Yesterday we thought about how sanctification begins. Today we will consider how it progresses as a good work.
First, progressive holiness is a good work because it is a gracious work. Each person of the Trinity is involved. Regarding the Father, Jesus says in John 15:1: ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.’ He prunes the branches (believers) in order that they will bring forth more fruit.
Regarding the Son, each believer is united to him. This is a permanent union. In a way too profound for words to explain, Paul writes in Galatians 2:20: ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’
Regarding the Holy Spirit, he indwells each believer, and works in many different ways in order to achieve holiness of heart and life. Of course, it is a solemn matter to have God indwell us and there is always the danger of grieving the Spirit. Nevertheless, he helps us in our weaknesses, encourages us as the heavenly Comforter, teaches and guides us as the heavenly Instructor, convicts us of our sins and assures us of pardon, and gives the witness of the Spirit in our hearts that is a crucial aspect of our assurance. The fact that the Holy Spirit indwells us should cause us to have great hope because the fact that he came indicates that he desires to work within us.
Second, progressive holiness is, by definition, a growing work. Each believer makes progress, but progress in what? There are certain types of progress that may seem part of this it but in themselves are not. For example, an increasing knowledge of theology is good, but it is not a sign by itself that we are making progress in holiness. All this type of growth may be is an increased knowledge of the opinions of other humans. An increased activity in outward behaviour is not in itself the progress that Paul has in mind. His words in 1 Corinthians 13 make that clear: without love we are nothing.
Spiritual progress is an inner change in which the believer’s sinful heart becomes more and more like Jesus. A believer increases in the fruit of the Spirit, and the list of fruit that Paul gives in Galatians 5 describes the perfectly-balanced heart of the beautiful Saviour. Each Christian develops in every aspect of the fruit of the Spirit, and he grows in love, joy, peace, gentleness etc. When we meet a believer who we have not seen for a while, both he and us should respond, ‘You are more like Jesus than you were the last time I saw you.’
How do we maintain this growth in Christlikeness? Peter says in 2 Peter 3:18: ‘But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.’ This way of growth is straightforward. There are many ways in which we can focus on Jesus. We can think of his names such as Advocate, King, Saviour, Redeemer; we could take one each day and think about it, turning it over in our minds, always with a personal application to ourselves. We can do the same with his promises. Or we can think of people he helped in the Bible.
That verse from 2 Peter describes the environment in which we grow: the grace of Christ. Just as our bodies breathe and eat, and therefore grow, in the natural world, so the Lord Jesus is the spiritual world in which we live. We live ‘in’ Christ, and receive from Christ. It is a world marked by mercy, forgiveness, restoration, promises, and certain hopes.