How do we know that we are moving forward? How do we measure spiritual progress? A deeper question is: do we desire it? Is spiritual progress a serious goal for us? And what are we doing to reach the goal? If it’s not a serious goal then it’s unlikely that we will make much progress.
John Bunyan uses the word “progress” in the title of his famous book on Christian discipleship, The Pilgrim’s Progress. He said this about his book:
“This book, it chalketh out before thine eyes
The man that seeks the everlasting prize;
It shows you whence he comes, whither he goes;
What he leaves undone, also what he does;
It also shows you how he runs and runs,
Till he unto the gate of glory comes” (W. Wiersby, New Pilgrim’s Progress, 229).
For us, as God’s people, Spiritual progress is about carrying on to completion the good work that God began in us. We see this in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Many of us know Philippians as the letter of joy. That’s true. But even more, it’s the letter about progress, with joy as a by-product. If you read it looking for Paul’s understanding of progress, you’ll find progress all along the way, both what it is and what to do to get there.
“…being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6 NIV)
Here are five hallmarks of spiritual progress.
1 – “Work out your salvation”
“Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” (Philippians 2:12 NIV). In this verse, Paul doesn’t mean to “work for your salvation” or that we can somehow save ourselves through trying to do the right thing. Neither does it have anything to do with “getting right with God”. Jesus puts us right with God through his righteous life and his death and resurrection. All we can do is trust in his finished work. What Paul means is that we must do our part in allowing the saving work of God that has begun in us to have its complete outworking. It’s a process of transforming our character and behaviour, and cultivating an attitude of humility – having the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5 NIV). Humility means to cultivate a godly “fear and trembling” in the light of his greatness and the humility of his grace. Progress is developing the attitude of Christ Jesus – humility. The power of pride will gradually be broken as you develop the attitude of humility.
2 – Believe and be transformed
“…for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good pleasure,” (Philippians 2:13 NIV). This is the power of transformation: God at work within us. Praise God that he gives us the desire and ability to do his will. This adds another reason for “fear and trembling”: God within us – it’s truly awesome. This is great news and gives us hope! But it is also a sobering reminder that we must not grieve the Holy Spirit of God by blocking his work in our lives. How often do we forget that he lives in us and that our body is his temple? How often do we look at things and meditate on things that are ungodly? How often are we unbelieving about what he can do in us? “Oh, I can’t do that! I can’t talk to that person about Jesus. I’m too shy.” Or “I can’t work with that person. They rub me the wrong way.” Or “I can’t stand the music in this church; I’m leaving.” Or “I can’t change; that’s the way I am.” These thoughts amount to unbelief. They are a denial of the truth that he is at work in us. Cultivate your faith in what God says. Believe that the Holy Spirit is within you. If you believe in Jesus, he is. The Holy Spirit is our holiness and power. Learn to cooperate with him. In doing so, more and more, we will “act according to his good pleasure” and make progress.
3 – Show the evidence
“Do everything without complaining or arguing,” (Philippians 2:14 NIV). This is a practical test of whether we are developing the attitude of Christ. Complaining and arguing are common human practices – grumbling and disputing with each other. It’s so common, sometimes we think it is normal. They are normal for sinful humans, but they have no place among redeemed humans – in God’s church. Israel grumbled and God judged them. But God expects his Spirit-indwelt new covenant people to do better. If we are going to make progress, we must make a decision to get rid of complaining and arguing. As we develop the attitude of Christ, they will diminish. This isn’t just about keeping your mouth closed with anger simmering inside, it’s about getting rid of the anger so there is nothing bad to say. If differences or grievances need to be aired, do it in a sensitive and mature way that promotes understanding and unity, not division.
4 – Impact the world
“…so that you may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’ Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life,” (Philippians 2:15-16 NIV). This is Paul’s description of what progress looks like after it has happened, the result of our “working out our salvation” and God’s working in us. So what is progress according to Paul? Is it material prosperity? Is it a state-of-the-art church facility? Is it a full set of church programs? Is it great numbers of people? No. It’s godly character and behaviour that is so different from the surrounding society. It is biblical holiness that stands out to people, that impresses them and draws them to the true light source. If we want people to escape the “warped and crooked generation” in which we live, we cannot live like that generation. We’ve got to get rid of the godless stuff of our generation. Then we will have an answer to their desperate need. Like the apostle Peter, we can say, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation” (Acts 2:40 NIV).
5 – Value the eternal
“…in order that I may boast on the day of Christ,” (Philippians 2:16 NIV). This is the future of progress. This is where progress will ultimately take us – to joy on the day of Christ. Our progress is not just for now and will not cease when we die. It won’t be for nothing. It won’t simply be a contribution recognised by future generations, but it will be progress that God acknowledges and that pleases him. Let’s value the things God values.
In the words of Dr Alexander Papaderos, a Greek philosopher: “With what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world – into the black places in the hearts of people – and change some things in some people.”
Be encouraged – you can make progress. As you live out God’s word, you can make a difference in the lives of others through the gospel of Christ.