We live in a day in which personal testimony is considered more powerful than the ordinary means of grace. Many young men who are believed by profession to have entered through the narrow gate that leads to life have become indistinguishable from those that remain on the broad road to destruction. Because succumbing to internet temptation is now considered normative, the church has adopted a false view of the means and fruit of sanctification. Belief in a transformative gospel has given way to salvation by confession of guilt alone. Ungrounded accountability groups coupled with unbiblical candor about one’s darkest sins has replaced the biblical measure for salvation, which is non-delinquency in doctrine and lifestyle.
Perhaps more than ever since the time of the Protestant Reformation, the church needs to recapture a biblical understanding of salvation and quit allowing willful transgressors to shape our soteriology. More than ever, the reality of our standing in Christ, along with God’s covenant promises and warnings, must be understood, believed and relied upon, but first they must be articulated.
The ordinary means of grace:
Growing in the grace and knowledge of our union with Christ’s vicarious work on our behalf is no mere theological exercise for the mind. Indeed, when true theology penetrates the mind and is touched by the Holy Spirit, it is the very fountain of spiritual transformation. In the context of Word, sacrament and prayer, we are transformed only through the renewing of our minds after Christ, without which we do not, nor cannot, offer our bodies a living sacrifice in any way that is holy and acceptable to God. Apart from the transformative power of the ordinary means of grace, released by faith alone, we forever remain conformed to this world and a stranger to biblical sanctification. The Bible is clear, “Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” Galatians 6:8
Realities, promises and warnings:
Any attempt at personal holiness that is not according to faith in the realities, promises and warnings contained in Scripture is not transformative. For what is not of faith is sin. (Romans 12:1-2; 14:23) Conversely, our growth in holiness will be proportional to (a) believing on the authority of Scripture who we are in Christ, (b) trusting in the covenant promises of Christ and (c) heeding Christ’s warnings. These objects of faith are made real to us as we prayerfully receive the whole Christ in Word and sacrament by faith alone. It’s only through even a minimally conscious realization of our union with Christ that we begin to lay hold of God’s covenant promises and heed its warnings. That is what it is to work out our salvation in fear and trembling.We must believe who we are in Christ as we make conscious of God’s covenant blessings and cursings.
First and foremost, the realities (or indicatives):
What is often absent in a “preach yourself the gospel” approach to sanctification is the full orbed ordo salutis. Believers aren’t merely to remind themselves that they are forgiven and declared righteous for the sake of Christ. Although that is a precious reality, there is more sanctifying truth to embrace. We are to apprehend that our judicial pardon and alien righteousness comes with spiritual adoption and definitive sanctification in Christ. Even allowing for an understanding of our having been buried, baptized or hidden in Christ, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and our pardon in him is not without our having been definitively sanctified and declared sons in the Son. Victory over sin entails a heartfelt conviction of the forgiveness of sins, but there are still other gospel realties to receive by faith. These realities are not an addendum to faith but the very source of true Christian piety. When we see ourselves as God sees us, we begin to behave more as we truly are in Christ. This is why the apostle can say, “How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (Romans 6:1)
The incongruity of not living according to a contextual biblical reality:
Effectual calling does not merely result in gifts of repentance and faith that lead to justification but is accompanied by all other saving graces. Through faith in Christ we have not just died to the penalty of sins in Christ, but to sin itself. Contrary to common evangelical thought, the old man is no longer depraved but crucified with Christ once and for all, definitively releasing him from the power of sin in his life. Because we are justified and definitively sanctified, there is an incongruity of yielding our members to ungodliness. Christians are recreated with a position of dignity that makes sin not just incongruous but unsuitable due to our royal standing in Christ.
The penalty of sin, even the pangs of hell, awaited Christ until his earthly mission was finished. After the work of the cross, sin no longer had dominion over Christ. Having entered into Christ’s rest through the great exchange, sin no longer has dominion over the believer because it no longer has dominion over Christ!
An analogy might be helpful. It makes no sense to tell an imprisoned man to live as a free man. Yet it is most sensible to tell a free man to live as a free man! Similarly, the reason we are commanded not to let sin reign in our mortal bodies is because we are dead to sin’s penalty and power. Accordingly, works of righteousness begin with believing the reality of what Christ has accomplished in our stead and reckoning ourselves as we truly are in him, dead to the penalty and dominion of sin because Christ has been crucified and raised from the dead!
