Tim Chester, in his book, You Can Change, tells a story of a little girl named Sophie:
“It was Sophie’s first day with her adoptive parents. She stalked nervously round her new home, fearing one of the beatings she was used to getting if something got broken. The toys in her room were untouched; she couldn’t quite believe they were hers. At dinner she secretly stuffed food into her pocket: you never knew where your next meal would come from when you were on the streets. That night she felt so alone in her big room. She would have cried if she hadn’t long since learnt to suppress her emotions. Now listen to her new mother one year on: “She [Sophie] crawled into bed with me last night, because she was having a bad dream. She curled up next to me, put her head on my chest, told me that she loved me, smiled, and went to sleep. I nearly cried with contentment”.
A New Identity
Sophie’s story is a picture of what the Christian life is like for us. Sophie had a new identity from day one. She’d been adopted into a new family where she was loved and accepted. But still she was living like a child off the street – like she didn’t belong. Her actions and attitudes were shaped by her old identity.
The struggle pictured in Sophie’s story is similar to the struggle for us as Christians. In Christ, we have a new identity. We’ve been adopted as children of a loving Father and brought into a new family to live together as sons and daughters of God.
Yet, we still struggle with our old story – our old identity. We live like children of the street, and not like precious sons and daughters of God. Like Sophie, there’s this gap between who we are and how we behave. What will it take for us to change so we can live the way God made us to be? To answer that, we need to understand what the Bible teaches about our sanctification.
What is Sanctification?
Sanctification cannot be separated from justification, but they must be distinguished. Justification is a legal declaration of righteousness – We who were once guilty before a holy God are declared not guilty. Sanctification, however, is the Spirit’s work in us to bring forth the good work we’re saved for. We’re not saved by good works, but we are saved for good works – to live as God’s holy people.
This distinction between justification and sanctification helps us when we come to read the New Testament so we don’t treat commands or instructions as the bar we have to meet in order to be acceptable before God. If we treat these instructions as rules we need to keep in order to be acceptable before God then we’ll be driven to despair. Rules have no power to change hearts (Acts 13:39).
Indicatives and Imperatives
But still, the Bible does give us some specific commands – imperatives – that we’re meant to live by. What place do they have in our Christian life? A famous Christian author once said, “Imperatives divorced from indicatives become impossibilities”. In other words, how we behave is an outworking of who we are. That’s why our sanctification is not the call to be something we are not, but rather to become more and more what we already are in Christ. We do not struggle and strive to become acceptable to God because we already are acceptable – in Christ.
Whenever the Bible gives us imperatives (what we should do), it does so only based on indicatives (what God has already done). They must be distinguished, but we cannot separate them. The imperatives cannot be divorced from the indicatives, as sanctification cannot be divorced from justification.
The authors of the New Testament knew how important it was to keep the imperatives grounded in the indicatives. This gospel logic informed the way Paul instructed believers to take seriously their behaviour and the call of the gospel on their life. There’s a pattern, as seen in the following verses, where the imperative follows on from the indicative:
“You really are unleavened” (indicative),
therefore “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump” (imperative). (1 Corinthians 5:7)
“You are not under law but under grace”/”have been brought from death to life (indicatives),
therefore “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body…
Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness,
but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness” (imperatives). (Romans 6:12-14)
“Having been set free from sin, [you] have become slaves of righteousness (indicatives)…
[therefore] now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification (imperative). (Romans 6:18-19)
“Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (indicative),
therefore, “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (imperative). (Galatians 5:16, 24)
So Paul sees an intimate relationship between the reality of God’s completed redemptive work in Christ for the believer (indicative), and the believer’s way of life in response (imperative). It is not a way life directed towards attaining this reality, but a life that is guided, motivated, interpreted, and enabled by this new reality which we have in Christ. The indicative is a gift of grace, which makes the imperative possible – by God’s grace and Spirit.
Living our New Identity
Understanding what the Bible teaches us about sanctification is so important for our assurance. If sanctification is a bar we have to meet, then we will become very self-centred in our service, constantly trying to prove our worth to ourselves, to others, and to God. We’ll become like faithless Cain, who offered God the labour of his hands in hope that his works would garner God’s favour (Genesis 4:5; see Hebrews 11:4). Cain wasn’t accepted by God – not because his works weren’t enough, but because he thought his works could be enough.
But the gospel assures me that Jesus’ work on my behalf is enough. The penalty is payed – I am justified. The power of sin is broken – I am sanctified. The Spirit of God has given me a new heart with new desires; I am a child of God and I want to listen my Father because he has loved me so much.
Sometimes I can feel despair when I see my sin. I tell myself – “You should be better!” Sometimes I feel like I’m powering ahead in my growth and I feel really good about myself. Both of these attitudes show me that my heart has not really understood what it means to grow as a Christian. Sanctification isn’t about me trying to be acceptable on my own steam.
I need to remind myself daily that my justification and sanctification is the work of God’s Spirit in me, and that it’s my new identity in Christ that gives me the resources I need to live the life God wants me to live – to be who I am in Christ.
“It is because of him [God] that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption.” (1 Corinthians 1:30)
Josiah Wilson – Pastor, Creek Road Springfield