Growing up, I had a faulty understanding of how sanctification worked. I tended to rely on my own willpower or create systems to change my behaviour. When I inevitably failed, I’d come back to God and grasp the forgiveness we are offered in the gospel. Sin would spiral into more sin, as I suppressed the pangs of conscience and tried to “make up for it later” by my repentance.
But grace is good for more than granting a clean slate. It enables me to make different choices, to walk in obedience to God today.
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:1–4)
When sin first rises in my mind and heart—the twinge of jealousy, the self-pity, the unkind or anxious thought—I need to remember the grace God has poured out on me through Jesus. Here there is hope for real change in the moment. Because God has broken the chains of sin and promised to be with by his Spirit, I am free from following through with the sin in my heart. I can seek his forgiveness and help now, so I don’t follow up that unkind thought with a snappy remark, or numb my anxiety with food.
This doesn’t come from my own willpower but God working grace in my heart. Yet I am also actively involved. I must put off behaviours that dishonour God and pursue righteousness:
So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:11–14)
C.S. Lewis wrote often about the choice we face between God and self, truth and delusion, real and counterfeit joy. In essence, this is the choice before us in every moment of temptation. Joe Rigney, in Lewis on the Christian Life, says of Lewis:
Again and again, he wants to bring us back to brass tacks, to awaken us to the present reality, to help us feel the weight of glory that presses on us even now. This is the real labor of life: “to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake.”1
By taking hold of the grace of God in a moment of temptation and obeying him, we refuse to suppress the truth about God and his Word. We stay awake. Over time we learn to keep our eyes open more and more. So grace matters right now, because the choice is always before me. Rigney writes that “…this Choice is not a singular event. We don’t merely make it one time. Rather, we are always making it. Our little decisions, when gathered together, turn out to be not so little after all. We are always sowing the seeds of our future selves.”2
String these choices together and you get a life. It doesn’t usually seem like the temptation I’m facing right now will really make a difference. But God is training me with a rod of grace to say no to sinful desires today so that I can say no tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. My old way of living reinforced giving in to temptation with the justification that I could repent later. True grace teaches me to remain awake and say no to sin now.
This isn’t glamorous obedience. In her book Everyday Faithfulness, Glenna Marshall says: “Though beautiful when traced in decades of retrospect, faithfulness is unremarkable in real-time practice.”3 If I want to look back years from now and see the beauty of God’s grace working in my life, I need to preach the gospel to myself every day. Multiple time a day. These words should be on my heart:
But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:22–23)
I will fail, and the grace of God will be enough for me then. He will forgive me, then set me back on me feet so I can keep fighting the ambushes of temptation. Over and over again, until he brings me into glory, God’s grace will be sufficient for all my weakness.