Spiritual Growth is Work
My good friend Kevin DeYoung recently blogged about the need to "make every effort" in the Christian life. He rightly noted that effort is not a 'four-letter word' and that throughout the New Testament we are told that growth in godliness requires exertion. He writes:
It is the consistent witness of the New Testament that growth in godliness requires exertion on the part of the Christian. Romans 8:13 says by the Spirit we must put to death the deeds of the flesh. Ephesians 4:22 instructs us to put off the old self and put on the new. Ephesians 6 tells us to put on the full armor of God and stand fast against the devil. colossians 3:5 commands us to put to death what is earthly in us. 1 Timothy 1:12 urges us to fight the good fight. Luke 13:24exhorts us to strive to enter the narrow gate.
Kevin rightly affirms the fact that the Christian life is not effortless-"let go and let God" is not biblical. Sanctification is not passive but active. My concern here is to add to what Kevin wrote and identify the direction of our effort.
There is no question that Christian's are to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12) and that the sanctification process will be both bloody and sweaty. After all, daily Christian living is daily Christian dying. Jesus likened the pain of Christian growth to "gouging out an eye" and "cutting off a hand"-indicating that growth in godliness requires parting with things we initially think we can't do without.
There does seem to be some question, though, with regard to the nature and direction of our efforts. And at the heart of this question is the relationship between justification and sanctification.
Many conclude that justification is step one and that sanctification is step two and that once we get to step two there's no reason to go back to step one. Sanctification, in other words, is commonly understood as progress beyond the initial step of justification. But while justification and sanctification are to be clearly separated theologically, the Bible won't allow us to separate them essentially and functionally. For example, citing 2 Peter 1:5, Kevin refers to the list of character traits that mark a Christian-faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love. Notice, though, what Peter goes on to say in 2 Peter 2:9:
For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.
In her book because he loves me, Elyse Fitzpatrick rightly says:
One reason we don't grow in ordinary, grateful obedience as we should is that we've got amnesia; we've forgotten that we are cleansed from our sins. In other words, ongoing failure in our growth is the direct result of failing to remember God's love for us in the gospel. If we fail to remember our justification, redemption, and reconciliation, we'll struggle in our sanctification.
In other words, remembering, revisiting, and rediscovering the reality of our justification every day is the hard work we're called to do if we're going to grow.
Similarly, in Colossians 1:9 Paul says: You will grow in your understanding of God's will, be filled with spiritual wisdom and understanding, increase in your knowledge of God, be strengthened with God's power which will produce joy filled patience and endurance (v.9-12a) as you come to a greater realization that you've already been qualified, delivered, transferred, redeemed, and forgiven (v.12b-14).
Sanctification is a grueling process. But it's NOT the process of moving beyond the reality of our justification but rather moving deeper into the reality of our justification. If sanctification could be likened to our responsibility to swim, justification is the pool we swim in. Sanctification is the hard work of going back to the certainty of our already secured pardon in Christ and hitting the refresh button over and over.
A couple chapters after Peter exhorts us to "make every effort" he succinctly describes growth in 2 Peter 2:18 by saying, "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." Growth always happens "in grace." In other words, the truest measure of our growth is not our behavior (otherwise the Pharisees would have been the godliest people on the planet); it's our grasp of grace-a grasp which involves coming to deeper and deeper terms with the unconditionality of God's justifying grace. It's also growth in "the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." This doesn't simply mean learning facts about Jesus. It means growing in our love for Christ because of what he has already earned and secured for us and then fighting to live in a more vital awareness of that grace.
The reason this is such an important theme in the New Testament is because every temptation to sin (going all the way back to the Garden of Eden) is a temptation to disbelieve the gospel-the temptation to secure for myself in that moment something I think I need in order to be happy, something I don't yet have: meaning, freedom, validation, cleansing, forgiveness, a sense of identity, worth, value and so on. Bad behavior, therefore, happens when we fail to believe that everything I need, in Christ I already have; it happens when we fail to believe in the rich provisional resources that are already ours in the gospel. Conversely, good behavior happens when we daily rest in and receive Christ's "It is finished" into our rebellious regions of unbelief (what one writer calls "our unevangelized territories") smashing any sense of a self-aggrandizing and narcissistic need to secure for ourselves anything beyond what Christ has already secured for us.
Justification alone kills all of our self-salvation projects that fuel all of our bad behavior and moral failures (Read Romans 6:1).
So, going back to Philippians 2:12, when Paul tells us to "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" he's making it clear that we've got work to do—but what exactly is the work? He goes on to explain: "For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (2:13). As is often, and rightly, said: We work out what God has worked in. Well, what has God worked in and what are we therefore to work out? God works his work in you—which is the work already accomplished by Christ. Christ's subjective work in us is his constantly driving us back to the reality of his objective work for us. Sanctification feeds on justification, not the other way around. This is why in his Lectures on Romans Martin Luther wrote, "To progress is always to begin again." Real spiritual progress, in other words, requires a daily going backwards.
Sanctification involves God's attack on our unbelief—our self-centered refusal to believe that God's approval of us in Christ is full and final. It happens as we daily fight (with blood, sweat, and tears-"making every effort") to receive and rest in our unconditional justification. As G. C. Berkouwer said, "The heart of sanctification is the life which feeds on justification."
It is in this context that I've said before how sanctification is the hard work of getting used to our justification. Sanctification, as someone once put it, is not something added to justification. It is, rather, the justified life.
So let's make every effort. Let's work. But let's not make the mistake of thinking that the hard work is anything smaller than daily going back to reality of our justification, allowing it to kill our self-centered unbelief (which is the root of all sin) over and over and over again.
william graham tullian tchividjian (pronounced cha-vi-jin) is the Senior Pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. A Florida native, he is a visiting professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary and a grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham. Tullian was the founding pastor of the former New City Church which merged with Coral Ridge in April of 2009. A graduate of Columbia International University (philosophy) and Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando (M.Div.), Tullian is the author of The Kingdom of God: A Primer on the Christian Life (Banner of Truth), Do I Know God? Finding Certainty in Life's Most Important Relationship (Multnomah), Unfashionable: Making a Difference in the World by Being Different (Multnomah) and, most recently, Surprised by Grace: God's Relentless Pursuit of Rebels (Crossway).