When You Track Your Spiritual Progress
The last days of December are a great time for personal inventory.
It’s almost involuntary for many of us. The close of one year naturally leads to us to think back over the highs and lows of the last 365 days (especially if we’re on Facebook). For others of us, the inventory might be more methodical. Maybe we crack open a journal from a year ago or browse through notes we’ve made or organize a list of our biggest decisions in descending order. Either way, it’s safe to say that we all do some kind of inventory.
And for the Christian, this inventory is mainly concerned with our spiritual progress. Exercise goals and staying on budget are important, and there is certainly something spiritual about them, but the main question for us is whether we grew in grace (2 Peter 3:18). Did we make real steps toward increased Christlikeness?
Are we more sanctified now than a year ago?
Asking It Honestly
I think we should ask this question, even though we run the risk of making two mistakes. One mistake is to instantly theologize the answer before we really think about it. Because we know that God is at work in us, we’re temped to dismiss the question altogether. Of course, we think, we’re more sanctified (Philippians 1:6; 2:13). We consider ourselves to be on an irreversible road of progression, and therefore, we allow this to mute any serious examination. The other mistake is to answer the question in terms of our daily disciplines. We immediately mistranslate the question of our spiritual progress to mean whether we read the Bible and prayed enough.
To be sure, Christians are on an irreversible road of progression, and Bible reading and prayer are indispensable, but neither of these should silence our honest asking — and honest answer — to whether we are more like Jesus a year later. And a big reason I suggest we go there is because sometimes we will feel like the answer is no.
One Big Blah?
Maybe our assessment yields a humble recognition of true growth — that we have learned more and loved more, experienced remarkable victory over a besetting sin, and made decisions that exhibited counter-comfortable faith. But maybe it’s just no.
Maybe we don’t feel more like Jesus now than we did at the close of 2012. We don’t feel like we’ve learned as much, or loved as much, or mortified our anger, or stepped out of the boat. Maybe we feel like, compared to last year, 2013 was one big blah of spiritual progress. I know a man in Christ, as Paul might say, who has felt this way. We scratch our heads and wonder how the spiritual scenery looks the same even though we’ve been trying to move forward all year long.
Well, Christian, if that is like you, there is something you need to know. And feel.
You are more sanctified — and will be more sanctified. You will be more transformed into the image of Jesus — even if, by your assessment, it doesn’t feel that way.
Your destiny is set. Those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son (Romans 8:29). And we understand this encouragement not by skipping to it without sincere reflection, but by trekking to it through sincere reflection. We especially sense this wonder in profound ways when God’s word speaks over what our assessments might say. He reminds us that though years are good markers for us, he doesn’t work in calendar quotas. And for him, what is 365 days? If a thousand years is as one day (2 Peter 3:8) . . . you do the math.
Is It Real Encouragement?
But how? we may think.
The assurance of a Christian’s progressing sanctification goes deeper than a few proof texts, so deep, in fact, that it’s actually bound up in what salvation is. We need to look no further than the rich truth of our union with Christ.
In his book, One with Christ, Marcus Peter Johnson argues that “union with the living Christ is … what it means to be saved” (Location 198). He argues that realities such as justification and sanctification are both blessings Jesus bestows on us through our union with him. They are not mile-markers we must cross in route to a relationship with Jesus, but rather, they are wondrous gifts Jesus gives to us because he has saved us to a relationship with him. Johnson writes,
Jesus Christ does not bestow his benefits in the abstract; he bestows himself to us, that we might enjoy who he is for us in all his saving graces. In our union with him, he is the cause of our justification, sanctification and adoption. And because it is Jesus Christ in the fullness of his person and work whom we receive in salvation, we receive all that he is to us simultaneously, never one benefit without the other. (Locations 3256–3259)
We Get It All
The implications here are amazing. This means that because salvation is Christ himself — our getting him and being united to him — then we are assured to receive all his benefits. Nothing gets left out. There is no lesser package that offers full-fledged justification but then leaves out a subscription to sanctifying grace. That is not how it goes.
If we are justified, we will be sanctified, because in Christ we can only have them both.
So it’s yours. Even if you feel that you made less progress in 2013 than you hoped, or that you just stalled more this year than the last. If you are in Christ, you will be sanctified. You get it all. You will be transformed into the image of Jesus. Whether you sense it acutely now or not, one day you will. Keep running. You will look back and see the progress. For one day we know that we shall be like him (1 John 3:2).
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