The Green Letters: Principles of Spiritual Growth
By Miles J. Stanford
Zondervan Publishing House, 1964, 1975
Category: Spirituality / Christian Living
I am sure that this is one of those books that is the classic in many minds, however, I must confess that I had never heard of it until a few months ago. This was recommended to me first by an associate pastor, and then, within a few weeks time, I was asked by another gentleman if I had read Stanford’s book. As I had some time this past week, I set it as a priority to read this short work and I am thankful that I did.
The Green Letters was a refreshing book to read as it examines some of the simple, yet complex, truths of Christianity. This is the first in a series of five books documenting the growth of a Christian as he moves into an understanding of the statement “Not I, but Christ.” After reading the first installment, I will be sure to look for the remainder as well.
Stanford’s book rests heavily on the wisdom of others. He offers some of his own thoughts, but is quick to quote from various sources in order to illustrate his point. One might assume that his philosophy is that he was not intending to write anything new, but rather assemble a collection of “letters” from the wise voices who have gone on before. Although I would not agree with all of the theological positions of some of the contributors, I am thankful that Stanford states from the onset: “The many authors quoted have been carefully selected for the explicit purpose of this book; however, this does not necessarily mean that we advocate all that these writers teach” (Preface). I needed to be reminded of this fact when, much to my surprise, I found myself agreeing with those whom I would normally disagree with in other areas of study. This thought primarily holds true for those who hold a different eschatological position than I do. This was a great reminder for me that there is always something to learn from those who think differently than I, for I am far removed from being an expert in any field.
One of the great reminders that I gained from this book is that spiritual growth takes time. Sanctification is a lifelong process and even though I would like to say that I have finally “arrived,” I will never be able to affirm such a statement on this side of eternity. Stanford quotes George Goodman as saying, “To taste of the grace of God is one thing; to be established in it and manifest it in character, habit, and regular life, is another” (14-15). Later Graham Scroggie chimes in stating,
“All growth is progressive, and the finer the organism, the longer the process…There are great days, days of decisive battles, days of crisis in spiritual history, days of triumph in Christian service, days of the right hand of God upon us. But there are also idle days, days apparently useless, when even prayer and holy service seem a burden. Are we, in any sense, renewed in these days? Yes, for any experience which makes us more aware of our need of God must contribute to spiritual progress, unless we deny the Lord who bought us” (15).
Oh if it could just happen overnight! But our Lord in His wisdom has chosen to grow us slowly and in intermittent intervals so that we might learn to trust Him wholly with and for our future. He alone is sovereign.
Stanford then asks
“two questions that every believer must settle as soon as possible. The one is, Does God fully accept me? and, If so, upon what basis does He do so? This is crucial. What devastation often permeates the life of one, young or old, rich or poor, saved or unsaved, who is not sure of being accepted, even on the human level” (18). Indeed, how one answers these two questions will have ramifications that may be traced to every aspect of the individual’s life. Our complete identity and everything about us may be revealed in our own concept of who God is. If I am accepted by God, this means that I have been given a new nature and experienced the new birth (2 Cor 5:17). If I am not accepted by God, however, it is because I am still unregenerate, unrepentant, and dead in my trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1). Therefore, if I am repentant and I am placing my trust in Christ and Christ alone for my salvation, I can be assured of my acceptance in Christ by God the Father. Understanding that I am accepted in Christ, does not remove the old man of my sinful nature, and in that area as well, I must see Christ and Christ alone. Stanford quotes William R. Newell at this point with “To ‘hope to be better’ (hence acceptable) is to fail to see yourself in Christ only.” “To be disappointed with yourself is to have believed in yourself.” “To be proud is to be blind! For we have no standing before God, in ourselves” (21). It is this “hope to be better” that I find myself reciting, oft times seemingly unknowingly. I say or think things along the vein of “Lord, help me to be better.” Or, “God, I want to try to fight harder against sin next time.” My, what a dangerous thought process this is, and is sinful at its core. For, it is not some unharnessed power within me that is able to fight sin, but it is Christ Jesus Himself. Paul declares, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). It is this verse that Stanford formulates his thesis around. It is not I, but Christ who has the power to defeat sin, and it is He Himself who has indeed defeated sin once and for all.
Stanford later offers this quote from Norman Douty in regards to our devotion to the Lord. As one who fights the temptation to reduce God to an object to be studied, rather than the Christ to be worshipped, this was of utmost encouragement:
“…You cannot do it; just withdraw; come out of it. You have been in the arena, you have been endeavoring, you are a failure, come out and sit down, and as you sit there behold Him, look at Him. Don’t try to be like Him, just look at Him. Just be occupied with Him. Forget about trying to be like Him. Instead of letting that fill your mind and heart, let Him fill it. Just behold Him, look upon Him through the Word. Come to the Word for one purpose and that is to meet the Lord. Not to get your mind crammed full of things about the sacred Word, but come to it to meet the Lord. Make it to be a medium, not of Biblical scholarship, but of fellowship with Christ. Behold the Lord” (26).
I do not have much that I may add to this wise counsel. The idea of truly beholding the Lord for Who He is is marvelous and magnificent and is the essence of true worship. May we all worship the Lord as we meet Him in His Word.
Stanford then sets out through the remainder of The Green Letters to help the believer understand his completeness in Christ, his identification with and in Christ, and the denial of self so that we may proclaim, “Not I, but Christ.” And at every turn, Stanford is quick to remind the reader that it is no self-actuating power that enables us to be victorious in our quest to fight sin and know Christ. Rather, it is the reality that we must be crucified with Christ. Watchman Nee notes, “God sets us free from the dominion of sin, not by strengthening our old man but by crucifying him; not by helping him to do anything but by removing him from the scene of action” (83). Having set forth the need, the reader is left wanting for the “how.” This, I believe, beckons the need for the continuation of the series and I hope to have my hands on a copy soon.