This is the article of a study on present sanctification begun in the previous issue. In the last article we considered God’s role in present sanctification. In this one we will consider man’s role.
Present sanctification is also called progressive or experiential sanctification. Present sanctification concerns the goal of the Christian life: progressive increase in the believer’s experience of holiness.
Some extreme Calvinists actually believe that Christians have no personal role in their own sanctification. I remember a conversation I had years ago with a young man just about to enter the pastorate. We were talking about progressive sanctification. He told me that the growth of believers, and even the amount we sinned, was all determined by God. He was convinced that we could do nothing to effect our growth either positively or negatively!
Years later I debated an educator who was preparing men and women for ministry. The topic of our discussion was saving faith. He, too, was advocating the view that man has no role at all to play in his growth in holiness.
In the course of the debate I asked him, “If God is totally in charge of our present sanctification and we have absolutely nothing to do with it, why do we ever sin?” He had a clever, though in my estimate unpersuasive, explanation.
He told the story of his grandfather’s Model A Ford. It seems it had a bent frame. As long as you held onto the wheel, it would track straight ahead. If, however, you let go, even for a moment, the car would sharply and immediately veer off the road. So it is, he said, with the Christian life. God “lets go” of our lives from time to time to show us how much we need Him. He then soon retakes control of our lives so that we don’t sin very much!
These are not the views of a select few. These two individuals represent quite a number of pastors, theologians, and laypeople today. Not only have I personally met many others who hold this view, I often receive questions from people who have been approached by people promoting it.
The idea that present sanctification is solely a work of God, that man has absolutely no active role to play, is unbiblical and unhealthy. We don’t need to sin in order to see our need for the Lord. Surely in eternity, when no believer will ever sin, we will never lack awareness of our need for Him.
A few months ago I had lunch with a man who is on the staff of a very large and very affluent church. He said that it is sometimes hard working with very powerful people. He said, only partly in jest, that the attitude of many of those powerful people is that while they hope God will bless what they are doing, if He doesn’t, they can bring about the desired result without Him!
As I pointed out in the previous article, present sanctification is impossible apart from God’s work in the lives of believers. A balanced, biblical perspective is that both God and the believer play a role in present sanctification. The role of man is just as clear in the Bible as the role of God. The Scriptures clearly and repeatedly show that the believer has an active role to play in present sanctification. A passage like Phil 2:12-13 brings this out well:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation1 with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.
The following are a listing of but a few of the many texts which call upon the believer to take an active part in his Christian experience:
John 14:15: If you love Me, keep My commandments.
1 Cor 9:27: But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.2
Heb 13:1-5: Let brotherly love continue. Do not forget to entertain strangersï¿½ Remember the prisonersï¿½ Fornicators and adulterers God will judge. Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you haveï¿½
James 1:22: But be doers of the word, and not hearers only…
1 Pet 1:16: Because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.”
1 John 2:28: And now, little children, abide in Him, that when He appears, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him at His coming.
The idea that believers have no role to play in their own sanctification is not only unbiblical. It is also unhealthy. It certainly leads people to doubt whether they are saved since according to this view if you fail to persevere you prove that you were never saved in the first place. That, in turn, leads to despair. To know that hell is real and yet to lack certainty that we are eternally secure is terrible. Some respond to the despair by doing what their view says they can’t: trying harder. Others respond to it by giving up. After all, if it’s all up to God, what difference does it make what I do?
Man has a role to play in present sanctification. It is not an independent role. Apart from God taking the initiative and giving us “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Pet 1:3), no growth would take place. However, since God has done this, believers can respond. It is to that response that we now turn our attention.
What follows are a number of specific things which God has commanded believers to do. They are important aspects of the believer’s responsibility in present sanctification. Our success or failure in carrying out these commands has a definite impact on our progress in the faith.
II. The Believer’s Responsibilities in Present Sanctification
A. Living by Faith
Believing in Christ is a condition of both justification and present sanctification. On the one hand, only those who believe in Christ are regenerate (John 3), and only regenerate people can experience present sanctification. On the other hand, it is possible for a believer to take his or her eyes off the Lord Jesus Christ, the Author and Finisher of our faith (Heb 12:2). In order to continue to grow as a Christian, we must continue to look to our Savior. While we are eternally secure from the moment we trust Christ (John 5:24; 10:27-29; Rom 8:38-39), that does not mean that our faith will never falter.
Galatians 2:20 includes a statement about the need for ongoing faith in Christ. It reads:
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (emphasis added).
Likewise, 2 Cor 5:7 says, “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (emphasis added).
