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A Skilled Engineer: The Mystery of Sanctification

The intricacy of LEGO products has changed immensely since I was a child. I remember the basics of rectangle and square blocks, thin flat pieces that work as a ceiling or something, and the occasional exciting hinge piece to mount a door. As I unpack my new LEGO kit, I’m astounded by the sorts of pieces they make today. Clearly, skilled engineers were involved, planning out how very small details mount up to the big picture that far surpasses what I can see at the outset of my process of assembling the pieces. Because I can’t see how it all fits together, I follow the instructions, trusting those who know better.Sanctification is a gift from God. Click To Tweet

Preachers may have the first opportunity for sanctification as we think about that connection between doctrine and its fruit of holiness. Throughout the centuries, not only have theologians been baffled by how the proclamation of free grace could produce good works in God’s people, many have decided that we need to teach that good works are necessary to secure our everlasting state, otherwise, God’s people wouldn’t be holy. If sanctification is submission to God’s Word, then preachers get the first stab at submitting to it. Preachers not only need to submit to Scripture in the passage that they are expounding but also to its principle that God has engineered the link between the announcement of free salvation by the gospel and its fruit of growth in the Christian life.  Teachers must first grow in trusting the Lord that he knows how the pieces fit together as a whole even when we do not.

The link between gospel proclamation and increasing sanctification highlights perhaps one of our most important points: our sanctification is a gift from God. Yes, we are meant to open up the LEGO kit of godliness to use it by getting on with our task of assembling the pieces. Nonetheless, we cannot forget that the whole kit is a present given to us by our gracious Father in heaven.

Reformed theology has historically referred to “the benefits of Christ.” The point here is to underscore that the benefits are plural. In Christ, we are reconciled to God, justified, adopted, have all the other benefits that do accompany or flow from these blessings, and have the guarantee of glorification. Among these gifts given to us is our sanctification. Too many like to say that justification is 100% God’s work, but sanctification is 50% God and 50% us. The impression is that God has given the free gift of a legal status, now we need to get cracking on our part. Although the Christian life certainly requires discipline and effort, we diminish sanctification’s importance, value, and meaningfulness if we forget that it too is God’s work of free grace, writing within us the newness of life that springs forth in our actions of setting aside sin and walking in righteousness.Sanctification, as much as justification, is a precious gift for our cherishing. Click To Tweet

We need a good reminder of the sweet news that holiness in our lives also flows from God as his gift to us. As Paul wrote to those who fell prey to the error of the Judaizers: “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3) Sanctification, as much as justification, is a precious gift for our cherishing.

This mindset of sanctification as gift helps us discard antinomianism and legalism. Too many think that the response to antinomianism is to impose the idea of final justification or final salvation on the basis of a consideration of our works. Another version of this mistake is to motivate Christians to holiness with rewards in heaven in exchange for their obedience. God will reward his people in his everlasting kingdom, crowning us with his own gifts of grace. But the thoroughgoing antinomian would just dismiss the idea, saying, “getting to heaven will be enough, so I don’t need rewards.” The carrot doesn’t really entice those who don’t understand the value of carrots.

We need a more holistic understanding that sanctification’s potential outcomes are not its main allure. The sweet and rich blessing of being more like the glorious Savior who loved us and gave himself for us ought to remind us that God’s gifts are so good that he frees us from the misery that is the penalty of our sin but also frees us from the misery that binds us when we live under the power of sin. Sin makes us miserable overall. God’s wonderful saving gifts begin to lift even sin’s sway over our hearts and minds in this life, prompting us to call out all the more for complete freedom from it when Christ returns. God has built the gospel so that the piece of sanctification fits in its well-engineered spot, holding together so much of the big picture of the Christian life as a blessing from God.

The Pieces Fit Together: Sanctification for the Church

Our focus has been on the gospel gift of sanctification, thinking about our need to see it as a gift so that we don’t leave it in the package without ever using it. A wild mound of LEGO parts is hardly a well-used present, since we need to assemble those pieces. We need to use the catechetical practice of Christian teaching aimed at furthering the Christian life, just as God engineered his truth to work. Thus, the point so far has been about the doctrine of sanctification for the local church respecting how Christ gives the gift of sanctification to believers through the means of grace in the local church.

To switch directions slightly, we must remember that even as the process of building a LEGO kit is part of the fun, the aim is to have a wholly constructed Millennium Falcon at the end. What is whole construction when we think about fitting our pieces together in this essay? Well, a sanctified church. The church is not just a channel through which individuals grow in sanctification. The pieces are meant to hold together in a sanctified whole, namely a godly church fit together as one structure composed of many pieces. How does the doctrine of sanctification help us think about our place in the local church?We must realize that sanctification is not a gift for us to enjoy alone. We are supposed to use it with our church family. Click To Tweet

A few years ago, the interruptions of COVID restrictions upon services and the ups and downs regularity that resulted landed me in the situation where I was preaching Galatians in the morning and 1 Corinthians in the evening. Although nothing is necessarily wrong with this combination, I usually aim for a more differentiated preaching balance than two Pauline epistles at once. Such is God’s providence at times, though.

The point is, however, that it struck me as I was thick in the midst of multiple of Paul’s letters that nearly every New Testament epistle addresses divisions in the church. Think about Galatians where Jew and Gentile Christians were no longer eating at the same table because some had believed a distortion of the gospel. We might just run through a sampling of other examples:

  • I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. (Rom. 16:17)
  • I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. (1 Cor. 1:10–11)
  • But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. (1 Cor. 11:17–18)
  • It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. (Jd.19)

The Ephesians had forgotten that the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile believers had been broken down (Eph. 2:14), the Philippians had possibly grown cool in concern for Paul because of evildoers teaching distorted doctrine (Phil. 4:10; 3:2), and James’ church was partial to the rich over the poor (Jas. 2:1–13). The New Testament is ripe with evidence that the local church has always needed the doctrine of sanctification concerning our life together.The local church is a matrix, a womb, for sanctification because it’s a place where we really get to put it into practice. Click To Tweet

We must realize that sanctification is not a gift for us to enjoy alone. We are supposed to use it with our church family. Christians delight in the idea of a loving church who bears with one another in disagreement…until they have to put it into practice. Christians cherish the thought of growing in personal piety and godliness…until it relates to someone who or some idea that truly bothers me in my local church. Then we realize that we loved an individualistic notion of sanctification where godliness somehow meant private characteristics and dispositions that have little to do with how I fit into and conduct myself in my local church.

The local church is a matrix, a womb, for sanctification because it’s a place where we really get to put it into practice. We take membership vows to submit to our leaders in the Lord and to be committed to one another in the Christian life. We do not get to abandon those over matters of preference, even strong preference. It is a situation where, as Huey Lewis would put it, “I’m happy to be stuck with you.” So, we need to act like it. We need to work like the body of Christ, not pretending that everything we want is directly linked up to God’s own will, realizing that the local church is the place where God distributes his gift of sanctification. As we rub against one another in sanctification, it polishes us so that we will eventually sparkle as gems of God’s work of grace in freeing us from sin’s hold on our hearts and hands.

Read Part One of this Essay Here!

Harrison Perkins

Harrison Perkins (PhD, Queen’s University Belfast) is pastor at Oakland Hills Community Church (OPC), online faculty in church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, visiting lecturer in systematic theology at Edinburgh Theological Seminary, and the author of Catholicity and the Covenant of Works: James Ussher and the Reformed Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2020).

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