Seven Elements of Biblical Repentance

I know, repentance isn’t your favorite word. It’s not mine either. No doubt it conjures up something like an angry turn-or-burn “preacher” (either pounding the pulpit or screaming in the streets) letting people have it or an ultra-fundamentalist family member unhappy with your choices of what’s right or wrong. Despite the bad taste that might be lingering in your mouth for words like “repent” and “repentance”, let’s together seek to move past those barriers and rediscover what God actually says about repentance. It might never be for your favorite word or your favorite part of being a Christian, but as we look into God’s Word I think we’ll see that repentance is meant to be a life-giving, sin-replacing, gospel-rooted posture of the Christian life. Easy? No. Good? Yes.

Continue reading Seven Elements of Biblical Repentance

Don’t Confuse or Divide Indicative & Imperative

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“For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” Romans 6:14

More often than not when somebody throws out the “we’re not under law but under grace” phrase it’s either used to say, “Hey, come on! I’m a Christian so my sin’s not all that big of a deal,” or “Don’t give me any commands. That’s old-school, like Moses and the Old Testament era old-school.”

In light of this, we might forget that the phrase is actually tied to an exhortation for holiness, “sin will have no dominion over you.” That statement is both a fact based upon our dying and being raised in Jesus (Romans 6:1-13) as well as a reminder of what reality should look like in light of that fact: we shouldn’t let ourselves live under sin’s dominion (Rom. 6:15-23).

As someone who wants to daily find refreshment in free grace while also wanting to mature in Christ in a manner propelled by that grace, I find Romans 6:14 to be a huge help. It gives me an encouragement to pursue holiness without making either my energy in that pursuit or how far I make it in that pursuit the source of my confidence before God. Douglas Moo provides a helpful explanation as to why the indicative and imperative should neither be confused nor separated.

“‘Indicative’ and ‘imperative’ must be neither divided nor confused. If divided, with ‘justification’ and ‘sanctification’ put into separate compartments, we can forget that true holiness of life comes only as the outworking and realization of the life of Christ in us. This leads to a ‘moralism’ or ‘legalism’ in which the believer ‘goes it on his own,’ thinking that holiness will be attained through sheer effort, or ever more elaborate programs, or ever-increasing numbers of rules. But if indicative and imperative are confused, with ‘justification’ and ‘sanctification’ collapsed together into one, we can neglect the fact that the outworking of the life of Christ is made our responsibility. This neglect leads to an unconcern with holiness of life, or to a ‘God-does-it-all’ attitude in which the believer thinks to become holy through a kind of spiritual osmosis. Paul makes it clear, by the sequence in his paragraph, that we can live a holy life as we appropriate the benefits of our union with Christ. But he also makes it clear, because there is a sequence, that living the holy life is distinct from (but not separate from) what we have attained by our union with Christ and that holiness of life can be stifled if we fail continually to appropriate and put to work the new life God has given us. Jeremiah Bourroughs, a seventeenth-century Puritan, put it like this: ‘…from him [Christ] as from a fountain, sanctification flows into the souls of the Saints: their sanctification comes not so much from their struggling, and endeavors, and vows, and resolutions, as it comes to them from their union with him.'”[1]

[1] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 391.

Casting Your Cares on God

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A Not-so-brief Description of Casting Our Cares on God
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” I Peter 5:6-7

There are some things it can be hard to convince people of—spiritually speaking. It can be difficult to persuade people sin really is a big deal or that their own hearts are often a bigger problem than the people we blame. One thing needing little convincing of is that life is hard and the struggles prove wearying. The phrase “cast your cares on God” has been both a hope believers cling too and an encouragement for how to respond in life’s hardships. For some, it might be evident what the words require of us as the one letting something go and what it promises from God as the one taking something from us. Or, like what is often true for believers, while the meaning might be apparent what seems ambiguous is how we actually go about doing it. My hope is to clarify the phrase’s meaning—primarily from I Peter 5—[1]but also explore both how we might cast our cares on God as well as why we don’t do it in the first place.

Foundations for Casting
In I Peter 5:6-7 the first and primary action is “humble yourselves.” Both the larger context in I Peter of the suffering church and the language of the verse itself—“suffering under the mighty hand of God”—remind us that our attitude in struggles, suffering, and trials should be humility. In verse 6 and again in verse 11 Peter tells us that God is the Sovereign One who allows into our lives whatever comes to pass. These things neither catch Him off guard nor are they evils outside of His control. His Providence means that while He neither does evil to us nor tempts us with evil, he allows and orchestrates all of the events and circumstances in our life. This doesn’t imply that every single thing in our life is by itself good—the world is still broken and sin is still seen as evil—but that every single thing does have a good purpose for those who are God’s children (Rom. 8:28-30). Peter therefore admonishes us to respond with submission to God’s Providence and humility as finite creatures who don’t always know why things are happening or what the intended results might be.

