Category Archives: Sanctification

Connecting Christ’s Victory and My Obedience

Herman Ridderbos, Studies in Scripture and Its Authority (1978), 83–4:

The meaning of Christ’s self-sacrifice provides the New Testament message of reconciliation with a depth-dimension of which the church may never lose sight. To slight this dimension is to lose touch with the very mystery of the gospel.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that many who live out of this mystery of salvation and who find there the only consolation for life and death view with suspicion any new ideas putting all the emphasis on what our lives ought to reveal, instead of emphasizing what Christ has done, once and for all, in our place. Is this not a radical shift in focus? And ought we not rather to count as nothing all human effort so that we focus our attention and faith exclusively on what Christ, by his death and resurrection, has fully done, once and for all, in our place?

To think that way is to run the risk of making a serious mistake.

For although we are completely correct to stress the expiatory and atoning effect of Christ’s sacrifice as the focal point of the biblical account of reconciliation, we may not restrict the power of that sacrifice to what Christ once suffered and performed in our place. We refer again to the victorious power of Christ’s death and resurrection in his battle against the powers and demons which, as God’s adversaries, chained persons to their service. But this victory not only affects Satan and his subjects; the suffering and death of Christ also exert a liberating and renewing power in the lives of all who believe in him. The effect of this sacrifice is not only that it frees us from the guilt and punishment of sin, but also that it subjects us to Christ’s regime. Reconciliation means that the world — all things, man included — is again put right with God.

Sanctification Is Our Work of Gratitude for God’s Work of Justification, Right?

Wrong. In fact a model of sanctification defined primarily as (or solely as) gratitude-for-justification, becomes very problematic. Here’s how Richard Gaffin explains it in his book By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation (Paternoster, 2006), pages 76–77:

In the matter of sanctification, it seems to me, we must confront a tendency, at least practical and, my impression is, pervasive, within churches of the Reformation to view the gospel and salvation in its outcome almost exclusively in terms of justification. …

The effect of this outlook, whether or not intended, is that sanctification tends to be seen as the response of the believer to salvation, defined in terms of justification. Sanctification is viewed as an expression of gratitude from our side for our justification and the free forgiveness of our sins, usually with the accent on the imperfection and inadequacy of such expressions of gratitude.

Sometimes there is even the suggestion that while sanctification is highly desirable, and its lack, certainly unbecoming and inappropriate, it is not really necessary in the life of the believer, not really integral to our salvation and an essential part of what it means to be saved from sin. The attitude we may have – at least this is the way it comes across – is something like, “If Jesus did that for you, died that your sins might be forgiven, shouldn’t you at least do this for him, try to please him?” [I.e. what Piper calls "the debtor’s ethic."]

With such a construction justification and sanctification are pulled apart; the former is what God does, the latter what we do, and do so inadequately. At worst, this outlook tends to devolve into a deadening moralism.

What takes place, in effect, is the reintroduction of a refined works principle, more or less divorced from and so in tension with the faith that justifies. The self-affirming works, those self-securing and self-assuring efforts, so resolutely resisted at the front door of justification, creep back in through the back door of sanctification. The “faith” and “works” that God intends be joined together in those he has restored to his fellowship and service (cf., e.g., Jas. 2:18), through uniting them to Christ by faith, are pulled apart and exist, at best, in an uneasy tension, a tension that can paralyze the Christian life and render obedience less than uninhibited and wholehearted.

Last summer I asked Richard Gaffin to explain why this gratitude-for-justification model of sanctification is misleading, and he explains in this 5-minute clip:

Dying and Rising with Christ

One of the more stimulating reads from 2012 was for me a short 130-page book written 45 years ago by Robert Tannehill, Dying and Rising with Christ. For its brevity the book punches hard and achieves a sketch of the sweeping eschatological structure in Paul’s writings, something I appreciate in the writings of G. K. Beale.

Tannehill seems to make a few points about the Christian life that are worth highlighting here. First, the book is strong on the large-scale eschatological framework of the Christian life in Paul, as you can see on page 30:

Christ’s cross puts an end to the dominion of sin, and so to the “old man.” It is an inclusive event, for the existence of men was bound up with this old aeon, and what puts an end to it also puts an end to them as men of the old aeon. When Paul speaks of dying and rising with Christ, and associates it, as he does here, with the end of the old dominion and the foundation of the new, it is clear that he is thinking of the death and resurrection of Christ as eschatological events. And because they are eschatological events, affecting the old dominion as a whole, they are also inclusive events.

But I think Tannehill’s work is especially valuable on the flip side of our entrance into the new aeon, in our battle with the tug and pull of the old aeon in the ongoing “eschatological discord” (Beale). Tannehill explains the discord on page 127:

The connection which we have noted between dying and rising with Christ and Paul’s eschatology provides the key to understanding the relation between dying with Christ as a past event and as a continuing aspect of Christian existence. Through dying with Christ the Christian has been released from the old world and has entered the new. If this were all that Paul wished to say about God’s eschatological act, he could only speak of dying with Christ as something which has already happened to the Christians. But the old world has not yet accepted God’s judgment of it and claim upon it, and the Christian is still bound to this old world through his present body.

This means that the Christian is still exposed to the powers of the old aeon. Therefore, the new existence which is based upon the past death with Christ takes on the form of a continuing dying with Christ. To be sure, Paul speaks of dying with Christ as a present process particularly, though not exclusively, in connection with suffering. However, he makes clear that the dying with Christ which takes place in suffering is also a dying to the old world, the world of “flesh” and of trust in self. It is because the decisive break with the old world must continually be maintained and affirmed that what happened to the Christian in the death of Christ also determines the present structure of his life, so that dying with Christ is not only the basis of the new dominion but remains a present reality within it.

Tannehill seems to be on to something here, and he’s not the only one to point this out. For a further discussion on this dual dynamic of our dying and rising with Christ, and how these twin realities shape our perception of our daily Christian lives, see the second half of my recent interview with Constantine Campbell in the Authors on the Line series (iTunes). And if you are looking for a brilliant chapter on the eschatological shape of the Christian life, see Beale’s A New Testament Biblical Theology, pages 835–870.

Vital Union with Christ and Sanctification in Jonathan Edwards

One of the interesting connections Edwards makes on the topic of sanctification is found in his sermon on 2 Corinthians 5:8 delivered at David Brainerd’s funeral on October 12, 1747. There, in one section, Edwards connects sanctification within his broad (and glorious) worldview. Edwards makes the following points:

  • Sanctification is the progressive emerging of Christ’s holiness in our lives through (a) our vision of Christ’s glory, and (b) our union with Christ by the Spirit.
  • We see Christ’s glory partially now, therefore our transformation can only be incomplete in this life.
  • We experience vital union with Christ partially now, therefore our holiness will never fully emerge in this life.
  • In death we behold Christ’s full glory (beatific vision), and there our sanctification is complete (glorification).
  • In death all hindrances to experiencing vital union with Christ are removed, and there our sanctification is complete (glorification).

It’s interesting how Edwards merges here two key themes of sanctification: (1) vital union with Christ in progressive sanctification, and (2) our sight of Christ’s glory in progressive sanctification. Those two realities are really one reality for Edwards. To see Christ’s glory is to experience unhindered union with Him. The beatific vision of Christ perfects our vital union with Christ. And it’s at that point his holiness will then flow unhindered in our lives, to our delight and to God’s glory.

All that may be a little more than we would wish to hear at a funeral sermon, but nevertheless it’s here in Edwards, and here it is in his own words (Works, 25:230–232):

III. The souls of true saints, when absent from the body, go to be with Jesus Christ, as they are brought into a most perfect conformity to, and union with him. Their spiritual conformity is begun while they are in the body; here beholding as in a glass, the glory of the Lord, they are changed into the same image: but when they come to see him as he is, in heaven, then they become like him, in another manner. That perfect right will abolish all remains of deformity, disagreement and sinful unlikeness; as all darkness is abolished before the full blaze of the sun’s meridian light: it is impossible that the least degree of obscurity should remain before such light. So it is impossible the least degree of sin and spiritual deformity should remain, in such a view of the spiritual beauty and glory of Christ, as the saints enjoy in heaven when they see that Sun of righteousness without a cloud; they themselves shine forth as the sun, and shall be as little suns, without a spot.

For then is come the time when Christ presents his saints to himself, in glorious beauty; “not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; and having holiness without a blemish” [Ephesians 5:27]. And then the saints’ union with Christ is perfected. This also is begun in this world. The relative union is both begun and perfected at once, when the soul first closes with Christ by faith: the real union, consisting in the union of hearts and affections, and in the vital union, is begun in this world, and perfected in the next. The union of the heart of a believer to Christ is begun when his heart is drawn to Christ, by the first discovery of divine excellency, at conversion; and consequent on this drawing and closing of his heart with Christ, is established a vital union with Christ; whereby the believer becomes a living branch of the true vine, living by a communication of the sap and vital juice of the stock and root; and a member of Christ’s mystical body, living by a communication of spiritual and vital influences from the head, and by a kind of participation of Christ’s own life.

