Theology in 3D

It Didn’t Work for Me (Part 2)

Ken Casillas | October 30, 2018
New Testament, Theology

Last month I started a brief series exploring some reasons for people’s seemingly failed experience of Christianity. I began with the possibility that they have misunderstood the meaning of God’s grace. More specifically, now I want to propose that people may have a skewed perception of the nature of sanctification. In particular, they may not have recognized the degree to which divinely-enabled effort plays a part in the Christian life.


From one standpoint, this shouldn’t be hard to understand. We readily get it in many areas of life. What would you recommend in the following situations?

  • A high schooler wants to improve her running time in the next track meet.
  • If a college student doesn’t boost his GPA, he’s going to lose his scholarship.
  • A young professional is frustrated that she hasn’t gotten a promotion.
  • A business owner aims at increasing his revenue by twenty percent within the next year.
  • It’s past time for a middle-aged man to shed some pounds.
  • An aging couple realizes they must make better progress toward paying off their debts.

I doubt that your advice would be along the lines of “Just pray about it,” or “Let go and let God,” or “Simply think about your justification in Christ.” To be sure, all the scenarios above call for a spirit of dependence on God. Yet surely a great proportion of your advice would center on the need for hard work and perseverance over the long haul. You would urge each individual to self-sacrifice, to deliberate and wise and sustained effort.


We might wish that sanctification worked some other way and, actually, God could work in any way he wants to. But how has he chosen to accomplish his purpose of conforming believers to the image of Christ? Consider just a few lines of New Testament evidence.

  • Jesus urges his followers to tear out an eye or cut off a hand if it prompts them to sin (Matt 5:29-30). Yes, that’s hyperbolic, but hyperbole is exaggeration for the purpose of emphasizing a point. What’s the point? Take whatever steps are necessary—even painful, radical steps—in order to eliminate sources of temptation.
  • Accepting by faith the victory over sin that we have through union with Christ, we must refuse to yield ourselves to sin (Rom 6:1-14). The aggressiveness needed against sin is depicted in violent terms: subduing one’s body (1 Cor 9:271 Tim 4:7-8), fighting wrong desires in the power of the Spirit (Gal 5:16ffEph 6:10-171 Tim 6:12), putting sin to death (Rom 8:13Col 3:5). As John Owen famously said, “Do you mortify; do you make it your daily work; be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you” (Mortification, in Works, 6:9).
  • Sanctification entails not only putting off behaviors of the old life but putting on behaviors of the new life (Eph 4:25ffCol 3:8ff). We “make every effort” to supplement our faith with virtue, etc. (2 Pet 1:5ff). Developing these qualities requires an all-out pursuit (1 Tim 6:11Heb 12:14).
  • Even the more “devotional” aspects of the Christian life require considerable exertion. In a world filled with alluring distractions, it takes mental discipline to regularly behold the glory of Christ through meditation on Scripture (2 Cor 3:18). Prayer likewise demands time and concentration (Phil 4:6-71 Thess 5:17). So does a spiritually profitable use of the Lord’s Day—not to mention meaningful participation in a local church alongside fellow strugglers.

Given all these factors, it’s no wonder that Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24). Christ didn’t design discipleship to be a hobby or merely a Sunday activity or even a part-time job. It’s not supposed to “work” unless it consumes our lives and dominates every aspect of our lives and perseveres throughout our lives. Maybe that’s why it hasn’t “worked” for some people?


Lest we get crushed under the burden of our responsibilities, we need to come back to the truth that our efforts are not self-generated but are instead the product of the gracious working of God within us. The two sides are brought together so beautifully in Philippians 2: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (vv. 12b-13). The Lord is the one animating every desire for holiness and empowering every step toward holiness! John Murray states the paradox this way: “The more persistently active we are in working, the more persuaded we may be that all the energizing grace and power is of God” (Redemption—Accomplished and Applied, 149). A mystery, but a glorious one!

What does this divine-human dynamic look like in practice? Speaking of it in terms of the teaching of Augustine, J. I. Packer helpfully speaks of a “four-stage sequence” (Keep in the Step with the Spirit, 105):

First, as one who wants to do all the good you can, you observe what tasks, opportunities, and responsibilities face you. Second, you pray for help in these, acknowledging that without Christ you can do nothing—nothing fruitful, that is (John 15:5). Third, you go to work with a good will and a high heart, expecting to be helped as you asked to be. Fourth, you thank God for help given, ask pardon for your own failures en route, and request more help for the next task. Augustinian holiness is hardworking holiness, based on endless repetitions of this sequence.

Doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? Neither does going to the gym or doing your homework or putting in an honest day’s work at the shop or the office. Yet that kind of day-after-day-after-day diligence is vital to success in earthly endeavors. Why should we think it any less vital to the transcendent goal of likeness to God himself? And what better way is there to show God that we truly love him and his gracious purposes for our lives than to pursue sanctification with all our might?

Photo credit: Nathan Cowley,

4 responses to “It Didn’t Work for Me (Part 2)”

  1. Jonathan L Nason says:

    Thanks for the thoughts on this, Ken. I love this topic. For me, I agree that the characterization of these two issues is often a bit askew in evangelicalism. Lofty language and eloquence are employed in most people’s discussions of grace, but sanctification is often demoted to a list of dos and don’ts or avoided altogether. I’d like to note that, in my own pastoring, this lies at the root of many issues that arise as believers grow in Christ but are constantly under the influence of the world. These articles are concise and readable for the layman, thanks again.

    • Ken Casillas says:

      Hi Jon! Thank you for the encouragement and for your work to promote a biblical understanding of these things. I do trust these posts are helpful to folks!

  2. […] wonder whether your experience is authentic. Having discussed some misunderstandings of grace and sanctification, I come to a third possible reason that people may conclude that Christianity hasn’t […]

  3. […] approach to Christian living. Specifically, I’ve discussed misunderstandings about grace, skewed perceptions of sanctification, and unrealistic expectations regarding […]

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