Turning to Christ in our Conflict with SinJanuary 22, 2019
by Rob Edwards
According to how most things work in life, I must first achieve something before I’m declared to be something. For example, I must first actually graduate before I receive a diploma and am declared a graduate. I must complete a course of study, pass my classes, and finish with a certain grade point average. However, the gospel follows a different logic flowing from God’s grace. It begins with a declaration of righteousness that has nothing to do with anything I have achieved.
The Bible is very clear that “None is righteous, no not one” (Rom. 3:10). In fact, the Bible teaches that we are all alike dead in sin (Eph. 2:1). Instead, the Christian is declared righteous through faith in Christ and his righteousness. One of the best summations of the gospel may be found in 2 Corinthians 5:21, where we are told that, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This transfer of our sinful status to Christ, and his righteous status to us, is called justification. This happens right at the start of the Christian life. We are declared righteous.
God declares the Christian righteous from the start.
However, the logic of the gospel doesn’t end there. God declares the Christian righteous from the start. But God also intends to make us into what he has already declared us to be. In other words, the gospel—the good news—is more than that our sins are forgiven through Christ. The good news is that God intends to make us righteous like Christ. Although forgiveness remains essential, the greater end God has in mind is to transform us into the image of his Son. As Romans 8:29 says, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” This process of transformation, of becoming what God has declared us to be, is known as sanctification.
As we think about sanctification, it is important to remember that this too is part of God’s grace in our lives. The apostle Paul says,
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:11-14)
God does not simply tell us, now that we are Christians, to say “no” to ungodliness. Instead, his grace trains us. God does not simply demand obedience. Instead, he graciously disciplines us towards greater godliness. The word “train” includes the ideas of instruction, teaching, and guidance. It has a goal but assumes that a process is required to get there. Training is always progressive. So is sanctification.
Elsewhere, Paul talks about the need to “learn Christ” in a way that leads to a new life, where we are taught to “put off the old self” and to “put on the new self, created in the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:20–24). The question for us is: are we being trained by God’s grace in such a way that transforms our lives? Are we learning Christ in such a way that truly leads to righteousness? In the following pages we will examine what it means to be trained by God’s grace, to learn Christ, in ways that lead to sanctification.
Our Personal Struggle with Sin is Part of a much Larger Story
First, in order to learn Christ in a way that leads to sanctification, we must see that our personal struggle with sin is part of a much larger story found in Scripture, a story with its focus on Jesus. This is why the Bible is essential for sanctification. Jesus himself prays for his disciples, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). We will not be sanctified apart from Scripture.
This points to what may be our greatest struggle. It is not individual sins that most threaten our progress in sanctification. It is living our lives by the wrong story, a story that stands in opposition to Scripture, a story that is untrue. Paul describes the danger in the following way: “having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4). Think for a minute about a myth. It is a story. Paul uses it here as a story that stands in opposition to the truth of Scripture.
Our lives follow some story line. Consider the narrative that shapes your life. Who are the characters? Who is important? What are the driving themes? Is it about your pleasure, your plans, or your future? Are the important people in your narrative the ones who take supporting roles and help you achieve your desires? One of the clearest ways to uncover our myths is to think of our daydreams or fantasies! They are stories that suit my passions, stories that are all about me.
Sanctification is not simply about a struggle between right behavior and wrong behavior.
It is important to see that sanctification is not simply about a struggle between right behavior and wrong behavior. There’s always a larger story behind of our sin. For instance, consider lying. Lies are sometimes called “stories” for a reason! When I lie, I am creating another narrative to suit my passions, to make my life easier, to get me out of trouble, to get something for myself.
Deeper than right and wrong behavior, the struggle in our lives is between two opposing stories. One is a myth within which I stand at the center of it all. The other is the story of Scripture with Christ at the center of it all. We will not make much progress in sanctification while clinging to our self-centered stories. Truth must replace myth. As we read Scripture, our own personal dramas in which we play the leading role must be challenged. We must see Christ himself as the protagonist in a sweeping story that our own lives are caught up in.
In other words, only as our attention is drawn to Jesus will sanctification progress. Yes, we need to be aware of our own struggles with sin. We need to see our personal tendencies and what makes us open to temptation. But even in the midst of our deepest struggles we must see that Jesus’s struggle against sin is the focus of Scripture (see Heb. 2:17–18). It is not our victories over sin that are of first importance. It is Jesus’s victory over sin that is the foundation for sanctification.
In the story of the Bible, two individuals are of prime importance. One of these is Adam. His failure and fall into sin set the course for all of history as well as our own personal experience. In him, we too are fallen. No one had to teach us to do wrong. It comes very naturally. I see this in my young children. They did not need any examples to yell, scream, and fight. They quickly figured it out on their own. This disposition was inherited (most directly from me!).
Participants in What We Proclaim: Recovering Paul’s Narrative of Pastoral MinistryNovember 01, 2014
by Rob Edwards