2 Corinthians 7:1 “Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.”
How can we help people to change? For example, sexually transmitted diseases are increasing in an alarming manner. Last year new cases of HIV in Great Britain hit a record of 3,500. The Government has announced that it is beginning a campaign, a National Strategy, costing over 47 million pounds which is going to promote safe sex. One waits in trepidation for the first graphic advertisements to come into the nation’s living rooms on TV and in the daily papers. Have all the earlier advertisements achieved very much? What have the schools’ sex education classes succeeded in doing? The problem is not ignorance but restraining lust. The plague of these diseases still spreads.
What is our campaign as Christians to help people to change? Don’t people need to change, if their behaviour is destroying others? Certainly ours is a very different approach from Caesar’s. It begins with God, who he is and what he has done to change people, and what he promises to do in the lives of all his people.
1. THE PRECIOUS PROMISES OF GOD TO US.
The apostle begins with these words, “Since we have these promises, dear friends…” (7:1). Paul has been speaking about the great achievements of God in the previous verses especially at the end of chapter five. In his Son, Jesus Christ, God tells us that he has reconciled this fallen world to himself. He has done this by making Christ sin for all believers and imputing to all believers the righteousness of Christ. Deliverance from the guilt of sexual sin is to be found in the cross of Christ, and the power to overcome temptation to sexual sin is found there too. For us Christians ‘relevance’ to the needs of the contemporary world is in people grasping what actually happened in this world on a hill called Golgotha, and then responding to it.
Many in the professing church today are sentimentalising the cross of Christ, and so have distorted it. They say, for example, that Jesus ‘opened wide his arms for us on the cross’ (The Church of England’s Alternative Service Book, 1980). He did nothing of the kind. Jesus’ arms were outstretched and nailed to the cross as a sign of his human helplessness as the sacrificial victim, the Lamb of God. The outspread arms was not a sign of welcome to future church members. Christ was not reaching down from the cross to respond to the needs of the world; rather he was looking up from the cross to his Father, whose will he was doing and whose wrath he was appeasing. The ultimate effect, of course, was to meet creation’s need, but in a way which the world cannot understand.
What Christians now experience as God’s free forgiveness comes with the greatest price tag in the world attached to it – the life blood of the Son of God. Access to its saving power is open to everyone who believes, but a vital part of this belief is recognising that we are sinners in need of forgiveness, and not merely lonely people who are looking for a hug from God.
People of my generation were first introduced to the theology of the Christian faith when we were students by reading the 10 point doctrinal basis of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. That is still a succinct summary of historic Christianity, and when Christian Unions write to me today and invite me to speak at their universities then they first ask me to sign the doctrinal basis – which I enjoy doing. The great truths I came to love more than forty years ago I love yet. Through insisting that officers and speakers should acknowledge those biblical teachings Christian Unions of the British universities have been protected against the sustained assaults of religious liberalism. How tragic if in our day those churches and the whole student movement, should find themselves nodding in agreement to those doctrines but succumbing to the lure of pop psychology. Pulpits have ceased declaring Christ to be the judge of the world, but rather present him as a kind of supernatural counsellor in ‘relationships’. He is a shoulder to cry on, not a teacher and Lord who delivers us from sin and directs us into the way of purity.
Hear me now! Hear these promises God makes concerning the achievements of his Son and what the work of Christ did for God the Father. The spotless Son of God, Jesus Christ, had no sin of his own to atone for, and so he had no need to die for his own benefit. He died to propitiate the wrath of God towards our sin, having lovingly taken responsibility for the judgment which our sins deserve. It was our condemnation that was in the Gethsemane cup which he drank. We deserve eternal death because we are sinners but Jesus, because he loved us, died for us. At the end of his blameless life he could have gone to the hill of ascension, raised his hands, blessed his disciples and returned to heaven. Had he done so we would never have been able to follow him. The very nature of the righteous God himself requires the shedding of the blood of the Lamb of God if we are to be pardoned and changed. That is the what the one living and true God is. What this loving God has done is to satisfy his own justice. God’s mercy has provided a substitute so that we pay nothing for our sins. The substitute is God the Son. He only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in: Calvary is God unlocking that gate.