Peter—and the Bible as a whole—ground God’s trustworthiness not only in His Sovereignty and Power but also in his Goodness and Care. In verse seven there are four simple but significant words for why we should cast our anxieties on God: because “he cares for you.”[2] God pairs the magnificence of his Sovereignty with the goodness of his Love. In a parallel passage from Matthew 6:25-24, Jesus roots his command to not be anxious in the connected realities that God knows what we need and he cares or values us (v. 26). Thus, our fears are assuaged by knowing God is strong enough to handle any storm and good enough to care for us in the midst of it.[3]

Returning to the exhortation to humility from verse 6, this is important because in verse 7 the phrase “casting all your anxieties on him” (ESV) is a clause following on the heels of humble yourselves. Unlike how it might read in the NIV translation (“cast all…”), this is not a new verb but a participle explaining how we humble ourselves. This might initially catch us off guard since we don’t think of carrying burdens in the forms of worry or fear qualifies as pride. But, the Bible always gets the diagnosis right and reveals the heart issue at work, and here it is our pride. We carry burdens because we either think we have too or because we’re capable, neither of which are true. Rather than resisting God’s hand or striving to take care of things independently of him, we’re given the freedom to be honest about how small and weak we feel and trust in the bigness of God as God. The reason we don’t let go of worry, fear, shame, and stress is because we’re trying to carry responsibilities we’re not meant to carry. God brings struggles into our lives not so we can prove how strong and competent we are but so we’ll see how strong and competent He is. As our vision adjusts and we realize how small and weak we are we’re at the same time awakened to just how large and strong God is, and that He is those things for us.

The Meaning of Casting
Hopefully having seen a little bit more clearly the relationship between casting our cares and taking on humility, we can briefly define what “casting” means before describing how we might do it. Most of us don’t use the word “cast” in day to day conversations but it’s familiar enough we understand it. Some of the definitions and synonyms include throwing something off or away from you, to redirect, to let go of, or to put something away. When someone casts a fishing line they let it fly. The word in I Peter 5:7 appears one other place in the NT, Luke 19:35. When a colt (donkey) is brought to Jesus for his “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, it says “throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.” They take their cloaks and cast—throw or toss—them from their own backs and onto the back of the donkey.

Definitions are helpful in providing parameters to a word but illustrations put a picture in our mind. If fishing or riding donkeys isn’t your thing then here’s one that helps me. In every sport there is the possibility of injury. For example, in football, it seems like every few minutes there’s a TV timeout because of an injury. How many times have you seen someone severely injures their ankle, foot, or leg? What happens is they’re not strong enough to walk off on their own so teammates pick them up and do the walking for them. As the injured player leans—casts himself—onto his teammate and takes the weight off his own legs, the stronger teammate carries the weight for him. All of these definitions and illustrations convey a simple idea. Casting suggests taking something off of yourself and placing or throwing it onto something or someone else. Therefore, when we cast our cares on God we throw the burdens we’re carrying on our weak and worn-down backs onto God’s sturdy and unbending shoulders.

The “how-to” of Casting
While the explanation of casting isn’t all that difficult, the doing of it can be. If burdens were physical things it would be easy to transfer them to someone else. But, since burdens aren’t physical and since God isn’t standing next to me what how do I cast my cares on Him? Casting our burdens on God is an act of faith. When something is an act of faith it is no less real despite it being something that isn’t necessarily done physically.

Hopefully the explanation above has already provided more clarity as to what it means to cast our cares on God and how it might happen. We do it by humbling ourselves before God and giving up trusting in ourselves and controlling our own lives, and instead, we let God be in control and we place our trust in him.[4] We give him our worries, fears, shame, guilt, stress, despair, and control. We don’t deny how hard a situation is, we don’t hide behind feigned smiles and crossed fingers, and we don’t resort to a fatalistic mantra of “whatever will be, will be.” Instead, we’re honest about how hard things are and how much we’re struggling under the weight of it while simultaneously asking God for his help. We learn to trust Him to take care of us, to keep us trusting, to help us endure, to and learn of Him and from Him in the midst of these unwanted circumstances. We keep working and praying but the weight of responsibility is transferred from us to God. It’s no longer up to us to figure it out, fix it, clean things up, or make things right.

