As many of my blog posts have said, I am pondering the topic of Progressive Sanctification. Once a person believes in Jesus and receives the free gift of their salvation, receives forgiveness of all their sins, they are justified and seen by God as just as righteous as Jesus Christ. But what about learning to live and apply the Bible and sin less? Or should a believer be able to reach perfection while alive on this earth and never sin? This last thought is false – any doctrine that teaches total sanctification of the believer is false. The process of gradually pursuing personal holiness in God’s strength and power is called progressive sanctification and it is the high call to all believers in Jesus. The believer is given a new nature and the Holy Spirit to help them desire to and learn to overcome sin and become more obedient to Jesus and the Bible. Believers are called to pursue personal holiness. True believers desire to sin less, and instead to bring glory and honor to Jesus by their life choices.
Having recently fallen back into some sinful patterns, I took a tail spin into near despair. What is wrong with me that Christianity is not working to change me, I wondered. And the worst thinking, maybe I am not even a true believer in Christ, maybe I just have some head knowledge about the Bible and know about Jesus, but don’t believe in or really love Him personally. It has to be my failure, as God is faithful and is not failing me. I repented of my sin and pressed on in faith in Christ, barely. I threw myself into some Bible study, specifically of Romans Chapters 6 to 8 on this topic, to try to understand this mysterious, difficult progressive sanctification again. I found a series on Finding My Identity in Christ by Tim Keller that was very helpful. I posted on that recently separately.
I’ve also discovered a message series by John Piper entitled Romans: The Greatest Letter Ever Written in which Piper taught painstakingly through Romans in great detail over several years. So far, the parts of this series I have studied have rung very true and seem like stellar teaching. The teaching on Romans 12 really encouraged me. Most recently, I read through the sermon transcripts from Romans 7. FINALLY, this is the teaching I’ve been desiring all my life in understanding progressive sanctification and the indwelling sin that remains in believers along with our new nature in Christ, and the HOW TO of becoming more yielded to Christ for progressive sanctification. Again, I am not a great Bible teacher in myself, but God has enabled me to understand and recognize great teaching. Here are some of the thoughts, quotes, and personal notes that have stood out from Piper’s detailed study of Romans 7. I highly recommend this teaching, especially “Who Is This Divided Man, Parts 1 through 6”.
When we sin we must say (and by the grace of God I do, proving my faith is genuine):
- I love the law of God (God is right and I am wrong)
- I hate what I just did (I hate and turn from my sin)
- I say, Oh how wretched I am! But Jesus Christ will set me free from sin and has justified me and will keep sanctifying me.
- So I must repent, press on, look to Jesus, worship and treasure Him.
“There is in all of us Christians, as long as this fallen age lasts and we live on the earth, the reality of ‘indwelling sin’. Indwelling sin causes our defeats.”
Both these extremes are false and out of balance: 1. No holiness is necessary for believers and because of our sin nature it is hopeless. 2. Perfection (total sanctification) is possible in this age.
“I stressed last time – and I stress it again briefly – that the point of this text is not that we should make peace with sin, but that we should make war on sin in our own lives and know how to understand ourselves and how to respond when we suffer tactical defeats in the war. Chapter six makes clear that we will win the war against sin (see 6:14). Chapter seven makes clear that it will not be without tactical defeats that will make us love our Savior all the more. It’s the earnestness of the war and the response to defeat that show your Christianity, not perfection.”
Piper gives multiple reasons and examples why he views Paul’s statement in Romans 7:14-25 to mean that Paul and other believers still have an indwelling sin nature even after conversion to Christ. If we think Paul was talking about his failures and sin against the law as meaning before he was converted, it might make one think it is possible to be perfectly holy and never sin practically after conversion. I now understand this to be false thinking. This type of thinking was so ingrained in me in my childhood church, it has been difficult to grasp and fully understand this. Fully understanding Romans 7 is necessary to a proper understanding of Romans 6 to 8 which are a unit on Paul explaining progressive sanctification and the victory Christians have and will have in Christ. Piper stated:
“Well, I could go on and describe this [how Peter and others sinned after their conversion] in the very terms of Romans 7:14ff. But I will save that for another time. Suffice it to say here that you and I know what this is like. It happens to us and we hate it. Indwelling sin is to be mortified, put to death. But there are times when it suddenly captures us and makes slaves of us before we know what is happening. Or sometimes it comes with such subtle wooings that we know exactly what is happening and we let ourselves be deceived. This does not mean we are not Christian. The test is, Do we love the law? Do we hate our failure? Do we cry out in dismay over our sinful condition? Do we look to Christ and his righteousness? Do we fly to the cross? Do we confess and repent and renounce Satan and set our faces to go forward with Jesus on the Calvary road? Do that! Let us pray for each other that we do that.”
