Sanctification is a Progressive Work

by John Owen

Sanctification described, with the nature of the work of the Holy Spirit in this; which is progressive — The way and means by which holiness is increased in believers, especially by faith and love, whose exercise is required in all duties of obedience; and also those graces whose exercise is occasional — The growth of holiness expressed in an allusion to that of plants, with an insensible progress — Renders grace in this to be greatly admired; and is discerned in the corresponding work of the Spirit in sanctification and supplication — Objections against the progressive nature of holiness are removed.

Having passed through the consideration of the general concerns of the work of sanctification, I will, in the next place, give a description of it, and then explain it more particularly in its principal parts. And I will do this only under this express caution: that I do not hope or design at the same time to represent the life, glory, and beauty of it, nor to comprise all things that eminently belong to it; I will only set up some way-marks that may guide us in our progress, or future inquiry into the nature and glory of it. And so I say that —

Sanctification is an immediate work of the Spirit of God on the souls of believers, purifying and cleansing their natures from the pollution and uncleanness of sin, renewing in them the image of God, and thereby enabling them, from a spiritual and habitual principle of grace, to yield obedience to God, according to the tenor and terms of the new covenant, by virtue of the life and death of Jesus Christ.793

Or more briefly: It is the universal renovation of our natures by the Holy Spirit into the image of God, through Jesus Christ.

Hence it follows that our holiness, which is the fruit and effect of this work as terminated in us, comprises the renewed principle or image of God worked in us; and thus it consists in a holy obedience to God by Jesus Christ, according to the terms of the covenant of grace, from the principle of a renewed nature. Our apostle expresses the whole more briefly yet — namely, He that is in Christ Jesus is a new creature, 2Cor 5.17; for he expresses in this both the renovation of our natures, the endowment of our natures with a new spiritual principle of life and operation, with actings towards God that are suitable to this new creature. I will take up the first general description of it, and in the consideration of its parts, I will give some account of the nature of the work and its effects. And then I will distinctly prove and confirm the true nature of it, in which it is opposed or called into question.

1. It is, as proven before and confessed by all, the work in us of the Spirit of God. It is our renovation by the Holy Ghost, by which we are saved. And it is a real, internal, powerful, physical work, as we abundantly proved before, and will more fully confirm afterward. He does not make us holy only by persuading us to be holy. He does not just require us to be holy, propose motives for holiness, convict us of the necessity of holiness, and thereby excite us to pursue and attain it — though he does this also, by the word and its ministration. It is too high an impudence for anyone to pretend to own the gospel, and yet deny a work of the Holy Ghost in our sanctification; and therefore, both the old and new Pelagians did and do avow a work of the Holy Ghost in this. But what is it that they really ascribe to him? They ascribe merely the exciting our own abilities, aiding and assisting us in and to the exercise of our own native power. When all is done, this leaves the work our own and not his, and the glory and praise of it must be ascribed to us. But we already sufficiently proved that the things promised by God, and effected, are really worked by the exceeding greatness of the power of the Spirit of God; and this will be made still more particularly apparent afterward.

2. This work of sanctification differs from the work of regeneration, just as it does on other accounts, but especially on account of the way it is worked. The work of regeneration is instantaneous, consisting in one single creating act. Hence it is not capable of degrees in any subject. No one is more or less regenerate than another; everyone in the world is absolutely so, or not so, and that is equally, even though there are degrees in their state for other reasons. But this work of sanctification is progressive, and it allows for degrees. One may be more sanctified and more holy than another, who is yet truly sanctified and truly holy. It is begun at once, and carried on gradually. This observation is of great importance, and if rightly weighed, it will contribute much light to the nature of the whole work of sanctification and holiness. And so, I will divert in this chapter to such an explanation and confirmation of it, that it may give an understanding and furtherance in this.

In the Scripture, an increase and growth in sanctification or holiness is frequently enjoined of us, and frequently promised to us. So the apostle Peter says by way of command, 2Pet 3.17-18, "Do not fall," do not be thrown down, "from your own steadfastness; but grow," or increase, "in grace." It is not enough to not decay in our spiritual condition, or to not be diverted and carried away from a steady course in obedience by the power of temptations; but what is required of us is an endeavor after improvement, an increase, a thriving in grace — that is, in holiness.

And compliance with this command is what our apostle commends in 2Thes 1.3 794 — namely, the exceeding growth of their faith, and the abounding in their love; that is, the thriving and increasing of those graces in them, which is called "increasing with the increase of God," Col 2.19;795 or with the increase in holiness which God requires, accepts, and approves, by supplies of spiritual strength from Jesus Christ our head.

The work of holiness, at its beginning, is like a seed cast into the earth — namely, the seed of God, by which we are born again. And we know how seed that is cast into the earth grows and increases. Being variously cherished and nourished, its nature is to take root and spring up, bringing forth fruit. So it is with the principle of grace and holiness. It is small at first, but being received in good and honest hearts — made so by the Spirit of God, and nourished and cherished there — it takes root and produces fruit. And both of these — the first planting and the increase of it — are equally from God by his Spirit. "He that begins this good work also performs it until the day of Jesus Christ," Phi 1.6. And he does this in two ways:

