You and God
Paul teaches us in the book of Romans that God saves us in order to conform us to the image of Christ. So I would ask you, how would you measure yourself against that standard? Are you satisfied with your current level of Christ-likeness? Another way of asking that question is do you feel like you have arrived as a Christian? Are you satisfied with your progress in sanctification? Do you feel like you’re as holy as you should be, and more importantly, as God is ultimately desirous of you to be? If we’re honest, I think all of us would have to admit that we’re not satisfied with our progress. We know that we’re not in danger of being mistaken for Jesus anytime in the next couple of weeks. But that’s not to say that we haven’t made progress. That’s not to say that we are not continuing to make progress. We’re just not where we want to be and where God is ultimately taking us. We haven’t reached the goal that God has set for us, and I realize that we’ll never reach it in this life, but just because we can’t reach it in this life doesn’t give us license or the liberty to stop trying. But many Christians are not sure how they become like Jesus in day-to-day life. They are pretty much clueless, sadly. Many Christians are confused about sanctification and maybe confused about what the word means. So, let me give you a working definition of what sanctification is, that we will explore here in the coming weeks.
Sanctification what is it?
Our working definition of sanctification is really very simple. It’s becoming like Christ. Sanctification is living out the mind of Christ. Sanctification is progressive growth in holiness. Sanctification brings about a decrease in the frequency of which we sin in our lives. Now, this week Ligonier published their annual ‘The State of Theology’, and if you read any part of it at all, you know how the thinking of the evangelical mind is clearly muddled. Therefore, we would expect to find the same kind of confusion as to what sanctification is and how sanctification actually takes place. So, how does sanctification work? Let me quickly give you a couple of possibilities. Let me start by asking a question. Is your sanctification all up to you? Is your sanctification based upon your effort and God just stands on the sidelines and kind of roots you on? Does God save you, then leave your sanctification solely in your hands? Or does God do it all? Does God say to us, “Just stand back and watch me work”? Is that how sanctification works? Well, there are Christians who believe that sanctification is all up to God. Those who hold to this kind of belief are called quietists. You could think of perhaps the Quakers or the Church of the Brethren. You’ll commonly hear something like this. This is kind of like Keswick theology. “Let go and let God.” Implied in that statement is that God’s going to do it all, so therefore, we have little responsibility, but just let God do it. They believe that the believer is passive in sanctification. They believe that God will keep a person from sin and lead them into faithful living if that person is totally submitted to God and dependent upon God. Now, this is not uncommon among lots of Christians. They would say trying to strive against sin or to discipline one’s self in order to produce good works is not only futile but unspiritual and counterproductive. They would say that if you try and work out your own salvation, you would find yourself at cross purposes with God.
Don’t just sit there do something!
There’s another group of Christians who are equally sincere in their beliefs, yet they hold to the exact opposite view of sanctification. Where the quietist is passive in sanctification, the pietist is aggressive in sanctification, and I might even say very aggressive of sanctification. And the pietist can be commended for the emphasis that they place on Bible study and for the emphasis that they place on holiness in everyday life. They are to be commended for the emphasis that they place on self-discipline. Pietists, for instance, would look at a verse such as 2nd Corinthians 7:1 where Paul wrote, “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” They would read that verse, and they would see that as a clear call by the Apostle Paul to exert whatever level of human effort is necessary in order to rid themselves of sin. But their emphasis is totally on human will. Their emphasis is totally on what they can do in their own strength. They look to the words in James 2:17, “So also faith by itself if it does not have works, is dead.” So, they read that and they say, “I’ve got to get to work”. And they become very aggressive in their pursuit of holiness and in their pursuit of Christ’s-likeness, and there is something to be commended about that.
As I’ve said several times here the past few weeks, many Christians need a good shot of aggressiveness in their faith. We are far too passive, not only in our sanctification but in our witness. We could use a healthy dose of aggressiveness, but it must be an aggressiveness that is properly motivated and aggressiveness that is properly resourced. So the kind of aggressiveness that should characterize us as Christians is modeled for us by the Apostle Paul. Look to Philippians chapter three, verses twelve, thirteen, and fourteen. This is the kind of aggressiveness that we should have as believers. Paul says, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Now, you’d be hard-pressed to read those verses and not see the desire and the effort just kind of oozing out of them. Paul says he presses on. He says he’s straining forward to what lies ahead. In other words, Paul is saying, “I am in no way, shape, or form passive, nor am I an idle spectator in my sanctification.” He says in the clearest possible terms, “I take an active role in working out my own salvation. I am an active, daily participant in becoming like Christ.” And why did he do this? Because he says, “Jesus has made him his own” (Phi. 3:12).