But while the saints are in the body, there is much remaining distance between Christ and them: there are remainders of alienation, and the vital union is very imperfect; and so consequently, are the communication of spiritual life and vital influences: there is much between Christ and believers to keep them asunder, much indwelling sin, much temptation, an heavy-molded frail body, and a world of carnal objects, to keep off the soul from Christ, and hinder a perfect coalescence. But when the soul leaves the body, all these clogs and hindrances shall be removed, every separating wall shall be broken down, and every impediment taken out of the way, and all distance shall cease; the heart shall be wholly and perfectly drawn, and most firmly and forever attached and bound to him, by a perfect view of his glory. And the vital union shall then be brought to perfection: the soul shall live perfectly in and upon Christ, being perfectly filled with his Spirit, and animated by his vital influences; living as it were only by Christ’s life, without any remainder of spiritual death, or carnal life.

I look forward to that day!!

The Putrid Chicago River and the Purifying Grace of Union with Christ

A. H. Strong, in his 1905 sermon in London:

How shall I, how shall society, find healing and Purification within? Let me answer by reminding you of what they did at Chicago.

In all the world there was no river more stagnant and fetid than was Chicago River. Its sluggish stream received the sweepings of the watercraft and the offal of the city, and there was no current to carry the detritus away. There it settled, and bred miasma and fever.

At last it was suggested that, by cutting through the low ridge between the city and the Des Plaines River, the current could be set running in the opposite direction, and drainage could be secured into the Illinois River and the great Mississippi. At a cost of fifteen millions of dollars the cut was made, and now all the water of Lake Michigan can be relied upon to cleanse that turbid stream.

What the Chicago River could never do for itself, the great lake now does for it. So no human soul can purge itself of its sin; and what the individual cannot do, humanity at large is powerless to accomplish.

Sin has dominion over us, and we are foul to the very depths of our being, until with the help of God we break through the barrier of our self-will, and let the floods of Christ’s purifying life flow into us. Then, in an hour, more is done to renew, than all our efforts for years had effected. Thus humanity is saved, individual by individual, not by philosophy, or philanthropy, or self-development, or self-reformation, but simply by joining itself to Jesus Christ, and by being filled in Him with all the fulness of God.

War and Peace

Tobias Crisp, the best named Puritan preacher of all-time, writes [The Complete Works of Tobias Crisp (London: 1832), 1:12–14]:

It is neither the tyranny, nor the troublesomeness of sin in a believer, that doth eclipse the beauty of Christ, or the favor of God to the soul. Our standing is not founded upon the subduing of our sins, but upon that foundation that never fails; and that is Christ himself, upon his faithfulness and truth. … Though there be ebbings and flowings of the outward man, nay, of the inward man, in the business of sanctification; yet this is certainly true, “That believers are kept by the mighty power of God, through faith, unto salvation.” They are kept in holiness, sincerity, simplicity of heart; but all this hath nothing to do with the peace of his soul, and the salvation and justification thereof: Christ is he that justifies the ungodly; Christ is he that is the peace-maker; and as Christ is the peace-maker, so all this peace depends upon Christ alone. Beloved, if you will fetch your peace from any thing in the world but Christ, you will fetch it from where it is not. …

While your acts, in respect of filthiness, proclaim nothing but war, Christ alone, and his blood, proclaim nothing but peace. Therefore, I give this hint by the way, when I speak of the power of Christ subduing sin; because, from the power of it in men, they are apt to think their peace depends upon this subduing of sin. If their sins be subdued, then they may have peace; and if they cannot be subdued, then no peace: fetch peace where it is to be had; let alone subduing sin for peace; let Christ have that which is his due; it is he alone that speaks peace.

Where Do Good Works Spring?


Ephesians 2:8–10:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, 479–480:

Good works are not independently and newly brought into being by the believers themselves. They lie completely prepared for them all and for each one of them individually in the decision of God’s counsel; they were fulfilled and were earned for them by Christ who in their stead fulfilled all righteousness and the whole law; and they are worked out in them by the Holy Spirit who takes everything from Christ and distributes it to each and all according to Christ’s will.

So we can say of sanctification in its entirety and of all the good works of the church, that is, of all the believers together and of each one individually, that they do not come into existence first of all through the believers, but that they exist long before in the good pleasure of the Father, in the work of the Son, and in the application of the Holy Spirit. Hence all glorying on man’s part is also ruled out in this matter of sanctification. We must know that God in no way becomes indebted to us, and that He therefore never has to be grateful to us, when we do good works; on the contrary, we are beholden to God for them, and have to be grateful to Him for the good works that we do.

