Nowhere does the New Testament suggest that we should stay as we were (in a moral sense) when we were converted. We must grow (I Peter 2:2) – in faith, in knowledge (Colossians 1:10), and in love (I Thessalonians 3:12). Failure to grow is a sign of something seriously wrong! But we don’t need to worry too much about the actual growing; it will happen automatically if the conditions are right. All children grow physically if properly fed and nurtured; similarly, if we read our Bibles, pray, take Communion regularly, and have fellowship with other believers, we cannot help but grow spiritually.
But spiritual growth, like physical growth, is a slow process, and can usually be measured only over long periods of time (years, rather than days). Don’t get discouraged in the meantime. “A few grapes will [suffice to] show that the plant is a vine, and not a thorn.” (Richard Sibbes) Very often we are given a ‘kick-start’ at the time we first become Christians: I know people who have been instantly delivered from addictions, or from sinful behaviour patterns such as compulsive swearing. This is part of the ‘down-payment’ of the Spirit (II Corinthians 1:22), the foretaste of what awaits us in the life to come. But it isn’t always (or even often) as easy as that. And there are other reasons why cultivating holiness is an uphill struggle: we are held back by our own persistently sinful old nature, distracted by the world around us, and opposed by the devil. Our personal sanctification is part of the spiritual warfare that we must all engage in.
When the Israelites were rescued from Egypt, God promised them a homeland of their own. But they were warned that the conquest of Canaan would not be a walkover. The final outcome was not in doubt (for God had promised it), but too easy a victory would not be in their best interests (Exodus 23:29,30). Similarly, we just wouldn’t be able to cope with God dealing with all our sin at once. He will even allow some sins to remain in us, lest we succumb to the worse sin of spiritual pride! And so sanctification is not a once-for-all gift like redemption and justification, but a long process by which our lives are slowly and steadily brought under Christ’s authority.
The conquest of Canaan began with a spectacularly easy, supernatural victory at Jericho (Joshua 6). And that is often how the Christian life begins, with the overthrow of a major stronghold of sin in our lives. But it doesn’t carry on like that; the rest of the war is a hard slog, often with as many setbacks as triumphs. As long as we live in this life, our old and new natures will be at war with each other (Galatians 5:17; Romans 7:18,19). And just as the Israelites were tempted to compromise with the Canaanites (Judges 2:1-3), we are tempted to compromise with the sin that remains in our lives – because that’s so much easier than fighting it!
Victory over sin?
Although we are exhorted to aim for perfection (Matthew 5:48), it is a target we will never attain in this life. There are no short-cuts or sudden leaps to a state of complete holiness or blessedness; it is hard work, all the way. We will not win the victory here and now – it is enough to be fighting the battle.
What are we to make of those who claim to have achieved ‘victory over sin’? We should probably take such a boast with a pinch of the proverbial salt. A truly holy person, like Moses (Numbers 12:3), is so clothed with humility that they can see only their imperfections. Like Moses, they are unaware that their face is shining with the glory of God, even when it is obvious to everyone else (Exodus 34:29,30).