Januarys being what they are pastors can find themselves looking at ourselves and others wondering if disciples of Jesus have made any progress during the previous twelve months.
That can be a very, very depressing activity if we don’t hold on to the fact that, unlike justification, that sanctification is a progressive work that is never complete in this life.
The notion (expectation) that while we don’t expect the people to whom we minister to be perfect, we’d just like them to be significantly problem free or significantly less problematic than last year (i.e. perfect, or becoming perfect) through our ministry is really a form of prosperity gospel.
Progress is progress. It may not even be measurable in a year.
If you were to ask most Christians, you’d find many consider the prosperity gospel to be an unbiblical teaching offered by religious hucksters. But there’s a subtle way in which a similar message creeps into our theologically sound churches—a back-door heresy perhaps more damaging than the promise of a bigger house or fatter bank account.
It is the prosperity gospel of instant life change. I often heard a version of this during testimony time in the otherwise fundamentalist church where I grew up. Some former alcoholic would stand up and say something like, “I was hungover on Saturday, and by Monday I had taken my last drink.”
I have to admit testimonies like this still move me emotionally. I’m stirred because I really do believe in the power of the gospel to regenerate a person’s life. Christ is in the business of changing us, but we too often communicate a message that sanctification happens instantaneously for everyone who truly believes.
The problem is, this is not only untrue for most of the people in our churches, but it’s also not a promise Jesus made. Instead, Jesus said we’d have to take up our cross of suffering and yield to the Spirit’s work of sanctification on a daily basis. Paul, who was certainly no hedonist, admitted his own death struggle with sin (Rom. 7:7-25). And what about the writer of Hebrews, who compares the Christian life to a marathon, a daily putting off of the “sin which so easily entangles us” ( 12:1)?
The gospel is the power to radically alter lives. Some of this change may be apparent immediately after conversion. But more often, it occurs over time. The greatest life change is the result of a hard, slow slog of sanctification—the work of the Spirit through the Word and other means of grace, such as the church, sacraments, and prayer. We should celebrate change, but we should also prepare ourselves—and those we disciple—for a lifetime of struggle against sin. What’s more, we must embed in hearts the theology of an already-but-not-yet eschatological view. What this means is, even as we experience Christ’s renewing and sanctifying power in the present, we understand that most things won’t be made new until He returns to consummate His kingdom. John expressed the idea this way: “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be . . . when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2). Even our “best life now” as a Christian in a fallen world is light-years away from the perfected self we’ll see in glory.
At first glance, this seems hopeless because, in this life, we’ll never fully experience the change we want to see. And yet this expectation of future glory is powerfully hopeful because it releases us from an impossible standard and keeps us from offering the false promise of a flawless life. Instead, we can fix our gaze on Jesus, who is working to craft us into the people we will eventually be by His grace.
Imagine how this perspective might revolutionize discipleship. No longer would people be “projects” for us to reshape if only they’d follow our Bible-based growth plan. Instead, we’d see people as they are—entangled in the knotty effects of the fall, even as they cooperate with the Holy Spirit to grow into Christ’s likeness. Knowing that in due time this all will be reversed, we’d have greater patience for the process. We might encourage one another with this hope: Christ is renewing us daily, and a time is coming when the process will be complete. That is our ultimate deliverance.
So, for instance, the alcoholic won’t be offered a temptation-free life but, rather, a “way of escape” each day from the sin that so easily besets. The pornography-addicted teen won’t be told just to “get saved and your troubles will go away,” but will instead hear it’s possible to “repent and rest on Jesus, and you’ll find in Him the strength to fight for sanctification.” And rather than trying to have a new kid by Friday, parents will begin praying regularly for the Spirit to renew and regenerate their child.
We must reject the quick-fix gospel that makes promises in our fallen world which are possible only in a perfected one. What the Bible offers is not a five-step method or a plan for life change, but the good news of God’s salvation. For that reason, we can live in the present, trusting that God is forming us—slowly, methodically, permanently—into His new kingdom people.