Sanctification and the Seinfeld Effect

seinfeld

For just a moment, join me in remembering some of television’s best comedic duos (trust me, there is a point to this).

  • Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza.
  • Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
  • Andy Griffith and Barney Fife.
  • Jim Halpert and Dwight Shrute.
  • Leo Marvin and Bob Wiley.
  • Bert and Ernie.

Each of these brilliant duos has one thing in common: The combination of a normal, straight-laced guy, with a total nut job. In almost every situation, each guy drives the other one crazy. Dwight insists on sitting on an exercise ball instead of a normal office chair. Jim pops the exercise ball with a pair of scissors. Bert tries to keep their apartment neat and organized. Ernie is constantly bringing chaos into the apartment. Jerry wants to join together with George, Kramer, and Elaine, to buy a television for their engaged friend. George, who is a perpetual cheapskate, can’t believe they are spending so much money on one person.

By themselves, the characters wouldn’t be nearly as funny. I suspect this is why the solo projects by these guys haven’t been nearly as successful (what has Jason Alexander done in the last twenty years other than “Dunston Checks In”?).

God also seems to have a particular affection for odd couples. In fact, one of the primary ways he sanctifies us is through the quirks and quaintness of other people.

For example, I’ve never been a particularly sympathetic, compassionate person. When I was younger, I didn’t have much patience for what I considered to be the weaknesses of other people (despite the fact that I am rife with weaknesses). Then God gave me three daughters. Three daughters means a lot of drama, a lot of crying, and a lot of princess talk. Having three daughters has forced me to grow in compassion and mercy and sympathy. It simply doesn’t work for me to tell my daughters to suck it up when they get hurt or when they are sad. I need to comfort them and be compassionate toward them. In his infinite wisdom, God gave me daughters who are verty different from me in order that I might grow in holiness. God joined me with three little girls who are wonderfully different from me.

God has also paired you up with people who are very different from you. You are creative and artsy and spontaneous. Your husband is ordered and regimented and inflexible. God has put you together in order to sanctify you both. You are neat and clean and hygenic. Your son could wear the same pair of jeans for a month straight. God has intentionally brought you together! You are passionate about the outdoors. Your daughter is more interested in writing and performing music. God has paired you together in order that you might serve each other.

Don’t despise the stark differences in your spouse, children, or friends. Don’t view those differences as obstacles. Instead, see them as divine opportunities. God has joined you to those people in order that both of you might grow in holiness. God brings odd couples together to help the odd couples grow in godliness.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a Seinfeld marathon to watch.

Don’t Be An Internet Arsonist

fire

It’s so easy to hit “send” or “post” or “tweet” or “publish”. One click. One tap of the screen. One “yes” to Siri. I don’t even have to think about it. I bang out my message and fire it off, like a cowboy shooting from the hip. Maybe I post something funny. Maybe I post something critical of someone else. Maybe I post a link to a scathing article written about a prominent pastor. Maybe I make fun of the President.

The Internet makes it so easy to be an arsonist. To set the world on fire. To be a walking napalm. To go through the day spraying virtual gasoline on everything and everyone.

In James 3:5-6 it says:

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.

James’ point is that our words, which are seemingly small and unimportant, and which flow out of our mouths in a torrent, can be incredibly destructive. Our words are the equivalent of fire, which can level an entire forest, ruin massive buildings, and cause untold amounts of misery. Words are no small thing.

This passage in James applies just as much to the words we say digitally. Every Facebook post has the potential to set someone on fire. Every Tweet has the potential to ignite a blaze. Every Instagram and text message and Pin and Snapchat has the potential to set your entire life on fire. God takes our digital words just as seriously as our vocalized words. Do we take our digital words seriously?

It’s so easy to be an Internet arsonist. The Internet makes it so easy to say things we would never say directly to a person. Our glowing screens offer a false sense of security and protection. We can say something about a person without seeing the effect it has on that person. We can criticize a person without seeing the devastating, harmful effects of our criticism. We can post a picture without seeing how that picture tempts other people. The Internet allows us to say whatever we want without any of the normal consequences of speech. 

