Some Thoughts on Intra-Trinitarian Relationships in the Earliest Church Fathers

Back in 2004, I presented a very long (71-page) paper at the Evangelical Theological Society entitled, “Power in Unity, Diversity in Rank: Subordination and the Trinity in the Fathers of the Early Church.” This paper was the result of research I conducted related to my PhD studies in patristics. In light of recent discussions among evangelicals regarding the issue of subordination and intra-trinitarian relationships, I thought I would make this paper available. It is an exhaustive (some might say, exhausting) analysis of every instance in which the relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are even mentioned in the orthodox writings between Didache and Irenaeus. The full paper can be found here as a PDF. Because it was written in 2004, it is clearly not up-to-date in its secondary literature, but my hope is that interested readers will find the primary source data (all included in a lengthy appendix) to be helpful.

Below, I include the excerpt from the paper that summarizes my conclusions and implications based on the work of these early fathers. I would ask that readers first review the analysis of the entire paper before interacting with my conclusions.

Excerpt from Michael J. Svigel, “Power in Unity, Diversity in Rank: Subordination and the Trinity in the Fathers of the Early Church,” a Paper Presented at the 56th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, November 18, 2004, San Antonio, Texas.


Based on the preceding analyses, we can make the following conclusions regarding the relationships of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the writings of the earliest fathers.

No Clear Arian Ontological Subordination. There is no clear example of an Arian ontological subordinationism in which the Son is a created being or has an inferior divinity to the Father, though Tatian’s concept of the Logos may come close. When their language was clear, the early fathers’ concept of subordination was functional, not ontological. LaCugna rightly stated that “we should not regard this economic subordinationism as heretical or even as an inferior or incoherent Christian theology of God and Christ.”[1] Rather, just the opposite is true: where there was opportunity given by the context, Christ was called “God,” “eternal,” or the essential mediator of the Father’s will.

No Functional Egalitarianism. There is no discernible tradition whatsoever of what is today described as ontological and functional equality or a “communitarian” or “democratic” model of the Trinity. Nor is there clear evidence of a view which states that the persons of the Godhead could have agreed to take on different roles than what has unfolded in the economy of creation (e.g. that the Father could have become incarnate or the Son could have indwelled believers rather than the Holy Spirit).

Ontological Equality and Functional Subordination. There is an overwhelming tradition of what is today described as ontological equality and functional subordination within the Trinity that emphasizes the monarchia of the Father. While the Son and Spirit are not creatures, the Father is their head, meaning that all activities conform to his will.

Possible Drift toward Ontological Subordinationism. While the later second century fathers began to speculate more on the specific nature of the generation of the Son,[2] we begin to discern language implying an eternal functional subordination while still maintaining essential (ontological) equality. However, with Tatian the language becomes fuzzy, and the stage appears to be set for greater deviation away from ontological equality toward Arian ontological subordinationism.



If, for the sake of argument, we were to regard the fathers of the first and second centuries as our canon of orthodoxy and the proper understanding of Scripture, then our judgments on various views of subordination and the Trinity become rather clear.     

Eternal Functional Equality and Ontological Equality. Modern day advocates of what I call “eternal functional equality” suggest that “there can be no separation between the being and the acts of God, between the one divine nature of the three persons and their functions.”[3] Therefore, orthodox ontological equality is said to demand functional equality as well, and distinctions in rank between the Father, Son, and Spirit are rejected. Instead, the Father, Son, and Spirit are regarded as functioning in a co-equal fellowship, with one mind and will. Though each member of the Triune community performs distinct activities, these activities are not ordered in rank or hierarchy.[4] Instead of the Son and Spirit functioning in submission to the Father, the three persons are said to function in mutual submission to each other. In light of this study, the problem with such a view is that no extant Christian writings of the first and second centuries suggest anything remotely close to such a model, but rather consistently present the Father as the head and the Son and Spirit as functioning in submission to the Father.

