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Gospel Disproof #34: Progressive sanctification

Today’s Gospel Disproof comes (again) from our friend Eric, who writes:

Salvation is ALL of grace and none of human merit so there is no grounds for boasting and certainly one is given no reason to think that the unsaved are “ even worse than you”.

Eric is partly correct. No matter what you may hear people say when giving their testimony, no matter what the Bible says about how the blood of Jesus “cleanses us from all sin,” and no matter how earnestly the Apostle Paul argues that believers have been freed from sin, “sinners” without God are no worse than believers with God. Or to phrase it in less negative terms, accepting Jesus doesn’t really make you a better person.

Theologians have a way to reconcile the actual behavior of Christians with what the Bible says about having been “set free from sin.” They call it “progressive sanctification.” Basically what that means is that the blood of Jesus does set you free from sin, but it’s progressive. It doesn’t happen all at once. In fact, you won’t really be set completely free from sin until after you die (despite Paul’s use of the past tense: you have been set free from the law of sin and death, not you will be set free). It’s pie in the sky by-and-by. Just ignore the discrepancy for now, and later on, in the next life, it will all be ok.

That excuse could be used to justify anything. “Send me your money now, and God will reward you with 100 times whatever you give me—but it’s a progressive reward (i.e. the money won’t get here until after you die).” Safe promise, eh? Progressive sanctification is a technique for disarming your skepticism: the Bible teaches that Christians have been (past tense) set free from the law of sin, through the blood of Jesus, but in fact they’re not, and that should tell them something. So progressive sanctification says, “Put away your suspicions for now. Just wait, probably until after you die. It will come true some day. Just wait.” Sucker.

If Romans 6 were telling the truth, Christians wouldn’t need to use “progressive sanctification” to silence believers’ natural skepticism. But Paul wasn’t telling the truth. The blood of Jesus does not make you a better person. Peer pressure does: if you start associating with people who uphold a certain standard of behavior, and you want their respect, you start behaving the way they expect you to behave, or risk censure and public embarrassment.

The problem with peer pressure, though, is that when you reach behavioral parity with your fellow believers, that’s pretty much as far as you go. It can’t make you “sinless,” and in fact if your peers decide, as a group, to behave badly towards, say, gays, or people like Jessica Ahlquist, then your behavior is likely to degrade just as badly. And it’s not just Christians. Any group can have this effect. Christians are merely a thoroughly human group, just like any other.

There is no miraculous salvation, no spontaneous healing of the heart and will. There’s only peer pressure, which can make you better or make you worse. Apart from peer influence, the blood of Jesus has no real power at all. The good news, though, is that good people are real. If you want to be a better person, find good people to hang out with. They’re the ones who can help you, because they actually exist.