Sanctification: Ditches, Tugs, and Work


After a string of busy days, yesterday I took a rest day. A lazy day. An R & R day. I spent most of the day on the couch. It was great. But there’s lots to be done this week, and now that I’m rested and refreshed, it’s back to work. Which got me thinking…


tug of war“Dear friends, you always followed my instructions when I was with you. And now that I am away, it is even more important. Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. 13 For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.” (Phil. 2:12-13 NLT) [emphasis added].


You’ve seen a tug of war. And, if you’re like me, there have been times when you’ve felt like the rope. Living these two verses can be like walking down a pathway with deep ditches on either side of you, and these ditches are alive and are trying to pull you in. The only way to walk forward is to keep a careful footing in the center, and to resist the constant tug of war.

If you were to summarize verses 12 and 13 of Philippians chapter 2, it might read something like this: “Work hard to grow in the faith. But God is the one working in you to do, and to want to do, His will.” Or, even shorter, it could read: “Work hard, but it is God working in you so that you can and will.” 

I love these two verses because they seem to sum up the tug of war that I’ve been waging in my mind for a very long time. It’s a subtle battle sometimes, but the tension can often throw me off my focus on growing spiritually and serving Christ. And there’s two deep, muddy ditches on either side of the pathway. Ditch 1 is trying hard to grow for God. And ditch 2 is letting go and letting God take control of my life. Sound like phrases you’ve heard before? Probably.


So, who does the work in my sanctification? Verse 12 is clear, I need to get busy, set goals, and be intentional in my Christian growth. Throughout the new testament we learn that if we are not working at our christian growth it is most likely evidence that we’ve not been converted. Someone who has been given a gift so great as salvation will respond to that gift in practical gratitude. Romans 12:10-11 says, “Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically.

But Phil. 2:13 puts this all into proper perspective – it is only God who can create any lasting change in my desires and actions. Just as He brought me to spiritual life, He must bring me to spiritual growth. So the answer to the question above, really, is both! We are commanded to work at it, and we will be held responsible if we don’t, but only God can get it done.

You’re in ditch 1 if your efforts are active but independent, and intended to be a gift to (or even a response to) God.

You’re in ditch 2 if you have a heart/mindset of dependency, but you’re passive and not doing anything.

I’ve spent lots of time in both ditches.


The solution here is quite simple. Work hard to grow, but know that when the growth does come, God is doing it. But what does that look like?

God does not want you to be an instant “super Christian.” He does not intend for you to be completely holy as he is holy – by tomorrow. (Maybe read that last sentence again.) Don’t get me wrong, His standard is still perfect holiness – without which you could never be His child or enter His heaven. And Phil. 1:6 tells us that He has you on that track and will complete that work in you. And yet, He has given us perfect righteousness in Christ already. We own it now. Present tense. But we’re not living perfectly righteous lives.

Catch the tension? He has designed a process (theologians call it “progressive sanctification”) whereby we gradually grow into what we already are positionally in Christ. This truth helps keep us from getting on the cycle of unrealistic goals – reaching for complete perfection, then crashing down into the cold mud of reality, again and again.


But thinking this way could easily lend itself to laziness. Considering all we’ve said about the work of Christian growth thus far, consider the following verses:

Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed…” (II Tim. 2:15)

“But on the judgment day, fire will reveal what kind of work each builder has done. The fire will show if a person’s work has any value. If the work survives, that builder will receive a reward. But if the work is burned up, the builder will suffer great loss. The builder will be saved, but like someone barely escaping through a wall of flames” (I Cor. 3:13-15).

I don’t have space here to discuss the relationship between our work in this life and God’s approval of us, or of our rewards in glory. Perhaps another post is warranted. But, in support of the point here, these verses clearly demonstrate that the Christian’s life must involve hard work.

I saw this tweet by Tim Challies yesterday: “We tend to overestimate what we can do in a short period, and underestimate what we can do over a long period.

If God, by grace, took us to 48-hour, super-saint-hood in our spiritual maturity , we would almost certainly become self-exalting. The purpose for the process is His glory. So embrace it.

Embrace it with realistic goals and long-term expectations of growth by His grace at work in you.

Embrace it with a dissatisfaction for how you’re living now.

Embrace it with passionate effort.

Embrace it as a means to His glory, not your goals.

Embrace it as His perfect work in, and over, and through your hard work.


About Kevin Burrill

A Christian, a pastor, a widower, a husband, a father, a thinker, a worshipper, and a teacher - simply seeking to know my God more and more along the journey, and hoping that what I'm learning will impact others as I'm finding out His greatness. View all posts by Kevin Burrill

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