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Sanctification, a salvific benefit of being united to Christ, is the same in substance for all Christians. Yet, the pace at which sanctification occurs can vary.
Consider the Corinthian church, planted during Paul’s second missionary journey, which consisted mostly of Greeks. After spending eighteen months with them, Paul receives a dire diagnosis of the Corinthian church’s state—it’s characterized by division, sexual immorality, and unmitigated idolatry. Yet the Apostle classifies them as sanctified saints in Christ and gives thanks to God for their faith and piety. Such incongruity portrays the Apostle’s patience in discerning Spirit-wrought sanctification in the hearts of new Christians. Charles Hodge understood this as an exhibit of how the gospel normally operates in heathen lands: “It is like leaven hid in a measure of meal. It is long before the whole mass is leavened. It does not transform the character of men or the state of society in a moment; but it keeps up a continual conflict with evil until it is finally overcome.”
Far from denying the immediate effect of the Spirit upon a newly regenerate heart, Hodge’s conviction is rather a sober call to acknowledge diversity in the pace of sanctification. Paul’s response to the report that the Corinthians are living as “of the flesh and behaving only in a human way” (1 Cor. 3:3) is candid yet tender. He labels them spiritual infants who need milk (vv. 2–3), and he admonishes them in order to bring about repentance and to protect the peace and purity of the church. He assures them: “I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children” (4:14).
He acknowledges the hard reality that even beloved children can and often do act according to the flesh. To be sure, a decisive breach with sin is made at conversion—a dominion transfer has taken place (Col. 1:13). It is for this reason that Paul says Christians are dead to sin (Rom. 6:11). The remnants of sin are real, but we are no longer under sin’s jurisdiction (v. 14). If time uncovers a heart that is perpetually impenitent and unwilling to battle sin, it’s appropriate to “mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced” (2 Cor. 12:21), considering that impenitent practitioners of such things will not inherit the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:21).
It’s within this spirit of sober assessment while not compromising the biblical ethic that we ought to exercise trust in the Spirit’s pace, employing a judgment of charity, particularly for those who have converted from a lifestyle with sinful patterns that prove difficult to break. We need to be quick to call all Christians to repentance and to build them up, but we do well not to rush the Spirit’s work by prematurely combing spiritual infants’ lives for fruit that corroborates their confession, lest we break a bruised reed or quench a faintly burning wick (Isa. 42:3). It could be long before the whole mass is leavened, but if they’re united to Christ, the sanctifying leavening is sure to come in time.