What Christ has done is to redeem us from our slavery to sin by his precious blood. Let me explain that great word ‘redeem’ to you. There is a Time-Life book that gives details of the plight of American blacks in the early nineteenth century. While there were many kindly slave owners the condition of most Afro-Americans was grim. By age twelve most slaves had to begin a life of backbreaking field work. A work day was from “can see” to “can’t see”. If the moon was full in the cotton harvest, a slave might have to keep working the rows and hauling cotton till midnight. His diet included little more that fatty salt meat and a little corn. Clothing was cheap fabric called “Negro cloth”. Housing consisted of draughty, dirty one-room shacks, usually occupied by six to twelve people. Slaves were often sick; many had worms and rotting teeth. Unruly ones were sometimes viciously whipped by professional “slavebreakers.” These paid thugs would then send the owner a bill listing each slave they had flogged and naming a cost per slave for this service.
Most slaves were sold at auction at least once in their lives. I suppose none of us can understand what a degrading experience that would be. White shoppers would sometimes make slave men and women hop or jump to see if they were lively. Like horses, slaves would have their teeth inspected and their rib cages poked. A few slaves turned out to be hard to sell because their backs were a mass of scars and old welts from a slavebreaker’s rawhide whip. Couples were separated. Children forcibly removed from parents. Some slaves were treated better than others by caring Christian plantation owners. But all were property to be used or sold as their owners liked.
Some slaves managed to escape to the North by means of what was called the Underground Railroad. This was a network of routes, rest places, and safe houses organised by white people, that led to freedom. It was dangerous work. It cost a lot to free a slave. But there was one way (besides death) that a slave could be freed. They could be freed by a person with a conscience who would buy them at an auction. After paying the price their new owner would set them free. The name for this work is ‘redemption.’ It is a liberation word. It means to rescue by ransom. That is, it means delivering someone from evil by paying the required price.
God redeemed his people from slavery in Egypt, and the psalmists pray that they might be redeemed from the hand of their enemies and from the power of death. But the great and powerful redemption found in the Bible is by the Lord Jesus Christ, our Saviour. The apostle Peter says, “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (I Peter 1:18&19).
Men and women are enslaved to sin, to anger, and self-pity, and bitterness, and greed, and to lust – even at the risk of unwanted pregnancy or terrible sexually transmitted diseases that can make women infertile, they are slaves to their desires. They “cannot help it,” they plead. It has a stranglehold over them. In a frustrating and maddening way, sin is a kind of slave driver that first tempts and then brutally punishes men. Think of how William Thackeray ends his book, “Vanity Fair”: “Ah, vanity of vanities!” he writes, “Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has what he desires? Or, having it, is satisfied?” It is on that note that that cynical and sentimental writer ends his masterpiece.
What unhappiness our sins bring to us, and yet what untold millions are under sin’s control! “The Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin” (Gals. 3:22). What price would be the redemption of such a number? Not all the silver or gold in Fort Knox could begin to redeem them. But he comes, the eternal and ever glorious Son of God, and he sheds his blood in giving his life that they might be redeemed, that the power of sin over them might be broken and he, their new Lord reign and protect them. He who died for them lives to empower them to purify themselves and live for him who died and rose for them. Our Redeemer bought our freedom with his life.
There are these great promises God makes to us in his word. If you have believed on the Lord Jesus Christ then you have been redeemed. You are no longer in slavery to sin. You have a new Lord. These are some of God’s covenant promises which immediately precede our text: “In the day of my favour I heard you. In the day of my salvation I helped you. I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters.” What exceedingly great promises, made to every single person who truly believes in Jesus Christ. All our sin has been dealt with. God has become our Father. He will provide all that his children need from his great riches. Those promises are mine today if Christ is mine. In him God makes every promise to me, and lest I doubt because they are too wonderful he says, “Yes!” and “Amen!” to each one
All that the dear dying Lamb has achieved flows from his immeasurable love. That is the only explanation of why Christ gave his life for us. There was a famous incident in the Auschwitz concentration camp. A prisoner had escaped and so ten prisoners were required to die in the starvation bunker – block 13. Names were read out and one man, hearing his name, cried out, “O God! My wife and children!” He was still longing for release. With that a Christian bachelor named Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward and said to the Commandant, “Let me take his place.” Some expected that he would be shot on the spot, but the commandant shrugged and let him go in place of that man. Block 13 was changed by Maximilian Kolbe’s presence. He witnessed to them and prayed with them as they slowly starved to death. He was in fact the last one in Block 13 to die when a frustrated guard, tired of waiting, injected him with carbolic acid.
