Growing downward: brief thoughts on sanctification and spiritual maturity.
This article was originally written for Christ Hold Fast.
If there is a doctrine that has desecrated more ministries throughout the eons of Christendom’s history, it is undoubtedly the doctrine of sanctification. It has been the fodder for numerous debates in the evangelical blogosphere of late, but before all that, it was the schismatic tool of the devil to divide congregations and deflate discipleship. Such is the paradoxical peril of getting sanctification wrong: it never results in a thirst for growth.
Innate within each of us is the determined (read, stubborn) will to “better” ourselves. We yearn for the “superior version” of ourselves — the healthier self, the stronger self, the sexier self, the wealthier self — the self that has everything together and going in the right direction. Of course, this desire isn’t unique to churchgoing folk. Everyone in the history of the world has felt the ache for betterment, for enoughness. “People are suffering and dying under the torture of the fantasy self they’re failing to become,” writes David Zahl in his 2019 masterpiece, Seculosity.1
Even so, a Christian’s spiritual aspirations are naturally appealing towards methods of determining his or her spiritual maturity and aptitude and apprehension. This sense of advancement coupled with an innate drive for control has propelled many back to manifestations of the law — back to regulations and provisos enforced with the goal of improving our spiritual standing. So we think, at least. Yet the notion that a list of rules will make us better has never been more misguided and mistaken. Words of law can never make anyone good, it can only show one what goodness looks like. “The Law, apart from the Gospel,” writes RJ Grunewald, “at best will generate a begrudging submission to rules.” This doesn’t, however, hinder us from the attempting — we haven’t yet figured out that an affinity for law increases suffering, instead of relieving us from it (Rom. 5:20).
I’ve heard it said that biblical sanctification is the learned skill of blessed self-forgetfulness. “Sanctification,” writes Presbyterian minister William James, “may be almost defined as self-forgetfulness or self-abandonment.”2 This I believe to be true. Christian maturity is the antithetical art of diminishing concern on personal progress and increasing attention on and affinity for the perfection, holiness, and righteousness of Jesus Christ — all of which are given to you at the moment of belief in the gospel of his atoning work. These realities cannot be earned in any sense of the word. They are God’s gift to us through his Son. Becoming like Jesus means focusing less and less on yourself and more and more on Christ, and all that’s already been accomplished for you by his hand. Such is the counterintuitiveness of sanctification. Such is its conflict, too.
Sanctification is at once both the easiest and hardest endeavor we could ever undertake. It’s easy because it’s free (at least for us). All that’s required is self-forgetfulness and trust in the free-forever-forgiveness of the crucified Christ — but that, too, is the hard part, considering we humans are a terribly self-absorbed, self-sufficient bunch. We are conceited creatures by nature, born with a fatal dose of narcissism to go along with an utter averment to dependence on anyone, let alone a sovereign Creator. The Old Adam in each of us craves the spotlight. We want the credit, the attention, the glory. With this old nature in tow, our “growing in grace” is often nothing more than spiritualized navel gazing. Thus, if the crux of something involves disregarding credit or achievement, let alone forgetting ourselves entirely, we will naturally buck at any such operation like the stubborn mules we are. James continues:
I do not see how any can ever know the power of the love of Christ, unless they have first been made to know thoroughly the depth of their own worthlessness, nor how the conviction of this can ever be produced but by long-continued failures in an effort to redeem themselves.3
Growth and maturity in the Spirit doesn’t look like we think it does. That’s because it’s backwards. The mechanics of Christian growth and spiritual progress operate directly opposed to how we think they should. Our logic contends that mature Christians are those who have made significant progress in becoming holy, often at the expense of those around us. But this is not the way of the gospel. “The way down is the way up,” writes Orthodox minister Stephen Freeman. “The ladder of divine ascent is actually a ladder of divine descent.” Similarly, in an essay entitled, “The Voice of the Law, the Cry of Lament, and the Shout of Thanksgiving,” Concordia Seminary professor Mark Seifrid eloquently conveys this paradox of Christian progress, writing:
Progress in Christian living is thus paradoxical. We go forward by ever going back to Christ crucified and risen for us. Christian growth often is construed as a gradual, upward path to sanctification. This picture is false and unbiblical. It implicitly carries us away from Christ and the liberation from ourselves that only his cross and resurrection can give. We are not called to progress in ourselves away from Christ but to progress in Christ away from ourselves — away from the fallen reality that determines us as children of Adam. All progress is a return to the beginning of the Christian life, where it enters more deeply into the wonder of God’s love in Christ in the face of our sin and misery. The “flesh” can neither be reformed nor rehabilitated. It must be crucified.