The portions italicized highlight an important aspect of present sanctification which many believers underestimate or ignore: continuing to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. The path of righteousness begins and ends by grace through faith. If our faith falters, so, too, does our progress in holiness.
Ultimately, of course, believers are commanded to believe all aspects of God’s truth. When people become Christians they believe that Jesus Christ freely gives them eternal life. They know that they have eternal life because they trust His promise (e.g., John 6:47). However, that does not mean that they either know or believe everything the Bible says.3 They need to read and study the Bible so they can come to know and believe more and more of what it contains.
While there are thousands of vital truths to be believed in Scripture, most believers recognize a handful of basics, or fundamental truths (often called the Fundamentals). These include the deity of Christ, His virgin birth, His literal bodily resurrection from the dead, His Second Coming, and the inerrancy of Scripture. For a person who has been a Christian for years to stray from the truth on one of these subjects, even if he or she remains clear on the Gospel itself, is a major problem. Compare, for example, 2 Tim 2:17-18, which concerns doctrinal defection regarding the future resurrection of our bodies, 2 Thess 2:1ff., which deals with defective thinking on Christ’s Second Coming, and Gal 2:11ff., which reports an occasion in Antioch when Peter and Barnabus withdrew from the Gentile believers there and would not eat meals with them.
Zane Hodges writes:
Let there be no mistake. The failure of one’s faith is a grim possibility on the field of spiritual battle. To deny this is to be spiritually unprepared for the enemy’s assault.
But equally, to acknowledge it is not in any way an invitation to fall prey to satanic falsehoods—far from it. The Commander still challenges us to stand firm against our foe. He still commands allegiance to His truth.4
B. Being Baptized
Some denominations and groups overemphasize baptism by making it a requirement for eternal life. That view is called baptismal regeneration. Scripture rejects such a view since it teaches that the only condition of eternal life is believing the Gospel (cf. John 3:16; 5:24; 6:47: 11:25-27; 20:30-31; Acts 10:43-48; 1 Cor 1:17).5
Other denominations and groups go to the other extreme and underemphasize baptism by rarely practicing it or talking about it. At one time I was a member of a large conservative church which was solid on the Gospel but weak on baptism. Baptism was almost never mentioned from the pulpit and baptismal services were rarely scheduled. I recall only a handful of people being baptized over the course of five years. Sometimes a whole year would go by without one baptism being conducted.
Before He ascended to heaven, our Lord Himself taught that baptism is the first step in discipleship:
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you. . . (Matt 28:19-20).
Note what He told the apostles to do in order to make disciples: (1) baptize and (2) teach. The words translated “baptizing” and “teaching” are participles in Greek as well as in the NKJV. They are circumstantial participles expressing the manner in which the command they modify (make disciples) was to be carried out.6 This, of course, presupposes that they would evangelize (cf. Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8). The apostles were to baptize and teach those who came to faith in Christ.
On the day of Pentecost the apostles began carrying out the command to make disciples. They baptized and began teaching those who came to faith as a result of their preaching that day. The apostles baptized 3,000 people on the Church’s birthday (Acts 2:41). Then they set about to teach them. Acts 2:42 says, “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.”
Baptism is more than a public confession of our faith in Christ. It is also an indication that a person is entering into discipleship.7 Thus, while baptism is not a condition of eternal life, it is nonetheless important. It is an important first step on the road of present sanctification. To avoid being baptized is to disobey the Lord’s command and to miss out on an vital element of our Christian experience.
C. Counting the Cost
One cannot read the teaching of Jesus on discipleship without recognizing that discipleship is costly. To follow Christ on the path of obedience is to pay a price.
Putting it another way, present sanctification extracts a price. To grow significantly as a Christian we must make a decision at some point in our Christian experience: Is it worth the cost to follow Christ? Am I willing to suffer for Him? Am I willing to give up my time, money, pleasures, friends, family, or whatever it takes to do what He says (cf. Luke 14:26-33)? Ultimately to be a wholehearted disciple of Christ we must be willing to give up everything we have and hope to have, including not only our possessions, but also our reputations, our comforts, and our time. Jesus said, “Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:33).
Lordship Salvation advocates claim that unbelievers must count the cost of discipleship and decide if they are willing to pay the price in order to obtain eternal life. In his book Christ’s Call to Discipleship, James Montgomery Boice has a chapter entitled “Counting the Cost” (pp. 105-14). There he gives the following answer to the question “What [is] the minimum amount of doctrine or belief a person [has] to have to be a Christian?”:
The minimum amount a person must believe to be a Christian is everything, and the minimum amount a person must give is all. I say, “You must give it all. You cannot hold back even a fraction of a percentage of yourself. Every sin must be abandoned. Every false thought must be repudiated. You must be the Lord’s entirely” [italics in original].8
I am deeply saddened to read such a terrible distortion of the Gospel of God’s Grace. To confuse justification and present sanctification is a grievous error. It hinders unbelievers from being saved since it presents them with a badly garbled gospel.
God requires that we count the cost of discipleship repeatedly. In Rom 12:1 Paul urged the believers in the church at Rome to “present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.” That every believer needs to do this daily is suggested by the context and by other passages of Scripture. Romans 12:2 goes on to speak of the need to be transformed by the renewing of one’s mind—surely something which must be done repeatedly. Likewise, in Luke 9:23 Jesus said, “If anyone desires to come after Me…let him take up his cross daily” (emphasis supplied).
I went to school with a young man of Arab descent who grew up in the Middle East. When he trusted in Christ, he had to count the cost of following Christ immediately. He knew that if he submitted to Christian baptism, his family would disown him. He counted the cost and was baptized. As he had feared, his family then disowned him. They considered him as a dead man. They would not have anything more to do with him. I was touched by his level of commitment. It encouraged me to be ready to pay any price in my walk with Christ.
D. Receiving Christian Instruction
Closely related to counting the cost is getting involved in Christian instruction. The Scriptures plainly teach that present sanctification requires education. There is no such thing as instant spirituality. One does not “arrive” in the Christian life at the point of faith—or at some significant point of commitment, either. Growth takes time plus obedience to what God has said. And to learn what God has said takes instruction.
The apostle Peter ended his second epistle with these words:
You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked; but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Peter’s readers knew that growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior requires Christian instruction (cf. 1 Pet 4:10-11; 5:1-5; 2 Pet 1:12-15; 3:16).
The normal place for Christian instruction is the local church. Paul instructed Timothy to teach “faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:12). Likewise, Paul told Titus: “Speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). The sound doctrine Paul had in mind was not merely doctrine about salvation, the Lord Jesus, the Holy Spirit, eschatology, and the like. He clearly also had the doctrine of the Christian walk in mind, for he went on to speak of the need to be sober, reverent, temperate (v 2), not given to much wine (v 3), loving one’s spouse and children (v 4), and so forth.
There are many ways in which a person can receive instruction, including hearing the Word taught on Sunday morning and Sunday evening, Sunday school, training union, participating in Bible study groups, reading commentaries and books, listening to tapes, and attending a Christian College, Bible College, or seminary.
Unfortunately, today some people define discipleship so narrowly that they unwittingly discourage certain meetings of the church. I was an elder in a church where the issue of Christian instruction and discipleship became a topic for extended board discussion. The pastor felt that the only real Christian instruction and discipleship took place in small groups that met outside the church building (in homes and restaurants, for example). He did not think that meetings in the church, such as Sunday School, the preaching service, the Lord’s Supper, seminars, conferences, or special classes, were elements in discipleship!
Many believers today receive a major part of their Christian instruction through parachurch groups such as Christian colleges, seminaries, on-campus Christian organizations, Overseas Christian Servicemen Centers, prison ministries, and others. This is not unbiblical, for all of those outreaches should be designed to assist the local church, not to rival or supplant it. However, care must be taken that a person doesn’t begin to view his involvement in a parachurch organization as replacing his need for local church involvement.
One growing problem is that church attendance and involvement is dropping off for members of conservative churches. A generation or two ago it was common for Christians to go to church at least three times a week: Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening. Sadly some conservative Christians today are not even in church three times in a month.
Commenting on the importance of corporate worship on Sunday, Charles Ryrie writes, “To neglect the Lord’s Day is to slight Him, to blunt the testimony to His resurrection, and to miss the benefits of the ministry and protection of corporate worship” (italics added).9
Christian instruction is a lifetime proposition. You can’t end your education prior to going to be with the Lord without calamitous results. Anyone who thinks that he no longer needs instruction is sadly mistaken.
E. Abiding in Christ
Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
One’s Christian experience is at its heart a personal relationship. While there are commands to be obeyed, it is wrong to think of walking with Christ as some legalistic exercise. He cares whether we obey His commands or not because it pleases Him when we do and grieves Him when we don’t (cf. 2 Cor 5:9; Eph 4:30).
On several occasions God has changed the commandments. In the Garden of Eden there were only a few commands: tend the garden, be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, and don’t eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Once Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, two of those commands were no longer in force. Under the Mosaic Law there was a host of laws for purification and many sacrifices that we no longer are obligated to obey (though we are obligated to apply those timeless principles which they taught, Rom 7:12; 2 Tim 3:16-17). “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom 10:4).
What is timeless is that God delights in the obedience of His children. He is deeply grieved by things like idolatry (which he calls playing the harlot!—cf. Jer 2:20; 3:6; Ezek 16:20ff.), taking His name in vain, immorality, haughtiness, lying, false measures, etc. He wants His children to live like children of God—which is what believers are (John 1:12).
In Romans 7 Paul teaches that if a Christian focuses on the prohibitions he will likely fail to obey God. Being obsessed with commands is the path to disobedience and despair, not to obedience and joy (7:13-24). Rather, Paul goes on to say, we must focus on Christ Himself (7:25). By looking to Him, we can find the motivation and strength we need to obey.
Witness a small child at play in the home of a stranger. What do wise parents do when their child begins to play with things in that home which are dangerous or fragile? They do not recite a set of rules to a one year old. Instead, they divert the child’s attention to something else which is safe. So, too, when a child of God is tempted to sin, he or she needs to look to Christ. By contemplating Him, we regain proper focus and the appeal of the temptation diminishes.
This is one of the main reasons why the Lord gave us His Supper. We are to contemplate Christ as we eat the bread, drink the fruit of the vine, and hear the Word taught (cf. 1 Cor 11:23-33; 14:26-39). Regular participation in the Lord’s Supper in a contemplative environment can do wonders for one’s walk with Christ.
We can contemplate Christ in many other ways as well: prayer, Bible reading and Bible study, fellowship, witnessing, and meditation on Scripture. Contemplation of Christ is not some great mystery reserved for monks and recluses. All believers can and should regularly contemplate Christ.
Our aim in life should be “to be well pleasing to Him” (2 Cor 5:9). Our allegiance is not to a cold set of rules. It is to a Person, the Lord Jesus Christ (Col 3:24). We are obeying a Person who loves us and whom we love (1 John 4:19: “We love Him because He first loved us”). Attitude is a key element in man’s role in present sanctification. Our attitude should be an abiding determination to obey our loving Lord.
F. Feeding on God’s Word
Present sanctification relies heavily on regularly partaking of God’s Word. After all, God communicated with us so that we might know how to obey Him and that we might be continually motivated to do so.
The Psalmist said to God, “Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You” (Ps 119:11). Paul instructed Timothy, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). Peter wrote, “As newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby” (1 Pet 2:2). The Lord Jesus, citing Deut 8:3, said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4).
Many churches are moving away from verse-by-verse Bible exposition and replacing it with string-of-pearls sermons which merely touch on a text briefly and then, like the prodigal son, depart to a far country. I think that this is a dangerous trend. Illustrations and applications, while important, should not become the heart of messages.
Take a look at the Christian books which are popular today. Self-help books do well. Commentaries and books on theology, however, do not. In fact, it is not uncommon to go into a Christian home and find few if any commentaries or books on doctrine.
I am not suggesting that preachers and teachers should eliminate illustrations and applications. What I am saying, however, is that a vital element in discipleship is learning from the Scriptures. Well-chosen illustrations and applications can help us understand and apply the text. However, it is the Word of God which is of primary importance.
The Word of God is profitable for reproof, correction, teaching, and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16-17). It is vital, then, that we take it in, chew on it, and allow it to transform our way of thinking and acting (Rom 12:1-2). This can be done by reading (I like reading through the entire Bible in a year using a one-year Bible), study, memorization, meditation, and listening to it being taught.
Lewis Sperry Chafer wrote:
It is as His Word abides in the believer that he is in the place of spiritual achievement (John 15:7). There is little hope for victory in daily life on the part of those believers who, being ignorant of the Word of God, do not know the nature of their conflict or the deliverance God has provided. Over against this, there is no estimating the sanctifying power of the Word of God. Our Savior prayed, “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth” (John 17:17).10
God delights in the prayers of His children (Psalm 147; Rev 5:8; 8:3-4). In the words, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matt 6:11), it is clear that God wants us to daily beseech Him to meet our needs. The apostle Paul commanded the Thessalonian believers, and through them all believers, to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). He was asking them to do something which was characteristic of his life (e.g., “without ceasing I remember you in my prayers night and day,” 1 Tim 1:3). Daniel made it a practice to pray three times each day, even when he knew it might well cost him his life in a lion’s den (Dan 6:10). So, too, did David (Ps 55:17).
Regular, daily prayer takes discipline and concerted effort. It is sadly possible for a believer to go through the whole day and not speak to God even once. This should not be. Prayer is a vital aspect of man’s role in present sanctification.
In fact, part of our prayer life should be directed at praying for our own sanctification (Ps 32:6; Matt 6:13; 26:40-41; 1 John 1:9; Jude 20) and for that of others (2 Cor 13:7; Eph 3:14-21; Phil 1:9-11; 1 Thess 5:25; 2 Thess 3:1-2; 1 Tim 2:1ff.). We should beseech God to give us strength to control our tongue, to stay free of bitterness, covetousness, envy, jealousy, and immorality, and to walk in a manner pleasing to Him.
I know someone who is a prominent figure in the Gospel debate who has been widely attacked in print for his strong advocacy of the Free Grace position. All who know him recognize him as a man who not only believes in grace but who also lives it. He has indicated that he is convinced the reason he has not become bitter in the face of all the harsh words thrown at him is because every day he asks God to keep him from bitterness.
Prayerlessness makes us vulnerable to temptation (cf. Matt 6:13; 26:41) and works against our growth. Prayer is the linchpin of present sanctification. Neglect prayer and the wheels may come off your spiritual cart!
H. Stirring One Another Up to Love and Good Works
Hebrews 10:24-25 reads:
And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.
Assembling together with other believers is a biblically mandated way “to stir up love and good works” on the part of the believers present. A person who comes each week to a church where God’s Word is clearly taught in a loving, caring environment is not likely to fall away from the Lord. Rather, as the author of Hebrews says, that typically has the effect of stirring one up to love and good deeds. Or, stated oppositely, one who stays away from the assembly of the local church runs the real risk of backsliding in his or her Christian experience.11
To walk with God one must assemble together with other believers to partake of the Lord’s Supper, to be taught, to be exhorted, to pray, to sing, and to worship. The group may be large or small. Size is not the point.12 Assembling regularly with other believers in a local church is.
God wants all believers to share the Gospel with unbelievers. While only some Christians have the spiritual gift of evangelism, all are called on to evangelize. Compare Matt 10:32-33; Mark 16:15; 2 Cor 5:20. That last verse indicates that all Christians are ambassadors for Christ.
Believers who think that their growth will not suffer if they fail to share their faith are sadly mistaken. Witnessing helps us grow in the faith in many ways. It causes us to study God’s Word more so that we can answer the questions which we are asked. It moves us to pray for the lost and to pray for new believers. It keeps ever before us the fact that we are strangers and aliens in this world.
When someone trusts Christ through our witness, we are encouraged. If we then help the new believer grow in the faith, we ourselves grow as we teach.
In addition to these things, sharing our faith is a means by which we share in Christ’s sufferings. Paul told Timothy: “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God” (2 Tim 1:8). Similarly Jesus said, “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely for My sake” (Matt 5:11).
No Christian is exempt from witnessing. Few have the gift of giving, but all are commanded to give. Few have the gift of helps, but all are needed to help. Few have the gift of evangelism, but all are commanded to evangelize.
Clarity in evangelism is, of course, absolutely crucial if we are to please God when we witness. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses go door to door regularly. Some of them spend 30 hours or more a month at it. Yet this does not please God because their message is wrong.
I once heard a missionary tell how he supposedly led a tribe to Christ. The chief came to him and said, “We want to become Christians. What do we need to do?” The missionary’s answer to this thrilling question was this: “Follow Christ.” How sad I was to hear this. The man wanted to know what he needed to do to become a Christian. He should have been told that eternal life is a free gift to all who but trust Jesus Christ and Him alone for it. Instead, he was essentially told to work his way to heaven by following Christ.
How tragic it is that many of the missionaries and evangelists today are not clear on the Gospel. The fact that this is so makes it even more important for those of us who are clear on the Gospel to share our faith. The need is great.
Robert Lightner comments on the need for Christians, as ambassadors of Christ, to be clear on the Gospel:
Another outstanding characteristic of an ambassador is the fact that he has news to tell. It is not his prerogative to amplify, add to, or alter that news in any way. He simply delivers information from those who sent him.13
God plays a vital role in the growth of every believer. Apart from His work in our lives, growth would not take place. However, He has not arranged it so that growth takes place totally apart from the believer himself. Believers have a role to play as well (Phil 2:12-13).
The believer’s role in present sanctification includes living by faith, being baptized, counting the cost, receiving Christian instruction, abiding in Christ, reading, feeding on God’s Word, praying, stirring one another up to love and good deeds, and witnessing.
The Free Grace position powerfully promotes progressive sanctification, yet without annihilating assurance or muddling motivation.
1The expression work out your own salvation does not refer to working to obtain eternal salvation. Rather, it refers to bringing about deliverance from temporal difficulties. For further discussion see “Working Out Your Salvation (Philippians 2:12),” The Grace Evangelical Society News, May-June 1993, 2-3.
2Disqualified here means disapproved for reward. For more discussion see Zane C. Hodges’s Absolutely Free! A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation (Dallas: Redenciï¿½n Viva, 1989), 201-202.
3For example, while I believe the Bible teaches baptism by immersion, that is not a part of the Gospel. A person could be saved without even knowing about or believing in baptism by immersion.
4Absolutely Free!, 111-12.
5See Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, “We Believe in Water Baptism,” by Arthur L. Farstad, Spring 1990, 3-9; “The Gospel and Water Baptism: A Study of Acts 2:38,” by Lanny Thomas Tanton, Spring 1990, 27-52; “The Gospel and Water Baptism: A Study of Acts 22:16,” by Lanny Thomas Tanton, Spring 1991, 23-40.
6See Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992), 749n.; Alan Hugh McNeile, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Reprint ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 436. See also A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1934), 1128.
7Discipleship in the NT has at its basic sense being a pupil or learner of Christ. See Bauer, Gingrich, and Danker, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970), s.v. “matheteuo” and “mathetes,” 485.
8Christ’s Call to Discipleship (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 114.
9Basic Theology (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1986), 432.
10Systematic Theology, 8 volumes (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1947), 2:333.
11See, for example, the comments by Zane Hodges in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, NT Edition, s.v. “Hebrews,” (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1983 ), edited by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, 805.
12 The editor of our Journal, for example, has had a church that meets in his home for over twenty years. The group is small. But the impact on those attending each week is not.
13 Cf. Robert P. Lightner, Sin, The Savior, and Salvation (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991), 277. See also Charlie Bing’s article, “How to Share the Gospel Clearly,” Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Spring 1994, 51-65.
Questions and Answers About Man’s Role in Present Sanctification
Question #1. What is the relationship between present sanctification and assurance of salvation?
There are many today who teach that clearly evident progress in present sanctification (i.e., good works) is indispensable for assurance of salvation. This view, however, is unbiblical and leads to devastating practical problems.
To disprove that view all one needs to find is one verse in which someone was given assurance of salvation apart from works. There are a host of such passages.
Consider John 11:25-27, where Jesus questioned Martha as to whether she believed in Him and then accepted her confession of faith without objection. If assurance were dependent on ongoing good works, Jesus would have had to add a warning that she might not be truly saved.
The apostle Paul had complete assurance of salvation (Rom 8:38-39), and yet he was not certain he would persevere until the end of his life (e.g., 1 Cor 9:27).
Paul affirmed the salvation of Timothy and Titus in Scripture, mentioning only their faith (cf. 1 Tim 1:2; 2 Tim 1:5; Titus 1:4). He did not restrict that assurance in any way. He was 100% sure that they were saved apart from their works. And, since Paul was an apostle and he was asserting their salvation in inspired Scripture, Timothy and Titus were certain of their own salvation apart from their works.
Likewise, the apostle Peter told Cornelius and his household that they were saved (Acts 10:43-48). On what basis did he do this? Surely not on the basis of their works, for they had only been Christians for a few minutes when he made his declaration. They hadn’t had time to do any good works. They certainly hadn’t persevered in the faith until the end. Rather, Peter asserted their salvation on the basis that they had “received the Holy Spirit” (v 47). And it is clear in context that they received the Holy Spirit as a result of believing in Jesus Christ (v 43).
The apostles were absolutely 100% certain of their salvation. They knew they could not possibly do anything to lose it or to prove they never had it in the first place. They had Jesus’ own word for it (cf. Luke 10:20; John 13:10). Their assurance was not dependent on their progress in present sanctification either.
In addition, there are many passages which promise such assurance to anyone who trusts Christ and Him alone for eternal life. In John 6:47 Jesus said, “He who believes in Me has everlasting life.” In John 5:24 He said, “He who hears My word and believes on Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
Biblically the evidence is clear. Assurance is not dependent on progress in present sanctification. Practically this follows as well. Not one of us could have assurance if it were linked to our works, since our works are imperfect (1 John 1:8,10). Only perfect works could grant certainty of salvation (which is what assurance is). In fact, even if a person lived a perfect life for years, he couldn’t be sure that he wouldn’t sin the next day and lose his salvation or prove he never really had it!
Linking assurance to works can have devastating results. Christians who accept this teaching are discouraged and insecure (because they know hell exists and yet they aren’t sure if they will spend eternity there or not) and are in denial as to the extent of their own sinfulness. This greatly hinders their progress in present sanctification. Discouragement and insecurity do not promote holiness. Neither does denial of one’s own sinfulness.
Non Christians who accept this teaching are also discouraged and insecure and in denial as to the extent of their sinfulness. Worse still, this teaching greatly hinders them from being saved. It reinforces their natural inclination to attempt to be good enough to merit eternal salvation.
Question #2. What are proper and improper motivations to pursue personal holiness?
There are two major improper motivations: fear of hell and seeking the praise of men. Believers should not fear hell (John 10:28-29; Rom 8:38-39). To attempt to live a godly life so you can avoid going to hell is works-salvation thinking pure and simple.
Believers should also avoid seeking to please men as a primary aim (Gal 1:10). We are to seek to please God, not men. To be baptized to impress one’s parents or friends, for example, is wrong. Similarly, to attend church so others will think more highly of you is to be wrongly motivated.
Positive biblical motivations include love and gratitude, the prospect of God’s blessings if we obey and of His discipline if we disobey, and the Judgment Seat of Christ and eternal rewards.
The grace of God produces a powerful sense of love and gratitude which should motivate the believer to please God (2 Cor 5:14).
While the blessings are not always material, God does bless obedience (e.g., Matt 6:31-34; Gal 5:22-23). Things go better for the obedient believer. On the other hand, the disobedient believer will experience trials and difficulties as part of God’s hand of discipline (Prov 22:8; Heb 12:3-11).
There are also significant future consequences to how we live. Those who are enduring in the faith when they go to be with the Lord will have eternal treasure and will rule with Christ forever (Matt 6:19-21; 1 Cor 3:10-15; 9:24-27; 2 Tim 2:12). All believers will appear at Jesus’ Judgment Seat someday. Only those who have done well in their Christian experience will hear His “Well done” (Luke 19:11-26; 2 Cor 5:9-10).
It is naive to think that if a person can be absolutely certain of his salvation apart from his works that he would have no motivation to holiness. Love and gratitude, blessings for obedience and discipline for disobedience, and the prospect of eternal rewards all are powerful motivators for the person who is sure of his salvation to please God.
Question #3. Is present sanctification optional?
Lordship Salvation advocates feel that Free Grace people treat the issue of backsliding believers too casually. As a result, they often ask the question, “Is present sanctification optional?”
Actually, it grieves us to hear of fellow believers who have experienced a major fall. Sin is sad. The difference is, we do not conclude that a sinning believer must not be a Christian at all. This in no way, however, condones the sin.
Present sanctification is commanded by God (1 Pet 1:16; Heb 12:14). In that sense it is clearly not optional.
God does not remove all sinful desires from believers until they die or are raptured. After that time believers are sinless and perfectly holy in their daily experience (1 John 3:1). Prior to that time they fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23; 1 John 1:8, 10).
Thus progress in present sanctification is a matter of degrees and is not an all-or-nothing proposition. If the above question is understood to mean something like, “Is it possible for a Christian to disobey God and to grieve Him?” the answer isYes
(cf. 1 Kings 11:1-11; 1 Cor 3:1-3; 11:30; Eph 4:30; James 5:19-20).
Question #4. Is some minimum level of personal holiness guaranteed?
There is no passage in Scripture which promises such a thing or which paints a picture of the minimum level of godliness which all believers will attain. Even those in the Lordship Salvation camp find it impossible and undesirable to create a picture of what such a minimum level would look like.
What of a Christian who dies seconds after trusting Christ? Surely this has happened a number of times in history (e.g., deathbed conversions, battlefield conversions). How many good works could a person do in a few seconds?
Even when considering those who live for decades after trusting Christ, why should they aim for mediocrity? Why not excellence? Paul said, “And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that it is from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance” (Col 3:23-24).
The Bible does teach that God desires all believers to produce fruit which honors Him (e.g., Eph 2:10). Like a track coach calling to his charges to do their best, God calls upon believers to obey Him (1 Pet 1:16). Even more, He provides the power necessary to obey (2 Pet 1:3). He does not, however, remove our ability to disobey or guarantee some minimum level of achievement.
Question #5. Is perfection possible in this life?
First John 1:8 says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” This looks at our present experience. Verse 10 of 1 John 1 looks at our past experience and affirms that past sinlessness is also impossible: “If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.”
It is impossible to achieve sinless perfection prior to death or the Rapture. After those events, however, it is guaranteed for the believer (1 John 3:2).
Question #6. Is there such a thing as a carnal Christian?
In 1 Cor 3:1-3 Paul chides the Corinthian Christians for being carnal. The word carnal means fleshly. The Corinthian believers to which Paul was writing had been believers for about 4 or 5 years. That was plenty of time for them to have grown and matured in the faith, yet they were “still carnal” (v 3) and were still “babes in Christ” (v 1).
On the one hand, Paul clearly says that Christians can be carnal. That is, Christians can live in such a way that they are not manifesting spiritual maturity.
On the other hand, Paul does not use the expression “carnal Christian.” He does not establish this as a special type of believer, any more than a baby is a special type of human. Carnality is a stage of development that all new Christians should soon grow out of as they mature in the faith. Unfortunately, however, just as adults can act like children, so too those who have been believers for years, like the Corinthians, can still act in immature childish ways.
Therefore, the answer to this question is “yes and no.” Yes, Christians can be carnal and can act carnally. No, there is technically no special category of believer called carnal believers.
Question #7. Hebrews 12:14 reads: “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.” What does that mean? Does it teach that there is a certain level of holiness we must achieve in this life in order to be saved?
Lordship Salvationists see in this verse a warning to all believers. They suggest that this passage implicitly teaches that believers prove whether they are true or false believers by their behavior. True believers will heed this warning and will achieve final salvation. False believers will not and will be eternally condemned.
Such an interpretation is illogical. If eternal security is true, and it is, then no believer can lose his salvation. Believers don’t need any commands or warnings in order to stay saved. Even false professors, those who think they believe the Gospel and yet are actually believing a counterfeit gospel, do not need to be warned to get to work. They need to be warned that they don’t believe the Gospel. No such warning is present here since the author is writing to Christians (cf. Heb 12:2, “looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith”). False professors need to be given the Gospel so that they can believe it and be saved. However, the Gospel is not presented here.
The Lordship Salvation interpretation is also forced. They are reading their theology back into a verse, not letting the verse speak for itself. The verse says that no one will see the Lord without holiness. It is clear from verses like 1 John 3:2, “We know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is,” that when believers see the Lord we will be perfectly holy, sinless. That is what is called ultimate or future sanctification.
The author of Hebrews is challenging believers to strive now to live like we will live forever. It is like Peter citing the Lord’s command from Leviticus, “Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet 1:16). It is also like Paul saying, “Iï¿½ beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called” (Eph 4:1).
Question #8. Second Corinthians 13:5 reads, “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you are disqualified.” What does that mean? Does it command believers to look at their works to see if they are regenerate?
Some see in this verse a command to test our salvation by our works. But that interpretation flies in the face of Scripture. In both First and Second Corinthians Paul asserted that he was writing to genuine believers: “To those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor 1:2). “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?” (1 Cor 6:19). “You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart” (2 Cor 3:2-3). “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ…” (2 Cor 5:10). Why would Paul come to the end of the second letter and question the salvation of people whose salvation he had consistently affirmed? He wouldn’t.
If the Corinthian believers needed to examine themselves to see if they were saved, then so do all believers. There is no hint here of this being a special requirement for assurance in Corinth. And, if believers need to do this once, then they need to do it over and over again for our works are not perfect and they do not remain static.
However, we know that people like the apostles, Timothy, Titus, Cornelius and his household, Martha, and many others had absolute certainty of their salvation apart from their works (see question 1 above). Why would God have absolute assurance apart from works for some believers and not for all?
Note the last word in 2 Cor 13:5. In the Greek it is the word adokimos. Paul said in 1 Cor 9:27 that he feared that after he had preached to others he himself might be disqualified (adokimos). Clearly he did not fear hell. What he did fear was being disapproved for the prize of ruling with Christ (1 Cor 9:24-25; cf. 2 Tim 2:12). Likewise, the Corinthians were in danger of being disapproved for that prize.
It is a mistake to assume that “in the faith” here refers to being saved. A look at the preceding verses shows that some of the Corinthians doubted that Paul himself was Christ’s spokesman (v 3). So in v 5 Paul asks them to examine themselves rather than him! They questioned whether he spoke for Christ. He challenges them to see if they speak for Christ. When he says, “examine yourselves to see if you are in the faith,” he is referring to their experience, not to their position. Were they in the faith in their behavior?
Similarly, in this context when Paul questions them as to whether or not Christ is in them, he is not questioning their salvation. He is questioning their present sanctification. He wants them to see whether Christ is experientially active in their lives or not. Paul wrote something very similar to the Ephesian believers. He prayed “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph 3:17). These were saved people and he was praying that Christ might dwell, or be completely at home, in their hearts.