Monday, January 17, 2011

Sanctification: Old-Fashion Legalism or Biblical Mandate?

In contemporary society, the word sanctification has not been en vogue for some time now. In fact, oftentimes the mention of the word is a red flag to some, that the person using it has a certain theological profile. In other words, if you use the term “sanctification,” you run the risk of being stereo-typed as a fighting fundamentalist or a belligerent legalist. In my view, the antinomian mindset that exists within many quarters of the Christian community is no more attractive than the legalism it seeks to eradicate. Now to be sure, legalism certainly needs eradicating, but so too does the antinomianism spurred on by Descartes’ modernity as well. Moreover, what some label legalism is nothing of the sort. The Scripture presents us with a very balanced approach to how we are to behave in this world. But make no mistake about it, there are very clear prohibitions against certain behaviors and certain patterns of living that, when ignored, require attention by the individual and those in the Christian community that profess to love that individual. In addition, those on the opposite end of the spectrum must understand that Scripture is not merely a list of rules, the keeping of which places us in a kind of special position with God. In other words, Sanctified living does not establish various categories of Christians. Christians not only like to categorize themselves based on what they don’t do and what others do, they love to brag about their private lifestyle openly as if to say, “I don’t do this or that.” Apparently they think that not watching television places them in a higher class of Christians. Some Christians will only listen to Christian music as if that makes them holier. If you do these things, please do not think I am taking pot shots at you. I am not. If you do these things to brag and you do them to convince yourself you are less worldly somehow, then I am taking pot shots at you. You are sorely misguided. In fact, your self righteousness is just as ugly as that of the Pharisees. We must take care not to criticize one person for what they don’t do the same as we should take care not to criticize a person for what they do. If you see someone sin there is a process that is clearly outlined by Christ Himself that you must follow. And that process does not include talking about them behind their back to everyone you know. I will cover this process as the means by which we can recognize those who truly desire to please God with their lives as compared to those who may only be interested in the benefits of appearing to be something they really are not.

What does a biblical perspective of sanctification look like, and should we continue to use this term to communicate the meaning of Scripture regarding this all important doctrine? Paul says in Romans 6:1-2, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may abound? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin live any longer therein? Many Christians so-called are so ignorant of Scripture, they don’t even realize this verse is in the bible. I am not talking about new converts to Christianity. I am talking about young people who have been around Christianity for 5 and 10 years. To them, Bible-reading is not the best way to spend your time. They go to church, listen to shallow sermons that are mostly geared toward social causes, listen to tons of music and never, ever pick up and read their bible except in special circumstances. It is a sad state of affairs indeed. Paul understands the nature of human sin. He knows that this justification by faith alone business may be misunderstood by some to mean that there really are no consequences to this act of God on those who believe in Christ. Therefore, he issues some highly practice, highly logical points around this fact and how it relates to our daily living. First, does the fact of justification by faith alone mean that how we behave on a daily basis is irrelevant? Do we go on living a lifestyle predominantly patterned after the world? And do we do this so that we may receive more and more grace? Paul uses the Greek expression, me genoito! This is the strongest possible way to so no in Koine Greek. In other words, absolutely not, or under no circumstances whatever!

Paul asks the questions, “how shall we who died to sin live any longer therein?” This is an interesting sentence. Paul uses the aorist tense to describe our “death” to sin, but he uses the future tense to describe our “living” in sin. Douglas Moo comments,
“Living in sin” is best taken as describing a “lifestyle” of sin – a habitual practice of sin, such that one’s life could be said to be characterized by that sin rather than by the righteousness God requires. Such habitual sin, “remaining in sin,” (v.1), “living in sin,” (v.2), is not possible, as a constant situation, for the one who has truly experienced the transfer out from under the domain, or tyranny, of sin. Sin’s power is broken for the believer, and this must be evident in practice (see also Jas. 2:14-26; and perhaps 1 John 3:6, 9).
There are two extremes to be avoided here. On the one hand, we must avoid the antinomian extreme of living recklessly before our Lord and before the world. We are set on display by God to serve as His light to the world. We have no right to conduct our lives as we please or as we see fit. Such extreme individualism is entirely incongruent with the Christian worldview. On the other hand, we must resist the urge to label everything a sin, take pride in avoiding it, and classifying those who don’t as “a different kind of Christian than me.” This leads to self-righteousness and hypocritical judging. A.W. Pink says it very well,
“In sanctification something is actually imparted to us, in justification it is only imputed. Justification is based entirely upon the work Christ wrought for us, sanctification is principally a work wrought in us. Justification respects its object in a legal sense and terminates in a relative change—a deliverance from punishment, a right to the reward; sanctification regards its object in a moral sense, and terminates in an experimental change both in character and conduct—imparting a love for God, a capacity to worship Him acceptably, and a meetness for heaven.”
Romans 6:4-7 teaches that at our conversion we have now been positioned to walk in a “newness of life.” This word new means “the sate of being new, and different, with the implication of being superior.” This newness of life reflects the fact that we are no longer slaves to sin. Sin no longer holds us captive. The believer is dead to sin. Now this does not mean that our sin nature has been eradicated. Clearly it has not. While the believer is dead to sin, sin is clearly not dead to the believer. Nevertheless, Paul expects a radical impact to the life of a person who has been justified and consequently sanctified. And this radical impact is visible and presents itself as clear proof that God is active in this person’s life. The idea that a person would convert to Christianity with little to no impact on their life from the inside out is completely foreign to the teachings of Scripture. And this is precisely where the controversy comes in. There is a plethora of professing Christians who simply reject or ignore the teachings of Scripture on this point. Typically these are the so called “Jesus-lovers” who love Jesus so much they don’t bother to read anything about His life and teachings.

