A debate concerning sanctification is back in the evangelical headlines, primarily being waged on blogs. I think the issue can be simplified in a way that may facilitate clarity on where various folks stand on the subject. All we have to do is ask three questions:
- What are we to do? Does God expect Christians to follow Jesus as Lord in practical ways (i.e., obey the law)? Yes, of course. By this we mean, the commands to love God and neighbor (and enemies) stand. Jesus affirmed this. So did Paul. Following God’s ways are not just right, they are good for us. However, the next question is a critical qualifier.
- Why are Christians to follow Jesus in practical ways (i.e., obey)? There are two ways to answer this. One is the moralistic, religious answer: we obey in order to earn and maintain God’s acceptance. The second is the Christian answer: we obey because we already have received God’s acceptance in Jesus by grace through faith (Rom. 12:1). Jesus kept the law perfectly for us and suffered the penalty justice demanded. “There is no longer any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” So, the first answer is a law-focused pursuit of obedience that emphasizes personal effort. The second option is a gospel-focused obedience that responds to grace with faith. Although I assume that most everyone in the debate is in agreement that option #2 is the better answer, another pivotal question remains.
- How are we to obey? In other words, how do we produce “the fruit of the Spirit.” I think that this is where the heart of the debate lies. If we take into account passages found in chapters such as John 15, Galatians 3 and 5, we recognize that practical, godly change in our lives is the result of God working in us. This teaches us that the only way fruit is manifested in the life of a believer is if the indwelling Holy Spirit produces it. We don’t just need saving, justifying grace. We need enabling, empowering, sanctifying grace.
In response to question #3, we can say it this way: if justification is God’s work for us (2 Cor. 5:21), sanctification is God’s work in us (1 Thes. 5:23). Sanctification is not so much something we pursue as it is something we experience God do (1 Thes. 5:23) as we “abide in the vine” (John 15:4-5). Apart from abiding, we cannot and will not produce any good fruit. But as we abide in Jesus by faith as our sin-bearing, righteousness provider, the Spirit fills us, producing new motives (“Wow, I want to follow Jesus”) and abilities (“Wow, I can follow Jesus”). This is one reason why we should continue to preach the radical grace message of the gospel week in and week out. The gospel is the power of God to save us and to change us.
Now, on the outside, it looks like we are the ones producing the fruit, and it actually feels that way to us. However, as we probe the dynamics of spiritual life more closely, we discover that it is God who is at work within us. The result is that God gets the glory for our justification and our sanctification. There is no room for boasting in anyone except Jesus.
We can summarize it like this. The law drives us to Jesus for justification. Jesus gives us his Holy Spirit as we believe that Jesus is our sin-bearing, righteousness provider. Then, the Holy Spirit produces his fruit in our lives, which is sanctification.
Therefore, all of the calls for Christians to follow Jesus in practical ways (the imperatives) are wrapped in the context of our union with Christ (the great indicative)—a union that provides us a new identity, new motives and new abilities, by the work of God for us and in us, and all to the praise of God’s glorious grace. It is the great indicative of the gospel that both sets us free from our chains (justification) and gives us wings to fly (sanctification).