By John MacArthur
Sanctification isn’t easy—it takes faithfulness, hard work, and
self-discipline. And even then, it’s not purely a function of your will,
but the work of the Holy Spirit in you. It’s not manufactured
As with anything that takes time, effort, and patience, people are
prone to look for shortcuts. Some people substitute a mystical,
subjective feeling of closeness to God for actual spiritual growth.
Others cling to outward expressions of godliness while sin still makes a
home in their hearts.
But that’s not true spiritual growth—it’s counterfeit. If you truly
love the Lord, you can’t be willing to move the goalposts on biblical
There are many varieties of counterfeit sanctification. Some are
easier to spot than others, but all lead to the same kind of spiritual
shipwreck. Here are a few to be on the lookout for in your own life.
Moral virtue can often pass for true spiritual growth. Some
people, for varying reasons, are fair minded, loyal, kind,
conscientious, hardworking, and generous. They can make it through life
without scandals and outrageous immorality.
But morality alone isn’t an accurate measure of a person’s spiritual
condition. Moral virtue can exist apart from sanctification—even apart
from salvation. You’ve probably known nonbelievers who hold to a high
moral standard, perhaps even higher than some believers. But their
virtue isn’t a substitute for saving faith. Outward morality doesn’t
always equate to inward transformation. True spiritual growth isn’t just
about good exteriors.
Another counterfeit of spiritual growth is religious superstition.
Some believers methodically go through the motions of their daily
Scripture reading, prayer times, and other practical spiritual
disciplines as if the actions themselves merited God’s favor and
blessing. You even see this attitude in little things, like praying
before a meal. It becomes a mindless, empty ritual instead of an
opportunity to express real thanks and praise to God.
The Catholic faith is built on exactly those kinds of superstitious
rituals. But just as lighting candles, sprinkling holy water, praying
the rosary, and confessing your sins to a priest don’t earn salvation,
going through the motions of your Christian life—even
fastidiously—cannot substitute for true spiritual growth.
Restraint is another possible kind of counterfeit
sanctification. People don’t always avoid sin in favor of
righteousness—sometimes they’re simply afraid to face the consequences
of sin. They don’t necessarily have a heart to obey God or His Word.
They’re just afraid of pursuing temptation because of the results.
That fear could be the sign of a well-trained conscience. Maybe the
person was raised in a Christian home and has built-in convictions about
right and wrong. Maybe he grew up under the moral standard of God’s
Word and can’t shake the nagging of his conscience. Rather than face a
troubled conscience or the consequences of his sin, he’ll simply not do
Restraint from sin might eventually lead someone to true, saving
faith. But on its own, it’s not an indication of God’s sanctifying work.
There’s one other category of counterfeit sanctification that we’ll call false profession.
You’ve probably known people who parade their holiness and exhibit a
kind of over-the-top, superficial religiosity. There are all kinds of
ways to draw attention to yourself and your good behavior. But if you’re
just putting on a show for others—if your outward holiness isn’t
prompted by inward growth—then your holiness is phony.
Another example of false profession is the kind of subjective,
mystical experience that’s emphasized by some in the spiritual formation
movement. Feeling closer to God and more in tune with His
Word is not an accurate measure of your sanctification. In fact,
relying on those superficial emotions is a sure way to short-circuit the
work of the Holy Spirit in your life, dulling your discernment and
watering down your wisdom.
True sanctification isn’t about outward morality, religious
observance, restraint from sin, superficial holiness, or your feelings (1 Samuel 16:7). It’s about growing in Christlikeness in all aspects of your life. Anything less is a counterfeit.