When a friend or spouse accuses you of being thoughtless in some word or deed, how do you initially respond? If you're like me, your first reaction is to think (and probably say), "Oh, you've got it all wrong! You don't understand. No, that's not what I meant. You're being much too sensitive..." In other words, my gut reaction is, "Not Guilty!" When accused, my first inclination is to desperately rush to establish my "rightness."
I've written a bit on the topic of sanctification at this blog. Why? Sanctification is not only where the rubber meets the road in the Christian's day to day life, it's also, unfortunately, where the camel of merit-based works can slip its nose under the tent of God's free mercy given to sinners.
How do we grow in grace as Christians (and what does that mean)? How do our works factor into our salvation? Am I gradually becoming more holy? Is salvation, at least in part, dependent on my subjective, progressive sanctification? In considering these questions one may ask, can the blessing of saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone become marginalized and relegated to that of a first blessing only, i.e. a first step in the Christian life? Is the template supposed to be - once in the door of salvation, i.e. justified in Christ through faith, I then move on from there to the next step of good works empowered by the Spirit for sanctification? Some seem to think of it this way.
Important questions that need addressing. To begin, The Westminster Confession of Faith points us in the right direction. Here's a gleaning:
- The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience, and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, has fully satisfied the justice of His Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for those whom the Father has given unto Him. (WCF 8.5)
- This effectual call is of God's free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it. (WCF 10.2)
- Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justifies; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God. (WCF 11.1)
- All those that are justified, God vouchsafes, in and for His only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption... (WCF 12)
- They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them... (WCF 13.1)
- The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened. (WCF 14.1)
- These good works, done in obedience to God's commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the Gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life. (WCF 16.2)
- We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin, or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come; and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom, by them, we can neither profit, nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins, but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants: and because, as they are good, they proceed from His Spirit, and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God's judgment. (WCF 16.5)
This being our condition, it's not hard to see, as Christians, how we instinctively assign self-merit to our works (I'm getting better/more holy, really I am!) while at the same time minimizing our faults. Biblically, we know that self-merit offers no help for man before God and yet it sneaks into our calculus again and again. We are self-justifying creatures at the core. We insistently insist that our best intentions and curve-based efforts be graded as a passing in the court of justice. We just don't give up all that easily on the project of renovating ourselves despite the futility of it! Yet, when we attempt to balance on the fulcrum between our works and God's grace for sanctification, we inevitably slide down to the works side of that see-saw. And depending on our makeup, we either land as self-assured hypocrites or bruised reeds despairing of God's favor wondering, "What in the world is wrong with me that I can't be more faithful?' More of a saint and less of a sinner!
This is the vicious cycle and trap that results from seeing sanctification as something beyond and separate from our justification in Christ. But to look in the mirror of Jesus we see not only ourselves... sinners in motive, thought, word, and deed, we see Jesus and his shed blood. There we give up on our efforts as futile, and find not rejection but acceptance. Through faith, the sinner looking to Christ alone receives freely the "rightness" he so desperately needs. Therein is pardon for sin and cleansing for the fallen soul. By that blood the sinner is forgiven and the judgment against him fully paid. Therein the sinner is accounted righteous and obedient with the righteousness and perfect obedience of Jesus. The believing sinner has been made right with God, Christ-justified! It is to that cross alone that his faith initially and continually must look. Sanctification, then, is not the process of adding to or rebuilding that which Christ has already accomplished. The faith of one's sanctification is the faith that rests in one's justification, the faith that daily and increasingly looks to Christ's merit alone.