Set Your Hearts

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

THE SPIRITUAL LIFE IS to be lived no matter the cost, as it is the means through which Christians participate in the Kingdom of God while still in the flesh. Redemption and sanctification rescued us from the bondage of sin and set us apart for divine service. Paul said, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:13-14, ESV). Jesus provided an exemplar for Christian living, telling the disciples, “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:26-28). In fact, life is supposed to be shared. We are called to step out in faith and put others first.

The power to live a successful Christian life is found only in Christ, but it requires effort on our part. We need to stand firm against the forces that pull us back to a carnal, fleshly, worldly life. Jesus related how difficult it is to enter the Kingdom of God (Mark 10:23). It is not easy to live as Christ lived. He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul” (Matt. 16:26). Accordingly, a spiritual life must be a disciplined life. In the eyes of the LORD, it is better to obey than to present sacrifices (see 1 Sam. 15:22). The word “obedient” comes from the Latin word audire, which means “listening.” Spiritual discipline involves a concentrated effort to firmly establish an effective boundary between spirit and life. It is only through patiently waiting on God that we are able to hear His voice and understand His will for our lives.

D.A. Carson said, “People think of themselves as ‘spiritual’ because they have certain aesthetic sensibilities, or because they feel some kind of mystical connection with nature, or because they espouse some highly privatized version of one of any number of religions” (1). Religion tends to be a word with negative connotations while spirituality has positive overtones. Typically, we wonder how much of ourselves we must give up to live a spiritual life. We ask ourselves if “being good” is an effective sign that we are living as Christ would have us live. We attend church services, participate in church groups, visit the sick, and volunteer to make burgers at the annual church picnic. Maybe we participate in neighborhood outreach efforts or support missions. Yet, we wonder how much of our natural self can remain without impacting our spiritual life. C.S. Lewis said, “Make no mistake: if you are really going to try to meet all the demands made on the natural self, it will not have enough left over to live on. The more you obey your conscience, the more your conscience will demand of you. And your natural self, which is thus being starved and hampered and worried at every turn, will get angrier and angrier” (2). The flesh battles the spirit, demanding satisfaction no matter the cost.

We come to Christ as new believers dragging our “self” with us to the cross. Lewis said, “Some of the things the ordinary self wanted to do turn out to be what we call wrong” (3). He pulled no punches regarding battling sexual impropriety. He writes, “…a cold self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute” (4). The Christian life is both hard and easy. Jesus asks us to “give all.” He says to take up our cross and follow him. Lewis said, “The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self—all your wishes and precautions—to Christ” (4). As Christians, many of us neglect the mind and heart while we’re striving for a spiritual life. This is precisely what Christ advises us not to do. The average churchgoer objects to giving all, saying not everyone is called to pastor, or teach, or lead. Lewis was known to ask Christians, “How would you feel if Jesus came to you and spoke the words, Give me your all?I have stood at that crossroad many times, wondering how much all I have to give without giving all.

The grace of God, while free, is not cheap. Consider what Jesus endured during the last twelve hours of His life on earth in order that we might be justified before the Father. Our discipleship to Jesus costs nothing less than everything. Unfortunately, you would be hard pressed to find a sermon or teaching series on discipleship in the church today. To side step discipleship is to miss out on spiritual maturity. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt.28:18-20). Unfortunately, the Body of Christ has been drifting away from this commission. If the church fails to disciple new believers, it is impossible for them to learn how to live as Christ lived. Willard said, “Though costly, discipleship once had a very clear, straightforward meaning… there is a decision to be made: the decision to devote oneself to becoming like Christ” (5).

A Matter of the Heart

Paul writes, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:1-2). Proverbs says, “My son, be attentive to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Let them not escape from your sight; keep them within your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:21,23). Not surprisingly, the best way we can defend our heart and set it on God is to guard our thoughts. Paul said, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (1 Cor. 10:3-5). Solomon admonished, “Above all else, guard your heart.

Someone once said, “Sow a thought, reap a deed. Sow a deed, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.”

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it” (Jer. 17:9). We cannot hope to share the gospel, or to teach others about the ways of Christ, without first setting our hearts on Jesus. The kind of spiritual existence God asks of us cannot be weak, dull, rudderless, lifeless. It should cause an engagement of the heart. Paul notes, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Rom. 12:11). Fervent means “having or displaying a passionate intensity.” If we are not fervent in our spiritual life, and if our will and inclination are not strongly and consistently applied to our affairs on a daily basis, we will wither and die on the branch. Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine dresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:1-2). The Father does two things to ensure a maximum yield: (1) He removes unfruitful branches, and (2) He prunes the remaining branches. Unfruitful branches are gathered and burned in the fire. Fruit is an illustration for good results coming from the life of a believer.

As believers, our fruitfulness requires having our hearts engaged in Christ. Every true disciple of Christ must love the LORD above his or her father or mother, sister or brother, spouse or children; yes, even above his own life. Merely having knowledge of doctrine and theology without religious affection for God will avail us nothing but the acquisition of data. Augustine of Hippo said, “My inner self was a house divided against itself. Why does this strange phenomenon occur? The mind gives an order to the body and is at once obeyed, but when it gives an order to itself, it is resisted” (6). Ours must always be a living theology. The believer is to be considered fidelis quaerens intellectum: a believer seeking understanding. Hart said, “Theology is the attempt by faith to understand itself, its object, and its place in today’s world” (7). Theology involves far more than the mind; it is more than collecting data. Hart said, “Faith—when it is truly faith rather than a mere intellectual assent to some proposition or other—will always seek to enter into a fuller and deeper knowledge and understanding of that which matters most to it” (8).

Set your sights on His kingdom first.

Nouwen believes the spiritual life is not that which comes after or beyond our everyday existence. We must not pigeonhole spirituality. He said, “The spiritual life can only be real when it is lived in the midst of the pains and joys of the here and now” (9). Martin Luther wrote, “It is through living, indeed through dying and being damned, that one becomes a theologian, not through understanding, reading or speculation” (10). Of course, such an orientation clears the path for setting our hearts on Jesus. Vanhoozer says Christians learn doctrine in order to participate more deeply and passionately in the drama of redemption, adding, “Intellectual apprehension alone, without the appropriation of the heart and hand, leads only to hypocrisy” (11). Our spiritual life must begin with something firm to place our feet on (see Matt. 7:24-27). Without being grounded in Christ, we risk faltering at times of challenge or crisis. Moreover, we are ill-equipped for making a defense to anyone who asks us for a reason for the hope we have in the gospel.

God willingly created man and all that exists in the physical realm. Under the warmth of His creative action and care, our first parents were invited to walk in complete fellowship with God; to get to know Him and to love Him. This is worship at its most pure. But through an act of rebellion, which was fueled by a desire to know as God knows, exist as God exists, sin entered in and tore a hole in the soul. Man became broken. Kapic writes, “It would be a dangerous misunderstanding to assert that we can only worship God once we have understood all the important doctrines” (12). Further, we do not need to be like God, or be on even footing with Him, to have a relationship with Him. Despite rebellion in the past, we must mend fences with God and allow Him to fill the God-shaped hole in our soul. Growing in our knowledge of God changes our view of every aspect of our lives. Kapic said it’s not as though we lose sight of all except God; rather, we see everything in the light of God. This degree of humility and submission is required for living a truly spiritual life.

All of life’s preoccupations and “what ifs” tend to enslave us; distract us from the metaphysical and spiritual realms of life. Our minds become filled with anxious thoughts as we struggle to do it all, be it all, and plan for it all. Nouwen writes, “Much, if not most, of our suffering is connected with these preoccupations” (13). It is as though we are always preparing for “eventualities,” such as career changes, serious illness, failed economy, domestic unrest, possible family conflicts, natural disasters, and the like. Anxiety can cause us to be fearful, suspicious, greedy, angry, defeated. In this sad state, we pay more attention to our physical surroundings, our aches and pains, our daily challenges, which prevents us from feeling real inner peace and freedom—the very shalom our LORD promised. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). When we are in a predisposed state of “what’s next” we fail to live in the moment. It is impossible to enjoy today if we spend the day regretting our past and worrying about our future. Existence certainly features periods of transition, but it is not productive to live our lives “in the corridor” on the way to somewhere else.

First Things First

Interestingly, Jesus does not address our worry-filled way of living by saying we should cut back on engaging with life’s affairs. Nor does He say we need to take a monastic sabbatical. Early Christian fundamentalism taught “coming out from among them” and safely existing within the walls of our churches. I believe the command “be ye separate” is not suggesting off-the-grid spiritual communal living. Nor does it mean stay away from all non-believers. We simply cannot reach those we despise and run from. Rather, Jesus wants us to change our center of gravity so that we seek Him first. This requires a change in focus. As noted in Scripture, we need a change of heart. Certainly, change in activities are often necessary as we grow in spiritual maturity and reach toward the goal of emulating Christ. Simply, this is a matter of setting our hearts on His kingdom first. Nouwen believes a heart set on the Father’s kingdom is also a heart set on living the spiritual life.

To set our hearts on the kingdom therefore means to make the life of the Spirit within and among us the center of all we think, say, or do.

