Ours is a strange world, hovering in some strange tension between self-improvement and authenticity. We want to “do better,” but in equal measure we want to be accepted “just the way we are.” In the church world, such a tension is felt between religious conservatives and progressives. The former long for moral improvements and seismic cultural shifts. The latter long for a place that welcomes broken people to let down their mask and be just “be real.” After all, we often insist, the church isn’t a museum for saints, it’s a hospital for sinners.
Now in every real sense this statement is absolutely true. But when we use this analogy, we neglect something vital: that you go to a hospital for a specific purpose—to get better. So while the church must indeed welcome the broken and hurting, we must equally have the courage to bandage their wounds and push them toward change.
Most of us bristle at the notion. It sounds painfully difficult. It also sounds terrifying to admit that you need to change an area of your life—who wants to admit to being weak? And so this week’s “myth” is that “personal holiness will come when I’m older.”
But when we look at the pages of scripture, we find a people who didn’t think time was such a luxury. Peter—one of Jesus’ closest followers—would later write a letter to encourage the early Christians while they faced cultural opposition and persecution. He opens his letter by reminding them of the hope in Jesus Christ—whose second coming would set things right in the world. But then Peter turns his focus on the present implications:
13 Therefore, 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. 14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” 17 And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, 18 knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. 20 He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you 21 who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.
22 Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, 23 since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; 24 for
“All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, 25 but the word of the Lord remains forever.”
And this word is the good news that was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:13-25)
Peter’s deep concern is for the character of the members of Christ’s church. We’re speaking, of course, of a Christian doctrine known as “sanctification.” The word comes from the word sanctus, meaning “holy.” To become “sanctified” means to become conformed to God’s righteous character. In Christian theology, we (generally) say that there are three broad types of sanctification:
- Postional/definitive sanctification: When we choose to follow Christ, we are declared righteous by a holy and just Judge. This means that in God’s eyes, we are already perfect. We enjoy the same reputation and relationship as Jesus—God’s Son—and indeed we too are considered to be “adopted” as Sons of God.
- Progressive sanctification: But in reality we are keenly aware that our lives are far from perfect. We need to gradually allow our character to become more like God’s as we learn to lovingly obey Him.
- Perfect sanctification: Finally, Christians have confidence that one day we shall be entirely made holy when we are resurrected as perfect, sinless beings to occupy God’s new earth.
This week we’ll talk briefly about the nature of positional or definitive sanctification—Monday we’ll look more closely at progressive sanctification. What we need to recognize, however, is that the gospel is the motivation for all forms of sanctification.
What do I mean by that? Too often we acknowledge that our sin is forgiven by God’s grace—but we only get better by performance. But positional sanctification in particular demands that we firmly grasp the radical nature of the gospel. Positional sanctification means that we have a new position as the adopted sons of God. But this sanctification is also definitive, meaning it happens once-for-all-time at one’s moment of conversion. Bruce Demarest of Denver Seminary observes that we should be rightly shocked at the sheer number of Bible verses that portray sanctification as one-time definitive event. And, I’d add, this shock is partly due to our tendency to view life through the lens of performance. But Peter’s writing is actually helpful in pointing out two things:
CHARACTER OF GOD
First, you’ll notice that God is described as a Father (v. 17) who gives His precious Son for our sake (v. 19). This again reflects our new position as members of God’s family—but it also reflects the fact that our sanctification is first and foremost a product of God’s love and not our obedience. Yes, we are called to obey God (a topic we’ll return to on Monday with progressive sanctification), but we must get the order right. What order? It’s tempting to think: “If I ‘get it right,’ God will bless me.” Or, conversely, we feel disqualified and far from God when we inevitably fail. The result is a roller coaster of failed attempts at spiritual change. But God has already blessed me—immeasurably so—through the gift of His Son. What more could I ask for? Therefore my obedience stems from my new position in God’s family. I am blessed, therefore I obey out of what Martin Luther once called a “grateful remembrance.”
BASIS FOR CHANGE
Secondly, let’s notice that Peter emphasizes the fact that we set our minds not on works, not on sermon content, not on self-help projects, not on worship albums, but on the grace that came through Jesus and—more specifically—the grace that will come with Jesus’ return.
This is what fundamentally separates Christianity from every other major religion and self-help program. Our faith is not primarily about what we’ve done: it’s about what God has done for us in the sending of His Son. The same God who sent His Son, who raised His Son from the dead will also equip and encourage each of His followers.
This is massively different from the various self-help schemes that abound in the world—and sadly that abound even within Christendom. So if personal holiness is something you’ve been “putting off,” this may indicate that you’ve been thinking of the gospel all wrong. If you aren’t experiencing joy in your Christian journey, it may well be that you’re using your moral character as the basis for God’s approval rather than a response to God’s approval. If we change our thinking on this issue, then Christian growth becomes less about trying to “do better” but rather an expression (yes, even a behavioral expression) of hearts shaped by love for Jesus. Positional sanctification teaches that personal holiness doesn’t come “later”—it’s something you have now. The only question is, will you allow this truth to overflow your heart with joy? And will that joy be reflected in your forward progress?