The central teaching of the Bible is that we are declared not guilty in God’s sight for the sake of Jesus our Substitute who lived, died and rose for us. This “justification” of sinners is a done deal. Paid in full. Finished. This gospel or good news of pardon is ours to personally enjoy when the Holy Spirit brings us to faith in Christ.
But something else happened when we were justified by faith, when we were born to a new life. The Bible calls it “sanctification.” Sanctification is our grateful growth in Christian living. It’s our becoming more like Jesus each day.
Sanctification is loving the world less and less and loving God more and more. It’s cheerfully accepting adversity, willingly taking up the cross of the world’s hatred for the sake of God’s truth, living a pure and decent life in words and actions, praying as a way of life, thirsting for the Scriptures, serving our neighbor in love.
Our sinful nature keeps our sanctification from ever being a done deal on this side of the grave. It is always fighting the good fight to go forward and not backward. It is always a work in progress. Our sanctification is powered only by the engine of the gospel.
There is a tricky, false kind of sanctification floating around out there in the Christian book stores for many years now. It’s gaining in popularity. It’s a law-oriented, follow-X-number-of steps type thing that has people thinking too much about what they’re doing instead of what Christ has already done for them. In all of this the gospel becomes a mere footnote. Beware!
C.S. Lewis used an example we all understand. Some night when you’re lying awake in bed, try really hard to fall asleep. Makes it worse, doesn’t it? The harder you try, the more sleep eludes you.
That’s the way it is with our spiritual growth, our sanctification. The more I look in the mirror and obsess about what a wonderful Christian I am becoming, the further I push myself away from the gospel of what God has done and is doing for me.
Someone has used the example of Adolf Heisenberg. Half a century ago, Heisenberg shook the scientific world when he discovered his famous Uncertainty Principle. Heisenberg said that the movements of ultra-tiny sub-atomic particles can never be precisely measured, because the very fact that you’re trying to measure them changes the way the particles behave.
Jesus said the same thing about the work of the Holy Spirit to Nicodemus: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8 EHV). The work of the Spirit cannot be precisely measured on a graph or a chart. In fact, it can be disturbed or even destroyed by our obsessive attempts to measure it.
When we do that, says one writer, we’re behaving exactly like a gardener who plants potatoes, then digs them up once a week to see how they’re doing. The gardener needs patience. The things of the Spirit are invisible, unpredictable – in other words, spiritual.
The closer we cling to Christ and to what He has done for us, the more we will take on His features, His likeness, even when we are not looking.