Complimentary Sanctification

Today I would like to make the case that sanctification, the process of growing and maturing into Christ-likeness, is most fruitful when the efforts of the public and the personal are complimentary. The need for 2 different approaches in these settings is due to pacing, and I’ll flesh that out below. In Scripture, we find the public services of the church described in the pastoral epistles where we are told how to conduct ourselves in the house of God, while the personal is emphasized in the “one anothers” of NT Church life.

First, we need to establish progressive sanctification as the norm for the Christian experience. This in itself is somewhat counter-cultural even within the broader evangelical culture. We preach the gospel to a world impacted by consumerism, emotivism, and the gospel of the therapeutic. Into that culture we preach a gospel whose fruit is the mortification of sin, the crucifixion of the self, and the humbling of the individual for the sake of the glory of God and love of others. In other words, everything about the gospel is counter-intuitive to a race of people who love themselves more than anything and to a generation that has created a world in which that self-love is lauded instead of critiqued. Nevertheless, this is the task of the Church: to make disciples.

Secondly, we need to understand that growing in Christ-likeness really is a process which, while involving various crisis moments, requires time. After investing an afternoon and some money into reseeding my lawn, I have daily scoured the ground for signs of new growth. My initial impatience at the speed of growth is slowly giving way to the satisfaction of seeing the blades emerging. It just took more time than I wanted. Growing up into the fullness of the stature of Christ takes more time than we would like, both in ourselves and in others. It often involves more effort than we would have anticipated and costs more than we budgeted for.

Let’s not pretend that our culture is more wicked and vile than, say, the first century Roman culture from which many Gentile believers were saved. However, the present culture has shaped people in such a way that discipleship seems to take a little longer than the culture of 50 years ago. Here are a couple of examples.

It’s a common joke among my tribe that “back in the day”, when you got saved that on your way out of the baptistry you were handed a Sunday School book and told to be at church the next week at 9:30 because you would be teaching the 3rd grade class. I have met multiple folks (in their later years) who told this story. It’s hard to imagine that happening today. Faithful church attendance continues to decline, and what would have been considered poor attendance fifty years ago is now considered faithful. This makes discipleship challenging.

Another example would be the attitude of the culture towards truth versus feelings. The battle over free speech vs hate speech is really a clash between a world-view that values truth and a world-view that values feelings. Feeling oriented people (which we all are to some extent, but is certainly more pronounced today than in the past) struggle with being told to do something that is unpleasant or to give up something that is loved. Preaching against sin is now considered hate speech by many.

We are called to make disciples of those who are influenced by a culture that appears to be further removed from virtue and truth than the culture of fifty years ago. But we are not to despair: the Cretans were liars, evil, lazy, and gluttons, and out of that group the gospel was going to yield such fruit that they would have their own elders in the church. I want to make the case that we are aided in our efforts by having both a public effort and a personal effort.

The Public Effort

The public effort is the weekly gathering of God’s people. It would be a terrible mistake to accommodate the structure and tone of this meeting to the culture. This refusal is in itself jarring because the demand of the culture is that everything accommodate itself to the happiness of the individual. The weekly gathering of the Church should be the most counter-cultural experience of the week, challenging the individual at a variety of levels.

Consider how little time is allotted in most worship services for prayer or for Scripture reading. Is this not a capitulation to the demand to be entertained and excited? Consider how carefully texts are trimmed and rephrased and even ignored so as not to offend the tender sensibilities of the listeners. Is this not an obeisance to the feelings of those listening? The public service should shape the people in order to please God, rather than letting the people shape the public service to please themselves.

I am not saying that church services should be intentionally boring, but they should definitely leave unsatisfied the fleshly desire to be coddled. The Word must come from God and go forth to form the people. If ever the demands of the people form the word, it will cease to be a Word from God. The passion that fills the church must be a Spirit driven passion to know God through His Word and rejoice in the Son, who brings us to God. And since these are Spirit given desires, they will not be present in the unconverted.

Those who have been conformed to the spirit of the age should find the public service of the church challenging. It should challenge our desire to be the center of attention. It should challenge our idolatry of self, pleasure, and all of our many fe-e-e-elings. It should challenge our conceit that our opinion matters. The public service of the church is a foretaste of maturity. It is a display of the Godward life. It is a manifestation of the community of Christ that has taken up its cross to follow Jesus. It is a weekly foretaste of the finish line. And as such, it will be too much for many to handle.

The Personal Effort

Which is why personal effort is so important. By personal I mean the one to one (or small group) discipling, parenting, mentoring, and various other one-another acts of the community of Christ that happen between the public services. It is essential that the public service of the church relentlessly set the bar high and proclaim without apology the offensive gospel of Jesus. But in between those public services, it is of immense service to engage individuals on a personal level.

One way that personal effort is useful is that it can rejoice in the incremental. When I preach from the pulpit, it is my job to preach the ideal, who is Christ. In doing so, I endeavor to preach above my own sanctification. But when I engage with folks on a personal level, it is easier to drill down into the specifics of life and find the next step rather than focus on the finish line.

Another way that personal ministry is necessary is that it can engage in dialogue and debate. Sermons have a heraldic quality that is diminished by interruption and dialogue (although an appropriate place may be found for these at other times). The text is read and expounded and then the hearers are exhorted. The personal allows for questions, clarifications, explorations of applications, challenges, and other types of dialogue which is useful to learning. A sermon moves on whether the listener understands, but at a personal level the pace of instruction can be modified.

Another way that personal ministry is useful is by communicating that truth is being spoken in love. By investing time and energy into individuals, we are automatically communicating something of our love for them. The conversations we have in personal settings tend to make our care and concern for others more obvious than a public sermon can. It also forms a natural kind of accountability.


The disclaimer to all of this is that taken woodenly, we could clearly find exceptions in these points. Sometimes public sermons do communicate love and encourage incremental change. Sometimes personal conversations come across as unloving and harsh. But I think there is enough general distinction to be helpful.

In my mind, this is a matter of pace. Disciples need both a finish line to which they can aspire as well as “in the moment” instruction. Public services set the pace of the entire community, but at various times and in various ways individuals will need help keeping that pace. Without that personal help, they will being to feel out of sync with the rest of the body and a sense of distance will set in. This may be chalked up to personal failure leading to guilt, or it may result in a judgmental spirit and anger towards the rest of the body. In either case the result is that the platoon loses a soldier. Without the public services, the body lacks direction. Without personal attention, the individuals lack the care they need to remain healthy in the body. This is the complimentary nature of the public and the personal aspects of discipleship.

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