Why doesn’t God immediately sanctify those he justifies?
I like instant results, and I have been known to attempt to find an easy path to achievement. In college I accumulated an increasing collection of Cliff’s Notes that inevitably led to decreasing grades. I have vainly attempted to lose weight via the “sleep in, don’t exercise, and eat hot fudge with that ice cream” method. I have been told I am a less than ideal patient when ill and impatient when I have to wait.
I want life to be easy. I don’t want complications. I resist hardship. And that’s not only true when I face traffic, meal times, relationships, and my schedule, but it’s true of my spiritual life as well.
I’d like the spiritual disciplines to be easy and spiritual maturity to be easily attained. I’d like sanctification to be automatic so that I wouldn’t have to work at being like Christ. I’d much rather God just give me a spiritual zap to instantly make me be like Jesus Christ. Wouldn’t that be more honoring to him, if at the moment we were saved that we were all made to be perfectly righteous? Why doesn’t God just give us a quick zap of perfect sanctification when we’re saved? After all, he can do it, as he one day will when we reach Glory (Rom 8:30; 1 Jn 3:2).
While that seems like a good argument, here are four reasons I believe why God doesn’t immediately sanctify his followers.
- Lack of instant sanctification makes us realize who is God — and who is not
Have you ever considered why God made humans to need roughly eight hours of sleep and 2,000 calories of food over three meals each day? Why not give us an ability to gain our nourishment through photosynthesis like plants? Why not omit the sleep cycle like the trees of the forest — wouldn’t we be much more productive for his glory if we weren’t virtually comatose for one-third of our lives?
God created us to be dependent on sleep and food to remind us that he is God and we are not. We need food. He does not. We need sleep. He does not (Ps 121:4). He alone is God.
Similarly, lack of immediate sanctification reminds us every day that we are not God. We are dependent on him, not the other way around. We are not self-sufficient and we are not perfect. Like the meal I am anticipating an hour from now (because I’m hungry and I want to be full!), lack of sanctification feeds my desire for God and his righteousness (because I’m unrighteous and I want righteousness!).
If I were instantly sanctified, I would face the temptation of pride and self-absorption (Ezk 28:15, 17). Lack of instant sanctification is a grace to remind us day-by-day that God is God and we are not. And that’s good for us.
- Lack of instant sanctification is a means of grace
The apostle Paul had some kind of “thorn” that humbled him and made him dependent (2 Cor 12:7). It was severe enough that on multiple occasions he asked the Lord to remove that thorn. Many have debated what the thorn was — a physical malady or a contentious person attacking his character — but the thorn’s identity is irrelevant. What is important is that the Lord did not take it away. The consistent presence of Paul’s thorn allowed him to experience the grace of God in ways that he never could have known otherwise. It took a thorn to experience the power of God’s grace and strength (2 Cor 12:10).
Similarly, when the believer is not sanctified immediately he gets to experience the daily provision of God to sustain him in his every battle against sin and trouble. Because a man’s cancer is not removed, he experiences the grace of a church body that lovingly cares for his needs and the sustenance of God to see him through his pain. Because a woman’s battle with gluttony is not removed, she experiences the grace of God to find her joy in him and not in food at every meal. Because a man’s unjust, belligerent, and hostile boss isn’t transferred or fired, every day he is driven to Scripture to learn to love his enemies and pray for those who are openly oppressing him. In these situations and dozens more, we realize the sufficient power of God that we would not know if we were zapped with instant sanctification.
- Lack of instant sanctification makes us long for Heaven
Living in this world with all the troubles in this world makes us realize the emptiness of this world. Terminal illness, car accidents, and conflicts all remind us that there is no ultimate answer in the world. And all of those things make us long for Heaven. So when we suffer long (30-years or more with illnesses? a lifelong battle against depression?) and journey through life with weighty burdens (rebellious children? unreconciled relationships? sexual sins committed against us?), Paul tells us to consider these things as momentary and light — in comparison to the eternality and weight of the glory that will be received in Heaven (2 Cor 4:17).
Our temptation is to think too much about earth and not enough about Heaven. Our tendency is to overlook Heaven’s benefits and overvalue earth’s attractions. When we suffer for inordinate lengths of time and endure crushing burdens, it is a reminder to compare those things not to the frailties that others carry, but to compare them to what we will receive in Heaven. Thirty years with an illness is momentary in comparison with eternity, which won’t even have begun significantly after 100,000 years. Crushingly difficult burdens really are light when compared to the crowns of righteousness to be given to God’s faithful ones in Glory.
Gradual sanctification drives us to look Heavenward and away from earth as our satisfaction. Lack of a spiritual zap of holiness makes Heaven appear more enticing to needy people.
- Lack of instant sanctification is a means of testimony to the world
Progressive sanctification is testimony of the power of God to transform sinners, and it becomes an opportunity to share the reason for the hope of Christ that is within us (1 Pt 3:15). When we live in an understanding way with a difficult wife (1 Pt 3:7) or are submissive to husbands who are disobedient to the Word (1 Pt 3:1), it is testimony to those spouses of the power of God to change people. Those spouses know who we really are. And when we are increasingly changed under adverse circumstances, it is like a saltlick for cattle or a magnet for steel — it is a means of attracting sinners, whom we particularly love, to Christ.
By putting all these ideas together we find that progressive sanctification brings greater glory to God as he daily sustains imperfect followers and increasingly sanctifies them despite their frailties and fleshliness.
So, why doesn’t God immediately sanctify those he justifies? Because it gives him greater glory and it is for our greater good (even if it doesn’t appear to make our lives “easier”).
Terry Enns is the pastor of Grace Bible Church in Granbury Texas. He has over twenty years of pastoral counseling experience, and is a certified counselor with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC, formerly NANC). In addition to his preaching and pastoral duties at Grace, Terry maintains an active blog at Words of Grace.
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