It is important to understand that sanctification is a gracious work of God, which stands as a sharp rebuke to the “activism” that shapes much of the understanding of the Christian life in many circles today. Sanctification flows from justification and is the fruit of that justification. While man is privileged to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in the work of sanctification, he can do so only because the presence of the Spirit within imparts strength to do so, making clear that the spiritual development of the individual is a work of divine grace.
The Holy Spirit clearly uses “means” for our growth, and the gospel is the key to our growth. As Martin Luther said, “The truth of the gospel is the principle article of all Christian doctrine.” The gospel is, said Paul, “the power of God for salvation.” It is also the instrument of all continual growth and spiritual progress after we have been converted to Christ, bearing fruit and growing in the believer. The Holy Spirit uses this gospel to build us up as citizens of the new kingdom. Fundamental to the New Testament is the understanding that Christians live in an overlap of the ages where the new kingdom of Christ has been ushered in by his coming, yet it awaits its consummation on his return. Until that day we live in a world where darkness continues, and where we live in the reality of the kingdom’s presence and being aware that it is not yet fully come. Because of the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, we live with the confidence that the power of the kingdom has come and exists in the midst of gathered Christians:
Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 1:20–21).
While Jesus made clear that the kingdom would not arrive in its fullness until the end of time, all believers have already been transferred into that kingdom, and amidst the darkness of the present evil age, we dwell as those who are already reigning in heaven. This knowledge inculcates into every Christian the balance between confidence and humility. For while we are still sinners, we are justified sinners; and while living in this world we are also citizens of heaven, so that the Reformers could affirm that we are simul justus et peccator, both sinful and righteous.
A person who is justified by the application of the work of Jesus Christ is declared holy judicially, but not rendered fully holy in thought, word, and deed at the same moment. Instead that person is strengthened and motivated to struggle against the remains of sin in his or her soul. This struggle produces a progression in holiness as the believer grows more and more into conformity with the image of Christ. This enables us to maintain the scriptural balance of being the adopted sons and daughters of God and thus free from the condemnation of the law, and yet still striving to be what we are in Christ and lovers of the law, which is the reflection of the character of God our Father. It enables us also to avoid the twin errors of legalism and licentiousness, which Tertullian, a North African church father, so famously called “thieves of the gospel.” Legalists stress law over gospel, and the licentious celebrate grace and freedom without the response of gratitude. Legalists turn the Christian experience and life into a moralism, which asserts in practice, if not in words, that one becomes acceptable to God by moral attainment, living often by rules and regulations. The licentious, however, reduce the Christian life to one of pragmatism, dwelling only on the love of God and thinking of love as an emotion rather than a costly act of sacrifice. Both succeed in reducing the significance and efficacy of the cross of Christ and produce a distorted Christian walk.
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