We need to work like the body of Christ, not pretending that everything we want is directly linked up to God’s own will, realizing that the local church is the place where God distributes his gift of sanctification. As we rub against one another in sanctification, it polishes us so that we will eventually sparkle as gems of God’s work of grace in freeing us from sin’s hold on our hearts and hands.
The intricacy of LEGO products has changed immensely since I was a child. I remember the basics of rectangle and square blocks, thin flat pieces that work as a ceiling or something, and the occasional exciting hinge piece to mount a door. As I unpack my new LEGO kit, I’m astounded by the sorts of pieces they make today. Clearly, skilled engineers were involved, planning out how very small details mount up to the big picture that far surpasses what I can see at the outset of my process of assembling the pieces. Because I can’t see how it all fits together, I follow the instructions, trusting those who know better.
Preachers may have the first opportunity for sanctification as we think about that connection between doctrine and its fruit of holiness. Throughout the centuries, not only have theologians been baffled by how the proclamation of free grace could produce good works in God’s people, many have decided that we need to teach that good works are necessary to secure our everlasting state, otherwise, God’s people wouldn’t be holy. If sanctification is submission to God’s Word, then preachers get the first stab at submitting to it. Preachers not only need to submit to Scripture in the passage that they are expounding but also to its principle that God has engineered the link between the announcement of free salvation by the gospel and its fruit of growth in the Christian life. Teachers must first grow in trusting the Lord that he knows how the pieces fit together as a whole even when we do not.
The link between gospel proclamation and increasing sanctification highlights perhaps one of our most important points: our sanctification is a gift from God. Yes, we are meant to open up the LEGO kit of godliness to use it by getting on with our task of assembling the pieces. Nonetheless, we cannot forget that the whole kit is a present given to us by our gracious Father in heaven.
Reformed theology has historically referred to “the benefits of Christ.” The point here is to underscore that the benefits are plural. In Christ, we are reconciled to God, justified, adopted, have all the other benefits that do accompany or flow from these blessings, and have the guarantee of glorification. Among these gifts given to us is our sanctification. Too many like to say that justification is 100% God’s work, but sanctification is 50% God and 50% us. The impression is that God has given the free gift of a legal status, now we need to get cracking on our part. Although the Christian life certainly requires discipline and effort, we diminish sanctification’s importance, value, and meaningfulness if we forget that it too is God’s work of free grace, writing within us the newness of life that springs forth in our actions of setting aside sin and walking in righteousness.
We need a good reminder of the sweet news that holiness in our lives also flows from God as his gift to us. As Paul wrote to those who fell prey to the error of the Judaizers: “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3) Sanctification, as much as justification, is a precious gift for our cherishing.
This mindset of sanctification as gift helps us discard antinomianism and legalism. Too many think that the response to antinomianism is to impose the idea of final justification or final salvation on the basis of a consideration of our works. Another version of this mistake is to motivate Christians to holiness with rewards in heaven in exchange for their obedience. God will reward his people in his everlasting kingdom, crowning us with his own gifts of grace. But the thoroughgoing antinomian would just dismiss the idea, saying, “getting to heaven will be enough, so I don’t need rewards.” The carrot doesn’t really entice those who don’t understand the value of carrots.