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Spiritual Growth - My Job or God's?

Whose job is spiritual growth? Psychologists say one of the primary causes of conflict in households involves dispute over what's generally called division of labor. If the bed goes unmade, if the dishes go unwashed, if the diaper goes unchanged, who is responsible for getting the job done?

Many households have never had a calm, rational discussion about who is best equipped to take out the garbage or take the kids to school. In the end, lots of things don't get done because each person in the relationship thinks the other one is really responsible.

Tonight we're talking about the doctrine of sanctification, which is related to the word holy, hagios. The gospel, of course, is not just that we'll go to heaven when we die; the gospel is the offer of life in God's kingdom. God's plan is that his image in us, which was marred by the Fall, should be restored in all of its beauty and glory. Sanctification will take place for God's children.

But for many Christians there is confusion about the division of labor as it relates to spiritual growth or sanctification. They ask, "Is it God's job, or is it mine?"

Some Christians have taken the position that sanctification is solely God's job, and they say, "I can't do anything at all." To support their position, they cite verses like Romans 7:18 where Paul says, "I know nothing good dwells within me, that is in my flesh. I can will right, but I can't do it." Citing verses like these, they say human action is futile. Some Christians object to any call for strenuous effort or costly following by saying that human effort is opposed to grace.

I talked with a pastor recently who said that at his church any time he talks about costly discipleship, sacrifice, or obedience, a large number of the people respond, "We're into grace. That costly stuff, that's legalism."

On the other hand, some Christians take a Marine approach to spiritual life, evaluating spiritual growth as a product of one's commitment level. They may cite verses like Leviticus 11: 44: "I am the Lord your God. Sanctify yourselves, therefore. Be holy for I am holy." In effect, they believe God's job is to make sure he's holy; their job is to make sure they are holy.

Throughout history there have been Rambo Christians who were determined to make themselves holy. The church then becomes a place of contest to see who is the most holy, who has memorized the most Bible verses, who has witnessed to the most people, who has the most regular quiet time, who has prayed the most. People with this checklist mentality believe as long as they're doing these things they must be growing spiritually, even if love and joy aren't being produced.

Whose job is sanctification and spiritual growth?

Sanctification is a joint project between us and God.

Philippians 2:12-13 says, "Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure."

First, Paul says work out your own salvation, which means your role is important.

He goes on to say, "For it is God who is at work in you." You're not doing this project on your own. Sanctification is empowered by God; it's impossible without him.

When Paul says, "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling," he does not mean you should work out your salvation with a sense of anxiety, not knowing whether it's going to be good enough for God. Instead Paul uses the phrase to refer to a humble attitude of dependence. He's suggesting we have a role to play, but we don't control it.

Some things we can control. We can make phone calls, drive a car, run an errand. But some things we can do nothing about. Like the weather - only God can change the weather.

But there is a third category. Think about going to sleep. You can't make yourself go to sleep the way you can make a phone call. But you can get in a dark room, lay down on a soft mattress, turn out the lights, and sleep will come.

Think about the differences between a motor boat and a sailboat. In a motor boat I'm in control. I start the engine, control the speed, and go wherever I want. Sailing is different. When I'm sailing, I'm not passive, I have a role to play - I hoist the sails and steer with the rudder - but I am utterly dependent on the wind. There's no room for believing I'm in control, because if the wind doesn't blow, I'm dead in the water. When the wind blows, on the other hand, amazing things can happen.

In John 3: 8 Jesus says, "The wind blows where it chooses. You hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."

The word for wind is the same as the word for spirit both in Hebrew and in Greek. Jesus says the wind blows wherever it chooses. We hear the sound, but we don't know where it comes from, and we don't know where it goes. It's free and powerful, way beyond our control. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit, through whose life the winds of God are blowing.

The sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit is powerful and mysterious. We can't control or manufacture it. It's not about us coming up with a program with predictable results we control. On the other hand, we're not passive. Our job is to discern where the wind of the Spirit is blowing and know how to catch it.

I want to discuss four crucial truths the Bible teaches about sanctification. In Philippians 3: 12, Paul speaks about the sanctification to which he's called, saying, "Not that I have already obtained this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own."

His identity is already secure, but not because of how well he does things. In verse 13 he claims, "I do not consider that I have made it my own, but this one thing I do. Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward toward what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus."