First, By increasing and strengthening those graces of holiness which we have received and have been engaged in exercising. There are some graces whose exercise does not depend on any outward occasions; but in their actual exercise, they are absolutely necessary to the least degree of the life of God: such are faith and love. No man does or can live to God, except in the exercise of these graces. Whatever duties men may perform towards God, if they are not enlivened by faith and love, then they do not belong to that spiritual life by which we live to God. And these graces are capable of degrees, and so they are capable of increase. For so we read expressly about little faith Mat 14.31 and great faith,Mat 8.10 weak faithRom 14.1 and strong faith.Rom 4.20 Both are true faith and they are the same in their substance, but they differ in degrees. So also there is fervent love,1Pet 4.8 and love that is comparatively cold.Mat 24.12 These graces, therefore, in carrying on the work of sanctification, are gradually increased. So the disciples asked our Savior to increase their faith, Luke 17.5 — that is, to add to its light, confirm it in its assent, multiply its acts, and make it strong against assaults, so that it might work more effectively in difficult duties of obedience. They had a special regard for this, as evident from the context, for they pray for this increase of faith on the occasion of our Savior's enjoining them to frequently forgive their offending brethren — it is a duty that is not at all easy, nor pleasing to our flesh and blood. And the apostle prays for the Ephesians, that they may be "rooted and grounded in love," Eph 3.17. That is, that by the increase and strengthening of their love, they may be more established in all the duties of love.796

Because these graces are the springs and spirit of our holiness, it is in their increase in us that the work of sanctification is carried on, and universal holiness is increased. And this is done by the Holy Spirit in several ways:

First, By exciting these graces to frequent actings. Frequency of acts naturally increases and strengthens the habits from which they proceed; and these spiritual habits of faith and love are, moreover, by God's appointment. They grow and thrive, in and by their exercise, Hos 6.3.797 The lack of this exercise is the principal means of their decay. And there are two ways by which the Holy Spirit excites the graces of faith and love to frequent acts:

(1.) He does it morally, by proposing suitable and seasonable objects for them. He does this by his ordinances of worship, especially by the preaching of the word. In proposing to us God in Christ, the promises of the covenant, and other proper objects of our faith and love, these graces are drawn out into their exercise. This is one principal advantage we have by attending to the dispensation of the word in a due manner — namely, that by presenting to our minds those spiritual truths which are the object of our faith, and by presenting to our affections those spiritual good things which are the object of our love, both of these graces are drawn out into frequent actual exercise. We are greatly mistaken if we suppose that we have no benefit by the word beyond what we retain in our memories, even though we should labor for that also. Our chief advantage lies in the excitation which is given to our faith and love by it, to their proper exercise. These graces are kept alive by this; for without preaching, they would decay and wither.

In this, the Holy Spirit "takes the things of Christ, and shows them to us," Joh 16.14-15. He represents them to us in the preaching of the word as the proper objects of our faith and love, and so he brings to remembrance the things spoken by Christ, Joh 14.26. That is, in the dispensation of the word, the Spirit reminds us of the gracious words and truths of Christ, proposing them to our faith and love. And in this lies the secret profiting and thriving of believers under the preaching of the gospel, which maybe they are not aware of themselves. By this means, many thousands of acts of faith and love are drawn out whereby these graces are exercised and strengthened; and consequently holiness is increased. And the word, by the actings of faith being mixed with it, as in Heb 4.2,798 increases holiness by its incorporation.

(2.) The Spirit does it really and internally. He dwells in believers, preserving in them the root and principle of all their grace by his own immediate power. Hence all graces in their exercise are called "The fruits of the Spirit," Gal 5.22-23. He brings them forth from the stock that he has planted in the heart.

And we cannot act any one grace without his effectual operation in this: "God works in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure," Phi 2.13; — that is, there is no part of our wills, singly and separately from Him in obedience, that is not the operation of the Spirit of God in us, so far as it is spiritual and holy. The Spirit is the immediate author of every good or gracious acting in us; for "in us, that is, in our flesh" (and of ourselves, we are but flesh), "there dwells no good." This is why the Spirit of God, dwelling in believers, effectively excites and stirs up their graces to frequent exercise and actings, by which they are increased and strengthened. There is nothing in the whole course of our walking before God that we ought to be more careful about, than not grieving, not provoking, this good and holy Spirit, for which he should withhold his gracious aids and assistance from us. Therefore, this is the first way by which the work of sanctification is gradually carried on: by the Holy Ghost exciting our graces to frequent actings, by which these graces are increased and strengthened.

Secondly, The Spirit [increases holiness in us] by supplying believers with experiences of the truth, and of the reality and excellence of the things that are believed. Experience is the food of all grace, which it grows and thrives upon. Every taste that faith obtains of divine love and grace, or of how gracious the Lord is, adds to its measure and stature. Two things, therefore, must briefly be declared: (1.) That the experience of the reality, excellence, power, and efficacy of the things that are believed, is an effectual means of increasing faith and love; and (2.) That it is the Holy Ghost which gives us this experience.

(1.) For the first, God himself expostulates799 with the church how its faith came to be so weak, when it had so great an experience of him, or of his power and faithfulness: Isa 40.27-28, "Have you not known? Have you not heard? How, then, can you say that God has forsaken you?" And our apostle affirms that the consolations which he experientially received from God, enabled him to discharge his duty towards others in trouble, 2Cor 1.4.800 For in this we prove, or really approve of (as being satisfied in), "the good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God," Rom 12.2. And this is what the apostle prays for on behalf of the Colossians, 2.2.801

I may say that someone who does not know how faith is encouraged and strengthened by special experiences of the reality, power, and spiritual efficacy upon the soul, of the things believed, was never made a partaker of any of them. How often David encourages his own faith and the faith of others from his former experiences! These were also pleaded by our Lord Jesus Christ to the same purpose, in his great distress, Psa 22.9-10.802

(2.) No other consideration is needed to evince that the Holy Ghost gives us all our spiritual experiences, but this: that all our consolation consists in these experiences. It is his work and office to administer consolation to believers, because he is the only Comforter of the church. Now, he administers comfort in no other way than by giving to the minds and souls of believers a spiritual, sensible experience of the reality and power of the things we believe. He does not comfort us by words, but by things. I know of no other means of spiritual consolation; and I am sure that this one never fails. Give a soul an experience, a taste, of the love and grace of God in Christ Jesus, and whatever that soul's condition may be, it cannot refuse to be comforted. And hereby the Spirit "sheds abroad the love of God in our hearts," Rom 5.5, by which all graces are cherished and increased.