Indeed, as Anglican minister and author Nick Lannon asserts, Christians grow in reverse. Evangelical maturity is backwards. It’s not, as is commonly supposed, about the arduous task of summiting a spiritual Mt. Kilimanjaro — rather, it’s more like going spelunking in the caverns of God’s grace. Lannon writes:
The more mature in Christ you become, the more aware you are of your immaturity . . . Christian growth, then, is not a progression upward, from weakness to strength. True Christian growth is more properly to be thought of as a progression downward, from assumed strength to acknowledged weakness . . . Christian growth isn’t like climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. It’s more like a spelunking expedition descending into Mammoth Cave . . . Spiritual maturity isn’t about getting better and better and seeing fewer and fewer people around you in the pews who can measure up to the standard you’re setting; no, real spiritual maturity is about the light of Christ shining into ever deeper and darker unexplored corners of your sinful heart. Christian growth comes from being reminded . . . just how much and how desperately you need Jesus.4
This, to be sure, isn’t meant to imply that growth in any way is somehow a bad thing. I only mean to align my thoughts (and yours) with what constitutes growth according to the gospel. That is, growth in the right direction. James, likewise, reasons:
I do indeed admit the necessity of advancing — that is, of growing upward, and outward, in the fruits of holiness; but I say, further, that this will follow of itself from your growing downward in the principle of faith, and in no other way. This is the root of the tree . . . Sanctification (by which we mean entire devotion to God) is nothing else but the natural and necessary effect of a free justification — growing out of it just as the branches of a living vine grow out of their parent stock.5
This is what true Christian maturity looks like Jesus. Sanctified people smell like grace. Those who are growing are those who’ve been humiliated in the incandescent brilliance of God’s glorious and gracious gospel. Mature Christians are those who understand they’re nothing but spiritual children who are free to fall with frequent abandon into the loving arms of the Father, the same as their toddlers would. Sanctification is not about progressing upwards — it’s a downward progression: the more mature in Christ you are, the more aware you are of your immaturity. Spiritual maturity is not achieved in our realized ascension from weakness into strength. Rather, it’s upside-down to us because it necessitates a crystalized view of ourselves in all our weakness, unworthiness, and insufficiency in contrast to the awesome glory and grace and faithfulness of God. Such a view of ourselves can only be bred out of a deepened affinity for the words of God that affirm our justified standing.
“I am entirely convinced,” writes James in one of his letters, “that the way in which we commonly seek sanctification, making holiness the basis of assurance, instead of assurance the basis of holiness, is directly opposed to the wisdom of God in the plan of salvation.”6 Such is my conviction. And such is the truth of sanctification; such is its backwards-ness, too, in that we ought never depart from or lose those first feelings of deliverance. Sanctification is squelched and suffocated to the degree that we forget what it was like to be a sinner broken, naked, and prostrate before a holy God yet at the same time fully redeemed, loved, and pardoned. “All carefulness about our sanctification in the way of studied efforts for it,” continues James in another letter, “unless founded on an absolute assurance that it is already ours in Christ, will defeat itself; that we have nothing to do but to depend on Christ for it, as we depend on him for justification.”7 The same manner in which we were brought to salvation must continue to be the manner in which we dive deeper into it — not through a rigorous syllabus on obedience but through a cultivated sense of unconditional absolution.
David Zahl, Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2019), xv.
William James, Grace for Grace: Letters of Rev. William James, edited by S. W. H. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1875), 246.
James, Grace for Grace, 70.
Nick Lannon, Life Is Impossible: And That’s Good News (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird Ministries), 151–52, 159.
James, Grace for Grace, 203, 219.
James, Grace for Grace, 31.
James, Grace for Grace, 144.