Today we continue our series on Gospel Convergence concerning the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith; each week I will reflect on a chapter of the Confession. I would encourage you to pick up a copy of the confession and read along with me.
Like almost everything in the Christian life, sanctification is about balance! It seems that the doctrine of sanctification has long suffered from imbalanced views through many periods of church history. In the early nineteenth century we can observe the origins of a movement which came to be known as the holiness movement. This movement still impacts Christian thinking and living today. Essentially it calls for perfection in the believer’s life, while assuring that it is in fact attainable. On the other hand, we have some who argue that because of our total depravity holiness is a ‘Disney dream’ that cannot be realised here and now (recently seen amongst members of The Gospel Coalition). The difficultly is that each of these positions possesses some truth.
It is my contention that the Confession brings balance to the proceedings.
While sanctification is widely accepted as ongoing throughout the life of the believer, we must remember that it is also another aspect of salvation. The Confession explains this neatly:
They who are united to Christ, effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, are also farther sanctified, really and personally (pg. 66).
So as we have considered effectual calling, justification and adoption over the past few weeks, we now note that sanctification is a continuation of that process. Being a continuation, the Confession reminds us that it is effected by the same means, ‘through the same virtue, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them’ (pg. 66). Sanctification takes place in the believer as they have both the Word (Ps. 1:2; Matt. 4:4) and the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Peter 1:2) at work in their heart and mind.
Essentially the call in sanctification is to be holy. This is an exhortation which has echoed throughout the Old Testament (Lev. 11:44; 19:2; Deut. 23:14; Ezk. 44:23; Hosea 11:12) and is then reiterated in the New Testament (1 Peter 1:15-16). In this call to be holy the Confession assures that:
[T]he dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified, and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of all true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. (pg. 66)
But, unlike the imbalanced points of view mentioned in our introduction, the Confession maintains the reality. Yes, that last quotation may sound triumphant and worthy of the holiness movement. However, the Confession states emphatically that our striving for sanctification will not lead to perfection. While sanctification does indeed pervade the ‘whole man’, it does so imperfectly. There remains ‘remnants of corruption in every part’ which thus result in a war between the flesh and the Spirit. This reality is the picture painted by Paul in Romans 7:
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (vv. 14-25)
This, however, is no excuse for laziness on our part.
For the Confession proceeds to state that progress must be evident:
In which war, although the remaining corruptions may for a time much prevail, yet through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome; and so the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God, pressing after an heavenly life, in evangelical obedience to all the commands which Christ as head and King, in His Word hath prescribed to them. (pg. 67)
Consequently, the man who wrote about the battle raging within himself, could later write: ‘Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God’ (1 Cor. 7:1; also see Rom. 6:14).
Keeping our Balance
Getting this aspect of salvation and Christian living correct will aid us in keeping our balance. If we are prone to pride sanctification will quickly correct us. The standard is holiness like God. In other words, perfection. So, while we may have achieved a good standard in some aspect of our life we are not yet perfect in it – and undoubtedly much less than perfect in some other aspect. If we are prone to despair sanctification carries a remedy for us. God is at work in us to make us holy; we strive ourselves to increase our holiness; and when we fail this process continues again, and again, and again. The standard is unattainable in the here and now, so do not despair. However, this is not a licence to slack for without holiness we will not see the Lord (Heb. 12:14).