That's our justification. This post shows the implications of the nature of our justification on the nature of our sanctification. It shows a great continuity between how we begin to see and believe in Christ, and how we become more like Him as we progress in our Christian life.
A Personal Introduction
The doctrine of sanctification has been of great interest to me since I became a Christian. Once I believed, I knew that things weren't over. I never had the idea: "Well, I'm saved now. I'm in the door. No need to do anything else! I'm set!" Not at all. My first thought was, "Well, what now?" I was wondering how I was supposed to live my life now that I was a Christian -- now that my life was entirely different. How was I to relate to people? How was I to hang out with my friends? How should my conversations with my parents change? How should this affect my (then-teenage) romantic interests? I read the Bible, so I knew that I was supposed to obey Christ (Luke 9:23-26, 14:25-35; John 14:15, 21, 23).
And so I started in with the efforts of reforming myself. Many aspects of my life changed, even if not immediately. But very quickly, I became very good at telling other Christians (usually those my age) what to do. See, I read the Bible. I knew what was required of me. But by and large I had never seen the kind of obedience the Bible prescribes wrought in anyone around me. And so here I was, a new Christian, looking for some direction from those who'd been Christians longer than I had. My thought process was, "Be ye therefore holy, for I want to be holy, too!"
Anyway, by God's grace I began seeing my sin in all areas of my life. And I wanted to do something about it. So I'd recognize it, realize it shouldn't be there, confess it, pray, ask for freedom from it, and I began to focus my efforts on rooting it out. And to make a long story only a bit shorter, that was a constant thing for me, even with the same sins. And I'd feel terrible about it. I mean terrible. Like, "How can I keep sinning so grievously like this, after all Jesus has done for me? Doesn't He deserve more than this? Aren't I supposed to be a new creature (2Cor 5:17)? Hasn't the old self been crucified (Rom 6:6)? Isn't 1 John 3:8 true? 'No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God'? If so, am I even a Christian?"
And so my Christian life went on like that for years, seemingly without freedom from particular besetting sins. I wanted to be more like Christ, and it seemed like I was trying everything to make it happen, but there I'd find myself confessing the same sins over and over again.
The problem with the way I was going about my sanctification, friends, is that I wasn't seeking to cut off sin at the root, but only at the fruit. The reason why I kept sinning in the same ways for long periods of time was because in my heart I still loved those sins. I still desired them. They still looked really good to me. But even though I loved my sins, I knew I wasn't supposed to do them. And so I was enslaved. My Christianity was: "Don't do anything you like to do; and do other things that you don't like doing." And I thought, "Well, that's my 'cross to bear.' If God wants me to be miserable, so be it. I've got to do this for Him after all He's done for me." I was a Pharisee. Just a real bad Pharisee. I was trying to work out my sanctification in my own power and by my own efforts. I was trying to prune the external without attacking my sin at the level of my desires. And I wasn't even good at it.
The Remedy: Discovering the Motivation and Means of Sanctification
Things began to change in my thinking about the Christian life, sanctification, and how I'm to go about pleasing my Lord, by a number of Providences that I'm extremely grateful for. Good preaching, John Owen's Mortification of Sin, John 6, Piper's sermon series on Romans 6 through 8, and a flood of tremendous Biblical fellowship all seemed to invade my life at the same time. I began to see how I was going about my sanctification all wrong. And in God Is the Gospel, Piper explains how the notion 'God-is-the-Gospel' revolutionizes our approach to the Christian life.
On page 90, he says:
The gospel is central not only in conversion but also in the ongoing transformation of believers. Understanding the decisive purpose of the gospel as the revelation of the glory of Christ is the biblical key to Christian holiness.So the things we've said in this series about the Gospel as it relates to our justification all relate in an essential way to our sanctification. Our justification came to us by grace and through faith. There was a revelation of the glory of God (John 1:14, 16; 2:11) as presented through His Word (Rom 10:17; 1Pet 1:23-25; Jas 1:18). And by His grace our eyes were opened! And we saw the most beautiful thing we had ever seen! And we said, "I want Him!" And in that moment all our sin looked so paltry. All its resplendent luster was like the grayest of clouds, and the Sun was shining on us in all the fullness of Its brightness! And so we believed in Him, and were saved! Praise God!
