Becoming a Christian, as important as that is, is simply the first step in a very long journey. Jesus did not come to earth, die a horrible death, and then rise again just so that we could be forgiven, as important as that is. He came so that we might be remade in his image.
That is why Christ suffered on a cross for us – not just to forgive us but to remake us. The Christian life is one long work of becoming more and more like Christ as we become less and less like our old self. That is an ongoing work which continues until the day we die. As J. Budziszewski said in The Revenge of Conscience: “Although the forgiveness of sin takes an instant, the cure of the sin-soaked soul is gradual and not complete until heaven.”
Justification is the very first vital step, but things do not end there. Indeed, the conception of justification without sanctification is nowhere found in Scripture. We are justified (made right with Christ) so that we might be sanctified (made like Christ). As Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it, “To divorce forgiveness of sins from the remainder of the Christian life and to regard it as if it were the whole is clearly heresy.”
We are first saved so that we might grow more and more in the image of Christ. That is the goal we all should be pursuing. If that is not your aim then you should well ask if you are in fact really a Christian. The New Testament is quite clear on this. Consider just a few key passages on this:
-Matthew 5:48: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
-Romans 8:29: For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
-Galatians 4:19: My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you,
-Ephesians 4:13: until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Becoming more like Christ certainly means loving what he loves and hating what he hates. Jesus, the perfect and holy son of God, of course loves righteousness and hates sin. That is exactly what we find in Hebrews 1:9: “You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.”
So any genuine growth in Christ must be accompanied by a growth in an awareness and intense dislike of our own sin. When we first became Christians we repented of our sins, agreed with God about them, and received his forgiveness. But that initial conviction of the repellent nature of our sin was only the beginning.
As we grow in grace, holiness and righteousness, we grow even more aware of the horror of sin and the depth of our own rebellion and sinfulness. How can it be any other way? All true followers of Christ know this truth. As C S Lewis perceptively wrote in his classic book, Mere Christianity:
“When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right. This is common sense, really. You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. You can see mistakes in arithmetic when your mind is working properly: while you are making them you cannot see them. You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.”
Or as Charles Spurgeon said, “You are not mature if you have a high esteem of yourself. He who boasts in himself is but a babe in Christ, if indeed he be in Christ at all. Young Christians may think much of themselves. Growing Christians think themselves nothing. Mature Christians know that they are less than nothing. The more holy we are, the more we mourn our infirmities, and the humbler is our estimate of ourselves.”
And that is exactly what we find with all the great saints, going right back to the earliest followers of Christ. The apostle Paul understood this and experienced it fully. The longer he lived as a Christian, the greater was his awareness of his own sinfulness and decadence.
As he grew more and more like his saviour, he grew more and more discontented with himself, his own righteousness, and his own sinfulness. Consider just three passages from his pen, covering a ten year period. The older and more mature Paul became, the worse he saw his own sinful condition. Consider this sequence:
-“For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9 – written in mid-50s).
-“Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, (Ephesians 3:8 – written in early 60s).
-“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15 – written in mid-60s).
Notice the clear progression here: from “the least of the apostles” to “the least of all God’s people” to the “worst” of sinners. The longer he went on with Christ, the more aware he became of his own sin, and the more it repulsed him. If this was true of Paul and all the great men and women of God throughout church history, should it not be equally true of us?
Should we not also be growing increasingly aware of how horrible sin is – especially our own? And such a growing disgust of sin is a very good thing, because the more we see the horror of our own sin, the more beautiful the saviour becomes. As the great Puritan Thomas Watson wrote in the mid-1600s: “Till sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet.”
Or as J.C. Ryle wrote several centuries later: “Christ is never fully valued, until sin is clearly seen. We must know the depth and malignity of our disease, in order to appreciate the great Physician.” Such a truth led Leonard Ravenhill to say, “There’s one thing we need above everything else; it’s something we don’t talk about these days. We need a mighty avalanche of conviction of sin.”
The church today is largely in such a mess because it has lost a vision both of the holiness of God and the heinousness of sin. The church of Jesus Christ desperately needs to recover both, and to do it quickly, before it is spewed out of his mouth. Well did Spurgeon proclaim:
“Sin is horrible to a believer, because it crucified his Savior! He sees in every iniquity – the nails and the spear! How can a saved soul behold that cursed kill-Christ sin–without abhorrence? My soul, never laugh at sin’s fooleries – lest you come to smile at sin itself! Sin is your Lord’s enemy, and your enemy – view it with detestation, for only so, can you evidence the possession of holiness, without which no man can see the Lord.”
Indeed, three more short lines from Spurgeon are worth closing this piece with:
“O my dear hearers, do ask yourselves whether you have sorrowed for sin because it is sin against God; for any hypocrite is sorry for sin which injures himself, or which may damage his reputation among men; but the essential thing is to be sorry because the evil is a wrong done to God.”
”This day, my God, I hate sin not because it damns me, but because it has done Thee wrong. To have grieved my God is the worst grief to me.”
”If you can look on sin without sorrow then you have never looked on Christ.”