So, we are to reckon ourselves as dead to the penalty and power of sin because, in Christ, we are dead to the penalty and power of sin. We are not to obey the lusts of sin because sin is no longer our master. For we have not just died with Christ but by the Holy Spirt been raised with him so that we might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6; Ephesians 1) God would have us delight in the realities of our adoption as sons, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and our definitive break with sin. Taking pleasure in all the entailments of our hope of glory is what it is to walk in newness of life.
Our tendency toward legalism in sanctification:
The Scriptures do not teach we are justified through faith alone so that we might be perfected by works. There is far more good news for the poor in spirit, which crushes our self-righteousness even more than when we first believed. We are not just justified through faith alone but also progressively sanctified by the grace of of faith. Our salvation is faith unto faith, for the righteous shall live by faith. (Romans 1:16-17)
Our sin of forgetting that we are pure and righteous in Christ will lead to immorality. If we live immorally, our election will justifiably become suspect. Without justifiable confidence in our union with Christ, we will become increasingly immoral. We can safely say, God has built into his system of sanctification a symbiotic relationship between assurance, faith and the practice of personal holiness. Similarly, if we confess our sins we will know God’s forgiveness and be cleansed anew. When we receive God’s cleansing, we walk as children of light and our sin will be increasingly abhorred. In that orbit we are more sensitive to our sin, quicker to confess, and more desirous to be cleansed. In the light we see more light, and we loathe the darkness. (2 Peter 1: 1 John 1)
The faith by which we live is not just a matter of believing God’s covenant promises and availing ourselves to the third use of the law, though those spiritual disciplines are essential to Christian living. Indeed, we are to be normed by the commandments of God as we embrace the promises in Christ. Surely, a proper use of the law when wrought by the Spirit can save us from the slavery of antinomianism and the bondage of legalism! Faith in the promises of God and love for the law of God will guide and shape the believer in the beauty of holiness, even as the Christian grows responsibly in liberty of conscience. Notwithstanding, the gospel of the cross must have preeminence in the life of the believer as he endeavors by grace to assimilate the whole counsel of God as he grows in Godliness, perfecting holiness.
Faith, a manner of life:
The conduit for our justification is the same for our sanctification. Again, the righteous shall live by faith. Accordingly, saving faith extends beyond justifying faith unto sanctifying faith. Faith envelops the entirety of the Christian life. We aren’t to receive Christ by faith alone only so that we might live our lives by sight. The Christ whom we have not yet seen is our sanctification. If we have received Christ by faith, it oughtn’t surprise that we are to walk in him by this very faith! “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him.” (Colossians 2:6) Simply stated, we were saved, are being saved, and will be saved by faith.
The Christian life is to be offensively marshalled according to deep meditation that gives way to conviction over the already implications of the reality of the Christ event. It is through embracing the indicatives, (in particular our having died, been raised and seated with the ascended Christ), that the holy commandments of God become a lamp of light rather than a source of discouragement and condemnation. In the hands of the Holy Spirt, the law is good, for it brought us death, but God does not leave his adopted children there. God is not our accuser but our liberator. By reckoning ourselves as having been united to Christ in his sin-bearing life-giving work, as justified sinners we can participate in Christ’s resurrected life in our union with him.
Our position in Christ is a reality whether we’ve begun to understand it or not! But it is only by understanding it more fully that we walk in true holiness, more powerfully and victoriously. Gethsemane and the cross no longer yawn before Christ and, therefore, neither does condemnation await the believer in Christ. Because of that reality, sin is contrary to who we are, for we are not under the judgement of guilt and shame in our union with Christ. Because we are holy and without blemish in Christ, it’s incongruous to live as we too often would. As God’s justified and adopted children, having been set apart, we are to go and sin no more!
Boots on the ground, the battle ahead:
The gospel reality that we are to behold and receive by faith alone is the very foundation for the incongruity of walking in the paths of sin and death. It is in the context of all the entailments of our position in Christ that we seek to obey our Lord and Savior. We are to become who we are in Christ. It is only by faith in the contextual biblical reality that we can delight in the law of the Lord, even meditate on it day and night. With that, we turn to God’s instructions.
