We all wish that gospel transformation—our own and that of others—would unfold at the pace of a time-lapse video.
This wrong expectation has often left me disappointed with myself and frustrated with others.
Most pastors or anyone actively involved in the discipleship and spiritual formation of others can relate to this feeling. We all wish that people we minister to would be transformed faster than the actual place of change they are experiencing.
That we all “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18) is a glorious gospel certainty in the life of every believer. What often leaves us perplexed, even frustrated, is the slow pace of this transformation.
To be sure, sanctification is a lifelong journey for every believer. We will need to be sanctified, and we will be sanctified, till the very last day of our lives.
Even then, there are two questions that I have been wrestling with.
First, why is the pace of gospel transformation slow? And second, how should we respond when growth is obviously and frustratingly slow in the life of a brother or sister we care about deeply?
Understanding and internalising the biblical answers to these questions have truly helped me as a pastor.
The uncomfortable answer to the first question, must thankfully, also be accompanied by a glorious gospel assurance.
We are slow to change primarily because our sinful flesh, this world and the devil (Eph. 2:1-2) resist the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. Of the three, we are obviously directly responsible for the first.
But we do not need to remain squirming helplessly to escape the clutches of our sinful flesh. We are neither condemned nor abandoned. God, in his infinite mercy to us in Christ, is absolutely committed to our complete transformation. This is the glorious assurance.
The Bible reminds us that salvation in all its parts, including sanctification, is the gracious work of God in our lives (Phil. 1:6). At the same time, it also calls us to diligently and responsibly co-operate in God’s sanctifying work (1 John 3:2-3).
God’s Patience and Forbearance
Now, the second question. How should we respond when a loved one seems to be stuck with no visible signs of any gospel transformation?
At such times, I have found it most helpful to remember my own frailty and my own daily and desperate need for God’s grace. I remind myself that I have not arrived at the destination. Like them, I too am still on the lifelong journey of sanctification.
I need this constant reminder to keep my heart tender and empathetic. If not, I suspect I will not be of much help to anyone I minister to.
Next, when I minister to hard hearts, I need to remember God’s patience and forbearance (Rom. 2:4).
God’s forbearance is a distinct and complementary grace in relation to God’s forgiveness.
God’s forgiveness embraces us and wipes away the burden of our sin as we come to repentance. But God’s forbearance is what his grace looks like in seasons during which we are unable to see our sin, or we deny it, and therefore, do not repent.
The forbearance of God must shape our ministry to brothers and sisters who may be in a rebellious phase in their lives.
Third, for them to grow in Christ-like holiness, I need to grow in Christ-like intercession. Humble prayer acknowledges the truth and reality that the one who saved us is also the one who will sanctify us.
Lastly, it is a beautiful thing to remember that in sanctifying anyone I am ministering to, God is simultaneously also sanctifying me.
This is what a true gospel community looks like—all of us together growing in Christlikeness.
It took me a while to come to the realisation that God is ultimately sovereign over our gospel transformation.
This realisation has been both humbling and liberating.
I found this humbling as I realised that gospel transformation is often mysterious.
I have also found this liberating. I have been unburdened every time I realised that, in Christ, God is far more committed to my transformation (and theirs) than I could ever be.
He is always at work in making me (and them) more and more like Jesus, whether or not I am seeing visible results.
And it is only in this posture of humility and faith that I have experienced the most fruit in seeing Christ formed in others.