Here is the first of a number of posts I am going to write on the issue of sanctification. This one is going to look at something I often hear, and have probably said before, especially in an evangelistic context. And I am no longer sure that is is entirely right.
When we tell people about the gospel, we often do our very best to play down the need for works in the Christian life. We want to show the people we are talking to that Christianity isn’t religion - you aren’t saved by doing things, undertaking ceremonies, praying in a certain way or at a certain time - but it is salvation, rescue from sins. Our emphases often weighs on the side of justification: in Christ’s death, our sins are payed for, and God decrees that we are just and righteous in his eyes, even though that is not, in fact, the case. The righteousness of Christ is imputed to us: it is counted as our own even though we do not in and of ourselves possess it.
And this is all good. It is a wonderful and fundamental gospel truth. But it is what normally comes after this that I find a little off the mark.
Because after we have said this we are often left with the question: why be good? If God has already paid the price for our sins, then does it matter how we live? And faced with this challenge, we often say something like this:
“Well, because Jesus paid the price for our sins, we are totally forgiven. Our relationship with God is fully restored, and we know he loves us [so far so good]. And so, knowing this, we are so grateful for what he has done that we try and obey him, and live lives according to his will”
It is that last bit which I don’t think sits quite right. Because, as the title has already stated, gratitude isn’t really enough. Gratitude is to week a motivation for any change, it cannot muster enough change in one’s life to make a serious difference.
Then what is the alternative? What do we turn to to motivate us to seek God’s will: that we be holy as he is holy?
I would argue that it isn’t in itself gratitude that does this, though gratitude is part of it. I would argue that it is only in our being in Christ, being unified with him and adopted into his promises that we can change.
Now, nothing I have said here is theologically revolutionary in any way, shape and form. Its pretty obvious. Having said that, we so often lose sight of it, or at the very least lose sight of the grandeur of its scope and impact.
Because becoming a Christian does not mean that we merely become grateful for our undeserved forgiveness. It means that we are utterly transformed, our priorities dramatically changed, our whole approach to the world altered. When we look to the Father, we do not look merely out of gratitude to what he has done in sending Christ to die for our sins. We look to the Father as his children, heirs to his full inheritance. Because we know God as Father, our will is to be like him.
Which means desiring to be holy, as he is holy. This latter message is, however, sadly lacking in the modern church. All Christians accept that, once we trust in Christ, we become children of God. However, the trend in the church today can often be to leave it at that. Not enough take the next logical step and vital: that the Christian faith is one of seeking to be like our father, holy in all ways.
This is of vital importance. How can we say that we are children of the living God if we fail to seek to be like him? The biblical command to honour your father and mother takes on an interesting direction when we see it in light of our adoption as children of God. If we take our adoption seriously, our fundamental desire must be to honour God, not merely out of gratitude to being forgiven, but as part of our new natures in Christ.
The book of Romans deals with this issue well. Paul asks his readers:
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” - Romans 6:1 (ESV)
And his answer:
“By no means! How can we who dies to sin still liven in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” - Romans 6:2-4 (ESV)
and he continues…
“For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” - Romans 6:5-6
The point is this: it is not merely gratitude that compels us to change, but it is our utter transformation as people - our old selves, our old natures - nailed to the cross with Christ, and our new selves risen in Christ to a new life and a new nature. As Christians, we are not the same people that we were before we were Christians. Too often when telling our testimonies we try and present that we are still the same people that we were before Christ, so that people still think we are cool. But this isn’t true. We aren’t the same people that we were before Christ. We may have the same vague interests, but our fundamental priorities in life are completely different. We are totally new people.
How does this apply to the question of gratitude? Well, of course we are grateful for what Christ has done, and that is a motivating factor for our new life. But it isn’t the fundamental source of change in how we live. The change is that we are utterly transformed as people, and so we must live in accordance to this change. It is our changed lives that evidences the more fundamental change in who we are. Therefore, we aren’t merely grateful and therefore feel obligated to change our lives. Our whole existence until Christ comes again should be to seek to be more and more like God.
Turning to Romans again, Paul writes:
“For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father’” - Romans 8:13-15 (ESV)
Paul connects our adoption as sons with our putting to death sin in our lives. If we are of the Spirit and are sons of God, we will put to death our sin. It isn’t good enough to stop at our justification, saying that our sin doesn’t matter, that we are saved and that we merely should seek to be like God out of gratitude for this. No. If we are of the Spirit, our whole being must hate sin and put it to death. Paul later goes on to declare that we are
“fellow heirs with Christ, provided that we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” - Romans 8:17
The Christian life is one of self-denial: denying the remnant power of the flesh, of the vanquished old man which still seeks to draw you back into a life of sin. We must therefore be prepared to carry our crosses and follow Jesus to the cross, constantly putting our old selves to death.
To conclude, to see our response to God’s salvation plan as merely holiness through gratitude is to be a little glib. Our internal transformation into a more and more Christ-like state is at the core of the Christian life, and it comes from a much deeper source than our own decision to react in thanks for what God has done for us. It comes from knowing who we now are in Christ. We need to hear the words of Paul in Romans: we are made anew, no longer the same person that we were before Christ, and that our lives must reflect this. If we are to honour and love our father in heaven, we must take seriously his commands.
The greatest news and our safe and sturdy hope is this: that if we are a Christian, we are a new person in Christ. He has won our justification in the father’s sight, and by the same grace he has won our sanctification, crucifying our old selves on the cross in his act of substitutionary sacrifice. That we want to be like Jesus, holy and pure, is a sign that we are that new person. So know who you are in Christ, know that you are now a son, that yes, you have a duty to honour your Father in heaven, but that your strength to do so is in knowing that you are a new creation in Christ.
“Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” - Hebrews 12:1-2.