Without question, one of the most frustrating things about the Christian life is the apparent contradiction between what God reckons us to be and what we, by experience, know ourselves to be. Take the Corinthians, for example. At one point Paul assured them, “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). Sounds like an open-and-shut case, doesn’t it? Until you read Paul’s second letter to this church, in which he seems to say almost the opposite: “Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Corinthians 7:1).

I expect the Corinthians were somewhat confused. Were they sanctified … or contaminated? Actually, they were both, and so are we. In order to explain that, let me take you on a brief tangent.

God’s kingdom is both “now” and “not yet.” It is present in certain respects and future in others. Our Lord came proclaiming and demonstrating that the kingdom (or rule) of God had intersected human history: “If I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Luke 11:20). However, God’s kingdom has not yet come in its fullness. That won’t happen until Jesus returns again in power, when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that He is Lord. Until then, without denying the present reality of God’s kingdom, we fervently pray, “May your kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10).

In this respect, God’s kingdom closely parallels our individual lives. God, through the wonderful work of justification, has declared us righteous. Our legal standing before Him has changed. That issue has been settled once and for all in the high court of heaven. On this side of heaven, though, our internal transformation is an ongoing project. The process of sanctification keeps me busy as a Christian personally, and also provides me with plenty of work as a pastor.

So do we have victory in Jesus or not? Are we overcomers, or are we overcome? Oscar Cullmann suggests an analogy from World War II which I believe can help us grasp this apparent contradiction.

History records two important days toward the end of World War II: D-Day and VE-Day. D-Day took place June 6, 1944 when the Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy, France. This was the turning point in the war; once this landing was successfully completed, Hitler’s fate was sealed. The war was essentially over. Yet total victory in Europe (VE-Day) did not occur until May 7, 1945 when German forces surrendered in Berlin. This eleven-month interval is remembered as one of the bloodiest periods of the war. Pitched battles were fought throughout France, Belgium, and Germany. Although the enemy had been mortally wounded, he did not immediately succumb.

The cross was our D-Day. There the Lord Jesus Christ died to break the chains of sin from His people. On the basis of His death and resurrection, we are justified. Yet the final victory awaits Christ’s return. There is no doubt as to the outcome of things. But we will still find ourselves involved in skirmishes and battles until the Lord appears in glory to vanquish forever the forces of darkness.

This distinction, if kept in mind, can spare us a lot of discouragement. The battle still rages, but the war has been won. An awareness of Christ’s finished work on our behalf is essential for morale as we pursue sanctification. We must study and meditate on the great doctrine of justification until it sinks deeply into our consciousness.

This distinction, if kept in mind, can spare us a lot of discouragement. The battle still rages, but the war has been won. An awareness of Christ’s finished work on our behalf is essential for morale as we pursue sanctification. We must study and meditate on the great doctrine of justification until it sinks deeply into our consciousness.

  • Meditate on 1 John 3:2-3. What impact should our thoughts about the “not yet” have on the “now”?
  • Are there any areas of your life in which you know you aren’t living up to God’s expectations?
  • For further study read 1 Peter 5:8-9. Though God’s ultimate triumph is inevitable, we should fight with a healthy respect for our adversary.

Seven reasons to close the gap

Generally speaking, the world has a negative impression of holiness. Many equate it with a glum, cross-carrying existence devoid of joy. It is seen more as a “holier-than-thou” self-righteousness than as the joyful experience it really is. As we close, let’s refute that idea by looking at some of the many benefits and blessings we gain from following Christ. Here are seven fruits of sanctification:

1. God is glorified. When we are holy, we give weight to our claim that God is as real and wonderful as we say He is. Paul tells us the good works of Christians adorn the doctrine of Christ (Titus 2:10 NAS). Even those who deny God are forced to admit His reality when His people walk in His ways.

2. Ongoing fellowship in this life with the Godhead. “If anyone loves me,” said Jesus, “he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). It’s a tremendous joy and comfort to have the abiding presence of the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit. And Jesus indicates that this presence is a loving presence, not indifferent or impersonal. Of course, along with His presence comes His power, which enables us to overcome the obstacles of life.

3. Fellowship with other Christians. If we walk in darkness, we can’t enjoy authentic relationships with other believers. “But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).

The Lord promises to provide us with companions, fellow travelers on the road of sanctification. For my part, I’ve found that God’s truth combined with the example of God’s people is absolutely necessary for my spiritual growth. And when I’ve walked in His ways I’ve never lacked for either. We need one another in the context of the church in order to succeed. Holiness and Christian community go hand in hand.

4. Assurance of salvation. Though our salvation is not based upon our pursuit of holiness, assurance of salvation is most certainly connected with it. In his second letter, Peter exhorts his readers to make every effort to pile up spiritual virtues, adding goodness to faith and knowledge to goodness until self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love are had in abundant measure (2 Peter 1:5-9). He warns that when these are lacking, a person may forget …

… that he has been cleansed from his past sins. Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:9-11)

5. Evangelism. As a young man under conviction of sin, I tried my best to find fault with Christians so that I might reject their message and dismiss them as hypocrites. But though they weren’t perfect, I could find no major inconsistencies. The large family who reached out to me with the gospel made more of an impact on me with their lifestyle than with their words. The husband loved his wife, the wife respected her husband, the children obeyed their parents, and they were all joyful. I had never seen anything like it.

It has been said that while the world may not read its Bible, it certainly does read its Christians. God uses holy people to reach others. Not perfect, but holy.

6. Understanding, wisdom, and knowledge. These treasures are laid up for those who seek God wholeheartedly (Proverbs 2:1-11). They are withheld from the scorner, the rebel, and the fool.

7. Seeing God. Scripture tells us, “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). While the full meaning of this passage is shrouded in mystery, Scripture does have much to say about “the beatific vision,” or seeing God. It will occur following our Lord’s return when every enemy has been vanquished and we have been totally sanctified. At that time our vision of God will be continual and intense, without distraction or the self-consciousness caused by sin. Then we shall know even as we are known. Not that our knowledge of God will be complete, for He will be ever revealing more and more of His infinite and wonderful self to us.

“Blessed are the pure in heart,” Jesus said, “for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8). This ongoing illumination of His greatness and goodness is by far the most outstanding wonder to result from a life of holiness.

As you can see, there are plenty of good reasons to close the gap between God’s expectations of us and our own experience. We were made to share in His holiness—not just in heaven, but here on earth. Step by step, we can learn to overcome sin and live in a way that increasingly reflects the glory and character of God.

Adapted from How Can I Change: Victory in the Struggle Against Sin. By C.J. Mahaney and Robin Boisvert. Published by Sovereign Grace Ministries (www.SovereignGraceMinistries.org). Copyright © 1993 by Sovereign Grace Ministries. Used with permission.