Last year, I remember a conversation with one of my classmates where we talked about a big issue in the Church. We were taking the same religion class, and we had each wanted to go to seminary. While we both planned on studying theology, we were from different denominations and wanted different positions (she, a chaplain and me, an elder.) One day, we were just talking about the church and what the role of the church is.
“The main problem that I see with the church is that so many want people to change a bunch of behaviors before letting them in,” she lamented, “They want them to be changed first, then they’ll allow them membership. It just doesn’t seem right.”
I nodded my head in agreement. “Yep, I agree completely. We should accept people as they are, but we should also then expect them not to stay as they are.”
Her face scrunched up. “What do you mean? You would tell an alcoholic that he’d have to change his behavior before Jesus could love him? He can’t. He has a disease and can’t just get over it. As far as I’m concerned, the only thing that really matters in the Bible is that Jesus died for our sins. Everything else is just unnecessary.”
“I’m not sure I agree,” I sheepishly responded, “In the Wesleyan tradition [my tradition], we believe in sanctification and, even, entire sanctification [that we call Christian Perfection] where a believer no longer chooses to sin and completely dedicates himself to God. This all happens through sanctification by the Holy Spirit.”
“That’s wrong,” she critiqued, “No one can be Christ-like. It’s impossible, and we should stop trying.”
What is Sanctification?
My favorite band of all time is Flyleaf (I know I’ve mentioned it before.) They have a new lead singer now, and while many are still frustrated with the retirement of the previous singer, I still love Flyleaf more than ever. Because the new singer, Kristen May, was signed on after their latest album was recorded, they recently recorded an EP including several live songs and a new studio-produced song by May called “Something Better”.
Of course, I would encourage you to listen yourself, but I’ve highlighted a couple of lines for you.
“Come spend a night inside a soul. Not so beautiful at all. The howling wolves between my ears go silent when they hear you call.”
“Every time you take my hand I become someone better.”
“Seem to remember chasing falling stars until you found me lying on the ground and whispered.”
Many hear songs like these, get caught up in the music itself, and deem the lyrics as just another love song about finding your true love. And that’s not necessarily untrue. I’m sure the song could be interpreted that way. However, to those who know the band members, who listen carefully to their interviews, and who spot Christian symbolism in their lyrics, the song means far, far more than it first appears.
This song is about sanctification which is just a fancy term for being changed into the person God wants you to be. Despite being relatively easy to define, sanctification gets a bad rap. For the next three weeks in a three part series, I’ll share the typical problems that arise when discussing sanctification, the misconceptions about it, and how we, as Christians, can practice it.
You’ve just heard the meaning of sanctification, and you’re most likely thinking to yourself, “So What? I don’t get what the big deal is.” After all, if sanctification is just being changed into the person God wants you to be, it’s hard not to see a problem. Unfortunately, there are problems, and the two biggest ones are first, a misunderstanding of who exactly is implementing the changes and second, why that change is necessary. So let’s begin with the first one.
Who’s Job is it Anyway?
It’s God’s. Period. End of sentence. Done and done.
Great, let’s move on.
So since the dawn of humankind, people have always had the desire to usurp God’s influence and control on their lives. It happened with Adam and Eve’s desire to be like God, it happened when Abraham protected himself by putting Sarah in danger, it happened with the Israelites and their incessant idol-making, it happened when Saul tried to kill David, and so on all throughout the Bible.
Our Bibles are full to the brim with men and women wanting to seize the control that God has over their lives. When it comes to sanctification it is no different. Last year, the popular mega church, Mars Hill, made headlines when their church discipline was deemed cult-like with their shunning-style of disciplining members. Many other churches have reputations of requiring members to dress a certain way, to behave according to a certain set of standards, and/or to limit their interactions with specific people.
Why this is a problem:
Instead of cultivating an atmosphere of growth with the desire to move closer to God in holiness, these systems instead function off of the fear of men and work primarily through social obedience. Members are less likely to confess sins that they think will result in judgment. They might be more keen on pointing out the sins of others to keep eyes off of them. Oh so eager to practice a “Biblical model of discipline”, church followers will be on the lookout for sin they can highlight in their brother or sister’s life. Because, after all, it is their duty, right?
In the words of theologian David Hull, “This is… obedience as compliance. It is tinged with anxiety, fearful of being caught doing something wrong, and constantly deliberating whether or not obedience will cause you to miss something.”
The verse that gets thrown around the most in reference to Church discipline is Matthew 18:15-17 which reads:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. “
I can almost hear people say, “See! It clearly says to go and talk to them! And it even says to grab a group of people! How is that any different from what we’re doing?” We’ll let’s just see shall we.
