When Christ drew me to himself by faith, I was justified as my sins were forgiven and I was declared righteous before God - justification is salvation from the penalty of sin. I am now being sanctified, as the Holy Spirit works in me to slowly conform me closer and closer to Christ's image - sanctification is salvation from the power of sin. Someday, when I am loosed from this imperfect, earthly body, I will be glorified, at last without even the temptation of sin - glorification is salvation from the presence of sin.
Being a child who was catechized, I've known for a long time the terms and respective definitions of the three aspects of salvation, but it has been only recently that I've really begun to understood sanctification. It is so easy to see sanctification as our pleasing God by cleaning up our lives by ourselves, rather than the Holy Spirit working through us to conform us to Christ's image. Truly everything good in me is of God, not myself, and sanctification too is only through God's grace and His enabling.
My intent is not to paint a fatalistic view of sanctification in which God robotically manipulates His people. Sanctification is by the Holy Spirit's working and His enabling, but man is still active! I am not at all an advocate of hyper-Calvinism or the Let Go, and Let God theology! Given my past struggles with understanding sanctification, this post is intended to focus more on God's role, but it is not intended as a complete discourse on the subject.
It amazes me how God takes filthy people like myself, who have profaned His name and worshipped idols - either literal or figurative - and transforms them by His power and for His glory. Just study a few of our Biblical heroes to see the great work of grace that God does in the lives of fallen sinners. Adam's sin cursed all of mankind, yet God granted him a righteous seed and ultimately The Righteous Seed. David was a murderer and adulterer, yet he was beloved of God - a man after God's own heart. Peter was The Rock on which Christ built His church, yet he personally denied Christ three times! Paul wrote the majority of the New Testament, yet he assisted in the murder of Stephen and scores of other early Christians. If any Biblical character understood the grace of God, it was Paul:
I Timothy, Chapter 1:
15Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.
I used to not be able to understand this passage. How could Paul call himself the worst of sinners? Notice he calls himself that in the present tense, not the past tense. When he wrote I Timothy he was an apostle, a leader in the early church, divinely inspired by God to write the bulk of the New Testament. If anyone had it "together," he sure did! Okay, so he was still a sinner and his past was awful, but he was very Christ-like at the time of writing, and even with his past, there were zillions of people that had been far worse than him, right?
I understand what Paul meant now, though. Paul truly understood the gospel of grace. He saw his sin in all its shame - and he saw his sin more than he saw the sins of others - and he also saw Christ's blood covering over his sin. As Paul grew in his faith, his awareness of his sins, past and present, grew larger, and he continually became more and more aware of how filthy he was. The good news, though, is that his awareness of the cross also grew, covering over his sins! That is the message of the gospel, in a nutshell. God first shows us how very filthy we are, and then He picks up out of the mud and mire and personally cleanses us for His glory. He doesn't leave us to sanctify ourselves, but enables us and works through us.
Paul was once a Pharisee - likely a member of the very Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus to death. He aided in the stoning of Stephen and the persecution and deaths of scores of God's people. He did it under the guise of service to God, and he believed he was obeying God with his actions. He was very wrong, as the Lord abruptly revealed to him on the road to Damascus. God picked up this filthy Jew who was His enemy; He picked up the proud Pharisee who was breathing out murderous threats against His people. God jolted him out of darkness, showed him his sin, and proceeded to wipe away his guilt and his wicked ways.
God took a man who thought he had everything right before His Maker, showed him he did not, and then set about sanctifying him with His Spirit. If there was anyone aware of his own unworth of the mercies of Christ, it was Paul. He saw what he once was and saw what Christ was transforming him to be. He knew that this transformation was not by his merits, but by the merits of Christ. The old Paul was dead; Christ was alive in his place. Paul recognized that everything good in him was Christ, not his old self. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.
