The Illusiveness of Holiness

With today’s post, we will be taking a detour from our normal approach of unpacking entire books of the Bible, verse-by-verse. Instead, this will be a topical study on a singular topic that will explore various passages of Scripture from both the Old and New Testaments.

The topic I have chosen to explore is sanctification. While the word may be unfamiliar to you, the topic won’t be, especially if you are a follower of Christ. All of us, regardless of whatever Christian denomination or church we grew up in or currently align ourselves with, will have a perspective on this critical topic. At its most basic, sanctification has to do with the spiritual growth or ongoing maturity of the believer. But as we will see, there is far more to this word than we might imagine. And we will be unpacking its rich and significant meaning in the weeks ahead.

Virtually all Christian denominations that hold an orthodox view of Scripture share a common understanding that the believer’s status as a child of God was made possible by the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. God sent His Son to serve as the unblemished sacrifice for the sins of mankind, offering His life in place of ours, so that He might atone for or pay the penalty levied by a holy God against rebellious humanity. The Scriptures make it clear that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). In other words, there is a “wage” or payment due for mankind’s rejection of God, and it is death. And no one gets to escape that outcome, because, “everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23 NLT).

But Jesus made it possible for sinful men and women to be restored to a right relationship with God by providing Himself as their substitute or stand-in. He took the punishment we deserved and, in exchange, we received His righteousness.

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT

And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption… – 1 Corinthians 1:30 ESV

Sinful men and women can be restored to a right relationship with God by placing their faith in the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ. By accepting God’s gracious gift of His Son as the payment for their sin debt, sinners can become saints, children of God, and joint heirs with Christ. They receive forgiveness for their sins – past, present, and future. They also receive a new standing before God. The apostle Paul told the believers in Colossae that is was God “who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:12-14 ESV).

The most remarkable aspect of this redemptive work of God on man’s behalf is that it is permanent in nature. It can’t be lost. God doesn’t change His mind. We can’t screw it up. In fact, the apostle Paul reminds us:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. – Romans 8:29-30 ESV

God stands behind the work of His Son. He guarantees it. Christ’s atoning work is efficacious or effective, never failing to accomplish its redemptive work. At the point of salvation, sinful men and women become permanent citizens of the Kingdom of God. And from that point forward, God no longer sees them as sinners, but as saints. Which simply means that they have been set apart for His use. They belong to Him. They are His children.

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. – John 1:12 ESV

And yet, while enjoying their privileged position as children of God and citizens of His eternal Kingdom, Christians must remain on this earth and do battle against an assortment of enemies who stand opposed to them. These include the world, their own indwelling sin nature, and the devil himself. Jesus Himself warned us that the world would hate us.

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. – John 15:18-19 ESV

He also told us we would face difficulties in this life.

“In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33 ESV

Which brings us to our topic of sanctification. As we live in this world as followers of Christ, we enjoy a right standing before God. He deems us as righteous because we have received the righteousness of Christ. And yet, we are also commanded to pursue righteousness.

…pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. – 2 Timothy 2:22 ESV

Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. – 1 Timothy 6:11 ESV

Not only that, Paul tells us that we are “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” (Colossians 3:12 ESV). Yet, Peter seems to tell us we have to pursue holiness.

…as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” – 1 Peter 1:15-16 ESV

Even Paul appears to contradict himself when he states, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1 ESV). The truth is, the New Testament is filled with countless passages that seem to teach that, while we enjoy a right standing before God, we are not to stand pat. We are not to coast or rest on our laurels. Paul told the believers in Ephesus “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Ephesians 4:1 ESV). He told the Thessalonian believers “to live in a way that is pleasing to God” (1 Thessalonians 4:1 BSB).

Peter encourages us to “long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2 ESV). Paul tells us that “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 2:15 ESV). Peter encourages us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18 ESV). The author of Hebrews would have us “strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14 ESV). And Paul provides us with a word regarding our salvation and our sanctification.

But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. – Romans 6:22 ESV

As we will see, there is a sense in which we have been sanctified and are being sanctified. There is the positional aspect of our sanctification and the progressive dimension, which we will be exploring over the next few weeks. But the real issue we want to examine is the delicate and somewhat confusing nature of our role in the process. Can we make ourselves more holy? Do we have the capacity to make ourselves any more acceptable to God than we already are? Is sanctification our job or God’s? Is it a goal to be pursued or a reality to be embraced?

As Peter has pointed out, God has high standards for His children: “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16 ESV). Yet Paul tells us, “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10 ESV), and Isaiah adds fuel to the fire when he writes: “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6 ESV).

