Too Much Good Stuff

Sometimes – it might be days or even a couple of weeks – I can’t find anything compelling to blog about.  It’s a frustrating situation caused often by my own lack of time and focus, as well as what appears to be a dearth of material that seems interesting and different to talk about.  I could talk about religion and politics point blank all the time, but what fun would that be?

So it’s nice when there is a plethora of material that pops up and catches my eye.  Then I have to struggle to meter it out a bit so I don’t post six times in one day and then nothing for the next week.  The struggles I go through, dear reader, for you.  I am not a perfect blogger, but I strive to improve.
Which is an awkward if dead-on segue to an article I found yesterday at Mockingbird (mbird.com).  This particular article is on the always touchy topic of sanctification.  
The Christian life is traditionally made up of two major elements.  There is justification – the means whereby we are made right with God.  Theologians broadly divide this element into two sub-elements.  Objective justification refers to the moments in space and time where the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, suffers, dies, and is resurrected from the dead.  In these moments, a span of three to four days or so, the sins of humanity are placed upon the Son of God who buries them in the tomb.  In his death, we die.  In his resurrection, we are raised to life.  And this justification is available for everyone (depending on the variation of Christian tradition you subscribe to).  It is never repeated – it is a once for all sort of thing.
Subjective justification refers to the moment in time where the Holy Spirit creates faith in an individual.  The moment when that person is brought to an acceptance of the Gospel.  It might be in the midst of a tent-revival service or sitting alone at home.  It could come quickly and unexpectedly or be the result of a long period of intentional searching and questioning.  Subjective justification is an individual issue, the moment when the blessings achieved in the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Son of God are received by an individual in faith.
The second major element of the Christian life is that of sanctification.  Once one is made right with God and receives the indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit, the process of making that person more Christ-like commences.  This is not simply an issue of becoming a better person, along the lines of any self-improvement program.  Rather, it is the ongoing transformation of heart and mind and actions to be, little by little, more and more Christlike.  Sanctification is an ongoing, perpetual work all of the Christian’s life.  We never are brought to perfection in this life.  But every Christian is to take this process seriously.
Which is what troubled me about the Mockingbird article.  It seems to employ a confusion of sorts, equating the inability of any person to necessarily see sanctification occurring in someone else, with the idea that sanctification isn’t something we can or should take very seriously.  Part of this has to do with the fact that we can’t see other people’s sin, by and large.  We have no idea what they’re dealing with on the inside and in the hidden actions of their lives, therefore identifying the fruits of sanctification becomes an exercise in futility.  Because we all wear masks to disguise the extent of our sinfulness the best we can, we are able to fake sanctification at a certain level.  
The author seems to be working with a different understanding of sanctification than the one I have suggested above.  The author seems to think that sanctification is simply a matter of being good.  As such, we’re all on roughly the same level in terms of sanctification – even those who may not have been justified through faith in Jesus the Messiah.  This seems like a difficult position to maintain Biblically.  
My particular strain of Christianity is accused of downplaying sanctification too much.  Our fear is that sanctification talk can easily be misinterpreted (or misapplied) as justification talk.  It is easy and natural for us to want to equate our good works with pleasing God and earning at one level or another our salvation.  We all like to feel that we’re a little better than most other folks, we’re all inclined to assume God has to grade on a curve and we’re going to be ahead of that curve somewhat.  We fail to take seriously the idea that sin is not what we do it is who we are.  That’s a rather depressing thought, after all!  It’s much nicer to compare myself to Hitler or Charles Manson and begin to feel that I’m not so bad off, after all.
But sanctification matters, and my denomination would be first in line to say so – even if we are reluctant to preach on it.  It matters not because it is a way of pleasing God or making ourselves more deserving of the objective justification we have subjectively been brought into, but because God tells us it matters.  It is expected.  Those in Christ are not free to remain as they were before they came to faith.  
When Paul writes to various churches, it’s clear that they had some major issues going on with some of their members.  Paul’s attitude is never hey that’s human nature and we’re all screwed up so who am I to expect any different from you?  Paul’s attitude is always what the heck are you doing?  Don’t you realize what has happened to you?  You’ve been killed and made alive by baptism through faith in Jesus Christ!  Cut it out!  The expectation is clear and consistent – we aren’t who we used to be.  Real change is not only possible, it is to be expected.  
It is quite likely that for a person who is good by a worldly, ethical standard this process of sanctification may not look like much.  But it is still going on as that person learns more deeply and richly the true source of the ethical behaviors they had been inclined to abide by all along.  Their actions aren’t the only things being transformed, but their hearts and minds as well (Romans 12:2, 2 Corinthians 4:16, Ephesians 4:23, Colossians 3:10, Titus 3:5, to name a few).  It isn’t just our actions – whether authentic or false – that are being changed.  All of us is being changed.
That sort of transformation should be visible.  The infamous fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5 are real.  We should be able to see these emerging in people as they continue in the faith.  We can’t measure them on some sort of spiritual Richter scale, determining that so-and-so doesn’t have enough patience as compared with whatshisname over there.  But we can reasonably expect to see changes.  Growth.  Maturation.  And if we don’t, we can’t just throw our hands up in the air and say “who the hell knows?”.  
Are we going to be aware of the changes in ourselves through sanctification?  Sometimes yes.  Behaviors that we used to engage in we won’t engage in any longer (though this may be a gradual process and not necessarily an overnight change!).  Ways of speaking and thinking, habits, choices of association, priorities – there is no aspect of who we are and what we do that is exempt from the process of sanctification!
On the other hand, some of these changes we may
not be aware of.  We have to be careful, maintaining the tension between not taking sanctification seriously, and attempting to micromanage or micromeasure it (in ourselves as well as other people!).  This is where Christians are prone to failure – we have ideas about how other people ought to be and those ideas generally revolve around what would make that other person easier for me to deal with or be around.  We are tempted to sinfully begin wielding the Biblical admonitions towards sanctification as a Law, rather than as natural (and somewhat unpredictable) outgrowths of faith in Jesus Christ.  When this happens, we need to repent – both to God and to whomever we may have bludgeoned.  
Our reaction shouldn’t be to simply shrug it off.  We have a role to play in sanctification that requires us to take it seriously while also recognizing that we are incapable of these changes in who we are without the power of God the Holy Spirit within us.  That’s a tension that should keep us humble and in prayer as we joyfully look forward and participate in the work of the Holy Spirit that will only be completed in Paradise.  What a wonderful day that will be!

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