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TAKE THE ELEVATOR
DENOMINATIONAL AND THEOLOGICAL SQUABBLING
Did you know there was a time when Arminians and Calvinists used to square off to do battle against each other? Did you know that those battles produced mountains of pages of written debates?
Seems strange to us now, doesn't it? We have reached a place where only discerning students in the seminaries even recognize an Arminian when they see one. The rest of us run into them occasionally, but it is rarely part of our daily conversation.
I guess it's a good thing the old strifes are over. One thing the church certainly does not need is more civil war. We have enough as it is!
DID WE LOSE ANY THING OF SUBSTANCE?
However, when those battles faded into history, I wonder if we didn't lose something valuable along with them. Think about it. Why was there so much sound and fury in the first place? Were those noisy preachers of yesteryear just hairsplitting demagogues spoiling for a fight? Or did the issues they raised warrant all the tumult? If so, we have indeed, lost something because precious lilt is presently being said about the supposed truths, which moved them to draw their blades.
Perhaps one of the very greatest of all those truths had to do with sanctification.
The word appears in virtually every statement of faith. It had a nice ring to it. It sounds solemn, solid and biblical. One can hardly imagine an evangelical believer refusing to admit that honored term into his creed. Why then has it been so persistently controversial? I would suggest that the answer lies not in its shape, but in its content! Not I its form, but in its significance.
Consider the following example from World War II. The egg-like orb with the fins at one end would scarcely have gotten a second glance from the unpracticed eye. It was a bit fatter than the usual bomb. Beyond that there was nothing in its appearance to suggest anything radically different. But when it burst over Hiroshima, it was obvious to the whole world that is was powerful, almost beyond imagination. When its contents were seen for what they really were, it changed an entire globe!
The same is true of "sanctification." It is the content of the word, which is so full of power and thus so feared and fought over!
Frankly, I'm not interested in starting a new controversy, or heating up and old one. However, if there is even a remote chance that there is power locked up in the term, "sanctification," I think it is worth a careful investigation. You and I are most certainly in need of all the power we can get! So, I invite you to a fresh exploration of an age-old idea.
THE PREREQUISITE FOR SANCTIFICATION
I begin on very safe ground, shoulder to shoulder with all my fellow believers: sanctification can never begin in a sinner. It is exclusively for saints! This, in turn, means that certain minimal things must be true in the life to make an individual a candidate for sanctification.
If this seems too self-evident to warrant discussing, please recall that the world is filled with struggling religionists bent upon cleaning up their acts without having first been converted to Christ. They ring doorbells, sell flowers, pass literature, endure hardships, vow vows and mumble over beads. They spin prayer wheels, deny themselves food, shave their heads and wrap themselves in robes. They even wade into stinking streams to purge away their foulness. In short, they exhaust themselves in mind and body in almost every conceivable way in their efforts to get holy!
TRAGIC PRACTICE OF THE SAME ANTICS
Tragically, many of the same exercises have been practiced within the pale of Christendom- and for the self-same reasons- achievement of holiness! Entire generations of church kids once grew up with the impression that they would make God happy id they refrained form bowling and never wore short sleeves or saw a play. However well intentioned these prohibitions were to their originators, they conveyed the distinct impression that holiness was gained by conformity to a check-list of externals. Sadly, many of the youngsters who conformed to the list never got around to converting to Christ.
Which brings us to the point, "The prerequisite for sanctification is conversion."
GOD DOES THE ACT OF SANCTIFICATION, NOT US!
Sanctification, however we may define it, is most assuredly something which God does for saints, not sinners- just as walking is for children, not unborn babies.
A former student of mine gave a remarkable simple testimony one day when he commented, "It's sure a whole lot easier to live the Christian life after you're saved!"
The thing that gave those words such weight was the fact that his own experience was so striking. He came to Bible school determined to be spiritual at any cost. His behavior was so exemplary we appointed him monitor of the men's dorm. He kept all the rules, and diligently made certain his peers did likewise. Then one day he heard a visiting speaker stress the grave importance of repentance and genuine salvation. God impaled the student's conscience on that truth, and he rushed to Christ for relief. All his record-breaking periods of prayer and stern self-discipline were no substitute for being reborn!