The best laid plans:
We’re all prayed up, we are embracing having been baptized into Christ and we are acutely aware of our being seated in heavenly places in Christ. Then we start our day in a fallen sin infested world! The abstract realities are no less there and to be drawn upon, but we need something more suitable in the fog of war. In our weakness, God accommodates us. In the context of our great salvation, the obedience of faith keeps the believer from the evil woman who would reduce the ungodly to a piece of bread. (Proverbs 6:23-27) If that were true for Old Testament saints, then how much more for us who love Christ, that the reproofs of instruction are to be the way of life?
The Bible has much to say about temptation in the moment. Sometimes those instructions are accompanied by explicit promises and warnings, and sometimes they’re just assumed as we presuppose the balance of Scripture. For instance, we are to resist the devil so that he would flee. We are to flee youthful lusts so we might pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace with the brethren. We are to put off sin and put on its counter virtue. We are to forget what is past and press-on in holiness. We are not to speak excessively about, or dwell upon, sinful practices – even in “accountability groups”! We are to yield our members to righteousness not uncleanness. We are to avail ourselves to God’s promise of a way of escape.
Suffice to say, all such precepts and promises can be catalogued under both tables of the law. They entail our relationship with God and our fellow man. The immediate point at hand, however, is that when temptation presses in, the believer who has by grace saturated his mind with biblical realities, principles and promises affords many points of conviction and deliverance by the Holy Spirit. Grace begets grace. In other words, consciously attending to the word of God is more powerful in resisting sin than conscience alone. God works through means of spiritual renewal, as we reap what we sow.
Putting this all together:
The apostle Peter tells us that in all diligence we are to pursue moral excellence, which gives way to knowledge, self-control, perseverance, Godliness, kindness and love. Three things of note – the chain of Godliness is triggered by the initial pursuit of moral excellence. Secondly, those who lack these qualities are blind, having forgotten their purification from past sins. Lastly, we are to be diligent to make certain we are God’s elect, for as long as we practice these things, we can be assured we’ve truly received Christ, if indeed we have escaped the corruption of the world on account of lust. (1 Peter 1:5-10)
If we must sin, let us sin with our eyes wide open:
The more spiritual truth we possess by grace, the more potential of being transformed by grace through the renewing of our minds. To deny the basic tenet that grace begets grace is to deny God’s gracious means of sanctifying sinners. When we are not in a moment of temptation, we might also consider reflecting deeply on the truths we sometimes deny when sin encroaches. With a deeper understanding of the workings of the heart and will, such denials might be brought to mind at moments of testing, even becoming our means of escape.
When we are tempted, let’s admit to ourselves:
1. Sins of commission are an act of the will. When we willfully sin, we desire at the moment of temptation to disobey more than we desire to obey.
2. When desire to sin is consummated, on a second order we approve not just of our sin but of our desire to sin.
3. When we entertain sin, we desire more to contemplate its pleasure than to flee with alacrity. We’re desiring to be tempted! (Romans 7 in no way undermines the workings and rationality of the will or the metaphysics of intentions. Consider also the principle of occasion as it relates to desiring to be tempted.)
4. On a third order, when we sin, we have already desired to be self-deceived in order that we might sin without conviction. Indeed, sin is exceedingly sinful in its deception. We do well to understand the intricate workings of our hearts, even compatibilist freedom.
5. When it comes to biblical culpability, sin is not a matter of “I can’t resist” but a matter of “I refuse to resist.” Refusing the ministry of the Holy Spirt comes with the high price of will-formation, just as exercising ourselves unto Godliness comes with spiritual fortification and a promise for this life and the next. (1Timothy 4:7-8)
6. If one repeatedly commits the same sin over and over again, he would do well to liken himself to one in a ditch. Every additional willful transgression is akin to burrowing farther away from light and life. The deeper and more narrow the ditch, the more difficult it will become to escape with each passing jump on the step of the shovel. To continue to dig farther is to further endanger the me of tomorrow. After all, is it not true that “the me of today is reaping the bondage of all my yesterdays”? Hell is on the other side from where we began digging, not life. Quit digging!
7. To think to ourselves “I’ll confess after I’ve fulfilled my desire to sin” is to deny that contrition, repentance and faith is of grace alone. To play that game is to presume that we can muster up our own repentance. It’s to confuse the grace of Godly sorrow with the human effort of worldly sorrow. Tears of Esau come to mind. We recall that no repentance was found for him, though the tears were plenteous just the same.
