I had the chance to visit Puerto Rico recently for vacation, and you can’t go there without checking out the El Yunque rainforest. I was stunned by God’s creation, but what I didn’t expect was for him to reveal a picture that came to mind as I passed by this one tree. On the tree was a large snail, slowly moving along the trunk. Then I was reminded that the Christian life looks much like that in a metaphor. Not in the sense that you are a snail “climbing” your way up to God, but more so in the sense that the process of becoming like Christ is slow, yet God is faithful until the end. The tree trunk was like a picture of God upholding and sustaining that slow moving snail.
God reminded me that I have been assuming sanctification (or being made more like Jesus) in a way that I want it to be, instead of trusting that he knows what he’s doing. We don’t become like Jesus in the blink of an eye, even though once we have placed faith in Jesus, we are justified in the sight of God. Justification is a complete and finished act, but sanctification is a slow progressive process that happens in our lives until we are with Jesus. Somehow I have mixed the two up or started to believe that sanctification should work more like justification– a one and done type deal. That is just not the reality of the Christian life. Think about it–if God made us completely perfect the moment he saved us, we wouldn’t need to depend on him. And we wouldn’t glory in the cross, we would glory in ourselves.
I remember the pastor at my old church often saying that we tend to think God isn’t pleased with us now, but he will be pleased with the future version of us 10 years from now. But God has outed us by sending Jesus to the cross, which means he’s pleased with us in Christ now. It’s not contingent on who I become, but who Christ is on my behalf. But when I have a skewed view of how God sees me, I tend to want to speed up the process and do rather than be. Hebrews 10:14 shows how you don’t have justification or sanctification without the other: “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” The single offering is Christ giving up his life so that those who trust in him are justified once for all (Romans 6:10, 1 Peter 3:18). But what I really love about this verse is that a process of being made into the image of Christ goes hand in hand with the once for all death and resurrection that Christ did on our behalf. The justification before God that we now have through Jesus has led to a process of change. Nothing else can create an inward change in our hearts apart from Jesus. As we look to Jesus, we start to become who we already are in him.
So the following two things are where I feel I am being pulled, but I am grateful for a sovereign God who reminds me that these two ways of thinking (though I often think them) aren’t where my thoughts need to stay:
1). I get frustrated because I compare myself to previous seasons of life where I felt close to God and when I fall into an old pattern, I think I am backsliding.
2). I get frustrated because I compare to where others are at and get discouraged if I don’t “measure up”.
Those two things above are where I find my mind drifting, but thankfully there are two truths I can redirect to in response to those thoughts:
1). God not only calls, but completes the work he starts in us.
Philippians 1:6 says, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” I am not only saved by grace initially, but I am sustained by grace. And I am not saved from my sin just to be saved from my sin, but to be made holy, to be satisfied in God. God would be unfaithful to his purpose and his word if he just called us, but didn’t sanctify or change us. He has not called us for impurity, but in holiness (1 Thessalonians 4:7). And for us to think we can handle the load after being saved would be foolish, yet I live that way all the time. God doesn’t leave us to our own, because 1). we are not in control and 2). we are designed for his glory, not our own.
1 Thessalonians 5:22-24 says “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” That’s a reassuring promise when I think or feel I am backsliding. Though my life may look or seem like it is backsliding sometimes, it is not. In fact, I would argue that in the times I feel that way, God is further showing me that I can’t rely on myself, but on his strength. The cross is sufficient to say that he upholds me no matter the season or stage I am in, because my security rests not in my ability or failures, but in Christ’s blood. Though a Christian may stumble, he will not fall out of God’s grip. God doesn’t uphold a Christian on the basis of what they can do for him or because of their own abilities, but because of his faithfulness to complete the work he started; because of the reality of who Jesus is and what he has done on the cross in his death and resurrection.
2). Christ sets us free from having to compare our sin or “progress” with others.
When I put pressure on myself, I forget that all of it has been laid on Jesus at the cross. Christ’s cross is sufficient to say that I don’t need to compare to others. I don’t need to look to others as the standard when Christ has become it for me, and he has overcome sin. Comparison truly is the thief of joy, and I know that because when I do it, I am never satisfied and think I have to measure up in some way that exceeds what the bar was in the first place. Thankfully, there is a remedy for that, and a bar that has already been fulfilled in Jesus. Christ alone is where we can bank all of our hope, trust, and righteousness– not others’ walks of life, and not our own seasons of life. We aren’t to be dependent on people, nor ourselves, but on Christ, and Christ alone. So with that, take heart in the promise that Jesus has come to fulfill the law. As Christians, our common purpose is to boast in Christ being sufficient for us, not our abilities or the seasons we find ourselves in. I need to throw that garbage out the window, and remember that since my identity is rooted in Jesus, I am set free from looking to others’ lives as the standard.
The Christian life is a process, and a slow one at that. John Owen put it well, saying “The growth of trees and plants takes place so slowly that it is not easily seen. Daily we notice little change. But, in course of time, we see that a great change has taken place. So it is with grace. Sanctification is a progressive, lifelong work.” I think this is what Paul means when he said “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” We aren’t being transformed into the image of Christ in an instant, but rather one degree to another. And God’s grace sustains us every step of the way.
Take heart in knowing that God transforms us day by day. Don’t worry about the future you, or the you compared to your Christian friend. Be consumed with Jesus today. Fix your eyes on him, and trust that he is at work in you if you are a Christian. That is sufficient. Christ is sufficient.
For His name,