Sanctification is normative, not optional.

The first critical truth about sanctification is this: sanctification for the follower of Christ is normative, not optional.

Paul says he may get a lot of things wrong, but this one thing - sanctification - he does do. We may make a lot of mistakes along the way, and we may have to let go of a lot of other things, but this one thing we do - sanctification.

Sometimes it seems difficult to be made holy. It seems to take so long that we're tempted to think sanctification is something we can take or leave.

The truth is everybody is in the process of being formed spiritually. Paul, in Romans 12, says, "Don't be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of you mind." Paul suggests if you're not being transformed by God's renewing power, then you're being conformed by the forces opposed to God.

The question is not if you're going to be formed spiritually; the question is by whom will you be formed? If you're not formed by God, then you have a spiritual adversary - the Evil One - who will be happy to do the task. We live in a world that deforms people spiritually.

Sanctification is God's will for our lives. In 1 Thessalonians 4: 3 Paul writes, "for this is the will of God, your sanctification." Hebrews 12:14 says, "Pursue peace with everyone and holiness" - pursue sanctification, because - "without holiness no one will see the Lord." Whoever is not sanctified will not want to see the Lord.

I want to ask you to do a devotion check. Are you pursuing spiritual growth with full resolve?

What's amazing to me is people will abdicate the one process they know is God's will for their lives. People will pursue other things with full devotion, but not sanctification.

People's excuses for not pursuing sanctification with full devotion are: "My small group leader is not very good. I could grow a lot spiritually, but he doesn't have his act together."

"My schedule is too busy. When things settle down, I'll pursue spiritual growth."

"My church doesn't have an adequate program for spiritual growth."

Or, "My husband doesn't give me the spiritual leadership I need to grow spiritually."

The offer of the gospel is the offer to be sanctified. Jesus' message was, "Repent and believe the good news; the kingdom of heaven is drawing near, and you can now live in it." If we do that, it is a choice to live God's kind of life, and sanctification is simply another word for that kind of life. It's a life of truth, love, joy, humility, and servanthood.

If you don't want to live that kind of life now, what makes you think you'd want to live that kind of life eternally after you die? It's God's will that you be sanctified. Sanctification is normative; it is not optional.

Sanctification is a painstaking process.

The second truth is sanctification is a process not an event.

Think of a time when you took a long vacation with kids. What's the first question they ask? "Are we there yet?"

Some people impatiently wait for an elevator, pressing the button repeatedly. Somehow they believe the elevator is going to say to itself, "That guy on the fourth floor is in a big hurry. I better skip all the other floors and head right down there for him."

We're an instant gratification society.

Sanctification does not happen that way. Paul says, Am I there yet? Not yet. Not today. Not tomorrow. But this one thing I do. I don't give up. I just keep after it.

In the pursuit of sanctification, you will fail often. What do we do if we're serious about pursuing sanctification and we fail and slip into bad behavior?

In verse 13, Paul has a strategy for dealing with yesterday's regrets, and it can be expressed in a single word: forget. He says, "I forget what is behind me." We tend to think of forgetting as a bad thing, as something we shouldn't do. But forgetting is indispensable to sanctification.

I'm learning to ask the Holy Spirit, "Will you help me overcome yesterday's mistakes, sin, guilt, and disappointments?" I need to learn whatever it is that ought to be learned, but then I have to move on. I can't be shackled to yesterday's regrets because sanctification is a journey, not an event. Therefore Paul says, "I forget what's behind."

It's guaranteed you'll slip; the danger is when you slip you'll get discouraged and give up. Paul urges us to keep going and to forget what is behind. Paul allows neither his failures nor his successes to keep him trapped in yesterday. Sanctification is a process. So don't give up.

Sanctification is empowered by God, not by man.

Thirdly, sanctification is empowered by God, not by us. If we are sailboats, God's the one who supplies the wind.

When talking about transformation, Paul has a strong tendency to use a certain grammatical form. He uses an imperative, which is used when giving somebody a command. For instance, "Stop!" is an imperative.

There's another form called the passive voice. That is when something happens to you. You get hit by a truck. You get struck by an illness. That's passive.

When talking about transformation, Paul often uses a passive imperative. Look at Romans 12: 2: "Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind so that you may discern what is the will of God." It is an imperative, but he does not say, "Transform yourself." Instead he says, "Be transformed."