I once visited an old Catholic seminary. The memory of the moldy halls and the somber robes still lives in my mind. After a brief tour I asked my guide, "What caused you to choose the priesthood?" His reply was to the point: "I am here because I a, searching for assurance of salvation." Certainly an honorable quest. Unfortunately, he had gotten the holiness cart before the conversion horse. He was zealously pursuing a program of soul cleansing before he'd ever gotten round to turning around! He was working to be sanctified without first being saved.
THE DEFINITION OF SANCTIFICATION
First of all it means, "Set apart for God." Thayer, the Greek lexicographer, translates it this way, "To set apart for God, to be, as it were, exclusively His." Next time you read the opening remarks of the first letter to the Corinthians, it would be perfectly in order to read, "to them that are set apart for God in Christ Jesus."
Go to a store, buy a teakettle, bring it home, put it on the stove, and you have done to an inanimate object what God did to the believers at Corinth. He paid for them, took them aside for the purpose for which they were made. Their place in His household had no necessary connection with their beauty, their size, or their condition. They were purchased by grace, brought in by grace and positioned by grace.
But it would be a foolish householder who purchased a commodity and never prepared it for use. So, there is more to the meaning of sanctification!
Thayer tells us the rest of the story: He reminds us that "sanctify" also means "PURIFY," to be pure, sinless, upright…(I Peter 1:16)
To illustrate this, let's change the simile from teakettles to fruit. A wise householder knows the importance of cleaning all fresh fruits before attempting to eat them. (Anyone who has ever looked down on a half worm after his first bite into an apple will gladly bear witness to the importance of thorough examination and cleansing of such items) Think of the poor man who recently reached for a long, firm banana, only to the struck by a shock of pain. When he looked down he saw an enormous spider clamped to the back of his hand! That fruit had been picked in Central America, packed into a crate, hoisted aboard a ship, transferred to North America, displayed at the grocers, sold, bagged, carted home, and placed on a special kitchen shelf, but NEVER HAD THE VORACIOUS SPIDER BEEN DETECTED!
That piece of fruit had been set apart, but it had never been purified. Sanctification, then, consists of both being set apart and being cleansed.
There is a splendid example if the second meaning in the second book of Chronicles. King Hezekiah realized that there was a lot of spiritual slippage in the kingdom, and resolved to do something about it. One of the most stunning things brought to his attention was the fact that the temple of God had been used as a dumping ground instead of a place of worship. So his order was, "Sanctify the house of the Lord God of your fathers!"
If some of us had been there, acting consistent with our convictions, we would have called the preachers together and dais, "Okay fellows, you know the sad shape the church is in. We've got to have a service of rededication! George, you take care of the special music. Frank, you get an order of service printed up. Mel, send a news release to the Jerusalem Times. Fred, whom do you think we should have as a dedication speaker? And, oh yes, be sure to contact the bishop about offering the rededication prayer. We want this thing to be the biggest event of the year!
But, that isn't what the temple needed! And I'm happy to report that Hezekiah was smart enough to know it. The truth is, that building had been "set apart' years before. A rededication might be in order, but certainly NOT BEFORE THE HOUSECLEANING WAS DONE! So, he sent a work crew and they "went into the inner past of the house of God, to cleanse it, and brought out all the uncleanness that they found in the temple of the Lord. (2 Chron.29:16).
It is at this point that the church comes to the fork in the road and decided it must split and go on two distinct routed. The problem, some assert, is that "being pure is a grand ideal, but simply not realistic." Experience in this regard is as convincing as a sledgehammer encountering a pound of butter. When a heavy temptation falls, there's sure to be a yellow splatter. The will is butter, and there's no way that butter can cope with steel!
Moreover, "the biggest thing which makes purity untenable is the deep-dyed corruption of the human heart. We are so bad inside, so full of sin, there is no way- this side of the grave- that we can be clean!"
So, we need to talk a bit about the ...
POSSIBILITY OF SANCTIFICATION
Without questioning or a moment the extreme weakness of the human will or arguing for a second about the wickedness of the human heart, something more still remains to be said. It is this:
Sanctification does not depend upon either the willpower or the amount of sin currently resident in anybody's heart. To suggest that a work of God's grace is possible only when conditions are perfect is to fly in the face of everything we already know about God.
Think a moment.
