Sanctification Revisited

A friend wrote to me recently:

The men’s group from the church I attend is starting a study of a book, which (according to the cover blurb) “men around the world” have been using for 35 years to “live by God’s terms,” and which will allow me to “reach God’s standards as a father, a husband, and a mentor to other men” because the author will tell me “how to make the grade.”

We’ve read such books, and though they can be helpful when set in the proper context, without that context, their demands can be crushing, especially crushing to men who are struggling just to roll out of bed without messing up.

My friend felt that my posts on sanctification from last year would help set the necessary context, so he asked for links to them.

I’m happy that these have been helpful. They are born of my own repeated failures, certainly not of my successes. So, for any who want to see these all in one place, here they are:

People Like You Will Never Change

You’re No Good, You’re No Good, You’re No Good

Where Can I Buy a Heart?


It Doesn’t Make Any Sense at All

War: What Is It Good For?

Forgetting What Lies Behind, We Press On

“With Painful Steps and Slow”

The Long and Winding Road

Lizards in the Fridge

No Buts About It

Dobby’s Gospel

Though not a part of the series, I include this one because, well, just because I like it:

The Locus of Halloween Evil

And, finally, I include this one for what it adds concerning the impact of grace upon a church that wants to be defined by the gospel of God’s grace:

Too Much Grace?

Too Much Grace?

Is it possible for us in the church to show too much grace to unbelievers? If we allow people with obvious and obviously ‘bad’ sin into our lives and into our churches, are we not in some way condoning their sin and becoming accomplice to it? Is this showing too much grace, a threshold from which we should draw away?

Someone from a Roman Catholic background asked me a few weeks ago if our church believes in ‘mortal sin’, in sin of such severity that it would keep one out of heaven. I told her absolutely – that every sin is sufficient to keep us out of heaven. That is why we all need Christ. But I told her that we do NOT (or should not) keep an hierarchy of sin. Pride and greed rank right up there with adultery and theft. We all are guilty, we all are living in sin, we all need the grace of Christ.

So, as those needing grace, can we inadvertently show so much grace to a sinner that we somehow encourage him in his sin? Can we show too much grace?

Did Jesus show too much grace? He was known as a friend of sinners. I don’t believe he came to have such a reputation by being quick to condemn. Our model is one who let a prostitute’s tears fall on his feet. He allowed her to wipe them dry with her let-down hair, to the consternation of those who would have treated her otherwise.

Do we tend to be more like Jesus or more like the Pharisee in that story? Can we really show too much grace?

Why would we limit the grace we would show? Are we afraid that people will not know they are sinners if we somehow befriend them as they are? Do we imagine that it is our job to make sure they feel the condemnation of sin, and must hear it from us? Do we somehow think it is OUR responsibility to change them?

Where did we get such notions?

Too much grace? I say, let’s give it a try. Let’s see what happens when we show people too much grace. Let’s see what happens if we just love people and keep our judgmental mouths shut. Let’s see what happens.

I rather think that if grace breaks out among us, it will not be greater sin that results, but something far more wonderful.

The Locus of Halloween Evil

I have found the locus of Halloween Evil.

It is not

* in the little demons who parade up and down our street looking for handouts

* in the horrendously grotesque jack-o-lanterns (this one carved by our in-need-of-therapy friend Bill Kimrey)

* in the proliferation of horror flicks centered around this day.

I have discovered it as I dumped bag after bag of candy in a bowl just now in preparation for tonight’s onslaught – and carefully removed and set aside all the varieties that I wanted to hoard myself and not give to the urchins unless I’m forced to do so.

I have, you see, found the locus of Halloween evil in the place I know it resided all along.

Dobby’s Gospel

If you have not read the Harry Potter books, or seen the movies, let me introduce you to Dobby, the house elf:

Dobby shook his head. Then, without warning, he leapt up and started banging his head furiously on the window, shouting, “Bad Dobby! Bad Dobby!”

“Don’t — what are you doing?” Harry hissed, springing up and pulling Dobby back onto the bed….

“Dobby had to punish himself, sir,” said the elf, who had gone slightly cross-eyed. “Dobby almost spoke ill of his family, sir….”

“…Dobby is always having to punish himself for something, sir.”

Got anything to say to Dobby? Want to preach the gospel to him? Want to tell him that there is an alternative to self-punishment?

I hope so. Because once you learn to speak the gospel to Dobby you will have learned something of what it means to speak the gospel to yourself.

Dobby mirrors the guilt-driven behavior to which we are so prone. There are times when we cannot imagine that God would forgive us and accept us with the full measure of his love until we subject ourselves to some ill-defined period of self-inflicted misery.

Take Isabel for example. Isabel is a committed mother of three, a stay-at-home mom who, occasionally, is driven to distraction by the creative rambunctiousness of her children. One day she screams at them all, grabs one and shakes him mercilessly, sends them to their bedroom, and, for good measure, grounds them all for life.

