In each case we are denying Scripture and calling God a liar. We should, of course, turn from sin and seek God’s help, strength and encouragement to live the holy life we desperately need.
This way of speaking raises a difficult question, however. Who accomplishes sanctification? This would seem to be the work of God’s Spirit. We read in I Thessalonians 5:23, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly.”
Again, in 2 Corinthians 3:18 19, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” There are scores of such references. People who emphasise these Scriptures speak of “letting go” of ourselves and “letting God do the work of sanctification in us.
But there are other verses that speak of our role in sanctification. We are told, “Walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). “Be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Eph. 5:1). “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil (Eph. 6:11). People who emphasise these verses speak of our obligation to use these “means of grace” available to us.
Which of these is right and which is wrong? If we mean by “letting go” that we may therefore abandon Bible study, prayer, Christian fellowship and the worship of God and still expect to grow in the Christian life just because we have “let go,” we are greatly mistaken. We will stagnate in the Christian life and drift away from Christian circles. But we are also wrong if we think that by making use of these means we can automatically achieve our own sanctification. The correct understanding is a combination of the two, working as fully and consistently as possible: God working in us and we being as diligent and obedient as possible in these areas.
If there was ever a point to stop and merely rejoice in the wonders of what God is doing in Christ, to sit back and let God work, it is certainly after the hymn of praise to Christ found in Philippians 2:5 – 11. But Paul does not allow us to do this. Instead, he immediately applies the doctrine saying, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12 – 13.) He does not mean, “Work for your salvation.” He means, “Since you are saved, since God has already entered your life in the person and power of his Holy Spirit and is at work within you conforming you to the image of the Lord Jesus Christ, because of these things you are now to work as hard as you can to express the fullness of this great reality in your conduct. Nevertheless, as you do this, it is God who does the working.”
Peter said the same thing. God’s divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness....” It is all of God. Nevertheless, Peter continues, “For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love” (2 Pet. 1:3, 5 – 7).
Let there be no misunderstanding. Without God’s Spirit within, our efforts are futile. No good thing could spring from our corrupt and sinful hearts. But we have been redeemed and we have been sanctified. We have been set apart for God’s use.
Let us then agree with God in the matter.... Let us assume the whole armor of God and by miraculous strength declare war on all that is evil within and without.” This is not optional. We are commanded to do this, and there is no point in our Christian lives when we are more conscious of the power of God’s Spirit within than when we obey. We can hardly expect to grow spiritually if we will not use that spiritual food and drink which God puts at our disposal.
The Means of Grace
There are at least seven:
1. Assurance. This is the understanding for us to know that we are justified. It is also the assurance for us that will help us grow toward Christ-like character. Luther once put the matter graphically: “A wavering heart that does not firmly believe and hold that it will receive something will certainly get nothing, because God cannot give it anything, much as he would like to. Such a heart is like a vessel which a man holds in his hands but, instead of holding it, constantly moves it to and fro. It will be impossible to pour anything into it, and though you would want to do so, you would miss the vessel and waste whatever you are pouring. So it is with a wavering, unbelieving heart. God would like to give what we need. But there we stand, like a foolish beggar, holding out our hat for gifts and yet not holding it still.” Assurance is the first necessary item in sanctification because it is a matter of taking God at his word and of knowing that he has truly begun a work of salvation in us. If we have believed God here, we can believe him in other matters. If we are sure that we have really begun our journey, we can then get on with it as quickly and efficiently as possible.
2. Knowledge. Knowing everything is not essential for sanctification, but knowing the basics will certainly help. One writer has said, “As assurance is the practical foundation ... so knowledge of our position in Christ is the practical road that leads to experimental holiness.” What truths should Christians know to grow in the Christian life? Some key ones include the person of the Holy Spirit and his work; God’s initiative in bringing us to faith in Christ; the Spirit’s ministry in uniting us to Christ, from which comes our new status before God; our access to God through prayer; our security in Christ. If we know what our new status is, we can take advantage of its privileges. If we know God hears us, we can depend on the Holy Spirit to help us pray and interpret our stammering prayers. If we are secure in Christ, although we may stumble and fall, we know that nothing will ever pluck us out of Christ’s hand.
