In 1981, more than a century after America ended slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, the West African nation of Mauritania abolished slavery, the last country in the world to do so. According to a CNN report, since Mauritania's later criminalization of slavery in 2007, only one—one—slave owner has been successfully prosecuted in a country where an estimated 10 to 20 percent of citizens are slaves.

It's hard to imagine that in the same year the first woman joined the Supreme Court, the AIDS virus was discovered, the world raptly watched as Princess Di married Prince Charles, and MTV was launched, one nation still permitted slavery.

for we moderns, whose days are ruled by objective markers of time—years, months, weeks, minutes, with Google calendars and Outlook reminders to track them all—it's easy to forget that time is relative. With lives characterized by the overwhelming sense of time relentlessly marching on, it's hard to remember that God transcends time. Yet, we often insist, adamantly, that change come instantaneously—or at least that change occur in others in perfect synchronization with our own.

Yes, time is of the human realm, not God's. And within the vast, dark sea of human time, moments of epiphany glimmer here and there like beacons of hope, transcending time and changing the warp of human experience forever.

This is how sanctification works. God's work of redeeming us occurs in time, but its results transcend time into eternity. According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, sanctification, which takes place after regeneration, is "the work of God's free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness." Sanctification is the continuous transformation of a new creation into greater conformity with the character of Christ under the power of the Holy Spirit. Sanctification takes time. But not the kind of time that can be penciled in.

We often expect sanctification—whether our own, someone else's or that of the church universal—to take place quickly, if not immediately. We foolishly think that upon repentance, old habits, desires, and temptations will be shed like snakeskins. Once in a while, to be sure, instant turnaround can happen, making for a dramatic Wednesday night testimony. But perseverance, not speed, is the true mark of real transformation.

Nothing reflects the slowness of sanctification more poignantly than the issue of slavery. For slavery—both literal and metaphorical, both on a personal and a global scale—has haunted the human condition throughout all of recorded history.

Article continues below

On the personal scale stands John Newton, the slave-ship-captain-turned-clergyman most famous for penning the hymn Amazing Grace. The Sunday School version of the story usually omits Newton's long, arduous process of sanctification. For his famous conversion aboard a storm-tossed sea vessel did not bring his slave ship days to an end, not right away. Newton continued in the slave trade for several years, during which an even darker chapter of the story unfolded. While the evidence is not conclusive, it is likely (one biographer calls it "probable") that Newton participated—even after his initial spiritual crisis aboard the wave-battered ship—in the rape of slave women held captive on the ships, a routine happening well-documented and even described (with veiled self-incrimination) in Newton's own journals.

It strains the 21st-century imagination to understand how someone who claimed faith in Christ could continue in such horrific behavior. Part of the puzzle is that along with individual fallenness, corporate sin and cultural mindsets play great parts in our individual recognition and rejection of sin—and, conversely, our failure of the same. Slavery had been an accepted part of human civilization since its beginning. Like individual sanctification, cultural change, too, usually requires a painfully long time and the sometimes-heavy hand of a sovereign God.

Eric Metaxas sharply depicts the global scale of slavery in his biography of William Wilberforce, the British Parliamentarian who spearheaded his country's abolition of the slave trade in the 19th century:

Everywhere on the globe, for 5,000 years, the idea of human civilization without slavery was unimaginable … . What Wilberforce vanquished was something even worse than slavery, something that was much more fundamental and can hardly be seen from where we stand today: he vanquished the very mindset that made slavery acceptable and allowed it to survive and thrive for millennia. He destroyed an entire way of seeing the world, one that had held sway from the beginning of history, and he replaced it with another way of seeing the world …. Even though slavery continues to exist here and there, the idea that it is good is dead. The idea that it is inextricably intertwined with human civilization, and part of the way things are supposed to be, and economically necessary and morally defensible is gone. Because the entire mindset that supported it is gone … it was nothing less than a fundamental and important shift in human consciousness.
Article continues below

So at last, even in the last slaveholding country of Mauritania, slavery's time has come.

In this temporal realm, we will still be slaves, either slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness. Through the process of sanctification, we can become slaves to righteousness. But whether we are grappling with the corporate sin of slavery, or the personal sins of lust, addiction, fear, or pride, until we enter eternity, sanctification always takes time.

Even so, at some point, the time to wait is over, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., once argued so eloquently; the time to act arrives, and our slavery to sin must be abolished.