I used to really not understand Paul's statement here in I Timothy, and it wasn't until God taught me about grace in my own life that I finally understood how Paul could make such a statement without false humility. Some of you may remember my musings on grace back in January and February (see pertinent posts here, here, and here to refresh your memory). I understood Paul's statement in I Timothy when I at last saw my utmost filth and Pharaseeism before God, when I finally understood that my sanctification (not just my justification and glorification) is also by God's power. Am I a passive bystander? Absolutely not! But neither is sanctifiation a matter of me pulling myself up by my own bootstraps. The strength and ability needed for sanctification is given me by God, as the Holy Spirit works in me.
Did you catch the last part of verse 16? Paul was shown mercy that Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. Paul was saved not by his merits or for his own exaltation, but that Christ might display unlimited patience, that Christ (not Paul) might be an example to those who believe. One of my favorite old testament passages about salvation is Ezekiel, Chapter 36 (emphases mine):
22 "Therefore say to the house of Israel, 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. 23 I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Sovereign LORD, when I show myself holy through you before their eyes.
24 " 'For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God. 29 I will save you from all your uncleanness. I will call for the grain and make it plentiful and will not bring famine upon you. 30 I will increase the fruit of the trees and the crops of the field, so that you will no longer suffer disgrace among the nations because of famine. 31 Then you will remember your evil ways and wicked deeds, and you will loathe yourselves for your sins and detestable practices. 32 I want you to know that I am not doing this for your sake, declares the Sovereign LORD. Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct, O house of Israel!
Look at the glorious promises in this passage! We will be given a new heart and a new spirit; we will be cleansed from our impurities. We will be moved to follow God's laws - note the action is catalysted by God! Note also that this is not for our sake, but for the sake of His holy name. Our salvation is that His name may be famous, that His glory be displayed through the earth. The message of the gospel is that we are filthy and God is holy, but that God in His purpose and mercy has saved a people for Himself. We are to be ashamed and disgraced for our conduct, but then rest in the assurance that God is merciful even as He is holy. Salvation is not about man being good enough to please God or good enough to impress others; Salvation is about God's mercy and love to fallen sinners and about His name being made famous as He refines a people for Him.
Ultimately everything in all time has worked towards His overarching purpose of glorifying Himself. That is why He created the world, why He sustains it, why He saves His chosen people, and why He sanctifies His children. He saved us out of love, but not in order to exalt us in this life. That sounds very un-American, does it not? You mean it's not about me? That's right. It's all about God. Any good I have in me is solely from Christ, not myself. I was once dead to sin, not maimed by sin. Even my faith is a gift of God.
Anything good in my life or in the lives of other Christians is not of ourselves. It is by God and for God. That is why when we look at our brothers or sisters who may not seem as "sanctified" in a certain area as us, we should humbly think, There, but for the grace of God, go I. We are all in a violent, lifelong process of sanctification, to quote my pastor. When we, out of duty, confront fellow Christians regarding sin in their lives, it should be with an attitude of humility, realizing our own unworth of God's grace in our lives.
As we continue in our sanctification, our prayer should be that the good people see in us will be Christ, not us. May they see God's infinite patience as He transforms our twisted, sinful selves into His image, and may they murmur, Look what God hath wrought. May the focus be on Christ, not us! It's awfully hard to take such a humble view of things, is it not? I am the first to admit pride is a major struggle in my own life. But then, I am given a perfect example of humility - Christ Himself. Though equal with God, He humbled himself for the exaltation of the Father and His purposes:
Phillipians, Chapter 2
5Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.Christ became fully human so that He could not only suffer and die as our substitute, but so that he could also empathize with our situations. Christ was tempted in every way, yet was without sin. He lived a perfect life of humility and servanthood to the Father. Yet now He has been exalted! Humility, servanthood, suffering, death, and rejection had to come first, but He was promised exaltation when His task was done. Someday we also will be exalted and granted eternal bliss in the presence of God. Someday we will taste eternal pleasures at Christ's right hand.