Imagine you are drawing a graph to represent the “spiritual progress” of a Christian throughout their life: what would that graph look like? What would a graph of spiritual progress look like for the thief on the cross? Of course, this depends entirely on how we define “spiritual progress.” Just for the sake of argument, let’s say that progressive sanctification means that our behavior will increasingly reflect the walk of Christ so that our “spiritual progress” can be measured directly by our behavior. It’s just a hypothetical. In order to evaluate the truth value of this definition of spiritual progress, let’s turn to the walk of the apostle Peter and examine his behavior throughout the biblical record to see what we can learn–and if what we learn is in keeping with our definition of spiritual progress.
In the beginning, Peter has a revelation of his sinfulness before Christ and falls down to worship Him as He sits in his own boat (Lk 5:8). At this juncture, considering his personal admission of sin, let’s consider that, on a scale of 0 to 10, zero being the lowest level of spiritual progress toward a perfect 10, Peter now ranks as a zero. Let’s also assume he’s about 20 years of age at this time. Shortly thereafter, Jesus names Peter an apostle (Mk 3:14); due to the authority of this position, let’s further assume that at this point in his walk, Peter expressed “spiritual progress” of the highest degree, being an apostle of Christ–Peter’s now a 10. Take a gander at the graph I’ve made of Peter’s life below, and follow along with me through the twists and turns of this Christian’s life.
Peter expresses his holiness in Christ by his confession that Jesus is the Christ, sent by God. However, in the same day of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ (Mt 16:16), Peter’s rebuke to Christ concerning His suffering and death on the cross for the sins of the whole world puts him squarely back into the category of “adversary,” which, of course, describes anyone out of fellowship with God (Rom 8:7). We see again Peter’s holiness in his preaching as Christ sends out the 12 (Mt 10). But, again, we see something different in his dispute with the other apostles over who will be the greatest (Mt 20). After Christ’s triumphal entry, Peter is declared to be “clean” with all the other apostles except Judas (Jn 15:3). By this, we can conclude that he was in fellowship with Christ despite his disputings with the other apostles over who was the greatest. Again and again, we see this sporadic and episodic expression of the holiness that we expect in one who follows Christ. After the Jerusalem council, Peter, having testified already that the gentiles can be saved by Christ through faith in His name, now gives way to fear of the Jews as they preach circumcision to the gentile converts. What’s interesting about this encounter in particular is just how far down the road of apostolic ministry Peter has gone when it crops up. Paul, in Galatians, testifies that the rebuke he gives to Peter in Antioch occurs 17 years after his conversion! Thus, we see Peter as a 20-year-Christian “walking not according to the Truth of the Gospel” (Gal 2:14). Back to our question: is there any chance that our measuring stick for progressive sanctification can accurately describe this process? Not at all. If spiritual progress in Christ could be described this way, then we would see Christians who’s lives follow a different, distinct pattern. Their lives would have a regular and upward trajectory toward Christ-likeness (see Graph 2).
Instead, we see Christians whose lives more closely follow that of Peter’s pattern. Why is this the case? Because our definition was wrong from the get go. You see, our definition must depend entirely on the scriptures, or we are lost. The Christian life seems to consist of a 0 to 100 sort of thrill ride from unconverted to converted, characterized by the concept of new birth. This is then followed by a maturation that is better characterized by the slow maturation of a child into a man of age. If we firmly hold to a grace-based salvation, that is to say that only Christ’s blood shed on the cross for sin could ever give us eternal life, then “spiritual progress” cannot be rightly defined in a “works-based” way.
“Spiritual progress must be defined as the work of the Holy Spirit within the man”
Instead spiritual progress must be defined as the work of the Holy Spirit within the man, not the work of the will of man upon the flesh. It is His work, not ours. Possibly the best scriptural description of this “work” being done in a man by the Spirit is Phillipians 2:13: “[f]or it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.” Is this communication and work by the Spirit within the man against the will of the man? Not at all. If this were the case, then surely, as God is good and there is no darkness in Him, we would see nothing but perfect obedience at every moment in anyone who had the Holy Spirit. Our observations of the converted would yield robotic perfection. Instead, episodic interruptions in this communication are typical of the converted state (see graph “Peter’s Progress”). However, Peter’s consistent returns are evidence of the faith in him that had not failed (Lk 22:32). In other words, what was not seen—faith—was the reason for his perseverance. Therefore, we conclude that perseverance and not perfection marks out the life of the believer in Christ.
“Perseverance and not perfection marks out the life of the believer in Christ.”
Is there then such a thing as “spiritual progress” as a believer in Christ? Yes, but it’s not what you might think. Let’s look at Peter, again. When he first encountered the threat of martyrdom, he retreated, not willing to do what he said he would do, and he denied Christ to avoid it. Later, Christ tells him of the death that he will die upon the cross, and, now we see in him a change (Jn 21:8). It’s not self-discipline. It’s submission. Growth in the Christian life is summed up in one word–humility. Humility is manifested as submission to God’s will. Progress, if there is any, is an increasing dependence on the Lord. If there is any growth, it is a growth in humility that submits more readily to the will of God as we cooperate with His Holy Spirit. Sanctification is submission, which is not work, but rather the cessation of work. Nonetheless, there does exist this progress in cooperating with the Spirit. If this did not exist, then chastisement would only be brutality. No, the Lord uses chastisement upon free believers in order to produce the peaceable fruit of holiness in their lives.
“Spiritual growth in the Christian life is, in a word, humility.”
If, on the other hand, God’s work in us was not able to be resisted by the will of man, then we’re forced to ask why it is that God would choose to act “progressively” with regard to the expression of holiness in the lives of those whom He chose? This paints the Lord as somehow reluctant to perfect the imperfect behavior of His people. In other words, to say such a thing is to run afoul of the shoals of the problem of evil, which the Calvinistic rendition of this doctrine is teetering upon, ready to break its back in the waves. If God were willing to violate man’s freedom of choice in sanctification, why would he do an imperfect job of it? And all the evil produced in the life of such a creature could then be rightly attributed to God Himself. Rubbish! No, all the evil produced in the life of a believer is squarely and firmly the fault of the believer, and has it’s only source in the will of man. Even in conversion, we are still graciously given freedom to rebel and resist the Holy Spirit, falling short of the glory that is Christ’s alone.
So what would the thief’s graph of “spiritual progress” look like? In an instant, he was perfect. He must be perfect to enter into heaven. All things that offend will be gathered out of the Kingdom (Mt 13:41). There was no time for the Holy Spirit to work in him to will and to do: he did nothing because he could do nothing. Apart from an experience of progressive sanctification, the thief was still perfect. How? By the precious saving blood of Jesus shed on the cross for him. Nothing else could ever pay his debt. No matter how important progressive sanctification is in the life of the believer, we know this: progressive sanctification is not salvific. There is no specific quantity of “progression” that can save. There is no bare minimum of sanctification that alters the course of the soul’s fate. The thief either possessed all or none–he either went up or down. And Christ said he went up. To a long list of things the thief didn’t have when he died, you can add progressive sanctification. His sanctification was all of Christ, none of man. And it was perfect.