Consider this. Jesus led a very busy life during the three years of His ministry—teaching, preaching, healing, expounding. He was so busy He had to “steal away” for alone time. Moreover, He did not lead the life of a zealot marching toward a self-imposed goal. He was concerned with one thing: putting the Father’s will and kingdom first. Remarkably, despite being God Himself in the flesh, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise” (John 5:19). The works Jesus did are the works the Father sent Him to do; the words Jesus spoke are the words the Father sent Him to speak. His was a ministry of obedience, sacrifice, and humble submission. Paul tells us, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 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” (Rom.5:18-19).

Concluding Remarks

Nouwen writes, “His Kingdom first. I hope that these words have received some new meaning. They call us to follow Jesus on his obedient way, to enter with him into the community established by the demanding love of the Father, and to live all of life from there” (14). The kingdom of the Father is now; not something to be achieved at a later date. It is the place where the Holy Spirit guides us, empowers us, instructs us, equips us, and renews us as we move through this world serving Him. As I mentioned above, a spiritual life without discipline is impossible. The practice of spiritual discipline allows us to exercise “silent prayer,” where we are content to sit quietly and wait on God. It is only through listening that we develop a life of obedience. It is critical that we establish a routine of solitude every day. The amount of time we spend pursuing “spiritual fitness” is less important than having the routine. Start with 10 minutes, 20 minutes; whatever you can set aside at this point. Remember, we are pursuing “spiritual fitness” much like an athlete seeks physical fitness. Increase the duration of each prayer session. Learn to exercise “silent prayer” where you wait quietly for God to speak to you. Simplicity and regularity are the best building blocks in finding your way to the Father. Create space for God in your life.

References

(1) D.A. Carson, “Spiritual Disciplines,” Knowing and Doing (Springfield, VA: C.S. Lewis Institute, Winter 2017). URL: https://www.cslewisinstitute.org/webfm_send/6134
(2) C.S. Lewis, “Giving All to Christ,” in Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups, Richard J. Foster & James Bryan Smith, ed. (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1993), 8.
(3) Ibid., 7.
(4) C.S. Lewis, “Sexual Morality” in Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1952), 95.
(5) Ibid., 9.
(6) Dallas Willard, “The Cost of Nondiscipleship,” in Devotional Classics: Selected Readings, Ibid., 15.
(7) Augustine of Hippo, “Complete Surrender,” in Devotional Classics: Selected Readings, Ibid., 55.
(8) Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1995), 1.
(9) Hart, Ibid., 3.
(10) Henri Nouwen, The Spiritual Life: Eight Essential Titles (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2016), 7.
(11) Martin Luther, in “The Inseparability of Life and Theology, A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 41.
(12) Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005).
(13) Kelly M. Kapic, A Little Book for New Theologians, Ibid., 24.
(14) Nouwen, Ibid., 9.
(15) Ibid., 21.

What Does Spiritual Progress Look Like?

Written by Steven Barto, B.S.,Psy., M.A. Theology

Change Requires Growth

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:11-14, ESV).

NOT SURPRISINGLY GROWTH requires action. Acts 17:28 indicates we must be “in Christ” to mature as believers: “For in him we live and move and have our being” (ESV). Our growth as Christians is predicated upon knowing who we are in Christ; what His death, burial, and resurrection makes accessible to us. Having made a decision to accept Jesus as Messiah, we are to choose living in a manner that brings glory to God. No longer are we wandering the wilderness in search of meaning and purpose. We begin a new life, made possible through Jesus Christ. Fundamentally, we have been justified in the Father’s eyes. Redemption opens the door for reconciliation, restoration, and sanctification. Each of these components fall under the umbrella of “salvation.” It is here that we are able to adjust our sites and head in a completely different direction than when we were living in sin.

Holiness in the Old Testament is primarily in relation to God. “Exalt the LORD our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the LORD our God is holy” (Psa. 99:9). Divine sacredness and holiness is God’s essential nature. He is morally perfect, and His holiness is manifest in total purity. By purposeful association, God’s people are holy; not because of any virtue they possess but simply by God’s special calling. Notwithstanding the above, there was an increasingly strong emphasis on moral holiness under the Old Covenant. A central feature of the Day of Atonement was inward cleansing (see Lev. 16:30). Of course, there is no less emphasis on God’s holiness in the New Testament. Under the New Covenant, holiness moves from an outward (or “corporate”) quality to believers made holy inwardly. As Christians, we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ, but we must strive to enter into true holiness (see Heb. 10:10). This is holiness as it pertains to transformation. Paul writes, “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).

This is what Paul wrote about in his letter to the Romans: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith'” (Rom. 1:16-17). Our progress must begin with redemption—without which we cannot be clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Spiritual progress is intricately linked with sanctification. It is through sanctification that we become more like Christ, aligning ourselves with the will of the Father. God is able to accomplish His will in us as we mature in our Christian walk. The Hebrew word qdš and the Greek word hagias apply to any person, place, occasion, or object that has been “set apart” from common secular use to a divine purpose. Sanctification is the ongoing impact of the Holy Spirit in our lives as believers (1).

Sanctification is not mere moral transformation (we cannot “behave” ourselves toward holiness). We are set on the path of sanctification through the redemptive sacrifice of Christ. This is a sort of spiritual “athleticism,” which denotes aiming for fitness of service; i.e., being worthy of one’s call. Amazingly, sanctification sets the stage for positive consecration of our personality (2). (Personality refers to individual differences in patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving.) It is easy to confuse holiness and sanctification. However, holiness represents purity before God, as in our being clothed in the righteous of Christ. Through the atonement of Christ’s death, we are justified and set apart for service. But sanctification is much more than being made right in the eyes of the Father; it includes God being able to accomplish His will in us as we mature in Christ. What of this idea of “sinless perfection.” Paul discusses putting on the new self in the third chapter of Colossians, which is accomplished by setting our minds on things that are above and not on things of the earth (3:2). He writes, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (3:5). Instead, as God’s chosen ones, we are to put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. God does not require perfection from us, but He does expect us to strive for spiritual maturity.

A New Starting Point

Through sanctification, our character, affections, and behavior change as we put on the mind of Christ. Sanctification includes a change in our total personal ethics. Of course, this is an ongoing process. At the moment of conversion we surrender self-rule. In sanctification, we relinquish what I call the habitual, premeditated practice of sin. We are bound to fail, but we need not feel condemned. Paul addresses this issue: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 7:24-25; 8:1). The doctrine of justification by faith is an analytical explanation of God’s pardon. Justification establishes Christianity as a religion of grace and faith. It is helpful to remember that dying with Christ (redemption and justification) and living with Christ (sanctification) are both paramount to living according to the will of God.

We are to wean ourselves from worldly pleasures and pursue godliness. Paul said we must strive for spiritual perfection “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:13-14). Although redemption is instantaneous, sanctification is an ongoing process. The more we strive to be like Christ, the easier it becomes to deny the flesh and instead walk in the Spirit. I have learned that as I mature in Christ my sins become more painful and obvious. The Holy Spirit convicts me regarding any ungodly behavior. Because sin starts as a thought, I also ask Him to help me think about what I am thinking about. (This is called metacognition in psychology.) Paul said, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:1-2).

Peter writes, “…preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:13-16). Because our mind is the battlefield on which Satan wages war, it is important to be prepared for warfare. (see The Power of Spiritual Armor.) Sanctification is the first step. Hebrews 12:14 says we must strive for holiness. White says, “This is the most common understanding of sanctification, the growth in holiness that should follow conversion” (see Eph. 1:4) (3). Paul told the Thessalonians to be sanctified wholly—keeping spirit, soul, and body sound and blameless. Everything is to be sanctified (see 1 Tim. 4:4-5). White notes that sanctification is not a mere addendum to justification and redemption. Rather, he believes our forgiveness of sins has a moral force, creating in us the will to do good. Paul distinguished his “real” or spiritual self from his fleshly self in Romans 7. Henry writes, “Compared with the holy rule of conduct in the law of God, the apostle [Paul] found himself so very far short of perfection, that he seemed to be carnal” (4).

Progress Not Perfection

Clearly, our goal as Christians is striving to live a life that is beyond reproach. Remember, this does not imply living a sinless existence, which is impossible. Instead, we are to avoid the habitual, premeditated practice of sin. Habitual sin relates to a temptation we have chosen to hang on to, ostensibly because it brings us some degree of pleasure or escape. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus taught us about brokenness, selflessness, charity, humility, peace, and righteousness (see Matt. 5). He reminds us that we are to be salt and light in the world. Jesus concluded his sermon with these words: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48). The beatitudes describe the Father’s attributes. Jesus instructs us to strive for a Christian life that mimics the character of God. The Amplified Bible says, “You, therefore, will be perfect [growing into spiritual maturity both in mind and character, actively integrating godly values into your daily life], as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Paul instructs us to walk in a manner worthy of the life to which we have been called, doing so with all humility, gentleness, patience, love, peace, and mercy, bearing with one another. Spiritual maturity involves putting off “the old self” and putting on the new, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (see Eph. 4). When we become Christians, we are not merely “remodeled” or added to. Instead, we are transformed. In other words, we don’t have two separate natures as Christians. We have one new nature—that of Christ our Lord. Our old self died on the cross with Christ, and through the resurrection we have become new. When the Father looks upon us, He no longer sees our multitude of sins. Instead, he sees the righteousness of Christ. Paul said, “…you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 1:23). We are to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (see Eph. 4:24).