Attitudes, affections, and actions all overlap here. Humbling ourselves before God and under his mighty hand requires a change of attitude: God is God and I am not. It also provokes a change in our affections: I should and will trust in my Almighty and Loving God. The turn-around in our actions might just be new attitudes and affections, but it also might be demonstrated externally in our behavior: I will pray instead of worrying or fretting.[5]

To say it differently, burdens in the Bible are different and yet comparable to how we might think about and respond to gifts. God gives us gifts in part as avenues of creating gratitude in our heart that leads to giving thanks to God. The gift from God is given back as gratitude to God. Similarly, God gives us burdens in part as avenues of creating dependence in our heart that leads to trusting God. The burden from God is given back as trust to God.

Take the example of worry, which has family ties with fear and control. We worry, fret, and stress out because we don’t know what’s going to happen or if things will turn out okay. We can’t control the situation and we don’t know what’s next around the bend. But, only God can know the future and only God can control the lives and circumstances of people. If God is not real in my life or cannot be trusted either because a lack of might or lack of goodness then I will try to take his place. That’s all worrying is, acting as if God doesn’t know or can’t control the future so I better figure it out and handle my business. We cast our burden of worry on God by trusting He has a good plan for our lives and will carry us through whatever struggle he brings to us.

Worry isn’t the only burden we carry. Don’t we needlessly carry alone fear, guilt, shame, and sorrows? We’re paralyzed by fear of what might happen instead of trusting God as Helper in whatever comes our way. We hold onto guilt and shame when Jesus—the only judge of who’s guilty and what’s unclean—says your sins and stains have been washed by my perfect blood. We break under despairing sorrow instead of grieving as those who still have hope. Like most Christians, at times I’m tempted to hold onto all these different burdens but for me fear is usually the one I most struggle to let go of. I fear the future. I fear something happening to the people I love. I fear rational and irrational dangers. I have to continually massage the Scriptures back into my heart so that I trust in God more than I fear the “mights and coulds” in my head. It’s not that I say hard things won’t happen or there’s nothing to fear, since neither is promised to me. But rather, it’s knowing that I can’t figure out or change the things coming down the pipeline and then believing that my perfectly loving and perfectly strong God has a good plan for me. I trust He knows what He’s doing and He cares for me in doing it. As I trust, I let my tight grip on figuring out and controlling fear go and grip onto God himself as my security.

Trusting is living as the Father’s child. Most of us as adults now nostalgically remember our largely carefree lives as children. As a child you’re not supposed to have worries because your parents bear all of your worries. A child is—or at least should be—carefree because their parents love them, provide for them, and know what’s best. The child doesn’t fret about mortgages and new clothes because their parents will take care of them. Oh that we would be the children of God marked by trust in a perfect Father who loves us, provides for us, protects us, and cares for us.

Objections to Casting
If you think like me then there’s always a “but what about” or “but I feel like.” Despite all that is true above and even despite our experiences—which we forget—of those truths why don’t we cast our cares on God? What are the reasons we’re hesitant to entrust them to God? The first answer has already been noted: we take God’s place and try to run our own lives. Saying we get into trouble when we try to take God’s place isn’t meant to be harsh but to be honest. The lie that we can be like God has been the snare in our lives since the garden. I daily need to check myself with the reminder that God is God and I am not…so act like it.

In addition to idolatry and pride, I think there are some unstated whispers in the back of our mind that make us slow to cast our cares on God. It’s always a matter of belief, not so much the truths we mentally assent too but letting those truths permeate our hearts until they become our gut reaction. Instead of giving God our burdens because we trust “his mighty hand” (I Peter 5:6) and “he cares for us” (I Peter 5:7) we often listen to lies from self or Satan. The problem is we listen to the wrong voices instead of telling or preaching to ourselves what God has already said. Satan’s common lies designed to keep us carrying our own burdens usually make us thing wrongly of ourselves—as if we’re like God—and wrongly of God—as if he’s like us.[6] Satan will whisper, “The Father doesn’t love you or doesn’t care about you.” He will do everything to make you think, “Your sins can’t be forgiven and you’re guilty” or “you will never change and you’re still the same old you.” This is why go back to the Bible and anchor ourselves in the truths that God is both Sovereign and Caring, that Jesus has paid for all of our sins and taken our guilt, and that the Spirit has been given to gradually change us into new people by his power.

