The moment God called me to be his I was changed. My nature was changed. My heart attitude turned from rebellion toward God to love for God. My disbelief became belief. My heart’s inclination switched from disobedience to obedience. My admiration and loyalty turned from self and the world to God.
My status with God was also changed. At the moment God called me to be his I was justified. So, in God’s judicial system, legally speaking, I am no longer in conflict with God – I have no reason to expect anger, disapproval, or punishment from him. I was made righteous – full of rightness. In God’s eyes, Jesus’ identity is mine; I stand before God faultless and flawless, wrapped in everything Christ did right, which was – everything. So, as far as my relationship with God is concerned, I’m better than okay and there is nothing I can do to mess that up.
There is little evidence of my change.
While that is all true, it is equally true that there is still a lot of changing that needs to take place. To this day it fills me with great sorrow and embarrassment to say I still disobey God. I don’t always believe him. I am still selfish. Sometimes: I am bitter; I am lazy; I slander; I fail to love; I get angry when people don’t please me; I am not thankful; I am not joyful; I feel hopeless; I doubt God’s plan, goodness and love; I fear man and not God; I fail to be kind and tenderhearted; I grow weary in doing good; I don’t do good and the list goes on.
How do you explain this discrepancy?
Seventeenth-century theologian John Owen would say that I’ve been instantaneously and fully regenerated (God has given me all at once a new nature – Christ’s nature) but not “universally” sanctified which he defines this way:
Sanctification is an immediate work of the Spirit of God on the souls of believers, purifying and cleansing of their natures from the pollution and uncleanness of sin, renewing in them the image of God, and thereby enabling them, from a spiritual and habitual principle of grace, to yield obedience unto God, according unto the tenor and terms of the new covenant, by virtue of the life and death of Jesus Christ.
Or more briefly –
It is the universal renovation of our natures by the Holy Spirit into the image of God, through Jesus Christ.
So, how does God do it?
First, Owens explains that God grows us up into the image of Christ by increasing the faith and love that God gave us when we were regenerated. One way the Holy Spirit does this by “exciting” faith and love into habitual action. God excites our faith and love through the “ordinances of worship” – especially through the preaching of God’s word. Through preaching, the Spirit reminds us that Christ is real and his words are true. Through these reminders, the Spirit motivates our love and faith into action. Repetitions of loving and faith-filled actions then increase and strengthen our love and faith.
Second, Owens explains that God sanctifies us by giving us, via the Spirit, “experiences of the truth, and reality, and excellency” of the things we already believe. In other words, every time we experience God’s love and graciousness towards us, our love and faith are increased and strengthened, and we progress toward a more Christ-like character.
Third, Owens says that God works in us “immediately an actual increase” of grace especially faith and love – faith in God and love for God. God’s workings he says are the “principal cause and means of the gradual increase of holiness in us.”
The main point Owens makes is that our sanctification, our growth in holiness, is from God; it is an effect of the Spirit at work in us – God gets the glory for our progress.
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:23, ESV).
So why should we endeavor to grow in holiness?
Owens answers: We are commanded and required to be holy; growing in holiness is our duty. If we don’t grow in holiness we will not see God. The fact that our growth in holiness is a result of God’s work in us ought to be the “principal motive and encouragement” for our diligence to grow in holiness.
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 (Philippians 2:12-13, ESV See also Philippians 3:8-14).
Praying that you will rely on the Spirit as you strive toward Christ-likeness.
Owen, John, A Discourse Concerning the Holy Spirit: “Sanctification a progressive work, Chapter 2, accessed 01/04/2013 from Christian Classics Ethereal Library, ccel.org
Note that Scripture uses the word, “sanctified” in different ways. Sometimes to be sanctified simply means to be set apart. Also note there is a different sense in which we have already been sanctified i.e., made holy. For a more in-depth discussion of this already changed/not yet changed reality see another blog: “Already? Not Yet? Which is it?”