Incarnational Functional Subordination and Ontological Equality. Advocates of a temporary or voluntary subordination of the Son to the Father limit the submission of the Son to the time of his earthly ministry or commencing with the incarnation. Thus, the Son’s role of submission to God is a result of his taking on full human nature and living in obedience to the law. However, in light of the early fathers, limiting the functional subordination of the Son to the incarnation would be too narrow. In the first and second century writers, the Son and Spirit consistently submit to the Father’s will, even prior to the Son’s incarnation and Spirit’s sending into the world. Also, such a view of incarnational subordination does not explain why the Holy Spirit is presented by the fathers as functioning in submission to the will of the Father without having become incarnate.

Eternal Functional Subordination and Ontological Equality. If we were to employ first and second century Christian teaching as a standard, the advocates of an eternal functional subordination of the Son to the Father would have little clear evidence to support their view. The descriptions of the relationships between Father, Son, and Spirit in the early fathers refer to activities of the Godhead in relation to the created order. Apart from actual activities in creation, the nature of the relationships is vague. This does not preclude the existence of an ordered relationship based on fatherhood, sonship, and spiration, but the actual evidence is minimal and unclear. In this sense, complaints against the language of “eternal functional subordination” seem to be valid, and evangelicals should probably cease using such terms.[5]

Economic Functional Subordination and Ontological Equality.[6] The view of the earliest post-apostolic fathers is best described as one in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are co-eternal and co-equal with regard to deity and power, but in extra-Trinitarian actions the Father is the head, the Son is the mediator, and the Spirit is the pervasive active presence of God. While we cannot logically project this economic functional subordination into an eternal state apart from creation, this taxis would be consistent with the interpersonal relationships implied by the names “Father,” “Son,” and “Spirit.”

Eternal Functional Subordination and Ontological Subordination. The fathers’ consistent subordination of the Son to the Father in their will and works has sometimes been mistaken for an ontological subordination relegating either the Son or the Spirit to the realm of finite creation rather than eternal deity. For example, in his polemic against Trinitarianism in favor of Unitarianism, Stannus, citing Polycarp’s prayer on the pyre as evidence of non-trinitarianism in the second century, writes, “The ante-Nicene fathers invariably spoke of Christ as subordinate to the Father.”[7] Although he is correct in this assertion, his conclusion that this necessarily implies an inequality of divinity is an unfounded exaggeration. His error is similar to that of modern assertions that subordination in function necessarily means inequality of eternal nature. Where the early fathers are not silent, they illustrate that one can hold simultaneously to both functional subordination and ontological equality of being. Therefore, attempts by groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses who seek sympathetic theology in the early fathers are misguided.[8]


Two Final Questions

Does Economic Functional Subordination Prescribe a Particular Social Order? The ordering of ecclesiastical leadership suggested in 1 Clement and stated explicitly and repeatedly in the Letters of Ignatius was not tied to an eternal role in the Godhead, but to the sending of the Son in the economy of salvation. This ordering is independent of questions regarding the eternal relationships between Father, Son, and Spirit. In the context of contemporary egalitarian and complementarian debates—whether in the home, government, society, or church—the debate concerning eternal functional subordination is irrelevant as far as the early fathers are concerned. There appears to have been enough justification for ecclesiastical ordering in the simple fact that the Son was sent into the world. However, we must recognize that the fathers do not extend this divine ordering beyond that of ecclesiastical structures. Although 1 Clement addressed the issue of God’s establishment of human government on earth to which all men are to submit, he linked such authority to his divine decree, not to a Trinitarian model (1 Clem. 61:1). However, one could suggest that the ways in which God orders society in general should be consistent with his work. In short, functional subordination in the Trinity need not be eternal to serve as a basis for social structures, but this type of application of Trinitarian theology outside church order is not found in the early fathers.

Are the Early Fathers “Orthodox” or “Heretical”?[9] Based on an exhaustive analysis of the primary evidence summarized in this paper, the fathers’ teaching can be summed up in Athenagoras’s statement, “power in unity, diversity in rank.” For a moment, allow me a brief fit of rhetoric. Those who want to define historical orthodoxy as discerning no functional distinction in rank between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are forced into one of three solutions with regard to the first and second century fathers. They must either a) anathematize the early fathers as heretics; b) twist their writings to conform to an egalitarian standard; or c) simply ignore them. It appears that most have chosen the final option. I reject this move. Instead, I believe we ought to embrace the early fathers as a solid, though developing, orthodox link in the chain of Trinitarian tradition handed down from the apostles in Scripture, subsequently taught by catechesis and liturgy, and guided in its growth and development by the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit. If this is the case, orthodoxy must not only grudgingly accept the concept of ontological equality and functional subordination as merely an acceptable option, but perhaps it should cheerfully embrace it as most accurately reflecting the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) and handed down to “faithful men” who were “able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2).

