I’m not a proponent of progressive sanctification. I think the doctrine has done incalculable damage, placing burdens on people that Jesus never intended them to carry.
So what is Christian growth? What does progressing as a Christian look like? For many today it looks like doing good works, becoming more pious, getting better day by day. But is this biblical?
Paul, writing to the Ephesians, said “to me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given…” (Eph. 3:8). This letter was written toward the end of Paul’s life and ministry and he readily admits that he’s “least of all saints”. It seems to me that Paul’s understanding of sanctification was very different than many teachers today. If sanctification is about getting better then Paul wasn’t progressing in his sanctification very well. In 1 Corinthians Paul writes that Jesus is not only our justification (righteousness) He is our sanctification (1:30). Here it seems that sanctification is not a thing, or a goal, it’s a Person, and His name is Jesus.
I believe that Christian growth happens when we understand the “for me” implications of the gospel and allow them to turn our eyes off of ourselves and our constant need for self-justification and turn them to Christ who alone has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. It’s about recognizing our new identity in Christ. Instead of attempting to fix up the old clunker (our old Adam) in the garage, we enjoy the brand new car (new creation in Christ) that Jesus has gifted to us by virtue of His perfect life and sacrificial death. Augustine defined sin as “man curving in upon himself”…ironically much of what is called Christian growth is simply a turning of the Christian in upon himself, constantly fretting over his growth and progress. No, this isn’t growth, this is an impediment, the very antithesis of growth.
So do I think that Christian growth is important? Yes. But once we begin to define it or quantify it we’ve already said too much. Do I think that good works are good and necessary? Yes. But they are not our good works, they were created by God and given to us to walk in by faith (Eph. 2:10). Furthermore our good works are not for God, they are for our neighbor. If God created the good works and gifted them to us, why would he want them back? The good works we walk in by faith are not for God they are for our neighbor because as Luther said, “God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbor does.”
So before you call me an antinomian or a purveyor of “cheap-grace” please know that this is the very opposite of what I’m saying.