Sunday 25th of April 2021
Sanctification, a group effort.
Grab your Bible and turn to 1 Thessalonians 4. Anyone in the room wrestle with pride? There is no safe reaction to that question is there? If no one raised their hand, I'd say, you're all too proud to admit that your proud. If everyone raised their hand, I'd say, "you're all very proud of your humility, as demonstrated by your eagerness to admit your pride." There's no winning that one haha. Pride. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines it this way: "a feeling of pleasure or satisfaction derived from one's own achievements."
"Pleasure or satisfaction derived from one's own achievements." That is a kind of pleasure and satisfaction that the human heart particularly enjoys is it not? Don't we love it when our achievements are on display? Don't we exult in them? Of course we do, that's why trophies exist, plaques are made, and diplomas are framed. But as positively as pride, or a consideration of our own achievements, makes us feel, God speaks very negatively about the phenomenon. But given the New Oxford American Dictionary's definition of pride, "a feeling of pleasure or satisfaction derived from one's own achievements," why does God hate it so much? And He does... Proverbs 8:13  The fear of the LORD is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate. Why would God hate the fact that we love our own accomplishments? In short, because we don't have any.
 "...A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven."
1 Corinthians 4:7
 What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?
 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
Any gifts you have, intellectual capacity, physical prowess, fill in the blank...why do you have that, and some other person in this room doesn't? Did you knit yourself together in your mother's womb? No. When we're proud, we're assuming the place of God, because our accomplishments, are His accomplishments, because our gifts, capacities, and abilities are His doing and they reflect His glory and brilliance back to Him. But then let's take it even further and pretend that you and I could somehow take credit for our gifts, capacities, and abilities (which we can't, but we'll pretend and say we can...).
 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place...
God determines the allotted periods and boundaries of the dwelling places of man, meaning God determines what time period a person will live in, what continent they'll be born on, and to which parents. Now, let's say that you are the most precocious, prodigious, innovative intellect around, and you knit yourself together in the womb that way, so all the glory and honor for what and who you are belongs to you. But, you're born in 600 B.C. Under the caste system in India, or to peasant parents in feudal England during the medieval period...you probably won't live to adulthood given living conditions, sanitation, wars, capricious killings, and the like, but even if you do- you're nothing.
There's no upward mobility, there's no revolutionizing industries from your social position, there's little celebration of ivory tower intellectualism in the strata of society that is just trying to survive. The point being, everything that we are, everything that we earn, everything that we accomplish is owing to a million factors over which we have absolutely no control. How history progresses, where in the timeline we exist, whether who and what we are is of particular benefit in our region and point in history is all outside of our control. We're absolutely and in every way dependent on God's grace. In Him we live and move and have our being. We need Him for our next breath!
This is why God hates pride, because it dilutes our thinking and sustains the delusion that there is anything in us to celebrate, because in our pride, we don't realize that any good in us is a simple reflection of Him. I bring up this penchant toward pride during our discourse on sanctification because pride is one of the primary barriers that blocks the three active agents in our process of sanctification. The three active agents in sanctification are, you, us (the Church), and the Holy Spirit. As we discussed last week, we're called to participate in our sanctification by going often to the streams of spiritual nourishment that God has provided...Scripture, prayer, and assembling with God's people. We are also called to remove the idols that we erect and pursue in place of those three streams of grace. So, one agent in the process of sanctification is you. Then there's the Church and the Holy Spirit, whose roles we'll consider today.
Back to pride. Pride makes us very bad at team work, but we've just established that sanctification is a team effort. The Holy Spirit is working on this project, the Church is working on this project, and you are to be working on this project. But pride prefers to work alone. Remember the definition: a feeling of pleasure or satisfaction in one's own achievements. If we're going to pursue sanctification, we want it to be our achievement, we'd like to be celebrated, honored, and acknowledged for our growth, and that mentality leads to many roadblocks that stifle and stimy our sanctification, by boxing out two of God's ordained agents in the process of sanctification, namely, the Church and the Holy Spirit. So today, we'll consider the Church's role in the process of sanctification, the Spirit's role in the process of sanctification, and the threat that pride poses to the process of sanctification.
1 Thessalonians 4:1-3
 Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.
Notice what the apostles were busy instructing the local churches to do: How to walk (live) in such a way as to please God. This reaffirms our first message from our first Sunday together. Why is it that the Apostles are insistent on these local body's walking uprightly and pleasing God? It is because of who the Church is and what she is for: we are the bride of Christ, made so to be in pleasing submission to Him.