8. When we willfully sin, we deny that the spiritual consequences of sin are more lasting than sin’s fleeting pleasures. We desire the lusts of the flesh more than God’s good pleasure and our own spiritual health.
9. If we refuse to take drastic measures to overcome bondage to pet sins, even if it requires forgoing technological devices and disqualifying oneself for school or certain careers, we are not yet serious about choosing life over death. Jesus couldn’t have been clearer. (Mark 9:45) (As one pastor friend of mine recently said, the addictive nature of such sins only raises the stakes. Maybe not just the hand but the entire arm needs to be severed from the body if we are to take Christ seriously.)
10. If we refuse to enter soberly into a lawful vow to forsake an enslaving sin, we cherish the sin and have no intention of forsaking it forever. We’re playing fast and loose with God and our soul.
Now one last thing. If we aren’t getting victory over some particular sin, yet all ten of those observations are true, then prayerfully ask God why he hasn’t seen fit to sanctify you in this area. (Biblical answers only, please.)
Without true holiness no man shall see the Lord. (WCF 13.1) Although there is remaining corruption such that may prevail for a time, the Spirit of Christ sanctifies the regenerate so that he not only overcomes but moves on to perfecting holiness in the fear of the God. (WCF 13:1-3; 2 Corinthians 7:2; Hebrews 12:4) Biblical sanctification must become bedrock for the church if we’re to see through this deception of the evil one together.
Somewhere along the line too many Christians have adopted the idea that those who were once in bondage to particular sins are thereby more qualified to minister in those areas of temptation than those who’ve not struggled due to God’s grace. At the very least, that’s to deny that Christ was the best possible counselor. Moreover, many who are sought for counsel are not only relatively young, but also have not proven themselves for very long! The wise man will seek counsel from those God has been pleased to make mighty in the Lord. (Appeals to King David aren’t calculated under the entailments of the New Covenant. They ignore the promises of Ezekiel 36; the ascension of the God-man; the outpouring of the Holy Spirit; the sacraments; and the completed canon.)
Therapy sessions and accountability groups are not for those who successfully resist temptation but for those who repeatedly and willfully succumb to temptation. Such groups can carve out a class of hyphenated Christian who believe a lie about their identity and besetting sin. That we live in a body of death does not deny the biblical nature of definitive and progressive sanctification in Christ.
Accountability groups can implicitly convey that the sin of focus is not damning. We’d never have a therapy group for murderers and child molesters. The thought of such ministries is patently absurd because of the urgency of the need for repentance and the simplicity of the solution, which is repent or perish. Yet, obviously, there is a perceived complexity and lack of urgency when it comes to internet sin, hence the supposed appropriateness of perpetual accountability groups. This is where I’m often reminded by group-sympathizers that this particular sin is unique in its addictive qualities. Alleged reasons for willful transgressions too easily become subtle excuses. As noted before, that only raises the stakes. Addiction is all the more reason to flee and not engage in prolonged discussion. Prolonged discussion lends credence to the notion that such sin must be normative among true believers and denies the patterns of life that mark the unconverted. The approach denies the the simplicity of the antidote, which is fleeing in desperation to Christ, because it misunderstands the severity of the sin, even its ultimate penalty.
Furthermore, one who is utterly disgusted by particular sins of the past does not desire to talk about them. People desire to talk about their past sins when they are not yet repulsed by them. One “ministry” I recently learned of even sells self-identification gear! Such spiritual juvenility is utterly foreign to the teaching of Scripture.
It seems we assess certain sins with an axiom in place, that those who are enslaved by such sins are saved. That’s a biblically unsubstantiated given:
Transparency has become the new test of a credible profession of faith. If we preach that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God, let’s see what happens! Without such a confrontational ministry of the Word, how can we possibly distinguish, not infallibility but by biblical precept, (a) those whom God would be pleased to sanctify by such warnings, from (b) those who are dead in their sins and would not respond in repentance and faith to Christ’s warnings of eternal hell? Without such biblically warranted warnings, all we are left to go on is the subjective assessment of the sincerity of one’s candor, as opposed to the biblical bar of God’s sanctifying grace in the lives of professing believers.