Would we dare say God could not have created the universe because there was nothing around to work with at the time? Do we dare say that God can't save people because their wills are weak or their hearts are too full of sin? We know better. God DID, in fact, create the universe! And God DOES, in fact forgive sinners, put divine life into them and give then a new beginning. The truth is, human need says nothing about the possibility if a work of grace. It only convinces us of the NEED of such work!
Thus, when we insist that God can actually purify a human being form the inside, we are saying no more than we would expect of a god big enough to create and sustain an entire universe.
All the usual objections to the purifying work of sanctification are, one way or another, based upon the assumption that sanctification is either a SELF-IMPROVEMENT PROGRAM, or, TOO BIG FOR GOD TO HANDLE. Such objections are wrong on both counts.
SANCTIFICATION IS POSSIBLE BECAUSE IT IS A WORK OF GOD!
A bully riding a streetcar many years ago noticed a small, quiet man in a business suit seated across from him. It took only a moment to conclude the unassuming gentleman was too small to offer any effective resistance, so he began to abuse him. The diminutive rider calmly suggested the brute stop his assault. Encouraged to further attack by the very politeness of his victim, the rascal renewed his efforts. In a moment he had an eye-popping experience. He suddenly felt the steel grip of two small hands and realized the "weakling" was hoisting him bodily from the floor. His legs flailed and his feet trod air as he looked down into the fixed gaze of Charles Atlas, the most powerful bodybuilder of his generation!
For some strange reason we always believe God is strong enough to save the unconverted, but we vastly underrate Him when it comes to sanctifying saints! Don't let His gentleness fool you. He us still the Almighty. And there has never yet been a corruption so deep, or a heart so steeped in selfishness that He cannot purify!
DISMAL OUTLOOK IN RELIGIOUS TRAINING
Many people are convinced that nastiness, like weeds and baldness, is inevitable. Spray it with new resolutions once in a while to keep it to the minimum. Or cover it up with a wig of pretense to make it look better at a distance. But don't- I repeat- don't expect it to go away.
It was that dismal outlook that was reflected in much of my own early religious training. And that type of surrender to the unavoidable suited me just fine- as long as I was still a rebel against god. It provided a kind of comforting theological justification for my way of living. After all, if sin was destined to be with me always, I could scarcely be blamed for making it my bosom buddy.
The catch was that I didn't want that kind of excuse after I became a Christian. No believer wants excuses. What we want is help. But if it is true that we're stuck for life with our own orneriness, it's hardly worth the sweat to struggle against it. And it gets very tedious to be told repeatedly, "Do your best," when you're convinced that your best is not good enough.
Then one day some well-intentioned friend told me, "Cheer up Dugan. Sinning keeps you humble. So, you should be grateful for sin."
I pondered that one fro some time before I realized there was no Biblical basis for it. Paul exploded that philosophy with one pithy statement, "Should we sin that grace may abound? God forbid!"
SOUNDS OF TRUTH
In strong contrast to the negative noted struck so many times by human beings there come the exhilarating sounds of truth from the Divine Being, by means of His Book. And all those sounds occur in the symphony of sanctification.
Above we talked a little about the prerequisites of sanctification, the definition of sanctification, and possibility of sanctification.
We noted that the necessary prelude to sanctification was conversion, and that the meaning of sanctification compassed both "setting aside for special purpose" and "purifying." We also learned that sanctification is indeed possible because God, not man, is the author of the whole process. Now we tackle the next phase of the subject.
THE PURPOSE OF SANCTIFICATION
One of the things we evangelicals are famous for is the notion that truth us of such a nature that it can be put into words. We got the idea form the fact that God embodied truth in words when He wrote the Bible.
So, to discover truth we investigate words. May I suggest we investigate two biblical terms to unearth the purpose for this phenomenon called sanctification:
- Word number one is "holy" ("hagios," in Greek). This small word occurs four times in I Peter 1:15,16. According to the learned Dr. Thayer, it means "pure, sinless, upright." So, the apostle is telling us that God wants us "hagios"- "pure, sinless, and upright."
- Word number two is "perfect." The Greek word in this case is "teleios," and it occurs twice in Matthew 5:48. Jesus said, quite simply, "Therefore, be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect."." What does this mean? We could properly translate His command, "Be ye living for the purpose for which you exist, even as your Father which is in heaven lives for the purpose for which He exists."
