As I said in Ed Stetzer’s interview of me a couple weeks ago, the way many of us think about sanctification is, well…not very sanctified. In fact, it’s terribly narcissistic. We spend too much time thinking about how we’re doing, if we’re growing, whether we’re doing it right or not. We spend too much time pondering our spiritual failures and brooding over our spiritual successes. Somewhere along the way we’ve come to believe that the focus of the Christian faith is the life of the Christian.
Reflecting this common assumption, someone who was frustrated with something I had written said to me not long ago, “Don’t you know that the focus of the New Testament is the personal holiness of the Christian?” What? Seriously? I heard Mr. Miyagi’s voice in my head, “Breathe in, breathe out; breathe in, breathe out.” The truth is, we spend way too much time thinking about ourselves, and we justify this spiritualized navel-gazing by reasoning that this is what God wants us to be doing.
I’ve said this before but let me say it again: there is nothing in the gospel or about the gospel that encourages me to focus on me. Nothing! It’s never honoring to God when we take our eyes off of Christ “the author and finisher of our faith” and center our eyes on ourselves. Never! In fact, the whole point of the gospel is to get us out of ourselves and to “fix our eyes on Christ” (Hebrews 12:2). The truest measure of Christian growth, therefore, is when we stop spiritually rationalizing the reasons why we’re taking our eyes off of Jesus to focus on ourselves.
The biggest difference between the practical effect of sin and the practical effect of the gospel is that sin turns us inward and the gospel turns us outward. Martin Luther picked up on this problem in the Reformation, arguing that sin actually bends or curves us in on ourselves (homo incurvatus in se). Any version of “the gospel”, therefore, that encourages you to think about yourself is detrimental to your faith-whether it’s your failures or your successes; your good works or your bad works; your strengths or your weaknesses; your obedience or your disobedience.
Ironically, what I’ve discovered is that the more I focus on my need to get better the worse I actually get–I become neurotic and self-absorbed. Preoccupation with my performance over Christ’s performance for me actually hinders my growth because it makes me increasingly self-centered and morbidly introspective–the exact opposite of how the Bible describes what it means to be sanctified. Sanctification is forgetting about yourself. “He must increase but I must decrease” (John 3:30) properly describes the painful sanctification process. “Decreasing” is impossible for the one who keeps thinking about himself. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis reminded us that we’ll know a truly humble man when we meet him because “He will not be thinking about humility: he will not, in fact, be thinking about himself at all.” When we spend more time thinking about ourselves and how we’re doing then we do about Jesus and what he’s done, we shrink. As J.C. Kromsigt said, “The good seed cannot flourish when it is repeatedly dug up for the purpose of examining its growth.”
But what about those passages which seem to encourage us to “examine ourselves”? Isn’t there a proper time and place for self-evaluation?
In fact, this is what the law of God (not the gospel of God) does. The law forces us to look inside ourselves so we can clearly see that what we need most has happened outside ourselves. This is what Paul means in 2 Corinthians 13:5 when he says, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?” In other words, the goal of self-examination is not to discover my worthiness, strength, or sufficiency. The goal is to discover my unworthiness and Christ’s worthiness; my weakness and Christ’s strength; my deficiency and Christ’s sufficiency. Confidence in my transformation is not the source of my assurance and growth. Confidence in Christ’s substitution is. As Matt Richard has rightly noted, “Looking to self for assurance shifts the foundation from Jesus to us.” Christian growth is defined in the Bible as movement in the exact opposite direction (how do we keep missing this obvious point ??). By his Spirit, Christ’s continuing subjective work inside me consists of him driving me back constantly to his completed objective work outside me (John 15:26). “True faith”, said Sinclair Ferguson, “gets a man out of himself and into Christ.”
Oswald Bayer makes the great point that, far from being a “deadening of self”, forgetting yourself leads to life and freedom:
Those who are born anew are no longer entangled with themselves. They are solidly freed from this entanglement, from the self-reflection that always seeks what belongs to itself. This is not a deadening of self. It does not flee from thought and responsibility. No, it is the gift of self-forgetfulness. The passive righteousness of faith tells us: You do not concern yourself at all! In that God does what is decisive in us, we may live outside ourselves and solely in him. Thus, we are hidden from ourselves, and removed from the judgment of others or the judgment of ourselves about ourselves as a final judgment. “Who am I?” Such self-reflection never finds peace in itself.
Contrary to what we have typically heard (and been enslaved by), Christian growth is not becoming stronger and stronger, more and more competent. Christian growth and progress is marked by a growing realization of just how weak and incompetent we are and how strong and competent Jesus continues to be for us. Spiritual maturity is not marked by our growing, independent fitness. Rather, it’s marked by our growing dependence on Christ’s fitness for us. Remember, the Apostle Paul (who was more spiritually mature and “sanctified” than all of us put together) referred to himself as the “least of all the saints” (Eph. 3:8) and the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15) at the end of his life. For Paul, spiritual growth is realizing how utterly dependent we are on Christ’s cross and mercy. It’s not arriving at some point where we need Jesus less because we’re getting better and better. It was, paradoxically, Paul’s ability to freely admit his lack of sanctification which demonstrated just how sanctified he was.
This is the point: When we stop narcissistically focusing on our need to get better, that is what it means to get better. When we stop obsessing over our need to improve, that is what it means to improve!
Thankfully, the focus of the Bible is not the work of the redeemed but the work of the Redeemer. The gospel frees us from ourselves. It announces that this whole thing is about Jesus and dependent on Jesus. The good news is the announcement of his victory for us, not our “victorious Christian life.” The gospel declares that God’s final word over Christian’s has already been spoken: “Paid in full.” Therefore, Christians can now live in a posture of perpetual confidence “that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
I love the story of the old pastor who, on his deathbed, told his wife that he was certain he was going to heaven because he couldn’t remember one truly good work he had ever done.
He got it.