Have you ever felt like sanctification is too slow? I have. This is a common (and healthy) tension. For on the one hand, yes, God hates sin and we are called to live holy lives. On the other hand, no Christians on earth are completely free from the old self.
But there are some pitfalls here—some unhealthy places this tension can take us. Despair, frustration, and giving up are temptations we all feel from time to time. How can we avoid these traps? The best way is to focus on God’s role in sanctification.
The Temptation to Despair
God is not trying to lead us to despair. Sanctification is often a painfully slow process. I have grown impatient as I appear to be “left in my sin” with little to no evidence of growing holiness in my life. “I thought God hated sin,” I might say, “so why doesn’t he get rid of it?” I am aware of my blindness, but I don’t see any evidence of spiritual growth. But I’m superimposing my plan over and against God’s plan, as if to say “it would obviously be better if…” and failing to take the time to be still and know that he is God (Psalm 46:10).
This despair can undermine our assurance of salvation. “Am I truly saved at all?” My only recourse is to trust, despite not seeing, that Christ is at work (Philippians 1:6) and, for some reason, taking his own sweet time. We were never saved because we were good. Remember, sanctification is founded in Christ and his obedience, not us and our weakness.
The Temptation to Frustration
God’s slowness can also become frustration, which is a pride issue. Often this is less about how slowly God works in us and more about how slowly God seemingly works in others. “Our country is going down the tubes. If only Christians in this country would…[fill in the blank]” or “my church would give more money if they actually believed what they say they believe.” Do other Christians need to work out their salvation? Yes (Philippians 2:12). But we can take it too far and become critical of the work of God himself. Again, this is an overemphasis on humanity’s role in sanctification and implies that people are hindering God. Nope, sorry. Doesn’t work like that.
We are assured that Christ will bring his work to completion (Philippians 1:6) in his time. Becoming frustrated or angry puts my plans ahead of God’s and is unloving to the church. Everything is on track, and we are to “count the patience of our Lord as salvation” (2 Peter 3:15), realizing that he is still building his kingdom (Matthew 16:18)!
The Temptation to Indulgence
Unfortunately, God’s patience can also manifest in ungodly indulgence. This is a particularly dangerous pitfall which twists the patience of our Lord into permission to sin. “Oops, I guess that was just a bit of the old self” or “no one is perfect.” This is obviously wrong when I say it, for it presumes upon the sacrificial work of Christ (Romans 2:4). Nevertheless, it can creep into my life in more subtle ways, such as with a particular sin or for a particular season of life. And it creeps in so easily because it has a grain of truth to it. Yes, we will always struggle with sin on this side of eternity, and yes, in his divine purpose God has allowed sin to persist in believers.
But, a believing heart will never be comfortable with sin again (Ephesians 4:22–24). The struggle must continue. This is key; a believer may struggle with recurring sin for the rest of their life, and the sin itself may look identical to that of an unbeliever, but the Spirit of God will never abandon the believer to feel at home in sin (John 16:7–11). A believer with a new heart takes after the character of God, and God hates sin (Romans 6:11).
What is Truly Valuable
So when our sanctification seems slow, it may be because we still have a lot to learn about what is valuable to Christ. We can become obsessed with a particular sin while Christ has bigger fish to fry. He may be working in us on a more fundamental level.
And the kingdom of heaven is not about you. It includes you, but it’s not all about you. So cultivate a heart of gratitude that you are included, and the fruit will be selfless love and service to others, without regard to their degree of sanctification.
Finally, know that there is a fire in you. The Spirit is alive and active in tectonic (powerful but often invisible) ways. Consider that the Scriptures make sense to you, you’re convicted of your sin, you are interceded for, works are prepared for you (and you for them), prayer to the Father is open to you in Christ, and a peace which passes understanding is yours.
When we seek to understand what is valuable to the kingdom of heaven, we start to see more and more of the beautiful work of Christ all around us and in us. Soon there is no room for despair because we see the fingerprints of God in our lives. A growing love for God’s people prevents our self-righteous frustration as we celebrate the small victories and realize they’re not that small after all. And we find that the new self takes on new life, caught up and pulled along by the hope and excitement of the gospel, leaving behind the old self where sulking in sin simply makes no sense anymore.