If you’ve ever had your vehicle stuck in the mud, you’ll remember trying anything to get out: shifting into low gear, jerking the steering wheel to the right or left, spinning the wheels in reverse, pushing the gas pedal to the floor, even emptying extra weight to lighten your load. Finally, with mud covering every square inch of your vehicle, you admit defeat. You accept the fact that the only solution to your inextricable dilemma is to call for help.
Whether we like it or not, that’s life. Each of us, left to ourselves, is hopelessly stuck in the mire of our own depravity. Apart from God’s sovereign acts of grace, we’re helpless. Without God pulling us free from the muck and washing us clean, we would continue to wallow in the slime of our own filth.
But thankfully, God didn’t leave us to ourselves. He provided the death and resurrection of Christ to pay the penalty for our sins and to grant us new life. He sent His Spirit to regenerate us—not merely on our spiritual birthday, but continually. We have an eternal relationship with the Spirit of Life, who continues His regenerating work in us. Yes, God has declared us righteous once and for all in Christ (“justification”). But we too often forget that God is also making us righteous by His Spirit (“sanctification”).
But if God does the work, what part to we play in sanctification? Is there nothing we can do to affect our spiritual growth?
More than Methods
Methods of nullifying the old nature and nurturing the new are almost as plentiful as the people who peddle them. Whole systems of sanctification have grown up over the centuries, each promising the most effective way. The victorious Christian life, exchanged life, Methodism, holiness, second blessing, sacramentalism, personal disciplines, corporate disciplines, mysticism, asceticism, monasticism, asceticism, contemplation . . . the list goes on.
My complaint about these various approaches is not that they are wrong, but that they often claim to be too right. Most of them have something true to contribute to a diverse tradition of Christian spirituality, but none of them can claim to be the sole biblical path to spiritual maturity. Some of the models of sanctification came on the scene when individual Christians (or small communities) experienced remarkable spiritual blessing while engaged in a particular approach to the Christian life. However, instead of viewing their method as a neutral means through which God chose to work His sanctifying grace, their gaze became fixated on the method itself.
Yet if the means of sanctification does not include some method, what should we do? Is the solution to be passive, to “wait on the Lord” for an instant change of heart?
This idea of passive sanctification reminds me of one of my Bible College roommates who would return to the dorm after a weekend of shameless fornication. When I confronted him about it, he responded, “God’s in control. When He wants me to stop living this way, He’ll take those desires away.” Yes, God is in control. And in His sovereignty He cast my roommate out of Bible College.
The answer is obviously not to passively wait for God to suddenly, instantly, and miraculously change us. Though that kind of deliverance may happen to some, it probably won’t happen to you and me. Instead, my own answer to the question of what we should do in response to God’s sovereignty over our sanctification is quite simple.
Do whatever it takes and do it now!
God’s Inner Work
In Philippians 2:12, Paul wrote, “Just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” I can’t think of a clearer text regarding our responsibility to obey. The verb “work out” in Greek is a simple command. This passage emphasizes working, not waiting; being productive, not passive. According to Paul, our responsibility for sanctification is to simply obey.
Paul could have stopped at verse 12 and his practical intentions would have been perfectly clear. But instead, he removed the service panel from the Christian life and revealed the inner workings of sanctification. In just a few powerful words we see that our work of willing, active obedience in salvation is not the cause of sanctification, but the effect. Paul said, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 3:12–13).
All too often I meet Christians who want to somehow soften this language, to read into it some foreign concept of cooperation, of God’s response to our willing hearts, of the Spirit’s work of lending a helping hand to our honest efforts. Too many believers want to live the Christian life as if God were holding back His provision of power until we take the first step. This idea is completely contrary to what Paul says in Philippians 2 about our obedience in salvation. It is God who is at work in us, not only to work, but also to will. At the same time, God works all things in this world together for our good (Romans 8:28). So, by both inward and outward means, God affects our sanctification.
However, rather than instantly zapping us into mature saints, God gradually affects our spiritual growth through several means of sanctification that stir faith in us. That faith, itself granted by God, then manifests itself through the fruit of the Spirit.
What are these means of sanctification?
Means of Sanctification
One crucial means is God’s church. Yes, that place, or, more accurately, those people. Whether you’re ready to accept it or not, the gathering of a local church community is the primary means God uses to sanctify you. Hebrews 10:24–25 says, “Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” Within the community believers exercise their spiritual gifts for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7). Within the community gifted teachers grow believers into the image of Christ (Ephesians 4:11–16). And within the church community, God’s Spirit works through our observance of the Lord’s Supper, confirming our covenant relationship with God and others (1 Corinthians 11:20–32).
Another means of sanctification is personal discipline. Paul told Timothy, “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things” (1 Timothy 4:7–8). Spiritual discipline includes positive things like reading Scripture, prayer, fasting, and the like. But it also includes things you might do to protect yourself from temptation or break a pattern of sin. In my experience sin is like a fire—the more you feed it by, the stronger it gets. But if, by whatever means, you can keep from obsessively engaging in a particular sin, its controling power will wane. Spiritual disciplines are perhaps the most personal aspect of sanctification, for no believer’s struggles are the same, and not all individuals respond the same way to the same means. The key is to keep hard at it, engaging in spiritual disciplines that move you closer to God and to His people. Any of the numerous methods of spiritual growth may work well for many people. But it’s not ultimately the method itself that does the work. Through these means God works in you and for you. Instead of fixing your gaze on the method that seems to work for you, fix your gaze on “the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2, KJV), for it is God at work in us to conform us to the image of Christ by the power of His Spirit.
To Him, not us, be the glory forever.