Visual Summary of Evidence


[1] LaCugna, God for Us, 26.

[2] This may have been the impetus for Irenaeus to assert that the generation of the Son is unknowable (A.H. 2.28.6).

[3] Giles, The Trinity and Subordinationism, 93.

[4] Ibid., 92–96.

[5] In my current thinking on this matter, the second century fathers’ adamant insistence on the utter distinction of Creator and creature, with the latter a creation ex nihilo, makes the notion of eternal functional subordination a problematic description. Subordination or submission to the will of the Father implies some sort of activity or function. Without a creation in which and toward which such actions are aimed, can we really speak about “subordination?” Unless we argue for a subordination of essential nature, we cannot speak of subordination in a timeless, eternal state. My view, of course, assumes a notion of creation ex nihilo. However, if one advances a doctrine of God and time that includes God’s “own time” or some pre-creational activity, then the term “eternal functional subordination” could be a legitimate category. On historical and contemporary issues of God, time, and creation, see William Lane Craig, God, Time, and Eternity—The Coherence of Theism II: Eternity (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 2001).

[6] My use of the term “economic” here refers to any divine activity in the economy of creation. That is, in all extra-Trinitarian works of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It does not apply to whatever inconceivable and unknowable relationship the Father, Son, and Spirit had in their existence apart from creation.

[7] Stannus, Doctrine of the Trinity, 28.

[8] Cf. for example, Greg Stafford, Jehovah’s Witnesses Defended: An Answer to Scholars and Critics, 2d ed. (Huntington Beach, CA: Elihu, 2000), 215.

[9] This assumes, of course, that we can meaningfully use these terms in their normal sense with reference to the early fathers who precede the ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries. While historians shy away from them, evangelicals may use these terms because of their belief in a transcendent standard of doctrinal truth against which teachings of every age can be measured.

[Y’all] Be Filled with the Spirit

Probably a dozen times a year I’m asked, “How can I be filled with the Spirit”? The motivations behind this question, I think, are two: First, many traditions of sanctification have emphasized the filling of the Spirit as the key that unlocks the spiritual life. Being filled with (or by) the Spirit has been set forth as the one thing a believer must do to experience the fullness of the spiritual life. Second, believers struggling against temptation and sin are looking for an antidote. Like an immunization against a nagging illness, the experience of being filled with the Spirit sounds a lot like a spiritual booster shot against chronic temptation and sin.

But have we misunderstood the filling of the Spirit? Does that classic text have something more to say to the way we live together as a church rather than how we behave as individuals?

Certainly, we have clear examples of the Spirit filling individuals for service (Exod 31:3; Acts 4:8; 13:9). The filling of the Holy Spirit is always manifested through observable effects. These include wisdom, understanding, knowledge, skill, power, prophecy, healing, boldness, faith, joy, hope, and peace, among others (Exod 31:3; 35:31; Micah 3:8; Luke 1:67; Acts 2:4; 4:31; 6:5; 9:17; 13:52; Rom 15:13). So, one knows that an individual is filled with the Spirit based on the effects of the Spirit, which often correspond to the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22–23). If you see the fruit, you know the root. But this individual indwelling and enabling is only one aspect of the filling of the Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). Paul also refers to a community aspect of the Spirit’s filling. He describes the church in Corinth as a temple of God, indwelled corporately by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16). So, the filling of the Spirit occurs in individuals, but it also occurs in the Church community (Acts 2:4; Eph 2:22).

