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I’ve been pondering something that popped up in our church’s senior high catechism class (yeah, that catechism and it’s still awesome).

We got into a discussion about sanctification, the ongoing work of God’s Spirit in believers that shapes us to become more like Jesus. Call it discipleship, spiritual formation, or spiritual growth if you like.

Fair enough. But I have my doubts about the process. I don’t see much evidence of sanctification, especially when I look in the mirror.

In my first congregations I had the strenuous privilege of joining in on every family visit made by the elders. I learned a lot. One question I posed (stole it from somewhere): “There’s an old hymn that goes, ‘Every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before.’ Is that true of your life?” After an awkward pause, as they decided whether to go with the “right” answer or the honest one, most respondents admitted that the hymn didn’t match their experience. Progress on their way to sanctification seemed halting, slow, and marked by many lapses.

Supervisors who do performance appraisals of their staff tell me the same thing. Initially they have great ideals of guiding employees to become better workers. But experience teaches them that rarely will they be able to help employees make lasting changes. Personalities, weaknesses, strengths, and work habits are hard-wired.

There’s one notable exception: some addicts. Once they hit bottom and get into a 12-step program, amazing things happen in their lives. It’s tough sledding because when you take those steps seriously, you cannot avoid doing a radical overhaul of your personality and deepest self. Painful stuff!

Maybe we should all join a 12-step program. I can’t honestly start off with, “Hi, my name is Bob, and I’m an alcoholic.” But I could introduce myself with, “Hi, my name is Bob, and I have to be right all the time.” Or “Hi, my name is Bob, and I talk too much and listen too little.” Maybe it would help my sanctification for a group to press me to realize and repair the damage I’ve done.

On those family visits, though, answers to a follow-up question gave me more hope: “If every day with Jesus isn’t always sweeter than the day before, how about every decade? When you take the long view, do you see progress?”

The answer would invariably be yes. In the long run, despite all the ups and downs, we’re making progress on the salvation road. We’re still a mess, but in softer hues. And we can honestly say we love Jesus more and experience more clearly our need and longing for the redemption he provides.

When our kids were little my wife and I would mark off their physical height on the wall. The kids were usually disappointed because their growth seemed imperceptible. A few weeks made no discernable difference. But somehow, somewhere down the line, they outgrew their parents by more than a head.

Let’s keep confessing together the doctrine of sanctification. We need the constant reminder or we’ll stop trying hard enough to be who God promises we really are already becoming.

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