Tag Archives: sanctification

It Makes No Sense

Once there was a young man hanging out with his friends.  They were bored so they decided to do something exciting.  One of the people in the neighbourhood had some pear trees.  He was one of those people obsessive about his trees.  He didn’t want people on his property taking his pears.  In other words, he was the perfect target for these bored young people.  They jumped the fence, snuck into his yard, and stole a bunch of his pears.  They ran back out as quickly as they could, hoping not to get caught — or maybe to get caught and make a close escape.  Once they made their get-away, they looked at the pears.  They were ugly and inedible.  They threw the pears to some pigs.

The young man was Augustine, who later became known as one of the church fathers.  He wrote about this in his classic book Confessions – which, if you’ve never read it, you really need to.  It’s the most readable book by Augustine and tremendously edifying.  Augustine reflected on the pear incident in Confessions.  Why did he do it?  Simply, he says, for “the excitement of stealing and doing something wrong.”  Augustine goes on to write about how sin is always irrational and self-destructive, and yet we love it just the same.  This is what he says:

I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself.  It was foul, and I loved it.  I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself….I was seeking not to gain anything by shameful means, but shame for its own sake.

Augustine did this when he was still an unbeliever.  He wasn’t converted to Christ until much later.  But if you read further in his Confessions, it becomes clear how the irrational and self-destructive nature of sin hounded him his whole life, even after becoming a Christian.  He’s really honest about that.

I can relate and I’m sure you can too, if you’ve given it any thought.  Why do we sin?  If we’d stop and think for a moment, we’d see the utter stupidity of what we’re doing.  But sin blinds us.  It makes us deaf to reason.  Sin turns us into fools.  We know God is holy.  We know he hates sin.  We know he will punish sin with unquenchable wrath.  Yet we do it.  We sin every day with our thoughts, our words, and our actions.

Now the gospel tells us that God will forgive all our sins through Christ and so we go to Christ to escape the coming wrath.  We’re assured of forgiveness through him.  You’d think that would make us into people filled with love and thanksgiving, people wanting to obey and please our Father in heaven who has loved us so much.  Yet instead, so often, we forget his love, we trample on the gospel, and still want to do things our own way.  Does it make any sense?  Not to me.  And yet, sin has compelled me and sin will compel me.  The same is true for you.  For all of us, we’re burdened with the utter irrationality of our wickedness.  For a Christian, it’s totally frustrating.

But let me encourage you.  If you see the senselessness of sin, take heart because this is God’s work in you with his Holy Spirit.  If sin frustrates you, it’s because God has opened your eyes through regeneration.  The way forward involves awareness of your plight and God grants that gift to all his children.

God doesn’t stop there.  The Holy Spirit also works with the Word so there is actual growth in our lives.  True Christians can and will make progress in holiness.  The growth may be slow and many times it can be imperceptible.  Sometimes, sadly, Christians backslide too.  Nevertheless, the overall trend in a Christian’s godliness is upward.  That’s something we want, something we strive for, and something God graciously grants.  By God’s grace, we are being set free from the senselessness of sin.  We are on our way to a place and state where everything we do, say, and think will finally make sense.


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?


Seven Terms You Need to Know

It was my first time visiting Australia.  As I sat around the dinner table with an Aussie family, the father and his sons began discussing a cricket game from the day previous.  I listened intently, but it was as though they were speaking a foreign language.  I was quite sure that it was still English, but the words were unfamiliar — and the thick Aussie accent didn’t help!  However, I’m quite sure that if these Aussie blokes were to head to Canada and sit around a dinner table with some fellows talking hockey, they would experience the same.

Last summer, my brother-in-law came to visit us from Canada and went vacationing with us around Tasmania.  We spent our evenings watching 20-20 cricket on television.  We were determined to learn this game.  With the help of some context (and occasional help from Google) by the end of our vacation we had it mostly figured out.

