Sanctification: Keep Advancing!
For a number of years, my family enjoyed a mid-summer escape from the hot winds of the Kansas plain to the cooler heights of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Colorado. With Horn Peak looming above our cabin, we were nourished by the warm-hearted fellowship of the saints and the heart-warming teaching of God’s Word.
I will always remember our first drive there. We had just landed in one-hundred-plus degree Kansas from cool, coastal California (Have I ever told you we could see the ocean from our bed?). Just a few days later we were to head back west toward the mountains to spend time with our new Presbytery family at camp. As with all our travel plans, we were delayed. The clock ticked as we sat in our rural ER with our 1 ½ year old, waiting for the doctor to sign off so we could hit the road. His knee had “popped” while playing with his older brother as we packed. Our late start put our drive up into the mountains after sunset. The most challenging, and what should have been the most beautiful part of the drive, was in pitch-black night, while maneuvering our Suburban toward our final, near-heavenly home for the week.
Mountain roads are never straight. Some measure distance “as the crow flies,” that straight line between two points. If you have ever driven mountain roads, though, you know that measurement is exactly meaningless. The lay of the land determines the length of the road between your location and your destination. Along the way, there may be innumerable ups and downs, switchbacks, washed-out bridges, fallen rocks, and, if your drive is like ours that night, obstructed by flocks of mountain goats! Now, put all of that in the pitch-black night of the post-sunset east side of a mountain range, and you have a picture of the progress of Sanctification.
We would certainly rather make our way to heaven “as the crow flies.” We desire life lifted high above the clouds, mountains, and challenges of this life. Three steps forward and two steps more––that is all we wish. However, the lay of the providential land of our lives, as the Lord has ordained them, determines the distance from our present location to our final destination. There are ups and downs. Heaven, at times, seems just an arm’s-length away, but a few days later, our hearts suspect we may never make it. The advancing strength of the people of God in Psalm 84 must be for others. While our bodies are wasting away, our souls appear to be also (a wrong view of 2 Corinthians 4:6). There are switchbacks. Life can jerk us back and forth as the sins of others play out in consequences for us. More than one plodding saint has found their feet on quite a different path than they imagined at the start. We find washed-out bridges, fallen rocks. As obstacles pile up in our way––unprofitable work, rebellious children, an unbelieving spouse, spiritual depression, disease––are they even worth climbing over? Certainly, another will lie just beyond! And how do we make those smaller leaps with no bridge? Do I trust the Lord? Should I turn around and go back to the safety of the flatlands? How can I make that leap? Pitch-black night. The tormenting night of the soul leaves all these other challenges far behind. Our present societal concerns have suicide climbing the list of options for those struggling to cope with harsh realities. Once the sun sets, everyone is a boogeyman, all challenges insurmountable, all hopes gone. Even God’s prophets experienced deep, dark pits in their lives.
Yet, with the promises of God’s Word, there is no way all of these challenges are for naught. We may feel lost in the frustration of Sanctification’s progress, but as we make our way to our heavenly home for eternity, we can know clearly how to view them. James says: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2–4, ESV). The same God who gave us faith sends trials to test that faith, growing it into steadfastness. As we grow in that steadfastness, learning to exercise our faith in all sorts of circumstances, we are able to face greater challenges that, in turn, test our faith, growing us in greater strength.
This should bolster our hope as we face life’s obstacles. Each up and down is ultimately a rise in our altitude. Every switchback, a step forward. The boulders and missing bridges catalyze our faith to grow us in grace. Sanctification does not know the way the crow flies, but it is very well aware of the power and presence of the Savior, the filling and uplifting of the Spirit, on that long, dark road up the mountain of holiness. Sanctification is not quick and painless. Few worthwhile endeavors in this life are. Sanctification is a tedious and treacherous path. In our Justification, heaven is made our home. In our Sanctification, which necessarily follows our Justification, we begin walking that long, mountain road, which rises and falls, cuts back and forth, is littered with obstacles, but leads us safely to home to our Lord and Master. It is a road leading to great heights of holiness in Christ, level landings of love with the Father, and breath-taking vistas of our position in Christ, and what it means to ultimately experience holiness in this life, without which we will never see the Lord.
Joel Wood is the pastor of Trinity RPC in Burtonsville, MD, between DC and Baltimore. He holds M.Div. and D.Min. degrees from the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is 1/4 of The Jerusalem Chamber podcast, a roundtable discussion about the doctrine, worship, and piety of the Westminster Confession of Faith.