But what Piper is saying now, is that key to our justification is the very same key to our holiness. He continues:
But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Cor 3:18)Grasp what Paul is saying in this passage. We, beholding the glory of Jesus, are being transformed into that image of glory. The method of becoming conformed to the image of Christ, is to look at that image! He goes on:
The pathway to Christ-likeness is "beholding the glory of the Lord" (2Cor 3:18). Beholding is becoming. We are transformed "into the ... image" of the Lord by means of fixing our attention on His glory. (p. 90)
We are transformed into Christ's image -- that's what sanctification is -- by steadfast seeing and savoring of the glory of Christ. ... This is the work of the Spirit: to shine the light of truth on the glory of Christ so that we see it for what it really is, namely, infinitely precious. The work of the Holy Spirit in changing us is not to work directly on our bad habits but to make us admire Jesus Christ so much that sinful habits feel foreign and distasteful. (p. 91)Oh let that land on you, Christian! The work of the Holy Spirit in sanctifying us is not to work directly on our bad habits! His work is not behavior modification! Instead, His work is to "shine the light of truth on the glory of Christ so that we see it for what it really is." You see? Our problem is that we don't see correctly. The nature of our flesh is to look at something glorious and be unaffected or unmoved, but then to look at something disgusting and be ignited with pleasure. Oh how pitiful a condition!
And so the way to holiness is to have our eyes fixed, not by reforming my behavior from the outside in. Sanctification is by grace, the same way justification is. Reality is that we all worship what is most pleasing to us. Grace in sanctification is increasing my spiritual eyesight to see Christ with greater precision, accuracy, and clarity, so that He looks like He actually is: more pleasing, delightful, and enticing than all my sin!
This is crucial to understand. It shows how Christ-exalting the Holy Spirit is. He will not do His sanctifying work by the use of His direct divine power. He will only do it by making the glory of Christ the immediate cause of it. This is the way He works in evangelism, and this is the way He works in sanctification. (p. 91)And this is in total accord with how Jesus said the Spirit would work: "He will glorify Me"! The Spirit works, riding the coattails of the glory of Christ. He will not work without it. Just like people don't get ::zap!:: saved!, -- but rather there are means to salvation (i.e., the preaching of the Word, Rom 10:17; 1Pet 1:23-25) -- neither do we get ::zap!:: sanctified!. The Holy Spirit honors Christ by only working where the glory of Christ has been seen and savored.
The implications of this understanding of Biblical sanctification are absolutely life-altering. Our fight of faith (2Tim 4:7), our running the race (Phil 3:12-16), our striving according to His grace (Col 1:29), all look different!
Now when we pursue sanctification -- the fight for holiness and the fight against sin -- we will fight by means of the gospel perhaps differently than we ever have. In our own struggles, and in our counseling, and (for some of us) in our preaching, we will realize that the power of the gospel to transform us into radically loving people lies not only in our being forgiven and our being counted righteous, but also in our seeing and savoring the glory of Christ in the gospel.
We will elevate 2 Corinthians 3:18 to a place of paramount importance in our practical pursuit of love and justice. "And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another." In other words, the fight to become like Christ will be, as never before, a fight to see and savor Jesus Christ. (p. 168)I pray that you perceive the weight of those words. Piper goes on to give a helpful example:
When, for example, we try to help a teenage boy triumph over pornography, we will work and pray to help him see and savor the glory of Christ. We will not merely use accountability structures and filters and human reasonings. We will seek to saturate his mind and heart with the enthralling vision of the all-satisfying Christ. We will not assume it is easy. We will remember that the god of this world wants to blind our minds from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ (2Cor 4:4). But now we know where the battle is mainly to be fought. It is fought at the level of spiritual sight. This is the path of gospel freedom and radical Christ-like love. (pp. 168-169)Oh this is so glorious! Biblical sanctification is to be rigorously fought for! Don't any of you hear me as saying that we don't have to work out our salvation, or that we just need to "let go and let God." We must fight this fight of faith with everything we've got! But this battle is to be fought on the level of spiritual sight. When we do this, we experience sanctification in gospel freedom!!! As I told my story above, there was no freedom in my efforts of sanctification. I was fighting this fight like a slave, all the while being a freedman. When we realize that we already have been given eyes to see and savor the glory of Christ in the Gospel, we focus our efforts to live in the reality of what God has already done. We just need to look!
Every Christian will struggle with sin until we die or Jesus returns. But we are commanded to -- and God gives us grace to -- become increasingly more like Christ as time goes on. The key to experiencing real progressive sanctification is to know the means of that process. The means of becoming more like Christ is just to see and enjoy His glory. There was a time when we could look right at Him and not see and enjoy that glory (John 3:2-3; see this post). But the Good News of the Gospel is that God has opened our eyes! He has given us eyes to see things as they actually are! There's nothing more you've got to do except look!
Saturate, then, your mind and heart with the enthralling vision of the all-satisfying Christ!
and it has not appeared as yet what we will be.
We know that when He appears, we will be like Him,
because we will see Him just as He is.
And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself,
just as He is pure.
- 1 John 3:2-3 -
But we all, with unveiled face,
beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord,
are being transformed into the same image
from glory to glory,
just as from the Lord, the Spirit.
- 2 Corinthians 3:18 -