Why Becoming Holy is Not Through Trying Harder: Thoughts on Sanctification and Self-Examination
If we can be honest and look at the condition of the Christian Church in the world, and especially in the U.S., I think that we would all be disappointed in the way that we live out our lives on a daily basis. This is a point often brought up to contest the validity of our faith because Christianity as a system of moral living has failed. This is not a trivial point. As a religion that puts so much stake in right living, it is abundantly clear that we can’t live up to the standard in which we hold the world to. Christianity has failed to make followers of Christ who can live up to God’s standards.
But I don’t think that is what Christianity is really for anyway.
Christianity is more than just a list of moral requirements. In fact, Christianity is much more about God’s mercy in bringing salvation to sinners, and seeing ourselves as sinners is a necessary part of that process. Far from being sufficient to correct our behavior, Paul tells us that God’s moral standard was given to us so that sin would increase (Romans 5:20).
We must see ourselves correctly in comparison to a perfect God.
And yet, the way that we lead our lives is still incredibly important. The key is to understand what role our failings play in God’s plan and what His plans are for making us better. Our hypocrisy and our shortcomings are a harsh reality, but that’s not the end of the story. God has a plan for us to live lives that are more honoring to Him through the process that we call sanctification. Becoming a Christian is only the first step in a process toward holiness. After we receive our salvation in Christ, we are released from our bondage to sin and we become slaves to Christ—but we are not yet made perfect. We must progress through a process of sanctification in which we are conformed to the image of Christ.
If we have learned anything from our past, it is that no matter how hard we try, we can not make ourselves perfect. Sanctification is not a process of trying harder. There is a limit to our effectiveness in living out moral lives and that limit is much lower than any of us would like. This is because sanctification is not a process that originates in us, but rather it is a process in which God acts on us. Scripture tells us that God provides the force of the sanctification process. In the closing remarks of the first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul proclaims these words:
“May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it” (1 Thes. 5:23,24).
It is God who starts the process of sanctification and without His work to support us, we will never get anywhere on our own. God is actively walking us through the process of sanctification and progressively making us holy.
We are not yet perfect because God has not yet willed for us to be perfect.
But don’t let this dissuade you from doing your part to pursue a more godly life. Just because God is the active force which guides us through sanctification does not mean that we can be complacent with where we are at. Our willingness to actively work toward a life that glorifies God is a necessary part of the process. Dallas Willard is quoted in saying that “grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.” The process of sanctification is an act of grace and should not prevent us from putting in our own effort. That is why Paul goes to great lengths in writing letters like the ones to the Corinthians in which he implores Christians to live in a way that honors their union with Christ. There is so much richness in our relationship with Christ when our desires align with His.
We should never be satisfied with where we are at in our spiritual lives. Remember that the bar is set very high and we are expected to reach for it. Jesus tells us to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). If we are to reach this goal then we have to take into consideration the dual nature of the sanctification process. Make a conscious effort to improve the way that you live your life. This could be setting aside time for regular prayer or making a plan to avoid situations in which you repeatedly struggle. Perhaps you need to spend more time in scripture to better understand God’s work in our lives. And most importantly, pray to God that He would continue to work His sanctification in you in order to bring you to the glorification and holiness found in Jesus Christ.
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