How Can We Measure Spiritual Progress?

Every book contract—at least, every book contract I’ve ever seen—includes a word count. When the author finally submits a manuscript, it cannot be a discretionary number of words but must be within the range the publisher has set. This is good and helpful for an author because it makes it simple to set goals and because it helps him progress toward a very measurable outcome. After he signs his contract he needs only to divide the words by the number of weeks before his deadline to keep up steady progress. As he writes, he needs only to look at the bottom of his screen to see how that word count is increasing. It’s easy, it’s clear, it’s objective. If only all progress were so easy to measure.

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Each of us begins the Christian life a novice and each of us means to finish it a seasoned veteran. Each of us begins with character that has been shaped by the world and the flesh and each of us longs to finish with character that has been shaped by the Spirit and the Word. Each of us begins with warped desires and means to finish with true desires, with sinful instincts and means to finish with pure instincts. Each of us longs to make consistent progress.

But what may be true of writing a book is not true of living the Christian life. There is no progress indicator on our spiritual lives, no objective measure of our sanctification. A woman laying a floor can stand back and observe that she has laid 50 percent of the planks; a man finishing a basement can observe that 80 percent of the drywall has now been hung. But no Christian can assess his or her life and say “I am halfway there” or “I am three quarters of the way there.” We make progress that is far less visible and far less measurable. This being the case, we must rely on other indicators.

One way to assess our progress is to think back and consider who we once were. Caution is in order, though, as we must avoid the tendency to relish our sinfulness or to make light of our depravity. Sometimes we can almost cast a wistful eye on the past, longing for the days when we were free to follow our lusts. Looking back at our former selves and our former conduct should be painful more than alluring. Yet sometimes we best see who we have become when we contrast it to who we used to be.

Another way to assess our progress is to observe how we have come to respond differently to temptation. We will inevitably see that, while temptations still remain, many of them no longer have as great a hold on us. What used to entrap us every time now barely elicits a response. We will also see that, while sin remains, we fall into it far less often and repent of it far sooner. This is proof of the sanctifying work of God within.

Still another way is to ask those who know us—friends, spouses, children—to describe evidences of God’s grace, to tell us where they have seen God actively helping us put sin to death and come alive to righteousness. Often we are surprised and delighted to know that where we are convinced of so much failure, they may see great success. Sometimes another person’s assessment is more accurate than our own.

Yet always and forever, the best way to assess ourselves is to compare ourselves to Jesus, the one who led a perfect and unblemished life, the one who modeled what a human life can be and should be. Such comparison should both distress and encourage. It should distress us to see how unlike Christ we still are. But it should encourage us to see that we truly have grown in Christlikeness, that as we spend time with him we have become like him. It should encourage us to see that we truly are being conformed to his image, truly are modeling ourselves after his example. This comparison is the best and truest of all.

At this point in writing, this article is exactly 705 words long—progress easily measured by the little counter on my screen. And at this point in life, I myself am somewhere between justification and glorification, somewhere in the long process of sanctification. I may not know exactly how much progress I have made, but by God’s grace I know I am farther along than I once was. And, by God’s grace, I know that by tomorrow I will be farther along than I am right now. For I know and believe the great promise that the one who began his good work within me will bring it progressively and then finally to completion.