3. Bible study. The Bible as a source of growth in the Christian life is linked to assurance and knowledge, for from the Bible we gain both. But the Bible as a means of grace is more than either. In Bible study we seek to know God personally. Here God consistently and faithfully reveals himself and his will to us. As Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth” (John 17:17). David wrote, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night,” (Ps. 1:1 2). Did David meditate on the law of God day and night? He had to. He had immense responsibilities for the security of the nation, administration of government, judgment in legal cases and other matters. Out of this he was driven to meditate on the law of God constantly. And what happened? The one who feeds on the law, “is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (v. 3). If a person really wants to know God and God’s will for his or her life, the primary means is Bible study.
4. Prayer and worship. Bible study is communication that goes one way. God speaks to us. To round this out, we also need to speak to God. For that we need prayer and worship. While not necessarily the same thing, worship and prayer are closely related, Prayer is talking to God through praise, confession, thanksgiving or intercession. Worship is meeting with God to praise him, to sing hymns and to expound God’s Word. Thus worship will include prayer and meditation. Both prayer and worship are based on our knowledge of God through Scripture.
Worship, if it is to be “in spirit and truth,” as Jesus said, must be based upon the truths concerning God which are revealed in the Bible. Both prayer and worship are essentially a meeting with God and not merely the performance of some religious exercise. Prayer in a way is the realisation that we are having an audience with God, actually coming into the presence of God and asking and getting things from him. It is also through that realisation that life is transformed. The question that we ask today is: How much time do we spend in worship and still get on with the other tasks that God has given me?
5. Fellowship. In fellowship we actively express the new relationship with other Christians with regards to the doctrine of adoption. Sometimes Christians fall into thinking that because their relationship to God is so personal and wonderful they can do without others. Sometimes they even look down on others as having failed to achieve the high standard of godliness they imagine themselves to possess. They are self-deluded. We should all recognise our need for others and the specific gifts they possess, and be thankful for their fellowship within the company of God’s church. When the early Christian community met in Jerusalem, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Fellowship is on a par with other means of grace.
6. Service. If the Christian life is not to be selfish and introverted, there must be service, service to God and to others through evangelism, generosity and other acts of compassion. The book of Acts speaks of this explicitly: “And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need’ (Acts 2:44 – 45). This does not mean that they all sold everything, still less that all Christians in every place should sell everything. The context speaks of them meeting in “their homes and that they were generous with their possessions, so concerned were they to meet the needs of others. Today our service should be in the sharing of our material goods, particularly since we in the West have so many. It should also be in the giving of our time to encourage or teach others, to evangelize or to contribute whatever talent or training we have been given to the growth of Christ’s church.
7. The return of Christ. A final source of encouragement and growth in the Christian life is the return of Christ, our “blessed hope” (Tit. 2:13). It is linked to sanctification in I John, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And every one who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (3:2 3). If we are Christians, we know that God is going to continue his work with us until that day when we are made like Jesus. It may be through death. It may be at Christ’s Second Coming. But whenever it is, we know that we will be made like Jesus. We will be pure as he is pure. We will be perfected in love as he is love. We will be virtuous as he is virtuous. John says that if we really believe this, we will try to be as much like him now as possible. This should affect every aspect of our personal lives: prayer, our choices in occupations, in ethics, in use of spare time, even our social concerns. Lord Shaftesbury, the great English social reformer and a mature Christian, said near the end of his life, “I do not think that in the last 40 years I have ever lived one conscious hour that was not influenced by the thought of our Lord’s return.” In this case, the expectation of meeting the Lord face to face was one of the strongest motivations behind his social programmes. Apart from the grace of God there is no hope for anyone. But God has provided the ways for us to grow in grace and in the love and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Rev Vakaroto Ngaro