How Christians Change (Part 1)

Sanctification. There, I said it. For some, that word is a doorway into a controversial topic. For others, that word is totally new. Either way, when we talk about sanctification we are talking about our Christian lives. We are talking about the hour to hour, day to day, year to year. We are talking about our character, sin, struggles, victories, defeats, growth, disappointments, highs, and lows. And perhaps surprising to some, we must talk a lot about Jesus and the Gospel when we talk about sanctification.

Whether you know it or not, if you are a Christian, you already have views on what sanctification is and how it happens. Even if you are not a Christian, my bet is you care a lot about similar realities such as growing, changing, and becoming a better person. We all care about our lives and what we are like to some degree. As Christians, we care about loving God and loving others, we are bothered by our sin, so we care about sanctification.

So, what should we expect in the Christian life? What does sanctification look, taste, and feel like? First, let’s cover some major misconceptions about sanctification. Then, let’s dip our toes in the waters of what the Bible says about sanctification.

As Jeff Hatton of Redeemer Presbyterian in Waco helpfully categorizes, there are two classic misconceptions about sanctification we need to avoid. First, there is what is called “antinomianism”. Antinomianism simply means to be against the law; in this context, we mean against God’s law. This view basically says sanctification really isn’t a “thing”. Christians don’t really grow, change, obey God, or do good works. At a minimum, it says even if Christians can grow and change, it does not matter that they do. Antinomianism is against the Law. It says growth in the Christian life is not real or, at least, does not matter.

The opposite extreme says that in this life a Christian can live in sinless perfection. With enough hard work and straining, you can live above and outside of all sin. In one sense, this view thinks the Christian already is perfect in themselves and they just need to walk carefully to not fall into any sin. In this view, sin is seen as something scare and rare in the Christian life, something that really comes to us from outside of ourselves, something we can totally avoid as we live sinless, perfect lives. This view is usually tied to the idea that sanctification is in a significant way, up to us. The Christian is self-reliant to a significant degree as he or she keeps himself or herself out of sin. We can call this a moralistic view of sanctification.

Both of these views totally miss the mark on sanctification. Not only do they miss the mark concerning what the Bible teaches, which we will get to, they also miss the mark concerning what is our obvious experience. Antinomianism essentially says we are not sanctified at all or, at least, it does not matter. But is that really your experience? The very fact that you are bothered by your sin is evidence of sanctification occuring in your life. Think about it: when you became a Christian, isn’t it true that you suddenly had new desires towards holiness? New desires to fight sin and do good? New desires to love God and love your neighbor?

On the other side, moralism says we are sanctified far more than we are. Again, is that really your experience? If we’re honest, isn’t our experience in the Christian life far more tragic? Don’t we sin far more than we’d care to admit? Don’t we surprise ourselves with sin we thought we defeated long ago? Don’t we still see sin in the depths of hearts?

It is important to stop and see what is so devastating about not understanding what the Bible says about sanctification. When you miss the mark, you will not be able to understand yourself. You will not be able to process why you still sin when you are told you should live in sinless perfection (moralism). You will not understand why you desire to be holy but are told holiness does not matter (antinomianism). You will not know what to expect in your life. When we miss the mark on sanctification, welcome to a roller coaster Christian life of confusion, depression, extreme highs, and shocking lows.

Thankfully, the Bible is stunningly honest about what we should expect in our Christian lives. God wants us to know what to expect and how to think about it all. Perhaps the first place we should start in our thinking is Romans 6. Very quickly Romans 6 begins to obliterate our misconceptions about sanctification, giving us relief, clarity, and joy.

In Romans 6 Paul raises a question that was probably an accusation against him. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Rom. 6:1). In other words, “OK, Paul, so if we are saved by grace, and our sin doesn’t get in the way of God’s acceptance of us, should we just ‘continue in sin’?” Now, in response to this question we would expect Paul to say something like, “Of course not. You must work hard to free yourself from all sin. Here is a 10-step process to attain freedom and sinless-perfection.” Perhaps the antinomian expects Paul to say, “Sure. Whatever. Who cares.” But we get none of that. We read something surprising.

In response Paul writes, “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”

In other words, Paul points back to the power of the Gospel saying that those justified by grace cannot possibly continue in sin because the grace of God has freed us from sin. The Gospel not only justified you but has begun sanctifying you. Through faith, you have died to sin and are now alive in Christ. How could someone dead to sin continue under its dominion? How could someone united to Christ live as a slave to darkness?

Sanctification is not a non-existent reality (like the antinomian believes). The moment we are united to Christ by faith, we are sanctified beyond our wildest dreams, freed from the chains of darkness and sin. And sanctification is also not a self-reliant moralistic reality. Paul does not go on a tirade about working hard, focusing on yourself, and making sure you sanctify yourself. He says that God has already, without your awareness or striving or working, begun sanctifying you. This is an altogether different gospel-way of sanctification.

So, good news weary Christian who thinks sin is eating your lunch: sanctification is well under way and God is in charge. For now, rest in that reality. In upcoming posts we will continue to address the ongoing nature of sanctification and God’s role in it.