“Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matt. 13:8-9)
When I went back home in August, my brother and I took a long walk around the hill behind his house. This was my playground growing up, and it brought many wonderful memories to me, even if the trek seemed so much more difficult now than it was then. As we neared the ridge at the top of the hill, my brother pointed to a stand of evergreens and asked me if I remembered anything about them. “Of course,” I said. When I was a boy scout, we had a project to take seedlings and plant them.
Trees are a wonderful thing, particularly mature ones. They provide shade and shelter, and even produce the oxygen that we breathe. Not so with those seedlings I planted almost 50 years ago. They don’t give much of either. Trees need a constant supply of sun, water, and nutrients over a long period of time to survive and thrive. But now, those seedlings that were no more than 6” tall were now towering trees some forty feet tall. As J.C. Kromsigt writes, “The good seed cannot flourish when it is repeatedly dug up for the purpose of examining its growth.”
Yesterday, Lucas Tanner encouraged us to think about our justification. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism notes, “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sin, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.” (WSC #33). What a wondrous thought. God has declared us free, free of sin and shame, having robed us in the righteousness of Christ.
But if we’re honest, one simply glance at our lives tells another story. We often wonder whether we are growing in holiness. That is the process of sanctification. Sanctification is a slow process of dying to the flesh and living unto God. Just as it is impossible to know exactly what a tree seedling is going to look like in ten years, it can be frustrating to attempt to evaluate our growth in Christ over the short term.
In his parables, Jesus uses the image of plants to describe spiritual growth in the gospels of Matthew and John (see Matt. 13:1–32 and John 15:1–7). As I stated above, the good seed of the gospel that falls on the heart prepared by the Holy Spirit through the new life we have in Christ will produce a harvest.
Throughout the New Testament, believers are encouraged to grow in long-term community with each other in the local church (Acts 2:42; Eph. 4:11–13; Col. 3:16). In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul writes about this dynamic of growth within the body of Christ:
“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15–16).
Jesus describes this organic union with his people by using the metaphor of a vine and its branches: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (John 15:4).
The Bible instructs all believers to gather regularly to hear the preaching of God’s Word, receive baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and pray together. Christ is present in these means of God’s grace through the power of the Holy Spirit.
While the Holy Spirit is not limited to using Word, Sacrament, and prayer in his work of sanctification, these are God’s ordinary means of grace. We should be diligent to attend worship where we are properly bathed and regularly nourished with sound biblical preaching and teaching. We can supplement these with other resources, but they are not meant to be substitutes for regular participation in the local church community.
We don’t have to worry about whether we are being sanctified. God has promised to conform all his children to the image of Christ, for “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Christians do need to obey God’s command to gather regularly with their fellow saints (Heb. 10:25). This is the way God has ordered his church on earth so that his sheep are properly cared for and guarded from the snares of the evil one (Heb. 13:17). You can be confident about your spiritual growth in Christ, because God is the one who is working through his Holy Spirit in those who are his in Christ (Eph. 1:11–12).
Blessings to you all,