Most theologians recognize there is a false dichotomy between interpretation, understanding, and application. But somehow, this dichotomy is not recognized in the Sunday schools and in many instances, not even the pulpits. Something must change if we are to ever recover what it really looks like to express Jesus Christ to the world. If we neglect the doctrine of justification and fail to grasp the legal concepts it teaches, we end up with a legalistic notion of Sanctification not to mention a cold harsh and almost heartless orthodoxy. This expression of Christianity is seen as unloving, harsh, judgmental, and impatient, not to mention that it is missing the relational aspects so essential to a vibrant Christian community. If, on the other hand, we neglect the doctrine of sanctification, we end up with an empty, relational, shallow Christianity that is powerless to demonstrate the real life-changing power of a gospel that asserts, as its central message, a radical transformation in the heart that is made visible to all. Hence, the claims of Christianity become disgraced, and the gospel loses credibility because Christianity has no integrity. People reason that if the message of change is not true on the basis that they cannot see any change in the lives of Christians they know, then all other Christian claims must be just as fallacious as the core message itself. Hence, if we are to preserve the veracity, credibility, and integrity of the Christian worldview, we must do things differently. In the former case, Christians are viewed as having ridiculous rules, being judgmental, unloving, uncaring, without empathy, and even mean-spirited. In the later case, they are viewed as gullible, naïve, shallow, and no different from anyone else except for the fact that they attend church. Does any of this sound familiar? How do we embark on the long, hard tedious journey of fixing this problem? As with every other problem in the world, it begins with a review of divine revelation. What does God have to say about justification and sanctification?
The Ordo Salutis
An understanding of the order of salvation is helpful from the start of a discussion such as this one. First and foremost, Salvation belongs to the Lord. That is to say that God is sovereign over the salvation of sinners as He is over all other things. It is God who takes the initiative in the process of salvation. God not only takes the initiative in salvation, he also completes that which he begins. (Phil 1:6) There are a few variations in the ordo salutis, but I will provide the basic idea around the application of salvation as taught in Scripture. There are two people acting in the process of salvation, even though God is the initiator of the process. Salvation begins with the decree of God to elect man to faith. This election is followed, in time, by God’s effectual call. God provides man with a new heart. This regeneration instantly produces faith and repentance and we see man’s response in outward conversion. It is at this point that man is instantly justified before God, adopted into the family of God and sanctified, or set apart for holy service to the living God. Hence the elect’s response to this call is repentance and faith. We call this man’s part. This results in God’s continued work of sanctification in man, leading to perseverance, ultimately culminating in glorification. And there you have the order of salvation, also known as the ordo salutis. Notice that both, justification and sanctification are viewed as God’s acts and God’s work respectively. In justification, man is declared by God to be released from the sin debt. In sanctification, man is not only declared holy, but God’s work in man’s heart is on-going which is why sanctification is both an act of God on man, and a work of God in man. It is the congruency that exists between these two acts of God and the effects on man that these series of articles is concerned to treat.
Readers will notice that I am writing from a reformed position in the area of Soteriology. It is not the purpose of this article to dispute with Arminian, Semi-Pelagian, Pelagian, or other schemes of theology. Such systems are viewed as ranging from error, to serious error, to heresy from my perspective. I will leave you guessing as to which scheme I see as heretical. My aim here is to make a critical examination of what the Scripture teaches about justification and sanctification, how they relate to one another, and how a proper understanding of these doctrines work their way into our daily living and especially into our relationships in the Christian community. In the end, Scripture has a perlocutionary aim. It seeks to transform us into the image of Christ.
