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To be fair to myself, there is a larger part of me that really is patient and understanding. But the more I get to know myself, the more I see layers and layers of mixed motives. I'm gracious in part because I am filled with grace. And in part because I don't want to stir up an argument. And in part I need my friend to do me a favor. And in part, I'm fearful that if I don't act graciously, God will not be pleased. And in part, I want people to think of me as gracious. On it goes, one selfish motive after another, all mixed up together with the righteous motive. The outward behavior has certainly improved, but my heart is still desperately wicked and it remains a dark mystery to me (Jer. 17:9).

On top of that, I'm often unsure about the little transformation that I see. I'm not sure where it's coming from. I like to imagine that my improved patience and graciousness is a result of my spiritual efforts motivated by the grace of God. But then I run into a complete pagan at a party who shares with me how much more patient and gracious she has become in getting older. "Life has a way of maturing you, no?" she says. I also think of my late father-in-law, who was an unbeliever but exhibited many more fruits of the Spirit than do many Christians, me included.

Perhaps the Holy Spirit anonymously transforms unbelievers. Or maybe my maturity is simply the product of living a long life and learning from my mistakes. It's hard to say.

The final bit of evidence that perhaps we promise too much sanctification in this life is Paul himself. No question he is a man committed to holy living for Christ. But toward the end of his life, in which striving for holiness was surely part of his daily regimen, he wrote:

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. . . . 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 (Rom. 7:14–15, 18–19).

Then, in one of his last letters, he says he is the "worst" of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). I don't know that we can chalk that up to false humility. I think Paul, the older he got, the more he saw all those layers of sin and wickedness in himself and realized that for all the progress he might have made, in the end, he knew he felt like the greatest of sinners.

The Promise!

This is not a picture of the "victorious Christian life." Yet so much preaching and teaching in American churches seem to suggest that if we just do this or that more fervently—always depending on the grace and power of the Holy Spirit!—we can make significant progress in the life of holiness. We Americans are a very optimistic bunch with a can-do spirit. But I'm wondering if we're overpromising, with the result that we'll eventually underdeliver. This can only lead us into despair.

This is why I tend to be sympathetic to the phrasing of the Heidleberg Catechism (114): "Even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience."

When I make this point, I am often approached by wild-eyed Christians who think I've pulled the rug out from under their feet. "What's the point of being a Christian then, if I can't be transformed?" For some, it seems, faith has become more of a self-improvement project than a living relationship with a gracious God. For others, I wonder if it's simply a matter of forgetfulness.

In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is Editor of Christianity Today in Carol Stream, Illinois.
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