Kolbe’s action flowed from his love for men and women. He freely gave his life for that particular man – he was not forced to do so. His action brought meaning and hope to all in Auschwitz who heard of it. His action said that their lives had a purpose, and it was not to be found in Nazi cruelty and bigotry. There existed a nobler enduring reality. A man might give his own life for another. Auschwitz could not destroy Christian love. In fact it became the theatre of Christian love. Kolbe’s decision was an act of faith. It could have been a futile action. The man in whose place Kolbe died could himself have died the following week or month. It seemed an uncertain act of heroism, but in fact it was not. The man was to survive the war, and was to tell others what had happened: “Maximilian Kolbe said, ‘I will give my life instead of you’, and he kept his promise and died in my place.” That man thereafter lived a purposeful life. So Christ laid down his life for his many friends, and thus all his friends live for him. That, then, is Paul’s argument here. Why should we Christians change? Because of that unbelievable and glorious thing that God has done for us through Christ. He gave his life for us, so we give our lives for him. Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all…
But in what ways are we to change?
2. CHRISTIANS ARE CALLED TO PURIFY THEMSELVES.
“Dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (v.1). Who are Christians? We could say that they are those who believe God’s precious promises. We could say that they are those who have been redeemed by the loving self-sacrifice of Christ. But look at the definition here – they are the “dear friends” of Christ’s apostle, Paul. They are friendly with his teaching, with his way of life and especially with his Lord. You cannot be indifferent to Paul and at the same time be a friend of his Saviour, because he chose Paul and commissioned him and inspired him to write his letters. So what is every dear friend of the apostle to do?
i] We are called to a task of purification.
There is absolutely no escape from this vocation. This is the goal of Christian living. How unattractive it seems to the natural man. How the devil will strive by all means, direct and indirect, subtle and full frontal, to embarrass us about this calling, and make it seem repulsive. Satan will plead our love for our teenagers to dissuade us praying for the purity of their lives, as if the greatest discouragement to their becoming Christians would be our passion for pure living.
Of course those teenagers have their own passion for purity. They long for pure skin, and the pharmacists have shelves of competing skin cleansers. They have been sold the whole ecology package. We long to breathe pure air, and the manufacturers of water filters are telling us of the benefits of pure water. “Drink sparkling spring water!” cry the advertisements for various bottled waters. We want our beaches to fly the blue flag that declares there are very few impurities along that shoreline. We especially want our hospitals to harbour no impurities because we fear picking up an infection in such a place. “Do not swim in this canal. The water is not pure,” declares a notice. When a girl is given an engagement ring she’d like to be sure that it was made of pure gold. All the time we read of people dying of the impurities that unscrupulous men have mixed in drugs and drink. The world is obsessed about a purity which is ‘out there’, but it can mock the Christian concern for purity of heart and soul.
Yet the life of purity has something very compelling about it. There is an Anglican evangelist going around the country at the present time and he is preaching a week of meetings on the ten commandments to large congregations. They are finding that description of the life of purity fresh and attractive. A sin-sickened world can be drawn to something utterly different. Consider the great 5th century teacher, Augustine. He had been leading a life of sin, giving himself over to whatever pleasures presented themselves. His mother had earnestly prayed for him his entire life that he would rather give his life to the service of Christ, but Augustine persisted in that life of impurity until one day he sat with a friend tearful and wearied by the state of his life. It was at this moment that he heard a boy or girl – he says he does not know which it was – singing a little song as the child was skipping. The sound was coming from across the garden wall. The child was chanting over and over: “Pick it up and read it; pick it up and read it; pick it up and read it.” Here is what happened next in Augustine’s own words:
“Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon.
So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for their I had put down the apostle’s book. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Romans 13:13&14). I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.” The divine command to pure living was the message God brought to Augustine which saved him.