That Piper, J. I. Packer, Paul, Peter, and others all recognized their indwelling sin nature after conversion has given me great encouragement. I am a true believer, but I am struggling against my indwelling sin. And I have tended to focus too much on myself and tried to do better in my own strength rather than looking more to Christ and for His transforming grace. The fact that my sin bothers me so much and that I desire to seek personal holiness is evidence of my true conversion. My desire to self-examine and pursue personal holiness is not wrong. But I also need to focus more on loving, worshiping and treasuring Jesus to find grace to be transformed as I behold His beauty and perfection. Oh, how this has encouraged me.
On steps to take to pursue personal holiness without despair, Piper says:
- Remember you are justified by faith.
- Remember and believe you are being sanctified by faith, despite temporary set-backs and slide backs into sin.
- Press on and persevere. Don’t give up. Keep fighting the war Christ will win for me despite sometimes losing some skirmishes with sin.
So this next quote is long and is about half of the final part 6 sermon, but I am recording it here for my own meditation purposes. I do not know if this post will make sense to others having not taken in the entire study on Romans 7. And I realize this won’t be of interest to many. But for me, my need to self-examine and be real about my sinfulness, despite and because of this great call and salvation I have been given by God, and to meditate on these truths to press on in the pursuit of personal holiness without bogging down into despair over my failures and sins is so important. Instead of looking to myself and my own strength I need to look to Jesus and worship and treasure and love Him more to be enabled to be transformed by His grace. I pray for all my believing loved ones and for myself—that God in His mercy will enable us and keep us faithful.
We must persevere in the battle against sin knowing that the war of our justification, progressive sanctification, and future glorification are already won in Christ. Piper said:
“So the question is: How are we to live in view of this double truth about ourselves? [That we have a new nature and still indwelling sin to deal with.] The answer comes from watching the amazing way that Paul speaks to us about our deliverance and our newness in Christ. What he does again and again is to say: This new man is who you decisively and irrevocably are in Christ. This free man is your deepest and truest identity. Now act on it. Look to Christ, trust his help, and by his Spirit become what you are.
If your besetting sin is anger, affirm that in Christ you have died to that identity and in Christ you have his patience and kindness. Look to him and trust in him and rejoice in him. And fight against anger as one who has the victory in him.
If your besetting sin is heterosexual or homosexual lust, affirm that the truth that in Christ you have died to this fallen and distorted identity. I recall many conversations with Joe Hallett who came out of the homosexual life and lived among us with AIDS for 10 years and died a few years ago. He never tired of saying: Do not say “I am a homosexual.” Say rather, “I struggle with homosexual desires.” That was not a superficial mind over matter trick. It was a profound Biblical insight into Romans 6 and 7: In Christ our old selves have died – whatever their distortion and corruption – and we are decisively and irrevocably new. In Christ Jesus homosexual, fornicator, adulterer, covetous, thief, alcoholic, are not who we truly are. Affirm that by faith in Christ. Trust him as your all-satisfying treasure and look to him for the help to become (as much as possible in this life) who you truly are in Christ.
Become What You Are
Let’s close by looking at how Paul says this, so that you can see it is really there in the Word of God. The way he does it is with a strong statement of fact that Christians are new, accompanied by an equally strong command that we become new. Here are some of the examples in the New Testament.
- Statement of newness: Romans 6:14, “Sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” Command to become new: Romans 6:12, “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body.”
- Statement of newness: Romans 6:18, “Having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” Command to become new: Romans 6:19, “Present your members as slaves to righteousness.”
- Statement of newness: Romans 6:6, “Our old self was crucified with Him.” Command to become new: Romans 6:11, “Consider yourselves to be dead to sin.”
- Statement of newness: Colossians 3:9, “You laid aside the old self with its evil practices.” Command to become new: Ephesians 4:22 “Lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit.”
- Statement of newness: Colossians 3:10, “You have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him.” Command to become new: “Ephesians 4:24, “Put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.”
- Statement of newness: Galatians 3:27, “All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Command to become new: Romans 13:14, “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
- Statement of newness: Galatians 5:24, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Command to become new: “Romans 13:14b, “Make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.”
- Command to become new: 1 Corinthians 5:7a, “Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump [of dough].” Statement of newness: 1 Corinthians 5:7b, “. . . just as you are in fact unleavened.”
When Paul says in Romans 7:25b, “I myself with my mind am serving the law of God,” he means, By the transforming power of the Spirit I set my mind on the treasure of Jesus Christ and all that God is for me in him (2 Corinthians 5:19; 1 Corinthians 1:30; Colossians 2:3, 9); and all that I am in him (2 Corinthians 5:17) and all I will become through him (Philippians 1:11). And I believe him and trust in his help and power. And I act on that faith. And if I stumble, I do not yield to the temptation to deny Christ or my true life in him. I repent and I revel in his forgiveness and I fight on.
Let’s join him. Do not be conformed to this world but by the renewing of our minds let us serve the law of God!”
Thank you God for Piper’s excellent teaching and for helping me to grasp more and desire more your progressive sanctification in Christ, and all glory be to Jesus forever. Please help me and all readers here to know You personally and to persevere in fighting our skirmishes with sin without bogging down in despair, knowing that You have already won the war for us-our justification, progressive sanctification, and future glorification, all by Your grace.