And Now What?

How do we accomplish the daunting task of putting on the mind of Christ? We need to realize that God is not expecting us to become Christ or to live perfectly. Rather, our lifestyle should point others to Christ. We must think differently about sin, about God, and about Jesus. Our orientation should be away from worldly and sinful lusts. As believers, we should not be attracted to evils of this world. John said, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 John 2:15-16). MacArthur writes, “To say that a person can come to Christ without making a break from the world is a lie. There must be a change of lifestyle” (5). We come to Jesus through repentance, but it is sanctification that allows us to serve Him. We are to be imitators of Christ (see Eph. 5:1). Conversion includes renewal of mind and heartfelt repentance. These elements are needed if we are to do a 180 and walk away from sin. It is dependent on grace, and involves the infusion of new life. Evangelical theologians describe two sides to conversion: the divine invitation and the human response. It is the means by which we are resurrected from spiritual death. Bloesch says, “It also includes the Spirit’s continuing work in purifying us of discord and [our stubborn refusal to comply], remolding us in Christ’s image” (6).

Spiritual maturity is an expected result of conversion. In fact, conversion begins our ascent to Christian perfection. We shall not remain the same person we once were, but shall become a new creation (se 1 Cor. 5:17). Our true relationship with God is made evident in our lifestyle and conduct. This is what is meant by having a heart for God; getting God out of our heads and into our hearts. Peter tells us, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (1 Pet. 1:3-4). He followed up with an admonishment to “…put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pet. 2:1-3).

Concluding Remarks

We are called upon to be mature believers in Christ. This is not possible without learning who we are in Him and walking accordingly. Redemption opens the door for reconciliation, restoration, and sanctification. Sanctification sets the stage for radical change, even to the core of our personality. We are set on the path of spiritual maturity. Although we cannot hope to be perfect while in our corruptible bodies, we are expected to strive for spiritual maturity. Jesus gives us a glimpse of the character of God in His sermon on the mount. Meekness, brokenness, humility, purity of heart, righteousness—these and other attributes are provided as a guide to becoming “perfect” as the Father is perfect. Paul instructs us to wean ourselves from worldly pleasures and pursue godliness, which is critical to our spiritual maturity. We can never become Christ, but we are called to emulate His life and ministry. This is how we become salt and light to the world. It is how we strive for spiritual maturity.

References

(1) R.E.O. White, “Sanctification,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 771.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 1077.
(5) John MacArthur, The Truth About the Lordship of Christ (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012), 77.
(6) D.G. Bloesch, “Conversion” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Ibid., 213.

Having a “Grace-Receiving” Mentality

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.

THERE ARE THOUSANDS OF words and phrases we toss around during our lives. Grace is one of those words. Those who have trusted in Jesus for salvation were never meant to live defeated, despairing, boxed-in, unhappy lives; rather to live in victory through grace. In Romans 5, Paul writes of the “abundance of grace” we receive everyday, along with the gift of righteousness, which helps us to reign in life through Jesus. He says, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Rom. 5:1-2, ESV). God’s grace is bestowed on us without merit. Further, it sets in stone the infrastructure on which we are to live our lives. It is erroneous to imagine that this sacrament—or any other means of grace—operates automatically, as though mere reception were a guarantee (1).

A Proper State of Mind

Paul tells us to do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit (see Phil. 2:2-4). What is comparison if not the means by which we decide we are better or worse than others? Paul said, “For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise (2 Cor. 10:12). He also said, “For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (Rom.10:3). Comparing ourselves to others limits our potential. When we compare our performance and actions to others we allow them to set our standard of achievement. Paul reminds us that “everything is possible” for the person who believes (see Rom. 9:23). Nowhere in Scripture does it say one’s success is dictated by his or her stature in the community. Moreover, we are not to compare ourselves to ourselves, or we run the risk of stunting further growth by looking back and saying, “I’ve come a long way. I am nothing like I was before.” This is a recipe for complacency. Rather, we are to compare ourselves to Jesus Christ, aiming every day to emulate Him in all that we do. Grace should propel us to grow in holiness after the pattern of Jesus Christ.

Our path in life can be likened to a tightrope. Consider how tightrope walkers never look back after they take their first step. Seldom do they look up or they would become concerned about how much of their walk remains, making it seem as though they have made little progress. But they do look down, watching their feet, making sure to take measured and accurate steps. Each step, at the moment it is taken, is what is present. It represents what the tightrope walker must do “at that moment.” As Christians, we are not to regret the past, nor should we worry about the future, for in doing so we squander today. Isaiah wrote, “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:18-19). Jesus said, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).

God’s Continuing Grace

God’s grace continues to bless us and keep us after conversion. Jesus is the true human being (wholly man and wholly God) in whom we are to be able to participate by grace. Grace propels believers to grow in holiness after the pattern of Jesus Christ. Peter tells us, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity” (2 Pet. 3:18). Johnson believes God’s grace comes to us more like a power, bonding us to Christ so that we may live with Him in accord with our status as God’s beloved children (2). He believes prevenient grace comes to sinners before salvation to convict them of their unrighteousness, call them to repentance, and enable them to freely cooperate with God’s grace by ceasing to resist its work. Other theologians argue that God’s irresistible grace enlightens the minds of sinners, changes their hearts, and draws them to salvation. They’re being led to the living water. Although the condition of beginning the covenant of grace is by faith alone (per fidem), the condition of continuing in grace rests in obedience to God’s commands (3). James said, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).

It is critical for us to admit how undeserving we are of God’s grace and mercy. When faced with the consequences of bad or illegal behavior, justice is rendered when people “receive their due” according to violation of the law. In fact, justice is “what the accused deserves,” whereas mercy applies kindness and forgiveness to our lives without merit. We receive God’s grace and mercy through Christ, receiving the free and unmerited gift of His righteousness, then begins the practice of recognizing and receiving God’s ongoing grace. There is a often grave misunderstanding that Jesus had one sole mission: to suffer and die for our sins. To be the scapegoat for mankind. The crucifixion of Christ redeems us, but it also must serve to sanctify us as we step out in faith to live as Christ would have us live. Christ is all things to us. He has been made to be our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. All glory belongs to the Lord. Our part is to receive Christ as LORD and Savior. He is grace, mercy, forgiveness, direction, righteousness, sanctification, redemption. We cannot complete ourselves any more than we can save ourselves because He is both our redemption and our sanctification. He is all and in all. There is nothing left for us to do or earn. A missionary friend of mine puts it this way: justice is getting what we have coming to us (our just punishment) and mercy is receiving what we do not deserve.

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times? Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you. He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt (Matthew 18:21-35).

In this parable we learn that God forgives on request without restitution being required. We also learn something important about unforgiveness. The man’s refusal to forward the grace he received resulted in a series of divine consequences. If we remain unforgiving of the unforgiveness of others, we turn back toward legalism. We are being as exacting and demanding as the law; like we are keeping a precise balance sheet on debts owed to us. We selfishly hold everyone to payment in full. This, of course, is an example of justice rather than grace. Unforgiveness is grounded in “debtors-mentality,” a merciless mindset that refuses to release others until they pay all that is due, rather than a “grace-receiving” mentality. When God forgives, He frees the forgiven from all obligation to repay. We have been forgiven and set free as a result of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Despite this divine explanation of God’s grace, too often we demand forgiveness from those we have wronged as if we can change their heart. Nothing could be more contradictory to the example of Jesus. God didn’t send Jesus into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved (John 3:17). He didn’t come to browbeat sinners, but to set the captives free. The whole of Christianity is about forgiveness, not about holding a “balance sheet” on others.

A Prime Example

A prime example of grace-receiving mentality can be found in John 4. Jesus and the disciples were headed for Galilee. Jesus decided to take a shorter route, which involved going through Samaria despite Jews and Samaritans being sworn enemies. While Jesus rested at Jacob’s well, a Samaritan woman approached to draw water from the well. Jesus asked her for a drink. She responded, “How is it that you, a Jew, asks for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (see John 4:9). Jesus said, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10). Jesus continued: “Everyone who drinks of this [well] water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:13-14). The woman asked for a drink of this everlasting water. The Hebrew word hallomai (to “well up”) occurs only here in John’s gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles. The water that Jesus gives is vibrant and cleansing, and produces the abundant life Jesus was promising to the woman.