Now notice how Paul entwines an exhortation and a commendation in verse 1. He says that the Thessalonians are walking as they ought, and that they are pleasing to God...then he tells them to do it more! "Please God, just as you are doing..." commendation. "Do so more and more..." exhortation. I think that some of us, myself included, struggle with this marriage of commendation and exhortation. I love a good commendation. You can tell me how much you've seen me grow spiritually and pastorally all day long, you can express your gratitude for my teaching ministry and I'll never tire of it, keep the commendations coming.
But it is easy to interpret exhortation as denigration or as unwelcome confrontation. Or to feel like the exhortation at the end undoes the commendation at the beginning. The Thessalonians could have read this and thought, "wow, we're never good enough for Paul!" "Why can't he just leave us with a good word? Why can't the commendation be the end of it? He always sneaks some exhortation in there as if we have yet some growing to do!" Pride celebrates it's achievements, it doesn't celebrate the identification of those things it has yet to achieve, so the exhortation is far less welcome than the commendation.
But the process of sanctification is about identifying the "more and more" in our lives that still needs to be brought into submission to Christ. Paul says, "You're doing it! Now, do it more and more." You're this conformed to His image, be yet more conformed! You're doing well! You're here, you're singing, you're listening, you're in pursuit...do it more. Take it deeper. Go farther. Press harder. That's sanctification. But, pride...We love commendation; we don't always love exhortation. But one of the agents that God has appointment to move us forward in Christ-likeness is the people who are sitting around us, our brothers and sisters in Christ.
One problem is that, in our pride, we want things to be our idea, our achievements, our assessment, rather than having things suggested, assessed, or achieved by other brothers or sisters on our behalf. If God reveals an area of growth in my life in the quiet of my study during an intimate moment with Him, so much the better, praise the Lord... If one of you walks up with area of growth for me to consider, how well will I receive that? If the Lord reveals to you directly that He wants to make reforms in your life...entertainment choices, or in your choice of dress, or in your patterns of speech, or in your parenting, or whatever it is, it may be difficult to implement...it won't be without it's challenges, but most of us can receive an exhortation from God Himself.
It gets sticky when the exhortation comes from another sinner. When God reveals it to you personally, intimately, you may be able to receive it. In fact, you're really quite well positioned when it happens that way- then you get to share it with other brothers and sisters and receive commendations for your spiritual sensitivity and how in touch with the Spirit you are. They may even ask you to spend time with them to help them learn how to hear from God as you do. "Wow, I wish I was as attuned to the Spirit and as in step with Him as you are!" We love it when it plays out that way. If God tell us, great. If Jerry tells me...that could sting. If Eric brings it up, that may deflate my ego. If Luke tells me, I may just get angry. When we're blind to a particular area of sin or immaturity and another brother or sister points it out to us, we rarely view it as the gift that it is.
In fact, we often write those people off, "haters gonna hate." "Some people are just are nit picky." We often unthinkingly relegate the brother or sister who dares to confront us about aligning our lives more closely to God's Word to the ranks of the legalist or the moralist. Why do we do that, instead of thoughtfully considering what they have to say? Pride. We see no way for us to be exalted in those scenarios, so we kick against it. In fact, those are humiliating situations and we hate being humiliated because we hate the root of that word, humble...humility...we want to be exalted, lauded, cheered, not corrected, rebuked, challenged, and exhorted because those things humble us and we're prideful.
So sometimes we're blind to our own sin and immaturity and God has ordained our humiliation by revealing our shortcomings to someone else first because He aims to destroy our pride, thereby sanctifying us. Other times, we aren't blind at all, we're just rebellious... if we're honest, we know that no one claiming Christ ought to watch that, joke like that, dress like that, interact with someone who isn't their spouse like that, whatever it is...you know, you just like doing it, so you've decided to do it anyway... and a brother or sister calls you to repentance.
Well in those situations, pride flare ups are par for the course. As a local body and as individual Christians there will always be things that we are doing well, getting right, and growing in, and there will always be the "more and more" to which we're called. We are supposed to pull that "more and more" out of each other. We ought not to stagnate, we ought not rest on the laurels of last month's repentance and become complacent in our sanctification. We ought not get to the point where we think, "I go to church in barn- thats how serious I am, we sing theologically robust hymns, I have a systematic theology book at home, I own a reformation study Bible, my pastor makes fun of woke churches and soft Bible teachers, what do you mean, ‘more and more,' this is the ‘more and more!'"
No, there are yet areas of your life and mine that are dominated by us, not Christ. And we're us, which means that often, we're blind to it, so God gave His people a people, brothers and sisters in Christ who can help to show us what we would otherwise be blind to, and to confront us when we give ourselves to open-eyed rebellion. We are called to be agents of sanctification in one another's lives helping one another to identify the "more and more..." in each of our lives and in our church more broadly. Turn to Hebrews 10. Head to the right, through 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, and you'll land in Hebrews.
"Consider how to stir up one another to love and good works..."
The word for "consider" here means to perceive, observe, consider attentively, or fix one's eyes or mind upon. The word for "stir" means to incite or irritate. The local church is called to incite and irritate one another toward love and good deeds. Those of you who've been with me for awhile have traversed this ground with me already and we've come to call this holy peer pressure. We're pressing each other, inciting each other, even irritating each other with the identification of this "more and more," to which we are called in the process of sanctification. This text actually calls us to observe and consider each other's lives for the expressed purpose of knowing precisely how to irritate each other.
That then makes perfect sense of verse 25 doesn't it? "Not neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some..." Some people got so irritated they quit coming! So the Apostle has to say, "don't stop coming for your weekly irritation like some people have..." I referenced my experience at church planter training a couple of weeks ago, interestingly enough, at that training, they didn't have a session on how to plant an irritating church. No breakout groups on how to foster a friction filled environment in which people confront each other's sin. And yet, that is precisely the call of the Scriptures.
Then listen to how he grounds this whole thing in verse 25: "...not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near." Why would we subject ourselves to this? Why would we meet together to give people access to our lives and an invitation to irritate us? Because we're commanded to and the Commander will return to assess either our faithfulness in this or our negligence...that Day is fast approaching. This is the dictate of our husband to whom we submit, and He will return to assess our submission.
If we love commendation, but are offended by exhortation because we are prideful, then we will quickly give up attending a biblical Church because we want our ears tickled and our current level of spiritual growth affirmed and celebrated. We're all too happy to have our ego stroked, but have little interest in being pressed into the more and more that Christ died, rose again, and gave His Spirit to walk us into. Some of you just thought, "Great, now if I don't like this church and never come back they'll all be convinced that it's because I'm prideful and don't want any confrontation or growth in my life!" Yes we will. Just Kidding.
The Spirit's Role:
In God's amazing grace and inexhaustible wisdom, He has not left the two agents of sanctification we've discussed thus far (you and us, the Church) without a Superintendent. How massive a mess of this might we as individuals, and us as a church body, make of these teachings about pursing holiness, and confrontation without the guiding superintendence of the Holy Spirit? The doctrine of and call to sanctification can easily plant the seeds of moralism or legalism or self-righteousness or even of separatism in a young body that is concerned with pursuing holiness and isn't afraid to emphasize it.
Throughout church history we've seen what happens when you draw a bullseye around the doctrine of sanctification and treat it as if it is the only doctrine that the Bible teaches. A steady diet of some kinds of biblical texts with little reference to or consideration of others leads to many dangers. Here are some texts:
 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
 Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?
1 John 2:15
* Do not love the world or the things in the world.(
* ...make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.(
1 Thessalonians 5:22
 Abstain from every form of evil.
2 Corinthians 6:14-17
For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?  ...what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever?  What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God;  ...go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you...
These texts can, and have been used to make a compelling case for separatism. They at least demonstrate how ascetic traditions, monastic orders, and the separatist movements that sprang off of the Anabaptist tradition gained steam. Think the Harmony society, the Mennonites, and the Amish. If we read these texts and have an insufficient pneumatology (doctrine of the Holy Spirit) then we will strive for sanctification, but we will do it in our own effort. We will think that it is our job as individuals and the churches job as a community to conform ourselves to the image of Christ and we will set ourselves to the task, neglecting to consider the third Agent in sanctification who, incidentally, is the only effectual Agent in the entire process.
The reason that movements within Christianity that have a hyper-focus on sanctification often become subChristian separatist groups (and they do) is because they become obsessed with our work and downplay the work of the Word and the Spirit. These groups invariably depart from Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) and introduce standards of stringency that go farther than the Bible does. The reason is because they think that they are as individuals and as a community, the sanctifier. They are wrong. They think that by stricter standards, more clear legislation, and public responses to infractions that they can conform themselves and each other to the image of Christ. They are wrong. The law doesn't sanctify, the Spirit does.
The answer to these dangers is not to pursue sanctification less ardently or to "tone it down" or shift the emphasis to something less fraught. The answer is to have our thinking governed by all of Scripture rather than some of it. So, let's look at how the Holy Spirit helps us in this work of sanctification. First, let me establish the connection between the Spirit and the process of sanctification with a number of texts:
1 Peter 1:2 *" according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you."* 2 Thessalonians 2:13 * But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.* *Romans 8:13  For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.* The word sanctification is not used here, but it is very clearly described. What is becoming more like Christ accept putting our flesh, or our sinful nature to death? Christ didn't have a sinful nature, so killing ours is synonymous with becoming more like Him. And this text says that happens, "by the Spirit." 2 Corinthians 3:18 * And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.* We talked about this text last week, you become what you behold...behold Christ become more like Christ...how does that happen? It comes from the Spirit. He makes it effectual. We of course know that many in the 1st century Jews beheld Jesus' glory, but unaided by the Holy Spirit, the revelation of His glory only led to their rejection of Him, not their becoming more like Him. Galatians 3:2-3 * 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 by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?* Paul just said to the Galatians, "the Spirit opened your eyes to the Gospel by regenerating you, giving you the gift of the faith so that you might be justified. You didn't earn your regeneration and justification by works of the law. Do you now think that works of the law are going to sanctify you?" Works of the law are the fruit of sanctification, they are not the means by which it happens. But when you have a deficient pneumonotology, you mistake the law and your adherence to it as the sanctifier- Spirit is the Sanctifier.
Without the understanding that the Spirit sanctifies us, we will approach sanctification like a scientific formula: Do this. Do that. Don't do this. Definitely don't do that. Let's plug those do's and don'ts in and see what we get- Sanctification! Paul warns us of this temptation ins Colossians 2.
Colossians 2:20-23,  If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— "Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch"  (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings?  These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
"Stay away from this," "don't touch that," seems like a good strategy for sanctification, but if it's just your effort, your rules, your wisdom, and your righteous deeds, it'll never work because you'll only be cleaning the outside of the cup because you have no power to clean the inside. The Spirit does that. Paul goes so far as to say that an over emphasis on what we do in sanctification (don't touch, taste, or handle) only turns into self-made religion, asceticism, and severity to the body, and your no better for it. He says it's useless, of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh because it only makes you indulge in the flesh in a slightly different way.
There's the licentious younger brother, indulging his flesh in overt carnality, and there's the older self-righteous brother indulging his flesh in self-congratulations through comparing himself to his younger brother. The point of emphasis in the Christian life is never on what we do, it is always on what God does. This point of emphasis is true in our justification, in our sanctification, and in our glorification. All of that to say, we do not want to find ourselves emphasizing the doctrine of sanctification without simultaneously emphasizing our doctrine of the Holy Spirit, because He is the effectual agent in this process.
Having said that, do not think that the Holy Spirit's superintendence of and sovereignty over this process relieves us of the responsibilities that we outlined earlier. There are some things that we are commanded not to touch, taste, or handle. Furthermore, the church is told what to do in response to her members tasting, touching, and handling forbidden things without repentance. So this is not a call to become a standard-less church that says, "rules are for legalists!" Rather it is a call to remember that our works have no more power to sanctify us than they do to justify us.
If you don't embrace that now, you'll destroy yourself (in the negative way) in your pursuit of sanctification with a "do not taste, do not touch, do not handle" approach to sanctification that Scripture has already declared bankrupt. Either you'll succeed at it and become very proud of yourself, or you'll fail at it and be driven into the arms of licentiousness. Ours is the way of saturating ourselves with Scripture, seeking to walk it out, repenting when we fail, and trusting the Spirit to work within while we work without.
A Final Word on the Spirit's Role:
2 Peter 1:21 tells us that the Holy Spirit gave us the Word of God. How precious a resource this is! This means that we can be ruled by God, not men. This means that when a brother or sister calls you to account they cannot call you to be accountable to them; we can only call each other accountable to the Word of God. Without the Word of God given by the Spirit of God to the people of God we would have nothing by which to assess one another except our own preferences and predilections, and that would make the call to stir one another up a dangerous one indeed.
Without Scripture we'd just have people irritating each other arbitrarily, pushing one another toward our own subjective sense of what Christianity is and what a Christian should be, but because we have God's objective Word we can see what we should be and judge one another on the basis of that standard. Through giving us the Word of God, the Holy Spirit protects Christianity from becoming cultish, or from being tyrannized by influential men who would have no trouble whatever enforcing their opinions on a group of people as if it is law. We have a law, so if you aren't grounding your rebuke, correction, or exhortation in this Word, then there is no authority behind it.
So, study this Word- conform your life to this Word- consider the corrections and challenges that other brothers and sister bring to you regarding how well or poorly that conformation is happening, humble yourself...and trust that while you're working out your salvation with fear and trembling, that God is working within.