Old Princeton: Archibald Alexander on Growing in Grace

In this brief essay, I’d like to take a moment and introduce you to a sermon by Archibald Alexander entitled “Nature and Means of Growth in Grace” and commend it to your reading and spiritual profit. When we look at the life and legacy that men such as Alexander have left for us, we are quickly reminded that they received and preach the same grace.

Alexander begins his sermon by defining grace particularly as it concerns God’s grace to man. He states further “in the great concern of man’s salvation, no other word has a richer meaning.” We are saved by grace as it comes through the Lord Jesus Christ. He paints a beautiful picture of this grace: “But as the gospel is the channel through which this fountain pours forth its exuberant streams, it is called, not only ‘the gospel of the grace of God,’ but ‘grace’ itself.”

But the text for Alexander’s sermon is 2 Peter 3:18 specifically the exhortation to us that we “grow in grace.” It is, as Alexander notes, “as if he had said, increase in holiness, or advance in piety. And it would not be easy to select a subject of greater importance to all professors of religion.” I would suggest that this imperative is just as important in our day as it was in Alexander’s day. There continues in our time, debates over the nature of sanctification and a fearfulness to bring Biblical imperatives to the Christian: you must grow in grace.

Alexander breaks his sermon down into two points: 1. “To explain the nature of growth in grace”; and 2. “To inquire, by what means growth in grace may be promoted.” This later point is taken up in a second sermon.

Alexander begins by pointing to the heavenly origin of grace. From Ephesians, he reminds us that we are by nature children of wrath and “totally destitute of holiness”. There is no natural  principle of spiritual life in man. Although mankind was created in the image of God which, as he quotes the Westminster Confession of Faith consisted “in righteousness and true holiness,” as we have lost these aspects of the image “the principle of spiritual life with which it was animated, has become extinct.” There is conversion and “most persons…who become subjects of grace can remember the time, when they alienated from the life of God; and have some knowledge of the change which took place in their views and affections.”

It is this grace which we must grow in and indeed can grow in.  Alexander even says “grace in its commencement is imperfect, and that its progress to maturity is gradual.” Alexander is not undermining justification by faith alone, adoption, or the beauty and perfection of God’s grace but rather point to the reality of progressive sanctification. That the full fruit of grace is not instantaneous and in this life we are to grow in grace. 

Alexander then speaks of the troubles Christians may have in growing in grace and the temptations of faith. Christians at times leave their first love, become “remiss in their vigilance”, and “unfruitful in their lives”. Alexander warns, “[here] it may be observed, that nothing is more insidious and dangerous to the back-sliding Christian, than a certain leaven of antinomianism, which too often diffuses its deadening influence over the soul.” Thus, Alexander warns and exhorts us:

“The strong tendency of the heart, even in the. best, to depart from God, furnishes powerful reason for the exhortation, to ‘grow in grace;’ for, in religion, it has often been observed that there is no such thing as standing still. If the Christian makes no advancement, he is pretty certainly going backward. The only course of safety, therefore, as well as comfort, is, to make vigorous efforts to ‘grow in grace.’”

Growth in grace, in the divine love, will “manifest itself in reverential esteem for the moral attributes of God, in a greater delight in meditating on his holiness and goodness.” It will also lead to increasing humility in the believer. This is because the more holy a believer becomes “the more abominable does all sin appear”. “The growth of grace is as much downward at the root, as upward in the towering and spreading branches.” You can grow towards God without being “abased before God, under a sense of his own vileness”. This point can often be overlooked in today’s descriptions of and prescriptions for spiritual growth.

Alexander goes on to point out the stages of the spiritual life. He speaks first of conversion where a new creation arises in the believer. Alexander discusses the practical effects of this: new “lively” emotions, great hopes, “his heart melts with tender compassion for those who are yet out of Christ.” However, with pastoral care, Alexander points us to a second stage Christians experience in their Christian life: temptation and severe conflict. Trials arise from “without [i.e. outside ourselves] and within”. The final state is “a state of settled peace…the sweet calm which succeeds the storm”. It manifests in “a steady trust in the promises and providence of God and a meek submission to his holy will.”

Finally, Alexander closes his sermon with four reflections:

  1. There may be times when the believer feels like he is losing ground and being overcome but he is in fact slowly advancing. He may feel like his first “fervors have abated” and he is more conscious of indwelling sin but this may indicate grace is taking a deeper root.
  2. There may be those who show great external zeal for the gospel and for grace but “all these external acts and all this show of piety may be produced by other motives than the lively exercise of grace in the heart.” These people may receive praise and esteem from men, but God looks at the inside. It is a sobering warning to all of us.
  3. In this life, “some Christians grow in stature much higher than others.” Here he compares the apostles and the piety evidenced in Scripture by the godly with the professors of faith in our churches today.
  4. Lastly, he returns to motives for growth: the difference between a growing Christian and one making little or no advancement in Christian growth is the comparison between a healthy body and a diseased one.

Alexander closes with a challenge to examine our lives. Where have we been negligent in spiritual growth and pursuit of godly discipline? Where have we been slothful and careless in making progress? Not all of us may have periods of backsliding but we all have periods where progress is slower than it should be.

“In view of this subject, therefore, all Christians are led upon to humble themselves before God, in deep penitence, on account of their unfruitfulness ; and to resolve that in time to come, they will more faithfully and vigorously strive to grow in grace.”

In the twenty-first century, where there is ever growing ungodliness in the world matched with an increasing suspicion of piety and exhortations to piety within the church, Alexander’s sermon, while not itself inspired, is a strong reminder of the Biblical portrait: the Scripture command us to grow in grace. Here, Alexander’s sermon can be a helpful pastoral guide of what this should look like and what pitfalls may be experienced along the way.

Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as Interim Pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.

Tim Bertolet