Quit the "I Just Need to" Approach to Sanctification

by Derek Brown

Growing in Christlikeness isn’t easy. At times, it is downright painful. That’s why the New Testament uses words like “strive” and “agonize” and metaphors of warfare to describe and motivate our pursuit of holiness (see Luke 13:24; Rom 8:13; Eph 6:11-18; 1 Tim 6:12; 2 Tim 4:7). Although we are born again and possess the Holy Spirit, indwelling sin still remains a powerful enemy with which we must do daily battle (Rom 6:15-19). 

But due to the intensity of the fight and the prospect of lifelong spiritual combat, Christians can be tempted to locate a shortcut so they can bypass the struggle and arrive at holiness without the pain of constant warfare. Historically, the Keswick movement was a formal example of man’s attempt to find a way around the normal pattern of sanctification. Keswick leaders told their people they needed to come to a crises moment and surrender themselves fully to God (i.e., “let go and let God”) so they could enjoy effortless spiritual victory for the remainder of their lives.  

Sadly, this faulty view of sanctification has lead believers to deep discouragement as they realize that sin still remains a potent enemy even after their so-called crises moment. It has also lead to self-deception as some folks, having experienced their “crises moment,” take a passive approach to holiness and don’t do the hard work of putting their sin to death, thus leaving themselves vulnerable to sin’s power in their lives. Christian historians and theologians have been right to label the Keswick model an unhelpful, even pernicious, approach to sanctification. 

But in a similar, more benign way, we might be tempted to approach our growth in sanctification with what the late David Powlison called the “I just need to” mindset. That is, in our pursuit of Christlikeness, we keep looking for that one truth or that one practice that will eliminate or significantly lessen our struggle with sin and catapult us into a realm of spiritual rest and ease. “I just need to start reading my Bible every morning, keep a journal, embrace God’s sovereignty better, understand justification more clearly, serve more, pray longer, get more counsel and discipleship, and my battle with sin won’t be so difficult.”

While each of these practices and truths are certainly helpful means of spiritual growth and may even provide some lasting change and freedom in our lives, at no point should we expect our battle with sin to disappear. According to Scripture, we must fight against sin until the day we die (Phil 3:13-14). Indeed, maintaining these practices and keeping these foundational truths at the center of our thinking will require constant attention and the mortification of the flesh.

Although this may seem slightly discouraging at first, there is actually great freedom in shunning the “I just need to” approach to sanctification (John 8:32). As we incorporate the God-given means of spiritual growth in our lives, we won’t be beset by the constant (yet elusive) search for that one truth or practice or discipline that will relieve us from the burden of the daily battle. We will be guarded against discouragement and disillusionment, and we will likely be happier because our expectations will be more in line with reality.     

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