Tag Archives: progressive sanctification

I Got to Keep On Movin’

One of my favourite places in Hamilton, Ontario is the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum.  I’ve lived in Hamilton twice, once as a seminary student and then later as a pastor.  During both stints, I made multiple visits to the CWHM – I love the place.  If you should ever happen to visit, at the front you’ll see a beautiful plane going nowhere fast.

It’s a Canadian-built CF-104 Starfighter.  It’s mounted on a pedestal and headed skyward.  During the Cold War this pointy jet was flying at supersonic speeds over northern Alberta and West Germany, but now it’s looking good but going nowhere fast.  It’s what we call a static display.  “Static” means it’s going nowhere.

The Warplane Heritage Museum is unique because it not only includes static displays like the CF-104, but also vintage aircraft maintained in flying condition.  The most famous of these is the World War 2 Avro Lancaster.  It’s not a fast plane:  cruising speed is a measly 210 mph.  A few years ago, the old bomber made a trip to the UK.  On the way back, it left on a Tuesday morning and arrived back in Hamilton on Sunday.  They didn’t fly the entire time – there were weather delays and such things as they crossed the North Atlantic.  The Lancaster has never been known for its speed.  Yet, compared to the Starfighter out front, it’ll still get you from point A to point B.

Now which of these do you suppose would be a good illustration of the life of a Christian?  Does God want the life of a Christian to look like the Starfighter on static display?  Does he want our lives just to look good, but actually go nowhere? Or is God’s purpose and plan for us to look more like the Lancaster?  Perhaps not the prettiest plane in the hangar, perhaps not the fastest, but at least it moves.  Does God just desire the status quo for us?  Does he want us to reach a plateau and then stall there?  Or is it his will that we continue moving forward, even if it is at a glacial pace?

Consider these Bible passages:

 “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”  2 Pet. 3:18

“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…”  Eph. 4:15

“Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation…”  1 Pet. 2:2

“We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and love of every one of you for one another is increasing.”  2 Thess. 1:3

Clearly growth is, in fact, God’s will for us.

While some of those passages speak about growing in faith (i.e. trust), the thrust of most them is directed towards sanctification.  Sanctification, I remind you, is the process by which we grow to reflect the image of Christ.  It’s the process of growing in holiness according to God’s will.  The key word in that definition is growing.  Growing is never a static thing – it involves movement, progress, development.  This spiritual growth we call sanctification is God’s will for Christians who’ve been bought with the blood of Christ.  It’s his plan that we be moving forward.  It’s sometimes slow and oftentimes not a pretty sight.  It’s a whole lot more like the Lancaster than it is like the Starfighter.

The big question then becomes:  how do we keep on growing?  In brief, it starts with these four elements:  communicating with God in prayer, delighting in God’s Word, celebrating the Lord’s Supper, and enjoying fellowship with other believers.  Pursue those things and you’ll find yourself growing.   However, neglect just one of those and your spiritual life will begin to lose steam.

Here’s where the Lancaster/Starfighter illustration breaks down.  The opposite of a growing Christian is not really a stagnant Christian.  You’re either growing or you’re backsliding.  In reality, there’s always movement one direction or another.  Which is it for you at this moment?


Passivity

Bad theology has bad consequences for living.  One particular area that some Reformed people struggle with is regeneration.   Some Reformed believers, especially in the Canadian Reformed and Free Reformed Churches of Australia, have been led to think of regeneration (or being born again) in only one way.  They have been led to believe that you need to be born again every day.  Regeneration is something that takes place over and over again in the life of a Christian.  Rather than an event that takes place once, they view it as an ongoing daily process.

I have addressed this confusion in an earlier blog post.  I pointed out that the confusion mostly arises from overlapping language in our confessions.  Nevertheless, Scripture and the Reformed confessions are clear that there is an initial regeneration of the Holy Spirit.  This is what Jesus was describing to Nicodemus in John 3.  This is what Peter was writing about in 1 Peter 1:  “since you have been born again…”  This is what the Canons of Dort are speaking about in chapter III/IV.  In these places, regeneration (being born again) is a one-time event where the Holy Spirit miraculously takes a heart of stone and turns it into a heart of flesh.

The problem comes when that initial regeneration is confused with sanctification.  Lord’s Day 33 speaks about the “true repentance or conversion of man” and describes it in terms of “the dying of the old nature and the coming to life of the new.”  That is about sanctification, the process whereby a Christian grows in holiness.  You can see that it’s a process from the words:  dying and coming to life.  The important point is that Lord’s Day 33 is speaking about something distinct from John 3:3, 1 Peter 1:23, and Canons of Dort III/IV.

If these things are not kept distinct, one runs into serious theological fog on human responsibility and activity.  Let me explain.  When it comes to regeneration, there is a Subject and an object.  There is One who acts and one who is acted upon.  There is One who is active and one who is passive.  The Holy Spirit is the One responsible for bringing a dead sinner to spiritual life.  The dead sinner does exactly nothing.  He or she is completely passive in regeneration.  You don’t cause your new spiritual birth anymore than you caused your physical birth.  You were born, you didn’t birth yourself.  Similarly, in regeneration, the Holy Spirit does it all and we do nothing.  As dead sinners, that is all we can do.

