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This question is similar to this one ("How is spiritual progress described in eastern monastic traditions?"). But mine is directed towards Protestants, and includes how they even speak of this topic. It seems that the language I'm used to as a Catholic isn't the norm for Protestants.

Catholics can generally "speak the same language" in regards to advancing in the spiritual life. But the spiritual theology of the Church is also diverse enough to provide for the needs of people from different walks of life at different stages of the spiritual life. But the common elements usually include:

  • What virtues one has, how they have increased or decreased in the individual
  • Regular reception of the Sacraments
  • Regular and frequent examinations of conscience
  • Spiritual direction from a priest
  • Increasing prayer, esp. the Rosary, or the Divine Office, or other devotions

What is the equivalent in Protestantism, if there can even be said to be such?

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All believers should abide by Peter's exhortation and give earnest diligence toward the development of spiritual qualities:

According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue:  Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall: For so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. - 2 Peter 1:3-11

It is important to note (if one digs a little into definitions) that most, if not all, of these can be included amongst the list of fruits of the spirit:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. - Galatians 5:22-23

This means that we are to give diligence towards the exercise of abilities or the fulfillment of capacities that have been given to us rather than addition to ourselves merely by ourselves. As the Apostle Paul often likes to say, we must walk in and mind these things rather than fleshly things.

But now, how are we to regard these things? How are they to be perceived and considered in ourselves and others? Jesus said that whoever would be great among us, let him be the servant of all. This is a good baseline for self judgement as it hits motivation as well as activity. Do I serve others so that I will be seen as great? That is probably an epic fail:

So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do. - Luke 17:17

We are to examine ourselves daily to see whether we are in the faith. This is sort of like a touchstone in the list from 2 Peter. All of these things that we are to add are to be added to our faith and we should daily (read that as constantly) be attentive that our spiritual progress remains vitally connected back to our faith. This entire process should be overlayed and underpinned by a confidence, not in ourselves, nor in any religious superstructure, but in God Himself...Christ in us, the hope of glory. Do I have such faith that God can bring about spiritual progress in my life that I earnestly seek to cooperate with this work?

Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. - Philippians 2:12-13

The estimation of spiritual progress in others is to follow self-estimation and to be laden with grace for we do not perceive the intent of another's heart. I must be willing to present my life honestly before others so that my self-estimation of my progress may be estimated by others and I may be encouraged or corrected:

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye. - Matthew 7:1-5

There is a strong necessity for regular fellowship with the brethren so that we may all participate in exhortation, encouragement, rebuke, correction, etc. As it is written, "Iron sharpens iron" but only as the one rubs against the other. It is in regular Christian fellowship that attributes of spiritual maturity are evidenced:

This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?) Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. Likewise must the deacons be grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre; Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless. Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things. Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. For they that have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus. - 1 Timothy 3:1-13

It is in the trials and temptations of life, of family, of work, and of Christian fellowship in the midst of a fallen world that the gold of spiritual progress is refined and shows forth. A church leader with an unruly household (or no household at all) how can they take care of the Church (asks Paul)? Someone who merely checks off the attend church box once a week, how can they be sharpened?

Whatever one does without love is worthless (1 Corinthians 13). The question is, do I trust the Lord Jesus Christ enough (He who works in me and in my brethren) do I trust Him enough in the process of my sanctification to completely expose my life to my brethren that they might perceive my condition and help me to grow? This is certainly the only way that I may help them, so then I must love them enough to be willing to expose myself to them.

Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; And having an high priest over the house of God; Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;) And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching. - Hebrews 10:19-25

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  • An excellent composition. Challenging and yet comforting. Very much appreciated. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Aug 19, 2022 at 16:53
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There is a problem scoping this important question to Protestants in general, because there are more than a few who think that increasing religiosity is the marker. They are inclined to view activity in 'supporting' their denomination's programmes (of worship and outreach) to be evidences of progressing in the spiritual life. But, as we all know, some of the most religiously active, and even leading Protestants, have shown themselves to have been grossly unspiritual, despite outward appearances to the contrary. That is why this quote from a Reformed Presbyterian source is pertinent. This is from a chapter called "Be filled with the Spirit" and deals with holiness and sanctification.

