Sanctification and Sinfulness
So, I’m trying to figure out this whole idea of sinfulness and sanctification, because there seems to be a bit of a paradox here. As a human being, I was born inherently sinful. I am predisposed to sinfulness, and “every inclination of [my] heart is only evil from childhood” (Genesis 8:21). I get that—I get that the sinfulness of human nature is the whole point of the Gospel, that Jesus as the perfect Son of God came down to pay a price we could never pay because we’re just too screwed up to be righteous on our own.
What I don’t understand is whether or not this continues to be true of me after I accept Jesus. Because I have done that, which means I am in the process, every day, of being transformed into a human being who is not depraved, but rather more and more like Christ. And this is done, of course, through the Holy Spirit. You know, that whole idea of dying to the flesh and being renewed and sanctified.
But here is what I don’t understand. Paul, who encountered God personally, who was so filled with the Holy Spirit that he became one of the principal leaders of the early church and penned much of the New Testament (in other words, he was super sanctified!) still calls himself an absolute wretch, and states in a tone that seems to be quite exasperated:
“For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want! Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but sin that lives in me.” (Romans 7:18-20)
“Nothing good lives in me”?! What?! Isn’t that the whole point of the Holy Spirit—that it lives in you and transforms you from the inside out? That you become a person who sins less and loves more, who daily lets go of the things of this world and turns your gaze heavenward? Isn’t that what sanctification does? So how on earth does sanctification mesh with the above verses? I really don’t see how it does. As you draw nearer to God, you become more holy. And as you do that, the good is what you truly do in your life, and not just what you want to do. And the evil is what you shun, because the more deeply you love the Father, the greater your desire to please Him. Your desires line up more closely every day with the will of God. And that isn’t to say that temptations to sin never go away, or that you don’t ever sin, but doesn’t sanctification mean that sin plays a continually smaller role in your life, and righteousness abounds?
So I’m not sure which narrative I’m supposed to apply to my life here. The narrative that says I am broken and depraved and utterly helpless, unable to please God by what I do on my own, or the narrative that bows in deference and obedience to God when confronted with opportunities for righteousness. I know the answer is “both”, and I’m probably missing something about how the two ideas intertwine in my life, but I don’t really understand what I am missing. Am I a perpetually dirty, sinful person who ought to strive for a holiness I can never attain? Or does every right thing that I say and do purify me, make me just a little bit more clean in the eyes of the Father? Am I called, as Jesus commands in Matthew 5:48, to be perfect? (Whatever that word means!). These are two polar-opposite ideas, and I’m no longer sure which one describes according to the Gospel.