Are there times when our desire for spiritual growth could hinder us from walking in the truth of the gospel?
For Christians serious about making progress in their spiritual lives, such a question sounds either intuitively wrong-headed or so easy to answer that it doesn’t even merit a response. Growth in godliness and right affections is one of the primary aims of the Christian life. Peter commands us, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). The sign of a sound pastoral ministry is individual and corporate spiritual growth (see Eph 4:15, 18). But is there a way to approach spiritual growth that actually keeps us from making progress and diverts our gaze from Christ?
Yes, there is. It happens when we begin to make spiritual growth the grounds of our acceptance with God. This is self-righteousness, and it needs to be dealt with carefully yet decisively. Charles Bridges explains:
There is another form of spiritual self-righteousness requiring different treatment. When the sinner is held back from the gospel by a sense of unworthiness, his worthiness is the implied ground of his coming to the gospel–his work–not Christ’s. When the Christian longs for a deeper view of sin, and love to Christ, and forgets, that when attained, he will have the same need as before of the blood and righteousness of Christ–this is again to put spiritual self in place of Christ. To such the Apostle would say, “Christ is become no effect to you; ye are fallen from grace. Having begun in the Spirit, are ye made perfect in the flesh?” If our ground be sure in Christ, let this be our only confidence in our highest frame; and it will be a satisfactory stay in our lowest. And under all variations, let us give glory to God by simply believing (The Christian Ministry, 66).
Whether we are an unbeliever coming to Christ for the first time, or a Christian seeking to make spiritual progress in the faith, our temptation will be to make our growth the grounds on which we have warrant to come to Christ. As believers, when confronted with our sin, we might think ourselves more acceptable to God if we had a deeper view of sin, stronger affections, more consistent practice, and so on. But, as Bridges observes, even in our best moments we are always in the same need of Jesus’ blood and righteousness. This is what Edward Mote meant when he penned that beloved hymn, “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less.”
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.
When Mote said that he “dare not trust the sweetest frame,” but “wholly lean on Jesus’ name,” he was admitting that even the most profound spiritual experiences were not to be trusted as justifying righteousness before God. Only Jesus Christ’s blood and righteousness provides us with right standing with our Creator. Spiritual growth, deeper experiences of conviction and the like are blessings from our Father and should be sought, but they should never be sought as grounds for our justification or in a way that tempts us away from the full sufficiency of Christ’s life and death.