A Long and Winding Road: The Path of Sanctification

I have always wanted to visit the Mediterranean. The beauty of the sea and the landscapes; the history; the culture; they all call out a deep desire to travel. This desire is only frustrated when my wife and I are watching something that gives us a glimpse of that area, and she reminds me that she has been there. While it could be tempting to get a little jealous, it is actually quite amazing how many places Nita has been around the world. She traveled across 6 of the 7 continents in her years doing missions work before we met. She even lived in some of the most awesome locations! She has spent her time boating up the Amazon river, adventuring her own way through eastern Europe or even taking midnight jogs in India. It is not a good idea, however, to watch The Lord of the Rings with her – she will constantly remind you of her time living in New Zealand; she has been to all the locations from the filming of the movie!

Traveling has been a passion of mine as well, and an important part of our life together. There is something deep, and even unspoken about the life experience that comes with travel. It builds an understanding and deeper desire for the world as a whole, and a powerful wonder for the creation that God gave us. For those who have traveled, it gives a new perspective; a larger world in which to understand the beauty and creativity of God. It is one thing to imagine what the Great Wall of China looks like. It is wholly another to have walked it.

wall of china

Paul’s Reasons for Writing the Letter to the Church of Rome

I have found that I am not the only person with a desire to visit the Mediterranean. In fact, the book of Romans was born out of Paul’s desire to visit Rome, specifically, but his efforts to reach the city had thus been unsuccessful. Granted, he spent most of his life traveling around the Mediterranean, but he had never been to Rome, despite his deepest longings.

“First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each others faith, both yours and mine. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” ROMANS 1:8-15

For Paul, reaching Rome has a monumental goal. Even when he was finally on his way, he faced a harrowing sea storm and massive shipwreck leaving him stranded for a time on the island of Malta (see Acts 28). At the time of his writing the letter to the Romans, though, Paul had not yet made it there. His desire to visit those there, however, was so strong that he wrote the letter to the church in Rome as a detailed walk through of the Christian life in case he were never able to make it there in person. This is in part why Romans is largely considered the deepest and most detailed writing on the basics of the Gospel and what it truly meant to be a Christ follower. The book even outlines itself in three basic sections:

1) the problem of sin and the imparting of righteousness by God;

2) the Christian life and the Sovereignty of God; and

3) practical applications to a life of faith.

I would like to focus on the second section, the walk of our life with Christ and how that is affected by the first section.

The Stages of Salvation

In the second half of Romans 5, Paul lines up the illustration of the one-man representation. Sin came into the world through one man, Adam. We were in Adam when death came through sin. “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). We were in Adam when he sinned and therefore we are all sinners. Christ, however, was the perfect representative for us, as He was totally human and able to be an accurate sacrifice for us, but He was also totally divine, and therefore able to bear our sins and conquer death. The law, then, did not come into play to make us sinners, but to convict us of the sin we were already committing. “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:20-21).

This point – the end of chapter 5 and the beginning of chapter 6 – is the point at which conversion happens. But before we can start into the way we need to live as Christians, we need to fully understand what happens at this point; what really happens in the moment at which a person places their trust in Christ. There are four specific things that happen when one person’s name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. Allow me to introduce some $20 words.

JUSTIFICATION | The act of God to declare a person righteous. This is a legal term and official description of our standing with God. “…since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). This is the act of forgiveness; God choosing not to count our sins against us anymore.

REGENERATION | This is what Christians often refer to as the act of being born again. Regeneration is the receiving of a new heart and a new nature. It is the life of the Spirit breathed into us and the beginning of our eternal life. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

ADOPTION | With the gift of a new life, the act of adoption is the guarantee of our inheritance in Heaven. No longer are we outsiders or aliens in a foreign land, but we are granted the right to be children of God. In just the same way that Maggie now has a right to Nita’s and my belongings as our full and permanent child, we are granted “the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His great might…” (Ephesians 1:18-19).

SANCTIFICATION | This is our focus for today and the next few weeks. During our regeneration, we were given a new heart and are no longer slaves to sin, but have been freed to be slaves to righteousness. God has a purpose for us. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). In order to accomplish that purpose, our actions on this earth need to change. This is the work of sanctification, and although it starts at the point of new life, it does not end until our promotion into glory.

Sanctification is the sovereign act of God whereby He sets apart a person, place or object for himself in order that He might accomplish His purpose in the world by means of said person, place or object. It is totally an act of God, just like the other things that happen during salvation, but this one, unlike the others, 1) includes us in the process, and 2) happens in stages. This is where Romans 6 begins.

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized 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.

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. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” ROMANS 6:1-14

Positional and Progressive Sanctification

The act of sanctification is fully the work of God, and it happens in two main parts. Positional Sanctification happens first, and that is God separating us out for His Holy purpose. Once we have died, we have been freed from sin and are given a new nature; death and sin no longer have control over us. Some of you may remember the suitcase example from last time I spoke. This is the same thing here. We have been separated from death; we have been separated from sin. The briefcase has been unlocked and God has removed it and its power from us. In one act of grace, we died, crucified with Christ and were changed forever.

