I recently talked with my mentor about how frustratingly slow my sanctification can be. Even when I know something is true in my head, it doesn’t always shape my heart or steer my hands.
Our conversation was nothing new. Back in the seventeenth century, Richard Baxter wrote a similar observation in his book Dying Thoughts1:
All men know that the world is vanity, that man must die, that riches cannot then profit, that time is precious, and that we have but little time to prepare for eternity; but how little do men seem to have of the real knowledge of these plain truths! 2
Baxter clearly sees that there are two different kinds of knowing: mere intellectual assent, and “real knowledge” which affects us at our core. Discouragement and frustration spring up in the gap between these two types of knowledge. When we don’t see improvements quickly, we may think we’ll never change.
To complicate things, learning and applying truth about God requires unlearning the lies we’ve absorbed from the world around us. This isn’t a speedy process. As Tim Chester writes in his book You Can Change: “The habits and thought processes of sin are not easily unlearned. There are few quick fixes.”3
With this mind, I’ve got three truths and three action steps for when your spiritual growth seems painfully slow.
- Jesus has paid the full penalty for our sin
This is the truth you need to remember above any other. It’s our foundation as Christians. The Bible makes it crystal clear that our sins are forgiven because Jesus died for us. Here are just a few passages:
God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. (1 Timothy 1:15)
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:10)
Without this rock-solid truth underneath our feet, we will easily fall to discouragement. Our standing before God is not dependant on what we do, but whether we belong to Jesus Christ. Slow progress doesn’t mean you’re not saved.
So God’s grace isn’t conditional on whether you manage to overcome that temptation today, or tomorrow, or in the next year. Jesus has paid the price for all our iniquity. This something we must believe before we can make any real change in our sin habits.
- God brings the growth, not you
God is the source of our justification (right standing before him) as well as our sanctification (continual growth towards holiness). He has given us his Holy Spirit to transform us from the heart.
As Paul writes to the church in Philippi:
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12–13, emphasis mine)
We must trust him for that growth, no matter how long it takes, and keep asking him to help us.
I don’t know for sure why God changes us so slowly. He likely has a million reasons. Perhaps one is that it’s necessary for our humility. If killing sin was easy, we would want to take the credit. By our slow growth, we become more dependent on God as our source of grace.
- God will complete your sanctification
Heaven can seem so far off to us. We know that in eternity all sin will be done away with, but it’s so hard to imagine that from the trenches. We’re covered in filth, deafened by the enemy’s gunfire, and scared out of our wits.
But God gives us hope in his Word:
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. (Philippians 1:6)
We will be changed on that final day when we see Jesus clearly and fully. Perfect knowledge of our Saviour will finally captivate our hearts. We won’t even want to sin anymore.
Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)
This truth is a rock-solid assurance for all who have been saved by Jesus Christ. One day, perhaps sooner than we expect, we will trade our ragged and filthy garments for Jesus’ robe of righteousness. And we will sin no more. Take heart—the war will soon end.
Three action steps
- Be active in killing sin
We saw earlier that God is the author of our sanctification. But this is not a licence to sit back and do nothing. In the verse I quoted from Philippians 2, remember that Paul exhorts believers to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling.”
God works through us to make us holy, so you can’t expect to grow in holiness without taking up his proffered grace. Other passages show us that we must be active in our own growth:
Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (James 4:7)
Flee from sexual immorality. (1 Corinthians 6:18)
Be diligent about searching your heart for sin, repenting, and implementing strategies to help you change. Taking the example from 1 Corinthians, if you struggle with lust, don’t keep watching movies with explicit scenes. Tim Chester’s book You Can Change, which I quoted from earlier, is a helpful resource for battling sinful behaviour.
- Read the Bible
In response to divisions in the Corinthian church about which leader to follow, Paul writes:
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:6–7)
God brings sanctification through human action—but what kind of action is this? Paul and Apollos both preached the gospel from the Scriptures. We need the Bible desperately, as God has ordained it as one of the primary means by which we grow into maturity.
A cursory reading of the Bible every now and then isn’t enough. You need to saturate your life with the truth, so it sinks into your heart by the power of the Spirit. Read the Bible every day, meditate on it, take notes as you read, and plead with God to make it change you.
- Keep praying
With this in mind, we need to earnestly pray over the truth we learn in the Bible, asking God to press it into our hearts and hands. Richard Baxter writes:
To the Father of lights I must therefore still look up, and for his light and love I must still wait. I must learn both as a student and a beggar. When I have thought and thought a thousand times, I must beg thy blessing, Lord, upon my thoughts. The eye of my understanding will be useless or vexatious to me, without thy illuminating beams. O shine the soul of thy servant into a clearer knowledge of thyself and kingdom, and love him into more divine and heavenly love, and he will then willingly come to thee!4
Never stop asking God to shine his “illuminating beams” upon your soul.
So take up these weapons in your fight for spiritual growth. It will often be slow and painful. But God is faithful, he is working, and he will complete the work he has started in you. Whenever you fail—as you often will—remember that our worth does not come from having our lives together. We are saved by the grace of Jesus alone.
Even Paul, the renowned apostle, fought this long and hard battle. In Romans 7, he writes:
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:21–24)
Yet God is at work: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25).
Be patient, for he is faithful.