Thirdly, He does it by working immediately an actual increase of these graces in us. I have shown that these are capable of improvement, and of an addition of degrees to them. Now, they are originally the immediate work and product of the Spirit of God in us, as has been abundantly evinced. And as he first works and creates them, so he increases them. Hereby those who are "feeble become as David," Zec 12.8; that is, those whose graces were weak, whose faith was infirm, and whose love was languid, will become strong and vigorous by the supplies of the Spirit, and the increase given by him. Promises are multiplied to this purpose in the Scripture, which we principally consider in our constant supplications. The schoolmen, after Austin, call this "Gratiam corroborantem;" that is, the working of the Holy Spirit in the increasing and strengthening of grace received. See Eph 3.16-17; Col 1.10-11; Isa 40.29.803 And this is the principal cause and means of the gradual increase of holiness in us, or of carrying on the work of sanctification, Psa 138.8.804

Secondly, There are graces whose exercise is more occasional, and not always actually necessary to the life of God; that is, it is not necessary that they always be in actual exercise, as faith and love are to be constantly exercised. With respect to these graces, holiness is increased by the addition of one to another, until we are brought on several occasions to the practice and exercise of them all. For the addition of the new exercise of any grace, belongs to the gradual carrying on of the work of sanctification. And all things that befall us in this world, all our circumstances, are laid in subservience to this work by the wisdom of God. All our relations, all our afflictions, all our temptations, all our mercies, all our enjoyments, all occurrences, are suited to a continual adding of the exercise of one grace to another, in which holiness is increased. And if we do not make use of them for that purpose, we miss all the benefit and advantage we might have had from them; and we disappoint (as much as it lies in us) the design of divine love and wisdom in them.

We are given this charge in 2Pet 1.5-7:

"Besides this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly-kindness; and to brotherly-kindness charity."

The end given to us for this injunction is this: that we may "escape the corruption that is in the world through lust," verse 4; that is, that we may have all our corruptions thoroughly subdued, and our souls thoroughly sanctified. To this end, the promises are given to us, and a divine, spiritual nature is bestowed upon us. But will that suffice? Is no more required of us to that end? "Yes," the apostle says in essence, "this great work will not be effected unless you use your utmost diligence and endeavor to add the exercise of all the graces of the Spirit, one to another, as occasion requires." There is a method in this concatenation of graces from first to last, and a special reason for each particular one, or why the apostle requires that one particular grace should be added to another in the order laid down here; at present I will not inquire into this. But in general, Peter intends that every grace is to be exercised according to its proper season and special occasion. Hereby also, the work of sanctification is gradually carried on, and holiness is increased. And this addition of one grace to another, with the progress of holiness gained by it, is also from the Holy Ghost. There are three ways by which he accomplishes his work in this:

1. By so ordering things towards us, and bringing us into those conditions in which the exercise of these graces will be required and necessary. All the afflictions and trials which he brings the church into, have no other end or design. So the apostle James expresses it:

Jas 1.2-4 "My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith works patience. But let patience have its perfect work, so that you may be perfect and entire, lacking nothing."

These temptations are trials based upon afflictions, troubles, persecutions, and the like. But if we take them in any other sense, it is the same for our purpose. These are all guided to us by Christ and his Spirit, for he is the one who rebukes and chastens us.Joh 16.8 But what is his end in this? It is that faith may be exercised and patience employed, and one grace be added to another, so that these may carry us on towards perfection. So he brings us into that condition in which we will assuredly miscarry,805 if we do not add the exercise of one grace to another.

2. In this state of things, the Spirit effectively reminds us of our duty, and what graces ought to be exercised. We may dispute whether it is better to act faith, or to despond; to add patience under the continuance of our trials, or to trust to ourselves and irregularly seek deliverance, diverting ourselves to other satisfactions.

Then he causes us to "hear a word behind us, saying, This is the way, walk in it, when we turn to the right hand, and when we turn to the left," Isa 30.21. When we are at a loss, and do not know what to do, and are ready, it may be, to consult with flesh and blood, and to divert to irregular courses, the Spirit effectively speaks to us, saying, "No; that is not your proper way, but this is it," — namely, to act faith, patience, and submission to God, adding one grace to another, thereby binding our hearts to our duty.

3. He actually excites and sets all needful graces to work in the way and manner said before.

This then is to be fixed, so that all this increase of holiness is immediately the work of the Holy Ghost; and in this he gradually carries on his design of sanctifying us throughout, in our whole spirits, souls, and bodies. In our regeneration and habitual grace we receive a nature bestowed on us that is capable of growth and increase, and that is all; if left to itself, it will not thrive; it will decay and die. The actual supplies of the Spirit are the waterings that are the immediate cause of its increase. It wholly depends on continual influences from God. He cherishes and improves the work he has begun, with new and fresh supplies of grace every moment: Isa 27.3, "I the Lord will water it every moment." And it is the Spirit which is this water, as the Scripture declares everywhere. God the Father places on Him the care of this matter; "He watches over his vineyard to keep it."806 The Lord Christ is the head, fountain, and treasure of all actual supplies; and the Spirit is the efficient cause of them, communicating them to us from Christ. It is from this that any grace in us is kept alive one moment, that it is ever moved in one single duty, and that it ever receives the least measure of increase or strengthening. It is with respect to all these that our apostle says, "Nevertheless, I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me," Gal 2.20. Spiritual life and living by it, in all its acts, are immediately from Christ.

