One of the things that I have come to know from the scriptures is that God isn't in the business of making my old man into a better man. I anticipate that a lot of believers, upon a moments reflection would agree with that sentiment.
Yet I still hear people talking as though God is out to improve them - as though that was one of the things the Holy Spirit does. But I tell you that I am convinced by the scriptures that this is not so.
When the potter messed up the vessel he was originally making, he did not fix the vessel - he made it into an entirely new one. That is the imagery of our sanctification. God is not patching us up Spiritually, He isn't mending our brokenness; instead He has supplied us with something new that cannot be broken - the indwelling Holy Spirit, through whom Christ Himself can be described as being in us.
Sanctification then is not about trying to make the old man less sinful - it is about the "renewing of your mind" - which formerly was set on the flesh, and now needs to be set on the Spirit. We don't really talk like that in twenty-first century English, so I will explain it as best I can. Sanctification begins with a change in our thinking - a change in our "mind set". Formerly we were just ourselves, and whatever we thought was just our own thoughts - everything we did and thought was an expression of who we were at our core. Our mind was "set" on our selves by default - that is, we did what we did because it was "us" who wanted to do it. When we were saved, the Holy Spirit took residence within us, and immediately we began to share in the mind of Christ. Not that we could hear Jesus' thoughts, but that we experienced as our own, desires that were not our own, but were the desires of Christ. This was not a mystical communion that we experienced as some sort of other worldly, emotional, or even intuitional phenomenon - most of us just assumed that we suddenly wanted to be "good" because that is more or less how it felt. There was no voice speaking to us, no visions, no dreams, no sensation that the Holy Spirit was communicating to us in any way - we just suddenly had new desires that we assumed came up from our own core and not from, say, the indwelling Spirit of God.
Naturally these new desires came into conflict with our existing desires. Suddenly we found we were in the middle of our own, personal, Romans 7 struggle - the good that we wanted to do (for some reason) we weren't doing, but we found ourselves doing things we didn't want to do, and seemed to ourselves to by almost schizophrenic, never finding the ability to do what we wanted to do, and hating ourselves for doing what we didn't want to do. We began to see, for the first time, that sin really owned us. We wanted to be free from it, but found ourselves powerless to free ourselves from it. What kind of Christians were we?
In the wake of this realization some start to try harder to suppress sin, but they wear themselves out and always return to it like a pig to his wallowing in the mire. Some just made peace with the fact that they were sinners. They didn't like it, but they weren't going to do anything about it. Others thought that they were missing the secret ingredient, and began to try and find the secret to sinless living. Still others drowned their failure in the pursuit of validating phenomenon - tongues, second blessings, emotionalism and mysticism. They began to console themselves that while they were wretched failures, at least God was giving them regular instruction through their own impressions and intuitions, or maybe God was authenticating them through their own ability to speak in unintelligible gibberish. Some went about looking for the right motive or power to hitch their caboose to. They saw themselves as leaky buckets, looking for the next emotional filling - confusing their own emotionalism/enthusiasm for something spiritual.
I am not surprised therefore that most Christians think that sanctification means either that you make yourself more holy, or that you work with God to make you more holy, or that God makes you more holy in spite of yourself. All three notions misunderstand what sanctification really is.
Put as simply as possible, God does not improve you. You remain a wretched sinner the rest of your life. No matter what scheme you follow, you will not improve upon your corruption, you will not lessen it, and you certainly will not eliminate it. You can suppress sin till the cows come home and when you are done you will have changed nothing. Sanctification is not about making you better.
Sanctification is about denying the desires of this incurable "old man" and obeying instead the desires of the "new man" (i.e. Christ who is in you through the Holy Spirit).
It isn't about you putting to death the old man himself - you can't do that. It is about you putting to death the deeds of the old man - said another way, it is about you choosing to obey the desires of the Spirit within you over and against the desires of the flesh (i.e. your own desires).
Now you should notice that it sounds a lot like I have just said on the one hand that you can try and do good till the cows come home and it won't change anything, nor is that the way of sanctification; then on the other I have said, that the way of sanctification is to choose to do good rather than to do evil - which is, in anyone's vocabulary, saying the exact same thing in different words.
But I am -not- saying that.
Sanctification is not your work, it is the work of the Holy Spirit. But that can be a confusing thing to say to a person who expects the work of the Holy Spirit to be something mystical, or at the very least the sort of work that leaves some sort of supernatural residue. But consider the Israelites who were given the Holy Land while it was yet occupied by the Canaanites. God promised them the land - promised that they could march in and take it, for the victory was already theirs according to His promise. They still had to go in, but the victory was guarenteed by God.
Even with that assertion, those Israelites who first came to the promised land weren't convinced by God's promise - even after their own deliverance out of Egypt, and for this reason they couldn't enter into the rest that God had laid before them. Their children took the promised land instead.
In the same way that the victory in Canaan was not man's (but God's) to procure, in the same way this victory was appropriated by a simple trust that God was going to do (fully) everything He promised to do, and not appropriated by sheer effort on the part of the Israelites - so also Sanctification is not about effort, but about trust.
You see if Christ is in us through the Holy Spirit - then we have an avenue of victory over sin - but not a victory that is in our flesh, rather it is a victory according to the Spirit - and it is a victory that is appropriated by faith that precedes our effort.