Regeneration always has an effect upon the object.  The dead sinner comes to life.  The unbeliever becomes a believer.  He or she takes hold of Jesus Christ through faith, also worked in the heart by the Holy Spirit.  Having taken hold of Christ by faith, there is justification.  A believer is declared righteous by God.  The person so declared no longer relates to God as their Judge, but as their Father.  They are in his family as beloved children and nothing and no one can change that.  Your justification and adoption are not renewed every day in some type of process.  If God has once declared you righteous and his child, then you are forever righteous and his child.  Through Christ, we are secure.

This is the context where we consider the process of sanctification.  If we look at it in terms of Lord’s Day 32, it’s clear that sanctification is first of all Christ’s work in us.  He renews us by his Holy Spirit.  However, even there, we are involved.  We are the ones who “show ourselves thankful to God for his benefits.”  This becomes clearer in Lord’s Day 33.  The dying of the old nature is something that we do:  “It is to grieve with heartfelt sorrow” — who does the grieving?  “…And more and more to hate it and flee from it” — who does the hating and fleeing?  Obviously, this is referring to the activity of a Christian.  The coming to life of the new nature is also something that we do:  “It is a heartfelt joy in Christ” — who has this joy?  “…And a love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works” — who does the loving, delighting, and living?  This is speaking about how a Christian is active in their sanctification.  There’s zero passivity here.

Are you beginning to see the problem if we merge together initial regeneration and sanctification?  In the first, human beings are completely passive.  In the second, human beings are involved and active on a daily basis.  God is still at work, but we work with him, in his power and by his grace.  When these things get muddled what happens more often than not is that people believe themselves to be passive in terms of their sanctification.  This leads to fatalism.  People say to themselves, “When God wants to change me, he’ll do it.  I have to wait for him to do it.  My holiness is not up to me.  I’ll just sit back and wait for him to do his thing.”  This is the type of thinking that people can fall into when they hear that being born again is something that has to happen every day.  If being born again is the same thing as what’s described in Lord’s Day 33, and if being born again is something that is done to you apart from your involvement, then your sanctification must necessarily be something in which you are completely passive.  That is really bad theological reasoning!  It gives people excuses to continue in sinful habits and patterns of life.

We need to be clear about this, because it does have an impact on how we live.  Theology has consequences.  This is the reality:  if you have taken hold of Jesus Christ by true faith, you can be sure that you have been born again (to use the words of 1 Peter 1:23).  Having been born again, the Holy Spirit lives in you and he empowers you each day to pursue holiness.  Since the Holy Spirit has given you a heart of flesh, your will, which was dead, has been made alive.  Moved and strengthened by the Holy Spirit, your will is “able to produce the fruit of good works” (Canons III/IV, art. 11).  By God’s grace, we have gone from utter passivity to fervent activity.  True, it comes in fits and starts, it’s still stained with sin and plagued with inconsistency, but yet there is no denying that something has changed with a Christian.  In Christ, we are a new creation.  Thus, when it comes to our sanctification, we also must put to death all notions of passivity.


We Distinguish…(Part 3) — Justification/Sanctification

romans-8-1

In this series, we are surveying some of the most important Reformed theological distinctions. These are not irrelevant or minor points of theology. Rather, these are distinctions where, if you get them wrong or ignore them, major theological disaster threatens to ensue. We need to strive for precision in our understanding of the teachings of God’s Word.

Reformed theology distinguishes between justification and sanctification. We hold this distinction in common with Lutheranism. Both Lutheran and Reformed theologians in the 1500s recovered the essential biblical teaching on this point. Both Lutheran and Reformed churches had seen the grave damage caused by some of the medieval confusion of these doctrines.

To be clear, when we say that justification and sanctification are to be distinguished from one another, we don’t mean that they are opposed to one another. They are different, but certainly not opposites. Moreover, there is an intimate relationship between these two doctrines. While they must be distinguished, they can never be separated.

Defining the Terms

We need to be absolutely clear on what justification and sanctification mean. Whenever I use these words in a sermon, I always explain them. We cannot expect that everyone hears these terms and right away understands what they mean.

In its most basic form, justification is God as Judge declaring that we are right with him because of what Jesus Christ has done for us in his life and death. We find this doctrine described in the early chapters of Romans, especially chapters 3 and 4. It’s revealed that justification involves a judicial declaration – the picture is of a Judge issuing a verdict. We are the accused. In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 23), we are charged with breaking all of God’s commandments, never having kept any of them, and still being inclined to all evil. However, if we take hold of Jesus Christ by faith, we have a powerful defense lawyer or Mediator for our case. He steps in and pleads on our behalf. He offers up his perfect life and his sacrifice on the cross in our place – these are imputed to us, credited to our accounts. These are more than sufficient to bring the Judge to his verdict: righteous! Note: not merely innocent, but something far better, positively righteous. Because of Christ, the Divine Judge regards us as those who have not only never sinned, but also as those who have been and are actively holy, and even as those who never will sin ever again. All the demands of the law have been met in Christ. As a consequence, the Judge comes down from the bench, takes off his robes, puts his arm on your shoulder and says, “Welcome to my family!” We go from the courtroom to the family room. Justification leads to adoption. God is no longer our Judge, but our Father and we have the privilege of relating to him in that special way.