I do not concern myself much with how moral virtue, that is no more, is preserved and sustained in the minds and lives of men; though I am not ignorant of the precepts, directions, and instructions which are given to that end by some of old and some of late. But for grace and holiness, we have infallible assurance that the being, life, continuance, and all the actings of grace, in any of the sons of men, depend merely and only upon their relation to that spring and fountain of all grace which is in Christ, and the continual supplies of it by the Holy Spirit, whose work it is to communicate them, Col 3.3; John 15.5; Col 2.19.807

There is no man who has any grace that is true and saving, who has any seed, any beginning of sanctification or holiness, that the Holy Spirit, by his watchful care over it,808 and his supplies of it, is not able to preserve it, to extricate it from difficulties, to free it from opposition, and to increase it to its full measure and perfection. Therefore, "let the hands that hang down be lifted up, and the feeble knees be strengthened." Heb 12.12 We deal with Him who "will not quench the smoking flax nor break the bruised reed." And on the other side, there is none who has received grace in such a measure, nor has so confirmed that grace by constant, uninterrupted exercise, that he can preserve it even one moment, or act it out in any one instance or duty, without continual supplies of new, actual grace and help from the one who works in us to will and to do. For our Lord Christ says to his apostles, and through them to all believers — even the best and strongest of them — "Without me you can do nothing," John 15.5. And those who of themselves can do nothing — that is, in a way of living to God — cannot of themselves preserve grace, act it, or increase it; these are the greatest things we do, or that are worked in us in this world. Therefore God in infinite wisdom has so ordered the dispensation of his love and grace to believers, that of all those living on the continual supplies of his Spirit, none may have cause on the one hand to faint or despond; nor occasion on the other for self-confidence or elation of mind — that "no flesh may glory in itself, but he that glories may glory in the Lord."1Cor 1.29,31 Therefore, he greatly encourages the weak, the fearful, the faint, the disconsolate and dejected; and he does this by engaging all the holy properties of his nature in and for their assistance.809 And so too, he warns those who suppose they are strong, steadfast, and immovable, "not to be high-minded, but to fear," Rom 11.20 — because the whole outcome of things depends on his sovereign supplies of grace. And seeing that he promised in the covenant to faithfully continue these supplies to us, there is ground for the faith given to all, and occasion for presumption is administered to none. But it will be said that,

"If not only the beginning of grace, sanctification, and holiness is from God, but the carrying on and the increase of it are also from him, not only in general, but if all the actings of grace, and every act of it, is an immediate effect of the Holy Spirit — then what need is there for us to take any pains in this ourselves, or to use our own endeavors to grow in grace or holiness as we are commanded to do? If God works all of this in us, and if we can do nothing without his effectual operation in us, then there is no place left for our diligence, duty, or obedience."

Ans. 1. We must expect to meet this objection at every turn. Men will not believe there is a consistency between God's effectual grace and our diligent obedience; that is, they will not believe what is plainly, clearly, and distinctly revealed in the Scripture, and matches the experience of all those who truly believe, because they cannot, it may be, comprehend it within the compass of carnal reason.

Ans. 2. Let the apostle answer this objection for this once:

2Pet 1.3, "His divine power has given us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these you might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust."

If all things that pertain to life and godliness are given to us by the power of God — among which, doubtless, is the preservation and increase of grace —— and if we receive from him that divine nature by virtue of which our corruptions are subdued, then it may be objected, "What need is there for any endeavors of our own?" The whole work of sanctification is worked in us, it seems, and that is by the power of God; we may therefore let it alone, and leave it to the one it belongs to, while we are negligent, secure, and at ease. "No," says the apostle; "this is not the use to which the grace of God is to be put. The consideration of it is, or ought to be, the principal motive and encouragement to all diligence for the increase of holiness in us." For he quickly adds, verse 5 — "But also for this cause," or, because of the gracious operations of the divine power in us, "giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue," as stated before.

These objectors and this apostle were very differently minded in these matters. What they make an insuperable discouragement to diligence in obedience, he makes the greatest motive and encouragement for it.

3. I say, it will unavoidably follow from this consideration, that we ought to continually wait and depend on God for supplies of his Spirit and grace, without which we can do nothing. These things, I say, will unavoidably follow from the doctrine declared before: that by his grace, God is more the author of the good we do than we are ourselves ("Not I, but the grace of God which was with me"); 1Cor 15.10 that we ought to be careful not to provoke the Holy Spirit to withhold his aids and assistances by our negligence and sin, and so leave us to ourselves; in that condition we can do nothing that is spiritually good. If any are offended by these things, it is not in our power to render them relief.

I will close the discourse on this subject with some considerations of that similitude by which the Scripture so frequently represents the gradual improvement of grace and holiness; and this is the growth of trees and plants: Hos 14.5-6, "I will be as the dew unto Israel: he will grow as the lily, and lengthen his roots like Lebanon. His branches will spread, and his beauty will be like the olive-tree, and his fragrance like Lebanon."

Isa 44.3, 4, "I will pour water on him who is thirsty, and floods on the dry ground: I will pour my Spirit upon your seed, and my blessing upon your offspring: and they will spring up as among the grass like willows by the water-courses." And so it is echoed in many other places. We may know that this similitude is singularly instructive, or it would not have been so frequently made use of to this purpose. I will briefly reflect on a few instances tending to give light in this matter:

1. These trees and plants have the principle of their growth in themselves. They do not grow from direct, external, adventitious aid and furtherance; they grow from their own seminal virtue and radical moisture. It is not otherwise in the progress of sanctification and holiness. It has a root, a seed, a principle of growth and increase in the soul of the one who is sanctified. All grace is immortal seed; and it contains in it a living, growing principle. That which does not have in itself a life and power to grow, is not grace; therefore, whatever duties men perform, to which they are either guided by natural light, or which they are urged to by convictions from the word, if they do not proceed from a principle of spiritual life in the heart, they are not fruits of holiness, nor do they belong to it. The water of grace which comes from Christ, is a "well of water springing up into everlasting life" in those on whom it is bestowed, John 4.14. It is therefore the nature of holiness to thrive and to grow, just as it is the nature of trees or plants to grow, which have their seminal virtue in themselves, after their kind.

2. A tree or a plant must be watered from above, or it will not thrive and grow by virtue of its own seminal power. If a drought comes, it will wither or decay. Thus, where God mentions this growth, he ascribes it to his watering: "I will be as the dew," and "I will pour water." This watering is the special cause of growth; so it is in carrying on holiness. There is a nature received that is capable of increase and growth; but if it is left to itself, it will not thrive; it will decay and die. Therefore, God is like the dew to it, and he pours water on it by the actual supplies of the Spirit, as we showed before.

3. The growth of trees and plants is secret and imperceptible; nor is it discerned except in the effects and consequences of that growth. The most watchful eye can discern little of its motion. "As a tree through the ages, it grows secretly."810 It is not otherwise in the progress of holiness. It is not immediately discernible either by those in whom it progresses, or by others who observe it. It lies only under the eye of Him by whom it is worked; only by its fruits and effects is it made manifest. And some, indeed, especially in some seasons, plainly and evidently thrive and grow, springing up like the willows by the water-courses.

Though their growth in itself is indiscernible, yet it is plain that they have grown. We all ought to be so. The growth of some, I say, is manifest upon every trial, on every occasion; their profiting is visible to all. Some say that the growth of plants does not happen by a constant insensible progress, but they increase by sudden bursts and motions; these may sometimes be discerned in the opening of buds and flowers. So too, the growth of believers may consist principally in some intense vigorous actings of grace on great occasions, such as faith, love, humility, self-denial, or bounty; the one who has not experienced such actings of grace in special instances, can have little evidence of his growth. Again, there are trees and plants that have the principle of life and growth in them, yet they are so withering and wasted that you can barely discern they are alive. So it is with too many believers. They are all "trees planted in the garden of God;" Eze 31.9 some thrive, some decay for a season, but the growth of the best is secret.

From what has been proved, it is evident that the work of sanctification is a progressive work, that it gradually carries holiness on towards perfection in us. It is neither worked nor completed at once in us, as regeneration is; nor does it cease upon any attainments or condition of life, but is thriving and carried on. A river continually fed by a living fountain could as soon end its streams before it comes to the ocean, as a stop could be put to the course and progress of grace before it ends in glory. For "the path of the just is like the shining light, that shines more and more unto the perfect day," Pro 4.18. So too their path is like the morning light, the way in which they are led and conducted by the Holy Spirit: once it appears, even though it may sometimes be clouded, it does not fail until it arrives at its perfection. And just as the wisdom, patience, faithfulness, and power which the Holy Spirit of God exercises in this are inexpressible, so these are constantly admired by all those who have an interest in them, as described by the psalmist, Psa 66.8-9, 31.19.811

Who is there that has made any diligent observation of his own heart and ways, and what the workings of the grace of God have been in and towards him to bring him to the stature and measure to which he has arrived, that does not admire the watchful care and powerful workings of the Spirit of God in this? If the principle of our holiness is weak and infirm in us, it is nonetheless in us. In some, it is to so low a degree, it is often imperceptible to them. The Spirit preserves and cherishes even this, so that it will not be overpowered by corruptions and temptations. Among all the glorious works of God, next to that of redemption by Jesus Christ, my soul most admires this about the Spirit: His preserving of the seed and principle of holiness in us, like a spark of living fire in the midst of the ocean, against all corruptions and temptations with which it is impugned.

Many breaches are made in our course of obedience by the incursions of actual sins; the Spirit cures and fixes these, healing our backslidings and repairing our decays. And he acts the grace that is received by constant fresh supplies. The one who does not diligently observe the ways and means by which grace is preserved and promoted, lacks much of the comfort and joy of a spiritual life; and it is no small part of our sin and folly when we are negligent in this.

No doubt, all believers are convinced of this in some measure, not only from the testimonies given of it in the Scripture, but also from their own experience. There is nothing they may more distinctly learn it from than the nature and course of their prayers, with the workings of their hearts, minds, and affections in them. Let profane persons deride it while they please, it is the Spirit of God, as a Spirit of grace, that enables believers to pray and make intercession according to the mind of God. And in this, because he is the Spirit of supplications, he copies out and expresses what he works in them as the Spirit of sanctification. In teaching us to pray, he teaches us what and how he works in us; and if we wisely consider his working in our hearts by prayer, we may understand much of his working upon our hearts by grace. It is said that "he who searches the hearts" (that is, God himself) "knows the mind of the Spirit," in the intercessions he makes in us, Rom 8.27. There are secret powerful operations of the Spirit in prayer that are discernible only to the great Searcher of hearts. But we should also inquire and observe, so far as we may, what he leads us to and guides us about — which is plainly his work in us. I do not think that the Spirit works supplications in us by an immediate, supernatural, divine afflatus, as he inspired the prophets of old; they often did not understand the things they uttered, but diligently inquired into them afterward. But I do say (let the proud carnal world despise it while they please, and at their peril) that the Spirit of God, in the prayers of believers, graciously carries out and acts their souls and minds in desires and requests which, as to their subject matter, are far above their natural contrivances and invention. The one who has not experienced this, is a greater stranger to these things than it will, at length, be to his advantage. By a diligent observance of this, we may know what kind and nature the work of the Holy Ghost is in us, and how it is carried on.

For how, in general, does the Holy Spirit teach us and enable us to pray? It is by these three things:

1. By giving us a spiritual insight into the promises of God and the grace of the covenant, by which we know what to ask upon a spiritual view of the mercy and grace that God has prepared for us.

2. By acquainting us with and giving us an experience of our wants, with a deep sense of them, such that we cannot bear it without relief.

