Our pastor has a saying that has become very helpful in understanding the process of sanctification. He says that although we will never be sinless (this side of Heaven), our goal as Christians is to sin less. I think it’s an important distinction. After all, it can become discouraging after you have walked a while in the Christian life to realize that you still are so far from what God calls us to be. (Matthew 5:48) One might be tempted to give up when we realize the gap between God’s standards and our lives. We might think we haven’t grown at all, and wonder if we really deserve to be called by God (which of course, we don’t – that’s the foundation of grace. See Ephesians 2:8-9) However, in the midst of this discourse, we need to remember that even this realization is evidence of God’s work in us.
Here’s what I mean. Before we were Christians, sin wasn’t something that we were too concerned with. Sure, we might have felt badly if we treated someone hurtfully, but generally speaking our guilt was focused on the result of our sin, not on the fact that that we had violated God’s holy standards. When we became a Christian, we realized that we are sinful, that we need His grace, and then we must, with diligence, grow to become more like Him.
First, we might focus on the “obvious” sins – those things that we and others can readily agree are wrong. However, as we grow, we begin to pay more attention to the hidden sins – a hardened heart, a stinging spirit, an unforgiving nature. These are sins that others may not readily be aware of, but according to God’s standards are just a much a violation of His holiness as lying, cheating and stealing. When we recognize how much our heart needs to change in order to mirror Christ’s life, this is when we tend to get discourage. But in recognizing these sins, we show that we’ve grown. We’re demonstrating the process of sanctifcation at work in our lives because our hearts are increasingly troubled by the same things that anger God. Our pursuit of the holy is becoming more focused, more intense, and even the seeminly “minor” inpurities are being refined away. The more we recognize our sin, the more engaged we are in the process of sinning less.
Paul is a great example of this. One of the founders of the Early Church, and a man who wrote a substantial portion of the New Testament has this viewpoint- “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.” (I Timothy 1:15, emphasis mine).
Paul recognized the depth of his sin, and this compelled him to continue to strive for holiness so that he was able to say “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (I Corinthians 11:1). May we be able to say the same.