Right off the bat we know 2 things as true: God desires us to be holy & the Holy Spirit is responsible for the process of sanctification (1 Peter 1.2). But this process is drawn out — and at times painful. Aren’t there any shortcuts? Perhaps some ‘spiritual accelerators’? Legalism would say yes.
“Hey christian,” suggests Legalism, “you want to be holy? Just follow this list of expectations:”
- Stop watching R-rated movies
- If you’re a girl, stop wearing pants.
- If you’re a guy, only wear pants.
- Read 2 chapters every day.
- No secular music
- Never miss a church service, etc.
“Follow this list and you’ll be accepted by God, make the Holy Spirit happy, and serve as an example to the weaker folk.”
But the whole point Legalism misses is that God is glorified by both holy lives as well as the process by which we are made holy. The author of Hebrews, after exalting Christ as the perfect Mediator, concludes: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16). This is the process of sanctification that glorifies God: repentant & needy Christians, coming before the Throne, seeking help in Christ. To sidestep this process is to undermine our perfect Mediator and rob the Throne of glory.
Herein lies the difference between sanctification and mere self-improvement. When an atheist chooses to quit being lazy at work, we would rightly claim he has chosen an ethical high-road. We would not, however, call it sanctification. In the same way, a young christian may make moral changes in his life due to peer-pressure from his youth group, or in an attempt to live up to his profession of faith. Yet, the mere claim “I quit watching porn” is not proof of sanctification; it may be self-improvement. He has chosen a moral high-road although his relationship with his Savior is at the same stand-still. Instead, God desires to see Christians humbly confess “I quit watching porn because God’s mercy & grace in Jesus Christ transformed my affections”. This alone is fruit of the proper process of sanctification and requires the Spirit’s work in understanding, repentance, faith, dependence & love.
Only when sanctification is fruit of the proper process may it be called the very fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22,23). Ironically, these acts of the heart are never found on a legalist’s list.
The rich young ruler was more moral than many Christians but he never knew sanctification. He checked items off a list but he never drew near to the throne of grace, seeking mercy and grace. Christian, do not swap your great privilege for mere legalism. Do not trade your birthright for a bowl of stew.