Please tell me I am not the only one who feels this way. It’s tough enough to realize that, after all these years of being a Christian, that I may know more stuff, be able to parse the Bible in its original Greek and Hebrew, discuss in detail various schools of theology, and lay out in bullet points numerous techniques for prayer and meditation, and yet feel like I am still basically the same person I was 25 years ago, better in all too few areas, the same in way too many other areas, and, yes, worse in others. Am I alone in this?
Anyone familiar with the church knows that there is far too much sin in its ranks and far too little holiness. And I read the prophets’ frustration with Israel, that after hundreds of years of being God’s Chosen Ones, given the advantages of God’s presence, protection, and written instructions from Sinai, they are still no different than the nations in their devotion to God and their treatment of the weakest. And I read Paul’s letters to the churches and the immorality that apparently was rampant in them, and it’s clear that this is not a new problem. So much time, so little to show for it.
“It’s a process,” we’re told. “It takes time.” Why? Why does it take time? God spoke, and light appeared. Light is both wave and particle, and nothing is faster than light, and God created it in an instant. But making me holy takes time? That’s harder than creating light? Really?
In 1 Corinthians 5 and 6, Paul is dealing with the Corinthians about immorality in their church—and he emphasizes that he’s talking about immorality among Christians in the church, not the pagans outside the church. He’s talking about some bad stuff, too: fornication, adultery, idolatry, slander, theft. And he says, “And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”
Note the passive voice: you were washed, were sanctified, were justified. See? It’s the Spirit’s work in us. Yet it’s clear both in the context of chapters 5-6 and in the entire letter that Paul holds the Corinthians accountable for their immorality and holiness and for tolerating it among themselves. How can you hold someone accountable for something that they are not responsible for?
Unless they are. Responsible. For their sin. For their unholiness. And if you are responsible for your unholiness, that means you are responsible for your holiness. Your sanctification.
Oh. No wonder it takes so long. No wonder I’ve so little to show for it.
So sanctification isn’t the work of the Holy Spirit? Of course it is. But love isn’t coercive, it’s persuasive. God doesn’t force things on us without our consent and our cooperation, even good things. He just won’t. Sanctification is something we can’t do without the Holy Spirit, but he won’t do it without us.
And you know what? It’s hard. I mean, it’s really hard. Sometimes I think it really would be easier to create light. Old habits die hard, new habits come harder. Old ways of thinking die hard, and new ways of thinking don’t come without pain, even trauma. But it should be hard. The best things usually involve hard work. Marriage is hard, parenting is hard, being church is hard, being a Christian is hard. But they are all worth it.
And you know what else? God ultimately gets what he wants, and he wants our holiness, so he’s going to see this through to the end. As Paul says in Philippians 1:6, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”