The Gospel 11: Sanctification
By: Deji Yesufu
Some of the leading charges leveled against those who teach the doctrines of grace, as exemplified in the gospel, show that the teachings cause people to live lawless lives. These criticisms are valid in the face of the shame brought by the careless living – occasioned by gospel freedom – that is often seen among many purveyors of grace messages. One particular sect called the “hyper-grace movement” is actually worth mentioning here. These individuals dispense of every modicum of holy living. They talk about a grace that permits members to live in sin and yet be heaven-bound at the same time. They exalt grace to such a level that makes light of practices like repentance, saying that Christians do not need to repent of their sins ever again after that which occurred at the point of conversion. While the hyper-grace movement is a clear extreme here, those of us who hold to reformed theology and the doctrines of grace are not immune to the danger of sliding into lawlessness. Thus, a series on the gospel is not complete unless we examine the crucial link between the gospel and sanctification in the Christian life.
Sanctification via Sexuality
This series has tried to establish the fact that a man is saved by the grace of God alone, through faith in the done work of Christ; no man is saved by the works of the law or by any form of works for that matter. Therefore, no one is saved by sanctification either. This point must be made because the holiness movement that proceeded from the Arminian teachings of John Wesley and his emphasis on sinless perfection led inevitably to this error of salvation through holiness. They took Hebrew 12:14 – Strive for peace with everyone, and for holiness without which no man shall see God – to unhealthy levels. They taught that man was saved by his holiness and holiness then became the badge of honor of this movement. The right balance is this: while holiness is not the means to our salvation, it is a veritable product of our salvation. Thus anyone who claims to be a Christian must of a certainty also be holy. This was Paul’s position to the Thessalonians:
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God… For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.” (1 Thessalonica 4:3-7)
To discuss the matter of sanctification with the Thessalonians, Paul mentions the matter of sexual purity. He appears to be saying that while sanctification will involve one’s whole life and being, it begins with the manner the Christian handles his sexuality. God made us sexual beings and for this reason he permits marriage between a man and a woman to enable procreation, foster company, and discourage promiscuity. Because our sexual organs are always alive, the Christian is the one who must know how to control his or her desires. Christian self-control and sanctification begins with the manner in which we handle our sexuality. It appears to me that the moment the Christian begins to know how to discipline his sexual urges, he begins to have a hold on all other areas of sin in his life. If, however, we fail at handling lust in our hearts, we fall prey to all sorts of sin around us.
Law and Gospel
Another standard of holiness that we cannot overlook is what the word of God commands the Christian to do. The epistles of Paul are remarkable in the sense that the first half of these epistles are committed to teaching doctrinal issues; and then the second half centers on teaching practical Christian living. Both of these are important because what the Holy Spirit purposes to do is establish our minds in regards to who we are in Christ Jesus, before leading us to what we should do. The gospel helps the Christian to appreciate the fact that we are sons of God saved by grace and then it commands us to live as children of light. Thus our sanctification and holy living begins with our adherence to obeying what God has written in his word.
The grave danger of our day and particularly with the grace movement – whichever the form they assume – is to dismiss the fact that Paul himself did not take the listing of these practical sections of his epistles from the air or from some revelation of the Spirit. Paul got these teaching directly from the laws of God. I hereby introduce the concept of the law and the gospel: God gave Israel the law through Moses; Jesus came with the gospel of grace.
So we must establish our hearts forever on the truth that these two came from God and none of them has been abolished. While Paul went to great lengths in his epistles to talk about the “end of the law” for Christians, we should realize that Paul was not teaching the end of ALL the laws but the laws that pertained particularly to Israel’s civil and ceremonial life.
