How do Christians grow?

The question itself immediately elicits different feelings among us. Some of us feel guilt. We’re not growing, and we know it. And the guilt is itself self-perpetuating, further paralyzing us in spiritual stagnation.

For others of us, longing erupts. We deeply desire to grow more than we are.

Some of us, if we’re honest, become smug when the question of spiritual growth arises. We are pretty confident we’re doing fine, though this self-assessment is largely shaped by quietly comparing ourselves with others, and a less-than-penetrating understanding of what really motivates us in our Christian lives.

The question ignites low-grade cynicism for others of us. We’ve tried. Or at least it seems that way. We’ve attempted this strategy and that one, read this book and that, been to this conference and that. And at the end of the day, we still feel like we’re spinning our wheels, unable to get real traction in our growth in grace.

None of us questions the need to grow. We see it in the Bible: “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). “We are to grow up in every way” (Eph. 4:15). And we see the need for growth not only in the Bible but in our own hearts. The painful exercise of honest self-examination surprises us. We discover that so much of our lives, so much even of the ways we are blessing the world around us, flows subtly from the fountain of Self. The gift is given, the service is rendered, the sacrifice is made, not out of the large-hearted motives we present to others, and to God, and even to ourselves, but for self-serving purposes. And that’s only considering what others see. What about the ugliness of our lives when no one’s looking? How do we kill the sins done in the dark?

The question, then, isn’t whether we need to grow but how. And for everyone who has been born again, somewhere amid these diverse reactions there will always be a seed of sincere desire for growth.

How then does it happen?

The basic point of this book is that change is a matter of going deeper. Some believers think change happens through outward improvement—behaving more and more in accord with some moral norm (the biblical law, or the commands of Jesus, or conscience, or whatever). Others think change happens mainly through intellectual addition—understanding doctrine with greater breadth and precision. Others think it comes centrally through felt experience—sensory increase as we worship God.

My argument is that all three of these elements are included in healthy Christian development (and if any is missing, we are out of proportion and will not grow), but real growth transcends them all. Growing in Christ is not centrally improving or adding or experiencing but deepening. Implicit in the notion of deepening is that you already have what you need. Christian growth is bringing what you do and say and even feel into line with what, in fact, you already are.

This is roughly the way Henry Scougal outlined the Christian life in his little book The Life of God in the Soul of Man. Scougal was a professor of divinity at the University of Aberdeen who died of tuberculosis at age twenty-eight. In 1677 he wrote a lengthy letter to a discouraged friend which later became the book. It was the catalyst in the conversion of British evangelist George Whitefield, who said, “I never knew what true religion was till God sent me this excellent treatise.”2 In that book Scougal says that some Christians think we grow through purer behavior, others through sharper doctrine, and others through richer emotions, but real change occurs through this reality: the life of God in the soul of man.

Scougal and other saints from the past will help us climb inside the Bible and see the riches that God has for us in his word for our day-to-day Christian lives. And we will bring to the table various sages from the past to help us really understand the Scriptures. The vast majority of wisdom available to us today is found among the dead. Though their spirits are now with Christ in heaven, the books and sermons of Augustine, Gregory the Great, Luther, Calvin, Knox, Sibbes, Goodwin, Owen, Bunyan, Edwards, Whitefield, Ryle, Spurgeon, Bavinck, Lewis, and Lloyd-Jones remain with us. So we will draw strength and insight from the great ones of the past far more than the famous ones of the present as we consider what Scripture gives us for growing in Christ.

And so we will be thinking in this book about “real change for real sinners,” as our subtitle puts it—as opposed to surface change for theoretical sinners. We’re not after behavior modification in this book. I’m not going to talk to you about setting your alarm earlier or cutting carbs. We’re not even going to reflect on tithing or church attendance or journaling or small groups or taking the sacraments or reading the Puritans. All of that can be done out of rottenness of heart. We’re talking about real change. And we’re talking about real change for real sinners. If you confess the doctrine of original sin but at the same time feel yourself to be doing pretty well as a Christian, you can put this book back on the shelf. This book is for the frustrated. The exhausted. Those on the brink. Those on the verge of giving up any real progress in their Christian growth. If you not only subscribe to the doctrine of original sin on paper but also find yourself proving the doctrine of original sin in your daily life, this book is for you.

A few things right up front.

First, I’m not going to hurry you. No one else should either. We are complicated sinners. Sometimes we take two steps forward and three steps back. We need time. Be patient with yourself. A sense of urgency, yes; but not a sense of hurry. Overnight transformations are the exception, not the norm. Slow change is still real change. And it’s the normal way God deals with us. Take your time.

Second, as you begin this book, open your heart to the possibility of real change in your life. One of the devil’s great victories is to flood our hearts with a sense of futility. Perhaps his greatest victory in your life is not a sin you are habitually committing but simply a sense of helplessness as to real growth.

Third, I encourage you not to consume this book but to reflect your way through it. Maybe that means journaling alongside reading. Maybe it means reading with a friend. Do whatever you can to process slowly, marinating, meditating, letting the Bible’s truths shepherd you into the green pastures you long for in your walk with the Lord. Fast reading, for a book like this, is minimally absorbing reading.

Fourth, this book is written by a fellow patient, not a doctor. It is written to me as much as by me. Out of failure as much as out of success.

Dane C. Ortlund, Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners, ed. Michael Reeves, Union (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 16–19.


We have just completed a Bible study to guide your group into meditating on and applying these truths. Deeper is our Bible Study based on Dane Ortlund’s book by the same name. It consists of 7 lessons with ready-to-use questions suitable for groups. It can be purchased on Amazon and is also available as part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription Service.