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.



  1. Hunt says

    Sounds like something out of Dungeons and Dragons to me, maybe rule 34 on page 112. Theology is the same as making shit up.

  2. davidct says

    I don’t think most believers understand this very well. The self-righteous call themselves saved and seem to think that makes them better than everybody that does not share their views. They also tend to think that being a saved Christian equates with being a better, more trustworthy person. Being a heathen, I on the other hand find myself suspicious of such people. It is easier to have confidence in people who are not so openly delusional.

  3. says

    There are, as I’m sure you are aware, those Christians who like to tell anecdotes about how they were horrible sinners (typically drug addicts, sex addicts, or alcoholics) until they found JESUS!!! Then, like magic, their addiction problem went away overnight. Or so they say. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to work for all Christians (assuming we even accept their anecdote).

  4. Tony Hoffman says

    Yeah, I was pretty shocked when I found out that hardcore apologists are comfortable with the notion that their Christian belief does not result in any better behavior than non-believers. This does have the advantage of leaving Christianity even less testable, so at least that part’s consistent.

    I’ve heard Christian morality likened to the “better chess strategy” position; Christianity allows you to pronounce yourself morally superior without being morally superior, in the same way that saying you have a beter chess strategy that doesn’t win more games.

    One thing I’d like to see you cover is the idea that “it makes sense because it doesn’t make sense,” position. I think that there comes a moment when the mind boggles at certain things (the idea of an endless universe, the absence of time, etc.), and I think that many believers take comfort in the illogic and absurdity of some of their religion’s basic tenets. In other words, I think that many non-theists believe that the illogic of the Trinity should be a deal-breaker, but in my experience it seems to more often be trumpeted as a reason to believe. And I think there might be something more going on there than an overwhelming bias over-riding the evidence, but an actual feedback in which this fortifies some part of the brain that’s vulnerable to things that are hard to contemplate. In other words, I think that a religion that makes 100% sense might find itself with fewer adherents than one that embraces some flat out contradictory concepts.

  5. Kevin says

    It’s my contention that the Christian philosophy with regard to salvation promotes bad behavior.

    While it doesn’t condone bad behavior, it forgives everything with a mere whisper of the name Jesus.

    Christianity absolves you from taking responsibility for your action. You see this all the time — even bumper stickers proclaim “Not perfect — just FORGIVEN”.

    Forgiven by who? Not by me. Not by the court system if you violate the law. Not by your victims if you commit a crime against person.

    There are probably millions of prison inmates who at this very moment think that because they’re “right with god”, that’s sufficient to making them right with society. Isn’t.

    And, of course, Eric as usual just glosses over the entire “faith without works is dead” issue. But as a Calvinist, he’s predestined to do so, so I guess it would be unfair of me to point out that millions upon millions of Christians disagree with his specific theological point. And would consign him to the fires of hell for all eternity for proclaiming a heresy.

  6. Tony Hoffman says

    I love those who have the cojones to put this bumper sticker on their car (the last one I saw was on the bumper of an NFL offensive lineman): “Jesus loves you. It’s everyone else who thinks you’re an asshole.”

  7. jaycee says

    I still occasionally attend a bible study with wife, and it is amazing the kinds of TV shows these partially santified people watch, not too mention their fascination with guns, gays, and self-defense. Despite their certain protestations that they are changed and belief in moral absolutes, the level of acceptable behavior is completely relative to what the rest of the group tolerates. Except for talking to the air and reading a poorly translated ancient text every now and then, these people act no differently than my fellow ‘unsaved’, heathen, liberal friends…except for the love of guns and hate of gays, we are indistinguishable.

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