Sanctification – the theory


I struggle living as a Christian. I mean really struggle.

I’m a hypocrit.  I’m filled with anger (I wish I knew why).  I don’t really live as if I have much hope.  I’m very demanding of myself and often give myself very little grace, which unfortunately can sometimes extend to other people.

It’s easy to diagnose many of my struggles and easy to write the prescription, but even with the right medicine, the cure is not always immediate.  Like an open wound, sometimes healing requires the emergence of an ugly scab and layers upon layers of tissue to process before the healthy skin is revealed.

The longer I do this Christian-thing, the more I realize it’s about a balance between several factors.  Lots of Christians want to make the Christian life about one thing: love, grace, faith, social justice, etc.  It’s easy to do that because we’re all drawn to what captures our hearts, and there is surely enough Scriptural warrant for the importance of each.  It’s also far easier to comprehend and order our lives according to a nice, neat flow chart.

I’m treading on potentially dangerous ground here by suggesting it may be a mistake to overemphasize any one characteristic of God or the Christian life.  I may well be wrong, but I wonder if we do the complexity of God an injustice by suggesting He can be, in a sense, summarized according to any one trait.

There is danger in doing so because of our temptation to oversimplify and misunderstand.

For example, Scripture is clear that a strong defining characteristic of God is love.  John Wesley (probably the person who informs my Christianity the most outside of the Bible) stated that love is the attribute of God from which all others flow, and he made this statement based on his understanding of 1 John, where it is explicitly stated that “God is love.”

There is surely a lot of truth to this.  We believe Creation itself is a divine act of love within the Trinity; grace is a result of love; mercy is a result of love; the coming of Christ is a result of love.  No doubt, love is huge – it is also the transforming power of God’s love that changes a Christian’s heart in order to become more like Christ (more on that in a bit).

But as I wrote nearly a year ago, when defining love, we all bring a lot of baggage to that word that isn’t really love at all.  The love that is God is almost certainly not what you think about when you think of the word “love.”

That’s really important to understand.  Love has been tied to a slew of terms that it is not married to, and consequently it loses its meaning.

But more than that, as crucial as love is, are we justified in stating it is the defining attribute of God (parrish the thought that I’m even flirting with disagreeing with Wesley)?  Is that good exegesis to read all of Scripture in light of one short New Testament letter?

Granted, Paul clearly states in the ever-popular love chapter of 1 Corinthians 13 that love is the all-defining trait amidst the triumvirate of it, faith, and hope.  And I am not at all suggesting we discredit any of that.

But what of the other attributes of God?  His justice, His holiness?  The Old Testament says a ton about these in its depictions of God.  Justice is the theme of several portions, and as I’ve written before, of all words used to describe God in Scripture, the only word that is granted the Hebrew grammatical designation of repetition to emphasize its utter magnitude isn’t “love,” it’s “holy.”

The phrase “Holy, holy, holy” reappears throughout the Old Testament and at the end of time as depicted in Revelation.  The eternal refrain described in that letter as taking place at the throne of God is “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty – who was, and is, and is to come.”

I would suggest that holiness is needed to define love, and love is needed to define holiness when one is talking about the nature of God and the nature of the Christian life.  It seems to me that, properly, love is included as part of God’s holiness, but holiness is impossible without love (in which it becomes self-righteousness).  A balance is necessary.

This leads us to what it is we as Christians ought to have as our goal in life.  Much as I’m hesitant to state a single controlling attribute of God and the Christian life, I hesitate to suggest a single goal for the Christian.  But this goal is so broad and multi-faceted that it can hardly be understood as “single” in any respect.  In general, the goal for a Christian is theosis (more popularly known as sanctification), the process of becoming like God.


Oh, that’s all.  Yeah, as broad as broad can get.  Because just as God Himself is, as Chris Tomlin sings, indescribable in some respects, so would be the process of becoming like Him.

