I've been giving a lot of thought lately to the process of sanctification and why its characteristics and its timelines are so varied in the Christians I've known.
Why, for example, are we always told that we will know believers by their fruits, and yet Peter tells us that Lot was "righteous"? If there was a "lot" of fruit in Lot's life, it's certainly hidden from readers of Scripture. I have to believe that there was, since the Word declares that he was righteous, and that he was distressed by the "sensual conduct of unprincipled men." And yet God chose not to let us know much about that side of Lot's life.
Could that be because He wanted us to accept that this sanctification we're undergoing is not...formulaic?
Throughout the New Testament, the spiritual maturing process is likened to the physical one, with immature believers being compared to children. There have been many times when I've wondered why my children are behaving so much like....well, like children. But I step back and remember their ages and remember that I, too, was once where they are and sometimes insufferably childish. God has continued to shape and grow me despite my early immaturity.
And yet often I expect a young or new believer to be instantly transformed into the likeness of Christ. At least, I reason, I should be able to SEE some progress toward maturity. When my imperfect eyes don't see progress, I naturally assume there is none. It's easy for me to deny that God can be working His "treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places" out of the line of my sight.
I wonder how many people would seriously consider the claims of Christ if they knew the standards to which God's people would immediately hold them once they came to Him, and how they'd be kept in some dubious "provisional" status until the mysterious fruit appeared. Yes, we're often very patient with new Christians, but when do you cease to be new? Three months? Three years? Ten?
And then I wonder how many years Lot hung around with no visible "fruit" of his righteousness. Granted, Lot's righteousness, as ours, was imputed to him and doesn't mean he acted righteously all or most of the time. But isn't that the case with all of us, sometimes for big chunks of our lives?
Actually, the teaching about "knowing them by their fruit" is often taken out of context. Matthew 7:15-20 says,
15Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
16Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
17Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
18A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
19Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
20Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. [emphasis mine]
Now, make no mistake: I want you to see fruit in my life as evidence of the Tree into which I'm grafted. I am called to holiness, and so is every other child of the Father. But this passage that we so often use to condemn struggling Christians was not talking about struggling Christians. Clearly the "them" here is false prophets. We will know whether a prophet is false by the fruit he leaves behind. Lot wasn't a false prophet. He was a weak, sometimes despicable, immature believer whose behavior was often corrupted by the culture around him, but he was also a man God declared righteous by the same means that you and I are declared righteous: by faith.
John Piper describes the process of sanctification which begins with a believer who is still walking in the flesh:
But even though they are treated as being "in Christ" Paul calls them "fleshly" ([1Cor] 3:1). What does this mean?
It means, first of all, that a deep spiritual walk with God does not usually happen immediately after conversion. When the Holy Spirit invades the enemy territory of our lives and sets up Jesus Christ as King in the capital city of our heart, his strategy for conquering the rebel forces of the flesh that keep up their guerrilla warfare is different for each person. It may be fast or slow. God's clean up operations are very strange.
There are things I did (and indeed, didn't do) for much of my life after coming to know the Lord that were surely looked upon by mature (or just older) Christians as evidence that I couldn't have been saved. As I look back on some of those things, I'm embarrassed. But many of them I committed in ignorance, not yet convicted as I am now of their "wrong-ness." I am thankful that pilgrims who were farther along on the path of obedience than I was showed grace to me and didn't refuse to include me in the community of faith because of my immaturity. And now, I want to extend that same grace to those in my community of faith who don't share all my convictions but whom God isn't finished with yet.
If I mistake an unregenerate man for a regenerate one, I may help give him a false sense of security for a while but in the end my mistake will not affect his destiny or even much about his life here on earth. My increasing understanding of God's sovereignty is relieving my fear that I could keep a man from being saved by assuming, and therefore helping him to assume, that he is already "safe."
If, however, I err in the opposite direction and treat an immature believer as though I don't believe he could possibly be saved, I can easily crush his spirit and discourage his growth by placing hurdles in his path he isn't mature enough to scale. I may also be attempting to relieve myself of the responsibility to engage in the often frustrating and exhausting process of guiding an immature believer, "new" or not, to spiritual maturity. It's easier to write him off as lost.
In Matthew 13, Jesus gives us some sobering words about the dangers of our assumptions.
24Jesus told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
27"The owner's servants came to him and said, 'Sir, didn't you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?'
28" 'An enemy did this,' he replied.
"The servants asked him, 'Do you want us to go and pull them up?'
29" 'No,' he answered, 'because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. 30Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.' "
Did you ever think about why we'd be in danger of uprooting the wheat, or true believers, by trying to pull the weeds? Wouldn't the weeds be self-evident and easy to pluck out without endangering the wheat? Evidently not. Our eyes are not the best judge, and Jesus is warning us that in trying to make the distinctions ourselves we can cause great damage to young, immature believers who might still look a lot like the world.
Just as we are called to evangelize the world not knowing who God's elect are, let us offer grace and dispense mercy not knowing where God may be in the sanctification journey with a soul. As Piper says, His "clean up operations" may seem strange and they may seem slow. But they lead inexorably to making His people into a perfect portrait of Christ...and not always on our preferred timeline.