The journey that a Christian takes with Christ is usually described in three tenses: justification, sanctification, and glorification. This is the path that’s mapped out for us when we come to know Christ. It’s a journey ordained by God that we will all someday complete. These aren’t discreet steps, and they’re not three separate actions that God performs in us. Rather all three “parts” are along the continuum of our salvation in Christ.
Scripture teaches us that our works do not play any role in salvation (Titus 3:5). We were absolutely, utterly dead in sin, unable to help ourselves, when Christ, in miraculous love, reached down to us, called us to Himself, and breathed His New Life into us. We had no ability to do that for ourselves; it was all due to God’s grace. This is the wonder ofÂ justification that God performs in us.
Furthermore, God’s ultimate perfection of us in Heaven will obviously not be due to anything that we might be able to accomplish on our own (Philippians 1:6). This is the wonder of glorification that God will eventually accomplish in us.
But what’s this thing that’s going on in our lives today? What is this middle ground of sanctification all about? God began changing us at the cross, and we know that He will ultimately complete and perfect that change in Heaven, but what is this process that begins after salvation, this process of living the Christian life? Do our own good deeds as Christians earn us favor with God? Does God love us more when we’re good and less when we’re bad? Does the process of sanctification start and stop in our lives based on how much we read the Bible, how much we attend church, how much we tithe, pray, work, and strive?
Paul clearly spells out the answers to these questions in Galatians 3:2-14:
Let me put this question to you: How did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off to please God? Or was it by responding to God’s Message to you? Are you going to continue this craziness? For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God. If you weren’t smart enough or strong enough to begin it, how do you suppose you could perfect it? Did you go through this whole painful learning process for nothing? It is not yet a total loss, but it certainly will be if you keep this up!
Answer this question: Does the God who lavishly provides you with his own presence, his Holy Spirit, working things in your lives you could never do for yourselves, does he do these things because of your strenuous moral striving or because you trust him to do them in you? Don’t these things happen among you just as they happened with Abraham? He believed God, and that act of belief was turned into a life that was right with God.
Is it not obvious to you that persons who put their trust in Christ (not persons who put their trust in the law!) are like Abraham: children of faith? It was all laid out beforehand in Scripture that God would set things right with non-Jews byÂ faith. Scripture anticipated this in the promise to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed in you.”
So those now who live by faith are blessed along with Abraham, who lived by faith—this is no new doctrine! And that means that anyone who tries to live by his own effort, independent of God, is doomed to failure. Scripture backs this up: “Utterly cursed is every person who fails to carry out every detail written in the Book of the law.”
The obvious impossibility of carrying out such a moral program should make it plain that no one can sustain a relationship with God that way. The person who lives in right relationship with God does it by embracing what God arranges for him. Doing things for God is the opposite of entering into what God does for you. Habakkuk had it right: “The person who believes God, is set right by God—and that’s the real life.” Rule-keeping does not naturally evolve into living by faith, but only perpetuates itself in more and more rule-keeping, a fact observed in Scripture: “The one who does these things [rule-keeping] continues to live by them.”
Christ redeemed us from that self-defeating, cursed life by absorbing it completely into himself. Do you remember the Scripture that says, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”? That is what happened when Jesus was nailed to the cross: He became a curse, and at the same time dissolved the curse. And now, because of that, the air is cleared and we can see that Abraham’s blessing is present and available for non-Jews, too. We are all able to receive God’s life, his Spirit, in and with us by believing—just the way Abraham received it.
“You didn’t begin this process,” Paul says, “so how is it that you believe your behavior can perfect it?” This is not Antinomianism, by the way, the idea that because of grace we have a license to sin. “God forbid,” Paul says (Romans 6:1-2).
So now we can see that just as our salvation was nothing we could have done for ourselves, and just as glorification is nothing that we’ll be able to accomplish for ourselves, so this middle ground of sanctification is also a work of divine grace in our lives. As God’s divine act, it is a stable, steady process that originates with Him and not with us. It proceeds at God’s pace and in God’s way. God calls us to enthusiastically join Him in that process, and when we do, our lives become a synergistic celebration of joy and grace. But the choice to join in or to resist does not impinge on God’s plan for us; rather, our choice determines whether or not we are living lives that are fulfilling, peaceful, and happy.
Our Christian culture (especially the slice I’ve grown up in) loves to get bogged down in Romans 7. You know, the “wish I could do the right thing, want to, really try to, but louse up time and time again” sort of stuff. We get stuck there, caught in the sameÂ downward spiral that Paul candidly reveals as something that he struggles with, too. We see Paul’s words, and suddenly feel that somehow our own efforts to do better, think better, work better, act better will set things straight. We see Paul’s words “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing,” and we take out the flagellum, ready to get to work on beating the devil out of ourselves. Paul did the same, right? If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for us.
No, that’s not what Paul is saying, and that’s not where Paul stopped in his letter to the Romans. There’s another chapter that follows! Read Romans 8 and understand that Romans 7 was all about the miry, entangling bog that we find ourselves in as a result of the law. As sure as the Old Testament reveals our inadequacy to measure up to God’s righteousness, Paul’s words in Romans 7 are overcast with the impossibility of trying to live the Christian life in our own strength. He tells us as much in the “woulda, shoulda, coulda” of verse 15. Nearly the entire chapter (verses 1-24) is framed within the impossibility of fulfilling the law by our own efforts. But keep reading! In Romans 8 the sunshine of grace breaks through. The good news actually begins in verse 25 of chapter 7, but keep reading chapter 8:
With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.
God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all. The law code, weakened as it always was by fractured human nature, could never have done that.
Romans 7 is NOT the Christian life. Romans 7 is the law’s demand. Starting at salvation–starting at Romans 8–we have the new nature that Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 5:17, and our natural inclination is now to whole-heartedly follow our Savior in doing what we’re supposed to do! Verses 9-14:
But if God himself has taken up residence in your life, you can hardly be thinking more of yourself than of him. Anyone, of course, who has not welcomed this invisible but clearly present God, the Spirit of Christ, won’t know what we’re talking about. But for you who welcome him, in whom he dwells—even though you still experience all the limitations of sin—you yourself experience life on God’s terms. It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!
So don’t you see that we don’t owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent. There’s nothing in it for us, nothing at all. The best thing to do is give it a decent burial and get on with your new life. God’s Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go!
Our walk with Christ–the process of sanctification–is not an arduous, difficult process; it’s the natural result of the new direction in which God pointed us at the moment of salvation. Christ lives in us, and His life is now our life, His righteousness is our righteousness. We wake each morning already having won the victory in Christ, not facing yet another day ofÂ defeat. As verses 15-17 tell us, our hearts run to God as naturally as a child’s innocent heart beats with love for his daddy:
This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?” God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him!
It’s time we let go of this idea that it’s all up to us. It’s time we quit telling ourselves and others that the Christian life is arduous, difficult, attainable through our own ill-conceived efforts, and borne of futile self-striving. It’s time we put down the cudgel of the law and take up the banner of grace. It’s time we fully embrace God’s work of salvation in us, that salvation that justifies us, that is now sanctifying us, and that will some day, in Heaven, glorify us.