Monday, August 10, 2009

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 37

I was visiting with a woman recently. Just before I left, she asked me, "What does sanctified mean?"

As I drew a deep breath to answer, she explained why she asked. "Just as my grandmother died years ago, she started singing hymns. My mother said she was sanctified."

Of course, I had no way of knowing what her mother meant when she used the term. Different Christian traditions use sanctify in different ways.

But, at its simplest, the word sanctify, which comes to English from the Latin language, means to make holy, that is, to be transformed to live in sync with the holiness of God.

Just as we have nothing to do with creating ourselves or our world, which is the work of God the Creator (Father), and nothing to do with becoming free of sin and death, which is the work of God the Redeemer (Jesus Christ, the Son), sanctification is the work of God the Holy Spirit.

Sanctification is a "now" phenomenon in the lives of believers in Christ. That makes the Spirit's work different from that of the Father or the Son. God has already made or created us. Christ has already died and risen for us. Those are accomplished facts. But becoming part of God's set-part family, trusting in and growing in our faith in Christ, and living eternally as part of God's forever kingdom is a process that unfolds in this world and is brought to completion in eternity.

It's a process full of fits, starts, sputters, stops, and restarts, in spite of our deepest desires to be the good people God made us to be and we want to be. (See here.) The old self that trusted itself rather than Christ reasserts itself all the time and must be battled daily through repentance and submission to Christ. No Christian on this side of the grave is fully sanctified, fully set apart for God and God's will for human beings.

C.S. Lewis well illustrates how we can be both holy, set apart from God, yet not fully sanctified, in his Chronicles of Narnia novel, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. There, a boy named Eustace Scrubb, described by his cousin as a "rotten stinker," falls prey to his greedy, selfish nature and becomes, on a mysterious island, a dragon.

In this state, Eustace realizes how horrible he has been and how much he wants not to be separated from others. After some days, Aslan, the lion who is a Christ-figure in Lewis' stories, violently releases Eustace from his layers of dragon skin, reducing him (or elevating him, as the case may be) to his better self, the self he wanted to be and, in his self-delusion, imagined himself to be even when he was a "rotten stinker."

But then, Lewis writes this:
It would be nice, and fairly true, to say that "from that time forth Eustace was a different boy." To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy. He had relapses. There were still many days when he could be very tiresome. But most of those I shall not notice. The cure had begun.
When, by the power of God's Spirit, we, who want mostly to believe in ourselves or in what we can see, control, or manipulate, come to faith in Christ, we are in relationship with Christ. Salvation is ours. But the cure for all that separates people from God and from other people, has only begun.

When we turn to the Bible, we notice that "if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17). But we also notice that though the direction of believers' lives are changed, they're far from perfect. Paul, the great evangelist of first-century Christianity, could be capable of petulance, keeping record of perceived wrongs, and an unwillingness to "let bygones be bygones."

For example, Paul once got into a major disagreement with his one-time mentor in the faith, a man whose nickname, Barnabbas, meant son of encouragement. The two were planning on going together on a missionary journey. Instead, Paul and Barnabbas decided to go their separate ways after an argument over Barnabbas' desire to take a younger believer with them, someone Paul felt had let them down on a previous mission. Barnabbas was willing to give the younger man a second chance; Paul wasn't, at least not then. (Read about it here.)

Yet, nobody familiar with the arc of Paul's life, from a rabid opponent of Christian faith willing to see the first followers of Jesus martyred or excommunicated from the Jewish faith into a loving, self-sacrificing teacher of the good news of new life for all who believe in Christ, would say that Paul was unchanged by the grace God gives in Christ. Paul was in a state of becoming, a new creation who, throughout a life of prayer and study and service in Christ's Name, was being sanctified, made holy, set apart as a child of God.

That process of becoming, of sanctification, is the work of the Holy Spirit. It's like the backwoods Christian, about whom I first read in Bruce Larson's book A Call to Holy Living, who said, "I ain't what I was and I ain't what I'm going to be. But thank God I ain't what I was."

The work of the Holy Spirit is sanctification. In the next installment, I hope to address how the Spirit does that.

No comments: