Unquestionably, God desires,
and even wills, the believer’s sanctification.
To the church at Thessalonica, Paul writes: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification…” (1Thess. 4:3). Thus, the pursuit of holiness, personal holiness, is a non-negotiable in Biblical Christianity. Those blessed with faith in Christ are exhorted to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ (2 Peter 3:18). We must strive for the holiness without which no one sees the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). So, no holiness no heaven.
The question arises. Since, the New Covenant Church is not under law, but under grace, how shall that pursuit proceed? How does one make progress in holiness? In classic Reformed circles, appeal is made to many respectable Confessions. And the Reformed answer goes something like this: We are saved from the Law of Moses in its condemnation. But after conversion, we must return to it for our sanctification. The Ten Commandments are the believer’s rule of life, our standard for holiness, God’s eternal moral law to which all men are bound. So says the Reformed tradition with its Covenant Theology. So says those voices with whom I align myself at many points.
However, when it comes to the matter of sanctification, I contend that the apostle Paul taught no such thing. I do not affirm sanctification needs the help of external Law. It is not my intent to explain myself in great detail here. That is not the aim of this post. For now, it serves my purpose to simply echo Pauline doctrine and affirm that the New Covenant Church is not under Mosaic Law to any degree whatsoever. Indeed, all those who by grace alone through faith alone in and because of Christ alone are justified, pardoned and robed with the redeeming white of Christ’s merit, are under grace! No external Law for the Christian. Nada. Zilch. To echo the apostle again, the Christian, by definition, is one without the need for a “guardian” (Galatians 4:2).
Why that is is simple. The New Covenant! I think Philippians 2:12-13 illustrates the incomprehensible glory of a tremendously weighty reality of the New Covenant. Get this and I think we will be much helped in our pursuit of holiness. The text:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
To focus on “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” is, I firmly believe, a huge mistake. Do that, believer, and it will kill you. Of course, we see it there. We must see it and not deny or skirt it. But to emphasize the imperative is to misread not only Paul’s exhortation, but to turn the Christian life on its head. We say a thousand times “Yes, we must work out our salvation.” But (and this is a big but) the grammatical construction linking verses 12 and 13 demands two things:
1. Our work is not independent of God’s work.
2. God is the decisive, determining, energizing, effectual, sovereignly governing reality.
1. First, then. Our working out is not independent of God’s work. Rather, our working out is completely dependent upon God’s working. The conjunction “for” connects, grounds, and gives reason for the ‘working out.’ The imperatival 12th verse and indicative verse 13 must be seen as an indivisible whole, not two verses which give balance to each other! It isn’t that number one, “work out your own salvation” and number two, “it is God who works in you” are two children on a teeter-totter seeking to avoid extremes! No. These two verses must be held together since that is how they are written. As W.D. Dennison writes: “The Christian life is the organic union of the indicative and the imperative.”
Notice also where God is said to be working! He works “in you.” He works IN believers. God is not a distant God, transcendent only, looking down upon us ‘from a distance.’ Not at all. God is also IN you. How this can be I have no idea whatsoever! Who can comprehend the immensity and, yet, at the same time, the absolute immanence of God! But it’s true of everyone in union with Christ by grace alone through faith alone; the sovereign God of the universe dwells not just in the heavens above, working “all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11), He also dwells IN you, “both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” This is insanely amazing. This is a reality unique to the New Covenant. In the Old, God dwelt in the tabernacle, outside of His people. In the New, he dwells IN his people in the Person of the Spirit of Christ. The need for the external “guardian” is no more!
2. Therefore, second, God is the awesome, decisive, governing reality in our sanctification. He directly works his will in us for his good pleasure. How can anyone see these verses and couch them in terms of balance? Who dares the attempt to set God’s inner working on par with our out-working? To make the attempt would be as futile as measuring a drop of water against the oceans of Earth. The scales would never balance! And for this I, for one, am grateful beyond words.
God’s sanctifying presence in us is the key. This is the context, the atmosphere, the ocean if you like, of our ‘working out.’ What the Law cannot do, God Himself does. How then do we pursue our santification, our holiness, our working out our salvation if not by the Law? One word: trust. Faith. God is at work in you, Christian. Trust Him. He is the determining reality. The life of God in you is not inconsequential. Your sanctification, your working out, your obedience to His will, even growing conformity to the image of Christ, the fulfillment and very substance of the Law, is bound to happen! After all, who is there that can thwart His will and working? He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it.
For you because of Him,