Sanctification: Life Shaped by Grace

One of the great benefits of living in California is the easy access to the great outdoors and especially some of the most beautiful National Parks in the United States. My family particularly enjoys Yosemite and Joshua Tree National Parks. As we’ve spent time in each of them the past eight years we’ve been astounded by their grandeur and timelessness.

Yet as we’ve visited them through the years we’ve come to see that these beautiful parks are not as static as we had once imagined. Over time the winds shave off, ever so slightly, some of the hills at Joshua Tree. Even mighty Yosemite morphs over the years. Usually the changes are slow and easy to overlook. But sometimes the changes are sudden and dramatic such as the rock slides on Half Dome last year when hundreds of tons of rock came crashing to the valley floor. The result is that over the course of years, centuries, and millennia the forces of nature remake the earth in vivid ways.

A similar process happens in people who follow Jesus, a process the Bible calls, sanctification. Sanctification, and the similar language around holiness, is the terminology Biblical writers used to describe how God’s grace keeps working in disciple’s lives after a person makes an initial faith commitment and repents of her sin.

While many New Testament writers talk about sanctification to one degree or another my favorite New Testament writer currently is Peter. I especially appreciate Peter in part because in his first epistle, chapter 3 verse 15, he gives what I think is the best description of evangelism (the focus of my academic research) today, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (NIV) In Peter’s second letter he provides some insight into sanctification. In 2 Peter 3:18 he describes the essence of sanctification as “growing in grace.”

As we’ve discussed in this email series, God’s grace works to first nurture people to awaken to God’s truth and love through God’s prevenient grace. Growth continues as people who have awakened experience God’s grace convicting them of sin and convincing them of the need to repent. Next people continue to grow in grace as they wrestle with the need to have faith in Christ as Lord and savior, a period of growth that culminates in justification. Justification, while critical to discipleship, is not the final work of the spirit. Next the Spirit nurtures people to further growth through God’s sanctifying grace.

As God’s grace sanctifies disciples they die to sin and “live to righteousness” (2 Peter 2:24). Sanctification, as John Wesley reminds us, is the process by which the Spirit works, sometimes immediately but typically over the course of a disciple’s life, to replace the sin that captures our hearts with the fruit of the Spirit (The Doctrine of Original Sin, Part II). In this way sanctification is the culmination of the work of the Spirit in disciple’s lives this side of heaven.

While it isn’t erroneous to think of God working through different kinds of grace, I think it is most helpful to think of God’s grace as one. God’s love pours into history and we experience it different ways (as prevenient, convincing, justifying, or sanctifying grace) depending on our maturity as his followers. While sanctification is the apex of what Christians can experience in this life, it is not the final experience of God’s love according to Wesley. Rather, our growth in grace culminates in heaven through glorifying grace when we are made perfectly into the image of God.

God’s ongoing work of grace that sanctifies disciples was integral to the early Methodist community. But as I travel around the country teaching and preaching, and as I talk about Wesleyan theology with my students, I’ve come to realize that United Methodists today are most comfortable talking about God’s grace that works preveniently. Alternatively, even causal strolls through Christian radio and book stores reveals that when it comes to grace many other Christian communities focus almost exclusively on God’s work to justify people and the corresponding need for personal repentance and faith. In both cases the ongoing work of the Spirit to remake disciples into the image of God is neglected in many contemporary conversations on grace.

John Wesley is rolling over in his grave! Sanctifying grace, he thought, is the point of discipleship! Salvation, in his mind, includes both justification and sanctification. A salvation which concludes with a person’s justification or “deliverance from hell” was, he believed, a “vulgar notion”. Salvation is made complete with sanctification. Through the sanctifying work of the Spirit God delivers people from their sin and restores disciple’s souls to their “primitive heath” and “original purity”, working to recover “the divine nature” and renew “our souls after the image of God” (A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, Part I). Discipleship, Wesley writes, that emphasizes prevenient and justifying grace over the Spirit’s work to renew “the soul in the image of God…is no other than a poor farce, and a mere mockery of God.” (Sermon 44: Original Sin).

Dallas Willard is just as straightforward. Much of contemporary Christianity, at least in mainline Protestantism, participates in what he calls “the great omission” when it fails to incorporate the central work of the Spirit to sanctify believers (See his book, The Great Omission). John Wesley never made this contemporary mistake. In fact, the early Methodists were called “Methodists” because they established patterns of communal discipleship that encouraged people to respond to God’s grace as the Spirit works first preveniently and convincingly, and then to justify and then sanctify.

Despite its central place in the life of discipleship, sanctification is difficult, both for individual Christians and communities of Christians. Most Christians I know do not live up to the sanctified life they desire. We are growing, but our growth is often interspersed with small or even dramatic steps backward. Sanctification is even more difficult because Christians frequently disagree on what it means to be “remade” in the image of God, and what a Christian who is being sanctified looks like. Indeed, the current debate regarding human sexuality in most Christian communities is, I believe, a debate regarding sanctification. How does the Spirit recover “the divine nature” of our sexuality and what does that specifically entail?

While human sexuality is the issue of our time, other characteristics or the sanctified life are just as important. For instance, in a world where so many struggle for daily sustenance, how is the Spirit renewing our use of money?  In a world where we can waste so much time being entertained how is the Spirit working to “remake” our use of the time we have?  When Christians, both women and men, clergy and lay, struggle with addictions to pornography at the same rate as the culture at large Christians should ask, “How is the Spirit reforming my understanding of love to match the “divine nature” of love?  I’m sure you could ask other questions.

The point is this: for Methodists the task of opening our lives more and more to the work of the Spirit never ends in this life. The Spirit is constantly inviting justified Christians to keep on opening their lives to the Spirit’s work so that God can remake us in his image.

While Methodists have tended to believe that God’s sanctifying work can be done immediately and completely in this life, most Methodists did, and in my observation still do, experience God’s sanctifying grace as Wesley did. Namely, they experience the slow work of the Spirit over the course of our lives to renew us in his image. In this way we are like the smooth boulders of Joshua Tree and mighty Yosemite Valley. We are creatures that the wind of the Spirit blows over, evening our rough edges that don’t resemble Jesus. May the Spirit bless us as individuals and as Methodists as each day we welcome his love’s ongoing work to sanctify his people.

by Jack Jackson

                                                                                                                                             

Rev. Dr. Jack Jackson is E. Stanley Jones Associate Professor of Evangelism, Mission, and Global Methodism at Claremont School of Theology.