3. By creating and stirring up desires in the new creature for its own preservation, increase, and improvement.

And corresponding to these things, consists the Spirit's whole work of sanctification in us; for it is his effectual communication to us of the grace and mercy prepared in the promises of the covenant, through Jesus Christ. Hereby he supplies our spiritual wants, and sets the new creature in life and vigor. So our prayers are an extract and copy of the work of the Holy Spirit in us, given to us by the Spirit himself. And therefore, by whomever he is despised as a Spirit of supplication, he is despised as a Spirit of sanctification also. Now consider, what is it that you most labor about in your prayers? Is it not that the body, the power, the whole interest of sin in you may be weakened, subdued, and at length destroyed? Is it not that all the graces of the Spirit may be daily renewed, increased, and strengthened, so that you may be more ready and prepared for all the duties of obedience? And what is all this for, if not that holiness may be gradually progressive in your souls, that it may be carried on by new supplies and additions of grace, until it comes to perfection?

It will be said by some, perhaps, that by their best observation, they do not find in themselves or in others, that the work of sanctification is constantly progressive, or that holiness grows and thrives this way wherever it is found in sincerity. For themselves, they have found grace more vigorous, active, and flourishing in their former days than recently; its streams were fresher and stronger at the spring of their conversion than since they have found their course. From this come those complaints among many about their leanness, their weakness, their deadness, their barrenness. Nor were many of the saints in the Scripture without such complaints. And many may cry, "Oh if only it was the same as in our former days, in the days of our youth!" Complaints of this nature abound everywhere. Some are ready to conclude from this, that either sincere holiness is not as growing and progressive as pretended, or that in fact they have no interest in it. The same may be said by a diligent observation of others, both churches and single professors. What evidence do they give that the work of holiness is thriving in them? Does grace not appear instead, to be retrograding and under constant decay?

I will consider and remove this objection as far as needed, so that the truth we asserted does not suffer from it and we are left with an empty theory; and also that those who do not fully comply with holiness, are not altogether discouraged. I will do this in the ensuing rules and observations.

1. It is one thing to consider what grace or holiness is suited to in its own nature, and what the Spirit's ordinary or regular way of proceeding is in the work of sanctification, according to the tenor of the covenant of grace. It is another thing to consider what may occasionally fall out by indisposition and irregularity, or by any other obstructing interposition in those persons in whom the work is wrought. Under the first consideration, the work is thriving and progressive; in the latter, the rule is liable to various exceptions. A child that has a principle of life, a good natural constitution, and suitable food, will grow and thrive; but if that child has obstructions from within, or distempers and diseases, or falls and bruises, it may be weak and wasted.

When we are regenerated, we are like newborn babes, and ordinarily, if we have the sincere milk of the word, we will grow by it. But if we give way to temptations, corruptions, negligences, or conformity to the world, is it any wonder if we are lifeless and wasted? It suffices to confirm the truth of what we asserted, that everyone in whom there is a principle of spiritual life, who is born of God, and in whom the work of sanctification has begun — if it is not gradually carried on in him, if he does not thrive in grace and holiness, if he does not go from strength to strength — it is ordinarily from his own sinful negligence and indulgence of carnal lusts, or from his love of this present world. Considering the time we have had and the means we have enjoyed, what full-grown, what flourishing plants many of us might have been — in faith, love, purity, self-denial, and universal conformity to Christ — who are now weak, withering, fruitless, and sapless, and scarcely to be distinguished from the thorns and briers of the world! It is time for us to cast off every weight and the sin that so easily besets us,Heb 12.1 to stir ourselves up by all means to a vigorous recovery of our first faith and love, with an abundant growth in them, rather than complain that the work of holiness does not go on. And we should do this before our wounds become incurable.

2. It is one thing to have holiness really thriving in any soul; and it is another for that soul to know it and be satisfied in it; these two things may be separated. There are many reasons for this. But before I name them, I must premise one necessary observation —

This rule is proposed for the relief of those who are at a loss about their own condition, and do not know whether holiness is thriving in them or not; or for those who have no concern in this, who may at some point, if they please, give themselves an account of how these matters are going with them and on what grounds. For if men indulge any predominant lust; if they live in the neglect of any known duty or in the practice of any way of deceit; if they allow the world to devour the choicest increase of their souls; if they allow formality to eat out the spirit, vigor, and life of holy duties; or if any of these persist in a remarkable manner — I have nothing to offer them to manifest that holiness may thrive in them although they do not discern it; for undoubtedly it does not.

Nor are they to entertain any hope but this: that while they abide in such a condition, holiness will decay more and more. Such men are to be awakened violently, like men falling into a deadly lethargy, to be snatched like brands out of the fire,Zec 3.2 to be warned to recover their first faith and love, to repent and do their first works, Rev 2.4-5 lest their end be darkness and sorrow forevermore.

But as for those who walk with God humbly and in sincerity, there may be various reasons why holiness may be thriving in them, and yet they do not discern it. Therefore, though holiness is worked within ourselves, and only there, there may yet be seasons in which sincere, humble believers may be obliged to believe there is an increase and growth of holiness in them, when they do not perceive it in such a way as to be aware of it; for —

(1.) Because it is the subject of so many gospel promises, it is a proper object of our faith, or a thing that is to be believed. The promises are God's explanations of the grace of the covenant, both as to its nature and the manner of its operation. And these promises do not abound in anything more than this: that those who partake of grace will thrive and grow by it. It will be declared afterward what limitations these promises are bounded with, and what is required on our part so that we may have them fulfilled towards us. But their accomplishment depends on God's faithfulness, and not on our sense of it. Therefore, where we do not openly lay an obstruction against it, as in the case just mentioned, we may, we ought to believe that they are fulfilled towards us, even though we are not continually aware of it. And,

