are spiritual things. The amusements and recreations of the world, have a continually decreasing place in his heart. He does not condemn them as downright sinful, nor say that those who have anything to do with them are going to Hell. He only feels that they have a constantly diminishing hold on his own affections — and gradually seem smaller and more trifling in his eyes. Spiritual companions, spiritual occupations, spiritual conversation — are of ever-increasing value to him. Would anyone know if he is growing in grace? Then let him look within for increasing spirituality of taste.
5. Another mark of growth in grace, is increase in LOVE to others. The man whose soul is growing, is more full of love every year — of love to all men — but especially of love towards the brethren.
His love will show itself actively — in a growing disposition to do kindnesses, to take trouble for others, to be good-natured to everybody, to be generous, sympathizing, thoughtful, tender-hearted and considerate.
His love will show itself passively — in a growing disposition to be meek and patient towards all men, to put up with provocation and not stand upon his rights, to bear and forbear much rather than quarrel. A growing soul will try to put the best construction on other people's conduct, and to believe all things and hope all things, even to the end. There is no surer mark of backsliding and falling off in grace — than an increasing disposition to find fault, pick holes, and see weak points in others. Would anyone know if he is growing in grace? Then let him look within for increasing love to others.
6. One more mark of growth in grace, is increased ZEAL and diligence in trying to do good to souls. The man who is really growing, will take greater interest in the salvation of sinners every year. Missions at home and abroad, efforts of every kind to spread the gospel, attempts of any sort to increase gospel light and diminish gospel darkness — all these things will every year have a greater place in his attention.
He will not become "weary in well-doing," just because he does not see every effort succeed. He will not care less for the progress of Christ's cause on earth, as he grows older, though he will learn to expect less. He will just work on, whatever the result may be — giving, praying, speaking, visiting, according to his position — and count his work its own reward. One of the surest marks of spiritual decline — is a decreased interest about the souls of others, and the growth of Christ's kingdom. Would anyone know whether he is growing in grace? Then let him look within for increased concern about the salvation of souls.
Those high-flying religionists, whose only notion of Christianity is that of a state of perpetual joy and ecstasy, who tell you that they have got far beyond the region of conflict and soul-humiliation — such people no doubt will regard the marks I have laid down as "legal," "carnal" and "tending to bondage." I cannot help that. I call no man master in these things. I only wish my statements to be tried in the balance of Scripture.
And I firmly believe that what I have said is not only Scriptural — but agreeable to the experience of the most eminent saints in every age. Show me a man in whom the six marks I have mentioned can be found. He is the man who can give a satisfactory answer to the question: "Do we grow?" Such are the most trustworthy marks of growth in grace. Let us examine them carefully and consider what we ourselves know about them.
Excerpt from the free eBook Holiness by J. C. Ryle