Jesus told her to go home and bring her husband, to which she announced that she had no husband. Jesus replied, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband;’ for you have had five husbands, and the [man] you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” She immediately decided this man must be a prophet. In the Greek and Roman world, for Jesus to possess such knowledge of the woman’s marital history would certify him as a miracle worker, but in the religious world of Israel it would be recognized as the distinguishing mark of a prophet. When she expressed the longing she had for the coming Messiah, Jesus said, “I who speak to you am he” (4:26). It is at this point the woman grasps the magnitude of what Jesus has said to her. It’s as if the very atmosphere changed. Nevertheless, she asked Jesus to “explain everything.” What is this living water? Who is this man, Jesus, that he dares to use the “I AM” remark? Is this man Yeshua? I have no doubt that Jesus chose to travel through Samaria because He knew of the Samaritan woman he would encounter at the well. As she sped off down the hill, spreading the good news through the streets of her village, Jesus told the disciples it was time to go forth and preach the gospel (see Luke 9:1-6).

How to Get It

God’s grace is seen throughout all of creation; in our daily living as well as our salvation. Some believe grace and mercy are synonymous. However, grace is defined as unmerited divine favor or assistance given to us for regeneration or sanctification. Mercy is compassion or forbearance shown, especially to an offender or to one subject to the power of another; leniency or compassionate treatment. It is through grace that God presented His Son Jesus for sacrifice; there is literally nothing we could ever do to earn God’s grace, or to obey the letter of the Law, in order to be saved from eternal damnation. Martin Luther struggled with this concept, becoming increasingly anxious over how he could be clothed in righteousness. Luther initially failed to grasp the meaning behind Romans 1:17: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith'” (ESV). This conflict drove Luther to extremes, such as self-flagellation, remaining outdoors in the winter without a coat or shoes, solitary meditation for days, asking incessantly for God’s forgiveness. He feared he would die in his sleep without having confessed everything. His understanding regarding God’s grace had roots in Roman Catholic teaching: man is justified by God’s grace plus some merit of our own. This, of course, is against Christian doctrine.

Grudem writes, “Justification comes to us entirely by God’s grace, not on account of any merit in ourselves” (4). God’s grace forms believers into the image of Christ in anticipation of their eternal life as God’s beloved children (see Rom. 8:29-30). Because we cannot hope to earn sanctification by obedience to the Law (i.e., through our works), it was necessary for God to provide a means by which we can be redeemed from our sin. God established a covenant with man, setting only one condition: faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone (sola Christus). God’s grace means His goodness toward those who deserve only punishment. God’s mercy means His goodness toward those who are in misery or distress; God’s patience is manifest in His willingness to withhold punishment toward those who have sinned (5). Because of God’s grace, mercy, and patience cannot be earned, it is reasonable that we provide our bodies (as a living sacrifice), living a life of worship and faith. Regardless of our circumstances, we can have a quiet heart, but this requires total confidence in God. Luther wrote, “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times” (6).

Specific to Luther’s trouble with righteousness, he said Romans 1:16 presents the gospel as a power which saves all who believe it. Luther came to believe that Romans 1:17 speaks of God’s righteousness. When we accept Christ as our Lord and Savior, we are clothed in righteousness. When the Father looks upon us, He sees the righteousness of Christ. He separates us from our sins as far as the east is from the west. Luther said, “The righteousness of God is the cause of our salvation… it is called the righteousness of God in contradistinction to man’s righteousness which comes from works” (7). The phrase “from faith to faith” is meant to establish that the righteousness of God comes through, but without ignoring the “works” of our faith as an outward sign to others that we have become a new creation. It is the adage, “We are not saved by good works; we are saved unto good works.” Luther added, “The words ‘from faith to faith’ therefore signify that the believer grows in faith more and more, so that he who is justified becomes more and more righteous” (8). Augustine defined from faith to faith as, “From the faith of those who confess it with the mouth to the faith of those who actually obey it” (9).

In order to receive God’s grace we need first to admit that there is nothing in us that can merit it. We need to honestly admit, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Romans 7:18). Jesus didn’t come to justify the godly, but the ungodly. When the Pharisees confronted Jesus about eating with sinners, Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Unfortunately, many Christians forget the importance of God’s grace in their daily walk. The heart of this deception is the belief that after being redeemed by the sole merit of Christ’s finished work, we must then sanctify ourselves. Though seemingly responsible, this denies the grace of Christ. Not only was our redemption purchased by Christ, but also our sanctification. When God places us in Christ, He makes Christ to be all things to us.

According to Peter, grace and peace are multiplied in us through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, and that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness to the end that we may become partakers of the divine nature (see 2 Peter 1:2-3). Peter went on to exhort us to add to our faith moral excellence and to moral excellence, knowledge, and to knowledge self-control, and to self-control, perseverance, and to perseverance, godliness, and to godliness, brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness, love. Many of these things are listed in Galatians 5 as fruits of the Spirit. Paul was who he was by the grace of God. He labored abundantly, but not by his own might or capabilities. He said, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). This is what is meant by having a “grace-receiving” mentality.

References

(1) K.L. Johnson, “Means of Grace” in the Evangelical Dictionary, 3rd. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: 2017), 358.
(2) K.L. Johnson, Ibid., 358.
(3) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: 1994), 519.
(4) Ibid., 729.
(5) Ibid., 200.
(6) Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1954), xvii.
(7) Ibid., 40-41.

My Prayer About Selfishness

Father God,

When I come before You,
I dutifully pay lip service
to how awesome You are,

but I must admit that
what I am really interested in is me.
I acknowledge Your sovereignty because
I want “things” from You—lots of things.
I want You to bless me—
to make my life easier and, most of all,
to rubber stamp my will as Your own.

Many of my prayers focus on
what You can do for me, not
how I can know You better.
This is my truth
and I need to be aware of it.
I wish I were a better,
more selfless person.
I wish I had more character than I do.
Admitting the truth embarrasses me,
but You know my heart.
Help me become who
You need me to be.
Continue making changes in me,
never to be the same.

I want to seek You for who You are
rather than for what You can do for me.
Give me a heart that yearns for
knowledge and wisdom instead. Teach me
to look beyond my limited world.
Develop in me a heart of compassion.

Without you, I see my selfishness,
ever before me, never receding;
but I am a new creature

inside and out. You are
changing me, helping me to
become a better version of myself;
a child worthy of Your name.
Let this be what motivates me and
defines me.

© 2021 Steven Barto

Never Lose Your Desire to be Sanctified

By Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.

GOD’S ULTIMATE AIM FOR believers is to be sanctified and grow in holiness. The Hebrew (qdš) and Greek (hagias-) roots are applied to any person, place, occasion, or object “set apart from” common, secular use onto some divine power. Under the Old Covenant, persons and things devoted to God’s use had to be ritually cleaned, not merely set apart by taboo, decree, or tribal caste. “Fitness” for use becomes increasingly moral. Consider, “You shall be holy to me; for I the LORD am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Lev. 20:26, NRSV). Peter wrote, “But as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy'” (1 Pet. 1:15-16). Israel is inherently holy, separated by God from “the peoples” to be His own. Yet Israel had to become holy, by obedience, fit for the privilege allotted them” (1).

I have wondered whether God uses exile to set His people apart for further sanctification. The Jews were set free from slavery under Pharaoh only to wander in the wilderness for forty years. Leviticus tells of two ideas of sanctification. The first is that which relates to ceremonial laws (purification). The other is sanctification itself. In this idea, two factors are important: sanctification is called “the way” if it is related to ceremonial laws (e.g., blood sacrifice as a type of purification); and, sanctification is a “progressive work” as it is related to obedience to God’s commands.

Christians are set apart for God’s use. The community of believers is called by Paul as “…those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2). The true church of God is comprised of all who are sanctified in Christ, called to be saints, and who call upon Him as God incarnate; who acknowledge Him as their Lord (2). It is through this relationship that believers obtain pardoning mercy, sanctifying grace, and the comforting peace of God. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). This use of “peace” refers to the Hebrew shalom, a rich blessing that includes peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility. The Greek eirēnēn means peace, prosperity, rest, quietness. Christ was saying “peace I let go [aphiēmi] to you,” signifying to leave with, send out, or permit.

Sanctify Me Lord!

To be sanctified by the Lord requires a desire to be set apart for His purpose. This is not synonymous with salvation or redemption; rather, it is an inevitable consequence of the same. Sanctification is a critical part of Christian doctrine, the roots of which began when God sanctified the sabbath as a day of rest and continued with the priesthood as outlined in Leviticus. The Hebrew word for sanctification is qâdash, meaning to separate from a profane to a sacred use. Sanctification in the New Testament is from the word hagiazo as used in John 17:16-17, where Jesus said to the Father, “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth” (emphasis mine). Progressive revelation of sanctification throughout Scripture allows for a clearer understanding of God’s desire for believers under the Old and the New Covenants to come out from the world and be set apart for His glory.

Under the Old Covenant, God consecrated the places where He dwelt. God was unable to occupy any space or dwell among His people without first setting the place apart as holy. This concept is easier to grasp when holy or sanctified is compared to its opposite: profane or defiled. This is evident in Exodus 3:4-5 where God appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush. He summoned Moses to Him, instructing Moses to remove his sandals because he was standing on ground that had been sanctified and declared holy. Similarly, God cannot come and dwell in us until we have been sanctified. God is holy and separate from nature and from people. He can only be approached through mediation and sacrifice. It is through Christ that both have been established. Although Israel was corporately holy (set apart from other nations and peoples for a divine task), in order for them to be fit for what they had been called to do (provide the bloodline through which the Messiah would come) they had to deepen their holiness through obedience.

