In light of the whole Tullian Tchividjian / Gospel Coalition dust-up in recent days, Mark Galli has an interesting piece at Christianity Today online titled “Real Transformation Happens When?”. Galli’s thesis will make you do a double-take:
I want to raise one sanctification issue that I don’t see discussed much. I do not doubt the biblical call to holy living (1 Pet. 1:15 being the quintessential text). But after living the Christian life for nearly a half century, I doubt the ability of Christians to make much progress in holiness.
What the what?
But don’t stop there, keep reading.
I look at my own life and marvel at the lack of real transformation after 50 years of effort. To be sure, outwardly I’m more patient, kind, gracious, and so forth. But even after half a century of transformation, my thoughts and motives are a cauldron of evil. Just one small example: When a friend fails to show up on time, I’m outwardly patient and kind, but inwardly I battle judgment and condemnation. Earlier in life, I would have lashed out at him for being tardy, as lack of respect for me among other things. Now I have some self-control as I smile and say, “Not a problem.”
Galli goes on to recognize that while he has undoubtedly improved in some areas, his motivations remain as torn as ever. He also sees patient, kind non-Christians and wonders whether his behavioral improvement is simply the result of maturity and not the Holy Spirit in his life.
This is not to say that we are not “being transformed … from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18, NRSV) even now. But it seems to me the greatest transformation is not necessarily in outward virtue, but in increasing levels of self-awareness — awareness of the depth of our sin — and consequently increasing repentance and humility. Not a humility that points to some virtue in our lives and says, “It wasn’t me, it was the Lord working through me,” but the deeper humility that sees the desperately wicked heart and desperately prays daily, “Lord, have mercy.”
There’s plenty worth reading and considering in Galli’s full post, which I highly recommend you go read.
There are a couple of things that seem like omissions – likely intentional on Galli’s part but that are worth mentioning: first, that he’s writing primarily from the perspective of one who has spent a long time in the faith. A more comprehensive look at the topic would surely recognize that the Holy Spirit can and does make dramatic changes toward holiness in the lives of believers, especially in the case of new believers who have long lived for self before coming to Christ.
The second thought is that Galli may be a bit hard on himself in this article. And yet, as he notes in the post, the Apostle Paul himself, near the end of his life, described himself as “the worst of sinners”, writing in Romans 7 that
For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing…
I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a pastor one day on this topic where I quoted the first lines of Romans 6: “shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?”. I shook my head regretfully, knowing full well both Paul’s answer to his own rhetorical question, and the fact that I too often fail to measure up.
The pastor’s response was immediate, gracious, and breathtakingly honest: “well, I’ve generally found that to be my experience, yeah.”
I find myself once again incredibly thankful for God’s grace.