Then sets in her misery, a very necessary misery. God speaks of a sorrow that leads to repentance. What she has done is not good, and so she should feel sorrow for what she has done, a sorrow that should lead her to several actions. First, she should ask God for forgiveness. Secondly, she should go to the children, and ask them for their forgiveness. (Their behavior is no longer the key issue; hers is!) Thirdly, she should breathe deeply the gospel and know that her outburst has not caused God to love her less. Fourthly, she should in the light of that truth of God’s love pray that God would enable her to rest in him and not lose her temper again.

The problem is, of course, that she has done this dozens of times. And so, though she takes the above steps, she does not believe it as much as before. In fact, the third step particularly is seeming more and more remote and unbelievable. How could God still love her?

Cue Dobby.

She spends all of that day and a good portion of the next simply rehearsing in her head what an awful mother she is and how ungodly she has become. No one can persuade her otherwise. She is internally driven to make herself feel misery for her failings. She must punish herself. “Isabel is always having to punish herself for something, sir.”

Once she has caused herself sufficient unhappy misery, she relents a bit and is able to put the incident behind her. But not one moment before.

The truth is that the more we sin, the more difficult it does become to believe the gospel. That is, of course, because we really do not understand how amazing grace is. We can believe that God loves a pretty good person like we are today. But we don’t believe he can love the awful person we sometimes find ourselves to be. But that IS the person he loves. THAT is the person for whom the gospel is for. His love is for us in our repeated failure, as well as in our celebrated goodness.

You may not be a young temper-prone mother. Perhaps you are an internet tempted single guy who has slipped and failed more times than you can imagine. Your Dobby tendencies are well honed. But it makes no difference. The same principle applies.

The gospel is for the worst of us. So don’t do it, Dobby. Lift up your eyes and see that the gospel applies to even you.

No Buts About It

I love when people agree with me. In my fantasy world, everyone agrees with me. In the real world, of course, I sometimes get in fights with myself.

So, it is especially gratifying when someone agrees with me.

But beware the ‘buts’.

A friend wrote a wonderfully thoughtful and reflective response to an earlier post in this series.

Happily, she had some nice things to say by way of agreement.

“I understand and believe that the Lord (initially) has sought US and it’s only by the work of the Holy Spirit that we are initially made aware of our sinful state….

“ I DO believe and agree with you concerning the Lord constantly loving us, despite our sin and our continual downfalls….

Of course, each of these statements are followed with the inevitable ‘but’. She asks,

“If sanctification is a continual process throughout our earthly lives, do you think that that is IT, no more “shake-ups” allowed? I DO believe and agree with you concerning the Lord constantly loving us, despite our sin and our continual downfalls, but doesn’t the Lord also hold back his blessings (for a time) when we grieve him?”

Great question. Really. Because she identifies something very important.

The role WE play in sanctification has been our focus. We are to put ourselves in the way of grace. We are to mortify sin. We are to know who we are. And so forth. The underlying premise of this series is that God is the author of change in our lives. We have a role, but the power is in Him. Had he left it up to us, we would never change.

The beauty of the love of our Father is that he does not leave us alone. He will not let us fail. He pursues us and disciplines us and works his grace in our lives, often through the difficult circumstances of our lives. Gratefully, he does not protect me from the painful consequences of my sinful choices. He lets me now and then put my hand on the hot stove so that I might learn that the stove is hot. The process is painful, but the lesson is lasting.

Christians love to quote Romans 8:28 to themselves and to others when difficulties arise. We are somehow comforted to know that God is at work in even the difficult details of our lives. And that text assures us that God works for our GOOD.

Have you ever asked what the good is toward which God is working all things? Let Paul himself tell us:

“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.” (Romans 8:29)

God works events in our lives to move us to greater conformity to the image of his Son. God may let us do foolish things; he may prevent us from doing them. But either way he is working toward our growth in likeness to Jesus.

There can be no greater kindness than that. I believe that and I am comforted by that, even though I may HATE the circumstances themselves.

This has been the consistent testimony of all the saints before us, including this one.

“For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”(Hebrews 12:11)


O Love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.

O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.

(George Matheson)

I hate the pain. I flee from the pain. I want nothing to do with the pain. But I am perfected by the pain.

No buts about it. We agree.

Lizards in the Fridge

Subtropical Florida, where we are ‘cursed’ to live, is awash in lizards. These small guys are everywhere in the yard, on the trees, in the bushes, one currently confined to my son’s terrarium (“Where are you going, Colin?” “Outside to catch some bugs for my lizard.”), and even in the house.

Once, when I was new to Florida, a lizard in the house scurried into our refrigerator as I held open the door. I thought, “Well, all the worse for him, I suppose” and I left him there somewhere under the crisper figuring in a very short time he could do no harm.

Later, I told Barb, and she was beside herself that I had left the creature there. So, I did the good husband thing. I dismantled the fridge, found the now stiff (and being a northerner assumed dead) lizard, and tossed him in the trash. Job done. Until, of course, his cold blood warmed up, he unstiffened, and escaped from the trash.

