Our Hope for Holiness

Salvation isn’t just conversion, it is the whole of our life. We are saved by Jesus Christ, and that means we are justified, sanctified, redeemed, adopted, regenerated, and are assured of glorification. That assurance of heaven is by the promise of God in Christ. The gospel announces this, outside of us, done by God. Our work is to believe (trust, have faith in) this good news.

The above may not seem remarkable. But in one particular aspect it flies in the face of what is often simply accepted dogma in modern conservative Christianity.

I was taught that justification was an event and sanctification was a process. I was taught that I grow progressively through life in holiness by my effort in conjunction with the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. I was taught that the straining Paul is doing in Philippians 3, and the fear and trembling in chapter 2, were about progression in personal holiness. I was taught that justification was essentially conversion, and sanctification was life now (slow intermittent growth in holiness).  I am a product of schools that teach this, of dear friends who hold to it, and of course have read many books that espouse this thinking. It is really common, so common as to be unquestioned.

What I ran into that has made me think differently was the buzz saw of the Bible, in teaching through Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Hebrews, and more. Slowly I have been faced with how the Bible uses the word sanctification. It’s alternatively translated holiness. It was a surprise to me how it almost always did not refer to progress in personal holiness.

That doesn’t mean we don’t display holy behavior (we do); or we don’t grow in godliness (we do); or we don’t run the race (we do).

But a misunderstanding of sanctification, in my experience, has led many Christians away from the gospel. I don’t say that lightly or without fear and trembling. But when we leave the biblical emphasis, we open ourselves up to difficulty.

If Christians are emphasizing what the New Testament does, then we should see each other as holy, as much as we will ever be on earth, because of what Jesus has done and by his sacrifice alone. That means I don’t lose holiness by my sin. Jesus paid for that. I don’t go up and down in holiness, as it is not by degree. I am sanctified, set apart, by what Jesus did, not by what I do, not ever. If I have been a Christian for 30 years, and someone else has been a Christian for 3 minutes, I am not more holy. I was as holy at conversion as I am at my death. I don’t have any ‘personal’ holiness, because it is corporate. Because all of my holiness is found in my union with Christ, along with every other believer’s sanctification.

God’s favor is because of my union with Christ by faith alone, and not by my own good works, even good works done as a Christian. This does not take away from the reality that my faith produces different behaviors than unbelief would (these are a response to God’s favor, not a meritorious precondition).

Theologians sometimes break up holiness into “positional” and “progressive.” I don’t see the Bible doing this. The Bible seems to have a heavy emphasis on the former, while many in our theological stream have a heavy emphasis on the latter. So perhaps we should reserve sanctification for the former, and use words like “maturity,” “transformation,” and “growth in dependence” or some such for the latter. Because otherwise it is simply misleading as to what the Bible is about. Unfortunately people are drawn back to guilt, self-righteousness, pride, despair – all because they are thinking wrongly in this area.

I do have a part that is critical, for sure, and it is hard – believing in Christ alone. And I do respond, in gratitude, with humility and love and unity and transparency and, yes, with holy behavior. But this holy behavior is not my sanctification. Jesus is.

And thus our hope is in Christ and his finished work alone for justification, for glorification, and yes, for sanctification.

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