The Long Road to Maturity
In recent times, my family's dog became somewhat mischievous. He had just grown out of his puppy stage when he began the habit of running to the neighbor's house. We live in a rural setting and have a large enough yard for him to get plenty of exercise, but he had his sights set on living at our neighbor's. We would drive there, pick him up, drive home, and as he got out of the vehicle, he would be dead set on returning back regardless of how loud we called for him to return. It also seemed as if he could find his way there, but have no clue how to get home. This was clearly frustrating. He was our dog, not our neighbor's.
Say we replayed this scenario but replaced the dog with a person, the neighbor's place with sin, and my family as you, a good friend or counselor of this person. How would you react to this person? No matter how well you treated them, disregarding the goodness of a pure life, they were dead set on returning to their sin. What would your attitude concerning them be?
The consensus by some in our household was to rid ourselves of this nuisance and get another dog. It didn't seem right having him tied up, unable to expend his seemingly endless energy. Every time we would let him loose for a bit to get some exercise, back to our neighbors he went. We could be outside, playing with him, and he would suddenly turn and head full speed in the direction of our neighbor's house. He simply wouldn't stay home on his own. I persuaded the others that with patience, time, and energy, we could train him to stay home.
My plan was to keep him tied up as much as possible, not giving in to the soft feelings for him so that he would get in the habit of staying in the yard. Then, I made sure to observe him as we let him off the leash for short amounts of time, immediately going after him when he ran off in order to bring him home and tie him up for a while again. This scene would play over and over. After some time, we let him off the leash for what we thought would be a short while, and he finally stayed home. We went about our business not paying attention to him, and when we returned outside, he was still there. Now the general consensus in the household is that we have a good dog worth keeping.
How often is our perspective of an erring person the same as our household's perspective of our erring dog? When they stray, not listening to advice, nor heeding any warnings, we have no use for them. We cast them aside as a hopeless case. We draw ourselves away from them to avoid an unnecessary exertion of energy and testing of patience. However, when they return back to the fold, we act as though they were never gone.
This is not the Christian way. It shows that we have a poor understanding of the gospel. We have, like the Galatians, adopted another gospel that is not the gospel. When we act in such a way, we display that we believe our righteousness is gained by our works, and that our trouble with maturing in the faith is something that often frustrates God.
In our sanctification – that is our maturing in Christ – we find that the gospel is not only for the entrance into faith but also the keeping of faith. The gospel not only saves us, but it works to change us all the way to the day we reach glory. It is not a one-time announcement, but a lifelong message. In our sanctification process, we see most clearly whether we have the gospel right, or whether we have it wrong. How we approach growth in holiness displays our understanding of the gospel.
Let's change the scenario once more. We'll replace our dog with you, the neighbor's place with sin, and our household with God. How does God treat His erring child?
Does He sit, grumbling about our habit of sin, wishing to get rid of us? If so, the onus is on us to change. We must stop running to sin for God to be pleased with us. Our natural inclination, then, is to find the thing that works the quickest. We don't care if it's the right thing, we just care that it works. We need Him to be pleased with us again. But it rarely works perfectly, and never works universally. Furthermore, we are still sinning, for we are trying to appease a holy and just God by our works. This is not the gospel.
In the gospel, we find a patient God, willing to go to extended measures so that we stop running to sin. He is the shepherd who leaves the 99 to seek for the one who is lost (Luke 11:3-7). He is the one who seeks for the lost coin until he finds it (Luke 15:8-10). He is the father, patient with his erring son (Luke 15:11-32). He is not waiting for us to change. He is the one who has saved us by His will and power alone, and it is He who will see to our spiritual growth. God is willing to go to great lengths, taking us into deep valleys we never intended to travel, all for the purpose of killing our attachment to sin.
We are not inactive in all this. We experience the pains of trials, and we feel the strain of the test of patience. Our minds must also be constantly renewed by Scripture, and we must fend off the opinions of man (2 Cor. 10:3-6). We are to flee sinful passions and resist the lies of Satan. Pressing on towards Christ is our race to run, and His mind of humility is ours to wear. Yet all these things are not possible unless God is patiently working on us.
Perfection will never be reached in this life, but that does not mean it cannot be the goal. As R.C. Sproul once put it, "The saints of Scripture were called saints not because they were already pure but that they were people who were set apart and called to purity." Though we waver and falter, often heading back towards sin, God is patient with us, working in us to bring us to perfection. In the gospel, we find a God that is not easily frustrated by our failures to conform to the image of Christ.
How must we treat our fellow brothers and sisters who keep running back to sin? Are we to show them a frustrated God who needs them to hurry up and get with the program, or do we show them a God that is patiently and graciously working and bringing them to Himself? In order to display the proper answer, our patience will be tested, and our energy depleted. Yet this is what we are called to do. Other’s burdens don’t disappear the moment they are placed on our shoulders. Their ability to sin doesn’t go away the moment they overcome their present habit of sin. Love, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are our proper gospel response to erring brothers and sisters.
 Sproul, R.C. The Holiness of God. Tyndale House Publishers Inc., 1998. pg. 191