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That All May See Your Progress

As the Holy Spirit has His way inside us, we change. Old, sinful thoughts and attitudes begin to be transformed into new, God-honoring hearts, words and actions. 

Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. 1 Timothy 4.15

Paul's words to young Timothy have long been a word of encouragament (progress, not perfection) and challenge (so everyone may see your progress) to me.

God's changing me should result in people noticing my growth. Paul pushes us to live in such a way that others will see our progress in walking with Jesus.

walking path

One of my favorite authors is Pastor Kevin DeYoung. In his great little book The Hole in our Holiness he has written a great couple paragraphs about this word from God for us. Take a read, ponder, and ask someone around you if they see you growing, and if so, how.

That All May See Your Progress

It was several years ago, not long after my ordination, that I stumbled upon 1 Timothy 4:15 and found it to be a source of both great comfort and mild discouragement. It wasn’t the first time I had read the verse. But it was the first time God opened my eyes to the verse to see what it meant for my life and ministry.

Most pastors are familiar with 1 Timothy 4:16—“Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching.” That’s our blueprint for ministry:  watch our lives and watch our doctrine. I knew verse 16 but hadn’t paid much attention to verse 15:  “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.” 

It was the last part about progress that caught my eye. 

Earlier, in 1 Timothy 3, Paul lays out what seem like lofty requirements for elders and deacons. Then in 1 Timothy 4, just a few verses earlier, he tells young Timothy to “set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (v. 12). Does that feel a little intense to you? “Hey, Timmy, I know you are just out of seminary but I want you to be exemplary in pretty much every area of your life. Got it?” Sounds scary. But then comes this part about progress in verse 15. Apparently, Paul didn’t think “set an example” meant “get everything right the first time.”

You can take verse 15 as an upper or a downer.

My discouragement came in thinking that people would see me five years from now and realize I used to be less mature, less capable, and less godly. It’s a little bit of a bummer to realize that later I’ll look back at the me I am now and be glad I’m not entirely the same me any longer. But verse 15 has mainly been an encouragement. It means I can be qualified to be an elder and set an example with my life without “having arrived.” I can grow. I can mature. I can become holier than I am now. My behavior and my teaching can improve.

Progress is not only what God expects from me but what he allows from me.

Which brings us to one of the most important axioms about holiness: when it comes to sanctification, it’s more important where you’re going than where you are. Direction matters more than position. Your future progress speaks louder than your present placement.

So cheer up:

if you aren’t as holy as you want to be now, God may still be pleased with you because you are heading in the right direction.

And be warned: 

if you aren’t as holy as you used to be, God probably isn’t impressed with yesterday’s triumphs when for the last few months you’ve done nothing but give up.

I should hasten to add that measuring your progress in the pursuit of holiness is easier said than done.

For starters, you shouldn’t take your spiritual temperature every day. You need to look for progress over months and years, not by minutes and hours. As David Powlison likes to say, sanctification is like a man walking up the stairs with a yo-yo. There are a lot of ups and downs, but ultimate progress nonetheless. So don’t tie yourself up in knots wondering if Tuesday was godlier than Wednesday. Look at your trajectory over the last five months, or better yet, over the last five years. This goes for judging others too. Don’t rush to criticize the spiritual progress of others without knowing how far they’ve come and in which direction they’re heading.

Which leads to a related point: don’t be afraid to hand the spiritual thermometer over to someone else.

The assumption in verse 15 is that other Christians will notice our progress. An honest, discerning friend is often more accurate than we are in assessing our relative spiritual health.  They can see your general movement while you may only see today’s failure. Remember, it’s the testimony of almost all saints that as they get closer to God they see more of their ungodliness. It’s normal to feel less holy as you become more holy. Being more aware of sin in your life is usually a sign of the Spirit’s sanctifying work, not of his withdrawal.

All that to say, when it comes to seeing your own sanctification, it’s not always best to take your own word for it. Ask your wife, ask your roommate, ask your dad, ask your pastor, ask your best friend: can you see my progress?