But this is Scripture – Christ came to reconcile, reconcile, reconcile.  To make humanity – and through humanity all of Creation – whole in relation to God.

Because the point of Creation and humanity was to always be intimately united to its Creator.  As a husband and wife may naturally desire to express their love more fully by creating a new life to grow and share in that love, so the Trinity desires to have all of Creation within Himself.

One of the underrated benefits of Christ’s atoning work is God does humanity one better than what we were on track to be in the Garden.  Yes, despite our rebellion, God’s reconciliation is far more than just bringing things back to the way they were: it’s that and more.

Because in becoming human, Christ wasn’t human for just 33 years only to return to the form He had prior to that – Hebrews tells us that His nature has forever changed: He is forever human.  The very nature of God Himself has incorporated humanity – God is now and ever part human.  Have you thought of that?

And there’s a point to that – God’s intent as Scripture states is for Christ to be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.  When we begin our reconciliation with God by becoming Christians, the Holy Spirit takes up residence within our hearts and begins a transformative work.

Man, I don’t think we emphasize this enough: Christian, GOD IS IN YOU.  Right now.

This is the beginning of how God is making us like Christ – not like Christ so that we can be some boring, holier-than-thou drone (Jesus wasn’t and isn’t like that), but so that we can join Christ in communion with the Trinity.  Did you know that?

Our destiny is to join the Trinity.  God wants us, not abstractly “in heaven,” but intimately within Himself.  We don’t know why and we don’t know to what end, but we know that’s what He wants.

All of humanity is intended to unite with the Trinity.  The point of our life now is to let God get us there in a multitude of ways.  We are to be growing, through His love and grace, in Christlikeness.  There is a trajectory; there is a point to what we do.  Our actions do have consequences.

I am terrible – horrible – at allowing myself grace for my screw ups along this trajectory, but that doesn’t mean there is not a trajectory and a way to healthily navigate it.

This trajectory is not accomplished on our own – it is through grace by the power of Christ that is only accessible through a heart that has been transformed by the love of God.  That isn’t something you can force or earn.

But, the balance to be held here that is often lost in our Western Christian culture is that grace is NOT opposed to effort.  It is surely opposed to earning.  But to effort?  No; anathema.


Read it again: grace IS opposed to earning, NOT effort.

We can earn nothing.  Our works win us nothing.  This is dangerous territory that requires a strong balance because we are prone to see our efforts as trying to earn something or as a type of legalism (and I am the chiefest of sinners in this regard).

But effort itself is requisite for spiritual growth; not earned growth, but growth brought about through God’s grace and compassion, meeting us where we are at His discretion.  The problem is we’ve equated effort with drudgery, which it is not.

This is the testimony of Scripture when Paul exhorts Christians to be particular people, holy and righteous, exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit, blameless.  This is the testimony of the Church.  This is the testimony of holy and wonderful saints in the modern era from John Wesley to Dallas Willard.

The key is the foundation of a heart transformed by love, resting in grace.

Ideally, our effort doesnt feel like effort because it is flowing as a result of our utter love and thankfulness towards God.  But not all Christians feel this way, and it is a grace of God to receive this sense – it is likely tied up in our ability to recognize the depth of sin within us, but it in many ways defies a step-by-step process of acquisition.

Regardless, the paradox is, wherever our heart is on the spectrum of transformation, we are still called to effort no matter how it feels to us.  Because asking God for help and seeking to have our hearts more fully transformed by actively resting or focusing on what Christ has done, is, well, effort.

As a good friend recently said, it’s likely a good idea if we recognize that our hearts (and lives) aren’t where they need to be (and, really, that’s all of us!) to borrow the prayers – the words – of brothers and sisters gone on before us who were farther down the line of maturity than we are.  That is the value of liturgy; the value of reciting prayer and reading the saints – to saturate ourselves in what they knew and were till it becomes our own.

And that will lead us into further praxis, to be discussed in the next post.

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