How can we—or the kids we parent and teach—grow in godliness? Let’s learn from four surprisingly simple rules for steering a ship.
How growth in holiness happens is a topic that’s received a ton of attention recently from many writers I respect (although they don’t all agree with each other). I’m not wise enough to have all the answers. But I am a front-lines teacher, which means I do have a working model of godly growth. I must have one. I can’t teach kids without having some idea of what will help them.
One model I’ve found useful comes from the 17th Century pastor Walter Marshall. He compared the blessings of the gospel to the forces that move a ship. In Marshall’s day, there were two ways a ship might move through the sea: the power of the wind might push it, or the draw of the tide and current might pull it.
Marshall said the Holy Spirit’s work in a believer’s life is like the wind, giving power to obey God, while the eternal security of belonging to Jesus is like the tide, drawing the heart to God in love. These work together, Marshall told believers, “so that you will have both wind and tide to forward your voyage in the practice of holiness” (The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, chapter 8).
From this analogy of a ship, I get four principles for teaching kids in a way that will help them live for God.
1. Use the wind. Part of the good news of salvation is that believers are given the Spirit. This starts with a new heart that’s able to love and to do what’s good, and it continues with lifelong spiritual help. The Spirit helps us to pray; so pray. The Spirit gives us God’s Word; so read the Bible. The Spirit makes the church one; so be close to fellow believers. All this is power for confident, godly living. It means good teachers are prayerful, biblical and relational—they use the wind.
2. Use the tide. The good news of salvation also says that believers are declared right with God, become his dearly loved children, and are assured of eternal life with him. This fills us with comfort and gratitude and hope. So use these powerful forces too. They destroy insecurity and any reason for selfishness. They draw kids to the beauty of our Savior and all his blessings so that those kids follow him from the heart, in love. Good teachers relentlessly show their students Jesus and tell of those blessings—they use the tide.
3. Remember, you have no power of your own. Relying on the wind and tide must never twist into trying harder to produce our own power. It would be easy to start nagging kids to pray more, read the Bible more, or summon up greater belief in the gospel by some sort of internal resolve. But such a mindset works against the grace of God, which is about trusting and receiving from him. So be diligent in exposing kids to prayer and Scripture and gospel promises, but remember that the power never rests in how fervently we embrace these things but rather in how they connect us to Jesus. A good teacher trains students to fill their sails with God’s power, not to get out the oars.
4. Be patient and trust God. A sailing ship seldom reaches its destination by travelling a straight line at a steady speed. It’s the same with us and the kids we teach. Sometimes a headwind comes up and we need to tack. Other times the wind dies down and we seem to drift. We may sail around a storm or into the fog. So don’t be discouraged when progress in holiness seems slow. God controls the winds and sea currents, and he will complete his good work in us in his good time.
Those four principles keep me on course when I teach. Like any good advice, most days I manage to follow just a fraction of it. I still have much to learn as a gospel teacher.
Good models help, though, and the ship analogy is one of my favorites. It keeps me always looking to Captain Jesus, and pointing my students to him as well. In that sense, it fits a growth-in-holiness analogy Jesus himself used—the vine and the branches. “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
If this was helpful, please share. It’s how others learn, too.
Do you have thoughts? Please comment below. I love feedback and discussion—it’s how I learn from you! (Pick any name you like, and no one but me will see your email address—and I won’t use it, I promise)