The mighty Creator God, who knows us and the world far better than anyone else, tells men that true blessedness and fulfilment and rich satisfying living can only be attained when a person gives his life to purifying himself from everything that contaminates body and spirit. In this society which is dominated by the lusts of the mind and the flesh real Christians dedicate themselves to this fascinating enterprise of purifying themselves. They do it because they believe the promises of God. That is the common New Testament approach. Think of John: “we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure” (I John 3:2&3). We are going to see God. We are going to be like God. So we prepare for that inevitability and we purify ourselves. Think of the astronaut preparing in the large empty cabin of a carefully controlled diving aeroplane for the conditions of zero gravity. Think of a marathon athlete preparing for that 26 mile race by long runs each day. Think of the student facing external examinations and studying his books. Then think of the end of our journey. The creation, as we know it, with all its sins, its sorrows and inadequacies, will be entirely swept away. In its place will be the New Jerusalem which will come down from heaven and be the centrepiece of this new reality. There will be no temple there because the presence of God will take its place. In that city, the Lamb will sit on the throne, reigning with the saints in eternal light, and we will embark upon a life far more wonderful than anything which we have ever known, or can ever know, here on earth. The best is yet to come! What we have to look forward to is life, and glory everlasting. If we have that hope, through believing these promises, we purify ourselves as God is pure.
All the exhortations to change our ways come to us as those who have believed the gospel, and have made God’s promises our own. We can live but one brief lifetime. It goes by faster than a weaver’s shuttle. It is a courtship with Christ. Before us lies the consumation at the wedding feast. Our best experience here is anticipation; before us lies the great reality:
“The king with his fair army
Doth on Mount Zion stand;
And glory, glory dwelleth
In Immanuel’s land.”
So we prepare ourselves to meet him in that holy place. We shed our attachment to sin and we purify ourselves.
How can there be real faith without that? Even the world recognises that. Recently the famous American scholar Mortimer J. Adler died. He was a philosopher and staunch defender of classical education. He taught at the prestigious universities at Columbia and Chicago. One of his great achievements was co-editing the 54-volume “Great Books of the Western World” in 1952. It was published by Britannica and sold in its millions. He despised relativism and believed in universal truths which alone could constitute a wise education for all men at all times and places. He admired the Christian faith and on a number of occasions came very near to becoming a Christian, but for years he drew back at the last moment, and this is the reason he gave for his reluctance: “There is a great gulf between the mind and the heart. I was on the edge of becoming a Christian several times, but I didn’t do it. I said that if one is born a Christian, one can be light-hearted about living up to Christianity, but if one converts by a clear conscious act of the will, one had better be prepared to live a truly Christian life. So you ask yourself, are you prepared to give up all your vices and the weaknesses of the flesh?” Adler had seen men talking the talk but not walking the walk, and he deplored such hypocrisy. He was aware of the great works of Christ, the infallible interpretation which God has given to them in Scripture, the promises God makes to all who trust in Jesus Christ, and the command for the followers of Christ to be holy. Adler counted the cost before he committed himself unreservedly to the Christian life, but I am glad to say that in the fulness of time he indeed became a Christian, receiving what he referred to as “the gift of grace” and professing belief “not just in the God my reason so stoutly affirms, but the God on whose grace and love I now joyfully resign.” That is a great statement. Adler had the promises in his mind; then they were also in his heart, and then affecting all his life. He resigned his whole life to Jesus Christ. There can be no other kind of Christianity.
ii] It is we ourselves who are engaged in this activity.
To what is Paul calling us – we who really know God? It is to activity: “let us purify ourselves.” He does not say, “let us wait on God to purify us.” Who are those in the New Jerusalem? “These are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation and washed their robes” (Rev. 7:14). They have washed their own robes. They have done it themselves. A lady called Hannah Pearsall-Smith wrote a book called, “The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life” over a hundred years ago. It was a great best-seller and led many Christians to the brink of despair. What must the Christian do in his quest for victory? Her answer lay in one word – nothing! You let go and let God purify you. It was in passivity that happiness was to be found, she claimed. Little wonder Mrs Pearsall-Smith herself died in misery. Purity, she taught, was something you get. Purifying was something God does to Christians in some painless operation, as if they were under anaesthetic. “Consider the vine,” said her followers. “Do you see it agonising and striving to produce fruit? No. It simply is what it is, and it spontaneously produces grapes. So it must be with Christians, they are to cease their struggling and rest in God.” Would that it were so!
