The following is a guest post by Russell Pulliam, an Indianapolis Star columnist who directs the Pulliam Fellowship summer intern program for the Indianapolis Star and the Arizona Republic. Russ describes personally below the process, tools, and lessons the Lord has taken him though on his own road of sanctification.
Sanctification seems similar to one of those 500-piece puzzles. How do all the pieces fit together? Perhaps one side of the puzzle represents the disciplines of sanctification, and the other side represents the themes of grace.
Disciplines and Discipleship
In my early years in Christ, 1970s and 1980s, I heard much about good disciplines. Bible study, prayer and memory verses, and meditation were the core. But added to the list were: church and fellowship; witness; good biographies; andearly rising for quiet time, sometimes with physical fitness to get more alert. The list grew longer through some good books: writing in journals; confession and self-examination; solitude. The earliest book was Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, followed by Dallas Willard, The Celebration of Discipline. Later came Donald Whitney with a more reformed framework in Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.
Here is an odd challenge with these disciplines. I can develop a subtle and unconscious pride, taking credit for what is really a fruit of grace and the Spirit. We do make choices in discipline, and that does affect the depth of the Spirit’s work in our lives (Gal 6:7-8). Some grace is received through means dependent on our choices or our response (Romans 8:13). Yet it is still grace, not merit in ourselves.
Christ also gives blessings which are not rooted in our choices. The big one is justification by faith alone. Sanctification also is by faith. We have choices with consequences, but there are blessings greater than what we deserve from sowing and reaping.
Christ’s grace is wrapped up in hard-nosed disciplines. They may not feel gracious, but they are. If I desire His grace in my life, I cannot bypass the disciplines. The practice of discipline is an act of faith.
How we can obtain His blessing or His establishment? Christ is in sovereign control. I cannot obtain any blessing without His assent. Yet many of the passages also suggest a condition attached to advancement or establishment or blessing. He requires us to walk in His Word, and not in our own ways (Psalm 1). He blesses us as we grow in fear of Him (Psalm 128). Yet it is not an automated system, like a vending machine, in which $1 gets you a spiritual Milky Way. He may bless us more than our exertions or prayers might deserve. Or He may withhold blessings for His better timing, even until after we die.
Union with Christ
Understanding union with Christ helped in navigating these issues. Galatians 2:20 is the first memory verse topic in the Navigators’ well-organized topical memory system. Reformed Presbyterian Pastor Ken Smith told me that Dawson Trotman never intended for the Navigators to have just a hard-nosed, military-like training system for Christ. They did have a strong version of that in the 1940s and 1950s. Yet their beginning point was our union with Christ, or abiding in Christ as in John 15:7.
Death to Self and New Life in Christ
Death to self or the sin nature is closely related to our union with Christ, as in Galatians 5:24 or Galatians 2:20. I have received much help on this one from the modernized Banner of Truth version of John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin. Dying to self is complementary to claiming our new life in Him. Key passages are Ephesians 4:22-24 and Colossians 3:9-11. A grasp of this truth seems foundational to going from the frustrations of Romans 7 to the victory in the spirit in Romans 8.
Walk in the Spirit and Don't Feed the Flesh
The charismatic movement, as I have encountered it among friends, has made me want to walk in the Spirit. But the movement’s emphasis on a second blessing can obscure the fact that it’s a lifetime assignment to learn to walk in the Spirit, as in Galatians 5:16, Romans 8:13, and Galatians 5:25.
The imputation of Christ’s righteousness to our account: I am no good without Him, but in Him I have a righteous standing that I must learn to embrace, even though I cannot fully grasp or feel this doctrine (Rom. 5:19; 2 Cor. 5:21).
Do not Forget How Much Christ Loves Me
Times of suffering have driven me to this truth. Memorizing about 20 verses on the topic also has helped.
I have begun to grasp that suffering is not only to be endured but perceived as Christ’s means of sanctification (Rom. 5:3-5; Jam. 1:2-4). It is a painful subject. The strongest books, such as those written by Joni Eareckson Tada or Corrie Ten Boom, or a Grace Disguised by Gerry Sittser, come from lives of suffering yet the authors learn to turn to the Lord in the midst of trials. They keep suffering. They don’t live happily ever after until they go to be with the Lord.
Moment by Moment Trust
From Francis Schaeffer I learned of the idea of trusting Christ moment by moment. I later realized that his teaching about a walk by faith accounted for much of the blessing for his ministry. You might get lost in his splits in the fields of knowledge, or his upper and lower stories, but his pastoral heart offered a nice balance in the L’Abri ministry. He also taught the doctrine of our union with Christ, through his semi-autobiographical book, True Spirituality.
This list might continue, but here are some observations:
Most authors of systematic theology don’t spend many pages on sanctification. A nice exception is Wilhelmus A. Brakel, whose four volumes have been translated from the Dutch and made available through Reformation Heritage Books. The last two volumes deal with sanctification, and A Brakel has been described as a Dutch Puritan. He lived around the time when William of Orange was rescuing Holland and England from French and Roman Catholic control, yet his life story suggests that he had little political engagement. He was a pastor and theology teacher, writing for future ages.
It is quite a challenge to keep all these truths or doctrines of sanctification in balance. Perhaps each of us will give an emphasis to themes that helped us in special ways in our own walk of faith in Christ. An interesting IVP book, Christian Spirituality (1988), was edited by John Alexander and outlines 5 views of sanctification, with Sinclair Ferguson explaining the reformed view. Some of the differences of view go back to systematic theology, but some of them also reflect matters of emphasis among these themes of sanctification. A Pentecostal tends to emphasize the disciplines less and the Holy Spirit more. Or a Lutheran may emphasize a walk by faith more than rising early to have time alone with the Lord.
Our tendency to pit one theme against another causes trouble or imbalance in our thinking. A more activist approach can emphasize the disciplines more than a focus on our union with Christ, which could seem passive at first glance. Yet all these themes are in Scripture and are assigned to us for our benefit.
Subscribe to Gentle Reformation
Get the latest posts delivered right to your inbox