The Goal of Sanctification
The following quote of Archibald Alexander has always challenged me: “It seems desirable to ascertain, as precisely as we can, the reasons why Christians commonly are of so diminutive a stature and of such feeble strength in their religion…First, there is a defect in our belief in the freeness of divine grace. To exercise unshaken confidence in the doctrine of gratuitous pardon is one of the most difficult things in the world; and to preach this doctrine fully without verging toward antinomianism is no easy task, and is therefore seldom done. But Christians cannot but be lean and feeble when deprived of their proper nutriment. It is by faith that the spiritual life is made to grow; and the doctrine of free grace, without any mixture of human merit, is the only true object of faith. Christians are too much inclined to depend on themselves, and not to derive their life entirely from Christ.
There is a spurious legal religion, which may flourish without the practical belief in the absolute freeness of divine grace, but it possesses none of the characteristics of the Christian’s life. It is found to exist in the rankest growth, in systems of religion which are utterly false. But even when the true doctrine is acknowledged in theory, often it is not practically felt and acted on. The new convert lives upon his performance rather than on Christ, while the older Christian is still found struggling in his own strength and, failing in his expectations of success, he becomes discouraged first, and then he sinks into a gloomy despondency, or becomes in a measure careless. At that point the spirit of the world comes with resistless force. Here, I am persuaded, is the root of the evil; and until religious teachers inculcate clearly, fully and practically the grace of God as manifested in the Gospel, we shall have no vigorous growth of piety among professing Christians.”
One of the most important issues in the Christian life is learning to understand the relationship between justification and sanctification. They are both inseparable and yet distinguishable. Justification is an act of God by which He declares a believer to be right with Him and forever under His favor upon the basis of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Sanctification is the process by which the believer is delivered more and more from the power of sin and conformed more and more to the image of Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit and the responsible participation of faith. Justification is the starting point to which we may return whenever we fail, but it is not the goal itself. The man who is relaxed because of what God has done for him will through that relaxation lose his preoccupation with self and forget himself, and be prompted to fruitfulness for others as an instrument of love. It is precisely this relaxation that inspires and produces effort (Philippians 2:12-14). Yet those efforts will show again and again how much he fails and how far short his love falls short of God’s love. That must lead either to despair or to a grim determination to continue unless he falls back upon the foundation of justification by grace alone. This will not undermine his efforts, instead it will purify them, because he knows that in those efforts he heeds no longer to affirm, prove or justify himself. Only he who no longer needs to justify himself with his works is able to do this since he is now free from himself to really do “good works”, works that mean something for God and others. In sanctification man is freed from his egocentrism (self centeredness) and renewed to an ex-centric life, oriented to God, his neighbor and the world.
So if justification is the foundation and sanctification is the process, what is the goal? What does the relaxed effort which our justification grants us look like? Luther said sanctification is just getting used to your justification and that progress in sanctification is always beginning again. But what is the goal of our sanctification? What is the fruit and outcome of our growth in grace? Two key concepts that are intimately related are the goal. They are freedom and love. Let us begin with freedom.
The kind of freedom that sanctification leads to is paradoxical when compared with our culture’s concept of freedom. The popular concept of freedom is the right and ability to determine to do what I really want to do as long as it harms no one else. It is a freedom with no restrictions or boundaries. This kind of freedom is autonomous and antinomian, i.e. self governing and lawless.
In 1520 Martin Luther wrote one of the charter documents of the Reformation entitled, “The Freedom of the Christian”. In it he offered the following paradox: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all subject to none; a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all subject to all”. Feel the tension of this dialectic. The first proposition does not lead to autonomy but rather to obedience, an obedience in response to the free grace of God in Jesus Christ. One does not receive grace because one obeys; one obeys because one has received grace. One has been set free by Jesus to live before God and his neighbor. Christians are not free because they bear fruit and do good works. They do good works and bear fruit because they are free in Christ. Calvin adds that justification produces freedom by saying, “To understand and experience justification is to be set free from sin and free for serving God and your neighbor”.
This freedom is in reality slavery to God (Romans 6:15; 1 Corinthians 6:19). It is both total subjection and total security. If God is more powerful than my guilt and all that threatens me and if nothing can separate me from His love, then life receives as it were a new face. The idols that used to rule my actions lose their grip. My bond and relationship with God is decisive and my idols are relativized. The distance between the idols of the heart and my worship of them is freedom.
Freedom is also a bondage to our neighbor. Luther posited that once justification by grace alone through Christ alone is grasped by faith alone, we are released from the bondage of works righteousness which is self centered and set free to love our neighbor. The energy we once used to justify ourselves is redirected from gaining the approval of God by performance. Rather than being curved in upon oneself in self absorption one becomes curved out toward one’s neighbor. Freedom is not an ideal we strive for but a reality we enjoy. We are fundamentally secure in our relationship with God. This is freedom.
So what does freedom look like? It is both inner and outer, vertical and horizontal. First, we are free from the Law as a means by which we establish a relationship with God (Romans 6:18, 7:1-6, 8:1ff). Christ’s perfect obedience to the Law becomes mine as much as if I did it myself. The Law can no longer curse, condemn, oppress or intimidate. Christ took all of that for us. Second, we are free for the Law. In the hands of sin, the Law is death. In the hands of the Spirit the Law is a delight we are now free to delight and please God by our desire to obey it. The Law is a guide for life, the content of love and a rule of life. Third, we are free toward indifferent things. We are free to participate or not participate in doubtful things (Romans 14). We have an outer freedom. The world, the powers of darkness no longer have authority over us. We have the freedom of the Spirit who frees us from the destructive power of sin and its desires and cravings.
The second outcome or goal of our sanctification is love. Freedom and love belong inseparably together. God desires free men but freedom exists for the sake of love and love is made possible through freedom. The purpose of freedom is to awaken love. Freedom is the ability to take an independent stance toward the world in order to pass on to the world the renewing power of love which we receive in communion with Him. The usual concept of freedom is self realization without being hemmed in or hampered by demands put on us by God, others and the world. In this view freedom and love are mutually exclusive. Christ confronts us as a man who freed Himself from the demands of the powers that be in order that He might be fully free to minister to others the love of God.
The love of our neighbor not love to God is the mark of Biblical freedom. Love for God because He first loved us logically precedes freedom. Our spontaneous reaction to that love is to love my neighbor. Love of my neighbor is a consequence of my love for God. So who is my neighbor? Not everyone, or even those who are geographically close by. My neighbor is the person who stands in my way, who irritates me by his animosity, who appeals to me by his need for help. My neighbor is the one who disturbs me and is annoyingly unlovable and yet reminds me that my relationship with God is in some way analogous to my neighbor’s relationship with me. It is even loving my enemies. This challenges me to represent God’s love my making the need of my neighbor my concern. It means getting down and dirty and messy and otherwise inconvenienced. Think of the good Samaritan. He was the one who loved his neighbor. Freedom enables and empowers such love as this.
A person’s security in Christ frees him from the constant need to prove himself or to judge others. His freedom in grace enables the use of his time and energy to minister the divinely received love for the benefit of his neighbor in both word and deed. If the tree is good the fruit will be good. Do you see the fruit of freedom and love in your relationship with God, others and the world? If you are truly living out of your justification and experiencing the relaxation, effort and restoration in sanctification you will be free insofar as your idols lose their grasp on your heart and you will love by spending yourself in meeting the needs of your neighbor.
Soli Deo Gloria,