This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
I think this is a remix of something Key Life’s Steve Brown once said, but the aged man who’s been in church longer than you’ve been alive isn’t necessarily holier than you; he’s just more tired. The fact that he no longer acts on impulses which drove him in his adolescence is due less to the “level of spirituality” he’s achieved and more to the fact that he just doesn’t have the energy anymore. I admit that that might be an overly cynical view of the church’s elderly saints, but that doesn’t negate the fact that we are terribly prone to assume that this thing called “sanctification” is some sort of spiritual MMORPG, in which experience points are earned and personal growth is measured by the “level” of sanctification on which we find ourselves.
The old man who doesn’t appear to struggle with lust anymore has obviously reached a degree of holiness that us whipper-snappers can only aspire to, right? Maybe, or maybe the gratification once prized no longer seems worth the effort. Maybe he’s just tired.
This seems to be more true than I’d like to admit. I recently had a birthday and it’s hard to tell if my “growth” as a Christian has come about because I’ve “leveled-up” or because I’ve deemed the ROI on fulfilling certain desires isn’t worth it anymore. I want to say it’s the former, but more than likely it’s the latter. I know I’m not as sanctified as I ought to be. And I think if we were all honest with ourselves, we’d have to acknowledge that our relationship status with sanctification is more “complicated” than we’d care to admit. I don’t put a lot of confidence in my own ability to pull off this thing called “living the sanctified life.” In fact, I wholeheartedly reject a Christianity that relies upon my efforts to stay “Christian.” A casual perusal of my life experiences conjures enough data to corroborate the hypothesis that I can’t actually be holy. My confidence in eternity, though, doesn’t rest in my competency at “being a Christian” and “doing what Jesus did” or on what “level of spirituality” I’ve achieved. If that were the case, if that were my only hope, well, then, I’d be hopeless.
Perhaps you have reasoned that mankind is at least reasonably capable and responsible to contribute something to this sanctified relationship. How much confidence do you put in a man’s ability to accomplish anything nearing what could possibly be deemed “sacred”? Or perhaps I should just put it this way: your measure of anthropology will have a direct effect on your understanding of sanctification.
Presbyterian theologian William James once said, “Without some anthropology, or true philosophy of man, it is impossible to construct a treatise of sanctification.”1 I think he’s quite right. Any discussion concerning the nature of man living in light of a “new nature” gifted to him by faith must take into account the apparent abilities and inabilities of his old nature. One cannot radically elevate one’s anthropological outlook simply because one deems sanctification of such critical importance that it demands stricter enforcement. We tend to do that, though. We often forfeit our low anthropology the moment sanctification comes up as the topic of conversation, as if the “new nature” metaphor of the New Testament were more akin to changing bodies Avatar-style than putting crisply laundered clothes on a junior high boy after gym class.
St. Paul popularized the “new man” imagery which figures quite large in many sanctification discussions. (2 Cor 4:16; Eph 4:24; Col 3:10) But the part that’s most often forgotten is the “put on” part. To be sure, there is something new that occurs at the moment of salvation — but until we “cross the Jordan,” as the old hymn says, there will always be a war of natures going on as we live life “under the sun.” The new doesn’t replace the old; it’s added to what’s already there. Like spraying Febreze to get rid of the spoiled salmon smell in your kitchen, the Spirit of Christ turns our middling attempts at sanctification into a “sweet smelling savor.” (Eph 5:2; 2 Thes 2:13) St. Paul says so quite explicitly when he writes, “For to God we are the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved.” (2 Cor 2:15)
Our own pitiable attempts at making ourselves smell better always veer towards some law-inebriated checklist. But using the law to demonstrate one’s efficiency at “being holy” is like a seventh-grade boy at summer camp opting for Axe body-spray over a shower. There’s definitely something different, but the jury’s still out on if its better.
The Febreze of the Spirit is given to none other than smelly sinners. Salvation doesn’t change our anthropological tendency, but it does change what’s possible. “The Christian has, neither before nor after his conversion, to generate an independent sanctification of his own,” James continues; “but he has only constantly to receive the stream of the influential powers of Christ’s life upon him.”2 The good news announced in Scripture — that which the soul seeks so desperately among things “under the sun” — is already yours in the Son, namely, love without condition or contingency, degree or limit, measure or merit. Love that is permanent. Love that exists without regard for your moral consistency. “I have long since learned,” James confesses, “that continuance in the love of God is not assured by a life of holiness, and never was intended to be. It is assured by the work of Christ for us.”3 This love is an objective fact that exists outside of how effectively or proficiently you’ve managed to “strangle the sin in your life.” It is for you no matter how tired you are. As James proceeds to aver, one’s sanctification is borne out of continual trust and rest upon the certainty of a work already completed, a love already guaranteed.
Sanctification, alike with justification, — the fitness for Heaven as well as the title to it, — comes only through the blood of the Lamb . . . The blood of Christ trusted in, has a twofold effect, — an effect upon the mind of God toward us, and an effect upon our minds toward Him. The effect of faith upon the mind of God toward us, we call Justification, — its effect upon our minds toward Him, we call Sanctification.
Sanctification, then, under the New Testament, is that inward and voluntary devotion of a soul to God, to which it is naturally and necessarily prompted by the apprehension of God’s love to a sinful world, — of which the atonement of Christ is both the expression and the justification. This love, self-appropriated (which is Faith), redeeming the soul from the curse of a law relation, breaks the power both of earth and hell, redeems it to the love and service of God. Just in so far as a soul is conscious of a deliverance from the curse of the law relation, through the intervention of that Sacrifice, it sanctifies itself, — consecrates itself to God.
Sanctification is thus the natural and necessary effect of a free justification; growing out of it, just as the branches of a living vine grow out of their parent stock. From the very nature of our relations to God, a soul that has sinned cannot return, cannot put forth the first act of acceptable obedience until the power of a free justification has been felt in the conscience; and vice versa, from the moment that that power beings to operate in the conscience, according to the strength of assurance which is thus imparted, the whole man is drawn back to holiness.
The title to justification and all its blessings, the title to a complete salvation, has been secured by the trials of Incarnate love . . . Sanctification is nothing else but the development of this germ, the perfecting of this love.4
All of which is to say that sanctification is a gift. One that Christ confers on all who believe. “It is from him that you are in Christ Jesus,” St. Paul says elsewhere, “who became wisdom from God for us — our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30). Sanctification, then, is less about checking a spiritual box to denote your progress in holiness and more about living in the present fact that God through Christ has fully erased your sin, past, present, and future. It isn’t a competitive performance in which “leveling up” in sanctimony earns more eternal security. Sanctification isn’t a calling to work harder and do more in order to get something; it’s an invitation to revel and rest in all that’s already yours in Jesus Christ. It’s a deepening awareness that the competition is over. There’s no more scoreboard. There are no levels. The game’s been won. The gift is yours.
William James, The Marriage of the King’s Son and the Guilt of Unbelief (New York: Randolph & Co., 1869), 22.
Ibid., 103–5, 108.