There’s been a lot of backlash in recent years to a trend in the Reformed world that emphasizes “grace” so much that for some people it smacks of antinomianism and a lackadaisical attitude toward sin and personal holiness. Have you ever noticed how frustratingly vague the New Testament is about how to stop sinning? Hundreds of verses dapple the pages of Scripture about what not to do, but very few tell us how to stop doing them! Paul says, “put off the old man.” John says, “walk in the light.” Jesus says, “love God and love neighbor.” Dozens of verses tell us to be obedient and stop walking in evil and sin. Shoot, just read Romans 12! In essence, God tells us in Scripture to be sanctified, but gives us very little indication of how practically we go about doing that. And yet, quite a lot of confidence pervades the Bible that the people of God actually can put sin to death and walk in obedience. We have been promised the power of God to accomplish holy living and we’ve even been given the Spirit of God to help us do it. So this leads to two questions: Why does the Bible not give us strategies for defeating sin? And how can I be sanctified?
Without negating the importance of strain, effort, endurance, and battling sin, I think it’s important to first step back and understand where sanctification comes from and how it can be achieved at the heart-level. The answer comes from properly understanding what salvation even means.
I think a lot of the difficulty with this conversation stems from our overemphasis on the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. Of course, this is a wonderful doctrine, and in some ways it’s at the heart of God’s salvific work in the individual. But it also can make us forget that God’s saving work is not limited to his work of justification. God’s salvation began before the foundations of the world and it works itself out in sanctification in our daily lives, driving toward the final end of our salvation: glorification and marital union with Christ. Without this proper understand of what salvation means, I don’t think we can really get to the heart of how to be sanctified.
It’s a sad reality that many, if not most, equate salvation with what we call justification or conversion. In this paradigm, we believe that conversion or justification is given to us by grace through faith, but sanctification is something quite separate. It’s the stuff we do in life after we’ve been justified, hopefully out of thanksgiving for the great gift of conversion. But this isn’t quite right.
In classic Reformed theology—and, in reality, true Biblical theology!—salvation is understood to be a massive, time-transcending process that began with God’s election before the foundation of the world and ends with our glorification in the New Heavens and New Earth. Within this process of salvation, we are called, regenerated, converted, justified, adopted—and sanctified. Sanctification is part of what we mean when we talk about salvation. This means that what we talk about when we talk about sanctification has to in some way cohere with what we talk about when we talk about salvation.
When we understand sanctification as part of the salvation process that God is doing in our lives, our view of how sanctification works should change. All of salvation is by God’s grace—which means that sanctification is just as much by the grace of God as justification and conversion. This also means that just as we receive God’s grace through faith in conversion, we must also receive God’s grace through faith in sanctification. Sanctification is gained just like justification: by grace through faith. So when we talk about sanctification, we must first and foremost recognize that we are sanctified by grace through faith, a faith given to us by grace so that no man can boast (Eph. 2:8-9).
This has two immediate applications: We cannot boast in our own obedience and holiness because it is a gift of God just as much as our justification is a gift. And we must look to God in faith to sanctify us just as we look to God in faith to justify us.
If we look at this conversation in terms of the Biblical story, which I always prefer over talking about systematic theology, this understanding of sanctification by grace through faith makes a lot of sense. At its heart, Adam and Eve’s sin was unbelief. They walked by sight, not by faith. They did not believe God’s word and promises were good, and they did not believe God himself was trustworthy. The world was cursed because of a lack of faith in God’s person and God’s promises. And so whenever we walk in sin we are fundamentally walking in unbelief. Unbelief is the root sin. This is why Jesus makes such a big deal about the Jews’ unbelief–particularly the unbelief of the pharisees: men who, on the surface seemed quite holy and sanctified! Lawful living without loving faith was literal rebellion. It was a reiteration and recapitulation of the unbelief of Adam and the unbelief of the apostate Nation of Israel. And when we, having been justified by God’s grace, choose to walk in unbelief, we then manifest this unbelief in all manner of sin and disobedience, both internal and, often times, external. To be truly sanctified in a way that produces fruit in our heart as well as in our external actions, we must fight against the root sin in our heart: unbelief.
So how do we learn to walk in obedience and fight against unbelief? By cultivating a lifestyle of faith and repentance. We look backward at our past disobedience and repent in faith—faith that we are forgiven and that God has given us means of turning away from our sin toward a life of obedience. And we cultivate faith and belief in God’s person and promises, as displayed in the Person of Christ, the one in whom all the promises of God are “yes” and “amen.”
A life focused on conquering the external manifestations of unbelief cannot ultimately succeed in putting sin to death. We must first focus on the roots of our sinfulness, the roots of unbelief that pervade our heart. These roots run deep, and can only and ultimately be uprooted by the internal work of the Spirit, a work of grace that is appropriated through faith–the antithesis of unbelief. And we have confidence that the God who saves us by grace through faith is sanctifying us by grace through faith.
And how do we cultivate faith? By doing acts that are in their very nature receptive: what we call the means of grace–the preached Word, the sacraments, and prayer. By receiving God’s grace, we are strengthened in faith. And by faith, we walk in obedience and life. So when we think about how to be holy as Scripture calls us to be on so many of its pages, we respond the same way we respond to Scripture’s call to be saved in Christ: by faith, not works. To cultivate a life of genuine trust in the grace of God, a life of genuine love and dependence upon Christ, is to ultimately cultivate a Godly life.
How shall we then live? By grace through faith. A life spent cultivating repentance and faith is a life that cannot help but be holy.