What does it mean to become sanctified? How do we become more like Christ? How do we live out the faith that has graciously been given to us? These questions have plagued me for years. There are times when I have given up trying to become a better person, waiting for God to miraculously step in and change me. Just as Ephesians 2:8-9 is clear that I am not saved by works, Galatians 3:2-3 is clear that I am not sanctified by works. So why am I still such a wretch?
In Hebrews 12:1, the author gives us two clear commands: throw off everything that hinders and run the race marked out for you. These are things that I have to do—so how does this fit? If I’m not sanctified by works, why do I have to work to be sanctified?
I don’t doubt that this life is like a race. And I can tell you from experience that if I’m running a race my biggest enemy is myself. I have zero stamina. After just a couple of minutes I’m in horrible shape, and I can barely put one foot in front of the other. If I can’t keep it together enough to run 1 or 2 miles, how can I possibly manage a marathon?
Now if God is responsible for my making it to the finish line, do I just stand around and wait for fierce wind to start pushing me, for my legs to miraculously propel me without my control? Of course not! God could do that, of course, but that’s the rare exception. He doesn’t call me to stand around and wait for a miracle, He calls me to go.
So I do what the author of Hebrews says: I throw off everything that hinders and run the race marked out for me. (And thank God it’s marked out! Left to my own devices I would take a wrong turn and end up hopelessly lost.) I run. And I run. And sooner than I’d like to admit, I get tired. But I keep pushing. And it’s at that moment that the miracle happens; if I can power through every obstacle, overcome any pain, beat my body into submission—that’s when I’ll know that God is with me. That’s when sanctification happens.
I know beyond a shadow of doubt that left to my own devices I could never make the finish line. It is physically impossible. But the God who has called me to run the race will be faithful to show up when I need Him most, when all my own efforts fail me. And it’s the very act of successfully pushing through that proves to me God is at work. And when I cross that impossible finish line, I’ll look back and know it was not by my effort but a gracious gift from God.
That’s my theory of sanctification.
The terrain on our races may be different, and you may be facing obstacles that seem impossible. Maybe you even feel like you’ve stalled out and have already failed the race. Don’t give up! As long as you’re alive you can keep running. Each of us runs with a limp—you’re not alone. But the same grace that will carry me past my own reserves will do the same for you. I don’t know any more about what’s around the next bend than you do, but I know that nothing is too difficult for God.
Not so sure? Study the people in Hebrews 11 and tell me: did they cross the finish line on their own? These people prove to us that we can finish well—and that faith in God makes all the difference.
Finally, races are always easier when you have people to run with. Make sure you’re not alone! We’re all running the race, but we’re running it together; don’t try to break from the crowd. We need each other—it’s one of the most important ways God sustains us on the journey.