R.E.O. White compares sanctification and justification, stating sanctification means “…keeping oneself unspotted,” but he adds that this is not simply self-discipline. Attempting to obtain complete obedience through self-discipline is an impossible task. It is impossible to perform the will of God without being led, called, or sanctified by God. White believes sanctification is “chiefly the outflow of overflowing life within the soul, the ‘fruit’ of the Spirit in all manner of Christian graces” (Eph. 5:22-23). Justification, however, which White calls the privileged status of acceptance, is acquired by only one means: the cross (3). Sanctification under the New Covenant is not a matter of once-and-done; rather, it is an ongoing process of conformity to Christ, which is achieved through the Holy Spirit. Although New Testament Christians cannot hope to achieve sinless perfection, we are instructed to cleanse (remove) ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness (2 Cor. 7:1). This is considered repentance (“turning away from”), which is the first step in sanctification (setting one’s self apart from the world) under the New Covenant. Our “fitness” for God’s purpose becomes increasingly moral.

The Difference

Justification, on the other hand, is a one-time act performed by God which declares the believer “not guilty,” and is based solely on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ at Calvary. Sanctification occurs on a continuum and includes past, present, and future. Isaiah 50:8 confirms the vindicating aspect of justification (“he who vindicates me is near”). On closer examination, one finds that justification through faith is the foundation upon which Christianity is established as a religion of grace and forgiveness through grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone. Paul informs us of this truth: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live(Rom. 1:17).

The changes God expects in us can only take place in the inner man, through the power of the Holy Spirit. The term “perfecting holiness” used in 2 Corinthians 7:1 is derived from the Greek epiteleô, which indicates further fulfilling or completion – bringing through to an end, finishing (see Gal. 3:3). Jesus Christ is the author and finisher of our faith (see Hebrews 12:1). Paul said, “Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint, until faith should be revealed (Gal. 3:23). Second Corinthians 7:1 refers to these promises. This correlates with Paul’s remark, “What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty'” (2 Cor. 6:16-18).

Concluding Remarks

Christians are set apart for God’s use. They are chosen, destined, and sanctified. The writer of Hebrews urges, “Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). Paul wants us to understand that we are washed, sanctified, and justified (1 Cor. 6:11). White writes, “Sanctification is not merely justification’s completion (correlate or implicate); it is justifying faith at work. In the faith counted for righteousness, actual righteousness is born” (4). A believer is justified (deemed “acquitted”) when he or she accepts Christ as the Messiah; the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Sanctification, on the other hand, is the method by which God brings a believer into alignment with His will. Justification is the single act of God’s grace, whereby he pardons the believer’s sins and counts him or her righteous by assigning to them the righteousness of Christ without regard to works.

Romans 3:24 says we are justified freely by the grace of God made possible by the redemption that came through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Paul notes in verse 25 that this is accomplished with the shedding of Jesus’ blood on the cross. This is mirrored in Hebrews 9:14-15. Jesus died as a ransom for the sins of mankind. Verse 22 reminds the reader that under the Law nearly everything had to be cleansed with blood, adding that there is no forgiveness without a blood sacrifice. It is therefore appropriate to conclude that God justifies the new believer at conversion, declaring him or her “acquitted.” Regarding sanctification, however, God calls the Christian to be “set aside,” no longer of this world, holy, sanctified, and called according to His purpose. Certainly, this is the very heart of the Gospel. It is through justification that the believer is considered righteous in God’s eyes. This imputing of the righteousness of Christ comes in an instant, at conversion.

Sanctification occurs over time, and includes past, present, and future. As God is holy and set apart from Creation, so too is the believer to be separate from the secular world. Because as Christians we are incapable of self-sanctification (unable to keep ourselves “unspotted”), it is imperative that we yield to the Holy Spirit and begin the work of maturing in the faith.


Footnotes
(1) R.O.E. White, “Sanctification,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd. ed., Daniel J. Treier, ed. (Grand Rapids, IL: Baker Academic, 2017), 770-71.

(2) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 1095.
(3) White, Ibid., 771.
(4) Ibid.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: “Be Perfect as Your Heavenly Father is Perfect.”

The following is a summary of my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s in theology at Colorado Christian University.

Calling upon your reading (particularly Grudem and Elwell) and utilizing good exegetical practice, provide your interpretation of Matthew 5:48. Here are your guiding questions: How do you understand “being perfect” in terms of the Christian life? How does sanctification contribute to perfection, per your understanding of both ideas?

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

The meaning of “be perfect” is a critical concept for the Christian church, causing many believers to stumble, worried they will never be perfect to any degree, let alone as the Father is perfect. Wayne Grudem identifies the “perfection” of God as one of His communicable attributes. He writes, “Some passages say that God is “perfect” or “complete.”[1] Jesus explicitly tells us we must be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48). Grudem explains that we imitate God’s blessedness when we find delight and happiness in all that is pleasing to God—indeed, when we seek to show His blessedness, love, and grace.

The Greek word for “perfect” (teleios) is like the Hebrew word tāmîm—the latter of which refers to “soundness” regarding sacrificial animals or uprightness and a thorough commitment to the LORD. The Greek word can be interpreted as “mature” or “full-grown.” Paul puts it this way: “Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; be babes in evil, but in thinking be mature” (NRSV). He relates the same concept in Ephesians 4:13, wherein he states, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” Paul uses the Greek word teleios in each instance cited above.

Nowhere in Scripture are we told to be “perfect” for the sake of perfection itself. Some variations on the term include “blameless,” but I think this is a matter of proper orientation of the heart regarding being like Christ. The writer of Hebrews said the believers should have been teaching and discipling others, yet many were still in need of someone to teach them the first principles—they were still on “milk” when they should have been digesting the “meat” of the gospel. Further, milk is for children, whereas meat is for adults (see Hebrews 5:12-14). Jesus was speaking to a crowd of believers and His disciples in Matthew 5. He spoke of the importance of meekness, peacemaking, mercy, being humble (poor in spirit), self-denying. Part of His sermon included a rundown of the Law, indicating He had not come to abolish it but to fulfill it. He also addressed the importance of forgiveness. Further to the topic at hand, Jesus was saying the Law is not about strict adherence (letter-only); rather, it is about working toward fulfilling the law of love, which is an internal orientation. The perfection He spoke of was about growing in grace to the point where love was the prevailing drive of one’s behavior.

The very example of the Father’s love is shown in Matthew 5:45: “[S]o that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”  God is no respecter of persons. The LORD wanted His disciples to understand that they (indeed, all of us) are to show this “perfect” love the Father shows all of creation. We can only accomplish this by becoming “holy and mature” sons of the Father—sharers of His Spirit and partakers in His impartial and perfect love for all. This is the key to learning how we can love even those who persecute us.

Matthew Henry says, “It is the duty of Christians to desire, and aim at, and press towards perfection in grace and holiness.”[2] We can only hope to achieve this degree of “perfection” by studying the heart (the character) of our Heavenly Father and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Jesus came to perform the will of the Father. To interpret Matthew 5:48 as a literal yardstick of perfection is to miss the message of the Sermon on the Mount. Peter clearly explains this: “[B]ut as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:15-16). When we accept Jesus Christ as our LORD and Savior, we start down the path of salvation that includes election, redemption, and sanctification. Of course, sanctification involves growing in likeness to Christ. We have been justified, which is essentially a legal standing before the Father.

It is through our cooperation that we grow more like our LORD each day. This is sanctification, which is specific to our internal condition. As we grow (from milk to meat), we walk more consistently as Christ walked. We develop the spiritual “muscles” we need to resist temptation on a consistent basis (we stop “practicing” sin); we experience an “enlargement” of our hearts, allowing more room for empathy, love, compassion. We begin to show others the character of the Father and the unconditional love of the Son. This is something we will not be “perfect” at while still bound to our earthly bodies. Through sanctification, we tend to increase our ability to be perfect in Christ as we seek to follow His example with each passing day.

I received a strong response from one classmate who did not agree with my concept of what “perfection” means in Matthew 5:48, or throughout Scripture for that matter.

He wrote the following: 

In response to your statement that “nowhere in Scripture are we told to be ‘perfect’ (Steven Barto 2020), I disagree. My disagreement is based on the fact that we are clearly exhorted to perfection in Matthew (5:48) in every version of the Bible that is accepted by Colorado Christian University for use in our courses. For example, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (ESV). “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (NIV). “Therefore, you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (NASB). “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (NRSV). “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (NLT). Thus, the fact that we have been told to be ‘perfect’ in Scripture could not be clearer. I do, however, sincerely appreciate the roundabout way you circumnavigated such an absolute statement when having relatively discussed the likeness of a Greek and Hebrew term referring to ‘soundness’ wherefore the perfecting maturation process results in measuring up to the fullness of Christ (Barto 2020) among other interesting yet avoidant equivocations.