How can we avoid being Internet arsonists? We would be wise to regularly consider the following Scriptures:

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths [or computers or smart phones or tablets!!!!], but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. (Ephesians 4:29-30)

Before I hit “post” I need to ask myself: does this serve to build others up? Or are my words tearing and ripping and shredding a person? If  I said these words directly to a person would they be built up or torn down? Would their affection for Christ be increased or decreased? God intends all of our words and posts and tweets to have a building up effect.

The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak [or comment or post or Tweet!!!], for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.  (Matthew 12:35-37)

The things we post online are a reflection of what is already in our hearts. In other words, our speech is a reflection of who we are. When we stand before the Lord on Judgment Day we will give an account for every word we produce. Every spoken word, every text message, every Facebook update, every Tweet, every Pin, every Instagram. Before I post I need to ask myself: will I be ashamed of this post on the final day? Will I regret these words when I stand before the Judgment throne?

I don’t write this post as a guy who has it all figured out. No way. In fact, just the other day Jen graciously corrected me for something I posted on Facebook. I need that. Why? Because I don’t want to be an Internet arsonist.

Guarding Our Eyes In A Visual Culture

Our culture has become a visual culture.

When my dad was a kid, there was no TV. He’d listen to “The Shadow” and baseball games on the radio. When I was a kid, we had a total of 13 TV stations that would go off the air at midnight. In Tulsa, after midnight the TV would broadcast only a picture of an Indian chief with beams of light radiating out from his head. Now there are 8 zillion channels that broadcast continually. There’s Netflix, Hulu and Amazon and on demand stations, not to mention YouTube and Facebook and thousands of Apps to feed our eyes.

Not only has the number of visual stimulants multiplied, but the sexual content in media has burgeoned. I sound like an old man here (but what the heck, I am), but when I was a kid, there was very little sexual content on TV. About the worst it got was an occasional episode of The Andy Griffith Show where Andy and Barney happened to meet a couple “floozies” who wore high heels, a lot of makeup and fancy hats. Occasionally you’d know that Barney and Thelma Lou had been smooching because Barney’d have lipstick smeared on his cheeks and his hair would be a tangled mess. But TV was over all pretty wholesome, populated by The Lone Ranger, Beaver and My 3 Sons. It’s much different today.

Solomon’s warning to his son in Proverbs is worth thinking about:

Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. PR 4:25

Our eyes are the portal of our soul. Satan will tempt us from any angle he can, and our eyes are no exception.

Remember how Satan got Eve to look at the forbidden fruit.

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. (Genesis 3:6)

Eve didn’t let her eyes look directly forward and her gaze be straight before her.

When David was on his rooftop and looked down and saw a woman bathing, he didn’t look away. He too failed to let his eyes look directly forward and his gaze be straight before him. In other words, he didn’t flee temptation. So when God tells us “Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you” he is telling us to guard our hearts by watching what we expose ourselves to.

Men, we must guard our eyes. Jesus said if we look on a woman lustfully, we commit adultery in our hearts. Adultery! That’s serious. It might just be a lustful glance. It might only last a few seconds, but it’s a serious sin. Are you guarding your eyes at work? When you’re driving? Do you turn away from or turn off impure commercials on TV? Maybe you’re not into pornography, but you are giving in to lust in “lesser” ways. Don’t forget though, it’s adultery of the heart. It’s sad, but you can’t even watch a football game without a remote on hand.

My friend Bob (name changed to protect the innocent) was always vigilant to protect his children when they’d watch TV. If something impure came on and he didn’t have a remote in hand he’d lunge in front of the TV, arms outspread, yelling “Ah-bah-bah-bah-bah!” to cover both the picture and the sound from the eyes and ears of his kids. One day a few years ago, he and a couple of his grown kids were watching a Sunday afternoon matinee in a local theater. An inappropriate scene came on in the movie. Bob automatically started yelling, “Ah-bah-bah-bah-bah!” then caught himself. One of his kids whispered an embarrassed, “Daaaad! I’m 22 now.” Fortunately there weren’t many people in the theater, but a number of curious heads turned to see the source of the “bahs.” Old habits die hard. But Bob’s instinct was to protect his children and himself from temptation.

