Growth, Not Mere Self-Assertion
“Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit,” saith the Lord of hosts.
Which were born [begotten], not of blood, nor of the will of man,
nor of the will of the flesh, but of God.
The branch cannot bear fruit of itself.
“Apart from Me, you can do nothing.”
Growth in grace must not be confounded with what may be termed the doctrine of “self-assertion of the human spirit.” In certain prominent philosophical teachings of the day, there is that which would gladly “de-Christianize” society; and in much of Auguste Comte’s teachings,2 there is that which amounts to a deification, or a worship, of the human nature. At least, to the human spirit is attributed latent forces by which, if allowed to arise and assert themselves, man can evolutionize and redeem himself, and as such needs no Redeemer and Savior.
While we are warranted to appeal to men’s convictions, their conscience, their self-respect, their power of choice, and their responsibility in the formation of moral character, the Word of God nowhere represents these as first-cause agencies, but always as elements by which we cooperate with the conforming power. The Scriptures teach that “power belongs unto God” (Psalm 62:11) and not in the “self-assertion” of human nature.
The teaching that sanctification is obtained by growth logically and practically places itself on the side of Positivism, and the religion of Positivism,3 or the deification and worship of human nature. If growth produces sanctification, then it is not God who sanctifies, for growth belongs to the human sphere and not to God, inasmuch as He has required us to “grow in grace” (2 Peter 3:18). God does not make us grow. If sanctification then be by growth, or to use a later term, by evolution, then the case takes on a type of Atheism, for human nature is asserted to do what God reserves as His own prerogative—“I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (Leviticus 20:8).
Thus we see the advocate of sanctification by growth logically putting himself over on the side of an atheistic philosophy and a worship of human nature.
The true view of “growth in grace” must ever recognize the place and functions of the human spirit, and must know its possibilities and its liabilities. How else can we grow in harmony with ourselves and the order of God?
- The sufficiency of the “self-assertion of the human spirit” necessarily denies the depravity of the race. The law of the human spirit since the fall is to suit and serve itself. It wills as its dispositions and desires incline it. What it loves must give shape to what it wills.Since the Scriptures teach that man since the fall is perverted, even in his imaginations, his “self-assertion”' would have in it all the badness of his depraved heart. How foolish and unwise, then, the plan for the elevation of the race that claims a sufficiency in human nature for its redemption if only it will “assert itself and rise up in its manhood.”4 It is just as wise in unsaved men to do so as it is for converted men to turn aside from grace and fall back upon the forces of the human spirit to sanctify itself by growth—the self-assertion of its powers to grow.
- But there is a wide distinction to be made between trust in the natural moral dignity of the human spirit to cure itself of its evils and troubles, and to trust in the imparted nature and efficacy of God as the real source of help. We do not decry the natural ordination of the human spirit, nor of its assertion, nor of the definite need of all legitimate self-effort; but we make the point between trust in itself, and trust in God. If I have power to grow myself into graces, I can get along quite well without God. But if I can only grow in grace after God has kindly bestowed it on me, the case is very different. In one case I depend on myself, and in the other I depend on God. In the first I sanctify myself, and in the second “the very God of peace” sanctifies me.
- But holiness being “imparted” (“we are made partakers of His holiness,” Hebrews 12:10), then I can grow in it; air being supplied, I can breathe it; water being supplied, I can swim in it; sunshine being imparted, I can walk in it.
No manner of self-effort can produce any of these things. We might assert the forces, the dignity, and the moral excellence and destiny of the human spirit for ages, and it would make neither sunshine, atmosphere, nor water. Much less will it make grace, of any measure or kind. Things do not grow that do not exist, and a thing not in existence cannot grow into existence. The self-assertion of an atom will not make a man, nor will the self-assertion of morality evolve into redeemed character.
Dynamic Force of the Human
1 Corinthians 3:6
It is natural in this connection to inquire somewhat concerning the ability of man to respond to the call to “grow in grace.” Especially is this true at the present time when so much is said in high quarters of learning about the “self-sufficiency of the human spirit to rise up in its own strength” and dominate its environments, and by its own unaided strength evolve out of its own littleness and inefficiency into full-orbed, royal character, meet for heaven.
