This is the 21st part of a series of posts adapted from a paper I presented at a New Covenant Theology think tank in upstate New York in July 2010.
Given all that we’ve studied in this series, how do we apply what is shown to us about sanctification in Scripture?
How do we grow in holiness or counsel those who are combating sin by relying on the Holy Spirit and following imperatives grounded in the indicative of the gospel and the gift of the Spirit of Christ to dwell in us?
Our study has provided us two answers: one positive and one negative.
We do focus on the gospel.
We do not focus on the law.
When we set our eyes on Christ and look at His person and work, we behold more and more what it is that our union with Him has granted to us.
Elyse M. Fitzpatrick and Dennis E. Johnson write of the importance of more fully comprehending our union with Christ through His Spirit:
The gospel tells us that Jesus’ life has been given for us and to us. His holy desires have been planted in our hearts. We’re one with him through the agency of the Holy Spirit. Meditating on these truths will energize our pursuit of godliness because our belief that we are in union with Christ “is key to overcoming sin in our lives. … When any of us lose sight of our privileged position as a result of our union with Christ, we lose our ability to resist sin.”
Our union with Christ should refresh our hearts with joy and strengthen our faith to enable us to fight for holiness. Realizing that he has loved us so much that he has made us one with himself should engender fervent love in our hearts, resulting in fervent obedience.
Fitzpatrick and Johnson almost get it. But they do stop short of recognizing the effects of the mystic union we have with Christ’s Spirit and so they seem to frame it more as an intellectual or emotional response. It is more than that. The Puritan Thomas Watson once preached:
This union with Christ may well be called mystic. It is hard to describe the manner of it. It is hard to show how the soul is united to the body, and how Christ is united to the soul. But though this union is spiritual, it is real. Things in nature often work insensibly, yet really (Eccles. 11:5). We do not see the hand move on the dial, yet it moves. The sun exhales and draws up the vapours of the earth insensibly yet really. So the union between Christ and the soul, though it is imperceptible to the eye of reason, is still real (1 Cor. 6:17).
Jerry Bridges also acknowledges our union with the Spirit of Christ while expressing wonder at its nature:
The way the Spirit operates in our lives to sanctify us is shrouded in mystery. Paul said He works in us “to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13), but he never tells us just how the Holy Spirit interacts with, or works on, our human spirit. I like to know how things work, and I used to try to figure out how the Holy Spirit interacts with our spirit, but I finally realized it was a futile pursuit.
We need constantly to be reminded of our union with Christ and constantly to be reinforced in our identity in Him. Thirdly, we need to understand our freedom in Him. Ultimately, our nature will be like His; our actions will be holy because our nature will be holy. We will not need laws and rules because our glorified selves will be by nature without sin and our actions will reflect that holy nature. We will be free. “[W]here the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17). “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1).
But submission to a yoke of slavery – the slavery of sin – is exactly what those would have us use the law as the yardstick – or more accurately as a nightstick – for our sanctification.
An emphasis on personal performance measured by and brow-beaten by the law brings on the despair of the man of Romans 7, or the hideous and cruel self-condemnation advocated by others. That focus on the law produces what Fitzpatrick and Johnson call the “Sad Moralist:”
[T]he Sad Moralist really does see the law and says in response, “I can’t believe that God loves me like that; why would he?” He knows that God is transcendent, not to be trifled with. The Sad Moralist is a “serious” Christian. When he reads the commands in Matthew 22:37 and following he doesn’t think for one moment he has fulfilled them. He knows his sin. But … he has a pride problem. He believes that he ought to do better, so he is harsh with himself, and he thrashes himself with condemnation, hoping that by so doing he will be able to obey and finally find rest.
He is trying to justify himself by his repentance. He is scrupulously religious and frequently outpaces other Christians around him. But sadly that is never enough to calm his conscience. He thinks that if he could just see his sin as it really is and be sorry enough for it, God would be pleased with him. When he reads about God’s love for us in Christ, he isn’t comforted or enthralled. He is terrified and condemned. He doesn’t know the peace that Christ promises or the joy that should infect his heart.
He … is trying to avoid the realities of the gospel. … [H]e is trying to prove that he is worthy, thereby removing the “stumbling block” of the cross (1 Cor. 1:23).
Isn’t terrified condemnation the response we would expect from binding people under the law?
Isn’t that how we would expect people to behave when we focus them on self-improvement instead of focusing them on what God has done for us in Christ?
Isn’t that what we would expect to see when we focus believers on the law instead of on what God has done in giving His Holy Spirit to us?
Isn’t that exactly what we should expect when we focus believers on external laws that are derived from love instead of focusing them on what God has done in us by giving us the ability to love Him and to love our neighbor?
Paul’s antitheses between Spirit and law show the ineffectiveness of the law. To expect our own selves – or those we might counsel – to show the fruit of the Spirit through the use of the sin-promoting yoke of the law is like the definition of insanity attributed to Albert Einstein: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Paul has condemned the use of law both in our justification and in our sanctification. Paul does not advocate Torah in any of his epistles.
To force external law upon believers because of doctrinal, confessional or systematic tradition is unbiblical and cruel. Paul tells us our walk should be one of freedom, joy and love.
Self-loathing, penitence and despair have no place in Paul’s theology, except as the sorry state of the pre-regenerate man. To advocate placing the binding yoke of the slavery that produces sin is nothing short of cruel spiritual abuse and egregious pastoral malfeasance.
Next: Completed by the Spirit Part 22: A Summary
 Elyse M. Fitzpatrick and Dennis E. Johnson, Counsel From The Cross: Connecting Broken People to the Love of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 115.
 Thomas Watson, “Mystic Union Between Christ and the Saints” (http://www.puritansermons.com/watson/watson3.htm), accessed July 25, 2010.
 Jerry Bridges, The Discipline of Grace (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2006), 107–8.
 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. (Matt 23:37b-40a)
 Fitzpatrick and Johnson, 79.
 http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/alberteins133991.html, accessed July 25, 2010.