Proverbs 6:25 says:

“Do not desire her beauty in your heart, and do not let her capture you with her eyelashes”

Our hearts are connected to our eyes. We guard our hearts by guarding our eyes. Let’s be vigilant men. Let’s pursue purity of heart and eyes.

Pray! When you’re walking through the city or down the hall at work, say, “Jesus, keep me clean and pure. Help me not to lust.” If you’re struggling, get a friend or two to pray for you. Remind yourself that lust is deadly to your soul. And dwell often on the beauty and majesty of Jesus. Desire his beauty. Ask Jesus to satisfy you. Lust won’t satisfy you. But Jesus will.

Be like Bob. Be vigilant. Probably don’t need to say “Ah-bah-bah-bah-bah!” in the theater. But better to go overboard with caution than over the edge in lust.

Are You Killing People On Facebook?

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, text messaging, email, and every other form of online communication have loads of potential for good. They can be used to encourage people, make people laugh, share helpful information, feel bad about how lousy your house looks (see Pinterest), and play a game called “Candy Crush”, which I have yet to play.

Social networks can also be used to kill a person.

Proverbs 18:21 says:

Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.

Wow. My words have the power to impart life to someone or to kill them. Death and life are in the power of the tongue and the status update and the photo and the text message. Every word I speak or type carries enormous life-giving or life-stealing potential. Words aren’t neutral. Status updates aren’t innocent. The words we speak and type and text today reverberate into eternity.

James 3:5-6 says:

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.

My words have the potential to create roaring, blazing, consuming fires. With my words I can set people on fire for Jesus or I can set people on fire for wickedness. Imagine how careful I would be if every time I spoke a small burst of flame came out of my mouth! I would speak ever so carefully. But often I’m not careful about the words I post. I don’t see them as explosive. Consuming. Flaming.

In his commentary on Proverbs, Ray Ortlund Jr. says:

In fact, when Proverbs 10:21 says “the lips of the righteous feed many,” the word “feed” means “shepherd,” the way a shepherd tends and guides and protects and feeds his flock of sheep. It means we all take responsibility to breathe life into everyone around us by our words of encouragement.

As Christians, we have a divine responsibility to breathe life into those around us by our words of encouragement. Do our words and updates and texts and photos and emails breathe life into those around us? I want to grow in this area.

Here are some simple questions to ask before we speak or post or send:

  • Does this help others think in a godly way regarding [insert person such as the President, a pastor, a friend, a blogger, a church, etc.]?
  • Does this promote faith in God or worry?
  • Does this impart life to people by way of encouragement, laughter, faith, or biblical thinking?
  • Will what I’m saying have a damaging effect on someone else’s reputation in a way that is unfair to them and doesn’t give them the chance to represent themselves?
  • Does this promote gratefulness to God and joy in him?
  • Does this encourage others to trust God in the face of adversity?

Our words have the power to give life or death, to set aflame for good or evil. Let’s ask God to give us wisdom in all that we speak, post, and send.

How Not To Do A Garden

Ahh, Spring. That glorious time we till the ground and plant our gardens.

When we get back to the earth and connect again with our primordial selves. When we lay aside Facebook and Twitter and grab a spade and plunge it into the rich dark loam from which we sprung. Ahh, the joyous anticipation of a glorious harvest of peppers and tomatoes and acorn squash. The very thought of puttsing in the garden, pulling weeds beneath the clear blue sky, the sun warming your back and a gentle breeze caressing your brow fills you with wondrous joy.

Not. The thought fills me with anything but wondrous joy.

Years ago my next-door neighbor, Steve, had a wonderful garden. He loved spending time in his garden. He loved every aspect of it – from the planting to the weeding to the watering to the plucking. I think he just liked to get out there and gaze at it. And of course he always had a bountiful harvest – a regular cornucopia of delights.