Previously he has established the starting point, which is to be born from above by the Holy Spirit - the 'new birth' - that God himself originates spiritual life in us and we participate in salvation through faith and repentance. Until that miracle of grace happens, people are spiritually dead. It therefore follows that if they think they are progressing in the spiritual life, they are deluded. Spiritually dead people must be born of the Spirit, and they cannot do that themselves. That is why Paul encouraged those who had become Christians to be "confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ... being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God." (Phil.1:6 & 11) Spiritual life originates with God. It cannot begin with religiosity or 'church and spiritual activity'. That would be to put the cart before the horse. This quote now applies to those who God has first granted spiritual newness of life; those who have been justified and sanctified by God - co-ordinates: two different aspects of what happens to us as a result of our union with Christ. Regarding this once-for-all change in our position, there are three things to note:

"First, definitive sanctification involves a change of relationship. The word holy, particularly in the Old Testament, does not refer in the first instance to a moral state, but to a relationship... Christians are set apart from a common to a holy use. They are no longer common or profane. They belong to God. That in turn is rooted in the idea of redemption. In redemption we have been bought: therefore we should glorify God in our bodies and in our spirits (1 Cor. 6:20)...

Secondly, definitive sanctification means transformation. What we are is radically altered. Our whole being is changed. Our humanness undergoes radical transformation... 'If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation' (2 Corinthians 5:17). If we are in Christ the 'old man' is crucified. the 'old man' is dead...

The third point about definitive sanctification is this: it is all a matter of union with Christ... By grace we move ever closer to complete Christ-likeness (Romans 8:29)... We have to mortify sin. There is a great treatise by John Owen on this subject, based largely on Romans 8. [In his Works, Edinburgh, 1850-53, vol. VI, pp. 2-86]... Mortification is not something that happens to us automatically and unconsciously, merely by regularly attending church or being in Christian company or having regular sessions of prayer. It is not a process of osmosis. It is something we must do deliberately and consciously to our own sins. ...We are terribly deluded if we imagine that we are being led by the Spirit while at the same time we are cavorting with sin; and not only with the grosser and more carnal and more obvious sins, but with the inward sins of envy, pride, malice, hypocrisy and self-righteousness...

The second element in progressive sanctification is renewal (Shorter Catechism, Answer 35.) ...Romans 12:2 - renewal of the mind... This renewal has a template. We are to be renewed according to the image of Jesus (Ephesians 4:24). This depends, again, on how we see this Christ... Holiness is the mind of a servant, the mind that says, 'I have no rights; I have only obligations.' That is the Bible's teaching. It challenges the medieval legacy: the Christ of the icons and the tapestries... we have no right to use our divine sonship to claim favours.

Thirdly, growth. It is, after all, progressive sanctification. We start from a position of spiritual infancy and childishness and grow up into spiritual maturity. We grow in grace... Growth does not mean that the Christian becomes more and more austere in relation to others, more and more remote... We are not meant to function except as members of the body of Christ...

The holy men of the past were holy because they wanted to be. They worked at it. In a way, Roman Catholicism has often been closer to the truth on this than much of our Protestantism. It has stressed spiritual discipline and spiritual exercises. In fact, I have a vivid memory of preaching once in Northern Ireland on the text, 'Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling' (Philippians 2:12) and being approached immediately afterwards by an extremely angry man who told me in no uncertain tones, 'That was a Catholic text you had tonight.' But, of course, it was not. God commands us, unequivocally to work away at the great business of mortification, renewal and growth." (A Faith to Live By, pp175-184, Donald Macleod, Christian Focus, 1998 - bold mine)

The simple answer is that, once God brings persons to spiritual life, they mature over time in those three regards of displaying holiness and sanctification. Their template to go by is Christ; having Christ's mind, his humility, his devotion to do the will of God, even to death, because they have his Spirit (Romans 8:1-16). They do not compare themselves with others. They consider only Christ, which means they have to know the Christ of scripture, imbibing his word. Their love for Christ and God causes them to know the love of Christ and God for them (John 14:14-27) That gives them peace from above, a clean conscience, and a heart of love for the Saviour so that they desire to do all that he commands. Their entire lives are transformed by this. Their progress in spiritual growth continues, and they know it, so that when they lapse they urgently repent before God who continues to work in them, until the Lord's return (Philippians 1:6).