When it comes to listening to our own selves (which might also be influenced by whispers by Satan) I find that the following are our most common reasons we don’t give our burdens over.
God doesn’t care, He isn’t good, or He’s disappointed
God isn’t big enough, the situation is too large or too daunting or too far gone
God doesn’t listen to me or doesn’t know what’s going on.
I got myself into it so it’s up to me now, or I’ve used up all my second chances.
All of these thoughts are based on our subjective failings and not God’s objective truth. Our feelings are like waves that toss us back and forth but God’s Word is rock-solid and unshakeable ground. We will trust and cast our cares on God as we believe the truths about Him shown to us in the Bible. He does care for us. He invites us to come to him with our burdens, our struggles, our sorrow, and our sins. He is powerful enough and strong enough to handle anything. He has a good plan and good purposes for us. He doesn’t want us to figure things out or handle it on our own. In fact, he wants us to give up on self-sufficiency and lean on him alone.

Dig deep enough in the Word that you have truth to push back against the whispering lies of Satan and the deceptive thoughts from self. The cycle is that we speak these truths to ourselves and silence the lies, which allows us to trust God as we cast our cares on him, which in turn convinces us through experience what we believed as truth. The cycle gets stronger and deeper then as we’re led back into the Scriptures to see him more clearly and to trust him to a greater extent. What we usually then find is that the issue wasn’t primarily about the struggle or the trial itself. The issue behind our issues was whether or not we would run our lives or if we would be children who trust in their Father.

Obviously not everything could be said that I would like to say. The explanations could be clearer and deeper. If time permitted we might look at the number of OT heroes who trusted in God as they endured through many hardships. Or, we might look at the life of Jesus and how time and time again he in all his compassion released people from the burdens they carried. We might even go to Galatians 6:2 and see how Christians play a role in carrying one another’s burdens. While not exhaustive, my hope is that this short study puts us on solid footing as we think in more detail about what it means to cast all our cares on Him and then how we might go about doing it. I wanted to close with some wise and encouraging words by Charles Spurgeon.

“Why do you continue to stagger beneath a weight your Father would not even feel? What may seem to be a crushing burden to you would not amount to the weight of a speck of dust to him.
O child of suffering, be patient. Your sovereign God has not passed over or forgotten you. He who feeds the sparrows will also provide everything you need. Don’t give up in despair—hope on! Hope forever! Use the weapons of faith against the seas of trouble and ultimately your foes will be defeated and your distress will come to an end.
There is One who cares for you. His eye is fixed upon you, His heart beats with pity for your suffering, and His omnipotent hand will not fail to provide you help. Even the darkest storm cloud will be scattered into showers of mercy and the darkest night will give way to the morning sun.
If you are a member of His family, He will bind your wounds and heal your broken heart. Never doubt His grace because of the troubles in your life, but believe He loves you just as much during the seasons of trouble as in times of happiness.”
[7]

I’d also recommend this video by Tim Timmons where he sings “Cast Your Cares.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZCabdAAy7-M&feature=share&list=RDbyWYXGD7laI&index=1

Footnotes:
Top image found at: http://www.worshiphousemedia.com/worship-tracks/15036/Cast-Your-Cares
[1] Other primary texts in mind would be Ps. 55:22; Matt. 6:25-34, 11:28-30; Gal. 6:2; Also, compare James 4:6-7, 10 with I Peter 5:5-9.
[2] “But this fear arises from our ignorance of divine providence. Now, on the other hand, as soon as we are convinced that God cares for us, our minds are easily led to patience and humility….having cast our care on God, we may calmly rest. For all those who recumb [rest] not on God’s providence must necessarily be in constant turmoil and violently assail others. We ought the more to dwell on this thought, that God cares for us.” John Calvin, The First Epistle of Peter, trans. Henry Beveridge, vol. 22 of Calvin’s Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 149.
[3] “Giving our anxiety to God makes eminent sense ‘because he cares for you.’ God is not indifferent, nor is he cruel. He has compassion on his children and will sustain them in every distress.” Thomas Schreiner, The New American Commentary: 1, 2 Peter, Jude (Nashville: Broadman & Holdman, 2003), 241.
[4] “It is rather a trusting commitment to God in the assurance that God indeed cares and that his caring does not lack the power or the will to do the very best for his own.” Peter H. Davids, The First Epistle of Peter NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 188.
[5] In the NT, encouragement to prayer is often tied to trusting in God instead of stewing in anxiety. See Philippians 4:4-7.
[6] Look at I Peter 5:6-11 and James 4:4-6, 10—which parallel one another in multiple ways—where resisting the devil is tied to humbly submitting ourselves and trusting God.
[7] Charles Spurgeon, Morning by Morning, ed. by Jim Reimann (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008) 6. http://www.spurgeon.org/morn_eve/this_morning.cgi

A Follow Up on Sanctification: What It Is and Isn’t

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The last post attempted to look at three ways being “gospel-centered” might actually affect our understanding of sanctification and how we then live that out in the life of a church, primarily through small groups and discipleship. I thought I would list a few more that could be added. If you have others that you would add leave a comment with your thought and a couple supporting verses.