As I observed Steve’s delight in his garden I often felt guilty. Maybe I should have a garden too, I thought. Get back to the earth. Experience the wind in my hair. Get some dirt under my fingernails. Sounded hippie-like and manly at the same time. It sounded natural. It just felt like that’s what I should do.

So I tilled the earth and planted rows of beans and peppers and tomatoes. I put down black plastic to keep the weeds out. And I even planted a pumpkin seed. What could be more satisfying than to have 20 or 30 pumpkins at the end of the summer to decorate my porch and dining room table?  Country Living Magazine would probably want to do a photo shoot of my pumpkin decor.

Only problem was I never did anything after the initial planting, except an occasional watering. I didn’t do any weeding (somehow weeds found a way into my garden despite my black plastic).  Neither did I do any pruning.  I guess wise master gardeners break off the “suckers” or branches that don’t bear fruit. This concentrates all the energy of the plant into the fruit-bearing branches.  

The result of my diligence was a pathetic harvest.  Steve’s garden looked like a beautiful metropolis and my garden looked like a ghetto. Particularly interesting was my pumpkin.  By September I had an approximately 200 foot vine that took up about half my backyard, at the end of which was a solitary softball-sized pumpkin.  Not exactly the bulbous blue ribbon winner I’d imagined I would take to the county fair in a U-Haul.

What is the lesson you ask? If you want to finish the summer with more than a softball-sized pumpkin and a 200-foot vine, you need to prune your plants. But wait, there’s actually a spiritual truth here.  In John 15:1-2, Jesus said,

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.  Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”

In other words, God prunes his children so they produce maximum fruit.

He cuts off the “suckers” – those things that drain away our spiritual life.  Sometimes he prunes us through afflictions. Sickness may prevent us from getting involved with ungodly friends or activities that would harm our souls.  He may limit our finances so we can’t have as much of the world as we like.  He may humble us to prune the pride from our lives. When we feel stuck or can’t have something, God may be sparing us from temptation.

Pruning hurts. Pruning isn’t fun.  I wouldn’t naturally choose for God to prune me. I don’t love being hemmed in, limited or afflicted. But it’s good that God prunes me. It’s evidence he has given me new life and loves me.

God isn’t like I was with my garden. He doesn’t plant the seed then forget about it. God is diligent like Steve was with his garden. Why is God so diligent to prune us? He wants us to bear much fruit. He doesn’t want us to end our lives with nothing but a softball-sized pumpkin.

So if you’re suffering, first know that the Lord is full of compassion and sympathy for you.  But it may also be that in some way he is pruning you for your greater fruitfulness and a bountiful heavenly harvest.

Five Lies Sin Tells Me

LIE: This is such a minor, insignificant sin! It’s not really a big deal in God’s eyes.

TRUTH: Every sin is a horribly offensive to God. Sin is the sum of all evils, the opposite of all that is good, holy, and beautiful. Even the smallest of my sins required the death of the Son of God. There is no such thing as a minor sin. Every sin is cosmic treason.

LIE: I’ll give into sin this one time, then I’ll be done with it. I just need to get it out of my system.

TRUTH: Every time I give into a sin it becomes more difficult to break the power of that sin. Sin has a way of sinking it’s barbed hooks deep into my heart. I can’t simply sin and then walk away from it unscathed. The more I give in to sin, the more entangled I become. Sin always leaves scars.

LIE: This sin is part of who I am. I’ve always struggled this way and I always will sin this way.

TRUTH: Sin does not define my identity! I am a new creation in Christ. Christ has set me free from the enslaving power of sin. I absolutely do not have to obey the sinful passions that surge through me. I may have always struggled this way, but my past does not define my future.

LIE: I need to give in to this sin in order to be happy.

TRUTH: Sin never provides true happiness. It promises sweetness, yet ultimately delivers a payload of destruction, dissastisfaction, ruined relationships, and hardness of heart.