Almost everything I read about Ephesians 5:18 relates it to the Christian’s individual surrender, yielding, decision, or action that fulfills the command to “be filled with the Spirit.” But could Paul’s primary intention in that passage be the community’s experience of the Spirit rather than the individual’s empowering? When he uses the second person plural, is Paul saying, “Each and every one of you must be filled individually” or is he saying, “Let you all as a community be filled”? The negative command, “Do not be drunk with wine” is also plural, but its possible that Paul was contrasting an inherently selfish, individualistic pleasure (drunkenness) with a selfless, corporate participation (spiritual life). Possible . . . but we need to let the context of Ephesians 5:18 guide our interpretation.

Many point out that Ephesians 5:18 is a passive command. How do we obey a passive command—regardless of whether it’s addressing an individual or a community? Well, we may have to stop doing something that obstructs the Spirit, or otherwise allow the Spirit to do what the Spirit wants. If we emphasize the individual aspect of this command, the problem is a bit more difficult—I must personally must stop or start something to allow the Spirit to fill me. But if Paul intended to emphasize the corporate aspect of the Spirit’s filling, this opens up the fulfillment of the command to reflect mutuality—“one another” living in community, among which the Spirit is producing corporate effects.

In any case, the Spirit’s filling must involve both individual and community elements, though I believe the broader context of Ephesians 5 points us toward a corporate filling of the Spirit. In Ephesians 2, Paul compared the Church as a corporate body to a holy temple, “in whom you [all] also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (2:22). The rest of the epistle emphasizes togetherness, unity of the one body, corporate giftedness, and spiritual growth together (see especially Eph 4). Thus, the letter as a whole focuses on the corporate spiritual life. In fact, the immediate context of Ephesians 5:18 emphasizes this same corporate mutuality. Following the passive plural command to be filled with the Spirit, Paul attaches a series of participles indicating what being filled with the Spirit looks like. Note the corporate effects of this Spirit filling: speaking to one another with melodious thankfulness (5:19–20) and being subject to one another after the example of Christ (5:21–6:9).

Thus, it appears that the command to “be filled with the Holy Spirit” refers primarily to allowing the Spirit to work in and through our relationships with each other in the Church community. Of course, this requires individual responses and responsibilities as we submit to each other, look out for each other’s interests, meet each other’s needs, and allow others to reciprocate their love and concern for us. But Ephesians 5:18 has little to do with being filled by the Spirit in order to resist temptation, conquer sin, or lick a bad habit. That worn-out application of the passage doesn’t quite fit Paul’s point.

Read in this light, Ephesians 5:18 is extremely convicting to us as we consider our own local churches. It demands that we answer several probing questions. Is our church community filled with the Spirit? Do we exude the attractive aroma of unity, care, support, encouragement, subjection to one another, and uplifting, joyful attitudes? Or do we exude an odor of disunity, selfishness, criticism, discouragement, rebellion, and destructive, pessimistic cynicism? Ask yourself, as you wander the halls of your church, overhear conversations, or whiff the “whine” from the grapevine—do you sense the warm breeze of the Spirit? Or, instead of being continually filled with the Spirit, does your community seem to have outposts of the Spirit battling against a lingering insurgency of the flesh? Or is it even worse than that? Is our church building just a whitewashed tomb, impressive on the outside but lacking Spirit-enabled community life within? Think about your church—and about your participation in its spiritual health. Then answer this important question for yourself: Are we filled with the Spirit?

Working Out the Inner Work (or, "Sancti-fried… Revisited")

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.


We’ve all been there. Slowly climbing the narrow road of the Christian life, we suddenly take a bad step and end up blowing it . . . again. The progress we had made along that precarious path becomes pointless as we slide down that craggy ledge and find ourselves once again brushing the dirt off our white robes and bandaging bruises that mark us as defeated saints. As we ponder whether it’s even worth pressing on, Satan taunts us from the nearby outcroppings, urging us to just give up. Even worse, our more “saintly” brothers and sisters in Christ shake their heads and cluck their tongues as they peer at us accusingly from farther up the slope.

The life of spiritual growth, impressively called “sanctification,” can often feel like an exercise in absolute and utter futility. Frustration, exasperation, exhaustion, disillusionment, depression—sadly, these are some of the feelings that accompany the failures of struggling saints as they desperately try to live the Christian life, putting to death the desires of the flesh and living out the fruit of the Spirit. The seemingly endless cycle of sin, repentance, sin, repentance, sin, repentance can nauseate us, making us wonder whether real sanctification is even possible in this life . . . convincing many that it’s not.