Gospel-Centered Sanctification includes:
From the last post
1) It is about receiving news not advice.
I Cor. 15:1-8; Eph. 1:13-14; Acts 15:6

2) It is about repentance not resolve.
James 5:16; I John 1:8-9; Ps. 32:5

3) It is about our need not our self-sufficiency.
Rom. 8:9-11, 13; Phil. 2:12-13; Eph. 3:16; Gal. 5:16-17, 25; Col. 2:20-23

At least a few others I might add would be:
4) Sanctification is about heart transformation not behavior modification.
Mt. 15:19-20; Luke 6:43-45; Matt 23:25-28; Heb. 8:10;

5) Sanctification is becoming like Christ not becoming the best me.
2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 8:28-29; John 3:2; Col. 1:28

6) Sanctification is motivated by freedom in Christ not slavery to law.
Rom. 8:1, 15-16; Gal. 5:1, 14-16;

7) Sanctification is about a striving for progression not arriving at perfection.
Phil. 3:12-14, 20-21; I Thess. 5:23; I Pet. 5:10;

8) Sanctification happens in the church community not in isolation.
Heb. 10:24-25; I Thess. 5:11; Col. 3:16; I Cor. 12:25; Gal. 6:1-3

9) Sanctification involves deliverance to live under the rule of Christ not to be self-ruled.
Rom. 6:6-7, 22; Col. 1:13; I Cor. 6:20; Ex. 20:1-2

Putting the Gospel Back in Gospel-Centered

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[Editors note: This blog post originally appeared at The College Park Blog and is being recycled here to tie into other posts on sanctification.]

My pastor beats the gospel drum with regularity, not as an afterword to the message, but as the fulcrum. I can hear his passionate voice: “God is holy, we’re not, and that’s a problem.” Sunday to Sunday our church progresses through a sermon series, and our pastor refreshes us not with something new but with something that never gets old. The unconverted must awaken to their biggest problem in life, their sin, and so we hold up before them again and again God’s graciously given solution, Jesus Christ. We the converted presume there must be a different word we need to hear but again we‘re told: “God is holy, we’re not, and that’s a problem.” We are gospel-centered, in practice not merely in theory, because the gospel must guide every area of our lives as Christians.

Think through how quickly we move past the middle part of that message: “we’re not [holy].” When we gather together in small groups or in one-to-one relationships we often speak and act as if the problem is no longer our sinfulness, but rather our lack of discipline, effort, or commitment. When we first believed the gospel it was clear our performance couldn’t overcome the impasse that God is terribly holy and we’re tragically sinful. We used to be the problem and only God could provide the solution, but now we tend to jettison faith and think we’re capable of fixing our problems. Stuart Smalley’s classic quip soon describes how we live: “We’re good enough, we’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” When we ignore indwelling sin and see ourselves as basically good, our performance becomes central because we figure the answer must be somewhere within.

Here’s where being “gospel-centered” reorients us. We must recognize that our default mode is to turn back to good works we do to make things right instead of trusting in the truly good work Jesus accomplished that made us right. How can you tell if you’ve fallen into this thinking? Consider how often, in small groups and discipleship, we give advice instead of the gospel, turn to effort instead of repentance, and live out of self-sufficiency instead of need. We must be vigilant, therefore, lest the tide of self-reliance pulls us away from the safe shores of the gospel.

News, Not Advice
Since you’re an acute reader with a disdain for obscurity, you’re likely asking what I mean by “gospel.” Most simply, it means good news. The gospel in its full-length version unpacks many important details and implications. But, for a truncated summary, it is the news that the God-man Jesus redeemed sinful men and women back to God through his redemptive death on the cross and victorious resurrection from the tomb.[1] The good part of the news asserts anyone can receive this redemption through free grace from God.

I know, your reading pace picked up because you’ve heard this song a hundred times. But don’t miss out on this subtle truth: news isn’t advice, opinion, or motivational speech. News reports—whether on TV, your mobile device, or that ancient script called a newspaper—spread the word about what already occurred in history, not what I think should happen.

So where might our actions betray a gospel-centered perspective? Trouble arises when we resort to offering sage advice to one another, giving opinions, or dispensing the latest spiritual maxims. For the gospel (and no shabby replacements) to remain the center we must regularly remind one another of the good news of Jesus Christ. We retell this accomplished, objective, historical news and unpack the never-ending applications gushing from it.