But the pietist, like the quietest, makes a fatal error. The error of the quietist is just let go and let God. They remove all human effort from sanctification, while the error of the pietist is their elimination of any divine help. They would never say it this way, but in practice, this is what they’re doing. They were saying, “God, I don’t need your help in order to become like Christ. I can handle this on my own. I can work out my own salvation. You just cheer me on.” They place the emphasis on human effort alone for their sanctification.
Now, what happens when we begin to emphasize human effort apart from God’s help? You know what happens. The pietist will very quickly become a legalist. They will become self-righteous. They will develop a judgmental attitude towards others. They will often find themselves filled with pride, and ultimately, they don’t end up like Christ. They end up as hypocrites, because they cannot, despite their best intentions, despite their best efforts, live up to their own standard, much less the standard of God. And many times, because they can’t live up to their own standard, they become frustrated. And frustration leads to bitterness, and they have unwittingly robbed themselves of joy.
So which view is right? What is the biblical view of sanctification? Paul presents the biblical view in verses twelve and thirteen. Sanctification is not either-or, meaning it’s not either you or God. Sanctification is both God and you. It is God and you working out your own salvation. Let me be clear about this. Paul does not say work for your salvation or work toward your salvation. He says, “work out your salvation” (Phi 2:12). This is the salvation that you already possess. There’s nothing in here that hints that Paul was saying you’ve got to work for your salvation. “For by grace are you saved through faith” (Eph 2:8). There is no other way. You can’t earn it. You will fail, and you will doom yourself as you continue to try and earn God’s grace through your efforts. All our righteousness is as “filthy rags” (Isa 64:6). We have absolutely nothing to offer that is pleasing to God, so stop it. That’s the message of the gospel.
Who does what?
So, Paul answers the question of what God’s role is in our sanctification and what our role is in our sanctification. Our role in sanctification is spelled out in verse twelve, and then God’s role in our sanctification is spelled out in verse thirteen. So, what we have here is two parties both working for the same goal. It’s God’s goal for you and me to be conformed to the image of Christ. It is also the goal of every believer to be conformed to the image of Christ. If you do not have the desire to be conformed to the image of Christ, I doubt that you’re a Christian. If all you’re worried about is escaping the flames of hell, you better check up on your fire insurance policy. When God saved you, he gave you a new nature. You are a new creation. The old passed away. The new has come (2 Cor 5:17). Do you think a part of “the new” that has come is a desire to be like Christ? Of course, it is. Go back to Galatians 2:20, “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” That’s the Christians desire. Weak at times? Yes, but never non-existent.
So we have two parties here working for the same goal, and we see this mutual working in other passages of Scripture. For instance, Peter wrote in Second Peter, chapter one, he said, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life in godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he is granted to us is precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (2 Pe 1:3-5). Notice how Peter is emphasizing God’s role. What has God done? God, through His divine power, has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness (2 Pe 1:3). In other words, God has supplied to us with every resource that is needed for you and me to work out our own salvation. He has given to us everything that we need in order to become like Christ, to make progress in holiness, and to make progress in Christ-likeness. Peter says that God has granted us every precious and very great promises (2 Pe 1:4).
So whatever we have need of, God has granted to us. And about this time the quietist would jump up and say, “Aha! I told you, God does it all.” But what follows verse four? In verses five through ten, Peter says, “For this very reason, make every effort…” About this time the quietist has to slink down. “…make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall” (2 Pe 1:5-10). Are you picking up what Peter’s laying down? He begins verse five by saying, “For this very reason.” What reasons do you have in mind? The reasons he gave in verses three and four, that God has granted us all things, whatever we need, that pertains to life and godliness. God has granted us these great and precious promises. And because of what God has done, you and I are to “make every effort” (2 Pe 1:5). Who has to make the effort? You and I, the believers, are to make the effort. You’re to make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue and etc. And I’ll emphasize again what he said in verse ten, “Therefore, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election” (2 Pe 1:10). Peter clearly tells us that part of this is our responsibility. It is our responsibility to work out our own salvation. It is our responsibility to be an active participant in our sanctification.
