One of the more embarrassing campfire ditties I sang way back when went a little like this:
He’s changing me, my precious Jesus
I’m not the same person that I used to be
Sometimes it’s slow-going, but there’s a knowing
That one day perfect I will be!
When it comes to our progress in the Christian life, I think this chorus reflects an overly optimistic view that we all have (even if we wouldn’t dare admit to singing that particular song): the Christian life is always upward, victory upon victory, making small but regular advances toward the perfection that will be ours in our glorification. But is that the way our Christian life actually looks? Is that the right way to define progress?
These questions become especially pressing whenever we turn inward to consider the work that Jesus is doing in our lives. If you’re anything like me, you wonder how much Jesus is really doing when you can see next to nothing that is commendable in your life. And after a few times of venturing into the dark chasm of my inner-man, I stop making the journey because I know that it will become a never-ending and despair-inducing search for what does not exist. But of course the problem here is that I have misunderstood what it is that is commendable to God.
The work that God does in me does not commend me to him–that is, it isn’t the basis of my standing before him; only Jesus and his perfect righteousness can put me on a sure foundation before God. Instead, the work that God is doing in me bears witness to the act of God already accomplished, to the verdict of “not guilty” already announced over me intruding into this life from the Day of Judgment.
When I understand God’s work in that way, I don’t just look inwardly for evidence of my obedience; I also look for evidence of my repentance. Any good thing that I do is a fruit of the Spirit’s sanctifying work in me and is rightly counted a progress in the Christian faith. So too, any recognition of sin and failure, any longing for the fullness of eternal life, any feeling of the ache that recognizes in me a life not yet in line with the promise is also a fruit of the Spirit’s sanctifying work and should be rightly counted as progress in the Christian faith.
When we consider that God is changing us, not just by making us do better things but recognize and repent of our sin, our view of progress changes. Our good friend, Tullian Tchividjian, wrote up a great blog post on this very subject. As you prepare to worship God this Sunday, we commend it to you:
[R]eal change happens only as we continuously rediscover the gospel. The progress of the Christian life is “not our movement toward the goal; it’s the movement of the goal on us.” Sanctification involves God’s attack on our unbelief—our self-centered refusal to believe that God’s approval of us in Christ is full and final. It happens as we daily receive and rest in our unconditional justification. As G. C. Berkouwer said, “The heart of sanctification is the life which feeds on justification.”