Let’s face it, in many of our approaches to the Christian life, it’s easy to get burned out, wiped out, worn out . . . sancti-fried.

Broken Promises or False Hopes?

One cause of our frustration with sanctification is our unrealistic expectation. We’ve heard so many stories about people being “delivered” from alcoholism, drug addiction, or sexual immorality. Testimonies shine brilliantly with flashy conversions in which a person’s life alters dramatically, in which a new birth seems to have completely killed the old man. The struggling Christian who endures the painfully slow process of sanctification might be able to handle hearing about these miraculous transformations if it wasn’t for those few who try to force their amazing experiences on everybody else. “God saved me and delivered me instantly from such-and-such . . . and He’ll do the same for you!” But when my instant deliverance doesn’t come, whose fault is it? God’s? Surely not! It must, of course, be my fault because I’m just too weak, too faithless, too immature, too carnal. Or maybe I’m just not really saved. If the Spirit of God did it for her, why won’t He do it for me?

It is true that God promised to work in us “both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13), and that we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10), and that it is His mighty Spirit, not our weak flesh, who yields through us the fruit of good works against which “there is no law” (Galatians 5:23). However, it is also true that God produces in some thirty, sixty, or a hundred times what was sown (Matthew 13:8, 23). We forget that God displays His glory in us and through us according to His own timing and for His own purposes. It is not for the clay in the Potter’s hands to say that God would get greater glory if He would fire us in His kiln today rather than constantly form us in His hands through a painful process of molding, making, casting, and re-casting. As Paul said, “The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it?” (Romans 9:20). Trusting God for sanctification means trusting that He will work in different ways and at different times with different saints.

As Good as It Gets?

In the movie As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson plays an author with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder struggling to cope with the real world. In one scene Nicholson’s character, after trying to barge in on his psychiatrist for an emergency meeting, stares into the waiting room filled with nervous clients and blurts out, “What if this is as good as it gets?”

After many years of struggling with temptation and sin, growing sometimes in great leaps and other times in almost imperceptible steps, I have learned that a common experience among most Christians is struggle. Just when our struggle brings victory, it opens up to a whole new (or even old), conflict with sin. And in the midst of the conflict, with no end in sight, we can easily grow disillusioned, wondering, “Is this even real? Does God even want me to be righteous? Why doesn’t He help?”

I’ll never forget the words of an older professor of mine back in Bible College when he answered a question about struggling with sin. “Young Christians are always coming to me saying, ‘I’m struggling with this sin, or I keep struggling with that sin,’ as if there’s something wrong with struggling with sin. That’s good! Struggle! It’s when you give up struggling that something’s wrong.”

Those words are golden. And they have helped lead me to a very important conclusion about sanctification—the struggle is normal. Absolute victory and absolute defeat should not be the common experience of the Christian life. The frustrating, unending, wearisome struggle between the flesh and the Spirit and the resulting ups and downs of the Christian life is, in most cases, as good as it gets.

Are you struggling with sin? Wondering if God is hearing your desperate pleas for strength to break the unending cycle of temptation and transgression? Ready to just give up, surrender to the flesh? Are you sancti-fried?

Join the club. We’re all there. And if you’re not there with us—if you’re a super-saint who thinks you have sanctification down to a science—go away. I want to hang out with fellow dirty, ragged, beaten-up pilgrims struggling with daily sin, putting up a brutal fight against temptation, and hoping for deliverance with an irrational faith. Oh, and if you’re one of those who has given up, who thinks the promise of sanctification is a sham, come back. The promises you believed about the nature and process (and even the means) of spiritual growth were probably not the promises of God, but of men.

Listen, saints, until we’ve struggled with sin to the very end (Hebrews 12:4), our journey on the rocky road of sanctification isn’t over. The good news—and the one we so quickly forget—is that none of us is on this journey alone.

[Want more on a classical and community-oriented approach to the Christian life? Read Part 4, “RetroSpirituality” in RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith available at Amazon or your favorite online bookseller.]