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Sanctification by List?

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“Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the LORD….”

(Hebrews 12:14)

“[E]xercise yourself toward godliness. For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come.”

(1 Timothy 4:7b-8)

I watched a documentary recently about one of the best rock climbers in the world. One thing that stood out to me about this rock climber was his commitment to personal growth in his sport. And one symbol of his commitment was his climbing journal, in which he meticulously tracks his performance.

Hebrews 12:14 instructs Christians to “pursue holiness.” 1 Timothy 4:7 says, “Exercise yourself toward godliness.” But how do we obey these commands? May I suggest that one way to do so is to track your performance, just like that rock climber did?

Let me be clear: lists cannot make you holy, otherwise the Pharisees would have been the holiest people on earth! The power for sanctification comes from the Holy Spirit and flows through Word (John 17:17; Rom 15:16).[1] God also empowers us for sanctification as we fellowship with other Christians (Heb 10:24-25) and as we pray and others pray for us (1 Thess 5:23-25). To rely on lists for the power to sanctify is practically to depend on oneself, which is an effort doomed to failure.[2]

However, you will not receive grace through the Scriptures, fellowship, and prayer unless you are meditating on the Scriptures, attending church, and praying![3] This is basic! Therefore, you must develop habits.

Growing up in the church, my friends and I were given incentives to encourage us to develop spiritual disciplines. Teachers, pastors, and youth workers would often track our performance at Bible memory, church attendance, devotions, etc., and prizes were awarded for the winners. Sometimes contests such as these get a bad rap for failing to address motivations–a legitimate danger! However, I for one am very grateful for those who dangled the carrot in front of me. (I am also grateful for my parents, who effectively forced me to establish certain habits, like devotions and church attendance!) As a born-again Christian, I wanted to grow in these areas, so the rules and rewards helped me to do what I already wanted to do.[4]

That said, I wonder if we as adult Christians might also profit from lists, at least the kind we keep ourselves. How many Christians meticulously count calories, but could not tell you how much they prayed the past week? How many could tell you how many physical steps they have taken in the past 24 hours, but have no concept of any spiritual steps they may (or may not) have taken? How many believers set a yearly reading goal on Goodreads, but do not have a systematic plan for reading through their Bibles on a regular basis? The answers to those questions could be alarming.

One simple thing I have begun to track my pastoral praying. At our church, Pastor Kit and I keep lists of church members, regular attenders, and visitors, and I pray from those lists every work day. Afterwards, I write down how many people I prayed for during my allotted prayer time. I certainly can’t track the quality of my prayers that way, but at least I can get a general idea of how focused I was vs. how much I allowed my mind to wander. Knowing that I will record a number of names prayed for when my time is up motivates me to stay focused. Also, by observing these numbers over time, I can see how I am growing in prayer.

You might also consider developing lists that help you track your progress in various spiritual disciplines. For instance, I use an app called “HabitShare” on my phone to keep track of my progress in several areas in which I regularly struggle. This app is especially useful because it also functions as an accountability tool. I try to keep the number of habits I am tracking in the app to a manageable amount, so as not to be overwhelming. Also, I regularly review my “habits” to see if any of them have become engrained enough to stop tracking. It is exciting when I get to delete a “habit” out of the app because it has become a genuine habit![5]

One of the list-like tools that Christians throughout the centuries have used in order to track their spiritual progress is a journal. They have recorded various things, such as notable works of God and answers to prayer (e.g. David Brainerd), sin struggles and growth in holiness (e.g. Jonathan Edwards), and personal devotional prayers (e.g. The Valley of Vision). In my journal, I keep three columns: one for blessings/evidences of grace, one for sins/difficulties, and one for prayer requests. Doing so helps me recognize where I am growing and where I am struggling, motivates me to work hard, helps me to sort out my thoughts and cast my cares upon God, and gives me a place to record and remember what God has done in my life.

Before I conclude, I want to include a word of caution. If you are considering using various lists as tools to help you grow in Christlikeness, beware of what D.A. Carson refers to as the “triple trap of legalism, self-righteousness, and superstition.” Here is what he says in his devotional for June 26 in the yearly devotional, For the Love of God, Volume 2.

“HOW SELF-DECEIVED WE HUMANS ARE when it comes to matters religious. So many things that start off as incentives to repentance and godliness develop into vicious idols. What starts as an aid to holiness ends up as the triple trap of legalism, self-righteousness, and superstition. So it was with the bronze snake in the wilderness. Although it was ordered and used by God (Num. 21:4–9), it became such a religious nonsense in later times that Hezekiah destroyed it (2 Kings 18:4).

So it sometimes is with other forms of religious observance or spiritual discipline. One may with fine purpose and good reason start ‘journaling’ as a discipline that breeds honesty and self-examination, but it can easily slide into the triple trap: in your mind you so establish journaling as the clearest evidence of personal growth and loyalty to Christ that you look down your nose at those who do not commit themselves to the same discipline, and pat yourself on the back every day that you maintain the practice (legalism); you begin to think that only the most mature saints keep spiritual journals, so you qualify—and you know quite a few who do not (self-righteousness); (c) you begin to think that there is something in the act itself, or in the paper, or in the writing, that is a necessary means of grace, a special channel of divine pleasure or truth (superstition). That is the time to throw away your journal.”

So please, do not become proud about your lists or assume that every Christian needs to keep them! Perhaps lists are a helpful tool for you, but they would not “work” for someone else. That is fine! There is nothing in the Bible that says you have to keep a journal.

Also, do not become mystically dependent upon your lists or on any other spiritual disciplines that are not commanded in Scripture. I for one have to tell myself often when I run out of time that it is okay if I don’t get to journaling that day–or even if I take a break for several months!

Finally, remember that lists, in and of themselves, will never make you more holy. Spiritual power for growth in holiness comes from the Holy Spirit and flows through the channels of Scripture meditation, prayer, and fellowship as you remain obedient to Him.

However, if you are serious about growing in Christlikeness just like you are serious about growing in other areas of your life, you will want to consider tracking your progress using various list-like tools.

I’d love to hear from you now! Have you ever used lists to track your progress in some area of your life? What lists have you used to track your spiritual growth? What strengths or weaknesses have you found with using lists in this way? What new lists are you thinking about adding?

[1] See also the similarities between Ephesians 5:18-6:9 and Colossians 3:16-4:1. Spirit filling and Word filling are very closely related.

[2] See, for example, Peter’s confident self-reliance in John 13:36-38 and where it led him in John 18:15-18, 25-27.

[3] Granted, someone else can still pray for you.

[4] As for my friends who were unsaved/not walking with God and yet were forced to attend church, read their Bibles, go to camp, etc., I trust that the additional exposure to the Word, prayer, and fellowship was a help and not a hindrance, even if they did not respond positively to it.

[5] You should not have to track every habit forever. For instance, I do not keep track of my daily Bible reading because by God’s grace (and thanks to my parents–especially my mom) that habit was firmly established early in life. I also don’t track my weekly church attendance (a good thing, since I am a pastor!).

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