Friday, January 21, 2011

The Biblical Paradigm for Progressive Sanctification

It has been well established that Christians are regenerate sinners with a multifarious sin nature. Some of us struggle with lust, while others have trouble with anger. Some of us are tempted with homosexuality while others are tempted with self-righteous pride and arrogance. We lie, cheat, steal, commit sexual immorality, fight, divide, refuse to submit to one another, and a host of other sins too long to mention. Hopefully you get the point. But is there a real difference in the behavior of Christians who struggle with sin and the behavior of professing Christians, so-called, who revel in it? Can you observe the life of Christians at work, at home, with their family, in social settings, in discussions, etc., and see a set of distinctive behaviors that you really do not see in other people? I will argue in this article that, for the most part, and with some slight exceptions which I will cover, you can. In doing so, I will also lay out what I believe to be God’s design to preserve sanctification within the Christian community. God Himself has given us a paradigm by which we are to execute the sanctified life individually and corporately within the Christian family of faith. This paradigm has been ignored and/or dismissed by many in the church even though as of late there seems to be a resurgence taking place. For that, I think we should all rejoice.

The first mark of genuine faith is Christian love. Without Christian love we have no hope of ever executing on the sanctified life in the way that God has designed. First of all, Christian love is theocentric. Its focus is God. God is the center of all that we do. Every motivation we have for engaging in behaviors that are critical to the Christian ethic is directly connected with our love for God. Simply put, without Christian love, there is no motivation to drive Christian behavior. Our motivation becomes the same old selfish desire to please me. We need a motivator if behavior is going to change. There is no greater motivation than the motivation to please our heavenly Father. If you are not motivated to please God, you are likely unregenerate. Pleasing God matters to Christians. Hypocrites look for excuses for how they can get away with as little as possible. When God threatens the autonomous self, hypocrites come up with more excuses and exceptions than you could ever imagine for not responding to God in simple obedience. Hypocrites always see their sin as different from the sin of others. A hypocrite’s sin is never as bad as everyone else’s sin. Hypocrites are also some of the most loveless, joyless people you ever want to me.

Secondly, Christian love places the interest of others before itself. This is not easy for most of us to do and it is especially difficult to do consistently. Christian love will sacrifice its desires for the sake of others. It will especially sacrifice its desires for the sake of the gospel. This is a critical component within the Christian family and community. Husbands and wives who model Christian love will place the needs of the other spouse before their own. When forgiveness is necessary, it is extended without limit because this is how God loves us. We forgive the way God forgives. We display mercy to one another the way God displays mercy toward us. Because we have received the richness of God’s grace, we unhesitatingly extend grace to others. We extend patience where patience is due. We recognize God’s patience with us and therefore understand we have no basis for not being patient with one another.

The Christian community is no different from the Christian family unit. It is this love that motivates us to take an interest in our brothers and sisters in Christ. This is not a “check-the-box” kind of love. What is “check-the-box” love? It is not love in reality. It is calling someone just because you know you should, but you really aren’t interested in how they are doing. You called them so that you can feel good about yourself essentially. You did the right thing. Pat yourself on the back and go on about your business. Of course it would be an improvement if we could get people to actually pick up a phone once in a while and demonstrate to their brothers and sisters that they really do care about them. What a novel concept that is. The point is that in order for Christians to live a sanctified life, the presence of Christian love is essential. Without Christian love, the sanctified life will always be a legalistic life that really seeks more to uphold an appearance than it does engage in real heartfelt meaningful service to God and others. Christians really love God and do what God commands. Their lives reflect active, deliberate obedience to their heavenly Father. When they fail, they are not pleased with themselves. They get back up and try again. Should they fail again, they keep trying. They will not quit even if it means a million failures.

So the paradigm for Christian sanctification is not a list of rules. It isn’t a list of do’s and don’ts. It is love. It is love for God first, and love for our neighbor second. What is the greatest commandment? What is the second greatest commandment? Jesus said, by this all men will know you are my disciples, by the love you have for one another. (John 13:35) Jesus said, if you love me, you will keep my commandments. (John 14:15) Notice that Jesus did not say that most of my disciples will love most of my disciples. He also did not say if you love me you will keep most of my commandments or the really important ones at least. Jesus equates keeping his commandments with loving him repeated. 1 John 3:10 is one of those in your face kind of verses. John says that anyone who does not love their brother is not of God. Now if this is true, we had better understand what loving our brother looks like and commence to doing it. John says the message we received from the beginning was that we were to love one another. (1 John 3:11) John says he who does not love abides in death. (1 John 3:14) The one who does not love does not know God. (1 John 4:8) If someone says he loves God and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20) Love is the paradigm for biblical sanctification. Love is what sets biblical sanctification apart from legalism. Love motivates from the inside out while legalism, with its concern about appearances and facades, is external only.

Our love for God motivates us to make godly decisions. But this love does not eradicate the sin nature. Sin is a real and present threat to every believer every day of their temporal lives. How does Christian love help us with our sanctification? The answer to this question is found in Matthew 18:15-18. Christian love serves as our basis for helping each other overcome the sinful proclivities we have in our lives. If you see a brother or sister caught up in a sin, you are to go to them according to Jesus. You are to go to them in private. This matter of sin is to remain between you and him alone. You mission is to win him out of his sin. You want to restore him. So you lovingly confront him, in humility, and show him that he sinned. If he listens to you, tell it to no one else, you have won your brother. If he does not listen to you, you are to bring two or three witnesses of the sin and confront him again. If he does not hear them, you are to tell it to the church. The church then will go to the sinning brother over time and attempt to win him back. If he remains obstinate in his sin, the church is to treat him as an object of evangelism. This public ostracism is designed to pressure the sinner individual to repent. Its purpose is to restore. This is the biblical paradigm for personal and corporate sanctification. First, this is God’s mechanism for correcting erring believers. He calls us back like a lost sheep. And he forgives our debt like a merciful master when we respond. Second, this is God’s way of keeping the church pure. There is no place in the Christian community for individuals who profess Christ with their mouth, but refuse to obey Him with their lives. The church must be concerned with her purity and testimony. She is the keeper of the gospel. As such, she has to set the standards and maintain that level of integrity and credibility that makes her the light that shines into a dark world. Believers may fall into sinful patterns for short periods of time, but will always be brought back to obedience. Church discipline is a key component that God ordained to this very end. We ignore it to our peril and when we do, we are not loving those we claim to love.

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