Avoiding "Easy Believism" and Other Spiritual-Growth Formulas
If you walk into a modern Christian bookstore or make your way through the Christian blogosphere, it is a guarantee that you will encounter the subject of sanctification more often than any other topic. Of course, it won’t be labelled as such seeing as sanctification is an uncommon word in our modern Christian vocabulary. But, the idea will be present. It will appear in the form of “Christian living,” “spiritual growth,” or even “self-help.” The reason this is the case is quite understandable: most of the Christian life is lived in the sphere of sanctification.
Here’s the trouble: we would save ourselves a lot of pain if we simply avoid most of what is offered us. Most of the ideas offered are, in fact, unbiblical. For starters, the large majority of these resources are simply self-help, differing little from any secular resource on the subject. We could very well conclude that the Christian version is much worse than the secular since any sort of self-help formula for spiritual growth in the Christian religion is simply pharisaical exertion—worth nothing in the end.
There is a mushy middle that the wise will discard. This is the “5 Steps To a Better You” kind of sanctification. It is mushy for the reason that some of the steps may be beneficial to an extent, but the whole of it unprofitable; it is too easy, yet too difficult—easy to understand, impossible to carry out in full. Often, it is marketed as a simple task to carry out: “If you believe this certain idea, your whole life will be transformed immediately.” What is forgotten is that the real enemy is not simply a failure to believe something or form certain habits, but it is the complexities of indwelling sin.
Our sin dupes us into acquiring a complacent mentality that views it as something small and insignificant, easily defeated. Particularly in modern western culture, sin is seen as an inconvenience on the pathway to our hopes and dreams. We have fallen for sin’s ploy, hook, line and sinker, and so our course is incorrectly set for how we as believers will address our indwelling sin.
Sinclair Ferguson diagnoses this problem in his book, Devoted to God:
“Many young believers are shocked to discover that indwelling sin seems to be like an onion in the soul; the unravelling of one layer simply reveals the next—on and on continue the painful revelations of our sinfulness. It is then all too easy for false teachers to come along and say, as they still do, ‘Are you disappointed with what you have experienced? There is a formula available that will deliver you.’”
The conclusion is simple: a faulty understanding of sin will lead us to deal with both it and our remedy against it in a wrong manner. For instance, we start on the wrong foot when we define sin according to our experience of it. Regardless of how correct our definition according to this approach is, we will always turn to a practical and tangible solution. We will fight experience with experience. This would work if sin was simply confined to its physical manifestation, but it is not. Sin resides deep in the heart of our being.
Therefore, our only recourse is to take a path few travel. We do not follow a few steps, believe a certain idea or truth, or take matters into our own hands. Instead, we ask soul piercing questions. Does my remedy defeat not only the manifestation of sin but the sinful motivations of my heart? Is it Christ-centered? Are my affections and my devotion for Christ increased by it?
We are most attracted to the flash and brilliance of the tangible solutions that many give. However, they prove to be ineffective over the course of time. We inevitably waste our time with insignificant methods simply because they look like they will deliver the desired results quickly. For mature believers, the attractiveness of these quick fixes has faded because they see a better, enduring method of fighting sin and growing in holiness. They see the tried and true methods of reading and studying Scripture, sitting often under the teaching of Scripture, prayer, faithfulness to their local church body, and the lifelong commitment to repentance as the way to sure growth. These methods may appear boring and old, but they are effective—indeed, more effective than all the modern approaches put together.
Why? Because these are prescribed in Scripture. These are the ordinary means of grace where God most readily visits His own with power and mercy. In the end, we find that there is no easy route to killing sin, nor do we reach perfection in this lifetime. Let us, then, press on in the reliable “methods” God has given us for life and godliness.