LIE: God wants me to be happy, therefore it’s okay for me to give in to sin.

TRUTH: God does want me to be happy. However, my happiness will only rise as high as my holiness. Sin ultimately erodes and destroys true holiness and true happiness.

Help! My Church Is Full Of Hypocrites!

My generation is the ‘authentic’ generation. We like our peanut butter organic, our meat free-range, our coffee fair-trade, our bands obscure, and our pictures “vintage”. We used to like Coldplay when no one else knew about them, but now they’re too mainstream. We don’t like big, soul-crushing corporations such as Wal-Mart or Costco. We want realness and authenticity and soul. We want self-expression. We want openness, honesty, and transparency.

This desire for realness and authenticity is what leads so many young men and women to conclude that the church is for losers. After all, the church is full of self-righteous, legalistic, hoity-toity hypocrites. There is no vibrant community, there is no deep faith, there is no openness about sin. There is no transparency of life. Everyone is doing just fine, thank you. Nothing to see here, these aren’t the droids you’re looking for, move along. Which, of course, we “authentic” Christians know is not the true state of affairs.

And there may be some truth to that argument. At times our churches can be overly superficial, and smiley, and “turn that frown upside down because God is good!” At times we dispense scripture verses like vitamins rather than the living word of God. At times we resort to speaking in trite, Hallmark-ish cliches. But, the reality is, every church is full of hypocrites (and yes, that includes you and me).

A hypocrite is someone who says one thing and then acts in a contrary manner. A man who preaches against sexual immorality and then sleeps with his mistress is a hypocrite. A woman who espouses the beauty of a quiet spirit and then physically abuses her children is a hypocrite. But so is a man who wholeheartedly affirms the sovereignty of God and then regularly sins in worry (that would be me). So is a man who preaches about being a servant and then sins in selfishness at home (me again!) So is a man who tells others to pray passionately and then finds himself praying distracted, half-hearted prayers (strike three). So is a man who tells his children to be patient, then sins in impatience (I could keep going). All of us are hypocrites in one form or another.

The great battle of the Christian life is to close the gap between what we believe and how we live. Every Christian is a slowly healing hypocrite. Every Christian is slowly learning to live in light of their true identity in Jesus Christ. There is no such thing as a hypocrite free church. Every true church is composed of hypocrites who trust not in their own authenticity, but who trust in the completely authentic, sin-free, God-man Jesus Christ.

Should we strive to be humble, transparent, and open about our struggles? Sure. God always gives grace to the humble. But more than that, let’s be open and transparent about our absolute confidence in Jesus Christ, the One who saves hypocrites like you and me. Being authentic and open about our struggles with sin is not inherently valuable. Opening up our lives is not inherently more holy. Our openness is only valuable if it ultimately points us to Jesus Christ, the one who rescues us from our sins. Our transparency is only valuable if it forces us to lean more heavily on Christ, the Solid Rock.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to eat some Velveeta cheese while listening to Nickleback.

The Church Should Be A Taboo Free Zone

There are certain things we don’t talk about much in church. Like eating disorders. Or cutting. Or depression. Or same sex attraction. Or sexual enslavement. The list could go on, but you get my point. The reason we don’t talk about these things is because, frankly, they make us uncomfortable. If we struggle with a “taboo” issue we feel very uncomfortable talking about it with others. If someone else confesses a “taboo” issue to us we’re not quite sure how to respond. We usually feel at least somewhat uncomfortable, which means we probably won’t follow up with the person, which means they will continue to flounder in their struggle. It shouldn’t be this way in the church.

Now, just to be clear, I don’t think that every person should tell every other person about their most intimate struggles. There are wise ways to confess struggles and there are stupid ways to confess struggles. I’m not advocating a total transparency policy, in which we tell everyone everything. That’s just stupid. But, every person in the church should have at least one or two people who know their most difficult battles, sympathize with their battles, and can help them overcome their battles through prayer, fellowship, and encouragement. Otherwise, how will any of us overcome these things?

