Building Body

What is the proper emphasis on sanctification?  Sanctification is the theological term for the work of the Holy Spirit in a Christian, leading that Christian to grow and mature not only in their intellectual understanding and emotional appreciation of the work of God the Son to justify and make them right before God the Father, but also in the working out of that justification in their lives.  In other words, once we have been made right with God, we can’t be the same, ever.  We are never the same.  A change has been worked in us that is fundamental to who we are.

As such, that change should begin to be apparent both to us and those around us.  Some will talk about the effects in terms of spiritual fruit, as Paul does in Galatians 5:22-23.  Some will talk about those changes in terms of spiritual discipline, intentional practices engaged in by Christians as part of their relationship with the God who has created and redeemed them, things like prayer, study of God’s Word, active and regular participation in worship, etc.  Christians act differently.  Because they have been made different, not because they are just good people.
But what does this look like?  How do we know that we’re seriously working with the Holy Spirit in this process of sanctification, that we’ve truly placed our faith and trust in the God who creates us and redeems us?  This has been a major emphasis of Christian life and thought for centuries, with people weighing in all over the spectrum on the topic.  
We can’t ignore the topic because much of the Bible deals with it.  Much of Scripture describes various people(s) who are or are not engaged in activities and lifestyles that reflect their status as people of God.  Yet we don’t want to dwell on it obsessively, because then the focus shifts to what God the Father has done through the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return of God the Son, but rather to what I am doing or thinking at any given moment.  I take my eyes off of Christ on the cross and the empty tomb, in other words, and focus them on how I feel, or what I’m doing at any given moment.  As though it is my feelings or actions that are what matters – which is not the case!
I was talking with a guy at the Mission today about this topic, and he had a great analogy.  A lot of the guys at the Mission are really into body building.  It’s a habit or practice that some of them have picked up over long years of incarceration, or out of necessary because of their lifestyles.  Many of the guys are also very smart about how they go about it, and discussions rage about various diets, supplements, and programs designed to increase muscle mass or stamina for workouts.  
It’s obvious who the body builders here are, my friend said by way of analogy.  It’s obvious to everyone around them.  It’s part of not just how they look but what they do – their discipline, their daily routine.  Sure, there are days when they cheat on their diet, or days when they don’t work out at their full capacity.  But that doesn’t make them not body builders.  
By contrast, there are plenty of guys that talk about body building.  They consider themselves body builders because at one point in time they worked out for a while or had a gym membership.  Maybe they worked out a lot or were athletes in high school.  But today, years or decades later, they don’t work out.  They don’t go to the gym.  They aren’t engaged in the daily disciplines that define a body builder.  They still consider themselves one, but it’s based on stuff they used to do that they don’t do any more.  
And most people can tell this.  They can look at them and say that, for all your talk about being a bodybuilder, you probably aren’t.  You never work out.  You eat donuts every day.  You may occasionally do some push ups or lift some weights, but it isn’t part of who you are.  It’s as much an exception to your identity as the pizza binging is for the actual body builders.
I like this analogy.  It is still dangerous, however, because it still places a lot of emphasis on what I do, and what I see other people doing.  The fact remains that a 300-lb guy who eats pizza six times a day may in fact have started working out last week.  He might be working out three times a day, every day.  I wouldn’t know that by looking at what he eats.  His identity is being transformed.  He has begun implementing changes in his life that are healthy and that will eventually, through discipline, make it apparent to everyone else that he is indeed a body builder.  But the muscle isn’t there yet.  The knowledge isn’t there yet.  The discipline isn’t there yet.  In part it may be because the other body builders haven’t accepted this transformation in him yet.  They don’t believe that it’s real because he doesn’t eat like them (yet) or talk like them (yet) or look like them (yet).  Yet the change is real all the same.
That’s the danger of obsessing about the process of sanctification.  It ultimately leads us to set up rather arbitrary milemarkers.  While Scripture talks a lot about how the people of God live and act, it talks amazingly little in terms of benchmarks.  How much mercy is enough?  How much kindness is enough?  We aren’t even sure if Jesus said to forgive seven times seven, or seventy times seventy.  That’s about as close to a benchmark as Scripture gets for us.
This is frustrating, but it is also good.  Because there is one benchmark Scripture clearly delineates – perfect obedience to God.  Either you hit this benchmark or you don’t.  And nothing else that you do matters.  Nothing at all.  And here’s the kicker – none of us hit it.  None of us will, none of us can.  All fall short, to quote St. Paul in Romans 3.  
And since all fall short, none of us can look to our own works and practices and disciplines for our identity, nor can we safely define others by those same metrics.  The only benchmark for judging ourselves or others is in relationship to what God does for us and to us in Jesus Christ.  That’s where our focus has to be, always.  
Which leaves us unable to turn our eyes completely back to our own actions or the actions of others as a means of defining us, since our identity is in Christ, not in our spiritual discipline.  That being said, it should still be obvious, somehow, sometime, to those around us that we have been changed.  That we aren’t the same as we used to be.  That we aren’t the same even as we were last year, or ten years ago, or 40 years ago.  We have to take that truth seriously, while never letting it eclipse the Truth that sets us free and grants us new identities.  We still need to watch our diet and our exercise habits each day, knowing that some days we’ll do better than others, but that this isn’t what defines us, it can at best be an imperfect gauge of how real that new identity is, or how seriously we take it.  