The Power of the Gospel on Display
The power of the gospel is best displayed in and by a community of believers whose lives have been transformed into something radically different from what it used to be. The world should see a community of people living, relating, acting, and thinking in ways that are fundamentally antithetical to the way the world behaves. What does this mean? Does it mean we don’t make mistakes? Does it mean we don’t sin? Does it mean that we attain sinless perfection? Not at all. But it does mean that we don’t engage in those things the way we use to, i.e., they don’t reflect the dominant pattern of our lifestyle. It means we respond to those behaviors differently than we use to. We hate our sin and struggle with it daily. It means we have a much different disposition and attitude toward those things than we use to. Our efforts are focused on putting these sinful behaviors away from us. Moreover, it also means we relate to one another in an entirely different way than we use to. If this is not the case, then the community is not really distinctively Christian. It is nothing more than a group of people gathering together who have all agreed to hold to the same religious errors collectively. This community is impotent to effect meaningful change in the lives of its members or its surrounding community. It expends very little effort in actually realizing such change. This community is more interested in appearances and outward practices than it is in real internal change. After all, real internal change takes real effort. And from a behavioral standpoint, real effort generally requires serious passion. We need serious passion in order to generate intense energy so that we may to effect radical change. Scripture calls it diligence! This community creates, with words only, the perception that it is different. It sounds like it is interested in people’s lives and may even sound like it is passionate for the truth of the gospel. But when one lifts the hood to examine its practices versus what it preaches, what they find is the same ole same ole. They find a group of people who gather a couple of times a week, listen to the same kind of sermon and Sunday school lesson, sing the same songs, talk about the same people, even talk to the same people, and then return to their respective homes and eventually to work, with absolutely no change in their lives. They do this week in and week out. It has become a casual routine just like every other casual routine in their life. They say it is different for them and some may even work themselves up emotionally from time to time when they talk about it. But after the talk is done, and the emotions simmer, life remains for them, the same as it always has. There is no real tangible difference. They can be heard talking about one another, gossiping, slandering, lying, cheating, cursing, fighting, divorcing and any number of other practices that any other community without claims to religious faith might practice. These are the kind of people who attack one another behind their backs over personality idiosyncrasies. Rather than confront one another in love over sin, they don’t bother to get involved. Or they may even lend support to someone in sin having been given over to contemporary notions of psychology and the godless philosophies of self-happiness that permeate so many cultures today. Or worse, they confront everyone over every single sin they see usually with their goal being anything but restoration. Rather,they seek judgment, retribution, and punishment almost as if they are a modern day crusader. They claim to forgive you, but refuse to speak to you. They profess to love you, but never pick up the phone to see how you are doing, even when they know you are going through the worse kind of personal crisis. They view themselves as God’s elite. They are not capable of the same sins as others are. Their routines run over from weekly routines, to monthly routines, to seasonal routines, and even annual routines. They convince themselves they are doing something, when in fact, the sad truth is, they are doing nothing meaningful, nothing real, nothing of any value whatever. There is no significant difference between this community and what one finds in a godless or even anti-religious, atheistic culture.
In fact, in many respects, secular communities far surpass Christian communities in how they care for one another. Why is this? One reason can be seen in attitude. Secular attitudes are not quite as judgmental as those in the Christian community so-called. Now there is a balance here to be sure. There is no accountability in the secular community for the most part except in cases of extreme immoral behaviors. In secular society there are really no moral classes except in those extreme cases. Everyone understands that everyone else is really no different than themselves. But in the Church, the pendulum swings to the extreme. Christians have classes. Some look down their noses at others when they discover sin in their lives. Worse, it doesn’t even have to be current, on-going sin. It may be something from years ago. They instantly reclassify them. You lied! I could never lie. Therefore you are different than me. I am more special to God than you are. I can contribute to the Church because I don’t sin like you or I am not a sinner in the same respect that you are. Such thinking reflects a gross misunderstanding of our true nature. There is a difference between loving, caring, biblical accountability, and the sinful behavior of hypocritical judging. A right understanding of justification and sanctification should help us move closer to the middle. It should help us achieve a healthier balance between accountability and care, between standards, confrontation, and loving attitudes that reflect godly humility. That is the model of Christianity that Jesus and the Apostles introduced in the first century. It is the forgiveness of the woman taken in adultery coupled with the holy admonition, “go and sin no more” that is our aim. It is the Christianity that removes the incestuous scandal from the Church as in 1 Corinthians 5, but turns in loving acceptance when the guilty repent, understanding that each one is capable of the same sinful behavior, as in 2 Corinthians 2 & 7. This is the Christianity that we must recover!
Now on to the subject at hand and perhaps we begin by identifying at least some of the problems that lead to this kind of phlegmatic Christianity and recommend some solutions so that we can do our part to honor God and do all things to the praise of his glory as opposed to just saying that is what we do. Who knows? God may stir the mind of one believer who has fallen into an indifferent state as of late. If so, then not only is it time well spent, but that is a bonus. It is always time well spent to examine the Scripture.