With the New Year approaching us, many of us are preparing to make resolutions for this coming year which we think will make us better people. There is something about replacing the calendar on the wall that speaks to us of a fresh start. It feels like the slate of the past year has been wiped clean for endless (and better) possibilities in the coming year. The truth of the matter is that the changing of calendars and the arrival of a new year is no different from one day turning to the next. The troubles of today are not swept away by the arrival of tomorrow.
The Christian knows of new beginnings quite intimately. At one time we were walking in the kingdom of darkness, but God transferred us into the kingdom of light. We know new beginnings well; we know what it is like to have our slate wiped clean; we know what it is like to have hope after walking in hopelessness, so we know why people love to cling to the idea of a new year. But the Christian also knows that they do not need any more new beginnings. They do not need to have another fresh outlook on life or another transfer from darkness to light.
This is where we need to be reminded of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Christian, having walked through the gate on the road to the Celestial City, did not need to re-enter it after falling in the Slough of Despond or after being taken captive by Giant Despair. He did not need a fresh start, but rather he needed to continue on his journey.
The Pilgrim’s Progress is a brilliant allegory of the Christian life because John Bunyan had a deep understanding of what it meant to be a Christian. He knew that it was a long road filled with many difficulties. He understood that progressing in our Christian lives meant that we must press on, not start over every time we made a mistake or traveled for some time in the opposite direction. The Pilgrim’s Progress is a valuable definition of progressive sanctification.
For many Christians, big theological words like sanctification sometimes hinder our understanding more than they help. But sanctification is a necessary word because it carries a lot more truth than many small, easy words can handle. Sanctification, simply put, is God’s work in the Christian’s life to make them more like Christ in righteousness and holiness. It is our spiritual growth. To place the word “progressive” before sanctification helps to define the work which God carries out. Our maturity in Christ is a process which happens over the course of our lives. We never reach perfection in this life – which is intended to make us long ever so more for the next life – but that is no argument against growth in Christ. God has seen it fit to glorify Himself in us by gradually conforming us into the image of Christ. Progressive sanctification is the reality for every Christian, and it should cause us to look at the New Year in a different light.
What Does Progressive Sanctification Mean for Me?
Depending on how you view sanctification, it can be a most joyous truth, or it can be a depressing reality. Because of our Western culture, we are prone to view sanctification in a way that leads us to despair more than it leads to joy. The capitalistic idea that the harder you work, the better the results is not found in the gospel. The idea does not work with Christianity. In fact, it is an anti-gospel when it is applied to the Christian life. Paul reprimands a church for believing such an idea (Gal 1:6-10). Instead, sanctification is God’s work. The Bible will tell us over and over that God is more interested in our spiritual growth than we often are. It was His plan before the world was made (Rom 8:29); it is His work in us and not our work that brings it to pass (Eph 2:10, Phil 2:12, 13); and He is committed to bringing it to completion (Phil 1:6). What a freeing and joyous thought that our sanctification is in willing and capable hands!
Before we go too far, sanctification is also not a socialistic idea – someone else does all the work, and we do nothing. Just because sanctification primarily is God’s work in us does not mean that we are uninvolved and not responsible for it. We are called to action (Phil 2:12), but that action is not going to be effective unless God, by His grace and mercy, acts (Phil 2:13). We are responsible for holy living because God commands us to live holy lives. The commands of God make us responsible, and it is on us to be holy. But there is a problem, if all we have to rely on is our ability, we will always fail.
"[W]ork out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." Philippians 2:12-13 ESV
“Wait,” you may say, “if I cannot do it, why am I responsible?” The answer is simple. Your sinfulness makes you unable, and the command of God makes you responsible. It is only by the grace of God that you are made able. And so it is the understanding of our sinfulness that should cause us to throw ourselves upon the mercy of God that we might receive grace. Progressive sanctification will have us praying as Augustine prayed, “O Lord, everything good in me is due to you. The rest is my fault.”
The reason sanctification is a progress carried out by the grace of God is so no one can boast in themselves (1 Cor 1:31). The Christian life is all for the praise God’s glorious grace (Eph 1:6, 12, 14). There must never be a proud Christian, for that is a contradiction in terms. God desires that He receives all the glory in our lives, and that includes our Christian growth.
Progressive Sanctification and the New Year
As we go into the New Year, we must enter it with the understanding that it is only another step on the road of sanctification. Just as each day, each week, each month are all steps along the pilgrim path, so is the turning of a year. We do not look for a new beginning, but we must use it, just as we should every day, as a time of introspection. Let us use this time to inspect the areas in which we fall short and seek the help of the Holy Spirit to sanctify us.
We must walk into this new year with confidence knowing that “He who began a good work in [us] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6). As the date on the calendar changes, think on the beautiful promise we find in Jude’s Benediction:
“Now unto Him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.”