God wants us to be holy (1 Thess. 4:3). That’s a truth that is pretty well known in Christian circles. But how exactly do we grow in holiness?
In theory, we’re probably pretty united on this point: we become more holy as God’s grace works in our hearts and transforms our lives. But in practice, we tend to make a fatal mistake in our pursuit of sanctification: we try to sanctify ourselves. In part, this means that we try to grow through our own effort. But it also means that we try to grow through our own strategies.
We have all tried sanctification strategies: holding one another accountable, surfing the internet under the supervision of Christian software, governing our relationships by strict rules and guidelines, pursuing discipline through strict scheduling, etc. Let me be clear that all of these things can be extremely helpful. They may well aid our sanctification. But none of these things (nor any combination thereof) will create holiness in our hearts and lives.
“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:20-23)
All of our strategies for sanctification focus on “human precepts and teachings.” Some even include “asceticism and severity to the body.” But Paul is clear: “they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”
The gospel is all about God’s grace, not our hard work. This is as true in sanctification as it is in salvation. Tim Chester says that our efforts to sanctify ourselves are more than ineffective—they’re destructive:
“We become Christians by faith in Jesus, we stay Christians by faith in Jesus, and we grow as Christians by faith in Jesus…It’s not just that trying to live by laws and disciplines is useless—it’s a backwards step. It’s a step back into slavery, which ends up undermining grace and hope.” (You Can Change, 43-44)
Ultimately, only the gospel can rid us of the sin in our lives. John actually says that through the gospel, God pardons our sin (1 John 1:8-9). In Christ, we have an advocate who takes away our sin (1 John 2:1-2). We can go through counseling, hold each other accountable, and discipline ourselves in order to manage the sin that pops up in our lives. But no other method, strategy, or therapy can actually deal with sin.
This realization doesn’t make sanctification easy. But it does show us where hope lies. Hope has only ever been found in the grace of God. Through His Spirit we can expect to grow in our battle against sin. It will take us a lifetime, and we will fail continually, but the gospel ensures our ultimate victory.