I’ve been a Christian my whole life, but I still don’t understand how sanctification works. How do I depend on God for salvation without neglecting obedience? How do I obey without feeling like I’m earning my way? I’ve never been able to figure it out.
I resonate deeply with your perplexity. “Figuring it out” seems like the process of a lifetime, something we have to keep learning, again and again. It’s the basic algebra of salvation; you need it for any higher-level math.
But it’s OK to keep returning to the classroom. In my most recent trip to class this summer, I gained a new perspective. The following is the advice I was given and now pass on to you.
For me, my root problem is a desperation for success. My insistence on achievement pushes its way into every area of my life, including my faith. Reduce faith to a checklist, and I’ve got it covered. Make religion a competition (a solo sport: me and the law), and I’m energized. I love doing everything right.
The issue with this mindset is that it misses the target altogether while still checking the “right” boxes. Sanctification is not another ladder to climb. It is not a medal around your neck or points on a scoreboard. Sanctification is a Person who transfixes, opposes, comforts, lifts and changes you. Yes, you are involved, choosing a relationship with Him. But, no, you are not the one doing the miracles.
This shift from performance-mode to relationship-mode will change your understanding of that impossible checklist you like to think you’ve got covered: the law. The law is not just a list of rules; it’s the first act in a three-part revelation of who God is.
In the first act, the law put God’s heart into words. Then, in the second act, Christ put those words into a body, living them out as a human (John 1:14). Finally, in the third act, Christ is putting Himself, the embodiment of the law, into our own hearts (Jeremiah 31:33), and soon the redemption will be complete — God’s character displayed through thousands for the joy of the entire universe.
Let this reality be the backdrop of your holiness. Look for Christ in your every act of obedience. Find Him in every command. He is there in each of your experiences as a Christian. In your sin — He is there, covering it. In your victory — He is there, giving it. You must learn to see Christ in the law and the law in Christ. As someone who loves doing the right thing, you are already accustomed to letting the law reveal your sin (so that you can get to work). Now you must let it reveal Christ. And then let Christ remove the sin it uncovers.
As Jonathan Edwards once said, “You contribute nothing to your salvation except the sin that made it necessary.” So bring your sin to Christ — there is no glory in that exchange except that He takes it from you — and then let your boast be in the Lord only. (I Cor. 1:31)
Editor’s Note: Have perplexities about Christian living? I’m eager to join the conversation. Send any questions to email@example.com. Your question may be published anonymously in an upcoming issue along with my response.