But how do we get to this place, both personally and as churches? Let me give one simple suggestion.

Don’t Be Shocked By Struggles

We are new creations in Jesus Christ. Our old, sin-enslaved self has been put to death, and we are now alive to God. The power of sin has been broken in our lives! Nevertheless, the presence of sin still remains. We are simultaneously sinners and saints. And the simple fact is, sinners sin, and that sin takes all shapes and sizes. When someone confesses a sin to us, we shouldn’t be shocked or suprised. Why would we be shocked or suprised? We should expect people to struggle with anorexia just like we expect people to struggle with pride. We should expect people to struggle with cutting just as much as we expect people to struggle with anger. We should expect people to be afflicted by depression just as much as we expect people to be afflicted by migraine headaches (I say afflicted because in many cases, mental illness has a definitive medical dimension as well as spiritual dimension).

If someone confesses a sin or struggle to you, don’t be shocked. Don’t let sin suprise you or make you feel awkward. Rather, recognize that the person is humbling themselves before you and before God, and give thanks to God for that humility! Then proceed to comfort, encourage, and exhort them. Thank them for opening their life up to you.

And if you struggle with sin, don’t be shocked! In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 Paul writes:

Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

The Corinthian church was composed of men and women who had been saved out of immorality, idolatry, adultery, homosexuality, thievery, greed, drunkeness, arrogance, and corruption. The Corinthians were not defined by their former sins, they were defined by their relationship to Christ. But I am sure those former sins raised their ugly heads even after the Corinthians were born again. When we see our past sins rise up, we shouldn’t be flabbergasted.

Who should you talk to about your battles? Your best bet is to find a wise, mature Christian who also has plenty of war wounds. And don’t be suprised if things feel a bit awkward at first. That’s the nature of confessing sin. But be sure of this: God will give you grace. He always gives grace to the humble, and few things are more humbling then opening up the hidden vaults in our lives.

If we are going to make progress as Christians, the church MUST be a place where we can speak freely. For that to happen, we must recognize that sin still remains in all of us, Jesus is more powerful than our sin, and God wants to use us in the lives of others. Let’s make church a taboo free place.

NOTE: Just to be clear, I am NOT talking about sins that are criminal in nature. If a Christian commits a criminal sin, they are still forgiven, but also must deal with the consequences of that sin.

Why Justification Isn’t Enough for the Christian Life

Remaining sin is the ultimate guerrilla warrior. Though defeated, it still clings tenaciously to its former territory, attacking when we least expect it and hiding where we never thought to find it. It is a shape-shifter, sometimes masquerading as godliness and other times disguising itself in the most innocent of pleasures. It never rests. It will never make peace. It is opposed to every good thought, word, or deed we attempt.

Wow. Just writing that makes me tired.

If you’ve been a Christian for very long, you know that the battle against sin never ends. The good news is that, because we are justified by grace, the guilt of this remaining sin will never be charged against us. Christ has already paid the debt for our greed, our pride, our selfishness, our lust. That is tremendously good news, and encourages us in the fight. But (as heretical as this may sound) the good news of justification by faith alone isn’t enough to live the Christian life.

What? Are you turning legalistic on us, you ask? Isn’t justification – being freed from the guilt of sin – all we need? I’m convinced the answer is no, justification is not all we need to know and it is not enough for the Christian life. Here’s why.

Justification is a marvelous gift, and I must continually remind myself that all my guilt has been washed away by Christ. But the problem is sin doesn’t only make me guilty legally; it also pollutes me morally. Even if I certain that I will not face God’s wrath for my impatient words to my wife, I still want to grow in being more patient! Remaining sin, though forgiven, still dishonors God, hurts me, and hurts other. How is this pollution removed? Are we left to climb the mountain of sanctification by the sweat of moral self-exertion?