So, the quietist is faced with a real dilemma. If I’m supposed to ‘let go and let God,’ yet Peter tells me that I need to make every effort to supplement my faith, then somebody is wrong. So now we stand at a fork in the road where we have to decide, “Is my theology wrong or am I willing to say that Peter is wrong?” Perish the thought that we would ever say that a divinely inspired apostle of Christ is wrong in what he’s written in Scripture.
Avoid the extremes
By the way, to hold to either one of these extremes is a tremendous burden for you as a Christian. It’s an incredible burden. You say, “How so?” Let’s take the quietist for a moment. If they say, “Well, I’ve just got to let go and let God,” yet they find themselves continually falling back into patterns and habits of sin. What is the inevitable conclusion that we have to come to? God must not love me, or maybe I’m not a believer at all, because I’m not making any forward progress. On the other hand, the pietist has a tremendous burden because he’s trying to do everything in his own strength and in his own effort. It has to be so tiring to live like that spiritually. The spiritual life is a battle as it is. Why do you want to heap on yourself this tremendous burden that you can never satisfy? So, it’s a burden when we go to either extreme.
So, Peter clearly emphasizes the role that God plays in our sanctification, while at the same time he clearly emphasizes the role that we play in our sanctification. Let’s look at some more biblical evidence. Paul wrote in First Corinthians 15:10, “But by the grace of God I am when I am…” Again, the quietist is getting all excited here at this point. He’s thinking, “Aha! I finally found a verse that will nail you to the wall.” But, wait a minute, Paul goes on, “…and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” So, what do we have here? God’s at work. Paul’s at work. And Paul’s work is fueled by, motivated by, and empowered by the grace of God.
Look at the Puritans. I marvel at the body of work that these fellows produced without a word processor. They had no computer, no tablet, no electricity, no internet. Nothing that we think that we need today. And they just produced thousands and thousands and thousands of pages. How did they do that? They were fueled by the grace of God. Now, I realize that’s an indictment for many of us today. What does that say about our effort? So, we see God’s part. We see Paul’s part. Make a note of this, because this is going to be important over the coming weeks here, as we look Philippians two, verses twelve and thirteen. It was the grace of God that fueled Paul’s hard work. If you don’t walk away with anything else today, walk away with that truth. It was the grace of God that fueled Paul’s hard work. God’s effort, Paul’s effort, we see them both.
Now, we know in Scripture that there are things called paradoxes. We have two truths that are equally true, but yet our finite, human mind struggles to reconcile them. We simply can’t come to grips with the fact that both truths are equally true. So, we have a paradox here, we will admit that, but this is not the only paradox in Scripture. There are others. So, what do we do with a paradox? Do we debate it? Do we write all kinds of papers? Do we chastise those who perhaps disagree with us on a small point or something? No, here’s what we need to do. As humans, we must humble ourselves before the Word of God and accept the fact that despite our lack of understanding, truths that seemed to contradict one another are equally true. And we leave it at that. They are only apparent contradiction to our limited, human mind, intellect, and understanding. And the quicker you come to grips with this reality, the quicker you will make progress in Christ-likeness. The quicker you come to grips with this reality, the quicker you will start to grow spiritually. You will accelerate your spiritual growth. Why? You’re not spending all of your time and energy on something that you’re not going to figure out anyway. So, therefore, you can put your energy where it needs to be, and that is growing in godliness.
Let me give you another example. James 4:7, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” So we are to submit ourselves to God. But then, what else are we to do? Resist the devil, and he will flee. God’s role and the man’s role. Now, let me take you back to the Old Testament. Go to Exodus chapter fourteen, and we’re going to read verses thirteen down to sixteen. Here’s the scene: The children of Israel are fleeing the land of Egypt, and God leads him to the shore of the Red Sea. The water’s in front of them, and the Egyptian army is hot in pursuit behind them. The people are afraid. They wonder why God has led them there. They wonder what kind of a mess Moses has gotten them into. In fact, they said to Moses, “Hey, weren’t there any graves in Egypt? Did you have to bring us out here to die in the wilderness?” (Exo 14:11). Moses responded to them beginning in verse thirteen. “And Moses said to the people, ‘Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent'” (Exo 14:13-14).