There are wise words from Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his exposition of Romans 6:13, “yield yourselves unto God.” He speaks of those people who seem to spend their whole lives attempting to surrender themselves. If only they were able to let go, and rest in God alone, and cease striving, they have persuaded themselves that then they would discover the secret of happiness. But how impossibly difficult they confess they are finding this letting go and letting God. That is the rub. Passivity is not an emphasis found in the New Testament. There we meet an appeal for action which is addressed to the regenerated will. The gathered church is not a place where our energy is lulled into passivity. It is not a centre for meditation, or a counsellor’s couch. It is a parade ground. What we all need is not an arm around us but an army captain to drill us, or a personal fitness coach to take us through our exercises: “Let not sin reign in your mortal body! Purify yourselves! Practice your self-denial. Present your bodies as living sacrifices to God. Be filled with the Spirit. Walk worthy of your high calling.” Get on with this business of preparing for the presence of God in heaven. We are not to be navel-gazing like the complacent Buddhas. We are not taking our own blood-pressure, pulse and temperature day by day and telling people that we are still alive. We eat our food, we work, and we get on with washing our robes and with purifying ourselves. We do it. We do it by grace. We do it because the love of Christ constrains us. We do it motivated by the promises of God. But we do it. The great men we admire in church history – the men who turned the world upside down – were pure because they wanted to be so. They worked at it. Professor John Murray once said to me, “‘Let go’ – yes. ‘Let God’ – yes. But not ‘Let go and let God.'” In other words, certainly let go of all your own righteousnesses – they are like filthy rags. Let go of all moralistic Pharisaic religious exercises. Yes. And let God save and justify and sanctify you. Yes. But don’t set up the action of abandoning sinful self ove r against the action of depending on God to work as though there were a choice between the two. It is not a question of giving up the one and doing the other. Do them both! Let go of sinful self – each day. Let God mightily transform you – each day.
iii] It is a comprehensive purifying.
Then do you see the scope of this purification? “From everything that contaminates body and spirit.” Paul is referring to the whole man, all the members of the body, and all the faculties of the spirit. All is to be purified. All become clean instruments ready for the Master’s use. God does not give his living water to men and women in rusty cups. So the whole must be made clean. Everything must be influenced, what we are, what we do, or think, or speak, or plan, small or great, outward or inward, negative or positive, our loving, our hating, our sadness, our rejoicing, our recreations, our business, our friendships, our relationships, our silence, our speech, our reading, our writing, our going out and our coming in – our whole man, body and spirit, throughout our entire lives from running around a soccer pitch to the time we are pushing along our zimmers – we must be purified. Remember David’s longing after his fall, “Create in me a pure heart, O God” (Psalm 51:10). “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they – and they alone – will see God” said the Lord Christ (Matt. 5:8). This is how we begin the Christian life, in know that our hearts need to be clean.
“Let the water and the blood.
From Thy riven side which flowed
Be of sin the double cure,
Cleanse me of its guilt and power.”
That is where we start, in that great first definitive time when we go to the great baptistry of Calvary and are loosed of all our filthy stains. They seem so indelible and uncleansable, those deep-dyed marks upon our hearts. What can wash away my sins? Is there any hope? Only by the blood of Jesus. But what hope there is in Jesus Christ! A fountain has been opened up for sin and uncleanness. There we go, like Naaman the leper plunging into the river Jordan, finding all the marks of leprous sin to have disappeared. Thus the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is the great cleanser. No longer the lambs and bulls and pigeons and goats; not their blood; not any longer:
“But richer blood has flowed from nobler veins,
To purge the soul from guilt
And cleanse the reddest stains.”
That is where we start, and then a visit to the great Cleanser becomes our daily task. We are confronted with an absolute, radical command, going right to the wellsprings of our life. It is a summons to a whole-life commitment of purification. My great task is to make that enterprise fascinating and beautiful and enriching both for yourself and everyone whom you touch in life. The spirit is purified and so there is the cleansing of the inward life, and our bodies too, so that there is a purifying of what is tangible and visible. There must be the purifying of both. We see it in the world, that mighty difference between clean clothes and a clean heart. The man going to a prostitute might have a bath and put on a new shirt, but his heart is dirty. Paul prays for the Thessalonians, “the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Thess. 5:23). in other words, purity is a constellation of graces – meekness, gentleness, love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, mercy, contentment, gratitude, faithfulness, joy, humility, spiritual-mindedness, self-control and self-denial – all those are the fruits of purity. You see them in the non-retaliation of a father when his daughter has been blown up by a terrorist bomb. You see it in a missionary doctor’s willingness to return to work in that area when rebels had abducted and defiled her. That happened, alas, but by the grace of God she has purified herself, body and spirit, and is getting on in the work of the Lord. Without that mighty grace what do men do? They look for someone to sue.
iv] We do it progressively.