This is very similar to the way Major League Baseball sanctifies the baseballs they use during games. In order for a baseball to be used during an official MLB game, it must be in proper condition. It can only be used once, and becomes unusable after hitting the dirt, leaving the field of play, or even at the behest of the pitcher (among other reasons). This is necessary to preserve the fairness and consistency of the game, making sure that each pitcher and each pitch is consistent and dependent only on the quality of the pitcher, and each batter has equal opportunity from pitch to pitch. They cannot use batting practice balls or ones from fans – not even ones directly from a store with the correct logos on it! The game balls are set apart by the team and umpires before the game and prepared in advance.

In the same way, God, through the act of sanctification, sets us apart from death and sin and raises us to new life in Christ, connecting us to Him and the Spirit. It is not until then that we can go about the work of God, as He has not yet prepped us for His work until then. This part of sanctification, Positional Sanctification, is done immediately at the point of conversion for a new believer. This is what Paul wants us to understand as He starts his discourse on the life of the Christian. “For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:10-11). We need to know this; to understand it. We have already been set apart to God, we are sanctified! That does not, however, mean we are automatically freed from bad habits, struggles, or normal mistakes of life. It means we are acceptable to God for use according to His purpose. Progressive Sanctification, or the next stage of sanctification, is where God, through the work of the Spirit, works to change our actions and our attitudes to be more like Christ.

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). This was the theme verse of my sophomore year of college at Crown. Paul wants us to understand that we are sanctified by God, but we still have work to do. Progressive Sanctification is the on-going, step-by-step grunge work of growing closer to God through His work in our daily lives. It is long and tedious; often leading us into situations where there are hard decisions and challenges that seem like a constant uphill battle, but that’s why Jesus gave us the parable of the narrow road and Paul encourages us in Philippians to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Paul later in that letter uses the example of life being like a marathon.

“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. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.” PHILIPPIANS 3:12-16

Paul talks about what we have attained, but that we are not perfect (himself included) and must continue to press own and make it our own.

“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” ROMANS 6:12-14

Progressive Sanctification is the day to day constant work to resist sin and obey God. Why? There are a few schools of thought as to why we do this and it really comes down to a simple opinion on semantics. The first approach says that God fully does the work of sanctification and we are really only called to trust and obey. This is because we have already been fully saved, and the Phil. 3:12 is referring to us working out the experience of that salvation through our lives. The other view says that the process of salvation has started, but is not fully complete until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:6). Thus, we are working out/earning our treasures in Heaven in a step-by-step process. Simply stated, the first view says that we already have the fullness of the riches of His grace and our motive to grow closer to God is because He told us to. On the other hand, the second view says that while we are saved, it is actually a life-long process and our experience of Heaven is directly related to how much we live out His sanctification here on earth. However you see it, the motivation is to trust and obey.

Conclusion: Sanctification Requires Action

How do we do that? We have seen Paul refer to the Christian life as a marathon race, a job to work out daily, and a new life led by God all culminating our ultimate promotion the day we see Jesus face to face. Regardless of our motivation, our task, our life-long job is to resist sin and to present ourselves to God as instruments of righteousness. I would like to finish by discussing a few different ways to live that out in a practical day, and ultimately it all comes down to action.

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” JAMES 2:14-18

Going back to Ephesians, Paul makes it clear that we are God’s workmanship, not to sit around on our couches, but for a purpose to do good works, to make disciples, to love our neighbor, etc… Sanctification is worked out in the day to day actions we take. Each choice we make is an opportunity to trust and obey. So what are we doing to work towards that? Here is a list of practical things you can do to work out your salvation with fear and trembling:

  • Study the Bible | When was the last time you picked it up on your own? How can you expect to make choice to obey if you aren’t learning how to see them? Whether you have been a Christian for 50 years or 50 minutes, the Bible is the written Word of God and our source for illumination, allowing us to see the right way to go.
  • Prayer | By this I do NOT mean asking God for stuff. I mean opening your heart to Him, listening in the silence for His instructions and bearing your heart for the things in your life that you need His involvement in. This is not asking God to bless your food before you eat; this is going to your secret place and conversing with Him – both talking and listening. How are we to expect to know what he wants us to do if we aren’t listening to His voice?
  • Tithes and Offerings | Put your money where your mouth is. Do you spend your money on the things of God? That is more than simply giving money to the church; it is using the money God has given you for His purposes, of which there are opportunities to do so constantly throughout our days.
  • Service | There are opportunities to serve God all around us, inside the church and out. All one has to do is see the need around them every place they go – it doesn’t hide in the shadows anymore. Need and depravity are all around us. What are you doing about it? Do you know how many opportunities there are to serve this world through your church? We have a multitude of ministry opportunities available, from caring for infants in the nursery to working with children and youth, all the way up to elderly ministries. There are ministries for men and women and even the facility and grounds. There is no lack of opportunity for you to live out your faith right where you are.

Simply put, the application is to act. Obey and trust God to work through your obedience. Jesus wants us to yoke with Him. That means we need to do what He does – what He wants us to do. We’ve just listed out many simple and practical ways to take the next step, so your challenge is that. The challenge is to pick something off of the list above that you are not currently doing and to start doing it. Find a ministry to volunteer with; join a Sunday School class; read your Bible! Whatever it is, take a step – God is not asking you to do this all at once. This is a lifetime growth plan. But if you are going to move anywhere, you have to take a step. Happy walking!

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