Without discussion we will assume, (1) that the Bible statements are true and unquestioned; and, (2) that the moral condition of the race as revealed in its history is true.
- We have the Bible declaring the depravity of the race, and long ages of the race only proving the statements with voluminous records of blackness. If human nature could in successive generations have grown up, or “endeavored” up, out of its degradation, it has had time enough to prove the fact. That it has not been able to do so, the wisest men all agree.
- The history of the race also proves another Scripture statement, that “like produces like”—“Adam begat a son in his own likeness.” This is true not only of the moral condition in which the race is born, but of man’s moral efforts to redeem himself. “That which is born of the flesh (carnal mind) is flesh.” Man cannot, by himself, rise above himself, and being born morally depraved he cannot un-deprave himself without foreign aid. “Rising up in his manhood” is rising up in his depravity, with perverted mind, biased affections, and weakened conscience.
- The history of mankind proves that a man acts, as the Scriptures teach, in harmony with this inward condition: “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good fruit,” and a “wicked man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth that which is evil” (Matthew 12:35). The plain teaching is that a man can rise up only as far as the condition of his heart allows. The race is depraved, and so cannot grow up out of its depravity unhelped. Alone, man will choose after the choice of his heart. His ability, therefore, is as his heart is. This is a moral axiom. Beyond this, so far as his ability is concerned, he cannot go. He may be able to see stars, but he cannot climb up to them. Man’s ability without grace is a limited ability. He may deplore the ditch into which he has fallen, but he cannot lift himself out of it. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil” (Jeremiah 13:23).While man cannot cure himself, he is, however, free to choose the help of One who can make him “free indeed” (John 8:31). Self-contained he is not free; self-dependent he never rises above himself. His ability is limited. He is, however, at liberty to ally himself with that which multiplies his power beyond measure. Hope lies not in selfhood, but in God; not in human “endeavor,” but in his being divinely helped. There is effort, but it is not to evolve; it is to get to God. He has no ability to cure his disease, but he has power to get to Him who can. He cannot change his heart, but he can turn it over to Him who has power to make it new. He cannot generate new spiritual life, but he can offer a place for God to put it. He cannot cleanse his heart, but he can go to Him whose blood washes whiter than snow. He cannot grow himself into a garden, but he can offer God ground in which to plant the heavenly graces. He cannot make grace, but he can aid largely in its multiplication. He cannot make corn, but he can prepare the ground, plant the seed, cultivate and harvest it, all the while trusting God who “gives the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:7).
In God, man’s ability becomes a coefficient of infinite associations. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). “Power belongs unto God” (Psalm 62:1). “My help comes from the Lord” (Psalm 121:2), and not out of the dignity and worth of the human spirit. This is the law of “increase,” or growth. It is not self-evolved; it is from heaven. It is not of the will of man, but of God, who shows mercy. All the redemptive forces are beyond and outside of us, though the field of their work is within us. God nowhere calls upon us to originate or manufacture graces, but to cooperate with Him in their production.
We have the ability to stop sinning—the ability of choice—because we have power to use that which is above and beyond us. We have the ability to love, to say “yes,” to follow, to be led, to think, to listen, to consider, to accept, to receive, to entertain, and to reject. We have the power to circumvent the devil if we only resist him. We have power to hear the voice of God and to become like Him. All this is without compulsion. We are “free indeed” when in God, but always in bondage when not. Self-contained, we are failures. Allied to God, we are an eternal success. The enlarging, motive power is outside us, and only attaches to us by our cooperation. “God gives the increase.”
- The text itself is public domain. The original book, How They Grow, was transcribed by Jim Kerwin, biographer of Isaiah Reid, and co-edited and emended with Denise Kerwin. Annotations and emendations are copyright © 2008 by Jim Kerwin along with his other contributions to the online, print, and e-book versions of Isaiah Reid's How They Grow. ↩
- Isidore Auguste Marie François Xavier Comte (1798-1857) was a French philosopher whose thought and writings influenced the secular humanist movement. ↩
- The aforementioned Comte actually founded a “Religion of Humanity,” based on his positivist philosophy, focused on the public worship of Humanity, which it considered the New Supreme Great Being. ↩
- This is probably a quote from Comte. ↩