Self-effort Sanctification?

“There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful, than that of a continual conversation with God; those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it.”  

– Brother Lawrence


  If you ask a group of average Christians in your church, “What are some good ways to help produce the fruit of the Spirit in your heart?” you might get a lot of answers like this:


Be “in Scripture”

Study the fruits to be familiar with them

Pray for God to show you and help you

Practice them and have someone keep you accountable

Apply God’s word

Strive to be more like Christ

 These aren’t terrible answers, but left by themselves they are missing the main point, and are likely to lead to a life relatively void of the work of the Holy Spirit – a life like the headache described by one man:

“You Christians seem to have a religion that makes you miserable. You are like a man with a headache. He does not want to get rid of his head, but it hurts him to keep it.”  

 I want to share with you how God led me out of the lies of self effort and into a place of rest and personal holiness. I’m not claiming to be sinless – far from it. But I am certainly in a far different place than I was for the first dozen years of my Christian life.

The works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.   –  From Galatians 5

Even a quick survey of the New Testament includes a lot of commands and lists of things we should be doing and not doing.  I was taught that to walk in the Spirit, I needed to be doing things like the list above indicated – praying, studying Scripture, asking God for help, and such. So:

I studied God’s commands and promises.

I prayed for help from the Holy Spirit.

I tried to live God’s commands.

But somehow nothing really changed on the inside. My life was just a pattern of doing “good” for a little while, and then failing. I might go 24 hours in “victory” over known sin, but as the appetite or annoyance built up, I’d be sure to fall again.  I’d sincerely repent, but somehow the cycle seemed to just start over.

I failed a lot. But, I was taught, we’re all sinners, right? And we aren’t saved by our good works, we are saved by trusting in Jesus instead of our good works. When we sin, we can ask God to forgive us through Jesus, and He will, because the price of our sins has already been paid by Him on our behalf.  But that’s just forgiveness; it’s great, but we should also want to live a genuinely holy life.

In my frustration,  I’d berate myself. “How could you do that!” I’d express my repugnance with myself to God: “I’m such an idiot!” Obviously my previous repentance hadn’t been sincere enough!

I felt that if I could make myself suffer enough in consequence for my sin, to cultivate a hatred for sin, then when temptation struck I wouldn’t want to undergo the pain of repentance, and so I wouldn’t choose to sin – I’d have victory.

This didn’t work, but this was all I knew, so I’d repeat the cycle of doing what I felt I needed to do:

I studied harder.

I prayed for help from the Holy Spirit  harder.

I tried to live God’s commands harder.

I repented harder.

I tried to surrender more fully.

I knew I owed my soul to God. He had died for me – in my place, the Just for the unjust, the Righteous for the sinner, the Immortal for me!  I remember telling myself, “While I could never pay back such an infinite debt, I want to live as though I am trying to.”  Surely, sufficient gratitude and keeping God in mind would fuel my energies. When I failed, I would repent in grief and guilt , asking God to forgive me and make me not want to do such a thing again.   Among the many hundreds of sermons I heard, I particularly appreciated  “convicting” sermons, because I thought they helped me see how bad sin is so that I would stop sinning; and sermons that would make me feel grateful, so I would feel more inspired to live a holy life in response to all God had done for me.  

Maybe you aren’t relating to this story so far. Perhaps you are wondering why I couldn’t just wait on God’s timing, relax, and recognize that nobody’s perfect. Sin happens. We all sin. So what? God’s got a plan.  Yet indifference to sin is not the pattern we see in Scripture. While my own story may or may not resonate with you, the desire to live a holy life should.  God’s Plan A for us does not involve us living a life that seems like bondage to sinning (Rom 6:18, Isa. 5:4,  James 1, Eze. 18).  Although there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1), when we sin we are in rebellion to God’s wishes and that should concern us, for God will not be mocked (Rom 6:1, Gal. 6:7).


But I was a diligent worker.  I owed Jesus a debt of gratitude, and if He had died for me to save me from Hell, I could at least summon the gratitude and self-determination to live a life that was less of a moral disappointment; one that followed His standards.  I was a fighter, and I wasn’t about to give up on this most important fight.

In my early 20’s I started going to three different churches, a total of five times a week.  I had memorized over 1,000 verses of scripture, and was very familiar with the entire New Testament as well as having read through the Old Testament. I read Christian books voraciously, often reading three books in a week. Some people referred to me as a very knowledgeable, spiritual person.  I was an incredibly self-disciplined person in other areas of my life. Yet because of the constant failure in my battle with various sins, it was clear to me that certainly I must not be doing something right, so:

I studied even harder.

I “reckoned myself”: that I was truly dead to sin and alive to God; I claimed His promises; I expected and asked  for God to change me and give me strength.

I prayed for help even harder.

I tried even harder.

I repented harder – loathing myself, rebuking myself harshly, even asking God to kill me if I didn’t live holy before Him – surely THIS was surrender!

