I didn’t know holiness would be so hard-won.
As with many new believers, I enjoyed sudden victory over some of the sins that had marked my unbelieving life. I flew on eagles’ wings. I leapt from one degree of glory to another.
But then sanctification slowed. The eagles’ wings faltered, leaping turned into walking, and some sins became besetting. I prayed for more holiness, more faith, more love, but often, God seemed to answer by illuminating new corners of darkness in the cavern of my flesh. I began to resonate with John Newton in his hymn “I Asked the Lord”:
I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith and love and every grace,
Might more of his salvation know,
And seek more earnestly his face. . . .
Instead of this, he made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart,
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part.
In moments like those, I needed to remember what God had promised about my sins. I needed to remember that my holiness does not rest on my frail shoulders, but rather on God’s almighty resolve, from eternity past forever into the future, to make me blameless before him (Colossians 1:22).
If you have tasted God’s grace in Christ, and long to enjoy more of him, but carry the awful weight of sin, know this: God will conquer all your sins.
Book of the Slain Lamb
Before the foundation of the world, God planned to conquer all our sins.
God was under no illusions about our loveliness. He saw the worst about us — even those parts of us that we are yet to discover. He saw every wicked thought that would run through our minds, every distorted desire that would pulse in our hearts, and every twisted deed that would pass from our hands, and still he said, “You will be holy and blameless before me” (Ephesians 1:4).
God took up his pen and wrote our names in a book: “the book of life of the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 13:8). The persons of the Trinity agreed that the Son of God would become a slaughtered Lamb to save us.
The darkness you discover inside yourself cannot deter God’s love for you in Christ. His love is an everlasting love, a love that has been burning from the fires of eternity past — a love that has seen you, known you, and saved you still. We may be shocked, even dismayed, by the layers of sin we still find in our flesh, but God is not. Breathe in, and say with J.I. Packer,
There is tremendous relief in knowing that his love to me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself. (Knowing God, 42)
Our sins were God’s enemies before they were ours, and he will win the warfare he’s begun.
This Body of Death
Even now, amid all the struggle, God is conquering all our sins.
Perhaps you hesitate to use the word conquering. Sanctification may feel more like the crawl of a glacier than the march of an army. But the inch-by-inch progress we make against specific sins can sometimes obscure the larger battles God is winning inside of us.
Consider how Newton resolved the tension he felt in “I Asked the Lord.” Why did God answer his prayers for holiness by allowing him to feel the power of his indwelling sin? Newton answers from God’s perspective:
“These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free,
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st seek thy all in me.”
Sometimes, we can become so focused on specific sins — sexual immorality, anger, laziness, bitterness — that we forget they are merely the fumes of a far deeper decay: our obsession with self and pride. And God will do whatever it takes — even “inward trials” — to free us, not only from the risings of individual sins, but also from the swamp of self that gives them life.
Freed to Fight Hard
When God allows us to feel the hidden evils of our flesh and the angry powers of hell, he aims to make us “seek thy all in me.” He aims to draw us ever closer to himself — the one who heals our wounds, clothes our nakedness, restores our sanity, and welcomes us home with singing (Zephaniah 3:17; Luke 15:22–24). He breaks our schemes of earthly joy and liberates us for heaven’s.
None of this is to say that we should stop fighting the specific sins that assault us most, or that we should have low expectations for the growth God might grant us. Scripture gives us every reason to take heart in the fight against sin, and to believe that stunning victories are possible (2 Peter 1:3). This is simply to say that, when God brings us to cry with Paul, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” he does it so we will join Paul in saying, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24–25).
In God’s hands, our slow sanctification can humble us, chasten us, and conquer our love of self-reliance, so that we might seek our all in him.
God’s Final Victory
One day soon, God will finally conquer all of our sins. Sin’s downfall has been brewing since Genesis 3, when God promised to cleanse his earth of Satan’s poison (Genesis 3:15). Calvary assures us that God is keeping his promise. The serpent’s skull is broken and bleeding out. His time is short (Revelation 12:12).
Meanwhile, creation aches, God’s children groan, and angels stand on tiptoe — all waiting for the Conqueror to come again and give us final freedom.
And suddenly, he will. It will happen “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Corinthians 15:52). The trumpet will sound, the sky will tear open, and the Lord Jesus will deliver “the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power” (1 Corinthians 15:24). Jesus will destroy every rule, every authority, and every power that exalts itself against God — including every sin that still leeches onto your soul.
He Must Reign in Us
Christ will reign. And therefore, as John Piper writes,
There is no disease, no addiction, no demon, no bad habit, no fault, no vice, no weakness, no temper, no moodiness, no pride, no self-pity, no strife, no jealousy, no perversion, no greed, no laziness that Christ does not aim to overcome as the enemy of his honor. . . . Christ’s reign reaches to the smallest and biggest enemy of his glory. It will be defeated. (“He Must Reign”)
God is not indifferent to the sins that still afflict you. He yearns for you to be free at last from every enemy (Ephesians 5:27). He yearns for you to wake up with worship on your tongue, for every particle of your body to dance with joy in him, for your torn and sundered self to finally be whole in his presence.
He yearns, Paul tells us, to “sanctify you completely” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). And with the yearning comes a promise: “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:24).