In part 1 we explored the subject of sanctification in its various aspects including the failures of legalism and license. We also asked the questions, Why do we have to continually fight against sin? How is the power of sin removed from us? Do we ever get to a place where we have victory over sin? How is this a matter of pleasing God? Are we to just buckle down and work as hard as we can whether we like it or not, or are we to just let go and let God do it all? Neither of these options will answer the questions we have. Sanctification is hard work but it is joyful work. God will surely help us, complete His work in us, and will also be a partner with us in our walk.
In part 2 I want to “reset” our perspective on sanctification. Solomon said there is nothing new under the sun and that is true in this field as in any other. I don’t claim to have come up with some new formula whereby we all can walk with absolute victory in our Christian life. I have spent the last year reading authors (many of them again) from almost every point of view on sanctification. I must admit that I have enjoyed almost all of them and have been encouraged from both sides of the theological (albeit evangelical) spectrum. But I also realize when the slope begins to get a little slippery and I understand how the Christian who is struggling with sin can become discouraged at trying to find a biblical and sensible solution to his problem.
My aim therefore will be to try to find that biblical (and practical) center for which I think all Christian authors are striving. For myself, I have always enjoyed the Christian walk. I was saved at eleven years old and started living seriously for the Lord in my High School years. I went off to Bible College at eighteen and seminary after that. I was a youth pastor, an associate pastor, a Bible College teacher, and then have been a pastor since 1985. I have loved every church I have been in, large or small, and in all of this my life has remained pretty conservative and separated by almost anyone’s measure and, frankly, I love it. I love my personal time early in the mornings and evenings. I love my small local church where great people sing out hymns with untrained but joyful voices and talk forever after the services. Even as a pastor I still teach a class of singles and love it. But I also love the older saints and learn from them how to approach daunting struggles in life. I just love Christianity. I don’t think of it as a drudgery because there are commands to keep. Neither am I afraid that the liberty I have in Christ will drop me off a deep end somewhere. I want to live a God-honoring older life and I’m also looking forward to seeing heaven.
Romans 6 – walking in Spirit
All of us who believe in salvation by grace alone, and therefore in eternal security also, sympathize with all of those who try to explain justification and sanctification in Romans 5 and 6. Most authors reiterate our standing in Christ as Paul describes it here. In salvation we died with Christ in His death and have been raised with Him in His resurrection. Our old man, the life that we had before, is now gone. We are no longer under the ownership or dominion of that life or the master of that realm, the devil himself. Paul says, “Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin” (Rom. 6:6). John Murray described it this way,
“If we view sin as a realm or sphere, then the believer no longer lives in that realm or sphere. And just as it is true with reference to life in the sphere of this world that the person who has died ‘passed away, and lo, he was not: yea, I sought him, but he could not be found’ (Psa. 37:36), so it is with the sphere of sin; the believer is no longer there because he has died to sin . . . The believer died to sin once and he has been translated to another realm.”1
The idea of being transferred by salvation to a new realm of existence is a common and good analogy. Some may simply call it “positional truth,” or the doctrine of our “union with Christ.” DeYoung uses the analogy of an athlete leaving one team and being drafted by another team because of no real talent of his own, and now he wears a new jersey.2 Jerry Bridges says, “But now through our union with Christ in His death to sin, we have been delivered out of the realm of sin and placed in the kingdom and realm of righteousness.”3 So we should “know” that our justification is the basis for everything else, especially for our sanctification.
Romans 6 – walking in the body
But we still sin! Why? Paul makes it very plain: though we are saved and secure, we have a “mortal body” (vs. 12), a “body of sin” (vs. 6). This part of us will remain unredeemed until resurrection. The good news is that, “our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed (lit. ‘rendered inoperative’), that henceforth we should not serve sin” (vs. 6). This means that “death has no more dominion over [us]” (vs. 9). We have a new Master and we don’t have to listen to the old one. Our old master still wants to “reign” (vs.12) over us but he has no authority.
In the slave world of the Roman Empire one might see this often. A slave is sold to a new master but the old master walks by and says, “shine my boots.” The slave, who doesn’t belong to him anymore, begins to kneel down and shine his boots. But the new master says, “stop, you don’t belong to him any longer and you don’t have to obey his commands.” In a similar way Paul says to the new believer, “Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness” (vs. 13). Our “members” are the parts of our body that are still susceptible to sin. When Paul also says, “Likewise reckon yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin,” (vs. 11) I think the best way to translate “reckon” into our vernacular is to say, “Hey, wait a minute, I don’t have to do that anymore.”