Because I do not want to accidentally appear to be cutting down anything you have said, which I believe are all worthy of undivided consideration, I must return to the original point concerning the command ‘to be perfect’ regardless of how it is sliced. It is what it is whether we like it or not. Although we can strive to be perfect in everything we do, at least whatever perfection there might be rests in the effort and thought that ultimately seems to count. For example, certain individuals may expect us to wrap Christmas presents perfectly but no matter how hard some of us might try, there are obvious flaws for which we will pay dearly. Now, I am not suggesting that we all go to hell for having missed the mark, but only an unreasonable person would fail to appreciate our best effort to have wrapped a present, perfectly.

I responded with the following commentary:

Please be assured I did not mean the command to be perfect is not in the Bible. That would be a ludicrous claim to say the least. I may have used an ambiguous statement. I meant the Bible does not instruct us to actually be perfect in the same way Christ or the Father are perfect. I am still anchoring my opinion on the Greek or Hebrew word. How can we ignore original meaning? Context? Historical ramifications in the church at the time the phrase (indeed, the word “perfect”) was used? Exegesis demands a careful historical, literary, and theological analysis of a text (or a specific word or phrase). This is the proper means by which we can ascertain the sense of the text, grappling with the reasons for or against understanding it. Of course, exegetes must learn to love asking questions, so ours is actually a positive discourse on the matter of perfection.

Hopefully, exegesis leads to understanding the world of or within the word or text and the world behind the same. Some exegetes try to understand the world in front of the text: the world or concept the text “creates.” That sounds a bit like a slippery slope to me. Of course, I don’t merely want to understand the historical or literary meaning, but I want to engage it spiritually and experientially. The understanding of these critical words, phrases, or texts often have a deep impact on our lives as Christians. I agree, by the way, that allegorical reading of a portion of Scripture can yield meanings that are at times labled “spiritual or figurative” rather than literal. This, too, can be tricky. We don’t want to limit our study to our own (individual) interpretation. This is quite possibly the root-cause of “relativism.” This is precisely why systematic theological study among the community of believers is critical to maintaining consistent, solid doctrine. Accordingly, I truly enjoy these types of discussions.

I must conclude with a word about “translations.” We are at a distinct disadvantage in that there are at least 50 versions of the Holy Bible, and over 150,000 variations in manuscripts. I wholly support the canon of 66 books. I do, however, believe some versions are based on “fewer” and less accurate original manuscripts. For example, The King James Version is considered unacceptable for exegetical study, as is the Living Bible, the New Living Translation, and the Authorized Version. These versions worked with fewer (and less reliable) biblical manuscripts. Many older (and better) manuscripts have been discovered post-1611. Some of the best versions for exegetical study include the New Revised Standard Version, New International Version, and the New American Standard Bible. As you know, CCU approves the NRSV and NIV. Translations like The Message are not good for exegetical study as these are personal conceptual paraphrases of Scripture. I use The Message for devotional reading only. I have a copy of the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV) and the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, which are considered to be “excellent” for in-depth exegetical work.

I completely agree with your analogy regarding a perfectly wrapped Christmas gift. Indeed, I think this is what I have been trying to express: That we must strive to do everything perfect—as perfectly as we can—because our Father who is in heaven is perfect. Also, it is only through the key steps of salvation (election, regeneration, and conversion) that we are able to at least begin our march toward perfection. Paul said we won’t get it perfect. Frankly, “perfection” for the sake of perfection itself is not required, and thankfully so. That would truly reduce obtaining salvation to performing “perfectly good works.” Christ came to fulfill the Law, not abolish it. He told us how to approach the great command from God, which is two-tiered. We are to love the Lord God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind; and, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.

I think we are probably on the same page on this issue. My concern over how the church today understands and (more importantly) experiences the concept of “perfection” is critical to holding on to believers (especially our youth as they enter the world of secular academia with all the competing ideas of “absolute truth,” “morality,” and relativism); further, it is crucial for how we interact with the fallen world who sees themselves as “okay” and not “perfect,” and who think Christians are locked in an ancient world of pleasing “some invisible god” in the heavens. I also think part of my approach to this idea of perfection is rooted in social upbringing, mental illness (now in remission), loss of friends to suicide who just couldn’t “get it perfect,” and the pressures I put on myself in recovery to get it right the first time and never, ever mess up again. That was not my recovery experience. It took decades.

***

I believe this is a critical topic worthy of consideration. I therefore encourage feedback from my blog readers in order to dialog on “perfection” in the Christian faith.  Please leave a comment or question in the box below. Thanks for reading. God bless.

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[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 218.

[2] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 866.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Basic Tools of Doing Systematic Theology

The following is a summary of my most recent class in pursuit of my Master’s in Theology at Colorado Christian University.

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy.

IT’S ONE THING TO pick up a book and read about theology. And that’s okay. It’s how I got interested in taking the subject on as a graduate student. It all starts with contemplation. We “think” about what it means to be alive, to have purpose. We wonder how we might make a difference in society. We question the “logic” of believing in God. Armed with such a burning desire to know, I enrolled in a master’s program in theology and started out on what so far has proved to be an amazing, breathtaking journey.

In week four of my theology class we considered the proper relationship between theological study, sanctification, contemplation, prayer, and action. Further, we discussed the type of character most conducive to theological insight, and how the systematic study of theology should impact one’s character. Generic “theological” study does not necessarily require any degree of sanctification. Many people choose to study theology or philosophy without any sense of what is meant by redemption or sanctification. These concepts are, however, imperative in Christian theology.

What is the proper relationship between theological study, sanctification, contemplation, prayer, and action?

I was amazed how little I understood about sanctification over the years. I thought it “just happened” when I “got saved.” Considering the decades of sinful behavior and active addiction I went through after accepting Christ (at age 13), I was far from sanctified. Of course, it does start with salvation. When we become redeemed, we are expected to “repent” of our old life. Then sanctification can begin. According to R.E.O. White, sanctification means “to make holy.” [1] It’s not uncommon for a new Christian to think this means he or she is made holy (shazam!) all at once. White further explains that to be sanctified is to be “set apart” from common or secular use.

First Corinthians 1:2 says we are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints. R.E.O. White writes that sanctification is not merely justification’s endgame; rather, it is justifying faith at work. The new believer is declared to be acquitted and clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Through sanctification, God begins to accomplish His will in us. This is often called becoming spiritually mature. We are not saved by good works, but there is little hope of sanctification without submitting to the will of God.

Thomas Aquinas says in the Summa Theologiae [2] that four of the gifts of the Spirit of the Lord are wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and counsel, and that these gifts have a direct impact on the intellect. Isaiah 11:2 says. “And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD” (RSV). David Jeremiah explains that the coming king “will be endowed with the Spirit of the Lord, who provides the wisdom, ability, and allegiance to God that are necessary to accomplish a challenging task.” [3] Proverbs 2:6 says, “For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” James reminds us that if we lack wisdom in any circumstance, we are to ask God and He will give it (James 1:5). Thomas Aquinas said any discourse of reason always begins from an understanding. It is critical, therefore, that we never attempt theology while lacking understanding. Although the work of the Spirit is already completed relative to the compiling of Scripture, His work regarding “illumination” is ongoing.

Prayer is the means by which we gain access to God. Just as we speak to the Father, and call upon Jesus, we must request from the Holy Spirit the guidance, understanding, knowledge, illumination, and discernment needed to effectively and accurately undertake systematic theology. It is equally important to pray for guidance regarding God’s call on our lives. When I decided to change my major from the master’s in counseling program to the master’s in theology, I spent weeks in prayer. I consulted with my pastor, several lay ministry friends, family members, my CCU student advisor, two professors, and several elders at my church. I cannot fathom undertaking a systematic study of Christian theology without prayer.

What type of character is most conducive to theological insight, and how should it change as the result of undertaking theological study?

In any theological undertaking, one would expect there to be a change of character. I think of Nabeel Qureshi (1983-2017), author, speaker, lecturer, and apologist, who converted to Christianity from Islam after spending nearly two years conducting an exegetical study of the Holy Bible. His character, if you will, was that of a loving, dedicated, well-behaved young man who had been raised in a religious home. In fact, no one in his immediate or extended family were extremists or jihadists. He loved the Qur’an, Allah, and his messenger Muhammad. This “character” coupled with a sharp intellect likely contributed to his willingness to examine the theology of Islam, and, ultimately, compare it to Christianity.

Tradition injects a lot into character, and, when that character matures, one becomes curious about tradition, religion, politics, culture, the meaning of life, and so on. Qureshi said one of the greatest hardships he faced was having to inform his parents he had become a Christian. He was, after all, part of a “community of believers” that were bonded together by solid theological principles and deep-seated tradition. He believed in Islam. He revered Muhammad. Regardless, once he met Jesus Christ, he could no longer reject Him than he could make himself stop breathing. This is precisely the type of character it requires to begin a theological study.

Insight comes from honest, rigorous, open-minded, and thorough study. We’ve been told that theology is in its simplest form “the study of God.” For me, the desire to know God stems from my burning desire to know why my earthly father seemed to hate me so much and, more frighteningly, whether my Heavenly Father was as mean-spirited, vindictive, nasty, judging, and punishing. (Incidentally, I eventually learned that my dad did not hate me, and he did the best he could to keep me from running off the rails and into the gutter.)