In Transformational Discipleship, the authors draw a clear line in the sand between advice and news. “Advice often masquerades as the gospel. Messages filled with advice to help people improve their lives or turn over a new leaf are in contradiction to the nature of the gospel—news we respond to, not insight we should consider heeding.”[2] If the majority of our conversations sound like “you should try doing this or that” instead of “Jesus has already done this for you” then we’re quickly heading out to the stormy sea of advice and opinion.

I sense the nervousness in you heating up, so yes, almost every situation we come up against does lead to some next steps with legs on them. However, that happens after firmly rooting ourselves in the news of the fully sufficient work Jesus already accomplished for us.

Repentance, Not Resolve
Unlike a lot of other news, however, the gospel is dynamic; it does something to us. It grabs us and shakes us back into the reality we quickly forget: sin is a big deal and our hearts reek of it.

I avoid thinking of myself or my sin in these stark terms. Instead of confessing my sin, I pray that I would “do better.” Instead of seeing my cutting tongue as sin requiring humble repentance I might piously say, “I’ve not done a good job in my speech this week and I need to make that a higher priority.” Talk about a weak and surface-level disclosure! How much more freeing would it be if I would simply admit that my hurtful words are sins and they come out of my rotten heart? Through my language of “doing better”, “trying harder”, or “being more disciplined” I create the mirage of being a good person. All I need, I tell myself, is to dig deeper into my inner reservoirs of strength and goodness. In reality, I need more God-dependent and self-humbling repentance and less self-sufficient and God-ignoring resolution.

Repentance allows us to move beneath the surface and deal with our need for true heart change. When we don’t identify sin as sin, but merely call it a weakness we fail to adequately deal with it. The Bible paints sin as rebellion against God and choosing our own way, whereas our culture tells us we simply struggle with flaws needing improved upon. Repentance of sin to one another must replace recounting our struggles and the self-will behind resolving to try harder. Confessed sin calls upon our community of faith to both lead us back to the gospel for forgiveness while walking with us in a life of righteousness holding out the greater joy.

Need, Not Self-Sufficiency
Once we choose repentance from sin instead of improvement of our weaknesses, it becomes clear we can’t dig out of the problem we got ourselves into. And yet again, we have to intentionally avoid speaking and acting as if our maturity in Christ simply makes or breaks itself depending on my strength. I don’t just need more discipline. The problem isn’t primarily that I’m not trying with enough vigor. The performance foundation teeters because we make our growth self-centered instead of gospel-centered.

The gospel frees me by taking the yoke off my back as I live in the truth that Jesus atoned for my sin and gave me his righteousness. It also liberates by putting God in charge of my sanctification instead of me (deep exhale). When I stop relying on myself and my resources and collapse into trust in God, I see He possesses the power I needed all along. Not only does He supply the power for change, but when we shift our focus from what I should do to what Jesus has done, it changes our motivation and fuels a genuine longing for God. “What I needed is what all of us need—continual belief in the depth of God’s forgiveness and the resilience of his genuine approval in Christ. In brief, what I needed was more Jesus, not more discipline.”[3]

In our small groups and discipleship we must cease speaking as if we only need to grit our teeth, be more disciplined, and fight harder to overcome where we’re falling short. To be gospel-centered in practice and not just in name requires us to honestly tell one another that you’ll never be able to look like Jesus by your performance and energy. Jesus has already redeemed us so as we ask the Holy Spirit to take over and change our heart, to convince us of our identity in Christ, and to help us live as a new creation—one who rests in God’s power, not our own. And we do it for God’s glory, not our own.

The Center HoldsGospel-centered isn’t a label we claim to feel like we’re in the right camp. It’s something we live by to enjoy and experience Jesus in our lives. The first thing we need to hear isn’t a pile of “do’s and don’ts” or “should have’s and next time’s.” Instead, our greatest need is to go back to the well of the gospel to discover fresh life in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Being gospel-centered means we turn to the news of the gospel instead of advice and we meditate on what Jesus has already done before thinking about what I need to do.

Footnotes:
[1] Several recent books deal with the wide ranging scope of the gospel, including: Jared Wilson, Gospel Deeps (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012); Daniel Montgomery and Mike Cosper, Faithmapping (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013); Milton Vincent, A Gospel Primer for Christians (Minneapolis: Focus Publishing, 2008).
[2] Eric Geiger, Michael Kelley, and Philip Nation, Transformational Discipleship (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2012), 72.
[3] Jonathan Dodson, Gospel-Centered Discipleship (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 39.

