At one point in my Christian walk I became quite confused when attempting to understand the full ramifications of the work of Christ in gaining our victory over sin and our old way of being in the world. Scripture clearly taught that we are new creations in Christ and that, indeed, the old had gone and the new had come. Further, Peter stressed how we had been provided with all the things that we needed to lead holy and godly lives. Paul also stressed that we had died with Christ and had also risen with him in newness of life and power. This all sounded great, however, there was one small detail that I couldn’t ignore.
I was neither holy nor godly
In fact, although I experienced a much greater level of control over my “flesh,” my old, sinful nature still reared its head with alarming regularity, causing me more than a little trouble. I thus found myself on the horns of a theological and experiential dilemma. At first I figured I must be doing something wrong, but it turns out that wasn’t the problem. Next, I figured I must have misunderstood what Peter, Paul, and a host of commentators were talking about. As it turns out, that wasn’t exactly the problem either. More significant, I additionally discovered that I was not alone in this situation. It seems I had plenty of company as other brothers and sisters struggled with the same contradiction between scripture and experience.
Perhaps no other area causes confusion among Christians than the concepts of “salvation” and “sanctification.” Some of this confusion arises from the fact that both are found in scripture in all three verb tenses, past, present, and future. What this means on a practical level is that our salvation and sanctification has already happened; is happening now, at this moment; and will also happen in the future. No wonder folks get confused about all this.
Over the course of the years I have prayed, studied, wrote, and reflected upon these issues and have found at least a modicum of understanding in relation to our sanctification as Christians. I believe this to be crucial in our walk of faith because resolving this issue is central to our understanding and acceptance of our new identity in Christ.
Careful study of the numerous passages that discuss these matters reveals a pattern that is both logical and workable. To summarize, our salvation and our sanctification begins with our spiritual birth when we are “born from above,” and carries all the way forward to our complete perfection and “glorification.”
A consistent source of confusion in the modern church is between the concepts of justification and sanctification. Look at it this way – suppose a company is breaking the law by illegally dumping highly toxic waste material into the ground. Eventually, this poison seeps down through the earth and pollutes the ground water, which sooner or later affects the public water supply. Let’s say the dumping of the toxic waste was the sin and the spread of the poison was the result. Justification covers the sin and makes us acceptable to God. Sanctification is the process of cleaning up the mess.
This analogy is quite crude I admit, but I think it helps understand how these two vital issues – justification and sanctification – are related.
It is fundamentally necessary that we come to a living, dynamic understanding of the fact that although we are sanctified from a positional perspective when we received Christ, much of the work of sanctification is an ongoing process, not an event. So, in a real sense, we are sanctified in terms of our position in relation to a holy God and then undergo the process of sanctification in terms of experience. The Holy Spirit serves as both catalyst and agent of this process.
The view we get of ourselves when we see our inner being through the lens of Christ can be a bit unsettling. Unless we have a clear picture of what Jesus accomplished on the cross and through his resurrection, along with an understanding and acceptance of who we are in Christ, we can easily be overwhelmed by the enormity of our sin-load. Yet it is imperative we see our sin and our sin-nature if we desire a deep appreciation of God’s act of grace in restoring us to spiritual life.
In these days and times, we are not encouraged to look at our sin. The whole concept of sin has come to be seen as something left over from an earlier church era. In post-modern culture, we are seen as “dysfunctional” rather than sinful. I am not suggesting that we wallow in the mire of our sinfulness and become bogged down with guilt. All I am saying here is that it is important that we buck the current trend to avoid looking at our sin and take an honest look at where we were before we came to Christ. Further, we need to get a firm grip on the true nature of sin and accept the fact that we live in a culture that is fallen – a culture that in large part is conditioned by sin. In many ways, our world has become so complacent about sin that we don’t even recognize it. Neil Anderson speaks to the importance of grasping the nature and extent of sin in ourselves and in our world:
It is difficult for us to grasp the true nature of sin for several reasons. First, we have always been personally involved in sin and lived in an environment conditioned by sin…Second, our understanding is skewed because of our own sinfulness. Most people tend to think less of their sin than they should in order to excuse themselves. Rather than confess wrongdoing, they do the opposite – they rationalize it…Third, our awareness of what is sinful can easily grow dull with tolerance and exposure to it…Fourth, no human has yet experienced the full weight of sin’s consequences.
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