By the end of first grade, every child has learned to grow a plant. They fill a cup with soil and press a seed into it. They pour water over their cup, place it in a sunny window, and wait. Sure enough, within days there are stirrings of life. First, roots begin to emerge, then a sprout, then a stem. Finally, a plant shoots up out of the soil and its tiny leaves unfurl. There is something wonderful about this, something almost miraculous, as life springs up out of death.
A seed growing into a tree is an apt metaphor for the life of the Christian. The Bible teaches that each person begins life in a state of spiritual death. David said to God, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me,” and Paul wrote, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked” (Psalm 51:5; Ephesians 2:1-2b). But at some point, a seed of faith is planted within that heart, pressed into the soil by the preaching of the gospel. Then, miraculously, life begins, and God gives growth. The seed emerges as a fragile confidence in God’s works and ways that must be carefully tended as it grows in strength and stature. As time passes, as the believer is nourished by spiritual food, he puts down deep roots, he stretches up far out of the soil, he bears leaves, blossoms, and then fruit. The inert little seed grows into a thriving, towering tree, so that the “righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God” (Psalm 92:12-13).
The life of a tree begins when water courses over a seed. In much the same way, the Christian life begins the moment the gospel stirs a hardened heart. Then it continues to the very moment God calls his loved one home. While those two moments—our regeneration and glorification—may be separated by days or decades, all that lies between is the slow, steady growth that makes up the life of the believer. The Christian’s lifelong challenge is to “work out his own salvation with fear and trembling,” to discover and apply the means of spiritual growth so he can become ever-more conformed to the image of Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:12, Romans 8:29).
In this new collection of articles, I plan to look at a series of rules or instructions for growing in godliness. I have adapted them from a preacher who lived and died centuries ago, an eminent theologian whose works were once praised by Charles Spurgeon as “a happy union of sound doctrine, heart-searching experience and practical wisdom.” His name is Thomas Watson, and among his voluminous writings is a short work called The Godly Man’s Picture. Near the end of that book, included almost as an afterthought, is a short chapter in which Watson recommends some means to foster growth in godliness. He lists eight rules, describing each in a brief paragraph of no more than three or four sentences. His rules are helpful, his instructions excellent, but his words archaic and too few. For that reason I have taken the foundation he laid and have built upon it. I am confident, as was Watson, that these rules are key to the spiritual growth and prosperity of God’s people. They are as follows:
- Trust the Means of Grace
- Guard Against Worldliness
- Think Holy Thoughts
- Watch for Temptation
- Ponder the Brevity of Life
- Redeem Your Time
- Fellowship with Godly People
- Purpose To Be Godly
These are eight rules for growing in godliness, not eight secrets or eight riddles. God makes plain to us the way to holiness, the path to conformity with his Son. We teach every child to plant a seed, to rely on sun and water, to watch with excitement and anticipation until the seed bursts out of the soil to grow into a tall, strong plant. So we must teach every Christian to rely on the means through which God nourishes and strengthens his people, causing them to grow up in holiness and godliness. I hope you’ll join me as we examine them together.