Daily Renewal and Resurrection

It’s very easy to dislocate daily renewal (personal growth, progressive sanctification) from the much broader picture of God’s redemptive plan for your life and from future personal bodily resurrection. Our hope of resurrection does not negate the value of our daily progress; daily progress does not diminish the incredible transformation that must happen in the resurrection. In that light Murray Harris makes an important point in his comments on 2 Corinthians 4:16, and the place of this text within the broader flow of Paul’s book. Harris writes:

For Paul, the spiritual body was not simply the state of the renewed “inner self” at the time of the believer’s death, but it seems a priori likely that he saw a relationship between the two, that he regarded resurrection not as a creatio ex nihilo, a sudden divine operation unrelated to the past, but as the fulfillment of a spiritual process begun at regeneration. The daily renewal of the “inward person” (2 Cor 4:16) contributed toward the progressive transformation of the believer into the image of Christ (3:18) in a process that would be accelerated and completed by resurrection. Paul does not explicitly say that his ἔσω ἄνθρωπος ["inner self"] is the embryo of the spiritual body or bears its undeveloped image, but the natural transition of his thought from 4:16 to 5:1–4 shows that this sentiment would have been congenial to him. As a result of the final convulsion of resurrection, the butterfly of the spiritual body will emerge from the chrysalis of the renewed “inner person.”

[Source: Murray Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 360.]

Working Out What God Works In

Philippians 2:12–13:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Eerdmans, 1955), pp. 148-149:

God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works. Neither is the relation strictly one of co-operation as if God did his part and we did ours so that the conjunction or coordination of both produced the required result.

God works in us and we also work. But the relation is that because God works we work. All working out of salvation on our part is the effect of God’s working in us, not the willing to the exclusion of the doing and not the doing to the exclusion of the willing, but both the willing and the doing…. The more persistently active we are in working, the more persuaded we may be that all the energizing grace and power is of God.

Greg Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, as quoted in the pre-pub manuscript:

True saints should be psychologically motivated to fulfill God’s precepts because they know that God has given them the power to do so. … This kind of motivation is comparable to my neighbor’s desire to remove snow from his driveway. He has a fine snow-blower and gets his driveway cleaned off quickly. On the other hand, I do not own a snow-blower but have only a rusty snow shovel. When it snows a few inches, I have no desire to go out and shovel the snow. After it keeps on snowing and I still don’t go out to clear it off, my wife gives me a polite implied command by way of questioning, ‘when are you going to shovel the driveway?’ But I have no desire to respond positively to her command. I continue to let the snow build up until after the snow has finished falling, and then I go out rather reluctantly to shovel. I don’t have the motivation to clear off the snow because I don’t have the power to do it effectively. On the other hand, my neighbor has all the desire in the world because he has the power to remove the snow effectively. When one has the power to do something, the motivation for doing it follows.

Daily Progress to Perfect Holiness

We often imagine personal holiness is a ladder climb through this life, each day we take one more step heavenward. The reality is that for most of us it doesn’t work this way. Sanctification is played out in the fierce struggle between flesh and spirit, requiring all our Spirit-given exertion just to stand firm in one place without falling. Not to mention, on top of this, our ultimate glorification is tied to our faithful endurance during personal suffering (Rom. 8:17, 2 Cor. 1:5, Phil. 3:10).

Sanctification is no simple topic. And the most carefully balanced study of personal renewal (or progressive sanctification) that I have read is David Peterson’s Possessed by God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness (IVP, 1995). In it he firmly roots his study of progressive sanctification in the finished work of the Savior and in our union with Christ. Notice the carefulness with which he explains the path of personal renewal in its various forms.

He writes on pages 91–92:

The challenges to holiness examined in this chapter convey both warning and encouragement. No Christian should doubt the need to give practical, everyday expression to the holiness that is our status and calling in Christ. Only those who trust in his sanctifying work on the cross, and take seriously the warning to ‘pursue holiness’, will ‘see the Lord.’ …

On the other hand, it is possible to be so zealous for ‘progress’ that one’s attention shifts from God’s grace to human effort. Moral growth and development will be God’s gift to us at different stages of our lives, but spiritually must not be measured in terms of the rate of change. We are to go on exhibiting what we know of God’s character and will, motivated by the certainty of his acceptance, cleansing and enabling in Christ, together with the promise of entire sanctification when we meet him, face to face. Progress may be seen as we exercise ourselves in that godly devotion which issues from a true knowledge of God in Jesus Christ.

These gospel perspectives on the Christian life must not be obscured by the uncertainty of a moralisic perfectionism. Scripture emphasizes that holiness is a divine gift – a share in the life and character of God. In practical, everyday terms it means being dedicated to God and separated from all that is sinful. This condition need to be renewed and re-expressed every day, especially when testing comes or fresh challenges to please God confront us.

And then later, in the conclusion to the book, he writes this on page 136:

Although the language of glorification may be used to speak of the Spirit’s present work in our lives (e.g. 2 Cor. 3:18), the New Testament offers no simple picture of daily progress to future glory. Flesh and Spirit are locked in a conflict that does not always see victory going to the one side. We are presently being conformed to Christ’s sufferings so that we might share with him in the ultimate transformation of resurrection. (136)

Those are wise and balanced words from a book to help a pilgrim like me who struggles to understand that sometimes merely standing firm and enduring is itself supernatural progress along the path to glorification.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 454 other followers