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  • A good answer distinguishing between "true" religion and that "form of godliness" which denies the power of it. +1 Commented Aug 20, 2022 at 13:08
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The Catholic view presented in the question appears to be a measure of dedication to the Church through behaviour that can be seen by its clergy.

Non-Catholics tend to be less concerned with formal procedure, and more with inner personal growth.

The goal should be to change and develop character that is like that of Jesus. Personal progress is something that can be felt and understood by each individual, not something to be examined by the Church.

A true scholar studies in order to learn, not in order to pass a college exam. Christians should have the same attitude.

Here are some extracts from one organization's publications (This is just an example, I could have chosen other groups.):

… to examine ourselves (1 Corinthians 11:27-32), reviewing our spiritual progress in the light of God’s eyes and truth. Ongoing self-examination and repentance (turning to God) is an important part of our calling. We have the time God has allotted to us in this physical life to learn and apply God’s ways into our lives, and to grow into “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).
Personal From the President: June 30, 2022 | United Church of God

Following repentance, baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit, we need to make spiritual progress so we can become increasingly like Jesus Christ (John 13:15). We do this by immersing ourselves in regular study and diligent application of God’s Word (2 Timothy 2:15).
The Cup and the Dish | United Church of God

"Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most. And get rid of this 'play-it-safe' who won't go out on a limb" (verse 28).

In effect, what Christ is saying is that what one will not do, someone else will end up doing. If we fail to be accountable for the Holy Spirit in our lives, then it will be given to someone else.

Spiritual progress comes from taking the risk of struggling to diminish the negatives in your human nature, confronting your self-justification, facing denial and examining your motives in your spiritual life.

Growth in developing the fruit of the Holy Spirit means moving on to a deeper understanding and love for God's law (Psalms 119:97-104). It means walking in a deeper relationship with God through meaningful prayer and fasting.

It means exploring an ever-increasing humility and self-assessment (Psalms 131:1; Philippians 2:3). It involves an increasing dedication to be accountable and forgiven for past mistakes, attitudes and motives.

Christ does set the high level for which we are to strive. And that involves the frightening task of facing up to ourselves, of hearing what others say about us, of seeing ourselves as others see us, of recognizing our pride, our blind spots, our irritations, our areas of temptation, our fears, inadequacies, loneliness and our human inability to communicate much beyond our human limitations.

The Holy Spirit is too important to neglect. The parable of the talents helps us examine if we live in smug security, or if we exercise a creative risk in developing our spiritual talents. If we do take the risk, the unseen power of God will help us—guaranteed.
Using the Holy Spirit Smug Security or Creative Risk? | United Church of God

This appears at the end of a 50-page "Tools for Spiritual Growth" booklet:

The parable of the sower teaches us four different ways that people respond when they hear (receive the "seed" of) the truth of God (Luke 8:4-15). Each of us should read this parable occasionally and examine ourselves as to which category or categories we fall into. We need to be in the fourth group described—the fertile soil. "The seeds that fell in good soil stand for those who hear the message and retain it in a good and obedient heart, and they persist until they bear fruit" (Luke 8:15, Good News Bible).

What kind of fruit does God expect of us? "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23, NIV). (See our Bible study aid The Fruit of the Spirit.) God also desires the fruits of good works and service to others (Titus 3:14; Matthew 5:14-16; Matthew 25:31-46). Beautiful and desirable fruit, indeed!

Stay healthy and strong spiritually, keep growing and bear much fruit! — Tools for Spiritual Growth

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