Just try and put yourself in the shoes of these folks. Can you imagine what they must have been thinking? “Fear not? You got to be kidding. We’ve got nowhere to go. It sure looks like we’re gonna die. Fear not? Stand firm? You’ve got to be kidding. I’m ready to drop everything and run. Every man for himself.” But remember, God said that he would fight for them. Notice the last part of verse fourteen, “and you have only to be silent.” So God says to the people through Moses, “Fear not, stand firm. The Lord will fight for you.” Then in verse 15, “The Lord said to Moses, Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward'” (Exo 14:15). Wait a minute, stand firm? “‘Lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go through the sea on dry ground'” (Exo 14:16). Now, I wouldn’t be surprised, nor would I think less of you if you’re just a little bit confused at this point. “Fear not, stand firm. The Lord will fight for you,” or “Why do you cry to me? Tell people to go forward”? Which is it? What do you want me to do here God? God would fight for them as they moved forward. That’s clear. So, what’s the meaning of stand firm? I believe that God was saying to the people, “Stand firm in your faith. Stand firm in your trust. Don’t be the double-minded man that James talks about. Stand firm. Believe me. Trust me.” And what was a sign of their trust? Stepping out. As long as they stood there, they weren’t demonstrating any trust. They weren’t demonstrating any faith in God. God parts the seas. It’s dry, but until they put the first toe into the sand, they were not trusting God. But the moment they stepped out and began to cross, they were trusting God. Therefore, they knew that God would indeed fight for them. The waters through which Israel would pass would deliver them, while the same waters through which the Egyptians would try to pass would be their doom. What do we see? God’s role, Israel’s role, both were necessary.
Sanctification = Obedience
So about this time, you’re probably thinking, “All right, what does any of this have to do with our sanctification?” Keep in mind that sanctification is the believer becoming more and more like Christ. Sanctification is the process that God uses to conform us to the image of Christ. In our sanctification, God is at work while we are at work. Here’s the good news. Whatever God requires of us in our sanctification, God graciously provides for us. In other words, God is not going to ask you to do something that He’s not going to give you the resources in order to do it. So, when Paul says to the church at Philippi to all believers, at all times, at all places, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” we know that God is going to give us everything that we need in order to fulfill the command to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. Whatever God asked us to do, He will give us the resources to do. That’s a liberating truth, isn’t it? Now, what do I have to do? Where does all of my effort have to go? Where do I direct all of my focus? Where do I direct all of my attention? I direct all of that to the resources that God has already provided for me. I don’t have to get up at 4:30 in the morning and try and read 20 pages of Scripture in order to try and please God and grow in sanctification and in holiness. Now, if that’s what God leads you to do, have at it. But God will give you everything that you need in order to work out your own salvation.
So, what has God provided for us? Let me give you one thing. Number one, God has given us an example. Homiletics professors say, “Never have a one-point sermon.” Well, I just failed. We got one point. And here’s the first point. We have the example of Jesus. What has God provided for us to help us work out our own salvation with fear and trembling? He has given us the example of Jesus. Look at how verse twelve starts, “Therefore…” ‘Therefore’ is like a big, flashing, red, neon sign in Scripture. ‘Therefore’ always points back to something that has just previously been said. So, Paul says, “Therefore,” or in other words, “In light of what I have just written to you, therefore, move forward.”
So, Paul begins by teaching them about sanctification by pointing them to the obedience of Christ. Again, Paul uses ‘therefore’ to pull them back to what he has just written about Jesus. And what did Paul teach them about Jesus? He taught them about the humility of Jesus. He taught them how Jesus, though he existed in the form of God, did not think equality with God a thing to be grasped, but He humbled Himself. How did He humble Himself? By taking on the form, the very nature or essence, of a servant, but not just any kind of servant, a bondservant. And He became obedient, but not just any obedient, He became obedient to the point of death, but not just any old death, even death on a cross (Phi 2:6-8). That’s the example. That’s the starting point for our sanctification outside of our salvation. Now, we have been saved. We are assured that our sins have been forgiven. We have been justified. We have been adopted. And now, we are being sanctified.
So who do we look to? We look to the example of Christ. We look to the obedience of the Lord Jesus Christ. What’s the point here? The point is sanctification requires obedience. You might say, ” Well, that’s not very earth-shattering.” I know it’s not, but it is very necessary. In other words, as long as you continue to disobey God’s revealed will in His revealed word, you will never make any progress in sanctification. If you feel like it’s always one step forward, and twenty steps back, look at your level of obedience. Are you obeying what God has clearly asked you to do in the Scriptures? You can try and look for a formula. You can try and discipline yourself until you’re the most disciplined person in the world, but if you’re not obeying God’s revealed will in His Word, you’re not going to grow in holiness. You’re not going to grow in true holiness and righteousness. You may grow in self-righteousness. You may grow in pride. But as you do, you’re growing away from being like Christ.
