The way many of us think about sanctification is, well, not very sanctified. In fact, it’s downright narcissistic. We thinking about how we’re doing, if we’re growing, whether we’re doing it right or not. We spend too much time brooding over our failures and reflecting on our successes. We seem to believe that the focus of the Christian faith is the life of the Christian.
Reflecting this common assumption, someone who was frustrated with something I had written said to me not long ago, “Don’t you know that the focus of the New Testament is the personal holiness of the Christian?”
What? Seriously? To keep calm, I replayed Mr. Miyagi in my head, “Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out …”
The truth is, we spend way too much time thinking about ourselves, and we justify this spiritualized navel-gazing by reasoning that this is what God wants us to be doing.
There is nothing in the gospel that encourages us to focus on ourselves. Nothing! It’s never honoring to God when we take our eyes off of Christ. Never! In fact, the whole point of the gospel is to get us out of ourselves and to “fix our eyes on Christ” (Heb. 12:2). The truest measure of Christian growth, therefore, is when we stop spiritually rationalizing the reasons why we’re taking our eyes off of Jesus to focus on ourselves.
It’s sin that turns us inward. The gospel turns us outward. Martin Luther argued that sin actually bends or curves us in on ourselves. Any version of “the gospel,” therefore, that places you at the center is detrimental to your faith—whether it’s your failures or your successes, your good works or bad works, your strengths or weaknesses, your obedience or disobedience.
Ironically, I’ve discovered that the more I focus on my need to get better, the worse I actually get. I become self-absorbed, the exact opposite of how the Bible describes what it means to be sanctified. Sanctification is forgetting about you. When we spend more time thinking about ourselves and how we’re doing than we do about Jesus and what he’s done, we shrink. As J.C. Kromsigt wrote, “The good seed cannot flourish when it is repeatedly dug up for the purpose of examining its growth.”
Maturity is not becoming stronger and stronger, more and more competent. Christian growth is marked by a growing realization of just how weak and incompetent we are, and how strong and competent Jesus is on our behalf. Spiritual maturity is not our growing independence. Rather, it’s our growing dependence on Christ. Remember, the apostle Paul referred to himself as the “least of all the saints” (Eph. 3:8) and the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15), and this was at the end of his life!
For Paul, spiritual growth was realizing how utterly dependent we are on Christ’s cross and mercy. It’s not arriving at some point where we need Jesus less because we’re getting better and better. Paradoxically, Paul’s ability to freely admit his lack of sanctification demonstrated just how sanctified he was.
Here’s my point: when we stop focusing on our need to get better, that’s what it means to get better. Stop obsessing over your need to improve, and that is improvement!
The focus of the Bible is not the work of the redeemed but the work of the Redeemer. The Good News is his victory for us, not our “victorious Christian life.” The gospel declares that God’s final word over Christians has already been spoken: “Paid in full.” Therefore, we now live with confidence that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
I love the story of the old pastor who, on his deathbed, told his wife that he was certain he was going to heaven because he couldn’t remember one truly good work he had ever done.
He got it.