The Christian faith presents us with similar challenges.  Like cricket or hockey, Christianity has its own unique vocabulary that needs to be learned.  As newcomers or covenant children are discipled in the faith, there are certain terms that they need to grasp in order both to be established as a disciple and to grow as a disciple.  Today let me briefly introduce to you seven essential Christian terms.  Every disciple of Jesus needs to know these:

ELECTION — Before the creation of the universe, God the Father chose (elected) a certain number of definite individuals to salvation in Jesus Christ, purely on the basis of his grace and good pleasure.  A key Bible passage is Ephesians 1:1-14.

EFFECTUAL CALLING — This is a work of God the Holy Spirit.  It’s a process where the Holy Spirit convinces sinners of their plight and brings them to spiritual life so that they can and do believe in Jesus Christ for salvation.  A key Bible passage is John 6:44-45.

REGENERATION — Also known as the new birth — without it there is no salvation.  This is the moment when the Holy Spirit miraculously changes a heart of stone into a heart of flesh.  Regeneration is the transfer from death to life.  A key Bible passage is John 3:1-9.

JUSTIFICATION — God’s declaration as a judge that a sinner is right with him (righteous) only on the basis of what Jesus Christ has done for that sinner in his life, death, and resurrection.  This can only be received through resting and trusting in Jesus Christ.  A key Bible passage is Romans 3:21-31.

ADOPTION —  All those who are justified are received into God’s family as one of his adopted children.  He is our Father and we are his beloved children with the privilege of a promised inheritance in the future.  That inheritance is life forever in the new heavens and new earth.  A key Bible passage is Romans 8:12-17.

SANCTIFICATION — This is the process by which Christians grow in looking like Jesus Christ.  It is a life-long process of growing in hating, fighting, and overcoming the evil and rebellion in our lives.  A key Bible passage is Romans 12:1-2.

GLORIFICATION — The Christian’s hope for glory which comes either with death or the return of Jesus Christ (whichever happens first).  We shall some day be perfect and sinless, sharing in the glory of our Saviour.  A key Bible passage is 1 John 3:1-3.

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Taken together all of the above make up what is known as the Order of Salvation.  In Reformed theology, you’ll often see these things referred to with the Latin expression Ordo Salutis.  These are the logical steps which make up the rescue of a Christian from sin and deserved condemnation.  With each of these, there is far more that could and should be said, but the above provides just a basic orientation.


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 4) — Law/Gospel

Law-Gospel2

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.

Despite being found in the Three Forms of Unity, today’s distinction has fallen on hard times. I have lost track of the number of times that I’ve heard Reformed ministers speak disparagingly of the distinction between law and gospel. I think I understand why it happens. Imagine if someone were to say, “Oh, covenant theology makes people into legalists. It’s good that we’ve broken free from the doctrine of the covenant. That doctrine has caused nothing but trouble – it just makes people self-righteous.” It’s true that the doctrine of the covenant has been abused by some and badly taught/misunderstood by others to such an extent that it became a legalistic undermining of the gospel. So do we throw out the doctrine of the covenant? We recognize that there’s a difference between the abuse/bad teaching of a doctrine and an orthodox biblical formulation of a doctrine. We don’t throw out a doctrine simply because it has been mishandled. Similarly, the distinction between law and gospel has sometimes been mishandled or misunderstood. Does that automatically mean we toss it aside? What if there were grave consequences in doing so?

At the outset the context in which this distinction functions has to be laid out. We distinguish between law and gospel in the realm of justification. Justification, if you recall, is God’s one-time declaration that we are right with him solely on account of the merits of Jesus Christ. How law and gospel relate to this doctrine is what we’re concerned with here. When it comes to sanctification (the process of growth in holiness), there is overlap and interplay between law and gospel, but when it comes to justification, they must be distinguished.