So, what are we to do? And what is the purpose behind our pursuit of righteousness if we have already been declared righteous by God? These are the questions we hope to explore and answer as we make our way through this difficult, yet vital topic. The Bible’s many admonitions concerning spiritual growth are indisputable. But that doesn’t make them understandable. And many of us as Christians struggle with what it means to grow up in our salvation. Spiritual maturity seems unachievable. Christlikeness appears impossible. And any efforts we have put towards growing in godliness seem to fall short.

But it is my hope that as we dig into God’s Word together, we will be able to better understand the true nature of sanctification and our role in it. And that we might be able to say with the apostle Paul:

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 3:12-14 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

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The Suffering Servant and Victorious Savior

1 Listen to me, O coastlands,
    and give attention, you peoples from afar.
The Lord called me from the womb,
    from the body of my mother he named my name.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword;
    in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow;
    in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant,
    Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”[
But I said, “I have labored in vain;
    I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my right is with the Lord,
    and my recompense with my God.”

And now the Lord says,
    he who formed me from the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him;
    and that Israel might be gathered to him—
for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord,
    and my God has become my strength—
he says:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Thus says the Lord,
    the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation,
    the servant of rulers:
“Kings shall see and arise;
    princes, and they shall prostrate themselves;
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
    the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” Isaiah 49:1-7 ESV

These opening verses of chapter 49 continue the theme of God’s redemption of Israel. The day was coming when He would use His servant, Cyrus, to release the people of Judah from their captivity in Babylon and allow them to return to the land of Canaan. At that time, a remnant of God’s people would experience their physical restoration to the land, the pleasure of occupying the rebuilt city of Jerusalem, and the joy of taking part in the revitalized sacrificial system in the restored temple. But this chapter reveals an even greater restoration that has yet to take place. And it will be the result of the efforts on another one of God’s servants.

The opening verses are spoken from the lips this as-yet-to-revealed individual, and he proclaims himself to the hand-picked servant of God.

“The Lord called me from the womb,
    from the body of my mother he named my name.” – Isaiah 49:1 ESV

This should recall the encounter between Joseph and the angel Gabriel, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). – Matthew 1:23 ESV

Gabriel had also met with Mary, long before she was pregnant, and informed of what was about to take place.

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” – Luke 1:30-33 ESV

And earlier in this book, Isaiah recorded details concerning the birth of this servant.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. – Isaiah 9:6 ESV

And, in an interesting bit of self-disclosure, the servant refers to himself as Israel, claiming that God had referred to him in that way.

And he said to me, “You are my servant,
    Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” – Isaiah 49:3 ESV

Why would God call this servant, Israel. If, as the two gospels indicate, this servant is Jesus and His name was to be Immanuel, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace, why does God now refer to Him as Israel? It would seem that God saw Jesus as the embodiment of all that Israel should have been. Like Israel, Jesus would be, in a sense, the offspring of God. His earthly birth would make Him a Son of the Most High. But, unlike Israel, Jesus would prove to be perfectly obedient to His Father. Paul refers to His obedience when he writes, “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8 ESV). Jesus did what Israel had failed to do. Remain faithful to God and obedient to all His commands.

Jesus would bring glory to God through His earthly life and ministry. He would do the will of God, proclaiming the gospel message and manifesting the power of God through His miracles and messages. But from all appearances, the ministry of Jesus would appear unfruitful and highly unsuccessful.

“But my work seems so useless!
    I have spent my strength for nothing and to no purpose.
Yet I leave it all in the Lord’s hand;
    I will trust God for my reward.” – Isaiah 49:4 NLT

And John confirms the seeming failure of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. – John 1:10-11 ESV

But Jesus was God’s servant and, as such, He had a job to do. Just a few verses earlier, Isaiah recorded the agenda given by God to Jesus.

“Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
    he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
    or make it heard in the street;
    a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
    he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be discouraged
    till he has established justice in the earth;
    and the coastlands wait for his law.” – Isaiah 42:1-5 ESV

This portion of Jesus’ ministry agenda has an as-yet-fulfilled aspect to it. He has not yet established His righteous rule on earth or ushered in perfect, undiluted justice. But the day is coming when He will.

And the servant reveals that His job description has been given to Him by God Himself, the very one who formed Him in Mary’s womb. Jesus took on human flesh for one reason only, to become the substitutionary atonement for the sins of mankind. He had to become a man in order that He might die on behalf of men. You might say that Jesus was born to die. But His death had a purpose: “to bring Jacob back to him [the Lord]; and that Israel might be gathered to him [the Lord]” (Isaiah 49:5 ESV). Paul reminds us that, “Christ died for us so that … we can live with him forever”(1 Thessalonians 5:10 NLT). But the redemption of lost Gentiles was only part of plan. Jesus also died so that His own people, the people of Israel, might be one day restored to a right relationship with their God. The servant makes it clear that His God-ordained purpose was to bring Jacob or Israel back to God. And in his letter to the Romans, Paul makes it clear that God will one day restore His chosen people to a right relationship to Him.