And what is that purpose? The preceding verse makes it clear. Christ was speaking about love: "Love you enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you... that you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven; for He makes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust." (Matt. 5:43-45)
THE WORK OF SANCTIFICATION
When our wedding anniversary comes around each year, my wife and I, like millions of other married couples, do something special. Two years ago, we decided to survey the beauties of Minneapolis from the top of the IDS building. If the Great Pyramid were in Minneapolis, we would have to ascend 480 feet to get to its pinnacle. The Washington Monument would elevate us about 550 feet. But the IDS structure is the best of the three. It stands 775 feet above the concrete paving of Nicollet Avenue.
From that altitude the view promised to be impressive indeed. But, how were we to get to such a height? The walls were sheer glass and steel- straight up! I can't even climb a small tree at my age, much less a tall building. Maybe we would just have to stay on the street, craning our necks upward till they ached and then go home with out little dream unfulfilled.
If you've read this far, you, like me, are probably a spiritual dreamer. You would like to be everything God intends you to be. You've suspected for along time that He offers a higher level of life than you're presently enjoying.
Your heart is thrilled by the idea of being clean and loving. But up until now you've stood on the hot pavement of spiritual mediocrity, you've occasionally looked up at the seemingly unscaleable heights of sanctification and told yourself- "It's a wonderful idea! Too bad there's no way of reaching it!"
Well, if by "reaching it" you mean climbing to the top, you're right. There's no way. But, if spiritually, you look for an elevator, the story is quite different. (By the way, my wife and I went inside that soaring structure, got on the elevator and let it take us to the top. We got the view we sought- without climbing a single step.) What is God's "elevator" of sanctification?
GOD IS THE ELEVATOR TO SANCTIFICATION
Let's go back to our word study. Check I Thess. 5:23: "The very God of peace sanctify you wholly…" The rules of grammar decree that "God" is the subject of this sentence, "sanctify" is the verb, and "you" is the object. They further decree that the subject of the verb is the cause of the action, and the object is the recipient of the action. That boils down to a very wonderful truth: IT is GOD who sanctifies Christians! To state it another way GOD is the Elevator to sanctification.
But can even God get you to the top? Can even God really purify you completely? Maybe the elevator goes only part way up. Perhaps it begins the ascent, and then, when you breathe your last, your soul is suddenly purified while you are dying.
Look at the passage again. Read a little farther this time: "…and may your whole spirit, and soul, and body be preserve blameless…"What an interesting thought: Whatever is accomplished by sanctification must be completed in this life or there would be nothing to preserve until the coming of Christ.
But all this seems too good to be true! After all, doesn't life itself teach us that cleaning is a process- and an endless one at that?
Isn't housecleaning a process? Or cleaning the car? Of the garage? And is it not rue that cleaning jobs are never really finished? If they were, we wouldn't need broom, vacuum cleaners, detergents and soaps in such great quantities. Cleaning must be a process. It always is with me. And I'm never really finished with it. But, you are you, and God is God! You operate under limitations. He does not!
Perhaps one of the other things which makes it hard to believe that thorough heard purifications can be accomplished comes form a misunderstanding of what it is which must be removed. When I first became a Christian, I was given the impression that sin was live a greenish sore with pus running out of it, and it grew somewhere inside my visceral cavity like an ugly cancer. It was essentially physical. And it was so located that it was inoperable. Since there was no cure for the usual kind of cancer, there was not likely to be for this kind either.
But that was a sad misunderstanding of the matter. Sin is not a draining sore, but an invisible selfishness. What needs to be cleaned out is not three of four pounds of nasty flesh, but a deeply rooted, spiritual something called "my own way." Its removal is a spiritual act performed by a spiritual being upon the spiritual demention of your personality.
THE WAY OF SANCTIFICATION
One question remains to be explored. How do you get in the place where God can sanctify you? May I make two suggestions:
1. Put all you confidence in Christ to do this for you. Does this sound too rudimentary, too self-evident? Perhaps. But, it would seem that most people have missed this basic point. If they haven't, why are they still struggling so hard to be nice?
You must trust Christ to do fro you what you cannot do for yourself- namely, to sanctify you. The great thing about it is that it is perfectly parallel to what you did when you became a Christian in the first place.