Let me illustrate how the law/gospel distinction appears in the Heidelberg Catechism. I could mention the Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort as well, but in the interests of brevity, we’ll just stick with the Catechism. In Lord’s Day 2, we confess that the law of God reveals our sin and misery. The law evidently has the character of demand: God orders you to do this or else. Through its demands, the law drives us to Christ. From where do we learn about the Saviour? Lord’s Day 6 tells us the biblical answer: from the gospel. Everything promised us in the gospel is summarized in the Apostles’ Creed, says Lord’s Day 7. There we discover the character of the gospel: it promises us glad tidings and rich blessings. So between Lord’s Day 2 and Lord’s Days 6 and 7, we learn the different characteristics of law and gospel. The law is God’s demand and the gospel is God’s promise for our salvation. Should there be any doubt that this is the intention and meaning of the Catechism, I would refer readers to Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (page 2), and Olevianus’ A Firm Foundation (pages 9-10).

As mentioned at the beginning, this distinction functions within the context of justification. Sinners are facing the judge. They are accused of failing to meet God’s demands – breaking his law. In the context of justification, the law points out not merely empty hands, but treasonous hands. In the words of the Catechism in Lord’s Day 23, the sinner has “grievously sinned against all of God’s commandments, has never kept any of them, and is still inclined to all evil.” That’s what the law announces in the context of justification: you are guilty and you have nothing with which to save yourself from the Judge.

The gospel throws endangered sinners a lifeline. There is a way to leave the courtroom without the Judge as your enemy – in fact, you can leave the courtroom with the Judge as your Father. That way is through what the gospel promises in Jesus Christ. The gospel holds out to you reconciliation with the Holy Judge, if only you will take hold of Jesus Christ by faith and trust that he has lived a perfect life for you and has offered the perfect sacrifice in your place. The gospel promises peace and fellowship with God. You don’t need to work for it, all you need to do is turn from your sins, look to Christ, and accept the promise. That’s what the gospel announces in the context of justification: in Christ you have everything you need to be declared right with God.

By now perhaps you can sense the danger in fudging with this distinction. The law/gospel distinction in justification insists that in ourselves we bring nothing to our salvation except the sin which makes it necessary. On the flip side, it insists that in Christ we have everything we need for our salvation. How could any Bible-believing Christian deny this? Isn’t this exactly the point Paul was making in Galatians 3:11, “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” Faith in the gospel promises is God’s instrument for justification. The law, on the other hand, says, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law and do them” (Gal. 3:10). If you rely on the law and your obedience to it for your justification, then you are self-deceived and damned. Paul works with a distinction between law and gospel – so our Catechism didn’t invent this distinction, it was drawn from Scripture.

Allow me to add two important clarifications.

First, no one should understand the law/gospel distinction as pitting the Old Testament against the New Testament. The law is found in both in Old and New Testament, and so is the gospel. Law demands and gospel promises are together found throughout the 66 books of the Bible.

Second, the law/gospel distinction, properly understood, does not lead Reformed believers to antinomianism – having a negative attitude towards the law of God. Remember, the law has three uses. The first use pertains to justification – pointing out our sin and misery. The second use is for civil society. The third use of the law is as our rule of thankfulness. Maintaining a law/gospel distinction in justification does not mean that we throw out the law for our sanctification. No! Quite the opposite. As thankful believers united to Christ, we embrace the law as our friend and we sing with the Psalmist in Psalm 119 of how we love God’s law and strive to follow it.

The law/gospel distinction is crucially important because it appears at the roots of our salvation. If the roots are not healthy, then the tree is not going to be healthy either, and any possibility of real fruit may also come into question. We have to strive for precision, especially in foundational doctrines like justification. No, we are not saved by doctrinal precision. Someone could be confused on this, unable to express it properly, and still be saved. Nevertheless, the danger of trusting in yourself and what you do instead of Christ is far greater if you do not understand this distinction. We must always have it clear in minds the very last words Martin Luther supposedly uttered: “We are beggars. This is true.” The law/gospel distinction reinforces this biblical truth.