Sanctification as Re-Directed Worship (Romans 8)

“What people revere, they resemble,” writes G.K. Beale, “either to their ruin or restoration.”  Worship, we’ve often emphasized, is both the expression and formation of our love.  Worship shapes us in often unseen ways.   I often point out the way that people can pick up accents through no other method than time and exposure.

This has a profound influence over the way we conceptualize sin.  Yes, sin is an inward disposition, but what can be said about its nature?  In the fourth century A.D., a writer named Augustine described what he called the ordo amoris, or “logic of the heart.”  In today’s terms, we might conceptualize the human heart as something of a pyramid.  Love for God belongs at the apex of the human heart.  But in our natural state, we tend to replace God with some other idol.  An inordinate devotion to money will render you a prisoner of greed.  An inordinate devotion to sexuality will render you a prisoner of lust.  And an inordinate devotion to self-interest will render you a prisoner of Sin.

The gospel promises freedom from all of this.  In our previous post, we talked about how sanctification—the means by which God changes us into His likeness—can be described in three ways: positionally (a changed status before God), progressively (a gradual change in our moral character), and perfectly (a total renewal that comes only in the resurrection of our bodies).  All—repeat all—forms of sanctification are the work of a God who reaches into our world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Because of this, we are renewed.  Made whole.

It’s for this reason that Paul can tell his readers in both Ephesus and Colosse to:

put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:22-24)

We can’t escape the fact that this is a direct command.  So if sanctification is a work of God, then what role could we possibly have?  The answer is somewhat mysterious, but we know from the verses above that while we can never earn God’s favor, we can nonetheless exert effort in response.

Here’s what I’m saying: if Sin is a form of mis-directed worship, than our movement away from sin—away from self, away from idols—is a form of re-directed worship.  At first glance this smacks of effort—but the gospel provides both the motivation and the means:


Because we have been forgiven through the blood of Jesus, we are no longer God’s enemies but the children of God:

So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:12-17)

Too often Christianity becomes a form of what we might call “fire insurance”—good for avoiding Hell and judgment, but little else.  If God is only my judge, then forgiveness might make me grateful, but will never warm my heart towards him.  A judge—a teacher, professor, employer—who overlooks my poor performance only makes me want to flee his presence, lest he or she change their minds and I get “zapped” like I deserve.

But if God is my father, that changes everything, because now I want to spend time with Him and live more like Him.


In his excellent book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation,  James K. A. Smith makes a distinction between what he calls “thick” and “thin” practices.  Thin practices have little bearing on our character, but are instead “instrumental to some other end. They also aren’t the sort of things that tend to touch on our identity” (p. 82).  Brushing one’s teeth, for example, has little to do with personal desire or character development.  Thick practices, however, reveal and shape our deeper vales.   “These are habits that play a significant role in shaping our identity, who we are. Engaging in these habit-forming practices not only says something about us, but also keeps shaping us into that kind of person” (p. 82). Cell phones, for example, could potentially reveal practices (texting, Facebook apps, etc.) that teach us to value convenience over true relationship, and in so doing orient us away from others and toward self.

What we need, then, are practices that shape our character away from self and toward God and neighbor.  In Christian circles, we might highlight several of these practices:

  • Staying devoted to God’s Word—that is, the Bible.
  • Devoting oneself to corporate worship. Why go to Church?  We attend a weekly service not as a ritual, but an expression and celebration of the Church body of which we are a part.
  • Realized community—showing love and compassion to others through face-to-face interactions rather than relegating others to texting and social media.
  • Sharing our faith with outsiders, which reminds us of the need to reach our world with the love of Jesus, and to sharpen our understanding of the gospel as we seek to relate God’s truth to a world full of darkness.

Finally, we must—in all things—remember the role of the Holy Spirit.  Much of this is the result of a supernatural intervention from God.  In that sense, most of our practices are about not getting in the way (!).

We conclude, then, with a quote from a John Bunyan poem:

“Run, John, run

The law commands

But gives me neither feet nor hands

Tis better news the Gospel brings

It bids me fly

It gives me wings”*


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