When Jesus Christ died, the dividing wall between Gentiles and Jews was broken. This meant that in God’s economy, salvation was now for all men. There was no longer Jew and Gentile. Thus the peculiar laws that God gave Israel that distinguished them as a people, laws which pertain to their civil life and their ceremonies in the temple, had to also be abolished. Therefore laws that governed the sacrifices in the temple: tithing, offerings of all kinds, dedication of first-borns, first-fruits giving, etc., had all been abolished with the death and resurrection of Christ. Civil laws that governed how the people were ruled were also abolished. But the gospel of grace does not abolish the Ten Commandments; rather, like Paul says in Romans 3:31, the gospel of grace upholds these laws.
A close examination of Paul’s epistles will therefore reveal that the Ten Commandments are what Paul teaches in the practical section of these epistles. Rather than taking them one after the other, Paul brings out the spirit of these commandments and makes them relevant to our day. This is what the Reformed fathers refer to as the concept of law and gospel – meaning a people who have received the gospel of Christ, also have come under the moral laws of God. And the laws of God, the Ten Commandments, are still very much subsisting today. Any movement or teaching that discountenances the Ten Commandments stands the danger of going into lawlessness; it does not matter what they think they know about the doctrine of grace. The gospel of Christ goes hand in hand with the commandments of God; Christians are not lawless people. Rather, we are governed by God’s laws – his eternal laws which he gave through Moses: the Ten Commandments.
Sanctification by the Spirit
While adherence to sexual purity and commitment to the commandments of God are important, the greatest work of sanctification that a Christian experiences in this life is the one that the Holy Spirit does himself. Paul told the Thessalonians:
“But we ought to always give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” (2 Thessalonians 2:13)
We see here that our election is closely bound to our sanctification. The same God who has chosen us has also ordained our sanctification by the Spirit. The question is: how does God do this? Let us hear Paul:
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:1-5)
In other words, the greatest work of sanctification that we can experience as Christians who are justified by faith is what God does himself. And he does this through our sufferings. While the matter of suffering as an essential part of the Christian life is disputed by some, anyone who is serious about being rid of sin must keep an eye on his sufferings. Suffering rids us of the flesh and its influences and helps us to keep an eye on the kingdom of God. God’s word shows us that God disciplines us as children so that we may be partakers of his holiness (Hebrew 12:10). We cannot waste our sufferings because they are God’s means of ridding us of this world.
While there are so many perspectives that we can consider in this matter of suffering, one may need to look at how the church as a body can help its members through the suffering and sanctification that God puts us all through. First, the church must preach the whole counsel of God, laying emphasis on the doctrines of grace that save sinners and build up the saints. Second, the church must separate itself from any doctrine that labels suffering as false doctrine. We must rather see suffering as God’s gift to the Christian people. When we realize that God authors the suffering of the saints, the church must wholly accept it as part and parcel of church life. Lastly, the church must partake in the sufferings of the saints. There should be real empathy for people going through all kinds of ills among us. No matter the degree of suffering, nobody should be scorned for whatever hardship they may be going through. Rather, God’s people must lead the way to alleviate the suffering of one another. When we realize that we are also in the flesh and are susceptible to the suffering that another saint is going through, we will never gloat but rather help alleviate their sufferings through prayers and material support.
The good news about the doctrine of sanctification is this: the God who authored the justification of the saint, will also author our sanctification. I personally think that the Christian who does not take his responsibility for practical holiness seriously will come under the hard discipline of God (1 Corinthians 11:31). Every one of us that has enjoyed saving grace will also go through the path of sanctification. Thus, while it is good and important to remind the Christian of their duties towards God and man through holy living, I think that the most important message in the churches is bringing sinners to saving faith in Christ Jesus. When an individual has been justified by faith, as seen in Romans 5, he is inevitably set on the path of sanctification of life. The same God who justifies the sinner will sanctify the saint and subsequently glorify his people when Christ Jesus comes. For the Christian, it is a win-win situation. This is why it is most important that we pursue the matter of true gospel preaching because men can only be converted by hearing the gospel preached to them. And when they are converted, they are then set on the path of sanctification and glorification.