That was a long time ago. I’ve learned now throw stiff lizards outside. Or give them to Colin.

What’s that story got to do with anything?

I love the honesty of those who read this blog, like that of this person, who responded privately (which is an option open to you all) to my summary last week of the steps we can take in the process of sanctification.

I said:

Within a framework of God’s gracious changing of us are five concrete things we can be about. These are the things God wants us to do. Through these things HE works HIS change in us…. They are:

1. Know who you are
2. Seek the work of God’s grace to change you
3. Put yourself in the way of grace
4. Mortify sin
5. Rejoice in the gospel

To this he responded honestly:

I especially suck at number 4.

I love that honesty. Truth be told, I suck at number 4 as well.

But such honesty, of course, is lacking in those who really do ‘suck at number 4’.

That’s the thing. Honesty and clarity is a gift that God gives us to help us grow. If I cannot see the lizard in the refrigerator, I am not grieved by it. And if I’m not grieved by it, I won’t have the honesty to admit it is there. And if I lack that honesty, I’ll protect it there, and won’t do anything to extract it.

It’s the same with sin, isn’t it?

The Pharisee in Luke 18 could not, or would not, see his sin and so he was not bothered by it. The honesty and clarity that God gave the tax collector was painful. He was miserable because, of course, he ‘sucked at number 4’.

Clarity causes misery. But even that misery is evidence of God being at work.

Eventually, under God’s tutelage, we will less and less be comfortable with various lizards and we will extract them. Some we will throw in the trash, and they’ll come back to grieve us again. But some, in time, with God’s help, we’ll throw outside. (Or, turn over to the torturer with his terrarium.)

The Long and Winding Road

On October 24, 2008 I began a series on Christian growth. Seven weeks ago, on December 19, I suspended that series because of the press of time. I’d like to revive that series, but first, we need to review.

Our contention has been that the God who loves us and through Christ gives us hope in the life to come, also gives us hope in this life, a hope that we can change and become more like Christ. We can become more like Christ.

But to say this is to awaken frustration. If we are to be more like Jesus, why I am so much like the same broken person I’ve always been? Why don’t I change at all or faster?

The natural response to this is to try harder. But try what? Generally, we simply try harder to keep the law. Bad choice. As we try harder, we either grow increasingly despairing or, worse, increasingly self-righteous.

It was in my own experience at this point of despair (and hidden self-righteousness) that a friend gave me a paper written by Dr. Paul Kooistra for the board of Covenant Theological Seminary. The paper argued that sanctification is a work that God does. Our growth in Christ-likeness is GOD’S work.

For years, I read that paper over and over trying to comprehend what that meant for me. This was, and is, liberating. God is working his change in us. He alone has the power to change our hearts, to change us at the deepest level. He reaches where our efforts cannot touch.

But if that is the case, what are we to do? What are we to make of all the law, all the exhortations to godly behavior, all the instructions of Scripture? In short, what is our role, if any, in this process?

Within a framework of God’s gracious changing of us are five concrete things we can be about. These are the things God wants us to do. Through these things HE works HIS change in us. We explained each of these as we explored them. They are:

1. Know who you are

2. Seek the work of God’s grace to change you

3. Put yourself in the way of grace

4. Mortify sin

5. Rejoice in the gospel

If you are new to this series, I would encourage you to visit the posts outlined below and ponder them.

I’ve learned these things from Scripture. I’ve learned these things from books.

But these things would not have the certainty they do for me if I had not lived them in life.

– – – – – – – –
Here are links to the previous posts in this series:

People Like You Will Never Change

You’re No Good, You’re No Good, You’re No Good

Where Can I Buy a Heart?


It Doesn’t Make Any Sense at All

War: What Is It Good For?

Forgetting What Lies Behind, We Press On

“With Painful Steps and Slow”

"With Painful Steps and Slow"


Hi. This is Randy’s conscience. He doesn’t know that I’m doing this, so it’ll be our little secret. Okay? Great.

You see, he was supposed to compose another post in his series on Christian change – sanctification to use the fancy word – and he ‘didn’t get around to it’.

Yeah, right.

Sure he had some extra meetings this week, but that’s a crock, isn’t it? I mean, we all know that if he wanted to, he could have fit in the time. If you all were important to him, as you should be, he would have fit it in. If he really cared, he’d have done it.

But, no, as usual, he loused up. Isn’t it just like him to…

Uh, wait a minute. Did you hear that? Who’s that coming? Uh-oh. I think it’s Grace. Oh, why’s she always have to show up and ruin everything?

Look, I’ve got to run. She spoils all the fun, always saying that Randy’s failures (which are many, I dutifully point out – and he listens, too, when she’s not around) are not to be dredged up and dwelt upon. Something about their being serious and worth mention, but still and always insufficient to bring any condemnation from God or others.

Where’s the fun in that? I mean, what good is it if we don’t dwell upon these things? She’s such a pain.

But I gotta go now. I don’t understand it, but he’s made her the boss.


PS You should know that Randy overslept this morning, too. He…

Okay, I’m gone.