Sanctification: The Hollywood Version

I don’t mean to make light of a believer’s battle with sin, O wretched man and all that. But does anyone else find this account of holiness too much of a story-book ending?

As we grow in the Christian life we are challenged to fight such sin. The person who struggles with anger hears a sermon that teaches and applies “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27). He sees his sin with new clarity, he calls out to God for help, and he goes toe-to-toe with the devil to put this sin to death. The person who skims a little off the top or takes it easy at work encounters these words in his personal devotions: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (4:28). He is cut to the heart, asks God for forgiveness, and searches God’s Word for what it says about a life of righteous honesty. The person who loves to gossip suddenly has these words come to mind during a time of corporate confession: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (4:29). She understands that God himself is challenging her and she repents and commits herself to speaking only what edifies and heals.

Over time these people find that the battle grows easier. A day comes when she realizes it has been weeks since she has gossiped, a day comes when he realizes it has been months since he has had an angry outburst. But it gets even better than that. One day she is faced with the temptation to gossip and her first instinct is to reject the opportunity and instead to speak words that give grace to those who hear. One day he is presented with a golden opportunity to enrich himself at someone else’s expense, and without even thinking about it, he turns away, choosing instead to do his work well and to give with generosity. Both understand that this is a profound evidence of God’s grace—he has given them entirely new instincts toward sin. Where their old instinct was to indulge, their new instinct is to refrain. Where their old instinct was toward sin, their new instinct is toward holiness. They now delight to do what is right in an area that was once the source of so much sin and so much temptation.

I mean, once you think you’ve “got the victory” aren’t you all the more vulnerable to sin (at least the sin of pride)? And on the flip side, if I continue to struggle with sin and other believers don’t, doesn’t that suggest I’m not a believer?

What might Tim Challies’ account of sanctification look like if he watched a movie of a fellow Canadian, Atom Egoyan, whose film Ararat (skin alert), a movie about the legacy of the Armenian genocide for Canadian-Armenians living in twenty-first century Toronto, is all about the multiplicity of motives that fuel human beings? Of course, if you look at people as two-dimensional — serve God or serve Satan — then the diversity of loyalties and ambitions that people have are inconsequential. But if what people tell about the significance of the incarnation is true, that Christ assumed real bodily form and was subject to the political, cultural, and economic arrangements that went with being a first-century Jew, then shouldn’t a realistic account of sanctification look more like Egoyan’s characters than a children’s story book? In other words, isn’t it docetic (that Christ’s body was only an appearance) to deny the nooks and crannies of sanctification in a real-life human being?