Handley Moule portrayed it best in his old way, “Cancelled does not mean annihilated. The body still exists, and sin exists, and desires exist. It is for you, O man in Christ, to say to the enemy, defeated yet present, ‘thou shalt not reign; I veto thee in the name of my King.’”4 So Romans 6 has taught us that though we are secure in Christ, we still live in real flesh and we are susceptible to its demands. Yet our union with Christ has set us free from its ownership and dominion. It is in this sense that “He that is dead is freed from sin” (vs. 7).
Those Biblical commands
There is a tendency today to divide the “indicatives” in Scripture from the “imperatives.” What is meant is that our justification, our position in Christ, is usually described in Scripture with the present tense indicative—it is something that is a fact and is true every minute of every day. Commands, however, are usually in the imperative mode—they are something that we are commanded to do. It has become fashionable to encourage sinning believers to stop trying so hard to keep commandments. After all, doesn’t that take human effort to try to please God, and isn’t pleasing God with human effort legalism at best? Wouldn’t it be better to focus on what Christ has already done? Doing that will cause us to do right without all that ugly, judgmental, legalistic human effort.
Of course, today’s culture loves such talk. But it is built on a half truth at best. Yes, there is no ability to keep imperatives without a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Yes, Christians can focus too much on who we are (a “look at me” mentality) and not enough on Who Christ is. But, no, you can’t please God without obeying His commands. Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15); “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me” (John 14:21); “That as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more . . . For ye know what commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus” (1 Thes. 4:1-3).
In refuting this very error, DeYoung points out the irony of insisting on the indicatives to the exclusion of the imperatives itself becomes an imperative! “Stop doing the one and start doing the other!”5 Commandments in Scripture are not just the Mosaic law. Anything God has said is truth and anything He says for us to do is a commandment, even the gospel, faith, and loving one another. John says in his epistle, “He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked” (1 John 2:6). The life of Christ itself is a commandment to us.
My encouragement would be to stop thinking of commandments as something to dread and begin loving God’s commandments. What is the longest chapter in the Bible, Psalm 119, all about? In one statement—I love God’s law! “Oh how I love thy law! It is my meditation all the day” (119:97). When we consider that the believer today has the New Testament, what about its precepts is there not to love? Even the negative commands that are difficult and cost us dearly to keep are only the loving discipline from our Lord.
Exercise is no fun—at first. Diet is certainly no fun—at first. After a while however they become easier and even enjoyable. We are to exercise ourselves unto godliness because it brings the blessing of this life and the life to come (1 Tim. 4:7). It is the “peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby” (Heb. 12:11).
There’s nothing wrong with work
I doubt that any Christin would deny that God created us to work. The garden of Eden is the prototype of God-ordained work. Idleness was never God’s intention for human beings. We are made in His image and He is our example. Psalm 111 is a Psalm extolling the work of God, “The works of the LORD are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein . . . His work is honorable and glorious . . . He hath made his wonderful works to be remembered” (Psa. 111:2-4). Winston Churchill was one human being who loved his work. He wrote, “It is no use doing what you like; you have got to like what you do. Broadly speaking, human beings may be divided into three classes; those who are toiled to death, those who are worried to death; and those who are bored to death.”6
I think too many Christians are bored to death with working and keeping God’s commandments. Why should we be? If we are created to work, and the commandments of God are the greatest type of work, shouldn’t we be the happiest people in the world when we are doing what He has commanded us to do? Philip Doddridge, in his great work, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, wrote, “I am persuaded much of the credit and comfort of Christianity is lost in consequence of its professors fixing their aims too low, and not conceiving of their high and holy calling in so elevated and sublime a view as the religion would require, and the word of God would direct.”7 To keep the commandments of God requires that we set our aims high and love the greatest work a person could be doing.
Work requires tools, and God has “given us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3). Have you noticed that people skilled in a certain occupation always have the best tools for the job? A sharp blade, a socket that fits, a device that is powerful, a machine that is precise, these all make work fast, well done, and enjoyable. We who are doing the work of God also have the best possible tools for the job. We have Jesus Christ as the great Example of divine work; we have the Holy Spirit Who works from within us; we have the Word of God with its sharp two-edged precision; we have the local church with encouragement and instruction; and we have a whole tool box of other sources of help as well.