6 Responses to “Building Body”

  1. Glenn Says:

    Whew, I was getting a little worried until I got to the end of your blog. We cannot count on our works to make us better Christians as you indicate. Only through faith and the recognition that Christ died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins was resurrected, and with our baptism can we know that we too died and now live ready to face our own judgment by God. The same thing we confess each Sunday in the Nicine Creed.

  2. Paul Nelson Says:

    Sorry to have caused you stress!  Agreed – we are justified only and completely though the forgiveness of God the Father based on the obedience of God the Son as we are led to faith by God the Holy Spirit – entirely Nicene Creed stuff.  This is the issue of justification – how we are made right by God.  We are only and completely made right with God through faith in the Son of God.

    But regarding our sanctification, that ongoing process by which the Holy Spirit of God within the heart and mind of a justified sinner leads us to resemble our Savior more and more in terms of our obedience to the will of God in terms of loving our neighbors (as a demonstration and byproduct of our love for God), it seems that there is room to talk of our works demonstrating us to be (not necessarily “making” us) better Christians.  By better, I would say more mature.  Not any more loved by God than younger or weaker brothers and sisters in the faith, but a greater blessing to those around them by the grace of the Holy Spirit.  

    We’ve probably all known one or two of these giants in the faith – influential family or friend or mentors who demonstrated a maturity and depth of faith that inspired us once upon a time and remains fixed in our memories still today.  Does God love them more than us?  No.  Are they therefore better than me as a Christian in that respect?  No.  But I can and do admire their faithfulness, their trust in the midst of crisis, their control over their anger or gossip, how they embodied Scripture in every aspect of their lives.

    The works are not what make them better, but rather the works are the natural outgrowth of a deepening and maturing faith.  And as always we need to judge against legalism in this respect, against our natural tendency to say that only people who do x, y, or z count as mature Christians.  You have to tithe as much as this person.  You have to volunteer as much as that person.  You must be as passive and relaxed as so-and-so.  We want to create these metrics to compare everyone with.  But that’s taking things much father than Scripture allows us.  

    Does that sound better?

  3. Glenn Says:

    Yes this does sound better, I wasn’t stressed, I was just waiting for the correct conclusion. Your follow up comment is very good as well. While we strive to be better Christians not for the purpose of impressing other Christians or placing us above other sinners or to gain favor with God, because of our old Adam we continue to fail at perfection. I agree we can improve but just one sin in Gods eyes is as bad as a multitude of sins so we are still sinners, seeking the forgiveness of our sins. There is nothing like a church membership meeting to bring out the conflict and sin from its members which I found apalling at first but now understand the reason why. But we should still strive to be better people and love our neighbors. Thanks for posting your followup.

    By the way, I am a member of Grace Lutheran Church in San Mateo, CA. We recently were blessed with a new Pastor David Mark Carver who came from Montana. He is a great Pastor and his bible study sessions are really good.

  4. Paul Nelson Says:

    Agreed completely.  We compete not over and against one another for personal glory, but rather we strive to live lives worthy of the inheritance that is already ours in our baptism.  One foot in the Kingdom, and one foot in the world.  Always saint and sinner one and the same, simultaneously.  It’s an amazing reality!

    Thanks for sharing a bit about where you’re from.  How did you happen to find my blog?  May God bless you and your congregation through your new pastor.  I pray that he will faithfully deliver the Word and Sacraments to you and the congregation, and that you will all hold he and his family in prayer!

  5. Glenn Says:

    I was looking for Luthern Blogs. I had heard of Steadfast Lutheran, so I google searched for Luthern blogs and found website, then I narrowed it down to LCMS blogs. I am still going through them and bookmarked the ones I liked the best including yours.
    May God bless you and your congregations as well. My Pastor is faithful to the Word and LCMS doctrine and I as a realtively new Lutheran (5 years) I have learned much from his teaching and sermons, thanks be to God.

  6. Paul Nelson Says:

    Well, welcome and I hope you’ll  continue to enjoy engaging in discussion here!

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