One of the most important points to understand about this doctrine is that justification is not a process, but an event. Justification is not something that has to take place every day, but it is something that happens when a person first takes hold of Christ by faith (whenever that is). If the Judge has once declared that you are right with him because of Christ, then that verdict stands into eternity. It is not a verdict which needs to be issued every day again. If you have gone from the courtroom to the family room, your place in the family is always secure. The Triune God will no more be your Judge, instead he will always be your Father and you should relate to him as your Father. It was one of the fundamental errors of the Roman Catholic Church to describe justification as a process. They made it into a lifelong development. But the Reformation recovered the biblical teaching of passages like Romans 8:1, “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” If you have been justified by faith in Christ, you are justified once and for all. To suggest otherwise is to overturn the Judge’s verdict. The Judge doesn’t appreciate that, and neither should the justified.

When it comes to sanctification, the Bible speaks of it in two ways. There is definitive sanctification – this means that God has definitely set us apart as holy. He has done this in our election, effectual calling, adoption, and so on. This is sanctification as an event that takes place at a certain point. We can see that usage in passages like Acts 20:32 and 1 Corinthians 6:11. However, our focus here is on the more common usage of the word “sanctification” and that’s in reference to progressive sanctification. This is sanctification as the process of Christian growth. That’s how sanctification appears in passages like 1 Thess. 5:23. Sanctification is the process by which believers are being transformed into the image of Christ. This happens as the Holy Spirit works with believers through the Word of God, through the sacraments, and through prayer. This process is one which takes place each and every day that a believer spends on this earth. It only ends when the believer dies or when Christ returns.

One of the key things to understand about sanctification, as distinct from justification, is our role as believers. In sanctification, Christ is the primary subject or actor (see HC Lord’s Day 32). He works through his Spirit to renovate us. However, believers are also active in this process. Because we are regenerated our wills are alive and we are thus capable of cooperating with the Holy Spirit in our sanctification (see Canons of Dort 3/4, article 16).   In justification, we merely believe. In justification, faith is receptive of Christ and his benefits. In sanctification, however, faith is active in bearing the fruit of an increasingly holy life. Scripture calls those who have been born again to strive for holiness (e.g. 1 Peter 1:14-16) and we do that, knowing that as we do so, we are dependent on the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Relationship Between Justification and Sanctification

These two doctrines are closely connected. Those who have been justified freely by God’s grace will never be untouched as regards their sanctification. If someone has the true faith in Jesus Christ which is instrumental in justification, then sanctification will invariably follow as a fruit of that faith. Justification is about the roots of our salvation, sanctification is about the fruits of that salvation. They are part of the same package, but we do need to keep them separate because they do represent separate components in the package.

Why It Matters

When these two doctrines are not kept clear and distinct in our minds, the very heart of the gospel is threatened. It was a Reformed theologian (J.H. Alsted) who first said that justification is the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. He was echoing what others, including Luther, had essentially said, but he was the first to use those exact words. Alsted was precisely right. The reason why he was right has to do with the place of good works in justification. Our good works have no place in justification! They have a central and necessary place in sanctification, but not in justification. It’s the righteousness of Christ alone that has brought about the once-for-all verdict of the Judge. If we confuse sanctification and justification, we are attempting to bring our good works into the court room. That would result in a devaluing of the work of our Mediator, a loss of the gospel of what he has done for us and in our place. Losing the gospel means losing Christ, and if you have lost Christ, you have lost union with Christ, and then not only is there no hope for justification, there is also no hope for sanctification. We therefore must get this right!

Above I mentioned another manner of confusion: arguing that, like sanctification, justification is a process. Some say that it is something that must happen every day. That gets perilously close to confusing justification and sanctification. Calling justification a daily process is dangerous because it threatens a healthy biblical sense of who God is and how we relate to him as Christians. As justified believers, we are still sinners – Scripture is clear on this (Gal. 5:17, Rom. 7:24). But as sinners, we now go to God as our Father for forgiveness, not to God as our Judge. The forgiveness that Christians seek daily for their sins is the forgiveness of the Father they’ve displeased with their evil. We need to remember that through Christ and his merits, we have been permanently adopted into God’s family. We are his children, he is our Father, and there is absolutely nothing that can change that. A Christian can confidently say, “I am his child today and, only because of Jesus, I will be his child tomorrow morning too.” So as we pray and as we worship, we can always call on the Triune God as our Father. This is a great privilege afforded to us by the justification we have received once and for all as a gift from our Mediator.

Justification and sanctification are two of the most important biblical doctrines. If we are confused or mistaken on these doctrines, there are enormous doctrinal and practical consequences. However, if we rightly understand them, we are led to more praise for the God of our salvation, both with our words and our works.