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The Importance of Teaching Sanctification

Teachers and pastors frequently avoid talking about sanctification. Some of the reasons include:

  1. The very word “sanctification” sounds difficult and over-theological
  2. There is a fear of perfectionism
  3. There is a fear of the judgmental spirit that goes with perfectionism
  4. Sanctification doesn’t really sound all that graceful
  5. We might have people believing that their works earn salvation

A Detour on Christian Perfection

When I first joined a United Methodist congregation, I had the idea that Methodists would know a great deal about John Wesley. One Sunday night I discovered how wrong I was.

I had been invited to teach on the doctrine of Christian perfection as taught by John Wesley. In preparation, I researched the forms of this doctrine expressed in Methodist doctrinal statements. I found that in the United Methodist Discipline there were actually two statements, one derived from the Methodist Episcopal Church and the other from the United Church of the Brethren. With a typical Methodist willingness to leave wiggle room in doctrinal beliefs, both were included.

As I began to teach that Sunday night, I started with this question: “Did you know that we have not one, but two doctrines of Christian perfection in the Discipline?”

I was greeted by complete silence. Finally, someone raised their hand and asked, “We have a doctrine of Christian perfection?”

This surprised me, as it was a doctrine with which I did not agree, at least in some forms, yet I had thought it would be thoroughly know in Methodism.

In his book A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (also available online as a PDF) John Wesley collects his various statements on the topic. It’s worth reading. He notes the point on which I disagree most completely, the idea of knowing one has attained this state and testifying to it. I might also mention a nice, short introduction from Energion Publications, Holiness of Heart and Life by Allan R. Bevere. It will give you a good introduction.

When the word “perfection” is added to “sanctification,” people are sure to get nervous. I bring it up here because since John Wesley, it will inevitably come up. For the record, while I agree that God can create in the believer whatever holiness God desires, I believe such holiness is impossible to measure or to know.

Back to Sanctification

Shouldn’t we avoid talking too much about sanctification in order to steer clear of perfection and perfectionism?

I believe that the effect in the church is quite the opposite. By avoiding talking about sanctification, and how it occurs, we open the door to all varieties of perfectionism and performance-driven living. These are destructive of people’s lives, both through the pride and spiritual superiority generated by a feeling of good performance and Divine favor and from the discouragement and apathy that results from a failure to attain whatever level one expects.

A Note from Paul

I recall my class in Exegesis of Ephesians in graduate school. We made it to the end of Ephesians 3. We missed this: “I implore you then–I, a prisoner for the Lord’s sake: as God has called you, live up to your calling” (Ephesians 4:1 [REB]).

Thunder from the Pulpit

Like Paul, pastors are going to preach to their congregations about doing things. They will talk about stewardship, informing congregations that their money should be surrendered to God. They’ll talk about the work that needs to be done around the church. They’ll admonish parishioners to do things in their community and perhaps the world.

Much of this will be good. Many (not all) of these things need to be done. My resources do belong to God and I should use them as God calls me to.

So when people enter the church, they are often presented with a litany of stuff they are supposed to do.

The result? People who tend to do things charge off to do things. People who tend to sit in pews, sit in pews. Both sets of people very often feel some sense of guilt for the things not done, and superiority or inferiority to the others.

Yes, the feeling of superiority works on both sides. I’m a doer, and I have heard pointed remarks about my doing from those who think I should be less of a doer. I have heard similar remarks regarding others. There are those who can condemn you for doing too much while asking you to do more. The doers, like me, have a strong tendency to consider ourselves superior to the pew sitters.

The Answer in Sanctifying Grace

As Paul goes on in Ephesians, he talks about many things we need to do. Note the number of times the word “gift” appears in the text. Finally, in chapter 6, we get to the word finally: “Finally, find your strength in the Lord, in his mighty power” (Ephesians 6:10 [REB]).

Paul can do it this way because he has made sure to emphasize God’s prevenient and justifying grace, the gift of being part of the family apart from anything you do. Elsewhere, he expresses this in a more compact fashion: “… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in you both to will and to do God’s good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).

Sanctification, like everything else, is a gift. It is not a possession or a call to personal pride. It is not something we have to or are able to measure. We need to talk about this gift. God is working in each and every person. There is no comparing the journey of one person to that of another. There is no more pride, boasting, or shame in sanctification than there is in justification.

I’ve been studying 1 Corinthians 12-15 with my Sunday School class. We just finished that section. Now the whole of 1 Corinthians can be considered Paul addressing this very issue. He sees spiritual pride causing division. The “I am better” factions start with boasting about the person who preached to them or who baptized them. There are some super-pride people who boast that they are connected only to Christ. They are the real Christians unlike all those other people, who look to some pastor or evangelist.

This sense of spiritual superiority led off in many directions, as it always does. There is nothing so dangerous as a person with a sense of their own spiritual superiority. We like that feeling of being better than. Some of the Corinthians thought they were better because of their spiritual gifts. Paul stomped all over that in 1 Corinthians 12-14.

Paul is teaching practical sanctification in the entire book of 1 Corinthians. He’s also talking about how it can be derailed.

One way it can be derailed is by ignoring it. If we don’t teach people to do anything, well, they won’t be proud of their doing. It doesn’t work that way. Without an understanding of the gift and gratitude for that gift, we head down performance-drive, or performance diminished paths.

Conclusion

Only if we teach that sanctification is a work of God, graciously given by God, measured by God, and judged by God can we talk about things to do and have any hope of not generating spiritual pride, criticism, judgment, and finally factions and schism.

Featured photo credit 117597185 © Antonio Guillem | Dreamstime.com

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One Comment

  1. On this subject, I find Rom 8:29 to be encouraging. “Whom he foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son”. This is the goal of sanctification, to make us conformed to the image of Christ. And it says we’re predestined to get there (one of the things I take from this is that, while we often see the purpose of salvation as to get us into heaven, I believe God’s purpose in salvation is to make us like Jesus. Getting to heaven is essentially a side effect).

    One issue with this subject is that, in English, ‘perfect’ and ‘perfection’ carries a heavy connotation of ‘flawless’. My understanding is that the Greek word often translated ‘perfect’ in the New Testament does not carry this connotation. It is derived from a word meaning an end, and denotes something that has reached its end. The connotation complete, or mature is more appropriate. So the term Christian Perfection might be better understood as ‘Christian full maturity’.

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