Sometimes I think our Christian vocabulary gets in our way. We use words like "sin" and instead of thinking of sin as being in a state of rebellion against God's rule over us, we think of sin as something "bad" we do. When we talk about victory over "sin" then, some hear "Victory over doing bad things" instead of "Victory over our own rebellious hearts that would otherwise reject God's rule".
When I write about the believer overcoming sin in his or her life, I am not suggesting that the believer gains a better, more stable or ready "ability" to supress doing things God has forbidden. I am rather laying out what God has done on behalf of the believer. God did not give victory to the the Israelites by turning them one and all into martial supermen capable of personally overcoming the power of the enemy. Instead they remained as they were, and God supplied the victory when they entered into it by faith. What I am suggesting then is that we overcome our rejection of God's rule over us, by accepting His rule by faith.
Now, I have to stop here also, lest someone misunderstand the notion I have just laid out. I do not mean, when I say "by faith" that we practice a form of positive reinforcement. Telling ourselves something is true over and over again until we somehow brainwash ourselves into believing it isn't faith! That sort of rot is just a form of deceit - it is trying to make ourselves accept as true something we don't believe, and it is irrational and by no means spiritual - even if some would (sincerely) dress it up that way.
So it isn't that we try and convince ourselves that God is ruling over us, and the moment we manage to deceive ourselves we suddenly have all kinds of supernatural power to suppress our own sinful desires. Rather it is that we trust that Christ, who has overcome sin, is genuinely in us, and that as we surrender to His rule, He will lead us away from tempations, delivering us from our own evil. Said another way, if we walk in the Spirit, we will not fulfill the desires of the flesh.
Really that is what it all comes down to. There are two desires in every believer that are opposed to one another - the desire of the Spirit, which is the desire a believer experiences to please God, and there is the desire of the flesh - which is the desire a believer has to please himself. Sanctification begins with seeing these two desires, and making a choice to entertain the one over the other - to "set your mind" on the right desire; I.e. to "renew your mind" by offering up obedience to the Spirit. You cannot obey the Spirit except at the expense of the flesh - thus to offer up your "body" as a living sacrifice is to set your own desires aside on purpose, in order to pursue the desires that are from Christ.
Having laid that out as plain as I know how, I now must add a final note or two to dissuade the reader from reading something mystical into this prescription. The Holy Spirit does not impress upon you anything that isn't in scripture. He isn't trying to goad you, by feelings, impressions, goose-bumps, or even by supernatural phenomenon, to do this or that. God did not micro manage Adam and Eve in the Garden - He gave them instruction, then they went out and obeyed (er... for a while at least) that instruction. He was not hovering over them nudging them to do this or that according to some ambiguous impression or according to their own intuition however "honed" they might imagine it to have been. Don't make the mistake of trying to "hear" from God what He wants you to do. He isn't going to tell you twice: He has already explained everything you need to know about what He expects from you in His word. Walking in the Spirit then is conducting yourself in all things according to the manner God has laid out in the scriptures - the better you know the scriptures, the more obedient your walk can be.
The more you walk in the Spirit, the easier it gets. Your old man doesn't improve or become more spiritual, but you (i.e. who you are in Christ) becomes more visible as you, by grace, learn to live under God's rule. The joy of this rule, the peace of fellowship etc. will guard your heart - in other words, the more you walk surrendered to Christ, the more you will want to walk surrendered to Christ. Your holiness will be in Christ, and not in your flesh - your life will be in Christ and not in your flesh, your joy will be in Christ, etc.
Notice I did not say that your flesh gets any better? Your flesh is in bondage to sin, and will not be set free from it. You were in bondage to sin when you were entirely in the flesh, but when the Spirit you were set free from that bondage in that you no longer were limited to obeying that which was in bondage - you could now (by faith), obey Him who is not in bondage - and when you walk in that obedience, you walk free from this bondage. In your flesh you will -always- serve sin, you will always be in Romans 7. In the Spirit you will never serve sin. God hasn't made your old man better, so you mustn't obey the old man, or try to improve him. Instead you must regard the old man according to the judgment against him (death) as a dead thing.
Given the choice of whom you should obey that which is dead and serves death, or Him who is life and serves righteousness - the choice is clear. All that remains is to set your mind on the one at the expense of the other, but this cannot be done apart from a genuine trust that surrendering yourself to the rule of God will end in the manifestation of God's victory in your life. If you come to God looking for Him to improve you, you will find no victory. You have to abandon entirely the hope of self improvement, trusting that Christ's righetousness is not only yours, but the only righteousness that matters. You have to be at peace with the knowledge that God isn't going to make you better, but is instead going to give you a victory that doesn't depend upon you or your effort. You have to trust that this whole thing isn't about finding the right methodology, or trying to "do it right" - it is nothing more than trusting God to do what He said He would do, and stepping into that faith in whatever way that looks in your life.
Not mysticism, not the Holy Spirit hokey-pokey. No sensations are involved, no supernatural phenomenon, not liver-shivers or chills, no miracles, no feelings, emotions, impressions, intuitions - nothing. Just faith, that ends in surrender, that leads to a peace and a joy that themselves do not correct your flesh, but reside in it as an alien resides in a foreign land. You will certainly yearn to be set free from this body of sin and death - yearn for your redeemed and incorruptible body that has been promised - but until that time, the work of sanctification is a work of surrendering to the rule of Christ by faith, without expecting God to make us better in the here and now.
I had a difficult time (technically speaking) posting this.