The Gospel Nature of Sanctification, part 3

Monday I began blogging about the gospel nature of sanctification. With the many ways we could approach this subject, we began at the very beginning talking of the difference between justification and sanctification. Wednesday I moved on by discussing the gospel nature of sanctification. Today we end our mini series on the Holy Spirit’s work in sanctification in Galatians and Philippians.

In Galatians 3 Paul is making an argument against the Galatians who have begun well but have since turned to a different gospel. In Gal. 3:1-5 Paul says, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?

In this rebuke Paul asks two questions. In v2 he asks, “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” Then in v3 and v5 he asks the same question, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” The Galatians were converted by the Spirit’s work, just as all Christians are. This is not Paul’s contention with them. His issue is what they were seeking to after beginning so well. Having begun by the Spirit they began to try and do the work of sanctification by the flesh. Paul says this is opposed to how sanctification really happens. It doesn’t happen by works of the flesh, but by hearing with faith. In other words, the same way they were saved (hearing the gospel with faith) is the same way they will grow in sanctification. That the Spirit is mentioned in v5 tells us that the Spirit is One who opens the eyes and enables conversion to take place, as well as the One opens the heart and enables sanctification to place as well. Yes, we really do work, effort, sweat, and labor in sanctification. But behind all of our doing is the Holy Spirit who is doing it all.

As Augustine said, “We do the work, but God works in us the doing of the works.”

In C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity he asks us to imagine two books on a table, one sitting on atop the other. He goes onto say that book A (the bottom book) is doing the work of supporting book B (the top book). If book A weren’t doing its work of supporting, book B wouldn’t be in its position. Lewis uses this illustration to flesh out his understanding of how the Son of God could be the begotten Son of God and the eternal Son of God at the same time. I want to use this image to make a different point; a point about sanctification. Imagine the Holy Spirit is book A and you and I were book B. The Spirit is seen here as the One who always supports us, upholds us, sustains us, and enables us to be in the position we are in as children of God. Do you see now what enables sanctification? Because of the Spirit’s supporting work within us, we can do what God has called us to do, namely, to progress in holiness. The Galatian heresy was just the opposite. They sought to progress in holy living by their own power without the support of the Spirit of God. To say it another way, they were trying to be book B without the aid of book A.

Philippians 2 makes this point as well. In 2:12-13 Paul says, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”

We should ask the age old question here about the chicken and the egg here. Which came first, our work for God or God’s work in us? Don’t say the really foolish thing here, that our work enables God to do His work in us. Be reminded. God is God, we are not. We never ‘allow’ or ‘let’ God to do His work in or through us. God is not in a box until we choose to let Him out. This is preposterous to the highest degree, not to mention arrogant. It is also foolish to state that man and God work together as two paddlers labor together within the same kayak. If that were true, God’s work in us would be dependent on our work for Him, which brings us back into the heretical notion we just mentioned and place God in our dependency because without our work His work couldn’t be done. No, these are foolish things to say. God’s work alone is sufficient to save and sanctify.

Rather than these two options, which really are the same bad option, just as in our book A and B example above, we must see that the reason we’re able to work out our salvation with fear and trembling is precisely because God is already working within us to move us toward sanctification. So what comes first, our work for God or God’s work in us? Clearly, not only does v13 come before v12, but v13 enables v12 to occur.

But wait, wasn’t this supposed to be about the Holy Spirit? Yes it was, and it still is. Let me point this out by asking a question: who is at work when God is working within us? Who is at work in v13?

None other than the Holy Spirit who is presented here as the One who both moves us toward sanctification and enables us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

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One thought on “The Gospel Nature of Sanctification, part 3

  1. Pastor Adam,
    So well written and explained! I don’t see how so many find sanctification so baffling. How could we succeed in glorifying God without the Holy Spirit’s continual guidance…sanctification is a forever learnig experience to righteousness and holiness. Praise God!

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