One of the core constituents upon which modern society is built is that of competition — you work hard, you get rewarded. We thrive on competition; it’s in our DNA to want to beat our peers at whatever task is in front us. The human consciousness is geared towards viewing everything in a competitive framework, wherein a prize and playing field is established and the rules are simple: finish first. This cutthroat ideology is what has made the sports industry the nearly global authoritative conglomerate that it is. Whether it’s through personal involvement or living vicariously through our chosen teams, sports serve as an accurate barometer for the heartbeat of the nation, pinpointing precisely where loyalties and priorities lie.
What’s interesting to note, however, is just how influential this philosophy actually is. It touches not only our everyday lives but our spiritual lives as well. Once we recognize that nearly everything is driven by competition, it becomes easy to notice how rife modern spirituality, and Christianity specifically, is ensnared with this debilitating notion of competition. I should probably mention that I’m not denouncing the importance and significance of our competitive drive in society as a whole, just that its influence upon true Christian religion is detrimental and eventually misconstrues every aspect of what Jesus came to establish in the gospel. What is meant by this is the idea that I’m “holier” than you are, “Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.” (Isa. 65:5) And while most will not admit to this sentiment outright, it serves as the functional ideology for many believers today. I believe much of this is due to our own ill-conceived and vastly misrepresented understandings surrounding the doctrine of sanctification.
For many, even the mention of the word “sanctification” conjures a terrible connotation because they know that the majority of their lives aren’t as sanctified as they want to be, or as their Sunday School teacher says they should be. The notion that I’m “holier” than the next person is a downright foolish conception, again, driven by this poisonous presence of competition that permeates our walk with God. Sanctification is usually taught in terms of differing stages or phases: preparatory, positional, progressive, and prospective. And while biblical support can be given for each of these stages of sanctification, our competitive drive often turns them into levels. It’s almost as if we are engaged in a spiritual MMORPG, in which experience points are earned and personal growth is measured by these “levels” of sanctification.
Most understand that the salvation which Christ offers shouldn’t be likened to video game experience points that indicate our levels of security and sainthood, but many have digressed to such inclinations, ruining the glory and beauty of God’s sanctification of his children. We have turned our gaze from our personal Savior to our progressive sanctification, thereby making the Christian life all about progressing, advancing, and growing. And, undoubtedly, the growth of a believer is an important aspect of his spiritual life but it is not his whole life. Some have turned these spiritual matters on their head, reverting to some perverted form of Christianity, in which the believer’s security in God’s love is found in continual betterment and ever-advancing religiosity. This perspective of true Christian religion is unmistakably false.
As Norval Geldenhuys, a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa, points out, the refuge of the redeemed of God isn’t in their own competitive performances or their “leveling up” in sanctimony, but in a true awareness of their absolute inadequacy to receive any attention or intimacy from God. (Ps. 8:3–4) “All real love towards Christ,” Geldenhuys writes, “must be preceded by a deep consciousness of our own sinfulness and unfitness for acceptance before the Holy God and by the assurance that for Jesus’ sake our sins, however great they may be, are forgiven. Love of the Lord that is not founded upon these two foundations cannot be genuine or permanent.” (234)
Christian Cave Diving
The genuine permanency of love and holiness isn’t found in our manufactured righteousness or in any spiritual competition to be “better,” but rests only in recognizing our deep caverns of sinfulness and Christ’s far deeper caverns of grace. “God’s love, Christ’s grace is an infinite depth,” Octavius Winslow once wrote, “deeper than our sins, deeper than our unworthiness, deeper than our need.” (110) And for all eternity there will exist deeper, yet unexplored, still undiscovered riches of mercy and forgiveness in the heart of God.
The confidence of the believer is not found in laying claim to being righteous or in leveling-up, but in laying down and falling flat in faith on Christ’s promise of assurance and acceptance. The nature of Christianity should be less driven by competition and more by confession. The character of the gospel can be summated in people owning the fact that they are dead yet living because of the life and death of Another. There’s no competition; there’s no scoreboard; there are no levels. The game is over, the scorekeepers have turned in their books — Christ’s love is permanent solely because of his triumph at Golgotha. Jesus won and now invites you to share in his victory.
Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1954).
Octavius Winslow, The Ministry of Home: Brief Expository Lectures on Divine Truth (London: William Hunt & Co., 1867).