By R.C. Sproul
I’m still amazed whenever I see the bumper sticker that reads, “Visualize world peace.” The idea is that if I, and enough other people, create the right mental picture of peace, it will soon come to pass. It’s astounding that some people actually believe that silly technique will bring about such a desirable goal.
Then, there’s the popular “Coexist” bumper sticker. You may have seen it, the one spelled out with the symbols of different religions—the Islamic crescent forming the C, the Christian cross forming the T, and so on. The idea seems to be that if we religious people would just stop focusing on our differences, we could achieve world harmony. If we understood that our beliefs are all ultimately the same, all of the problems of war and strife would go away.
The funny thing is, we’ll reject such sentiments when they appear on a bumper sticker, but we’ll accept them elsewhere. How many business seminars promise increased profit if we only focus on the positive or visualize a goal? Eastern mysticism, where much of the bumper-sticker theology we’re talking about finds its ultimate origin, dresses it up with more acceptable religious practices. Meditate regularly, repeating a mantra as you visualize the oneness of all things, and the human race will move toward unity. But there’s also a version sold to us as the Christian key for victorious living. Speak your desire, claim it’s yours in Jesus’ name, visualize it will happen, and then it will be yours. Your healing, wealth, relationship success, happy family, improved marriage will come as soon as you name it and claim it or practice the power of positive thinking.
We’re looking for the right technique, the secret that will turn our wishes into reality. We laugh at the world’s spiritual magic, only to baptize it and practice it ourselves. We’ll read Scripture hoping to find the shortcut to spiritual growth while missing the true but non-shortcut answer—the key is not in the Bible; it is the Bible.
One reason we look for spiritual shortcuts is related to our modern age where shortcuts and rapid results abound. We can quickly relieve pain with medicine, find our way to restaurants with our smartphones, and get immediate answers to our questions online. These aren’t inherently bad things, but they tend to foster false expectations. If technology can relieve our illnesses and make our jobs easier, it surely can give rest to our souls, right?
We assume the answer is yes, and there are all too many “experts” out there who’ll encourage that assumption. Just look at the self-help section at your local bookstore, even at your local Christian bookstore. Book after book promises to hold the key to our happiness in twelve steps or less. The fact that none of the promises pan out doesn’t deter people from buying those books or new authors from repackaging old, ineffective answers in fancier dress.
"One whose heart is corrupt does not prosper; one whose tongue is perverse falls into trouble." (Proverbs 17:20)
But we can’t ultimately blame our search for shortcuts on modern technology. Our innate desire since the fall for autonomy, to be masters of our own fates, drives us to search out soul-building techniques that will improve us. We see our faith not as an end in itself but as a means to greater fulfillment. Evangelists routinely implore people to come to Christ, saying that He will make them happier, more confident in themselves, and more spiritual. Jesus becomes a means to improve our marriages and finances while releasing us from all manner of compulsions and negative character traits.
Can Christ do all those things? Of course He can. But Jesus is not a means to other ends—He is the end, the goal of our lives. He doesn’t come into our lives to give us special techniques to make our lives better; He works in and through us, changing us for the sake of His glory. He provides believers no mystic secrets to take them to a higher plane of spirituality. There’s no hidden truth available to only a few, no method that guarantees quick maturity in Him as long as we master it.
We’re saved by grace alone and justified by faith alone, but having been saved, we don’t just wait around to die. Christianity is about spiritual growth as well, and spiritual growth involves effort—the hard work of sanctification. We manifestly don’t work for our regeneration or our justification. Both acts are monergistic, accomplished by God alone. Only the Holy Spirit can change our hearts. Only the righteousness of Christ, the righteousness of the Son of God secured by His perfect obedience to the Father, can secure our right standing before God. Sanctification, however, includes our efforts. We say it is synergistic because both God and we are doing something. Yet, we aren’t equal partners. God wills and works in us according to His good pleasure so that we progress in holiness (Phil. 2:12–13). But as God works in us, we work as well, pursuing Him in prayer, relying on the means of grace—the preached Word and the sacraments—seeking to be reconciled to those we have offended. There’s no shortcut for sanctification. It’s a process, and one that all too often seems overly plodding, with progress taking years to discern.
God’s work is easy for Him. He doesn’t look for shortcuts because He never grows weary. We get tired and frustrated, however. We’re tempted to look for the simple path, the quick answer, the effortless way forward. But there is none. Sanctification requires diligently attending to the means God has given us. The growth may be slow, almost imperceptible at times, but it is sure.
No technique of the devil’s can stop the process of Christ making us into His image. Those whom He calls He sanctifies.
Casually attending to the things of the Lord will not result in our nurture. Visualizing or seeking a secret formula won’t help. We must work out our salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that Christ, by His Spirit, is working in us.