If God were to be “the same as” my dad, I would have no time for Him. Regardless, somewhere deep inside, I wanted to know several things. First, exactly who or what was this Christian God I’d heard of at church? Second, was He authoritative—leading from a position of authority and strength, love and longsuffering—or authoritarian—ruling over everyone with a heavenly despotic fist, ready to accuse and condemn? Third, was it true, as my father said many times, that I was worthless, or was there hope that my life had some greater meaning?

As to what type of character should result from theological study, Trevor Hart said, “Faith is not a natural progression from knowledge or experiences available to all, but results from a special dispensation which sets us in the perspective from which the truth may be seen, and demands a response” [4] [italics mine]. In other words, deciding to systematically study Christian theology is both a soulful drive or ambition and a rigorous discipline. I have gone through numerous personal changes as an undergraduate student of psychology at Colorado Christian University. I believe those changes set the stage for my choosing to take on a master’s level study of theology. There is a progression at play. Had I not first chosen to return to college, I would not have discovered CCU; had I not enrolled at CCU, I would not be the Christian I am today; and, had I not grown more mature in Christ as an undergraduate, I would not have undergone the requisite changes conducive to undertaking a master’s degree in theology.

This is the fourth week of my first theology class, and already I feel tectonic shifts within me. My personality has brightened, and my mind has cleared. I am ravenous for information about theology, Christology, eschatology, and apologetics. I see people as God sees them, and I’ve begun to feel a heartache for those who will never see the truth about the life, love, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I have started to keep my promises more consistently than I used to, and I exercise greater control over my tongue (which was no easy task!). I even noticed a major change in the amount of television I watch. All of that notwithstanding, I find myself asking God every morning to put a task before me; to lead me where He needs me to go; to break my heart for what breaks His.

Footnotes

[1] R.E.O. White. “Sanctification.” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 770

[2] Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae, I.II, q. 68, a1

[3] David Jeremiah. The Jeremiah Study Bible. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2013), 893-94.

[4] Trevor Hart. Faith Thinking. (Eugene:Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1995), 75.

 

 

God’s Grace Teaching Us

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say No to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:11-12, NIV).

Man Kneeling

The doctrine of grace is an amazing concept. Grace, of course, means “goodwill,” “loving-kindness,” or “favor.” I love the commentary that grace is God’s “unmerited favor.” This explains not only the helpless, hopeless, sinful condition of mankind and its need for ransom or redemption; it highlights God’s undying, incomprehensible unconditional love. Grace cannot be purchased. It is a free gift of God—albeit not free in the simplest use of the word. It cost God the life of His only begotten Son. It cost Jesus indescribable, excruciating pain, unfathomable emotional distress, rejection, persecution, torture, and death. Taking mankind’s sin on at the time of crucifixion cost Jesus to be cut off by God. At that instant, Jesus became the sin of the world. God had to turn His face away. Jesus, feeling the abandonment of the Father, cried out, “Eli, Eli, lemasabachthani?” (which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46, NIV).

GOD’S GRACE OFFERS US SALVATION AND JUSTIFICATION

Christian scholars and writers have long considered the connection between grace and justification. “…and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24, NIV). Ephesians 1:7 says, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace” (NIV). It amounts to a full pardon of our sins to the point where God remembers our offenses no more. Hebrews 8:12 says, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (NIV). Psalm 103:11-12 tells us, “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (NIV). We’re at a loss to comprehend this degree of grace. There is no human equivalent. We lack the capacity for this level of forgiveness and love.

Romans 5:1-2 says, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God” (NIV). Verse 2 clearly states that we have access by faith into this grace. Paul explains in Ephesians 1:5-6 (speaking to non-Jews), that we all have been granted sonship through Jesus Christ “…in accordance with his pleasure and will” (NIV). In the original Greek, the word for “granted sonship” is charitoo, which means “highly favored.” The Greek wording can also signify “the favor of God.”

God’s grace is woven throughout Paul’s writings. Hiebert (1979) writes, “Paul could not think of Christian truth and conduct apart from God’s grace” (vol. 11, p. 439). Guthrie (1990), wrote, “The expression, the grace of God, may fairly be said to be the key word of Paul’s theology…. He cannot think of Christian salvation apart from the grace of God…” (p. 198) [Italics added].

GOD’S GRACE [ALSO] TEACHES US

The grace of God not only saves the souls of all who believe in his Son; it also works in believers’ lives to teach and instruct them. God’s grace, working through His Word, instructs and shapes our thinking and living. God says that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age. It is the will of God that we turn away from all that is worldly and spiritually compromising. He wants us to walk in godliness, imitating Christ in all we do. God works this into our hearts by His grace.

God’s grace first saves and then trains His people
for godliness and good deeds.

We can actually grow strong in grace. 2 Timothy 2:1 says, “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is Christ Jesus” (NIV). God’s grace can help, teach, and empower us. The grace that restores our relationship with God through Jesus is theologically referred to as special grace. This is when God opens the eyes of a sinner and illuminates the truth about himself to that person. It is special in many ways, but the word special refers to its lack of common use by everyone. Saving grace is not experienced by the whole world but only by Christians. Common grace is God’s grace that every human experiences. It does not refer to our restored relationship with God, but rather to the gifts God gives both to the saved and the unsaved—to His church and to the world. Special grace affects us spiritually and common grace affects us physically and materially. All things are from God. No human deserves anything from God. Accordingly, all good things we have are by God’s grace. When God restores our relationship with Him through faith in his Son, this is by special grace. When He gives us all we need, this is by His common grace. But in short, all good things, spiritually and physically, are given to us by grace.

God’s grace helps by empowering us to serve Him. In other words, grace is also the power and ability of God working through us. This is paramount to growing and succeeding as a Christian. Without God’s divine power and ability operating through us, we will never make it to the tops of mountains that He is calling us to climb for Him. We will never be able to reach the goals, the aspirations, and the finish lines that God has in store for us unless we have the power of His Holy Spirit working in us and through us. Too many Christians are trying to reach their goals and aspirations operating out of their own power and strength. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made great in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (NIV).

The word “instructing” means, “child-training.” It includes teaching, but also, correcting and disciplining. It is a process that begins at salvation and continues until we stand before the Lord. Note that grace does not mean, “hang loose and live as sloppily as you please.” Paul succinctly stated, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who died to sin; how can we live in it any longer” (NIV).

Grace trains, disciplines, and instructs us in godly living. When we experience God’s unmerited favor in Jesus Christ, it motivates us to want to please Him in everything we do. So we open God’s Word. As we read, we begin to realize that there is much in our lives that displeases the Lord, who gave Himself on the cross to save us from His judgment. We are to begin walking on the path that Jesus described as denying ourselves daily, taking up our crosses, and following Him (see Luke 9:23). Grace trains us to live righteously. This refers to a life of integrity and uprightness in our dealings with others. It means conforming to God’s standards of conduct, as revealed in the commandments of His Word.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Most of us don’t really understand the full power and scope of grace. Yes, we know we’re “saved by grace.” That’s easy. Well, maybe simpler. We don’t even begin to understand the real power it can release in our lives. The Bible gives us many examples of the power of grace available to the early Church in Jerusalem. That same power is available to anyone who’s ever sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Thank God, that means you and I qualify! Whenever we’re beleaguered by Satan, we need to follow the example of the early Christians.

Christianity teaches that what we deserve is death with no hope of resurrection. While everyone desperately needs it, grace is not about us. Grace is fundamentally a word about God.

Remember, God’s grace is free and it is unmerited.

References

Guthrie, D. (1990). Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: The Pastoral Epistles, revised ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Press.

Hiebert, D. (1979). The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Press.

 

 

Why Do Christians Still Sin?

If we really knew God, our behavior would change radically and instantly.

Many Christians are living under half a Gospel. Christ died for our sins. When we pray to receive Him, believing in our heart that He is the Messiah, we die with Him, and are buried with Him. If we leave it there, where is our resurrection? If we do not repent from continual, deliberate sin, do we not act as if His death and resurrection was a worthless gesture? Think of it this way. If you came across a dead man lying along a road and you had the power to save him, what would you do? Give him life? If that is all you did, then he would merely die again one day. You would have to cure the disease that caused him to die in the first place.

The True Definition of a Christian

Regardless of how overused the word Christian has become, the biblical definition of a Christian is one who is a follower of Christ; a disciple of Jesus (see Acts 11:26). A Christian is not merely someone who has ascribed to a particular set of religious beliefs or practices, joined a church, said a penitent prayer, or participated in certain sacraments or rituals. A Christian is a person who has responded to the conviction of the Holy Spirit and has put his or her whole faith in the finished work of the cross of Christ for salvation. Christians have repented of their sin and have made Jesus Lord of their lives. Romans 10:9-10 says, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (NIV).

