Phil Thompson, the AWANA missionary when I was in high school, has been pretty influential in how I think about theology. In one of his messages, he told the story of one of those prominent Christian preachers who had an affair and caused a big scandal. I expected him to finish off with a rousing denunciation of the preacher’s behavior and an exhortation to be better representatives of Christ, or something to that effect. But he didn’t. He simply concluded “but for the grace of God, there goes I.”
That has had a profound influence on how I think about sanctification. It would have been perfectly natural at that moment to say something about the preacher’s poor testimony, and exhort us not to let Jesus down. But Phil didn’t do that. And he didn’t imply his moral superiority over this preacher, like he might have. Instead, he attributed all his virtue to the grace of God alone.
This idea of not letting Jesus down underlies a lot of popular teaching about sanctification. The idea, apparently, is to make people feel so rotten for sinning (or perhaps so disgusted at another’s sin) that they reform their ways just by trying really hard. The grace of God is usually given lip service, but not much more than that. I spent all of high school feeling really guilty for my sins and trying really hard not to let Jesus down. In case you’re wondering, it doesn’t work. This is because it misses the point entirely: sanctification is not about paying God back for being so merciful to you. It is about the grace of God changing you into a new man. That newness doesn’t come by trying really hard to be a new man, or by feeling really guilty for not being as holy as you ought to be. The words of Augustus Toplady are just as applicable to salvation from sin as they are to salvation from hell: “Could my tears forever flow / could my zeal no respite know/ all for sin could not atone / thou must save, and thou alone.”
The difference between you and the pagan or apostate Christian is not in any work of yours. You are not better than he because of anything that you can take credit for. To assume otherwise is to boast in your own accomplishments, and Paul is unambiguous about this: “What do you have that you have not received? And if you have received it, why do you boast as if you had not?”
So acknowledge that you stand by the grace of God alone, and not by anything you have not received. Instead of trying and failing and feeling guilty and trying and failing and feeling guilty, find the freedom in admitting that you can’t be holy by trying really hard. As much as it would satisfy our human sense of justice to be able to pay God back for His gifts, that’s not the way salvation works1. Instead, admit your weakness and ask God to change you with His grace into the person He wants you to be. You might begin with this short prayer of St. Augustine’s: “Grant what you command, O Lord, and command what you will.”
1 I mean "salvation" in the broad sense: the whole work of God in our lives; our salvation from a life of sin and transformation into new creatures, not a one-time event which gets us out of hell.