On one of my visits to our paternal grandparents when I was about 6 or 7 years old, I heard my grandpa praying that he “would be ready if Jesus came during the night when he was asleep.” I queried this strange prayer, and he explained to me that if he prays that prayer before going to bed, then it counts as if he were keeping watch during the night and Jesus would consider him ready, although he was asleep. That was his guileless understanding of the words of Jesus, “Watch therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house is coming—in the evening, at midnight, at the crowing of the rooster, or in the morning—lest, coming suddenly, he find you sleeping. And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch!” (Mark 13:35-37 NKJV).*
As a teenager I considered it strange when I heard my fellow believers praying at the start of the divine service, “And, dear Jesus, come soon; we have been waiting for You so long.” Yet after a rather masochistic sermon hammering on our deficiencies in reaching sinless perfection, I heard [usually the same] people praying, “Thank You, Jesus, that You have not come yet, because we are not ready” The contradiction was not lost on me. But instead of being funny, I found the conflicting perceptions between our desires and reality rather disturbing.
As a pastor, I witnessed many members struggling in the last hours of their lives with assurance of salvation. Somehow, in their minds, readiness for Jesus was measured in terms of personal sanctification. When the results of the European ValueGenesis came in some years ago, it was disturbing to see that so many of our young people had a great misunderstanding of the process of salvation and the role of God’s grace and our works: 84.1 percent agree with the statement “I know that to be saved I have to live by God’s rules” (64.8 percent definitely, 19.3 percent tend to); and 73.2 percent agree that “I am worried about not being ready for Christ’s return” (35.8 percent and 37.4 percent).
In oft-quoted words: “Houston, we’ve got a problem.” We believe God’s words, “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18). We all want to be ready and help not only our loved ones, but also the larger world to be ready for Jesus’ second coming. But in the experience of too many, readiness is connected with the level of their sanctification.
How do we keep the tension between faith and works, grace and deeds, our efforts and God’s sovereignty, without falling into a ditch? On the one hand, we need to say as Jesus taught us, “When you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do’” (Luke 17:10, NKJV). There is always room “to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord” (2 Peter 3:18, NKJV), to be more sanctified, committed.
At the same time, the closer we come to God, the more sinful we see that we ourselves are; we can see how much more work the Holy Spirit still must perform in us.
There’s a real danger that pursuing sanctification itself as a goal may get off track and become individualistic, even narcissistic. The scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day thought of themselves as very holy, yet they could not love anybody different from them. They were too absorbed with themselves.
The New Testament never defines spirituality or sanctification in the individualistic terms that satisfied them. It is defined in terms of community. Even the well-known picture of Jesus knocking at the door is addressed to a local church, not an individual (Rev. 3:20). The message there is that we need the armor of God corporately, as a church community (Eph. 6:10-20).
Paul writes, “Do all things without murmurings and disputings” (Phil. 2:14). As the community matures there is less grumbling and arguing, and more grateful hearts. Bitterness and resentment are replaced by collective servanthood in the spirit of love.
Unfortunately, all of us know people in the church, both local and on all levels of organization, who are growing more cantankerous and bitter, who champion a fighting spirit, and yet who are thought of as committed and sanctified people.
It is important to understand that the Bible defines sanctification within the context of community. If we do not see the role of community, the pursuit of spiritual growth becomes distorted in a way that makes it all about the individual.
We can get preoccupied with how we are performing spiritually, or how spiritually fulfilled we feel, and how ready we are for the second coming of Jesus. Meanwhile, we forget to live a life of servanthood and love. We become spiritually narcissistic. Often when I talk to people who have stopped coming to church, I hear, “I do not get much out of it lately.” But Christianity is not an individual sport! We are not Christians merely for self’s sake, just for what we get out of it individually. Rather, as Jesus left heaven and lived His earthly ministry for our sake, so we reveal Him by lives lived in sacrifice for the sake of others.
The goal of sanctification is to be more loving, gracious, caring, and generous (John 13:34, 35; Gal. 5:22, 23). There is a huge difference between being sanctified and being sanctimonious. Yet people get them mixed up. The goal of sanctification is being a community of loving persons who love and serve other people.
Jesus must remain in heaven “until the time comes for God to restore everything” (Acts 3:21). At His coming He will complete the restoration of relationships: my personal relationship with God and our relationships with one another in the type of community He wants to have on this planet.
Imagine then, before the second coming of Jesus, the community of God in which He already works: a community of justice in a world of economic and ecological injustice; a community of generosity and simplicity (of being able to say “enough”) in a world of consumer satiation; a community of selfless giving in a world of selfishness; a community of truth, humility, and boldness in a world of relativism; a community of hope in a world of disillusionment; a community of joy and thanksgiving in a world of entitlement; a community that experiences God’s supernatural presence in a secular world in which all days are the same and nothing is exceptional or supernatural.
A lot more could be said about the Holy Spirit’s work in us (sanctification) and through us (mission). But we also need to pay attention to the work of the Holy Spirit around us. God has not given up on His people, or on His world. He is at work not only in and through us, but also around us: can we see Him?
We might be closer to the Second Coming than most of us realize!
*Bible texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979. 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Daniel Duda directs the education department of the Trans-European Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.