As much as our hearts crave the completion of God’s sanctifying work within us, the prospect of stepping forward in newness of life can be daunting. We might fear that we will be stepping away from sacred pieces of identity, attitudes and affections which distinguish us from others and which keep us objective in our outlook on life. The reality is, however, that progress in sanctification is the progressive revealing of our truest selves; it is the unleashing, not the strangulation, of our hearts. We considered this at length in a prior entry: The New You. We’ll begin this final entry in a series on sanctification – one, two and three – by exposing this fear as a strong impediment to that progress, especially as we hide it beneath the guise of a realism regarding our potential progress in holiness.
Sometimes, the limits we place on the possibilities of realized holiness in this life only reveal the limits of our willingness to pursue them. Sanctification is hard work, though it is indeed the work of God in and through us which accomplishes it (Philippians 2:12-13). It is far easier to be content to enjoy freedom from the law’s condemnation, than to pursue with sweat and tears (and in the case of many Christians across the globe, with blood) all that is built upon it, our increasing obedience to God’s law. It’s easier in practice to fixate upon the means of our being made right with God (our justification) and to forget the urgent need to pursue the goal of our being right with God (our sanctification). Per the first entry in this series, it’s easier to treat Jesus as more of a superhero than a Savior, to want rescue more than redemption. The latter implies a purpose to the former, a purpose which must be pursued.
If we doubt that we sometimes think and act along these lines, we need only ask ourselves: Are we clinging to something sinful from which our sinless Savior died and rose again to free us? From what corners of our hearts do we want Jesus to keep His distance? Again, do we fear that the forsaking of certain sins will be the forsaking of our true selves, and are we attempting to sanctify this fear and therefore the spiritual paralysis to which it leads?
To put it in terms of the superman analogy: what is your kryptonite? That sin which so easily entangles your heart, with which you don’t think you can live without, or which you simply don’t want to live without. Perhaps it seems to have you in such a stranglehold that you’ve just resigned yourself to its powerful presence in your life. You’ve given up hope of ever being substantially free from it in this life. And perhaps, truth be told, you don’t want to be free of it.
Remember, Jesus gave His life not only to rescue us from our guilt before God as sinners, but to rule in our lives so as to put down the sin which still remains within us, to kill our kryptonite. How does this happen, practically? Grace shows us the way.
Paul tells us in Titus 2:11-14 that God’s saving grace in Christ writes in Titus 2: “For the grace of God has appeared …training us to renounce ungodliness…” and that Christ “…gave himself to redeem us from all lawlessness, to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” Let’s consider some ways grace’s appearance in Christ trains us in the pursuit of holiness.
First, the appearing of grace teaches us to see sin for what it is. Christ’s cross was the cost to redeem us from lawlessness. The cross demonstrates the horror of sin, both in the severity of the penalty imposed upon it – death – and in its display of sin in full, hideous bloom.
The brutality of the cross shows what sin wants to do to the sinless Son of God. It’s all the violence and vindictiveness of the fall unleashed upon the innocent substitute, hanging as a cursed man between heaven and earth, giving his own life to remove its curse. To gaze through Scripture upon our Savior’s suffering is to be sobered as to sin’s severity, to see sin’s true self. When a redeemed heart sees sin for what it is, it turns away in horror. In our daily lives, then, we must strive to see the hellish reality behind every tantalizing temptation, to react not to sin’s false face, but to its true self.
To a young child, a bottle of Windex might look like a bottle of Kool-Aid. Everything within him says: “Gotta get some of that liquid that makes me happy and gives me power!” But if dad is watching, he’ll tell his son what’s really in that container, that what looks so good to drink is actually poison. To avoid getting sick, or worse, the child must learn to trust his dad’s definitions.
We the children of God must learn to trust our Father’s definition of sin, and sins. These definitions are found in his moral law, and in the Holy Spirit’s commentary upon it throughout Scripture (Exodus 20, and see Ephesians 5 for an especially potent commentary.) Scripture is a means of grace, a means by which God strengthens us in grace and against sin. Reading, meditating upon, and especially hearing the Word preached fortifies our hearts against sin, sometimes imperceptibly. A child does not feel himself growing as he eats, but it’s happening! More practically, grace teaches us that the more we feed upon God’s Word, the more we starve our sins to death. Psalm 1 tells us that the “Blessed Man” delights in God’s law, making it the focus of his meditation day and night – deliberately shutting out sinful thoughts in favor of righteous ones – and has the rooted, vital life to show for it.
Part of how you kill indwelling sin is by giving it the cold shoulder. Kryptonite has a certain mastery over Superman, but sin has no mastery over the children of God (Romans 6). Your Savior has set you free from sin. Sin is no longer your master! Believe this! Sin simply feeds off of the attention we give it. As weeds grow in summer, so our sins grow in the warmth of our attentiveness to them. But if we give them the cold shoulder by trusting our Father’s definitions and turning from them, they will increasingly shrivel up and die. Further, the more we trust our Father’s definitions and turn from sin, the less attractive it will be to us (Proverbs 5 provides another powerful example of this principle in action). And because our actions always follow our affections, the less attractive particular sins are to us, the less we will practice them. Call it the wonderful cycle of sanctification!
Finally, the appearing of grace in Christ teaches us to renounce ungodliness by pointing us to our Savior’s return. In our text, Paul reminds us of the stunning fact that changes everything: Jesus came, and His work was successful. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, what your status in life is – Jesus has done all that is necessary for you to belong in unbroken fellowship to the true and living God. He did it! He is risen from the dead and He is Lord! Do you believe that? Do you really believe that, down to the depths of your soul? And as surely as he came once, he’s going to come again to see you face to face. Paul writes in verse 13: “… waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”
What sinful things in your heart would cease immediately if Jesus were to suddenly appear in your presence? And if his holy presence dispels sin, why not cease and desist with those sins now? After all, Jesus IS with you now, watching you now, loving and guiding you now by his Holy Spirit, especially as you feed on his Word. Why not set your sights on those sins and declare all out, thermonuclear war against them? Or rather, why not declare that Jesus has already won that war, and that its time to collect the spoils, to harvest the fruit which grows in the soil of sin’s defeat?
What’s holding you back in your pursuit of holiness? Fear of losing yourself? Jesus says in Matthew 10:39: “…whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” A certain besetting sin and the fear that life will be less vivid without it? Puritan John Flavel put it this way: “There is infinitely more joy in the killing of a sin than in the committing of it.” Fear that an emphasis on pursuing perfect obedience to the law reveals an insufficiently serious understanding of sin’s presence in our hearts? Perhaps it’s not the presence of sin which we underestimate, but the presence of grace. Where sin abounds, does grace not abound much more? (Romans 5 and 6, and 8:1!).
As those who serve not a superhero but a Savior, as those dead to sin and alive with supernatural power that would make the man of steel look like a pansy by comparison, let’s pursue with all of our redeemed hearts the unspeakable privilege and purpose of our salvation: holiness unto the Lord (Romans 8:28-30, Ephesians 1:4).