In particular, we have forgotten eschatology—the end times. Back in the 1960s and '70s, evangelicals could talk about little else. We were mostly concerned with predicting the date of the Second Coming, or looking forward to escaping the evils of this world. It is a good thing that such talk is no more.
But we are wise to remember that in large part, the Christian faith is an eschatological faith—that is, it is mostly about promise and fulfillment, about what Christ's death and resurrection assures us in the future. And one big thing is that we will, in fact, be made holy and blameless in love. I've come to believe that the promise of real transformation does not apply to this life, but to the next (see especially 1 Cor. 15). Thus my hope is not fixed on improvement in this life, but on transformation in the next.
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."
This is the only approach to sanctification that makes sense to me, the only one that grounds me in gospel hope, and paradoxically continues to motivate me to strive for holiness. Not because I actually hope to achieve some level of holiness in this life. But because holy is what I am to become, so I might as well try to live that way now. That is who I am in Christ.
As for progress or lack thereof, I tend to avoid thinking about it much. I leave it in God's hands. As for deciding whether my moral progress is the direct work of the Holy Spirit or the natural consequence of old age and learning from mistakes—that too is beyond my pay grade. My job is not to measure my holiness or that of others ("Do not judge"—Matt. 7:1), nor to despair when I continue to think and do awful things, nor to give others false hope. Our real hope—and the real reason for our lack of despair and our continuing joy—is the promise of future transformation in Christ.
In the meantime, I listen to those who tell us to "strive" for holiness—for their admonitions can be wonderfully bracing at times. And to those who remind me of the radical grace of God—the older I get, the more I need this message of comfort. But mostly I live by hope, and that for me, is gospel too.
Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today.