One of the questions I always get asked about the Christian life is some variation of, “how do I know if I am growing in godliness?” Even if you are doing your best to pay attention to your spiritual growth, it can be difficult to measure because it is somewhat abstract. This is a common concern for all believers, both today and in centuries past. For Thomas Goodwin, it was so common that he decided to write a short case of conscience about it, titled “The Trial of a Christian’s Growth” and based on John 15:1-2 where Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” Cases of conscience, or casuistries, were intended to set forth the details of holy living in all areas of human activity. In this particular case, Goodwin wrote for those who had “doubts and troubles about their estate . . . and so call into question the work begun, because not carried on so sensibly unto perfection as they expect and desire.” To help them evaluate their growth in holiness accurately and keep growing, Goodwin compared and contrasted false signs of growth with true signs of growth. Overall, he teaches us that growing in grace is not just looking holy on the outside due to the use of gifts, opportunities, special spiritual experiences, and professions. Rather, it is continually producing all of the fruits of the Spirit in your soul even in difficult circumstances out of sincere love for God and in reliance on his righteousness rather than your own, though using wisdom to do it to the best of your ability.
Growth in godliness is NOT
1. Only growth in gifts and abilities
Though growth in godliness includes growth in gifts like preaching and praying, it is best described as growth in graces, like love and humility. Goodwin explains this by comparing graces to fruits, and gifts to their platters: gifts “serve indeed to set out and garnish the fruit, and to help forward the exercise of graces; they are good fruit-dishes to set the fruit forth. But if grace grow not with them, we bring not forth much fruit.” Goodwin writes about gifts and graces to help those believers who think that “because they cannot pray as well as others, nor do so much service to the saints as some do, therefore they bring forth less fruit.” Actually, explains Goodwin, the truth is that “thou mayest bring more fruit for all that, if thou walkest humbly in thy calling and prayest more fervently, though less notionally or eloquently.”
2. Measured by the size of your opportunities
Similarly, growth in godliness is not measured by whether you have a greater or smaller opportunity to do good. Thus, when John the Baptist “was hindered in his latter time in prison, yet he brought forth more fruit.” It was the same for Paul.
3. Measured only by special spiritual experiences
Growth in godliness is also not measured by special experiences of grace, or what Goodwin calls “accessory graces, as joy and spiritual ravishment” that bring “comfort.” In fact, Goodwin says, it’s often when we don’t have comforts like this that we exercise more faith and humility, and cleave more tightly to God.
4. Only increasing in your outward profession
Just as gifts are like platters, so are outward professions like leaves; neither are the fruit of godliness itself, but something that goes alongside it. Goodwin warns that some make grand professions of faith but that this does not really reflect what is happening in their souls. Here, Goodwin makes his main point about growth in godliness very clear: “True growth begins at the vitals; the heart, the liver, the blood gets soundness and vigour, and so the whole man outwardly; this heart-godliness is the thing you must judge by.”
5. About one aspect of godliness
Growth in godliness is not just the increase of one fruit of the Spirit or another, but all of them. This is what the Puritans called universal holiness; it does not mean you have to be perfect, but that you have to be aware of the various aspects of the Christian life. Some are done in quiet and solitude, others in the family, church, and community, but all must be included. Goodwin explains this by using a sweet, humorous story about a son who wants to play with mom all day, but should go to school and then spend time at home in the evening: “though the child, out of love to his mother, and the sweetness he hath in her company, could find it in his heart to stay all day at home to look on her, yet it pleaseth her more for him to go to school all day, and at night to come home and be with her, and play with her; and she then kisseth him, and makes much of him.”
Growth in godliness IS
1. Exercising new graces
First, growth of godliness includes exercising new graces, “as when in our knowledge we are led into new truths, and have answerable affections running along with those discoveries towards the things revealed.” Goodwin clarifies that though the believer learns many things when converted, “yet he goes over them by piecemeal again throughout his whole life.”
2. Increasing of current graces
Growth is also measured by an increasing degree of something you are already practicing. Goodwin lists several examples of this. You know you are growing in godliness when a) your love becomes more fervent, b) your faith moves from casting itself on Christ, to finding sweetness in Christ, to having assurance of faith, c) you have more strength to resist temptation and are “less moved and shaken by them”, d) you hate sin more, e) your prayers are more frequent, f) you confess secret sins not just open sins, and g) you pray more for the church.
3. Being rooted more fully in Christ
Growing in godliness is not becoming more confident in one’s own morality, but more fully recognizing and relying on Christ’s righteousness. Goodwin summarizes, “the more free grace is acknowledged in all, trusted in above all, the more evangelical our works are, the more to God . . . the more we grow.”
4. Bearing the right fruit at the right time
Growth is also measured by knowing when to be exercising which graces, since there is a time and place for each to be done. So Goodwin posits, “young Christians do more, but more out of season, and the devil abuseth them, putting them upon duties [i.e., spiritual disciplines], when they would be at their refreshings [i.e., resting], at their callings [i.e., work]; he deceiving them with this, that holy duties in themselves, alone simply compared, are better than to do anything else; whenas the season adds the goodness to our actions. Thus to recreate thyself at some seasons is better than to be a-praying.”
5. Being consistent in your spiritual duties
Growing in godliness means consistently doing godly things, not having spurts of godliness here and there. According to Goodwin, consistency “argues that ‘our inward man is more renewed day by day,’ when we can walk closely with God a long while together.”
6. Continuing to bear fruit in difficult seasons
Growing in godliness also means continuing to bear fruit in difficult seasons, when it becomes harder to do so than it was before. For example, “to pray, and to continue to pray, when we hear no answers, but the contrary.”
7. Making the most of your opportunities/abilities
Last, growing in godliness is wisely dealing with what God has given you to get the best results. Goodwin uses the story of Jethro advising Moses to only preside over judging great matters instead of all the small ones, and to rather delegate those to others. Goodwin explains in more detail, “when therefore a man looks about him, and studies to improve himself to the utmost advantage to God in his place, to lay out his credit, his parts, and all for God, as a faithful factor in the best wares, though he deals in fewer particulars, he may notwithstanding bring forth more fruit.”
Overall, growing in godliness takes time and is hard to discern. But it is good to be concerned about your growth because that shows you care, and it is good to take time to examine yourself because we all need to keep growing. The important thing to remember is that growth “is a mystery to be apprehended by faith,” and is certain if you give up trust in your own works and “fly alone to Christ,” who is the “true vine” out of which all fruitful branches grow.
Thomas Goodwin, The Works of Thomas Goodwin, D. D. (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1866),3:461.
Goodwin, Works, 3:461.
Ibid., 3:462, 437.