I once had a “worship leader” tell me that music was just as important as preaching and teaching. Now I don’t intend to downplay the importance of music in worship. I am a musician myself. But nothing takes precedence over the dissemination of Scripture through teaching and preaching. However, this is the mindset of many young people today in the church. Scripture just isn’t important. Reading it, studying it, hearing it preached and taught all take a back seat to “other” things. I once had a discussion with a minister who was over the entire youth program at a church. He admitted to me that he had not worked out his view on divorce as of yet. This man was responsible for teaching teenagers how to glorify God with their lives. A huge part of his job was to prepare these kids to be adult Christians who will grow up and marry some day. What was he teaching them about marriage and divorce? This is the kind of non-sense that the church must address. Youth programs have become nothing more than religious entertainment centers in the Christian church where “self” continues to be the main emphasis of the program. Is it any wonder why sanctification has faded off the scene? If you don’t think it is so, ask where all these young people go when they leave home and head for college. What are the parents modeling in the home and what is the church doing to prepare them for life in the real world where biblical Christianity is despised?

Paul reaches the culmination of his argument in 6:22, “But now, having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.” There is an ineluctable relationship between justification and sanctification. Paul expends considerable energy demonstrating this truth throughout chapters 3-6 in Romans. Contrary to popular thinking, Paul does not contradict James in the slightest. There are two assertions Paul makes in his argument: 1) We have been freed from sin, and 2) We have been enslaved to God. In the previous verse, Paul talks about the benefit we were deriving from the things that we are now ashamed of. There is a clear demarcation between the life that was and that life that now is.

Rather than disagree with James, as those with a low view of Scripture contend, Paul reinforces James’ eloquent point that faith without works is dead. If your Christian conversion had little to no impact on your life, then there is a strong likelihood that it was no conversion after all. The Bible describes this conversion as a person “becoming again.” You are “becoming” all over again. We call it being born again. It is radical! It can be seen in every aspect of our lives. No difference in your life means that Christ is not in your life. The idea that Christian conversion is as simple as a prayer, joining the role, and settling into a small group is false. This is not how the Bible describes Christian conversion. Yet in numerous churches throughout the world, this is precisely what is practiced. Christianity becomes indistinguishable from joining a club or organization if you will.

The fact that God has declared Christians righteous by faith in the person of Jesus Christ means something significant. It means that God not only acts on behalf of those he has declared righteous, but that he works in and through them as well. God sanctifies all whom he has declared righteous. This is Paul’s point. And this sanctification changes the Christian’s life from the inside out. Sanctification is both positional and progressive. God sets us apart for service and works in our hearts and minds causing us to adopt the attitude of Christ more and more until eventually, some day, we experience the pinnacle of this work in the glorification of our entire person as we enter into eternity. Does this sanctification mean that Christians never fail? Does it mean we don’t make mistakes and that sometimes those mistakes are tragic? Does this work of God in our heart mean that we have no responsibility to avoid sin? Of course not! But that will be the subject of the next article. How do we achieve balance in our Christian walk, as we receive and celebrate God’s grace, mercy, and kindness while at the same time attempting to be the example God has called us to be in a very dark world? Christians are not perfect, just forgiven as the saying goes. But that is easier to say than it is to accept.

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