Do you believe that it is possible to overcome a besetting sin in your life? And do you believe that this conquering is possible in this life? If your answer is no, or a highly qualified “yes”, what is it that keeps you from answering instead with a resolute, unqualified “yes”? And is that hesitation truly consistent with what Scripture says is possible for the sons and daughters of the living God?
If you are Reformed in your theology, or are familiar with different denominational takes on this topic, the term “perfectionism” may have come to mind in light of these questions. Suffice it to say, I am not advocating the idea that Christians can attain a state of sinless perfection in this life, even with regard to willful sins. The closer we draw to Christ, the more aware we become of sins which had been lurking undetected in our hearts, the kind which eventually give rise to overt and obvious sin (Matthew 5:21-22). These words from Psalm 139 are appropriate to pray until our dying day: “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Try me and know my anxious thoughts! And see if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” We await the return of Christ to be perfected in his image (Philippians 1:6, 1 John 3:1-3).
However, while steering clear of Perfectionism, we may veer too sharply and miss Scripture’s principles and promises concerning our personal holiness and the astounding, God-glorifying progress we can in fact make before heaven. Let’s combine and reframe the opening questions, and ask this instead: “How much progress in holiness can you as a Christian make in this life?” Wouldn’t it be thrilling to find out?
If “total” is the only wrong answer to the question of how much progress in holiness we can make in this life, then consider the possibilities for progress! Better yet, let’s pursue them! This pursuit, and the perfection which will follow in eternity, is precisely the reason why God redeemed us in Christ (Ephesians 2:8-10, Hebrews 12:14). As we considered in the two previous entries on this topic ( Save us, Superman! and Our Father’s Likeness ), this pursuit is significantly stymied by the severe aversion to preaching and teaching which calls Christians to look to God’s law as the standard for the Christian life and to make strenuous efforts to keep it. The worry is that such emphases crush the hearts of Christians and create or reinforce a legalistic approach to the faith – and of course they do, when grace is not preached as the foundation and sustaining power of such efforts. Ironically, though, the antidote which some popular Christian teachers offer should, if their listeners think carefully, make them feel even worse!
Consider this expression, typical of many popular slogans among Christians these days: “God does nothing through people who believe that they are everything; God does everything through people who believe that they are nothing.” It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? But it also rings hollow when measured carefully against Scripture.
The words “nothing” and “everything” render the statements including them inevitably false. These word choices are obviously for the sake of affect and linguistic flow, so we shouldn’t be too fussy. However, the significance of the second statement goes far beyond semantics; it can do serious damage to hurting hearts and, if truly taken to heart, will stunt our spiritual growth right where Scripture says it begins.
The idea of that slogan, of course, is to drive people away from a performance based faith – we might call this the perfectionist approach as opposed to the Perfectionism approach – and toward the grace of Christ, without whom we can do nothing. But there is a big difference between affirming that without Christ we can do nothing, and saying that in order for God to use us, we must believe that we ARE nothing.
The Bible never teaches us that we are nothing. Even those who hate God are his image bearers and as such are worthy of respect and dignity; they are not nothing. And those image bearers who turn from their hatred of God are made his sons and daughters. The sons and daughters of Almighty God are NOT nothing! We are sinful people made saints (Romans 8:27, 1 Corinthians 1:2), saints who struggle against besetting sins but who have available to us the same strength which raised Jesus Christ from the dead (Ephesians 1:16-23). What potential for progress in holiness! That progress begins as we learn to think of ourselves not according to well-intentioned spiritual mantras, but according to clearly-stated Scriptural truths. Thus, the Apostles begin their epistolary exhortations to holiness by reminding us who we are in Christ, and therefore, the thrilling possibilities and responsibilities open to us (2 Peter 1:1-2, 3:9-14).
In the next entry, we’ll explore in more specific, practical terms how God grants us increasing victory over besetting sins. We will not reach perfection in this life, but that only means that there is so much ground to be covered and joy to be had in the pursuit. Let’s see how far God will take us!