And in this process of sanctification, there are both positives and there are negatives. There are negatives. There are commands in the Scripture to stop doing sinful things that are displeasing to the Lord. And there are also positive commands to start doing things that are pleasing to the Lord. That’s the essence of sanctification. You stop doing sinful things. You start doing the things that please God. That’s where it begins. It begins with our obedience. You say, “How do I know what God wants me to stop doing? And how do I know what God wants me to start doing?” It’s all in the Scriptures. You don’t have to go on a treasure hunt. You don’t have to go on some quest. You’re not looking for a secret decoder ring. There’s nobody out there who has got the key to unlock this for you. It’s here in the Scriptures. Everything that you need for life in godliness is right here.
Scripture and the Church God’s Means of Sanctification
So, I’ll say this and probably have to duck. If you never read the Scriptures, you’re not being sanctified. Why? Because the Scriptures is where you find what you need to stop doing and start doing in order to grow in Christ-likeness. If you ignore God’s Word, you’re operating blind. ” Ah, you’re legalistic about reading the Scriptures.” No, I’m not. It is a means of grace that God has given to us that helps us grow in Christ-likeness. Therefore, to ignore the Scriptures is to do harm to ourselves. Paul also urged the Philippians to continue to obey, just as they had always obeyed (Phi 2:12). The point is they were not to base their obedience upon the physical presence of Paul. Paul says, “Whether I’m in town or not, you still need to follow the example of Jesus and live in obedience.” Think back to your time in school. For some of us that may be way back, but we’ll give it a shot. What happened when the teacher had to step out of class for a few moments? Things got crazy, as Osiel would say. The class clown would start acting up. People start passing notes. Someone would get up and go talk to his girlfriend. Why? Because the teachers not there. What do they say? When the cat’s away, the mice will play. ” But, I’m an adult that’s insulting that you would even say that to me.” Another example, my wife is a manager and has been a manager for a long time. She occasionally has her employees encourage her to take a day off or to leave early. Do you think they’re being altruistic towards my wife? No, she knows if she leaves early or she doesn’t come in a day, she knows what’s going to happen. Party time at Chase. Do whatever we want to do. It’s just human nature.
Paul encourages them to maintain the same level of obedience they displayed while he was there among them. My pastor said this years ago, and I’ve never forgotten it. I’m paraphrasing what he said, but you as a Christian should always act as if the physical presence of Jesus was right next to you because the spiritual presence of Jesus is within you. We do not sin in a vacuum. We may commit a sin in the dark, but it’s in the light of God’s truth. So Paul encouraged them to have the same level, the same intensity of obedience, even though he was not there as if he were there. I’ll explore the rest of the verse at a later time, but let me finish this morning by answering the question you may be thinking. For the past several weeks, we’ve been talking about humility. We’ve been talking about unity. We’ve been talking about getting along with one another in the church. What in the world does sanctification have to do with unity? Everything. A little spoiler alert, Paul says work out your own salvation with fear and trembling after he has just spent chapters one and two dealing with unity. So, you’d have to be blind to not see that one of the facets of working out our own salvation is living in unity. For us as believers to live in unity, we must obey the Lord’s command to live in unity. Unity comes down to obedience. Sanctification comes down to obedience. And again, keeping the context of the passage in mind, we have to conclude that part of the working out of our salvation is living together with humility. And humility allows us to live in unity.
Therefore, when the members of the church are not living in unity, when strife and discord characterize the church, when there is no harmony in the church, guess what else is not happening in the church? Sanctification. And I hope you’re beginning to see the church is one of God’s chosen means in your sanctification. Don’t blow that off. The church is one of God’s chosen means in your sanctification, and I would say, a large part.
So, sanctification is working out your own salvation. It’s God giving you both the desire and the ability to put to death sinful deeds of the flesh, while at the same time you act on the desire God gives you. And you use the ability, the power that he makes available to you that equips you, to put to death the sinful deeds of the flesh. That, beloved, is how you work out your salvation with fear and trembling.