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In Praise of Sanctification

As Christians, we know only too well our imperfections and failings. We indeed continue to fall short of our calling to be holy as God is holy, to image him in our character and conduct. We daily struggle with sin and must continue to repent and confess our many trespasses. Genuine self-examination prevents us from succumbing to delusions of perfectionism. Instead, we readily acknowledge that we not only were wretched sinners who have been saved solely by the amazing grace of God through Jesus Christ, but that we yet continue to sin against a holy God, justly deserving by our present offenses his wrath and condemnation.

  • Joseph P. Braswell,
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As Christians, we know only too well our imperfections and failings. We indeed continue to fall short of our calling to be holy as God is holy, to image him in our character and conduct. We daily struggle with sin and must continue to repent and confess our many trespasses. Genuine self-examination prevents us from succumbing to delusions of perfectionism. Instead, we readily acknowledge that we not only were wretched sinners who have been saved solely by the amazing grace of God through Jesus Christ, but that we yet continue to sin against a holy God, justly deserving by our present offenses his wrath and condemnation.

Acceptance in Christ

As Christians we are simul iustus et peccator, being accepted and approved by God only in Christ and according to his righteous standing graciously imputed to us, while being in ourselves, by virtue of our sins (except they be mercifully forgiven), altogether worthy of reprobation and death — children of wrath. We know that we remain semper peccator, that we suffer many lapses in our character and conduct, committing grievous offenses against God and man in thought, word, and deed, in both sins of omission and sins of commission. We know existentially, in our own personal experience, the truth that we are forgiven sinners and that our sanctification remains a most difficult path that ever requires diligent effort as we struggle perseveringly (though without complete and total success) toward righteousness of life against remaining sin. We cannot but be humbled by the realization of how far short of God's holy standard we in fact fall and must accordingly remain semper penitens, fleeing for refuge to God's infinite mercy and seeking and imploring his grace through Jesus Christ our Lord.

True Progress

Yet, if we are true Christians, we know as well that there is progress and victory, that righteousness is being realized and besetting sin is being overcome. We know that we are not just forgiven sinners, sinners no different from unbelievers save that we are graciously pardoned; we have experienced real change and hear real fruit of new life unto good works of true holiness. We know the power of the Spirit of God in our lives and a substantial healing of our sin-flawed characters. The struggle does not keep us at a standstill in the status quo of sinfulness; our labors are not in vain as we wrestle with sin. Our daily repentance is not just godly sorrow for our continually errant ways, but brings forth amendment of life and the works befitting repentance. We indeed manage to mortify the old man and the works of the flesh to manifest the fruit of the Spirit. We walk in the Spirit and in the light in newness of life with new hearts and renewed minds, experiencing sanctification and growing in grace evermore approximating the image of Christ.  No, we indeed are not just forgiven sinners; we are new men, created in Christ Jesus unto good works. We in fact experience that we, as Christians, are ex quadam parte iustus, while yet being nevertheless ex quadam parte peccator. Accordingly, while eschewing any temptation to self-righteousness and remembering always that we are saved solely by grace, we must recognize that God is renewing and transforming us so that we do indeed differ in practice from those whom he has not redeemed, for Christ is our justification and our sanctification, delivering us from the power and dominion of sin along with his removing our guilt and discharging our penalty. There should be some real evidence of God's grace in our lives.

While it is true that we can never say we have no sin (1 Jn. 1:8-10), it is wrong for us to concentrate so exclusively on our receipt of forgiveness that we disparage the overcoming of sin in our lives by progressive sanctification. Sanctification is no small thing and ought not to be treated lightly as though insignificant. It cannot compete with justification (as though, through the progress of sanctification in making us increasingly more righteous in character and conduct, our justification by the imputation of Christ's "alien" righteousness becomes less necessary and we become acceptable to God in ourselves), but it is to be duly appreciated in its own right as a wonderful gift of God, and it is to be pursued by us with all diligence as our holy calling.