Although I was learning more and more in Scripture and church, I still made no real progress in holiness.  

In my earlier years I probably would have said, “Jesus has changed me.” But looking back, I realized that would have been a lie.  I gave credit to God when I “succeeded” in resisting temptation for a moment, but in reality I was doing all the work – and there wasn’t much of a change.

After years of trying, it seemed hopeless. The rosy idea of the power of my self-will, or of God’s transforming word, or “reckoning” myself to be whatever promises the Bible said, had faded into the gray, grim reality of my constant capitulation to sin.





Ultimately I came to a crisis point in my life. It was only in the midst of this crisis that I really realized that I HAD BEEN TRYING ALL ALONG TO SANCTIFY MYSELF THROUGH SELF-EFFORT, ALONG WITH GOD’S “HELP.”  Furthermore, I realized that because of who I am (a weak creature), and because of who God is (the supremely powerful lover of mankind and the only source of goodness), this was insane!  I had been expecting God to give me goodness, give me victory over sin, and make me a better person – all with what turns out was a very selfish and self-righteous mindset.

Andrew Murray corrected my thinking on this matter:

…God cannot part with His grace, or goodness, or strength, as an external thing that He gives us, as He gives the raindrops from heaven. No; He can only give it, and we can only enjoy it, as He works it Himself directly and unceasingly. And the only reason that He does not work it more effectually and continuously is, that we do not let Him. We hinder Him either by our indifference or by our self-effort, so that He cannot do what He would.”

Maybe you are indifferent. Or maybe you are trying hard. Either way is a trap.

I had wanted God to make me a better person, when what I really needed was to simply come to Him and rest in His love. In His continual presence, I would participate in His goodness. Andrew Murray wrote:

The mistaken idea many disciples have of grace is this:  that salvation and forgiveness are God’s work, but that now, in gratitude to God, it is our work to live as Christians ought to, and to try hard to follow Jesus.  They are always thinking that there is work that has to be done.  Even though they pray for help, still they see the work as the task they themselves must complete. They fail continually, and become hopeless; and their sadness only increases their helplessness.   No, wandering one; just as it was Jesus who drew you to Him when He said “Come to me,” so it is Jesus who keeps you when He says “Remain in me.”   The grace to come and the grace to remain are both from Him alone. That invitation “Come” – you heard it, meditated on it, and accepted it, and it was the cord of love that drew you near.  In the invitation “Remain,” He provides a cord of love to keep you with Him, and hold you securely, and to tie you to Himself.  Let your soul simply take time to listen to the voice of Jesus. “In me,” He says, “is your place – in my almighty arms. It is I who love you so, it is I who say to you, ‘Remain in me’; surely you can trust me.”  The voice of Jesus entering and dwelling in the soul can only call for the response: “Yes, Savior, in You I can – I will – remain.”

Remain in me: These words are not like the law of Moses, demanding from sinful people what they cannot perform. They are the command of love, which is always just a promise in a different shape. Think of this truth until all your feelings of burden and fear and despair pass away.  Think of it until the first thought that comes as you hear of abiding in Jesus is one of bright and joyous hope, in which you say: “It is for me, I know I shall enjoy it.”   You are not under the law of Moses, with its unbending “Do!,” but under grace, with its blessed “Believe what Christ will do for you.” The question may then be asked: “But surely there is something for us to do?”  The answer is, “Our doing and working are simply the result of Christ’s work in us.”  It is when our souls becomes utterly receptive, looking to Christ and resting on what Christ is going to do, that our energies are stirred to their highest activity.

It is by intimate, spiritual, moment-by-moment union with God himself that we experience the blessed life of true holiness:

Where are the Christians who are resting on the truth of Christ’s promise – that in Himself, He has prepared a dwelling place for us?  They hardly take the time or bother to realize that when He says “Remain IN ME,” He offers Himself – the Keeper of Israel who does not slumber or sleep, with all His power and love.   He offers Himself as the living home of the soul, where the mighty influences of His grace will be stronger to keep them close, than all their weakness are to lead themselves astray.

…God, as Creator, formed man, to be a vessel in which He could show forth His power and goodness. Man was not to have in himself a fountain of life, or strength, or happiness: the ever-living and only living One was each moment to be the Communicator to him of all that he needed.

But, Jesus has changed us, right? And now isn’t it up to us to work out that change He gave us – to be the good people He has made us?  Not quite!

… Even in the regenerate man there is no power of goodness in himself: he has and can have nothing that he does not each moment receive; and waiting on God is just as indispensable, and must be just as continuous and unbroken, as the breathing that maintains his natural life.

… [The Christian], by the Holy Spirit, must each moment receive what God each moment works, waiting on God becomes his brightest hope and joy…God unceasingly giving and working; His child unceasingly waiting and receiving: this is the blessed life.

What about you?

Are you trying to sanctify yourself “with God’s help” but without seeking Him to utterly fill you with His presence?

Feel free to comment below, or on the Facebook post.

Categories: Surrender

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