There is another tool that the Psalmist often used and which many older writers encouraged. Richard Baxter called it Soliloquy, He wrote,
“By soliloquy, or a pleading the case with thyself, thou must in thy meditation quicken thy own heart. Enter into a serious debate with it. Plead with it in the most moving and effecting language, and urge it with the most powerful and weighty arguments. It is what holy men of God have practiced in all ages. Thus David, ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul; and why art thou disquieted within me? . . . It is a preaching to one’s self; for as every good master or father of a family is a good preacher to his own family, so every good Christian is a good preacher to his own soul.”8
As children we used to sing, “Be careful little eyes what you see, be careful little mouth what you say, (etc., etc.), for the Father up above is looking down in love.” We were learning a soliloquy. We were encouraging ourselves in the commands of God. This is what Paul was doing in Romans 7, “Oh wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.” Then Paul concluded, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 7:24-25; 8:1).
With good work to do and with good tools to use, there is no reason why we shouldn’t enjoy keeping God’s commandments. We know that we should not be self-centered in our work but there is no reason for us to be either. Knowing that all our effort is made possible because of our Lord Jesus Christ, let’s be vessels unto honor and sanctified, ready for the Master’s use.
Let’s realize who we are and enjoy it
“We then, as workers together with him, beseech you also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain” (2 Cor. 6:1). Doing the work of God, i.e., keeping His commandments, means that we are employees of the greatest business in the world. Whether that would be preaching the gospel or abstaining from all appearance of evil, loving the brethren or visiting the widows in affliction, we are workers together with God! Why do some look at keeping God’s commandments as drudgery? We are the most privileged people in the world to be doing the King’s business. Listen to some great saints who understood the wonderful privilege of working for God:
C.H. Spurgeon: “Does this not make a man outstanding? Have you never stood in awe of your own self? Have you thought enough about how this poor body is sanctified, dedicated, and elevated into a sacred condition by being set apart as a temple of the Holy Spirit?”9
Eric Sauer: “Enriched in Christ, the practical realization of these riches is now our duty. This is at once our task and privilege. The redeemed must live as redeemed. Bearers of salvation must walk as saved. They who possess heaven must be heavenly-minded.”10
Jonathan Edwards: “Christian holiness is above all the heathen virtue, of a more bright and pure nature, more serene, calm, peaceful, and delightsome. What a sweet calmness, what a calm ecstasy, does it bring to the soul! Of what a meek and humble nature is true holiness; how peaceful and quiet. How it changes the soul, and makes it more pure, more bright, and more excellent than other beings.”11
Matthew Henry: “That a holy, heavenly life, spent in the service of God and communion with him, is the most pleasant and comfortable life any one can live in this world.”12
And So . . .
Seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let’s lay aside the weight and look unto Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith.
A Charge to Keep I Have
A charge to keep I have—
A God to glorify,
Who gave His Son my soul to save
And fit it for the sky.
To serve the present age,
My calling to fulfill—
O may it all my powers engage
To do my Master’s will!
Arm me with jealous care,
As in Thy sight to live;
And O Thy servant, Lord, prepare
A strict account to give!
Help me to watch and pray,
And on Thyself rely;
And let me ne’er my trust betray,
But press to realms on high.
- John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968) 213.
- Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in Our Holiness (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2012) 104.
- Jerry Bridges, The Pursuit of Holiness (CO, Springs: Nav Press, 1996) 54.
- Handley Moule, The Epistle to the Romans (Minneapolis: Klock & Klock, 1982) 168.
- DeYoung, 55.
- Winston Churchill, Painting as a Pastime (Delray: Levenger Press, 2002) 3.
- Philip Doddridge, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul (U. of MI library reprint) 201.
- Richard Baxter, The Saints Everlasting Rest (Boston: American Tract Society, nd) 351.
- Charles Spurgeon, Holy Spirit Power (New Kinsington, PA: Whitaker House, 1996) 121.
- Eric Sauer, From Eternity to Eternity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954) 62.
- Randall Pederson, Day by Day with Jonathan Edwards (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005) 76.
- Allan Harman, A Biography of Matthew Henry (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2012) 131.