“Fear, lest, by forgetting what you are by nature, you also forget the need that you have of continual pardon, support, and supplies from the Spirit of grace, and so grow proud of your own abilities, or of what you have received from God.” – John Bunyan
When a semester of college comes to a close, students will meet with their professors with great urgency. The issue at hand is of grave importance: their grade.
When the student is questioned for why the professor should change the grade, the student is allowed to defend themselves. They become their own advocate. The student will produce reasons for late assignments, reasons for changing a grade on a project, or produce late assignments. Achieving either the top grade or that “A” or “B” is the goal.
After my first year of teaching at the college level, I found these conversations common. It is interesting to note how far some of the students will go to persuade to get the higher grade or some sort of grace.
We have all been in a similar conversation where we needed to be our own advocate. We stood up for ourselves and defended with evidence our position.
Yet, do we as Christians do the same before God? We do believe that salvation is by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). But what about our sanctification?
By Works You Have Been Sanctified?
When we look at our sanctification, the process of becoming more like Christ, there tends to be something that goes with it: the list. It usually has do’s and do not’s on it. For some it is longer than others. We go back to passages such as Galatians 2:20 (I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.) and Philippians 1:27 (As citizens of heaven, live your life worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or am absent, I will hear about you that you are standing firm in one spirit, in one accord, contending together for the faith of the gospel.). We try to do what we can in order to show we are living a new life that has been bought by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
We stick to simple rules such as:
– Read your Bible daily
– Pray daily
– Go to church
– Give to the church
– Don’t do worldly things (drink, drugs, immorality, etc.)
– Be a good Christian
These are some basic things that tend to appear on everyone’s list. We use these items to measure our spiritual temperature. Are we on fire for Christ or are we lukewarm and in danger of being spat out? We do not readily admit it, but we tend to see our sanctification in these terms. Our process of becoming more like Christ becomes how good we can get an “A” in sanctification.
Dangers of List Sanctification
But is it wrong to view sanctification as a list? Yes. There are three dangers that can destroy ourselves and our churches when we see sanctification as by works or following a list.
A list of do’s and do not’s begin to show some sins are worse than others. We start setting some sins as “don’t even go there,” and some as “that’s all?”
Think about it. Would you mind having a pastor who has in his past lied? Would you mind having a pastor who has stolen? Would you mind having a pastor who was a homosexual before salvation? Or a church leader that struggled in his past with pornography? The line has been crossed, hasn’t it? There is something in us that says homosexuality and pornography are worse than lying. We might even see someone who comes to our church “with a past” and keep our children from them (Even if that person has a testimony of being saved). Why do we do this?
1 Corinthians 6:9-10 says, “Don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: No sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, or males who have sex with males, no thieves, greedy people, drunkards, verbally abusive people, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom.” We tend to be the firsts to say, “Yeah, homosexuals are going to Hell!” Yet, what about greedy? or those who are verbally abusive? Doesn’t God say that liars are in Hell too?
We have nothing to stand on. All sins are condemned before God. It is only because of Jesus Christ that you are saved. It is not because of what sin you haven’t done. Your salvation and sanctification rests on what Christ did for you and the change in desires His Spirit is developing in you. Your list of do’s and do not’s creates an attitude of categorizing sins. Are you not grateful for 1 Corinthians 6:11? “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
List Sanctification leads to justifying our own sins by saying it is not as bad as those sins.
IS HE A GOOD CHRISTIAN?
When we have a works based sanctification, we tend to ask the question stated. When a person brings their fiance to church to meet people, the girl is often asked, “Is he a good Christian?”
We have all heard this question before. Sometimes, we have answered it. But, how have we answered that question? “Yes, he goes to church,” or “Yes, he is in Bible college.” Wait, what are we really saying when asking or answering that question.
“Is he a good of a Christians as I am?”
When we view our sanctification as something we are in control of, we tend to categorize people by being good or bad Christians all on the criteria and satisfaction of a list. Have you ever thought of answering “Is he a good Christian?” with “Yes, he has been saved by Christ and is justified and sanctified by the death and resurrection of Jesus.” That is the only way someone is a good Christian.
EMOTIONAL BEAT UP
The last danger of a works based sanctification is our tendency to beat ourselves up emotionally. If we had a bad day where our actions were in the flesh and we sinned, we tend to rake ourselves over the coals and repent multiple times until we feel forgiven. We beat ourselves up. We begin to compare ourselves with those “good Christians” we see around us.
Did you know that Paul calls the people at the church in Corinth saints? Yes, the church that had divisions, a man sleeping with his mother, and a whole lot of other issues. Paul calls them saints. He did not remind them of how they failed a list; instead, he goes back to Christ. We are saints because of Jesus, and because we have been sanctified in Him. We are not sanctified in comparison to each other.
At the foundation of viewing our sanctification as a list or works, is our desire to advocate for ourselves. We want to stand in the midst of our fellow Christians and before God to demonstrate how good of a Christian we have been. We want crowns. We want honor. We want the Heavenly Christian Character Award.
But, there is no Heavenly Christian Character Award. Anything we get for our works on earth that are done for God we do not keep. Instead, we give them to the one who changed us. We give them to the one who bought us. We give them to the one we are grateful for saving us from our sins and changing our sinful nature to be more like Himself.
We cannot defend ourselves. We cannot present our evidence of our good Christian behavior. We can only present His evidence of His work in us.
Our Forgotten Advocate
Aren’t we tired of trying to advocate for ourselves? When we follow lists and make our sanctification all about our works and what we have done, we always fall flat. When we sin, we see a failed list. We have been deceived because we have forgotten our Advocate.
1 John 1:9-2:2 states, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
We have an Advocate who has justified and sanctified us and will one day glorify us. Our sanctification is based on the changed desires and affections that the Holy Spirit through Christ is doing in us. Once we are saved, it is not up to us to work to keep our salvation or to show how good we are. Christ is doing that work in us. When He changes our desires, then our actions will change. There becomes the desire to know God through His Word. There is a desire to fellowship and contribute to the church. There is a desire to live in a way that does not put to shame the work of Christ. It is not because we get something out of it. It is because we are being changed because of Christ’s work in us.
When we look at passages like Romans 12:1-2, it is interesting to note that Paul says based on God’s mercies to us that we are to live in a certain way. We do not get God’s mercies because of how we live. We live for Christ because of all the mercies of God.
But, that doesn’t happen. We forget our advocate, Jesus Christ. We rely on ourselves. But, God wants us to rely on our Advocate. Our righteousness comes from Christ, so our defense and our evidence of being a Christian comes from Christ as well.
Living With An Advocate
When you have someone who has your back and has gone to bat for you, you change. You act differently. You live as a free person who is grateful. It is the same with our Advocate. We see our lives as belonging to Him, because He died our death and gave us His life. When we have been set free from sin, we see life and we see our desires change. Our affections begin to love God and His Word and what He asks us to do in our lives. It no longer is a list. It becomes a change in our affections that affect our actions.
What do we do when we fail the list? Throw it out. Focus on your Advocate. Confess your sins. He will forgive. Our job is to continually listen to Him as He leads. That does mean we do need to read His Word, but not as a check off. We read it as our desires change, because of what He did for us.
Most students cannot change a teacher’s mind about a grade. We cannot change God’s mind towards us. Through Christ, He justified, cleansed, and sanctified us. Isn’t that enough motivation to live for Him?
Don’t you want to be able to live as Paul states in 2 Timothy 1:8-12?
Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me.
We have an Advocate before the Father. We have a reason to live.