Let me explain this with a story: There was once a self-sufficient daughter of a wealthy man. During the early years of her life, he took care of all of her material needs. However, he was never affectionate, and became very cruel to her during his worst moments. One day, in a fit of rage he drove her from the palatial mansion, flung a suitcase after her and warned her never to return. She was left homeless, destitute and totally bewildered. She was soon forced to offer herself for menial jobs. Her pride and her wealthy conditioning made it indescribably painful to ask for work, but she had no other alternative. Unfortunately it was not long before her inexperience shut virtually every door, so she turned to prostitution. Meanwhile there grew within her a burning hatred for men. Her own father had abused her and finally thrown her out. And now other men were taking advantage of her.
At that moment in her life an almost unbelievable thing happened. A smiling young man approached her on the street and asked for a date. Interpreting his invitation as a solicitation for her service, she consented. To her surprise he took her to a fine restaurant and bought her a steak dinner, followed by a dessert so delectable she lingered over it as long as possible. He confessed he had seen her on the same street many times and discovered a growing love within his heart. Startled by his words, she did not have the nerve to tell him she thought he was the most cunning opportunist she had ever met. The first date was followed by others. Always his manner was gracious. Never did he treat her indiscretely. It took a long time, but she finally admitted to herself that the young man must be telling the truth. He did in fact love her. That realization, in turn awakened love in her. By this time, she had abandoned her sordid occupation and determined she'd rather starve than survive by immoral means. It was then that he popped the question. "Will you marry me?" Torn between guilt over her wretched past and love for him, she suddenly blurted out, "If you knew what I was, you'd never ask me!" His reply was instant and very calm, "I do know what you are. Will you marry me? This was too much to resist. She consented and they were married.
But she had a great deal to learn. She was sure of his present love. She appreciated his present tenderness. But in the back off her mind there were nagging fears. She never asked him for new clothes. He had done so much for her already. And anyways, he might refuse her. She dared not ask! This conjured plan for self-preservation. After each meal she would store some food in her room, in case the moment came when he refused to feed her any longer. The back of her closet was filled with faded dresses of her past. Under her bed was a fully packed suitcase, a provision for the moment he would send her back to the bitter loneliness from which she had come. In short, she believed him for some things but not for others. What she needed was to learn to trust him for garments, food, home, for continued love, for safety-for everything!
Before you were a Christian many things happened to you to undermine your confidence in others. You felt so sorry for yourself that you were willing to sin in order to survive. You may not have been immoral in the sexual sense, but you certainly misused your God-given abilities in many ways. And you learned far more about mistrust than trust.
Then you became a Christian and trusted Christ to erase the sins of the past and take you into His kingdom. But you may not trust Him for everything your soul needs. You may even be afraid to ask.
Putting confidence in Christ as Savior does not mean you have yet put your trust in Him as Sanctifier! Yet, it is the first step to the Elevator!
2. Embrace Despair! I know that sounds like madness, but it is not. It is imperative that you come to the end of your tether about the issue of sanctification in order to let God do it for you. As long as there is the smallest particle of self-confidence left, God will be hindered. I think that is what Paul was talking about when he wrote, "Oh wretched man that I am, who will deliver me…?" (Rom. 7:24). Isaiah had the same idea when he said, "Woe is me, for I am undone!" (Isa. 6:5)
When I was a youngster my cousins told me of a trick they like to pull on the uninitiated. They would take a long rope, double it, and throw the free end up over a high horizontal pole suspended between two supports. The loop formed a kind of swing in which they asked a volunteer to sit. The free ends of the rope were then placed into the hands of the group and the victim was pulled up by pulling down on the ropes. Of course it was quite easy to do. Then the lad in the sling was told to take hold of the ropes and let himself down. By this time he was very high above the ground. Only then did he realize he could not do it. The psychological factor plays such an enormous role in this type of predicament that release us nearly impossible. Self-preservation and a completely different kind of muscle coordination combine to make it a frightening impasse. The only way he could get back down to earth was to let go of the ropes. But his grasp was the only thing that held him safe. If he released his hands, he would fall down. It was a frightening case of hanging there in agony as long as possible until sheer exhaustion brought him plummeting down. Only, instead of landing on the earth, he found himself safe in the arms of his friends.
Spiritually, you may find yourself in much the same position. The only alternative is to find that sanctification is completely impossible by your own efforts, so that you finally give way to this special kind of "holy despair" and let go the ropes of all self-originated efforts at self-originated holiness. When you reach this point, you find yourself dropping into the arms of the Sanctifier.
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