In The Apostolic Tradition, the author (Hippolytus? of Rome?) writes at the end of the baptismal rite:
And when these things are done, let each hurry to do good works, to please God and to live properly, being devoted to the church, putting into action what he has learnt and progressing in piety. (21.38, trans. Stewart-Sykes)
The phrase that struck me as I read this was ‘progressing in piety’. One of the features of ancient, medieval, Byzantine Christianity is its belief that the ongoing life of faith involves progress. We are not simply ‘saved’ and baptised, but, now that we are made right with God and adopted as His children, we have the opportunity to ‘progress in piety’.
The standard of perfection, for example, is God. And God is eternal and infinite. Therefore, argues St Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394) in the passage excerpted by Richard Foster in Devotional Classics, the human pursuit of perfection is endless and infinite as well. We will never arrive; even in eternity we will have room for limitless growth in glory.
In some Protestant circles (usually the Reformed), a fear of ‘works righteousness’ and the legalism or false sense of personal achievement that attend it have led to a rejection of the idea of progress in holiness — although they acknowledge that something like it occurs, as Spurgeon did when he rejected the phrase ‘progressive sanctification’ as unscriptural, speaking of growth in grace instead.
St John Climacus’ Ladder is all about this progress, after all. Indeed, the ascetic literature, while it can at times tend towards legalism of the harshest kind, is piercingly aware of growth in holiness, portraying it as a ladder or an ascent or steps towards God. Simultaneously, there is an acknowledgement of the necessity of grace for this growth in holiness. (St Theophan the Recluse, the nineteenth-century Russian always comes to my mind when I think about this.)
We are commanded to progress in piety, but we need the grace of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit will empower our spiritual disciplines so that we can strive for the heights of John Wesley’s Christian perfection. (A concept, when rightly understood, I am not opposed to — but I do wonder if anyone ever received so much grace.) This is synergeia, synergy, and it is not a rejection of grace but a way of viewing how it operates.