In the final analysis, too many will be “saved as by fire“ because we’re not preaching hell fire indiscriminately to those who choose to live in darkness. We’re abandoning true believers to live as unbelievers, robbing them of the joy of their salvation and usefulness in the church, because we refuse to preach:
By not ministering covenant warnings and sanctions, how do we not put God to test? Let’s test God and see if he won’t save his people without the means of gospel threatenings! Our fear of speaking hard truth is too often born out of misguided self-preservation. We want a low bar to be judged by, so we offer a low bar to others. That’s not love but a cowardly perversion of the golden rule. How about hating our own sin first, then the sin of others? Why not remove specs and, in humility, logs too? One may not pronounce blessing who’s not willing to pronounce cursing. Praise God for the prophets of old!
It’s interesting that those who struggle with particular debilitating sins often seem to think they know better about how to get the victory, no matter how young and unsuccessful they are. Their mentors could’ve been those who still struggle without victory and were not biblically forthright with their approach, (perhaps because they too were coddled, or even wanted to be coddled). False teachers as these invariably believe that Christians needn’t be progressively sanctified in all areas of life. This contemporary message presents fresh application regarding those that “promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.” (2 Peter 2:19) It’s like the self-identifying homosexual-Christian who claims that in thirty years God hasn’t seen fit to deliver him from same sex attraction. What if we get to heaven only to learn that many such men are in hell!
Scripture’s warnings, let God be true:
What do the Scriptures mean by the following passages? (Italics emphasis mine)
Outside [in hell] are the dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. Revelation 22:15
Or do you not know the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers…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. 1 Corinthians 6:9–11
For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure… has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Ephesians 5:5
And some save, snatching them out of the fire…. Jude 1:23
Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly. Proverbs 26:11; 2 Peter 2:22
For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience… Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness but rather expose them. For it is shameful even speak of the things they do in secret. Ephesians 5:5-6, 11-12
No exegesis required.
Pattern of life speaks louder and more clearly than words:
Sometimes church members who say they’re sorry for their sins show no progression in personal holiness and sanctification. Any elder worth his salt understands that acknowledging guilt and saying words of repentance does not necessarily preclude ecclesiastical censure. After all, a thief isn’t always stealing; a gossip isn’t always talebearing; and a violent husbands isn’t always beating his wife. Patterns of life are relevant to the courts of the church.
Given the erroneous axiom that candor and group transparency is sufficient for salvation, we will never be able to tease out who would be sanctified by the warnings of Scripture. We will never distinguish the fruit of the saints from the fruit of the unconverted as long as we refuse to issue biblical warnings against sexual impurity. The means of grace is deposited primarily in the faithful ministry of the Word; too many believers are being abandoned to their sin and will be saved “as by fire“ because they were not given the warnings of sacred writ.
A pattern of struggle and repeated failure to overcome in Christ does not foster personal assurance of salvation, nor may it be ministered to with gospel assurance of salvation. Eventually, admonition for willful transgressions must be accompanied with warnings of hell fire and excommunication. Repent or perish is a biblical principle. To call that manipulation or salvation by works is antinomianism. It’s to keep true believers in bondage! (2 Peter 2)
We’re talking about a practice that did not exist decades ago. If what I’m being told is true, we’re losing the battle. The devil has come up with a device that the church of Christ is ill equipped to deal with by the ordinary means of grace. Well, I refuse to believe that!
We are sanctified by the means of grace. Preeminent is the ministry of the Word. It is the living and abiding Word that gives life to the sacraments and prayer, as we live according to the realities, promises and warnings revealed in Scripture. I am more inclined to believe that we are ministering the wrong message than such sin cannot be overcome. For I believe, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16-17 And I believe the principle that accompanies, “…you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” 1 John 4:4
We need to take the kingdom of God by force, and repent of the effeminate, defeatist Christianity of our day. The young man with a conquered attitude that is coddled rather than lovingly yet firmly instructed is being treated in an infamous manner foreign to biblical Christianity. We’re not training men to be men, but men to remain boys. Stop it, elders!
Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love. 1 Cor 16:13-14
A final plea:
For those of you in bondage, who have not been willing enough to extricate yourselves, I plead with you to go to a Godly man, not necessarily a peer, who will point you to a loving and gracious Savior, yet understands the power of God to save to the uttermost. Do not seek counsel from those who do not see this sin as accompanied by death and condemnation if not forsaken. In other words, avoid those who deny “such were some of you” and “if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell.” Drastic measures are needed, not conferences and a life of small groups.
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