Where are the winds of the Spirit blowing in your life? Where and how is God at work in you? What sin is he seeking to free you from?

There are a few ways you can discern how the Spirit is working in your life. One way is to ask the question, "God, how are you seeking to transform me in this moment?"

When you're in the under-ten-items check-out lane at the grocery store, behind someone who's mathematically challenged, say, "God, how can you use this moment to train me in patience?"

When you're on the verge of procrastinating again with a project, ask, "God, how do you want to train me in this moment to persevere?"

Another question you can ask is "Through what spiritual practices or disciplines is God most changing me these days?"

This entire business of learning to rely on the Holy Spirit as our counselor from moment to moment, to tell him everything, is challenging. But God is using that to breathe life into us.

You can allow the winds of the Spirit to blow in your life. That's why sanctification is never a mechanical thing. That's why it will look different from one person to another, and it will look different in different eras of your life. You need to discern how God is at work.

You may need to ask some folks in your small group what they see in you that needs to change. Identify the spiritual practices that are especially important for your growth, devote yourself to them, then allow each moment to be a training exercise for sanctification.

Sanctification is normative, not optional. It's a process, not an event. It's empowered by God, not me.

Sanctification should be pursued for the sake of others.

Fourth, we should pursue sanctification for the sake of others, not just for our own fulfillment. There is a real danger in pursuing spiritual growth, because if it gets off track it can get individualistic and even narcissistic. The scribes and Pharisees in Jesus' day thought of themselves as very holy, but they couldn't love anybody. They were too absorbed with themselves. The New Testament never defines spirituality or sanctification in solely individualistic or narcissistic terms. It's defined in terms of community.

In Philippians 2:14, Paul writes, "Do all things without murmuring and arguing." In other words, as the community matures this is what you'll find: no grumbling and no arguing, just grateful hearts. Bitterness and resentment will be replaced by a community of servanthood.

Unfortunately I've known churches where the people are growing more cantankerous and bitter, and yet they're thought of as holy people.

Paul defines sanctification within the context of community, and it is important we understand this. If we don't, the pursuit of spiritual growth can get distorted in a way that makes it all about the individual. We can get preoccupied with how we're performing spiritually and how spiritually fulfilled we feel, and we forget to live a life of servanthood and love. It is then we become spiritually narcissistic.

The goal of sanctification, in a single word, is love. There is a huge difference between being sanctified and being sanctimonious. Yet sometimes people get them mixed up. The goal of sanctification is loving persons.

I have a friend who in many ways would not do well in a contest for high piety. He has deep wounds that still affect him in many ways. He had virtually no father growing up. His mom was a difficult person. She married five different men, none of them lasting long. She had little time for my friend and failed to give him encouragement.

He's a man now, and several years ago his mother developed a degenerative muscular disease and gradually lost almost every physical capacity. None of her children would have anything to do with her, and not one of the men to whom she'd been married even acknowledged what she was going through.

My friend, however, decided to love. He took her into his home and cared for her, feeding her by hand, combing her hair, and cleaning up after her messes. A year ago, I was in his home, and about all she could do was cry and moan incessantly. I wondered, How can he stand this? I thought, I've been given blessings - the church, Scripture, family - exponentially greater than this guy, and I don't know if I could love like this.

When she died, 16 people came to her funeral. Not even all her kids came. But my friend was there, and on a little toy tape recorder he played a tape of his mom singing a Christmas carol. He talked about how she loved Christmas and how when he was a kid he used to play the guitar and she would sing with him.

He didn't love her perfectly, not by a long shot. But he loved her when loving was hardest. He loved her when no one else would love, and he remembered her with kind words. That's what sanctification looks like.

Who loves like that? God loves like that. God loved you when you were hardest to love. God wants to sanctify you, and that's no small thing. That is not some spiritual self-improvement project, and it's not a piece of optional equipment. That is God's destiny for you. If you miss out on that, you miss out on what you were made for. God's intent is to sanctify you so you can love as God loves.

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?

John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.

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Sermon Outline:


Whose job is sanctification and spiritual growth?

I. Sanctification is a joint project between us and God.

II. Sanctification is normative, not optional.

III. Sanctification is a painstaking process.

IV. Sanctification is empowered by God, not by man.

V. Sanctification should be pursued for the sake of others.