Then you see that this is a progressive task. Paul writes in our text that we are to be “perfecting holiness”. It is a great theme of the New Testament. We have a positional holiness in Christ before God, but it is also something that we have to cultivate in the fear of the Lord. Through Christ we have been washed in our standing before God, but through Christ we are called to reflect that standing by being pure in our daily life. The context of biblical holiness is embracing the promises of God as to what the Lord has done for us and all the wonderful consequences of the work of Christ and his Spirit, and all the hope of what he yet will do. We have been made separate holy people unto the Lord, but now we are to perfect that holiness.
So the New Testament tells us to follow after the holiness without which no man shall see the Lord (Heb. 12:14), to follow after that which is good (I Thess. 5:15), after love (( Cor. 14:1), after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, and meekness (I Tim. 6:11). Everything in the New Testament points to consistent and active endeavour. We are to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18), and Paul asserts that the faith of the Thessalonians “is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing” (2 Thess. 1:3). Peter exhorts Christians to “be holy in all you do (I Pet. 1:15). That is exactly Paul’s point here. You are holy people, but you need to perfect that holiness in everything you do.
We are so afraid of moralistic improvement, of having begun in the spirit but to be going on in the flesh. But those Scriptures, and there are many more, are quite artless and simple. We are not yet in glory. We are far from being conformed to the image of the Son of God. Let us make some progress in this fascinating vocation of being more Christ-like people. I emphasise it because there has been a re-emergence of the old denial of progressive sanctification in our time. Men have argued that all we need has been given to us as new men in Christ, and that that cannot be improved, so that it is futile to speak in perfecting holiness. A friend of mine was once the pastor of a church in which after the sermon was over the minister was required to shake hands at the front of the church with the elders to show that there was harmony amongst the leadership in the doctrines preached. If an elder did not agree with the sermon, or thought that the minister was going astray, he might refuse to shake hands with the preacher. This actually happened to my friend on one occasion. He went down the line, and one man did not stretch out his hand to him. When he went to talk to him later that elder said to him, “You were teaching progressive sanctification,” as indeed he was.
Such an elder truly loved the righteousness of Christ. All his hope was in the active obedience of the Saviour. “Throw away the crutches of your righteousness,” he would say. “Throw them far from you! With them it is impossible to climb the hill of the Lord. Tear those rags from you with which you are trying to cover your wounds, and appear before the Righteous and Holy One just as you are. Before Jesus to despair of self is salvation.” To rely on Christ is the beginning and end of salvation. That is what such men believe. “Sanctification is not a process. It is being holy in Christ and having a part in his righteousness. Believe! It all depends on Christ. If you have him there is no need to worry about sanctification. I press on and count all things but loss for the excellency of Christ Jesus my Lord.”
That is what the opponents of progressive sanctification say. I have heard it in this town. Thirty years ago an American preacher did a series on sanctification at the August Conference, and he exhorted us to be holy men and women over four powerful morning sessions. His searching convicting words really got under the skins of some people, and they retaliated by saying to others, “That is all right, but the important thing to remember is that Christ is our sanctification.” They were actually using Christ to assist them in their enmity against progressive Christ-likeness. But both Christ and progressive Christlikeness are needed. For our present and eternal status, for our hopes of eternal life we flee to Jesus Christ and plead his name alone.
“Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling.
Naked come to Thee for dress,
Helpless look to Thee for grace.
Foul, I to thy fountain fly,
Wash me Saviour or I die.”
That is our status on the first day we become true Christians. It remains our foundation throughout our lives, and when we die and stand before God’s great white throne that must be our only plea. “Jesus lived and died for me.” But who are those from whom Jesus lived and died? They are those who perfected holiness in the fear of God. They are the fruitbearing branches in the vine. They are those who followed after holiness. They are those who laid asked every weight, even the sin which so easily beset them. Listen to Jude: “But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 20, 21). These are the disciples who did not merely say, “Lord, Lord” but who did the will of their Father in heaven. In all the scenes of judgment portrayed to us in the New Testament the Lord is captivated with the works his sheep have done.
There is no break in the Bible between Romans 1-11 and Romans 12. The apostle does not gulp when he begins to tell us how we should be living. There is the utmost harmony. There is no break in the letter to the Hebrews between chapters 1-12 and chapter 13. There is no apology for moving from justification to sanctification. There is only this relationship that the grace of God which purchased and applied the salvation of the Christian exhorts that same Christian to go on and advance and mature and perfect his own holiness. In Hebrews 13 in the midst of all those exhortations to godly living the apostle will say, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and for ever” (Hebs 13:8). He will say at the close, “Grace be with you all” (Heb. 13:25). There is no way that you may think that after having started in the grace of Jesus Christ you may go on in the flesh to make yourself more holy. Perfect your own holiness by a growing sense of dependence on God’s grace.
We start from a position of spiritual infancy and childishness, and we make progress into maturity. We grow in grace, in pleasantness and winsomeness, in righteousness and integrity. The Christian is to grow more and more lovely, not increasingly austere and cold and judgmental and remote. He becomes gracious, pleasant, beautiful. He grows in knowledge, in his ability to resist temptation. He grows especially in his ability to fit into the body of Christ, to be part of the Christian social organism. Maybe a great part of perfecting holiness is becoming compacted and co-ordinated into the fellowship, becoming more adapted, more adaptable, more useful to the body itself. Seeing the weak and more cheerfully bearing their burdens. We perfect our holiness within the structures of gospel holiness that are present in the body of Christ, when she gathers together, and then as a consequences of that, in our growing affection for one another as we love one another with pure hearts fervently. We start off hardly able to mumble a word to older Christians. People who are not quite forty years of age seem ‘old’ to us. We are uncertain in our congregational relationships, finding our way, learning to listen and assist. But as the years go by we progress in holiness as a church member. Grace purifies our fellowship with the whole congregation.
v] We do it in the fear of the Lord.
Finally, Paul tells us that this purifying of ourselves is to be carried on “out of reverence for God.” We purify ourselves aware of who this living God is whom we are soon going to meet. This is the Creator who made this vast vast vast universe all by himself out of nothing with a word … “Let there be!” And everything was made that was made. Should we not fear such omnipotence! The seraphim cannot bear to look upon Jehovah the great I AM: they cover their eyes and sigh to one another how holy he is – “Isn’t he holy? How wonderful his holiness! See his holiness! Look at it! Holy! Holy! Holy!” The hymnist says, “Eternal light! Eternal Light! How pure the soul must be.” If God is light and in him is no darkness at all, then I cannot but fear him. if he cannot even look at sin, then I fear him. If you say that one of your favourite hymns is “My God how wonderful Thou art,” then you remember sing this verse in it,
“O how I fear Thee living God,
With deepest, tenderest fears,
And worship Thee with trembling hope
And penitential tears!”
We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ. Think of it! Then does not that make me pause before I go into sin one step further? Doesn’t the thought of death and all that lies after it give me goose-bumps? Didn’t Jesus often speak of this to his disciples? Didn’t he bring the reality of judgment to them to weaken the power of remaining sin? Wasn’t it the Lord Jesus himself who said to his own apostles, “Remember Lot’s wife!”? So, shall I not fear such a God? Who are you dealing with? Isn’t this the Lord before whom those who knew him best fell in godly fear – Peter in the boat amongst the fish, Paul on the road to Damascus, John on the Isle of Patmos? Do you know him something about him that those men didn’t know? If not then you too will fall at his feet with deepest, tenderest fears.
Doesn’t it also mean, “I fear grieving his Spirit and hurting him by what I do, so I always reverence him?” If God is some harmless old boy up far away in heaven, who is suffering dotage, and has lost all his teeth, who simply likes to see all the young people enjoying themselves, then I cant even respect such an old monster. The world is aching with the pain of sin, and such a being is helplessly indifferent. I do not fear him. He is beneath my fears. I would fear Allah but would have no other response. I can find nothing in my heart to cause me to love Allah. But the living God? I love him because he first loved me and sent his Son to bear my condemnation, but I fear him too because of his majestic righteousness and magnificent rectitude.
I am motivated by the reality of God to change my way of life. I want to see this God, more than anything else. I want to be with this God. I never want to leave him. I don’t want anything I do to become the cause of my losing God for ever. I both fear him and I love him too much to do that. So I purify myself from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.
5th August 2001 GEOFF THOMAS