Throughout his first epistle, John declares his unwavering expectation that Christians will grow in obedience and love. For example, in one particularly strong passage, he writes, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him” (1 John 3:14-15, NIV).
While we appreciate John’s uncompromising anticipation of sanctification, an honest examination of our own lives might reveal more muddled pictures. I have not always loved. I have fallen into hatred many times—gossip, bitterness, anger, lust, jealousy, divisiveness—and all hatred is embryonic murder (cf. Matthew 5:21-22; 1 John 3:12).
Does eternal life reside within me? I begin to wonder.
Of course, John does not expect perfection (cf. 1 John 1:8-10); rather, he expects progress—growing increasingly more like Jesus as the years pass. Those who fall into patterns of habitual, impenitent sin have cause to fear, but not the Christian struggling to follow hard after Jesus even as the battle between flesh and Spirit continues to rage in her life. Not even our ongoing sin can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. Thanks be to God!
It may be of some comfort to take an analogy from biology—ironically, from evolutionary theory (one’s views of evolution notwithstanding). In the absence of sufficient transitional forms in the fossil record, some biologists developed the theory of punctuated equilibrium. In short, this theory posits that genetic change takes place in the soft tissue over many generations (thus inconveniently leaving no fossil record), until—in a tremendous, almost miraculous leap—the skeletal structure itself reveals massive change.
I cannot say I’m a fan of the scientific theory, but I have seen something like this in my own life many times. Looking back across the days and weeks and months, I lament that I have seen no spiritual growth in many areas of struggle. But this is probably because I expect to see steady change each day: I expect that I will struggle with anger 87% one day, then 86% the next, and then—by the grace of God—only 85% the day after. That would be a laughably uncommon experience though.
More often, God works in the “soft tissue” of our hearts, producing change that might not have worked itself out in the fossil record of our behavior just yet. And then, all at once, in a tremendous—no, a miraculous—leap, we see that we are experiencing new victory in Christ.
We must develop patience. God is faithful: he will sanctify us through and through (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24). One day we will look back and see overwhelming victory in our struggle against anger or jealousy or worry etc. But it might not come all at once.