Some of the people of Israel have hard hearts, but this will last only until the full number of Gentiles comes to Christ. And so all Israel will be saved. As the Scriptures say,

“The one who rescues will come from Jerusalem,
    and he will turn Israel away from ungodliness.
And this is my covenant with them,
    that I will take away their sins.” – Romans 11:11:25-27 NLT

And all of this will be accomplished through the efforts of Jesus Christ on Israel’s behalf. He will “raise up the tribes of Jacob” and and “bring back the preserved of Israel” (Isaiah 49:6 ESV). And, not only that, Jesus will be “a light for the nations,” so that God’s plan of salvation “may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6 ESV).

But before any of this happens, Jesus would become “one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers” (Isaiah 49:7 ESV). He would be humiliated and rejected long before He experienced His glorification and restoration to His Father’s side. But the day is coming when Jesus returns and God paints a very different picture of that occasion.

“Kings shall see and arise;
    princes, and they shall prostrate themselves;
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
    the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” – Isaiah 49:7 ESV

The servant will one day receive the same worship Isaiah describes as being given to God, because He is the Son of God, the Messiah and Savior of the world. He is the suffering servant who will become the conquering King.

“Let all the world look to me for salvation!
    For I am God; there is no other.
I have sworn by my own name;
    I have spoken the truth,
    and I will never go back on my word:
Every knee will bend to me,
    and every tongue will declare allegiance to me.”
The people will declare,
    “The Lord is the source of all my righteousness and strength.”
And all who were angry with him
    will come to him and be ashamed.
In the Lord all the generations of Israel will be justified,
    and in him they will boast. – Isaiah 45:22-25 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Grace Abounded.

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. – Romans 5:18-21 ESV

Paul continues his contrast between Adam’s one act of unrighteousness and Christ’s one act of righteousness. Adam’s sin led to condemnation and death for all men, while Christ’s sacrifice led to “justification and life for all men” (Romans 5:18 ESV). But Paul seemed to know that there were those in his audience who would question why God had bothered to give the law in the first place. Why would He have given a set of rules that no one could keep? And Paul clarifies that “the law came in to increase the trespass” (Romans 5:20 ESV). The law was not given to eliminate sin, but to expose it. In chapter seven, Paul writes, “it was the law that showed me my sin. I would never have known that coveting is wrong if the law had not said, ‘You must not covet’” (Romans 7:7 NLT). But not only that, “sin used this command to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me! If there were no law, sin would not have that power. At one time I lived without understanding the law. But when I learned the command not to covet, for instance, the power of sin came to life, and I died” (Romans 7:8-10 NLT). The law was given to the Jews so that they might be a living proof that no man can live up to God’s holy and righteous standards. They had no excuse. They could not plead ignorance. They knew what God expected, but because of their sin natures, inherited from Adam, they could not accomplish what God demanded of them. And sin increased. But the good news is “that where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20 ESV). Man’s guilt required God’s grace. And what is amazing is that the wrath of God against the sins of man met the love and grace of God at the cross. It was there that God’s holy and righteous wrath was poured out against man’s sins and rebellion against Him. God is a holy and just judge and He cannot overlook or ignore sin. To do so would be an injustice. So God had to punish man’s sins. He required a proper payment for mankind’s sin debt. And that debt was paid by His own Son on the cross. God was required by His own law to punish sin. But the payment He required was the life of a sinless, unblemished sacrifice. It was not enough for a bull or goat to be sacrificed. It had to be a man. The author of Hebrews writes, “For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. That is why, when Christ came into the world, he said to God, ‘You did not want animal sacrifices or sin offerings. But you have given me a body to offer’” (Hebrews 10:4-5 NLT). It was the death of Jesus, the sinless Son of God, that propitiated or satisfied the just judgment of God against sin. And it all took place on the cross. It was on the cross that the love and grace of God appeared. His judgment fell on Jesus as He bore our punishment for sin. But His love was displayed as He provided a substitute to die in our place. As Paul stated earlier in this chapter, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 ESV). 

That amazing this is that God’s grace abounded even as the sinfulness of man increased. Paul has already told us, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:23-26 ESV). God had every right and even the righteous responsibility to deal with man’s sin. And yet, He delayed. He postponed judgment until such a time as He could send His Son to be the payment for man’s sin. “But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children” (Galatians 5:4-5 NLT).

The grace of God, revealed through the life and death of Jesus Christ, is what makes it possible for men and women to be made right with God. Increased sin is no match for the grace of God. His grace super-abounds. It is more than sufficient. As the old hymn so eloquently says:

Marvelous grace of our loving Lord,
Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt!
Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured,
There where the blood of the Lamb was spilled.
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin!