Pardoned or Paroled? Sanctification by Faith, 2nd Ed., by Jefferis Kent Peterson, will soon be available for download. Released in 2002, by Isaiah House Publishing, Pardoned or Paroled is available for purchase in print or at http://www.is61.com.
This book covers the struggle of many ordinary people to cope with guilt, fear, and condemnation, and provides a truth that sets the heart free. From the back cover: Do you feel like you cannot measure up? Do you feel like no matter what you do, it is never enough? Are you bothered by feelings of failure or shame? Are you motivated to go to church out of guilt and fear, rather than out of thankfulness and love for God? If so, you are trapped by the lies of performance. The lie is: the more you do for God, the more God will love you.
As a result of finding his freedom in Christ, the author outlines a plan of escape for others from the prison of guilt, fear, and condemnation. Jesus Christ sanctifies us and makes us holy. It isn't what we do, but what Christ has done for us that matters to God. By finding holiness in Christ and not in our own deeds and works, the love of God will heal our guilty consciences and remove shame and failure from our lives.
This liberating book answers many questions Christians ask themselves, like: "Although I believe in Jesus,why do I still do bad things? Am I doing enough to please God? Am I truly saved? If God has called me to be holy, why do I still live in sin?" These questions are asked by people who want to know God better. It is a question of sanctification: how can I be pure before God, have intimate fellowship with him, and walk before him unashamed?
If you have ever asked yourself questions like these, this book is for you.
New Table of Contents:
Chapter One - Religious Witchcraft: the Trap of Legalism
Chapter Two - Sanctification: Christ's Completed Work In Us
Chapter Three - Sanctification and Righteous Conduct
Chapter Four - Sanctification: a Practical Application
Chapter Five - Laboring to Rest: The Contrary Nature of Human Striving
Chapter Six - A Personal Testimony: The Spirit's Power
Chapter Seven - What Is Faith?
Chapter Eight - What If I Don't Have Enough Faith? *
Chapter Nine - Escaping the Trap of Lies *
Chapter Ten - Faith Comes by Healing! *
Chapter Eleven - The Goal of the Christian Life
Chapter Twelve - The Goal of Sanctification
Chapter Thirteen - God My Sanctifier
* New Chapters
"I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and bear witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from the people and from the Gentiles-to whom I send you to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me." (Acts 26: 15-18)
Read this section only if you are interested in current theological trends.
This book was written out of the struggle to find a relationship between the Protestant doctrine of “justification by faith” and sanctification, or right living, in Christ. It was a personal struggle because I wanted to know how to deal with the guilt of my continuing imperfection after coming to faith. I also wanted to learn to live a purified life, because I thought if I did, I would be able to do the works that Jesus did. I assumed that a life of miracles was a result of moral holiness. I read in the Scriptures that Jesus said, “He who believes in me will do the works that I do, and even greater works will he do …” I was not performing miracles, and I wanted to do what I needed to make the promise of Scripture come to pass. So, I asked, “Now that I am saved by Christ’s mercy, how good do I need to be, and how good can I be?”
Two current theological debates reflect the dynamics of my struggle and reveal that this issue is the same one which has troubled the Church for centuries. One debate is over the Reformation issue of “justification by faith,” the other debate involves a doctrine called “Lordship Salvation.” Recently, a dialog between Lutherans and Roman Catholics has asserted that much of the debate over the issue of justification by faith during the Reformation was due to a semantic misunderstanding. The Roman Catholic definition of justification is closer to the Protestant definition of sanctification – or righteous living after salvation. The fight was, in part, a result of confusion over the use of these two words. The two sides are said to agree that initial justification is indeed by grace through faith, and not by works. However, the Catholic view of sanctification, and its association with good works, seems to reignite the debate between faith and works in a new venue. This book deals with the subtle consequences of applying merit to one’s performance of good deeds as well as to the confusion raised by the debate over “Lordship Salvation.”
The debate in evangelical circles about the issue of “Lordship Salvation” has two basic positions. On one side, theologians like John MacArthur are rightly stating that unless our relationship to Christ produces some fruit of faith in our character and in our deeds, we have a reason to doubt whether we are really saved. To be “in Christ” is more than just believing that Jesus is the Son of God; it is allowing him to be “Lord” over our lives. Saving faith will be accompanied by a life of obedience, repentance, and submission. True, saving faith will have as its evidence the sanctification of our character. If these elements of transformation are lacking in us, it is possible that we do not have saving faith.1
On the other side of the debate, the traditional theologians of grace, like Charles Ryrie and Zane Hodges, are concerned about the effect the theology of Lordship Salvation will have on new Christians. Rather than causing us to trust Christ and his work, Lordship Theology will cause us to look to ourselves, and to our works and deeds, for some assurance of our salvation. Such a perspective is bound to make us miserable or extremely vain. Instead, these theologians present faith and salvation as God’s free gift to us, regardless of how well we walk in paths of righteousness. Forgiveness covers our blunders, grace covers our weakness, and all the credit for our good deeds goes to God and God alone.
To explain the lack of evidence of salvation in some “believers,” Ryrie and Hodges imply a two-tiered Christianity: while everyone who has faith in Jesus is God’s child and is saved for eternity, not all of God’s children are obedient. Just as is true in human families, in the family of God there are sons and daughters who listen to their Father’s voice and obey, while some are still bent on following their selfish ways. Although still saved, these disobedient children are not growing towards maturity.2
Dr. Ryrie almost posits a dual class of kingdom citizenship. There are those who have received the free gift of salvation through faith in Christ by trusting in his mercy alone, and then there are those who have gone beyond salvation and have accepted the call to be Christ’s disciples. To be a disciple is to continually surrender more and more of one’s own will, wants, and desires to Jesus as Lord and Master of life. This is the costly enterprise of discipleship. The prize is holiness, but not every Christian is willing to pay the price. Therein lies the difference between the first and second-class citizens, between the disciples and the mere believers.
Ryrie reassures us that even if we are of the second class of Christians – even though we are unwilling to render Jesus our obedience – if we have accepted Christ as savior, we have a place at the banquet table in the Kingdom of God. Salvation is indeed free; only discipleship is costly.3
While I value the contributions these brothers have made to the study of God’s work in us, I believe they are confused about how sanctification actually works. By treating discipleship as a matter of our work instead of as a matter of faith, they make sanctification something to be achieved rather than something to be received! They miss the point that our sanctification is also by faith. It takes faith to walk in the perfection that God has purchased for us. It is clear in the Scriptures that discipleship is not the means of our sanctification, but the fruit of it. We do not discipline ourselves and become holy enough to enter God’s presence. We enter God’s presence, become holy by fellowship with him, and so our flesh is disciplined! The character of discipleship flows naturally out of a relationship with Jesus, but as soon as we look to our performance as a means to achieve our maturity, or as a means to measure our holiness, we take the focus off of what God has done for us in Jesus and put it on ourselves, our works, and our deeds. If we look to ourselves, there can never be faith!
Martin Luther struggled to know that he was truly saved in the face of his sinful nature. Even though he believed, he still sinned. In response to his quest for assurance, God gave Luther the revelation that he was saved by faith and faith alone. Upon that revelation, the whole Protestant world is founded. However, God, in His Word, said not only are we saved by faith; we are sanctified by faith as well! (Acts 26:18). We have to grasp this truth if we are to be set free from the nagging doubts and fears that attack us and cause us to question our salvation.
Religious Witchcraft - The Trap of Legalism
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? Let me ask you only this; Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? - Galatians 3: 1-3.
When a man is let out of prison on parole, he must be on his best behavior. He is assigned a parole officer. He must report to the officer on a regular basis. If he makes one mistake, he knows he can be thrown back into prison, so the parolee always lives with one eye over his shoulder, afraid that any misdeed or infraction of the rules might end his freedom. Sometimes, if he does not want to return to prison and has truly forsaken his life of crime, he will want to prove he has reformed by being on his best behavior, but he is still living in fear of making a mistake.
However, when a man is let out of prison on a pardon, no sword is hanging over his head. It is as if he had never committed any crime. He does not have to fear that a small mistake or slip up will return him to jail. He does not have to report to an officer and prove his goodness on a weekly basis. He can just go on about his life without ever looking back.
Christian guilt usually comes in two flavors. If you were raised in a strict, religious family, you may be walking around in a prison cell of fear – afraid of a thousand sins you might commit by sundown. You may be afraid of mortal sins, feeling guilty if you don’t go to church every Sunday morning and Wednesday night. If you miss Bible study or Mass, you are sure you’ve committed another sin. No matter how good you try to be, your conscience is weighed down by a thousand transgressions. You live in fear of condemnation and in fear of God’s constant displeasure.
Or if you are like me, you were not raised in church. You found a way to sin all on your own. The life you lived before you were in Christ makes you ashamed. There is nothing in my former life of which I am proud. In truth, upon coming to Christ, I was so ashamed of my pride and the way I lived, and so grateful for God’s mercy, that I wanted to repay the Lord for his salvation. I wanted to be “super good.” I wanted to do everything right and prove to the Lord that I wouldn’t be bad anymore. I was like a man let out on parole. I really did not understand that my sins had been forgiven. I really did not understand what it meant to be pardoned.
I find a lot of Christians act like they are on parole. They walk on eggshells before God because they do not understand the forgiveness of God. They are always on their best behavior. There is a brittleness to their righteousness and a defensiveness to their faith. They are offended easily when someone does not receive their witness about Jesus. They feel compelled to “prove” Jesus is Lord and to “prove” their worthiness to God by “winning souls.” Rather than resting in their confidence in God, they never seem to be able to relax. And they won’t let you relax either. Have you ever met Christians who make you feel uneasy? I have. I was one of them. I was so self-righteous after I was saved that I was obnoxious. I was like the tattletale in school. I was full of zeal but lacking in grace. I was a parolee on his best behavior, but it wasn’t the real me. I was driven by guilt and by fear of falling back into sin. I really didn’t understand what it meant to be set free from sin’s reminder. I was trying to pay back my Savior for my former ignorance. What an impossible load! Well, after a couple of months of that foolishness, I gave up on trying to perfect myself. It wasn’t working anyway. I was only becoming miserably aware of my shortcomings. At that point, I began my long quest to find a more secure foundation for my acceptance in Christ than the foundation built on my own “good” behavior.
When I was first saved, I had a lot of help in being “religiously weird.” I received a lot of advice from other Christians. I should say, it was not when I was first saved that I became unbearable, because when I was first saved, for the first few months of my sophomore year of college, all I did was skip class, read the Bible, pray, give thanks to God, and enjoy the love and presence of Jesus. I was having fun before the Lord and enjoying him. But shortly after that honeymoon of friendship with Jesus, I was told that in order to be a “good” Christian I needed to have a “quiet time” every day of at least an hour, and I “needed” to read my bible everyday. And if I really wanted to be pleasing to God, I needed to lead someone else to the Lord once a week.
Do you know what happened when all this legalistic advice came forth? It crushed my joy! It made a burden of what had been a pleasure. It made a duty and a chore of what before had been pure joy! Now, under the threat of punishment, failure, and the Father’s displeasure, I had better have that quiet time or else …or else, God wouldn’t love me as much …at least that was the implication. And suddenly, I found myself on the treadmill of proving that I was indeed a new person and an obedient child of God. I had been …let out on parole …
Now, mind you, it wasn’t just young brothers and sisters in the Lord who were misleading me with good intentions. I was receiving this message from people who should have known better …from adult leaders of our college campus youth ministry. But the result of all their “advice” was that now I hated to read my bible; it was such a burden. I felt rejected by God every time I tried to enter his presence in the “quiet place,” because no matter how much time I read the Word or spent with him, I always felt it wasn’t enough. I should do more. “How much is enough to be pleasing to God?” That was the question which caused my inner struggles. The easy relationship I had with my Lord was cut off. A painful chasm had developed in our friendship, and I was to blame – or so my mind said.
Generations of Christians have been plagued by this feeling of separation between themselves and the Lord. This struggle to become a “good” person and to be more like Christ has been an issue for the Church for thousands of years. Very few people are able simply to enjoy God’s presence without being bothered by guilt and a sense of failure. We all see the image of the perfect love of God in Jesus, and we are all aware of how we fail to live like Jesus. We see what we are and we also see what we should be, and it bothers our conscience. The Bible gives us instructions on how to live a godly and holy life, but our ability to follow the pattern set out for us is weak. We often fail to carry out the simplest commands of Jesus. We may pray, for example, but we still become so easily annoyed with others that our anger and irritation reveal how far we are from the Lord.
It is this awareness of our failings that has caused this struggle of conscience for believers throughout the ages. We all want to know how to become more like Jesus. The Western Church calls this process of growth into the likeness of Jesus “sanctification.” We seem to have a vision of the goal, but most us fail in our attempts to be like Him. Some people have separated themselves from the world out of a desire to be like Christ. Some have become ascetic hermits, seeking holiness in a life of poverty and isolation. Others have entered monasteries, seeking to become like Christ through a life of simplicity, contemplation, and prayer. Some have the misconception that you could be holy only if you denied yourself marriage and worldly goods, and so they retreated from the world out of a fear of being tainted by it.
It was out of this fear that Martin Luther entered a monastery and began to study the Scriptures in the early 1500’s, but Martin Luther found that his desire for assurance before God was not satisfied. No matter how many times he prayed or repented, his fear remained. It was this fear of God and his struggle to know that he was doing enough to please God that finally caused Luther to abandon any attempts to find security in his good works or in his piety. Luther saw how pitiful his religious behavior was, and he cried out to God for some other assurance of God’s love and favor. In response, God gave Martin Luther an understanding that a man was justified by “faith alone,”4 and not by works. This revelation of truth spawned the whole Protestant Reformation. People began to realize that God did not condemn them: they were free from the debt of sin through their faith in Jesus Christ. They did not have to say endless prayers of confession or do penance to escape hell because Jesus had already paid the price for their sins. They were saved by Christ’s work, not by their own. Christ’s work on the cross was enough.
After Martin Luther, people began to ask other questions, “Now that I am saved, what next? Do I just continue to sin, or does God expect me to become sinless like Jesus? ” John Calvin, a French Protestant who helped start the Presbyterian and Reformed Churches, believed that the Law of God revealed in the Scriptures was to be a guide to Christian behavior after salvation. He agreed with Luther that the Law revealed our sinful state and our need for God’s mercy, but he added, that once the Holy Spirit has been given to a new Christian, the Law should teach you how to live. Calvin defined sanctification as the gradual growth of our character and our behavior into godliness. The Law existed to direct us in that growth. Neither Calvin nor Luther could tell us exactly how we would become more like Christ, but both agreed that should be our goal. Neither believed we would be perfect until Christ returned to the earth. Both Calvin and Luther believed that we would continue to sin and always need forgiveness, but Calvin had more hope in the potential reform of human nature than did Luther. Calvin believed that we would become more like Jesus the longer we lived and followed him.
Calvin’s hope for our sanctification led to another set of questions: “How holy does God expect us to become? And what happens if I fail to live up to this expectation? Will I lose my salvation?” John Wesley, who lived 200 years after Luther and Calvin, was not content with the seeming contradiction created by them. He wondered, “How can we hope for sanctification if we will always continue to sin and be sinful?” He saw that the Bible held out hope for an ever-increasing righteousness in us with the possibility of freedom from all sin. He noted that the First Letter of John talks about mature believers who are “made perfect in love” and who “do not sin.”5 Wesley reasoned that there must be more to believing than simply asking for forgiveness; “Entire Sanctification” from all sin must be possible even now in this life. John Wesley taught this sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit as a “second work of Grace.” While he never claimed to have achieved sinless perfection, he did experience the power and personal presence of God in a new way. That experience is often called being “baptized with the Holy Spirit” in Pentecostal and Charismatic circles today and is a common experience throughout the Church among members of every denomination. It has not, however, produced a sinless state of perfection for believers.
Joy in Holiness or Laboring in the Flesh
So still today, the questions raised by Luther, Calvin, and Wesley continue to cause a struggle in the heart of almost every Christian. We want to know if we are living up to what God expects of us, but we do not know how do it. The proper answer to this question of our sanctification is the key to Christian liberty. The wrong answer brings religious bondage. If we fail to understand how sanctification actually takes place in us, we will be strongly tempted to turn away from Christ and fall back into a pattern of performance, trying to achieve holiness through our good deeds. Such self-made holiness is absolutely contrary to God’s methods. In fact, Paul calls this attempt at self-perfection a counterfeit of God’s true holiness and a form of spiritual witchcraft.6 It is a deception. He says if we are deceived by it and turn away from our faith in Christ to works of human effort, we will be cut off from grace!
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”–Galatians 3:10–11, NRSV
You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.–Galatians 5:4, NRSV
Paul also says that when we turn from God’s grace to the Law, it will kill our joy! (Cf. Gal 4:15) That surely explains why I lost my joy as a young believer. Somewhere, somehow I turned from a simple trust in Jesus to a false trust in my own efforts to be good.
There is indeed a right and wrong way to seek holiness. Luther was right: we are saved by faith and not by works. Calvin was right: the Law exists to reveal our sin and the goal of sanctification. Wesley was also right: complete sanctification and perfection in love are possible in this life, but not through our strength and moral character. Our sanctification is possible because Jesus Christ, our Sanctifier, lives in us! We are not holy, but Christ, who lives in us is! The danger is that instead of trusting Christ to sanctify us, we will seek to sanctify ourselves through good behavior and so fall prey to the deceptions of spiritual witchcraft. One of the ways we fall prey to deception is that we seek to sanctify ourselves through the religious lure of false piety.
I have come to hate false piety, not because spending time with the Lord in prayer and worship is a bad thing to do, but because the motive is what really matters. If you are having a quiet time or going to church to be a “good” Christian, then you are deceived. If you spend hours in prayer trying to be pleasing to God, then you are on the wrong track. It is not the hours you spend in prayer that matter but the faith with which you pray! A short prayer, full of faith, is better than long hours of unbelieving petition and intercession. Jesus said that the Gentiles think they are heard for their long-winded prayers, but then he said, we are not to pray like them. He also criticized the hypocrites, who prayed three times a day out on the street corner to show how holy they were to other men. He said, they already have their reward.7 Do you know how to tell if you believe God when you pray? You’ll know you have faith if you have confidence that the Father hears your prayers.8
Being Religious or Trusting God
It has been a hard struggle for me to escape the snare of religious behavior. It has taken years to get back to the simplicity of my first love. I tell you, I did not return to the simple joy of resting in the presence of Jesus and of reading his Word by any religious discipline! On the contrary, only by rejecting that religious mentality have I been able to return to the simple joy that faith produces. It is this ongoing battle with conventional wisdom which motivated me to write this book. I would like to spare you the troubles I have experienced, if at all possible. For this reason, I am attacking a false understanding of sanctification.
My beloved wife, who put up with me through all my struggles to return to the simple faith of a newborn Christian, reminded me of all the contortions I have gone through on my “religious” quest to know Jesus better. Although I understood the principle of grace with my mind, I could not shake the nagging feeling that I was not “doing” enough to please God. Guilt and fear of failure grasped my soul like a millstone, dragging me down. Although I despaired of pleasing Christ because I could see my sinful attitudes, thoughts, and desires, I would continually venture out on some new course of obedience:
After listening to a teaching on prayer, for example, I began to pray the Lord’s Prayer. My prayer life expanded dramatically. I became much more balanced in my prayers, not centering on my needs but on Christ’s will. I would arise at 4 a.m. and pray until 8:00 a.m., praying for all the needs of the earth. For a season, I really was strengthened in my relationship to God. But soon what was a teaching became a rote pattern of behavior, devoid of faith. Now I had to pray every day. I was no longer approaching God in faith, but I felt as if I had found “my calling” and suddenly, it became a duty. There was no longer any faith involved in my actions. It degenerated into a religious obligation, and when I did not pray every day, I felt guilty.
While this life of prayer went on for months, it became arid and empty. Finally, after crying out to God, “Why isn’t this working like it used to?” I sensed God saying to me, “Cease striving and know that I am God,” (Psalm 46: 10, ASV). God was not calling me to rote, religious behavior, but to rest in his presence. For a season, I did rest, but I couldn’t really believe that was all God wanted me to do. I felt I should be doing something more, and guilt crept back in. So soon, I was off on another religious quest…
The next endeavor was praise and worship. I would sing songs of praise and worship to God for about four hours each day, and indeed, I would bask in his presence and enjoy God. But after several months, that too became something I felt “I needed to do” to be pleasing to God. What was joy soon became religion. The life went out of it. Again, the guilt returned. Again, I cried out, “Why isn’t this working?” And again, God spoke in my heart, “Jeff, you are trying to perform for me, but I have called you to rest in me.”
This pattern repeated itself over and over again through the years, and each time God would conclude my efforts with the call to trust in him, but I couldn’t believe it! I couldn’t believe his requirements for obedience were that simple! So, after a few weeks of rest, I would stray back into some effort to fulfill God’s plan for my life.
The hardest of all callings is to trust God so much that rather than do anything to earn his favor you simply rest in his love. Yet that is the message of faith: Jesus has paid the price for our sanctification. Our highest calling is to trust the Father like Jesus does. While he was on the earth, Jesus did not strive in his relationship with the Father. He did not fear that the Father would condemn him, but he continually trusted the Father. Out of his “rest” in the Father, great power was released! So may it be for us as well, that as we rest in him, we may do the works that he did.
Normally, I am not willing to argue with other Christians over doctrines because they are usually fights over minor matters that are not essential to our salvation in Christ. Besides, you can have all the right doctrines and still be wrong in your attitude toward your brother. The Pharisees were right in their doctrines about the resurrection, but they hated Jesus! And we are not saved by our intellectual knowledge of doctrine but by our trust in Jesus and in his sacrifice for us on the cross! Even if we are wrong in some of our doctrines, if we believe that Christ died and was raised for us, then the Lord’s love will cover a multitude of our sins and make up for many of our errors in thinking. Although I won’t usually fight over doctrines, this is one case where I feel compelled to take a stand and risk making enemies. For what you hold about the doctrine of sanctification makes all the difference in the world. It is the difference between a joy-filled, thankful life of faith and a life of bitterness driven by feelings of failure. For that reason, I hope to prescribe some sound doctrine as a medicine for your soul.
Witchcraft or Holiness
A false understanding of sanctification leads to all manner of sinful deeds and deceptions. One of the greatest crimes that can be committed against our faith is the attempt to find some form of righteousness within ourselves. It is this spirit of legalism, arising from a misunderstanding of holiness, which robbed me of my joy in the Lord. This legalism is the very same spirit Paul was constantly fighting in his churches. Paul called those who attacked his Gospel of righteousness by faith “workers of iniquity, false apostles, and Satan’s servants who pretend to be holy and righteous.”9 These people introduced many outward forms of religious exercise, and they called the people to a more rigorous devotion to right living in order to “prove” their salvation. Paul called their effort to “sanctify” themselves after salvation through good works a form of witchcraft!
“Who has bewitched you?” he says. “What righteousness did you have that got you saved? You didn’t have any! So, what got you saved? Some good deed on your part? No! You were saved because you believed the message you heard about Jesus!”10 “Now,” says Paul, “having begun in the Spirit with faith, are you trying to perfect yourself through another means; the strength of your flesh?” In other words, are you trying to sanctify yourself by being a “good” Christian? Aaaagh! It won’t work! If you want to be sanctified, if you want to complete the work of the Spirit in you, then you will have to finish the race the same way you started! By faith! It is faith that got you saved, and it is faith that will bring you sanctification as well. Faith will complete the work of God in you: nothing more and nothing less! No good deeds, no pious behavior, no amount of reading the bible or hours of prayer will fill the gap in your personality or end the deficit of your character.
But “Faith in what?” you might ask. Faith in Jesus: faith in his finished work on the cross! Faith that what Jesus did to save you is sufficient to sanctify you as well. You see, we are not sanctified by our good deeds, but by Christ’s act of obedience, and as we trust in Jesus’ sacrifice, the Holiness of God is revealed in us. We are sanctified by Jesus, and a mature faith will allow us to rest fully in Christ’s finished work. I will speak more about this later, but for now, let me give you a foretaste: if we try to add anything to the cross, like some good deed or effort on our part, we are saying, in effect, “The sacrifice of Jesus was not enough for me. What he did on the cross was not good enough to save me or to satisfy God. I have to do this work in order to be saved and sanctified. My salvation does not depend upon Christ, but upon how good I can be.” That line of thought is deception, for then our trust rests not in Christ but in ourselves and in our efforts. We become the focus for our salvation and Jesus becomes peripheral to us. Our sanctification depends upon how good we can be and not upon Jesus. How perverse can we be to think that there would ever be found any goodness in us worthy of fellowship with God!
Look, my friends, the truth is that we have no righteousness within us and we never will. It is a mistake to look for some kind of righteousness in our personality or character. It is the height of pride to think that some pious behavior or good deed on our part would make us worthy to approach the Almighty God. The Lord said in Isaiah, “Only in the Lord, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength,” (Isaiah 45:24, RSV). Only God is righteous! Only God is good! So, it is crazy for us to seek our sanctification in some outward act or good deed. Our sanctification, like our righteousness, is in the Lord. Our sanctification and our righteousness is the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. It is the presence of God in us, and we receive our righteousness as a gift11 from God, because God himself is the gift. In fact, we first receive his righteous presence within us when we are willing to acknowledge our need for a Savior, for we only begin to rely upon God’s righteousness when we realize we cannot save ourselves. When we acknowledge that we are not righteous, but that Jesus Christ is, we are finally starting to see ourselves in a clear light. We finally start to trust God’s righteousness because we see we cannot trust our own.
From Faith to Sinlessness
Let me tell you about a mystery of God’s goodness towards us. In Romans, Paul says that our faith is “counted as righteousness,” and that God does not count the sin of the one who believes in Jesus Christ (Romans 4: 5-7). In other words, when you believe in Jesus, in God’s eyes it is as if you have never sinned! When we admit that we are not good, but confess that Jesus Christ is good, God looks upon us as if we too had perfectly obeyed him and gone to the cross without sin!12 Jesus’ obedience becomes a substitute for ours, and God the Father looks upon us as if we had perfectly obeyed him. What else can we do then to gain God’s favor if already we are without sin in his sight? What sacrifice can we add?
Now not only have we received God’s righteousness through our trust in Christ, Jesus said that we receive our sanctification the same way: by faith in him!13 Actually, if we grasp the simple truth that Jesus is our righteousness, and we do not have to earn righteousness, we are set free! A great weight is lifted off our shoulders. We do not have to perform for God. We are not out on parole, but truly pardoned. If we grasp this truth, gratitude will replace fear; thanksgiving will replace worry; and the joy of the Lord will make the character of Christ shine out from our hearts. All we do is believe that he is righteous and trust him to make us like himself, and this faith will produce the character of Christ in us – which is in our sanctification! So, my friends, it is faith from beginning to end! Faith for salvation, faith for righteousness, and faith for sanctification.
I know that if my experience has struck a chord in your heart, you have felt the pain of feeling distant from God at times as well. You have been aware of an awful sense of unworthiness before the throne of God’s majesty. You have felt anxiety. You wonder how to overcome the guilt and enter in to intimacy with God. Trusting Christ for your sanctification, I guarantee you, is the bridge over the troubled waters of your heart to the “Rest” of the promised land of God’s presence …
1. The Gospel According to Jesus, by John F. MacArthur, 1988Academie Books, Grand Rapids, MI, pp. 32-33.
2. So Great Salvation, by Charles Ryrie, 1989 SPPublications, Victor Books, Wheaton IL, pp. 74-76.
3. Absolutely Free, by Zane Hodges, 1989 by Rendencion Viva, Academie Books, Grand Rapids, MI, pp. 118, 132.
4. Romans 1: 16-17; 3: 21-30
5. 1 John 3:4-6 ; 4:18.
6. Galatians 3: 1-3
7. Matthew. 6:5-8
8. 1 John 5:14
9. 2 Corinthians 11: 12-15
10. Galatians 3: 1-3
11. Romans 5:17
12. Acts 26:18
13. Acts 26:18