John Murray on Active Roles in Sanctification

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One of the reasons why I appreciate reading John Murray is because how succinct he writes. He’s not like the Puritans in that he doesn’t add extra paragraphs answering every objection or to fill in multiple applications. But he’s also unlike present day authors who use three pages to explain something where one substantive paragraph would have been sufficient. He simply states precisely and in matter of fact manner one logical sentence upon another without the compulsion to defend or expand. It’s not perfect and maybe at times there’s a loss because of the things I mentioned he doesn’t do, but overall it’s great to read deep theology that doesn’t have to be long winded.

Here are some of his thoughts on God’s role and our role in sanctification. I think he provides good perspective. He doesn’t steer into a ditch of passivity nor does he overcorrect in the opposite way by making sanctification a moralistic, self-driven pursuit. In an evangelical culture filled with rampant legalism and maturity by spiritual disciplines on one hand and grace without obedience on the other, Murray’s chapter on Sanctification from Redemption Accomplished and Applied upholds God’s role and our role.

I think the last few sentences from the chapter frame a healthy understanding of sanctification. “Sanctification involves the concentration of thought, of interest, of heart, mind, will, and purpose upon the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus and the engagement of our whole being with those means which God has instituted for the attainment of that destination. Sanctification is the sanctification of persons, and persons are not machines; it is the sanctification of persons renewed after the image of God in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. The prospect it offers is to know even as we are known and to be holy as God is holy. Every one who ahs this hope in God purifies himself even as he is pure (I John 3:3)” (150).

God’s role and our role together
“It is imperative that we realize our complete dependence upon the Holy Spirit. We must not forget, of course, that our activity is enlisted to the fullest extent in the process of sanctification. But we must not rely upon our own strength of resolution or purpose. It is when we are weak that we are strong. It is by grace that we are being saved as surely as by grace we have been saved. If we are not keenly sensitive to our own helplessness, then we can make the means of sanctification the minister of self-righteousness and pride and thus defeat the end of sanctification. We must rely not upon the means of sanctification but upon the God of all grace. Self-confident moralism promotes pride, and sanctification promotes humility and contrition” (147).

There are several things worth mentioning in that quote but here’s one. After reading this I’m reminded how often I begin with spiritual disciplines as a means or grace that are avenues between God and I (or the corporate body). Over time I shift from these disciplines as an avenue to thinking they are sufficient in themselves, as if the Bible reading or prayer itself sanctifies me rather than them being God appointed means of God speaking and acting in my life. Yes, the Word itself is inspired by God but Word and Spirit must come together for me to hear what God has to say to me in His Word. I must at one and the same time increase my commitment to God’s graciously provided means of grace and also be cautious not to become prideful in my exercise of them or shortsighted in relying upon them as ends instead of means. We are, as Murray writes, completely dependent on the Holy Spirit and yet our activity is enlisted to the fullest extent.

“While we are constantly dependent upon the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit, we must also take account of the fact that sanctification is a process that draws within its scope the conscious life of the believer. The sanctified are not passive or quiescent in this process…And no text [Phil. 2:12-13] sets forth more succinctly and clearly the relation of God’s working to our working. God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works. Neither is the relation strictly one of co-operation as if God did his part and we did ours so that the conjunction or coordination of both produced the required result. God works in us and we also work. But the relations is that because God works we work. All working out of salvation on our part is the effect of God’s working in us, not the willing to the exclusion of the doing and not the doing to the exclusion of the willing, but both the willing and the doing. And this working of God is directed to the end of enabling us to will and to do that which is well pleasing to him…The more persistently active we are in working, the more persuaded we may be that all the energizing grace and power is of God” (148-49).

Whether or not you agree with his dislike of the word cooperation, I think his point is valid. Cooperation might get across to others what you mean, that both God and the person are involved. But the point he makes should be noted, that we should not suggest it’s a 50/50 work where both sides do the same thing. God works in us and we work with his help. It’s both the order, the relationship of cause and effect, and the right motivation.

I started to put a list together of verses emphasizing God’s role and our role. Hopefully this leads us back to God as the source and help in our sanctification, but also jolts us into renewed energy towards pressing on after Christ. Here are just a few of those verses.

God’s activity
“May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly.” (I Thess. 5:23)
“God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:13)
“Mow may the God of peace…equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in you that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever.” (Heb. 13:20-21)
“…the God of all grace…will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” (I Pet. 5:10)

Our activity
“so now yield your members to righteousness.” (Rom 6:19)
lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely.” (Heb. 12:1)
strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Heb. 12:4)
abstain from immorality.” (I Thess. 4:3)
“Let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit.” (2 Cor. 7:1)
make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue…” (2 Pet. 1:5)

The Corporate Dimension of Our Sanctification
John Murray doesn’t deal with this in his short chapter (so maybe that’s a weakness) but I thought I would mention it. It’s talked about more often today but we must intentionally remind ourselves that our maturity in Christ isn’t solely a “me and God” thing. The NT provides numerous verses that paint a picture of the corporate role, or the role of the church, actively involved in our sanctification. Just the “one another” verses themselves would give ample evidence of how important the community of faith is for my individual growth. Here’s a sampling of verses on this aspect of being sanctified that we won’t want to miss.