Maintaining Balance

Careful balance is called for here. We must not deceive ourselves about our sins, but we must also not despair of victory and think of ourselves as merely forgiven sinners. A morbid obsession and preoccupation with our sins can paralyze us. It can cripple our walk in paths of righteousness and is in fact a profound failure to acknowledge a glorious work of God with joy, praise, and thanksgiving. It is as equally false and self-deceptive for us to see ourselves as only sinners as it is for us to conceive of ourselves as perfectly sanctified and sinless. In both cases, we do not judge with righteous judgment in authentic self-examination wherein we think God's thoughts after him and appropriate his judgments. We are now saints, righteous ones who yet sin, not sinners, and this is not merely nominal; we are constitutively redefined as righteous. We are in the Spirit, not in the flesh, and our self-image must reflect this truth and reality. We must acknowledge the definitive break with sin and the flesh as those who have definitively put off the old man and have put on the new man of the renewed image of God in Christ. It is not simply the case that we have an imputed righteousness which is alien and extrinsic (outside us).

We have been effectively transferred out of the sphere of existence under sin-power into the sphere of the Spirit of righteousness that sets us free to be people of God and live unto him in holiness and righteousness with newness of life. We are to reckon as true this new state of affairs and be what we are. As light in the Lord, we begin (perhaps falteringly at first, with "baby steps") to walk as children of light (Eph. 5:8). The sons of God begin to conform to that image and act like sons (7 Jn. 3:13).

False Self-image

We can be hindered in our walk by a false self-image that robs us of the true confidence of overcoming faith. Our sanctification depends in large measure on our outworking expression of our self-conception, for "as [a man] thinketh in his heart, so is he" (Pr. 23:7). Paul's point in Romans 6 is that we are to recognize what is the reality of our new situation and to act on it, counting it as true and re-imaging ourselves in terms of it. We are made dead unto sin by our co-crucifixion with Christ (united to him and, in him, partaking of his death to sin), so we therefore are to reckon ourselves dead to sin by faith and live as those dead to sin and no longer hound to its service. There is a radical and principal difference between covenant-breakers and covenant-keepers that transcends a mere change in legal standing (our forensic justification) to reorient our very existence to life unto God, and this is an existential change in our condition that regenerates us and constitutes us as righteous, translating us from fleshly existence to spiritual life. Only as we act on this truth will sin have no dominion over us, for by failing to realize our death to sin, we operate under the false assumption that we continue under sin's effective sway in bondage to sin. By that false assumption we surrender ourselves to sin, allowing it to reign over us in virtual denial of the power of super-abounding grace. We in effect acknowledge sin's claim over us and empower it to take possession of us by our ascribing to it a power and dominion it does not in fact possess. We deceive ourselves into being sinners and thus give place to sin in our lives.

Biblically-Based Despair?

Some perversely justify this attitude of despair and resignation by appeal to passages such as Rom. 7:14-25 and Gal. 5:17. An erroneous interpretation of such passages justifies our "forgiven sinner" self-conception, seemingly warranting our post-conversion confession that we are yet "carnal, sold under sin" (Rom. 7:14) and that, because "the flesh lusts against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh" in contrariety with each other, "we cannot do what we will" (Gal. 5:17). If we conceive of our present condition in these terms, this defeatist self-understanding prevents us from appreciating fully the force and power of God's constitutively redefining of us as those effectively set free from sin and made servants of righteousness. Thus, a proper understanding of these passages can aid us in understanding ourselves to be overcomers by faith. How ought we then to read these passages?

In Galatians 5:16 Paul has already informed Christians that if we walk by the Spirit, we will not fulfil the desires of the flesh, for we will be led of the Spirit (v. 18) to produce fruit of the Spirit (v. 22-23). Obviously then, it cannot be the case that the flesh's lusting against the Spirit prevents the hearing of spiritual fruit or in any way circumvents our walking in the Spirit and the Spirit's leading us forward in this walk. The gist of 5:16-23 is that of overcoming the flesh and triumphing over it unto a productive spiritual existence in which works of the flesh are not manifested in our lives. The warfare of flesh and Spirit is not an internal struggle within the individual believer as between two opposing natures that equally constitute his concrete existence. Any such interpretation of v. 17 is contextually precluded. Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its lusts (v. 24).

Gal. 5:17 refers hack to themes from previous discussion in Gal. 4:21-31: the epic redemptive-historical struggle between the children of the flesh and the children of the Spirit, between the children of the freewoman and the children of the bondswoman, between the Law-seed and the Promise-Seed.

Paul has argued throughout the epistle in terms of a two-age cosmic-apocalyptic framework wherein the Mosaic Covenant (the Law) belongs to this world-order (the old creation-order) and to this present age, thus belonging to the order of flesh (cf. Gal. 1:4; 3:1-5; 4:4:3, 9-10; 6:14-15). This is the  fundamental problem with the Law in light of the new-creational order in Christ of Spirit and explains why the Judaizing movement represents a return to that which is weak and beggarly. It is because Christ delivered us out of this old-creational age/order that he has redeemed us from the Law's  jurisdiction, so that, as new-creational beings, we are not under the Mosaic Law.1

Now, Paul broadens his criticism beyond the focus on only the Law to one which comprehends as well the more basic root problem of  flesh (of which Law is only a part and one form of manifestation). Having identified the problem of Law as a problem of flesh, Paul is no longer simply concerned with the Law as a sphere of existence; he now attacks the whole sphere of existence that is fleshly existence in citizenship in the old creation of this present evil age.

As we read Gal. 5:17, we must hear in mind that flesh is a concept intended to refer that constitutive sphere of existence in which the old (Adamic) humanity lives and moves and has its being. It is the solidarity of this humanity in its citizenship in this world-order that is under sin. Thus, flesh denotes a determinative relation to the Adamic world as the mode of human existence hound to the old order and participating therein.

The Actual Meaning

Thus, Paul expands the perspective on the great cosmic struggle from that of the redemptive-historical warfare between the children of the Promise and the children of the flesh. He "mythologically" hypothesizes the concept of flesh (metaphorically reifying and personifying this human condition) so as to depict in an objectified projection the perennial struggle as at bottom the battle between the opposing powers of flesh and Spirit. Men are either subject to the reign of one or the other of these mutually exclusive and principally antithetical dominions, such that "ye cannot do the things that ye would."

The desires created by the one stand contrary to those created by the other, and men are controlled and ruled by one or the other, belonging to one or the other of these two jurisdictions.

The power of flesh will not allow its slaves to bring forth fruit of the Spirit to righteousness and life (that which the Law is inherently incapable of giving); neither will the Spirit allow those who belong to his dominion to bring forth works of the flesh. For this reason the Galatians, if they truly belong to Christ, are not free to follow the children of the flesh, nor need they be subject to the Law in order to bring forth righteousness.

Those in the Spirit are not debtors to the flesh and are not hound by the principles of a fleshly order — including Judaism. In Rom. 7:14-25 we are not dealing with the experience of the Christian. The text deals with Old-Covenant Israel (Paul, as a Jew, speaks as representative of the Jews under the time of the Law). Israel under the Law remained in the flesh and thus recapitulated Adam's experience of transgression and slavery under sin. Israel, as covenant son, stood corporately as a second Adam, but as the people were sons of the first Adam, Israel could not overcome the common Adamic condition to which all men were subject (Rom. 5:12-14, 20). Sin empowered the flesh and held it in bondage, so that even the godly Jews — those rejoicing in the good and spiritual gift of the Law of God — experienced the existential condition of condemnation and death, unable to be subject to the holy Law in their carnal state.

Experiencing their own impotence and belonging to a sinful people, they knew sin (Rom. 3:20) and therefore death and wrath, even amid the remission of sins. They longed for an end to the time of captivity in which they dwelt. The godly remnant of true Israel under the Old Covenant could only cry out for deliverance as the Law worked wrath and provoked transgression. The coming of Christ accomplished what the Law-economy could not do (Rom. 8:1-4), so that sin would not have dominion over those who are under grace rather than Law (Rom. 6:14). The now of Rom. 8:1 announces the great redemptive-historical transition from the Law-economy to the economy of the Spirit after Christ has come, signaling freedom to the captives and the ability to produce righteousness.

Thus, neither of these two passages affords any basis for believing that we remain merely forgiven sinners, that we — despite being justified — are yet in bondage to sin and should think of ourselves as helpless and wretched. Paul knows nothing of such impotency and gives no excuse to those who would continue in sin or fail to produce fruit of righteousness (cf. Rom. 8:1-14), and he repeatedly warns against such self-deception (Gal. 6:7-9). We would do well therefore to define ourselves as saints or covenant-keepers, not as sinners, emphasizing the reality of changed lives by God's empowering presence, and then strive to live up to that self-image in the outworking of that belief in our praxis.

Victory in Living

A victorious Christian life is not lived above the fray, but in the midst of it. It is not without its momentary setbacks and defeats amid the overall advance. The victory in this life remains but a partial (rather than complete) overcoming of sin, being but the firstfruits that provide us with a foretaste of the reign of righteousness to come. We must not be lulled into the self-deluded complacency of perfectionism, but must remain circumspect and watchful, diligently keeping the heart and resisting evil. Yet we must not disparage sanctification by a misplaced emphasis on the mercy of forgiveness, as though it were the be-all and end-all of our redemption. We must not despise nor discount the work of God in us. We must expect and work for victory (the glory of God by lives that are to the praise of the glory of his grace) and manifest, by the fruit of our obedience to God, the power of God in changing sinners into saints. As Christians we ought to be characterized by our theonomic obedience and not simply by the supposed forgiveness we have for our disobedience and carnality. The world ought to see the difference.

  • It is a serious mistake to assume that Pauline statements such as this speak directly to the theological thesis of Theonomy in Christian ethics, as though Paul's anti-Law statements run counter to the Theonomic thesis and serve to refute it. Such an assumption is a category mistake that confuses the perspective of Biblical theology with that of systematic theology. Paul is not speaking here from a moral point of view about the eternal relevance and authority of the moral law (a theological concept and category in dogmatic systems — cf. The Westminster Confession of Faith, chap. 19). Were he doing so, his statements would apply to the Decalogue as much as to any other aspect or precept of the Mosaic economy. Paul speaks from a redemptive-historical perspective concerning the Sinaitic Covenant in toto, arguing against it as a covenantal economy. While he is not simply dismissing a part of the Mosaic system, such as the ceremonial law (according to a division of the whole into ceremonial, judicial, and moral laws), Paul is concerned with the whole Mosaic Law from a specific perspective which emphasizes its cultic character as Old Covenant: an order that is typological-anticipatory and provisional in nature. It is as Sinaitic-Covenantal Law given to Israel through Moses and defining the identity and story of the Jews that Paul dismisses it as outdated and terminated, and only in this sense does  Christ/Spirit/faith replace Mosaic Law in constituting a New-Covenantal community that is not restricted to Jews. The righteous ethic (or equity) of the Law (qua moral law) remains in force, fulfilled in the Spirit by love, and it is the content of this ethic — not questions of identity and boundary — with which Theonomy (as a matter of the normative or deontological aspect of Christian ethics) is concerned. We may here note Paul's distinction between the cultic, symbolic significance of the "righteousness (dikaiosyne) of the [Mosaic] Law," as it served redemptive-historically to set Jews apart from Gentiles in terms of covenantal status (the Jews as a peculiar, ritually holy people of God), and the "righteous requirements (dikaioma) of the Law," as these set forth God's enduring standards of ethical behavior (the regulative function of the Law-ethic as opposed to the constitutive role of the Law within the Mosaic Covenant to Israel vis a vis the nations).

  • Joseph P. Braswell

The late Joseph P. Braswell did undergraduate and graduate work in philosophy at the University of South Florida, but his real interest was in theology and Biblical studies. He published several articles in various journals, including the Westminster Theological Journal, Journal of Christian Reconstruction, and the Chalcedon Report.

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