According to theologian William Barclay in his commentary on Matthew, we, as the contemporary reader of the text, have to view this passage in light of the other things Jesus is saying to come to a better, truer understanding of the text. That in the text, Jesus is less concerned about church ecclesiastical structure and more concerned about harboring resentment toward your Christian brother or sister. Jesus doesn’t want you to brood on your hurt. He wants you to confront your brother who sins against you.
The additional people, then, are not meant to convict the other person or provide evidence of his wrong doing; rather, the extra person is meant to aid in reconciling the two parties. Because he always spoke so graciously when speaking about the gentiles and tax collectors, the last part about it is Christ’s desire to challenge you to never think a person is irreconcilable and hopeless to the Grace of Christ.
Good intentions but ruined by man’s sinful nature.
So No Sanctification, Then?
Well, not quite. While it’s easy to point the errors in the first one, the majority of people easily fall into the second problem and don’t even know they’re there.
My friend above eluded to the second problem that many Christians face: apathy in the face of sin.
We, in American culture, love to throw around the phrase “nobody’s perfect.” We often use it to justify continuing in sin, swinging popular opinion in our favor, and using it as an excuse to refuse to change. Because if nobody’s perfect, why should I bother trying to change?
From my own experience, I use this one all the time. A while ago, I was sitting at home preparing for a test, and I kept thinking, “She can’t honestly expect me to learn this much in this short period of time. She knows how busy I am. She should cut me some slack because I am a nice person, I typically turn my work in on time, and I answer questions in class. Surely, she can’t fail me.” Then, I ultimately stopped studying, started slacking off, and walked out of the classroom with a failing test grade. I blamed it on her teaching skills.
What I illustrated in this simple example is the ability I have to rationalize away problems within my life. I need to get drunk because I’ve had a rough day. My wife doesn’t support me, and that’s why I look for love outside my marriage. Everybody else is doing A, B, and C, so if I just do A, it’s alright.
It’s always someone else’s problem. When things go wrong, we blame others. The idea that we are all sinners and can’t possibly change gives us an easy excuse to not be overly concerned with our behavior.
Why this is a problem:
A pop culture reference that I keep hearing is “only God can judge me.” Interesting enough, this isn’t typically uttered by repentant believers who seek continued sanctification through God’s Holy Spirit, but, rather, it’s spoken by people who view God as some distant being who will rationalize their behavior as they have done their entire lives. God doesn’t rationalize, and God will hold us accountable for our actions.
C.S. Lewis, in his book, The Weight of Glory, says this about our seeking excuses. “I find that when I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often in reality…asking Him not to forgive me but to excuse me. But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiveness says ‘Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology…’ But excusing says ‘I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it; you weren’t really to blame.’ …And if we forget this, we shall go away imagining that we have repented and been forgiven when all that has really happened is that we have satisfied ourselves with our own excuses. They may be very bad excuses; we are all too easily satisfied about ourselves.”
Here, Lewis argues for the true repentance in the face of a holy God. He shows that we desire excuses and rationalization to rid ourselves of sin but need to lay down our pride in the face of deadly sin.
Kevin Watson, over at Vital Piety, comments on this idea that sin is necessary saying, “on this side of the resurrection, Christians have no basis for saying that sin is necessary. Christians have no basis for saying that sin is inevitable. On what grounds is it necessary for those who have been forgiven of their sins and been given new life by the grace of God to continue doing things that put distance between themselves and God? Does it happen? Yes. Does it happen a lot? Sadly, yes. Does this mean that it is God’s will? No. Does it mean that it has to happen? No.”
He eventually hits his point home by saying “Here is what it comes down to: Which do you believe is more powerful: sin or God? If you believe that people are not able to “go and sin no more,” then you believe that sin is more powerful than God. If you believe that God is more powerful than sin, which I think is the conclusion Christians must come to, then you may need to take a closer look at the reflexive excusing of the reality of sin in the lives of those who have taken on the name of Christ that is prevalent in contemporary American Christianity.”
Ultimately, this apathy toward sin will lead us down the wrong path. We must understand that when God says in Leviticus 11:44, “…be holy because I am Holy,” it’s not a suggestion. It’s a command.
Sin is bad and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
This stuff is hard. Sanctification/Holiness is not a pleasant topic to work with. It sometimes goes against our most basic instincts and desires. I’m not standing before you as a person who is entirely sanctified, but, rather, as someone who is severely broken and looking to Jesus for healing and wholeness. I’m just sharing my insights with you.
Now you’re probably left with a hundred questions and few answers. “Okay Taylor, but what about X, Y, and Z.” “How do I go about being holy?” or “How does sanctification work?”
Stick with me through your questions. This is part 1 in a 3 part series on Sanctification. The next one will be out next week. See you then!
Photo Credit: cuellar