A BBC Chapel Sermon by Vance Russell
There was nothing in the world more exciting to an eleven-year-old boy than video games. My first game in middle school was Super Mario Brothers. It was amazing! What made it particularly compelling for me was leveling up. The challenges got harder. The villains got meaner. The tools to help got more complex (i.e. Mario’s mushroom, fire flower, or invincibility star). This “leveling up” idea is similar to a concept the Bible calls “sanctification.”
Sanctification is the continual process by which the Holy Spirit makes a follower of Jesus to be more like Him. Sanctification is often confused with justification (another important concept), but they are worlds apart. Justification was accomplished when Jesus died on the cross. Sanctification is accomplished as we daily carry our cross. Justification shows us how much God loves while despite our sinfulness. Sanctification shows us that God loves us too much to leave us sinful. In short, justification is receiving a video game even if you don’t deserve it, and sanctification is playing through the challenges of the video game.
So, how do we “level up” in our spiritual life? In the Bible, 1 Peter 1:2 and Romans 15:16 tell us that sanctification is the work of God’s Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit first regenerates us into Christ Jesus (rebirth); then He sanctifies us to be more like Christ Jesus (leveling up); and then He glorifies us after death (eternal life in Heaven). Titus 3:4-7 illustrates all of this: “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”
Even though “leveling up” in Christlikeness gives us new challenges and new tools, the video game analogy can only take us so far. We can’t turn off our spiritual lives like we can a video game. Nor can we save it and come back to it later. We can’t skip levels using cheat codes. The only way to “level up” in Christlikeness is to endure the hard work. The good news is that just like Mario has mushrooms, fire flowers, and invincibility stars to help him “level up,” the Holy Spirit gives us tools to help us in our journey.
Tool #1 – God’s Word
Often we take for granted just how powerful God’s Word is. The Bible is not a lifeless text; it is living and active! The Bible is not a dull book; it is sharper than any two-edged sword! The Bible is not pointless; it actually pierces the soul and spirit and it discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart (see Hebrews 4:12). God’s Word is truth, and the truth sanctifies (levels up) us (see John 17:17). Prioritize your time in the Word. Read, study, and memorize it. If you have not yet, I challenge you to read all the way through the Bible. Let God’s Word transform how you think and let it become the lenses through which you see God, yourself, and the world. God’s Word is necessary to help us “level up” in sanctification.
Tool #2 – Christian Community
There are several ways we can engage Christian community. One is through mentorship. Holy Spirit speaks through people who are farther along in sanctification than we are. Look for a Christian mentor who is wise and who loves God. Another way is through accountability. Find a Christian brother or sister that you can trust, who is at about the same level as you, with whom you can grow together and encourage each another. You can keep each other accountable if you are struggling to overcome a sin or struggling in trusting God. The last, and maybe the most important, way is through being the body of Christ together with other Christians who are being sanctified. This means forgiving one another, bearing one another’s burdens, and encouraging one another. Galatians 5:22-26 says, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying one another.” It is impossible to “level up” in Christlikeness if we don’t have the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and we can’t have the fruit if we are isolated. Christian community gives us the opportunity to practice love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Tool #3 – Perseverance
The reason we need more complex tools is because the trials get harder. The tool of perseverance is one of those complex tools for tough trial. James 1:2-4 encourages us to “Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” Maturing and being complete is absolutely part of “leveling up,” but we can’t get that if we don’t persevere, and what makes us persevere better than trials, challenges, and the testing of our faith? This is why when we get smacked in the face with a trial that rocks our faith, we can have joy because we are “leveling up,” we are maturing. This is exactly why we can’t skip levels. We need to go through the experiences of trials because of how they change us as people. We can’t be changed without having those experiences.
Tool #4 – Persecution
In American culture, we don’t experience intense persecution like others have, but we do experience it. Any time anyone has insulted you for being a Christian, accused you of falsehood for being a Christian, or treated you with evil for being a Christian, then you have experienced persecution…and you are blessed because it. Jesus says this in Matthew 5:11-12, and he adds that we should rejoice and be glad. Why? Because if we are becoming like Jesus (“leveling up” in Christlikeness), the world will treat us the way that they treated Him. Enjoy persecution now. We won’t have a chance to experience it in Heaven.
Tool #5 – Spiritual Disciplines
There’s a reason not everyone competes in Ironman Challenges. It’s hard. You swim 2.4 miles, bicycle 112 miles, and run a marathon – 26.2 miles. Accomplishing this feat takes discipline. Lots of it! Sure physical discipline has its rewards, “but godliness has value for all things,” (see 1 Timothy 4:8). Spiritual disciplines are how we become spiritual Ironmen and women. Richard Foster lists the spiritual disciplines as prayer, bible reading, fasting, studying, simplicity, confession, worship, guidance, solitude, submission, service, the list goes on. The disciplines help us focus on what is really important in life – what helps us become more like Jesus. In the process, I’ve learned that video games really don’t help toward “leveling up” to become a sanctified Ironman of Christlikeness.
After only a few months of practice, I was able to win the game and save the princess in Mario Bros. However, when it comes to sanctification, the truth is, we are not going to attain total Christlikeness in this lifetime, but we do need to grow in Christ every day of this life. The Apostle Paul proclaimed this, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14). Step back and look over this past year. Measure it against the year before. How have you grown to become more Christlike? How have you “leveled up”? What are you doing today to become a more Christlike a year from now?
My prayer for you is this, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).
Vance Russell has taught New Testament and Greek at Boise Bible College for four years after being in church ministry for over ten years.
Boise Bible College hosts chapel every Tuesday and Thursday from 10:30am to 11:30am in the Dr. Charles Crane Auditorium. Students are required to attend as part of their journey at BBC, however, all are welcome!