By Jason Moore
Pastor, New Creation Presbyterian Church
Sanctification, pruning and the pattern of the gospel
Dead to sin and alive to righteousness
I often talk to people who say things like, “I don’t feel that I’m a very good Christian” or they lament not making enough progress in the process of sanctification. What is sanctification? I’ve been reading the book “Jesus + Nothing = Everything” by Tullian Tchividjian. He points out a common mistake that Christians make: “We tend to think of the gospel as God’s program to make bad people good, not dead people alive.”
I’m a pastor. I have a Master of Divinity degree from one of the finest seminaries in the United States. I have been in ministry for nearly 15 years. I’ve been reading the Bible for many more years than that. And yet, I fall into the trap of measuring my life by my level of “goodness.” If I can be a better person than I was yesterday than I am obviously making progress in the process of becoming a better Christian.
This is not sanctification. Sanctification is not my quest to achieve personal holiness. I’m not even sure what “personal holiness” means, but it sure seems like my default mode is to pursue some sense of personal progress. Am I getting better or not? If I’m not, then I must not be a good Christian. Or maybe I’m not a Christian at all...
The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks “What is sanctification?” and answers with this: “Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace by which our whole person is made new in the image of God, and we are made more and more able to become dead to sin and alive to righteousness.”
My idea of sanctification is small. I wonder if I’m getting better. I measure by short list of what I think is most important to God. It’s mostly a “what not to do” list. My idea of how to achieve sanctification is centered on me. I wonder, “What do I need to do today to be better than I was yesterday? The whole thing is radically me-centered. My standards. My goals. My achievements by my own abilities.
Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace. He will sanctify me. The focus of sanctification is not to make me the best version of myself I can be. God does intend to make me a new person by restoring the brokenness that permeates my heart, mind and soul. But, it’s not about me. It’s about Christ. It’s about being dead to sin (the sin that Jesus conquered on the cross) and alive to righteousness (the righteousness given to me as a gift of God).
Tchividjian goes on to say: “Sanctification consists of the daily realization that in Christ we have died and in Christ we have been raised. Life change happens as the heart daily grasps death and life. Daily reformation is the fruit of daily resurrection. To get it the other way around (which we always do by default) is to miss the power and point of the gospel.”
God puts to death our sin, our selfishness, our self-reliance, our idols (e.g. success, comfort, security, approval, money, power, control) and all those things that keep us from embracing the resurrection and the life that come from Christ. He declares us righteous and then works out that righteousness in our lives by giving us the heart of Christ. He doesn’t just help us check off our “what-not-to-do-list”, but empowers us to live and love according to his grace. The process of sanctification is bigger, messier and more beautiful than our quest to be better people.
We need to be pruned
God actively prunes his people so that they might be made alive to the righteousness purchased for us by Christ. If you’ve ever grown roses or known anyone who has then you know how important this process is. When the gardener prunes his roses, he removes dead wood and encourages new growth. The pruning improves air circulation which helps fuel the plant’s growth. Pruning allows the gardener to shape the rose in a way that will display its beauty. Roses that are not pruned may still grow, but the good gardener will prune the rose so that it might show its true beauty and share its fragrant aroma with all who come near it.
This is sanctification. Pruning. The master gardener cuts off the old wood that keeps us from growing. He shapes us so that we might display the beauty we were created in. He makes it possible that new growth might emerge so that others might be exposed to the fragrant aroma of the gospel as God makes us alive in Christ.
We do get things turned around. We focus on ourselves. Focus on getting better. We use prayer, Bible study and worship as a means to strengthen ourselves so we might be better Christians. God does want us to get better. Spiritual disciplines are means by which we connect with God. But, we cannot make ourselves better. Daily reformation does not prove that we have been resurrected. Instead, daily resurrection helps reform us daily.
Dying then living. That’s the pattern of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Sacrifice, suffering, and struggle are never easy. But, before we can truly live, our sin, selfishness and idolatry must die at cross. As God prunes those things away, we can live more and more in the power of the resurrection.
By God’s free grace, we are made new in our whole person as God makes us dead to sin and alive to Christ. That’s sanctification. If we want to make progress then we must get the order right.
Progress comes as we learn that living means dying.