(2.) It is our duty to grow and thrive in holiness; and we are to believe that God will help us in what he requires of us; and he does so, whatever our present sense and apprehension of it may be. On these grounds, in my judgment, the one who can believe the growth of holiness in himself, even though he has no sensible experience of it, is in as good and perhaps a safer condition than the one who, through the vigorous working of spiritual affections, is most aware of this. For it is certain that such a person does not by any willful neglect or indulgence of any sin, obstruct the growth of holiness — for the one who does obstruct it cannot believe that holiness thrives in him or that it is carried on, whatever his presumptions may be; — and thus the life of faith, of which this holiness is a part, is in every way a safe life. Besides, such a person is not in danger of a vain elation of mind and carelessness on that account, as others may be. For when we live by faith, and not at all by sense,2Cor 5.7 we will be humble and fear always. Not finding in himself the evidence of what he most desires, a believer will be continually careful not to drive it farther from him. But the reasons for this difficulty are:

[1.] The work itself, as declared at large before, is secret and mysterious. And therefore, there is in some (I hope in many), the reality and essence of holiness, who can yet find nothing of it in themselves nor perhaps in anyone else, but only in Jesus Christ; those who have a lively understanding of the fear of the Lord. And so holiness may in the same secret manner, thrive in its degrees in those who yet do not perceive it. There is nothing in our whole course that we should be more awake to than a diligent observation of the progress and decays of grace. For just as knowledge of them has the same importance to us as our duties and comforts, so they are hard and difficult to discern; nor will they be as truly for our good and advantage without our utmost diligence and spiritual wisdom in observing them.

Hence, as we observed before, it is frequently compared in the Scripture to the growth of plants and trees (Hos 14.5-6, Isa 44.3-4). Now, we know that in those which are the most thriving and flourishing, though we may perceive that they are grown, we cannot discern their growing. And so the apostle tells us that as the "outward man perishes, so the inward man is renewed day by day," 2Cor 4.16. The outward man perishes by those same natural decays by which it continually tends toward death and dissolution; and many of us know how these insensible decays are hardly discerned unless some great and violent disease befalls us. We know that we are enfeebled and weakened by age and infirmities, rather than perceiving when or how it happens. This too is how the inward man is renewed in grace. It is by such secret ways and means as that its growth and decay are hardly apprehended. And yet someone who is negligent in this inquiry, who walks at all uncertainly with God, does not know where he is along his way, whether he is nearer or farther away from his journey's end than he was before. Write that man down as a fruitless and wasted Christian, who does not call himself to account for his increases and decays in grace. David knew this work was of such great importance that he would not trust himself and ordinary assistances to discharge it; but he earnestly calls on God to undertake it for him, and to acquaint him with it, Psa 139.23-24.812

[2.] There may be some perplexing temptations that befall the mind of a believer, or some corruption may take advantage to break loose for a season (maybe for a long season), which may gall the soul greatly with its suggestions, and thus trouble, disturb, and disquiet it so much that it will not be able to make a right judgment about its grace and progress in holiness.

A ship may be so tossed in a storm at sea, that the most skillful mariners may not be able to discern whether they are making any headway in their intended course and voyage, even while they are carried onward with success and speed. So too, grace in its exercise is principally engaged in opposition to its enemy which it conflicts with; and so its thriving in other ways is not discernible. If it were asked how we may discern when grace is exercised and thrives in opposition to corruptions and temptations, I say that just as great winds and storms sometimes contribute to the fruit-bearing of trees and plants, so corruptions and temptations contribute to the fruitfulness of grace and holiness. The wind comes upon the tree violently, ruffles its boughs, maybe breaks some of them, beats off its buds, loosens and shakes its roots, and threatens to cast the whole tree to the ground — but by this means the earth is opened and loosed around it, and the tree gets its roots deeper into the earth, by which it receives more and fresher nourishment. This renders it fruitful, even though perhaps it does not bring forth fruit visibly till a good while later. In the assaults of temptations and corruptions, the soul is woefully ruffled and disordered; its leaves of profession are greatly blasted, and its beginnings of fruit-bearing are greatly broken and retarded. But, in the meantime, it secretly and invisibly spreads out its roots of humility, self-abasement, and mourning, in a hidden and continual laboring of faith and love after that grace. Holiness increases by this really, and a way is made for future visible fruitfulness: for —

[3.] God, in his infinite wisdom, manages the new creature, or the whole life of grace, by his Spirit. He so turns its streams, and so renews and changes the special kinds of its operations, that we cannot easily trace his paths in this. And therefore we may often be at a loss about it, not knowing well what he is doing with us. For instance, it may be that the work of grace and holiness has greatly exerted and evidenced itself in the affections, which are renewed by it. Hence persons have a great experience of readiness for, and delight and cheerfulness in, holy duties — especially those affections of having immediate communication with God. For the affections are (for the most part) quick and vigorous in the youth of our profession; and their operations are sensible to those in whom they blossom, and whose fruits are visible; these make young believers seem always fresh and green in the ways of holiness. But it may be that after awhile it seems good to the sovereign Disposer of this affair, to turn the streams of grace and holiness into another channel, as it were. The Spirit sees that the exercise of humility, godly sorrow, fear, and diligent conflicting with temptations, perhaps strike at the very root of faith and love, and are more needed for them. He will therefore so order his dispensations towards these believers — by afflictions, temptations, and the occasions of life in the world — that they will have new work to do; and all the grace they have is turned into a new exercise.

On this turn, it may be that they do not find that sensible vigor in their spiritual affections, nor that delight in their spiritual duties, which they found formerly. This sometimes makes them ready to conclude that grace has decayed in them, that the springs of holiness are drying up, and they know neither where they are nor what they are. And yet, it may be, the real work of sanctification is still thriving and effectively carried on in them.

3. It is acknowledged that there may be, that there are in many, great decays in grace and holiness; that the work of sanctification goes backward in them, and that may be universally and for a long season. Many actings of grace are lost in such persons, and the things that remain are ready to die. The Scripture abundantly testifies to this, and it gives us instances of it. How often God charges his people with backsliding, barrenness, and decays in faith and love! And the experience of the days in which we live, sufficiently confirms the truth of it. Are there not open and visible decays in many as to the whole spirit of holiness, as to all its duties and fruits? Can the best among us not contribute something to evidence this from our own experience? What shall we say, then? Is there no sincere holiness where such decays are found? God forbid! But we must ask the reasons why this comes to pass, seeing that this is contrary to the gradual progress of holiness in those who are sanctified, which we asserted. I answer, two things:

(1.) That these decays are occasional and preternatural 813 as to the true nature and constitution of the new creature, and they are a disturbance of the ordinary work of grace. They are diseases in our spiritual state, which it is not to be measured by. Are you dead and cold in duties, backward in good works, careless of your heart and thoughts, addicted to the world? — these things do not belong to the state of sanctification, but are enemies to it; they are sicknesses and diseases in the spiritual constitution of the persons in whom they are found.

(2.) Although our sanctification and growth in holiness is a work of the Holy Spirit, as the efficient cause of it, yet it is also our own work, by way of duty. He has prescribed for us what our part will be, what he expects from us and requires of us, so that the work may be regularly carried on to perfection, as declared before. And there are two sorts of things which will, if we do not properly attend to them, obstruct and retard the orderly progress of holiness; for —

[1.] The power and growth of any lust or corruption, from a compliance with its temptations, is inseparable from the prevalence of any sin in us; and it lies directly against this progress. If we allow or approve of any such thing in us; if we indulge any actings of sin, especially when they are known and have grown frequent in any one kind; if we neglect the use of the best means for the constant mortification of sin — which every enlightened soul understands is necessary to this orderly progress in holiness — there is, and there will be increased, a universal decay in holiness.

And this power and growth is not only in that particular corruption which has been spared and indulged. A disease in any one of the vital organs or principal parts of the body, does not weaken only the part in which it acts, but the whole body; it vitiates814 the whole constitution by the sympathy of its parts. Indulging any particular lust, vitiates the whole of our spiritual health, and it weakens the soul in all its duties of obedience.

[2.] There are some things required of us to attain this end, that holiness may thrive and be carried on in us. These include the constant use of all ordinances and means appointed for that end; a due observance of commanded duties in their season; with a readiness to exercise every special grace in its proper circumstances. Now, if we neglect these things, if we walk at all uncertainly with God, attending neither to the means nor to our duties, nor exercising grace as we should, then we should not wonder if we find ourselves decaying and, indeed, ready to die.Rev 3.2 Does anyone wonder at seeing someone formerly of a sound constitution, who has grown weak and sickly, if he openly neglects all the means of health, and contracts all sorts of diseases by his intemperance? Is it strange that a nation should be sick and faint at heart, that grey hairs should be sprinkled upon it, that it should be poor and decaying, while consuming lusts and a neglect of all invigorating means prevail in it? It is no more strange that a professing people should decay in their holy obedience, while they abide in the neglect just described.

Having vindicated this assertion, I will yet add a little further improvement of it. If the work of holiness is such a progressive, thriving work in its own nature; and if the design of the Holy Ghost in the use of means, is to carry on holiness in us, and to increase it more and more to a perfect measure; then our diligence is to continue to that same end and purpose; for our growth and thriving depend on it. It is required that we give all diligence to the increase of grace, 2Pet 1.5-7,815 and that we abound in it, 2Cor 8.7: "abounding in all diligence." And not only so, but that we "show the same diligence to the end," Heb 6.11. Whatever diligence we have used in attaining or improving holiness, we must abide in it to the end, or else we put ourselves under decays and we endanger our souls. If we slacken or give up as to our duty, the work of sanctification will not be carried on in a way of grace. And so this is required of us, this is expected from us: that our whole lives be spent in a course of diligent compliance with the progressive work of grace in us.

There are three grounds on which men may, or do, neglect this duty on which the life of their obedience and all their comforts depend:

(1.) A presumption or groundless persuasion that they are already perfect. Some pretend to this in a proud and foolish conceit, destructive of the whole nature and duty of evangelical holiness or obedience. For on our part, this consists in our willing compliance with the work of grace, gradually carried on to the measure appointed for us. If this is already attained, there is an end to all evangelical obedience, and men return again to the law, to their ruin. See Phi 3.12-14.816 It is an excellent description of the nature of our obedience which the apostle gives us in that passage. All absolute perfection in this life is rejected as unattainable. The end proposed is blessedness and glory, with the eternal enjoyment of God. And the way by which we press towards it, which comprises the whole of our obedience, is by continual, uninterrupted following after, pressing toward, and reaching out — a constant progress in and by our utmost diligence.

(2.) A foolish supposition that, because we have an interest in a state of grace, we no longer need to be so concerned about exact holiness and obedience in all things as we were formerly, when our minds hung in suspense about our condition. But to the extent that anyone has this apprehension or persuasion prevailing in or influencing him, he has cause to deeply question whether he still has anything of grace or holiness in him; for this persuasion is not from Him who called us. There is no more effectual engine in the hand of Satan than this: either to keep us away from holiness, or to stifle it when it is attained. Nor can any thoughts arise in the hearts of men that are more opposite to the nature of grace; for this reason, the apostle rejects it with detestation, Rom 6.1-2.817

(3.) Weariness and despondencies that arise from opposition. Some find such great difficulty in, and opposition to, the work of holiness and its progress — coming from the power of corruptions, from temptations, and from the circumstances of life in this world — that they are ready to faint and give up this diligence in their duties, and in contending against sin. But the Scripture so abounds with encouragements to this sort of person, that we do not need to insist on it here.


From Pneumatologia (Of the Holy Spirit) by John Owen

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