“let us stir one another up to love and good deeds.” (Heb. 10:24-25)
“encourage one another and build one another up.” (I Thess. 5:11)
“teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom.” (Col. 3:16)
“care for one another.” (I Cor. 12:25)
“Bear one another’s burdens” and “you who are spiritual should restore him [others].” (Gal. 6:1-3)

Sanctification is a Thing of the Past

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Don’t get confused by the title. I’m not one more 20something Christian ditching the importance of personal growth in the name of authenticity or liberties. I’m referring to the fact that there’s a definitive aspect of sanctification that takes place at a person’s conversion. And unfortunately, in our concern to keep Christians focused on growing, evangelical theology (or to the degree there is such a thing) has so focused on progressive sanctification that we’ve nearly lost the doctrine of definitive sanctification. Don’t get me wrong, progressive sanctification—which means our ongoing growth in Christ through this lifetime—is essential and needs to be taught. But, my contention is that progressive sanctification detached from its definitive aspect takes the firm foundation of God’s action on our behalf out of the equation.

In my opinion, one of the reasons why in our fight against sin we feel like it’s a battle too big to be won is because we don’t realize what actually happens to us and for us at salvation. We’re not only justified when we believe in Jesus (and we are justified at that moment) but we’re also set apart as holy. Definitive sanctification refers to the initial act of sanctification that occurs at the moment of salvation when we’re united to Christ and thereby made holy and freed from sin’s power.

NT Texts
The New Testament emphasizes the work of Christ for us and how he accomplishes what we need for holiness. It teaches that sin has already been conquered for us so there’s no reason to let it rule us. We can obey the command to be holy because we have been made holy. We can put to death the deeds of the body because we participated with Christ in his death. We can progress in sanctification because of the definitive sanctification that took place.

In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul reminds the church that they’re no longer characterized by past sins because of what happened at conversion. Well what is it that happened? “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (I Cor. 6:11; see also Heb. 10:10). Paul states that we were sanctified, pointing to the fact that at the moment of salvation God sets us apart as his own possession and purifies us from our uncleanness.

The main subject of Romans 6 is our death to sin in Christ and why this means we don’t have to continue to walk in sin. We’re no longer slaves to sin because sin’s hold on us was broken when we died and rose with Christ. Whereas in Adam we were plunged into corruption and sin, in Jesus (the second and final Adam) we spring forth with new hearts and an imputed righteousness. Paul foresees the question arising of whether our status of righteousness means we can go on sinning and Romans 6 answers this question by saying how can we continue in sin if we have died to it. What he means is that the power of sin has been broken and we live as new creatures. When a slave is set free from a horrible master he would not continue to live under his rule. For us to continue to walk in sin is to choose to serve an awful, murderous master who we have been freed from. For this reason Paul asks, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?”

Romans 6 highlights our union with Christ, which entails us participating in his death and resurrection. We are participants not in the sense that we helped complete the task but that we receive the full benefits because in a very real sense when Christ died we are reckoned as having died in him and when he rose we also rose with him.
John Murray summarizes the meaning and effect of this wonderful truth. “This means, therefore, that not only did Christ die, not only was he buried, not only did he rise from the dead, but also all who sustain the relation to him that baptism signifies [union with Christ] likewise died, were buried, and rose again to a new life patterned after his resurrection life. No fact is of more basic importance in connection with the death to sin and commitment to holiness than that of identification with Christ in his death and resurrection.”

We’ve only looked at a few instances but they point to the reality that sanctification conveys in Christ we are freed from sin’s power, cleansed from its defilements, set apart as God’s treasured possession, and made holy. There is no sin too great to be overcome and Christ has won the victory for us over sin. The hope resides in our real identity in Christ which we simply strive to live out by the power of the Holy Spirit. Sanctification is not about becoming something new or doing something new but living in light of what Christ has done for you. When sin seems like too great a foe or you’re struggling to walk in holiness remember your true identity in Christ. He has already equipped you by setting you free from the pollution and power of sin.

To read more, here are a few resources:
John Murray on Definitive Sanctification
J.I. Packer video on why union with Christ is essential to sanctification
Possessed by God by David Peterson