We Can’t Deny We Still Sin

The Bible says, “For the wages of sin is death… (Romans 6:23a, NIV). Jesus went to the cross and died for our sins. Is the whole Gospel simply curing the disease that caused us to die? Not at all. Finish reading the verse: “…but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 23b). When we forget the entire Gospel, we remain fleshly. We are forgiven yet not redeemed. Sounds strange, right? Almost counter-intuitive. Surely, we’ve been ransomed from the wages of sin by the death of Christ. However, full redemption provides a number of benefits we need in order to live righteously. Redemption provides us with eternal life; forgiveness of sins; a right relationship with God; guidance from the Holy Spirit; adoption into God’s Holy family. When we’re redeemed, we become different people. We are truly alive in Christ. We are now free to choose to live in the Spirit and not in the flesh.

The First Epistle of John was written to Christians. We’re told in 1:8-10, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us” (NIV). God tells us not to deny that we sin, saying if we do, we’re actually calling Him a liar. Verse 9 indicates what we’re to do when—not if—we sin. He promises to forgive us and cleanse us of the unrighteousness associated with our sin.

1 John 3:9 says, “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God” (NIV) [Italics mine]. These types of seeming contradictions confuse new Christians and drive agnostics and atheists crazy. This, however, is not a contradiction. John’s idea of committing sin on a permanent, habitual basis is further explained in 3 John 1:11: “Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God” (NIV).

In 1 John 3:6-9, the apostle is examining the question of whether a person “born of God” can commit sin. In verse 6, he writes, “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning.” In verse 9, he emphatically shares, “No one who is born of God will continue to sin.” John seems to say it is not possible for those who are really  born again to continue to sin. If that were true, there would not be many genuine Christians. This is not what John means. Remember, every believer still possesses a fallen, sin nature, as well as the indwelling Holy Spirit. This reminds me of the old Cherokee saying that we all possess two wolves inside us. One is evil—he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, and ego. The other is good—he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, truth, compassion, and faith. Which wolf will win the fight? The one you feed.

The correct translation of 1 John 3:8 should be, “The one who practices sin.”

What Does It Mean to “Practice Sin?”

Hebrews 10:26-27 says, “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (NIV). The Greek word for committing sin (poieo) means to be seen sinning, or to display a sinful behavior. Certainly, this will present a poor witness, making the Christian appear hypocritical. I’ve been there, my friends. Far too many times. I’ve often said, “If I don’t start behaving better in public—stop raging at stupid tailgaters, for example—I’m going to take the Jesus First plate off the front of my car.” The Greek word for practicing sin (prasso) means to perform repeatedly or habitually, and hints of deeds, acts, or using arts. Notice the plurality and repetition here.

In Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible, we read the following regarding Hebrews 10:26-31:

The sin here mentioned is a total and final falling away, when men, with a full and fixed will and resolution, despise and reject Christ, the only Saviour; despise and resist the Spirit, the only Sanctifier; and despise and renounce the gospel, the only way of salvation, and the words of eternal life… all this does not in the least mean than any souls who sorrow for sin will be shut out from mercy, or that any will be refused the benefit of Christ’s sacrifice, who are willing to accept these blessings. Him that cometh unto Christ, he will in no wise cast out” (pp. 1212-1213).

The Nature of the Problem

The Bible teaches we are dead in our “trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1) and “were by nature children of wrath” (2:3) [Emphasis added]. In other words, we were born physically alive but spiritually dead. We had no access to God’s presence in our lives, nor knowledge of His ways. We simply lived our lives devoid of God, unless and until someone introduced us to the Gospel. Paul plainly explained, “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want” (NIV).

The flesh can be described as existence apart from God—a life dominated by sin or a drive opposed to God. Obviously, the flesh considers itself self-reliant rather than God-dependent; it is self-centered rather than Christ-centered. Mankind, accordingly, is sinful by nature and spiritually dead. But, at the moment of salvation, God transfers us from the domain of sin and darkness to the Kingdom of His beloved Son (see Colossians 1:13). Additionally, sin’s dominion through the flesh has been broken. As believers, we are no longer in the flesh—we are in Christ. We have to believe that our new identity is in the life of Christ and commit ourselves accordingly.

If you are a new creation in Christ, have you ever wondered why you still think and feel at times the same way you did before? Because everything you learned before you knew Christ is still programmed into your memory. Unfortunately, there is no mental delete button. Surely, this is why Paul says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2, NIV) [Emphasis mine]. We have to renew how we think, not delete our old way of thinking.

Concluding Remarks

God’s work of atonement changes us from sinners to saints. No doubt this is a hard concept to comprehend as a new Christian. The radical change—aptly called regeneration—is effected at the moment of salvation. The ongoing change in the believer’s daily walk continues throughout life. The progressive work of sanctification, however, is only fully effective when the radical, inner transformation by regeneration is recognized, accepted, and appropriated by faith.

New believers are dominated by the flesh and deceived by the devil. It takes time and practice to renew the mind and overcome the patterns of the flesh. We have to believe we have a new nature. Our “new self” is oriented toward God. Being a child of God and being free in Christ is positional truth and the birthright of every believer. However, because of a lack of repentance and ignorance of the truth, many believers are not living like liberated children of God. Our freedom from sin’s domination hinges on knowledge of the truth.

Hmm. In other words, the truth will set us free. Where have I heard that before?

 

 

 

Justification versus Sanctification

Sanctification Dove.jpg

Justification and sanctification are not the same thing. The basic dictionary definition of justification is “the action of showing something to be right or reasonable.” The theological definition is “the action of declaring or making righteous in the sight of God.” Sanctification is an ongoing process. It comes from the Greek word hagiazo, which means to be separate or set apart. As we’ll see later, sanctification is not the same as salvation. We’ll also see that justification is a transaction and sanctification is a transformation.

Justification is a Transaction

In Christian doctrine, justification is God’s act of removing the guilt and penalty of sin, and imputing His righteousness through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Romans 3:22-24 says, “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (NIV).

Eugene Peterson provides the following translation of Romans 3:21-24: “But in our time something new has been added. What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. And not only for us, but for everyone who believes in him. For there is no difference between us and them in this. Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ” (MSG) [Emphasis added].

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We are justified, declared righteous, at the moment of our salvation. Justification does not make us righteous, but rather pronounces us righteous. Our righteousness comes from placing our faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ. His sacrifice covers our sin, allowing God to see us as perfect and unblemished. Certainly, it should be obvious that this is something we simply cannot accomplish on our own. Martin Luther, in his Commentary on Romans, says, “St. Augustine writes in the ninth chapter of his book Concerning the Spirit and the Letter: ‘He does not speak of the righteousness of God, by which God is righteous, but of that with which He clothes a person when He justifies the ungodly.’ Again in the eleventh chapter he comments: ‘But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested; that is, God imparts it to the believer by the Spirit of grace without the work of the Law, or without the help of the Law. Through the Law God opens man’s eyes so that he sees his helplessness and by faith takes refuge to His mercy and so is healed.'”

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Romans 5:18-19 sums up this concept quite nicely. “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the one man the many were made righteous” (NIV). It is because of justification that the peace of God can rule in our lives. It is because of justification that believers can have full assurance of their salvation. It is the fact of justification that enables God to begin the process of sanctification—the process by which God makes us in reality what we already are positionally. “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2, NIV).

Sanctification is a Transformation

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The very moment we are saved in Christ we are also immediately sanctified and begin the process of being conformed to the image of Christ. As God’s children, we are set apart from that moment to carry out His divine purposes. Hebrews 10:14 says, “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (NIV). Peterson’s translation says, “It was a perfect sacrifice by a perfect person to perfect some very imperfect people. By that single offering, he did everything that needed to be done for everyone who takes part in the purifying process” (MSG).

Sanctification is different than salvation. It is important to differentiate between the two concepts. Jesus gave his life on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. His blood washes away our sins and frees us from eternal suffering and damnation. Believers are save because of what Christ has already done. We can do absolutely nothing to earn salvation. Sanctification occurs as a result of salvation. But sanctification does not stop there. Instead, it is a progressive process that continues in a believer’s life. This is because even as Christians we still have the capacity to sin. We find ourselves in a spiritual battle the moment we confess Christ as Messiah and decide to follow Him. Paul describes this inner battle in Galatians 5:17: “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not [able] to do whatever you want” (NIV).

Paul notes in Romans 15:16 that through the grace of God he became a minister of the Gospel to the Gentiles so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Paul’s ministry was not merely to win converts to Christ; he intended to see people become sanctified. He says, “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done…” (v. 18). Obedience leads to sanctification. Romans 6:17 says, “But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” (NIV).

Sanctification is the Key to Spiritual Growth

Sanctification is both a matter of position and progression. Indeed, we’re told to work toward perfection—that is, maturity in Christ. We’re to move from milk to solid food. We are sanctified because Jesus Christ has saved us and yet sanctification continues to work within to transform us into the likeness of Christ. Sanctification is the responsibility of every believer in Christ. When we choose to pursue sanctification in our life, positive growth occurs. It is important to remember this is a process, and cannot be rushed. Like a newborn baby that gradually matures unto adulthood, so is the work of sanctification in the life of a new Christian. The work of sanctification will ultimately be completed in every believer’s life when Christ returns.

Paul writes, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23)