By: Thomas Fletcher Booher
To that I say yes, we need to fight sin without feeling like we are condemned, but what about the call to by the Spirit put to death the deeds of the flesh (Rom. 8:13)? In fact, that passage in Romans says if we put to death the deeds of the flesh, we'll live, but if not, we will die. What does this mean? What does Hebrews 12:14 mean when it says we are to strive for a holiness that, if we do not attain, we will not see the Lord?
I believe this means that we need to do more than look back at our justification to advance in our sanctification. Having said that, we do need to look back at our justification to advance in our sanctification. But do we start and finish there? Is that all there is to it? I do not think so. I think that putting to death the flesh by the power of the Spirit means precisely that -- that there is an ongoing struggle with sin for the believer that, if we completely give in to and fail to make war against by the strength of the Spirit, we will not finally enter into the presence of God. This is because in Christ we are more than conquerors (meaning those truly saved will persevere) and this Spirit that we are given belongs to a certain Someone.
This Spirit, of course, is Christ's Spirit. That's key, because it is the self-same Spirit by which Christ Himself fought the temptations of sin in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3). Since Christ overcame sin, death, and the world through the power of the Spirit, we, with this Spirit, can overcome sin in practice which, positionally in Christ, we have already overcome. But we do not do this simply by believing that we have this Spirit and are forgiven, which I believe is the same as saying sanctification is as simple as recalling our justification and what it has given to us. That's part of it, but we have not began to look at how we apply the power of the Spirit to our lives. And if we do not apply the Spirit, we will not grow very much.
The Spirit convicts us of sin, righteousness, and judgment (Jn. 16:8). With it we understand the Word of God, because the Spirit has opened our eyes and softened our hearts (1 Jn. 2:19-27), giving us spiritual discernment. Indeed, because Christ's Spirit abides in us, we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16). Since we have the mind of Christ, by the Spirit we can be spiritually minded, which is life and peace (Rom. 8:6). Spiritually minded encompasses much I believe, too much to discuss in this post, but it would include the ability to see the world from the perspective of God's predestined plan to glorify Himself through all things, and to desire it (and that in itself has many implications that cannot be discussed at this time).The Spirit enables us to pray to God for what we need (Rom. 8:26), and we wouldn't know what to pray for if we didn't have the Spirit.
All this is connected to Christ and points back to Him. What we need to be looking at is not only what Christ has done for us, but how He did it -- namely in the power of the Spirit. We need to see Christ as our example, and seek to live as He lived, not to gain or keep our salvation, but to live as one saved and freed from the slavery of sin, just as Christ was. Christ prayed, a lot. He taught the disciples how to pray, and He taught them to fast (Mat. 6:16-18). He was a student of Scripture, impressing the rabbis at the age of twelve with His grasp of the writings and his questions (Lk. 2:46-48). That's right, Jesus as a man had to learn the Word of God just as we would, using means such as asking questions by those wiser than Him. Of course, His questions and answers did impress His teachers.
The point is that in Christ we have an example par excellence (1 Pt. 2:21-24). We should not merely be thankful and remember all that Christ has done for us, but, armed with that knowledge and grounded in the soil of forgiveness and justification, we should propel ourselves forward in our sanctification in the same ways Christ did. We can do this because of our freedom in Christ, in the newness of His Spirit. The means of grace -- prayer, word, and sacrament, are now at our disposal, and with them we chiefly utilize the Spirit to crush the deeds of the flesh. Or put better, through word, prayer, and sacrament, the Spirit works and kills our indwelling sin.
So in the final analysis, I believe we are presenting an incomplete method of sanctification when we advocate only focusing our mind and energies in remembering our justification/status in Christ and trying to find a sort of delight in that to encourage and motivate us to greater holiness (though this is an essential thing to do). Notice, however, that all I am advocating for advancement in sanctification still draws from the one source, Jesus Christ, and His Holy Spirit. In essence I am arguing that Christ has justified us once and for all, and has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit to enable us to live like Him and choke out the deeds of the flesh. We are called to kill indwelling sin, and the Spirit gives us a whole toolbox to do so (or you know, the full armor of God that Eph. 6 speaks about), not just a mirror that reflects Christ's work for us to be thankful for.
P.S. It has occurred to me that if our only means of sanctification was to look back at what Christ had done for us, then Christ resisted sin in a way wholly other than how we as believers would resist sin, since Christ would not have an example to look back to, or Himself to look to, since He had not yet as a man resisted sin to the point of death. This seems incompatible with the teaching that Christ is our example that 1 Peter speaks of.
P.S.S. I think in sanctification we need to see Christ as both our Savior and our example/empowerer. When we only reflect on Christ's work for us, I think we are seeing Him as Savior, which is the necessary ground we need to be standing on when we seek to fight sin. However, standing on that ground, we now need an example to follow to show us how to progress. That example is, once again, Christ, and that empowerment to be like Christ is His Spirit, which is the means by which Christ as a man lived a sinless life. Thus, we can live life of increasing holiness because we are equipped with this HOLY Spirit as well.