The Missing Strings of Sanctification
When I was fourteen, I picked up a guitar and taught myself to play. I functionally sacrificed my high school education on the altar of seeking to impress girls with my supposed singing/songwriting abilities. I took a guitar to just about every party or gathering to which I went. I could tune it by ear, so that I could perform on the spot. For Christmas in 1995, My dad bought me a beautiful new Martin. Nothing sounded so sweet as that guitar when it was tuned up and fitted with new string; and, nothing sounded so off as when I sought to play it with only four or five strings--instead of all six--whenever they broke. Somehow, it always seemed to be the same two strings that broke and without which I would try to play it. I have long thought that a six string guitar serves as a helpful illustration of the doctrine of sanctification. The doctrine of sanctification is a multi-variegated doctrine. Leave off one or two elements of the biblical teaching about sanctification and it won't function properly. From much of what is written about it in our day, it seems as if the same two strings are missing--namely, the consequences of and the chastisement for our sin.
There is never a time when we do not need to be reminded of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone. We will never reach a point in our Christian life when we do not need to return to the truth that we have been united to Christ, in whom God has "blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places" (Eph. 1:3). There is never a time when we will outgrow our need to hear the precious truths about our justification and adoption. It is impossible to meditate too often or too long on the truth that God has imputed our sins to Christ and his righteousness to us. We are counted righteous in Christ! We will never be any more justified before God than we are at present, if we are in union with Christ by faith. Additionally, we always have need to meditate on the precious truth that we have been adopted into the very family of God--made heirs of the everlasting inheritance and partakers of all of the benefits of the children of God. Additionally, we cannot make too much of the doctrine of the definitive sanctification. The power of sin has been broken in the death of Jesus. We have definitively died to its dominion on account of our union with Christ in his death and resurrection. These are a few of the major benefits that we have in union with Christ by faith. Remembering Christ and these benefits of the redemption that we have in him plays the largest role in animating our Christian life. If we are missing any one of these, we are playing a string or two short of the fully tuned guitar.
Then, we come to the matter of progressive sanctification. God has purchased our holiness for us by virtue of Christ's death on the cross. However, unlike definitive sanctification, we quickly learn that our conformity to the image of Christ takes time. It doesn't happen all at once. As John Newton famously put it, "I am not what I ought to be. I am not what I want to be. I am not what I hope to be in another world. But still, I am not what I once used to be! By the grace of God, I am what I am!" We readily sense that there is a battle going on within us--a continual warfare between the flesh and the spirit. We fight, we war, we seek to mortify the lusts of the flesh. Yet, we feel the reality of indwelling sin, ever manifesting itself and seeking to reign in us. Sometimes we get the upper hand in the battle and sometimes we are wounded and fall. We cry out for grace to overcome sin and to put it to death. We get back up and press forward again, remembering that Jesus is the source of our sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30). We go to him as to the one who said, "Without me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). We go back to the cross for pardon and power so that we can again go forward in the Christian life.
When we confess our sins and turn from them back to God, He freely and joyfully forgives. He always has the heart of the father in the parable of the prodigal son. As David prayed, "You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive, and abundant in mercy to all those who call upon You" (Ps. 86:5). He has given His Son to be the sacrifice for our sin. Because of the bloodshed of Christ on the cross, God has secured the legal pardon of all of our sin. By the once for all sacrifice of Jesus, God has washed away all of our sin. When we go to Him, confessing our sin, He is faithful and just to give us the paternal forgiveness of our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. There is no condemnation awaiting the one who is in Christ Jesus. There is no retributive justice on Judgment Day for the one who has been forgiven and cleansed. As Jesus himself explained, "he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life" (John 5:24).
The Son has purchased the Spirit for us in order to indwell us and to purify our minds and heart through a due use of the means of grace. The Spirit is the agent of our sanctification and growth in grace. He imparts what rightly belongs to the Son to all those the Father has chosen and adopted in the Son, for whom the Son has died and who are blessed with every spiritual blessing in the Son. It is by the Spirit that we put sin to death. As we spend time in the word of God, the Spirit transforms our minds and hearts--convicts us of sin and gives us new desires for holiness. This too is one of the many aspects of the biblical doctrine of sanctification.
Nevertheless, there are other strings of God's sanctifying grace that we need in order to play the beautiful music of the biblical doctrine of sanctification in our lives. There are many well meaning Christians--even pastors--in the church who mistakenly tell people, "Because you have been justified and adopted, God is never displeased with you." It is most certainly true that no amount of sin will ever overturn a right standing with God. it is also an absolute impossibility for a true believer to lose his or her position as a son or daughter of God because of personal sin. However, the Scripture is clear that in this life believers still can and do displease our Father by our sin. In this life, believers still suffer consequences and are subject to chastisement for sin. These two strings are necessary if we are to rightly strum the song of sanctification.
After David had committed adultery and murder, God sent Nathan the prophet to wisely call him to repentance (2 Sam. 12:1-6). The second that David repented and said, "I have sinned against the Lord," Nathan reminded David, "The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die." There was no call to a time of penance. There was no, 'Well, we'll wait and see if you have a good enough track record." No. The Lord immediately forgave David's sin. However, there were grace consequences commensurate with David's sin. First, the Lord said, "You have killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword; you have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the people of Ammon. 10 Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife." Then He said, "because by this deed you have given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also who is born to you shall surely die.” Seeking to abstain from sin in order to avoid the consequences for sin is never a sufficient motive for sanctification, but it certainly has a place among the motives of sanctification. When the Apostle Paul says, "God is not mocked, whatever a man sows that will he also reap," he is intimating that there are real consequences for our actions and that we must ever factor in what the gravity of those consequences might be (even in the lives of those who have been forgiven and adopted into God's family).
The other string of God's sanctifying grace that is often missing in our treatments of sanctification is the biblical teaching on chastisement. The writer of Hebrews explains the important role that God's chastening plays in the Christian life (Heb. 12:5-13). He first reminded his readers that God's chastisement is a mark of His love of His children. We are not to despise or be discouraged when He chastens us (v. 5), precisely because we know that He only chastens His sons and daughters. God chastens those whom He loves (v. 6). The writer draws an analogy between earthly fathers who love and discipline their children and the heavenly Father who loves and discipline His children. Finally, the writer explains that there is a purpose (and end goal) in the chastening of our loving heavenly Father. The first purpose is to bring us into subjection to the Father of spirits so that we will live. The second purpose is to make us partakers of his righteousness. And, the third purpose is to bring healing to what is spiritually unhealthy in us (vv. 12-13).
In order to play the sweet songs of God's grace in our lives, we need to make sure that we have all of the biblical strings of grace tuned and in place. If we leave off one or two, we will inevitably be unable to play the beautiful melody of holiness in our lives in the way in which God has intended.