Sanctification By Faith (2 of 3)
If Justification by Faith (JBF) is the heart of the gospel message, Sanctification by Faith (SBF) is its lifeblood, its power for daily living.
Definition:When we talk about sanctification, what we mean is this - how does a sinner who has been saved by God's grace actually start to change, to be transformed (Rom 12:2) into the image of God (2 Cor 3:18), to live a life that is holy and pleasing to God, rather than sinful and displeasing? Is it a matter of trying harder? Or is something else involved? How does my sanctification relate to my justification?So the gospel message for unbelievers is that salvation comes by faith in Christ, and few evangelicals would disagree that sinners are justified by faith alone. When it comes to sanctification, however, many Christians (even in Reformed churches) unintentionally revert to a works-based theology – “I may be saved by faith but I will become more like Christ only through my own effort.” They live as if holiness is achieved by trying harder, that sanctification comes by works.
This creates a sort of practical dichotomy – the gospel message may be good news for “sinners” outside the church, but it often seems strangely irrelevant for “believers” on the inside. The road to sainthood appears to be paved with personal effort. After all, even Paul says “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). (Of course, many overlook the following verse: “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure”. Our working is always subsequent and in response to God’s prior working.)
The Reformers, however, recognized that the gospel does not end once the Christian is justified – it is just as relevant for those who already believe as it is for pagans in their unbelief. Like justification, our sanctification is also by faith.
Martin Luther unpacks this concept with an example of covetousness:
If you wish to fulfill the law and not covet, as the law demands, come believe in Christ in whom grace, righteousness, peace, liberty, and all things are promised you. If you believe, you shall have all things; if you do not believe you shall lack all things… God our Father has made all things depend on faith so that whoever has faith will have everything.What Luther means here is that while the law shows us what we ought to do (eg. “don’t covet”), it does not give us the power NOT to do it. Just as we are incapable of justifying ourselves to God, so also we are incapable of sanctifying ourselves for God. Why? Because even if I am able to control my outward behavior, my heart within is still fundamentally covetous. My external sins flow from internal sins of the heart (cf. Mk 7:14-23).- Luther, On Christian Liberty, 13
Scottish preacher Thomas Chalmers reflects on our heart problem, pointing out that we are inevitably torn between mutually exclusive affections:
The love of God, and the love of the world, are two affections, not merely in a state of rivalship, but in a state of enmity, and that so irreconcilable that they can not dwell together in the same bosom. [It is impossible] for the heart, by any innate elasticity of its own, to cast the world away from it… the only way to dispossess it of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one.How then do we alter the affections of our heart? By continually returning to the promises of God in faith! Luther describes it like this:
The soul which clings to [God’s promises]with a firm faith will be so closely united with them… that it will not only share in all their power but will be saturated and intoxicated by them…This, then, is how through faith alone without works the soul is justified by the Word of God, sanctified, made true…Just as the heated iron glows like fire because of the union of fire with it, so the Word imparts its qualities to the soul.In other words, our hearts are sanctified (changed, perfected) only as we repeatedly embrace the gospel in faith. Luther offers an analogy from marriage: faith is the wedding ring which unites us to Christ; by it he inherits all that is ours (sin, unrighteousness), and we inherit all that is his (glory, righteousness). Our desires are transformed as we focus on Christ’s magnificent, ravishing love for us. As Jerry Bridges says, “My driving motivation now is not guilt but gratitude.”- Luther, On Christian Liberty, 14-15
Tim Keller sees in this the fundamental dynamic for Christian living: “We are saved by believing the gospel, and then we are transformed in every part of our mind, heart, and life by believing the gospel more and more deeply as our life goes on.” The reality of my union with Christ funds my spiritual change; the indicative drives the imperative. We need to constantly remind ourselves of this truth. We clean ourselves up, then, not be trying harder or by doing good works, but by believing God’s promises more and more.
Jack Miller calls this “preaching the gospel to ourselves daily.” Seen in this light, the gospel message is not just for non-Christians, but for Christians as well. Indeed, as a Christian I need the gospel even more desperately than an unbeliever because I see my sin more clearly – the more I know Christ the more my own sin is exposed.
It is important to note that this concept of sanctification by faith is fundamentally biblical. As Dr. Richard Gaffin , “What faith will always understand is that the path of sanctification has on it the same signposts as the path for justification – grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone."
Such an understanding carries important implications for faith and practice. First, if we do not commend ourselves to God on the basis of our sanctification, neither should we commend ourselves to one another on these same grounds; if God’s approval is based on faith, then our own approval of others cannot be based on their performance, their piety, or even their knowledge of “the right answers.”
Second, sinners and unbelievers should feel welcome in our churches as they are – you do not have to “clean yourself up” before you can participate in our community. This does not mean that we negate God’s demands for righteousness; on the contrary, we preach the law on the one hand, while compassionately identifying with unbelievers as fellow sinners on the other. In regard to God’s standard of perfection, we are lawbreakers just like they are; yet on account of Christ we are righteous, obedient children of God. The only difference between us and them is our relationship to Christ through faith.
Third, we as Christians must incarnate the gospel by being open and vulnerable about our own weaknesses and shortcomings. With Paul, we must testify that we are chief among sinners (1 Tim 1:15) by publicly modeling the repentance, confession, forgiveness, humility, and charity which characterize a life of faith.
Sanctification by faith in Christ is the lifeblood of the gospel.
So now let's take a look at Worship By Faith...