Sanctification is a long (life-long) process that is hampered by painful battles against the flesh, temptation, and sin as well as the hard task of enduring in doing what is right. It’s hard. But it’s not complicated.
The pathway to sanctification is also the road to Christ. That is, if you want to be sanctified then pursue Christ and make Him your great treasure and delight. Find your satisfaction in Him above all things. The New Testament repeatedly emphasizes that truth:
“For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren…” (Romans 8:29; my emphasis)
“For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things have been created through Him and for Him.…He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.” (Colossians 1:16, 18; my emphasis)
“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21; my emphasis)
“…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death;” (Philippians 3:10; my emphasis)
“For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36; my emphasis)
Everything in our lives is about Christ. Christ is the center of all life and all activity. All of our desires, decisions, words, and actions flow out of our fellowship with Him. Everything we do is for Him.
If that is true (and it is), then how should we think about things of this world? If we live for Christ, then is it wrong to pursue a promotion at work that will provide more money than I need to live comfortably, or to enjoy a vacation at the beach and the delightful laughs of children building sandcastles and splashing in the water? Is it wrong to enjoy a steak dinner, a secular biography of an inventor, an evening watching a mystery movie, or a day at the ballpark (and eating an exorbitantly-priced hotdog)?
Intuitively we say, “No, there is nothing wrong with those things. They aren’t sin.” But on what basis can we say that, if we are to constantly pursue Christ as our delight, treasure, and satisfaction? Can we enjoy those things when Paul says, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its desires” (Rom. 13:14)? Won’t enjoyment of those things lead us away from Christ?
It is true (as I attempted to make the point in my sermons on Romans 13) that the way out of sin is to abide (live) in Christ. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot enjoy the good gifts He gives as expressions of common grace. In fact, to enjoy Christ is also to enjoy all the gifts He gives us in the way that He intends us to enjoy them (and not in the twisted ways the world, the flesh, and the devil would have us to “enjoy” them).
I recently read and was profoundly encouraged by Joe Rigney’s book, The Things of Earth. In that volume he says,
A mind that is set on the things above spends an awful lot of time thinking about things on the earth. Family, neighbors, church, job, earthly responsibilities—the person governed by heavenly things intentionally and deliberately considers and engages them. The heavenly mind-set is profoundly earthy, but it is fundamentally oriented by the glory of Christ. So then, in Colossians 3 and 4, Paul is teaching us that we must not orient our lives by earthly things. This is idolatry and produces all manner of sinfulness. Instead, we must orient our lives by the things above, by Christ, by the hope of glory. But once we’ve oriented our lives by Christ, then we spend considerable time and attention on living in the world and engaging with the things of earth. We set our minds on things above, and then we live integrated, earthly lives. We aim to love God supremely and fully, and then we love our neighbors as ourselves, as an expression of our highest love. As a result, our lives are suffused with gratitude, with music, with truth, and all of it governed by affections that are set on Christ, who is seated at God’s right hand above. [Rigney, 102.]
So, to pursue Christ doesn’t mean don’t enjoy technology — it means to enjoy useful technology as an expression of intelligence and creativity and ingenuity that reveals the nature of God.
To pursue Christ doesn’t mean don’t enjoy steak or chipotle peppers or hot fudge on a bowl of Blue Bell — it means to enjoy food with gratitude as a good gift that He has given us to point us to the One who loves to give graciously and generously (see 1 Tim. 4:3-4).
To pursue Christ doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy going for a walk with my wife or smile when I hear her voice on the phone or look forward to an evening watching a movie with her — it means I love her and delight in her because I delight in Christ (see Eph. 5:25-27ff).
So, to put on the Lord Jesus Christ and to pursue Him above all else means to enjoy every good gift He has given us the way He has intended us to enjoy them (not ultimately) as an expression of our delight in Him. In that way, a Christian should have more joy in the things of this world — baseball games, sex, good books and movies, sunsets, red convertible 1963 Corvettes — than anyone else. We enjoy those things because we know the One who has given them to us.
Sin will lose its grip on our hearts when we cling to Christ and His purposes for our lives. We don’t grow in holiness by ascetically rejecting everything in this world; we put off sin and fight against the flesh by cultivating our passion for Christ and Christ’s ways more than anything else we might have in this world. He is our ultimate treasure and joy. The things of this world are not ultimate. But, by the expulsive power of a new affection for Christ our affections for sin will diminish, and our delights in His good gifts of common grace to us will increase, and have their rightful place in our lives.