Thankfully, no. Sanctification, just as much as justification, is a gift of God in Christ Jesus. For every Christian, the pollution of sin is now and will one day totally be eradicated from our hearts. God does this by not only imputing Christ’s righteousness to us legally (pronouncing us “not guilty”), but also by gradually infusing Christ’s righteousness in us ethically (conforming us to Christ’s image). To use a gardening image, in sanctification God plants the seed of Jesus’ own holiness in our hearts by the Spirit, then waters, tends, and watches over the seedling until it grows into full maturity. The work won’t be completed until Christ returns, true. But an unfinished work is not an unstarted work. If you are a Christian God is conforming you to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29), one day and one degree of glory at a time (2 Cor. 3:18).

Let’s bring this close to home. Are you battling sin today? Has your pride made you defensive? Have your eyes wandered? Were your words harsh? Did you covet your neighbor’s new car or salary? If so, here is the good news of the gospel for you. The guilt of each of those sins is gone. And the fruit of holiness you long for – humility, purity, gentleness, contentment – is yours in Christ. He is perfectly holy and righteous, untainted with any of these sins and possessing every positive grace, and his holiness and righteousness is gradually becoming ours. So confess the sin. Fight with all your strength. Put to death sin and cultivate every gracious impulse in your heart. Because behind every battle God is slowly but surely conforming you into Christ’s image.

“And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).  

Image  by Renaissance Chambara

 

Stop the Pendulum Swinging!

Does it ever seem to you that we Christians have a tendency to regularly flip-flop from one extreme to the other?  I notice in my internal thought world, often after preaching a sermon. Five minutes after stepping out of the pulpit, I’m telling myself my sermon was the worst exposition of Scripture ever inflicted upon God’s people and possibly the origin of several new heresies previously unknown in church history. Then one dear, encouraging saint thanks me and I’m patting myself on the back and acting like I’m a George Whitfield Remix. (I exaggerate…slightly.)

But this pendulum tendency is not only an internal struggle. It takes place externally in the things Christians teach, believe, and tell each other. Let me give you a specific example: sanctification. One the one hand, some say that our problem is that we don’t believe the gospel and are trying too hard to be sanctified. At its extreme, this becomes a “let-God-and-let-God” road to holiness. Stop striving. Stop sweating. Relax. Surrender to God, and let him sanctify you. There’s certainly something appealing to this view, and there’s a truth there – but only in part.

Then there’s the other side of the pendulum. This is the “Christianity-as-moral-self-help” version, a sort of spiritual boot camp in which the real Christians prove their commitment to God by the strength of their resolve. Be strong! Be courageous! The world needs men and women like us! Dare to be a Daniel (Esther, Abraham, David, etc.).

So which is it: let go and let God, or huff and puff your way to holiness?

Actually, neither.

In all fairness, I’m caricaturing both extremes. Most of us are a bit more nuanced in how we think about sanctification. But we all have a tendency to distort the truth by emphasizing only one side of it at the expense of the counterpoint truth. (Do you see what I mean by the flip-flop, pendulum tendency?)  When it comes to growth in Christ, the truth is two-sided: God calls us to work at our sanctification, and he also calls us to totally depend on him. The times when we feel like we’re floating high – you had great devotions, you were patient with your spouse, you had the right word to share with your friend, you witnessed to your neighbor across the fence – were not generated by our own efforts. They are only possible by the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit works as we work, so that every thought or impulse towards godliness is the result of his work in our hearts. Even – perhaps especially – when we are least aware of it. Listen to these wise words from 18th century pastor John Newton:

“Perhaps we take it too much for granted that communications from [God] must bear some kind of sensible impression that they are his, and therefore are ready to give our own industry or ingenuity credit for those performances in which we can perceive no such impression: yet it is very possible that we may be under his influence when we are least aware.” (Letters of Newton, p. 103)

Here is an antidote to resist the swing of the pendulum. You and I can do nothing apart from Christ (John 15:5). But every time we act in obedience to him – whether we are conscious of his enabling power or whether we feel weak and helpless – we can be certain that God is prompting and empowering us. So we act. We step out in godliness. And we believe that as we do so, God is at work.

Philippians 2:12-13: “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Photo by Karen Roe