The Spirit and Sanctification

May 28th, 2012

Come, Holy Spirit; Your holiness is beautiful to me.
I want to be holy, but am embarrassingly unable to climb
out of that awful hole my rebel lifestyle has dug.
Create in me a clean heart; plant Your life in my life
so I may discover Your fruit prospering even in me. Amen

"You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy" (Leviticus 19:2). God brings the impassable chasm between us and God, a gulf burrowed out by our crazed rebellion, our lack of goodness, our unholy, sinful existence, so immeasurably far are we from the utter goodness, holiness, and purity of God. This bridge across is the Holy Spirit.

Charles Wesley penned a hymn which prays,

Deepen the wound thy hands have made
In this weak, helpless soul,
Till mercy, with its balmy aid,
Descends to make me whole.

Or as children sing at Christmas,

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay
close by me forever, and love me, I pray;
bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

The Spirit's merciful, kindly intention is to make us fit for God.

Theologians have spoken of a doctrine called "sanctification." "Justification" (our salvation) is what God has done for us. "Sanctification" (meaning "made holy") is what God does in us. Gordon Fee claims that "for Paul there is no such thing as 'salvation in Christ' that does not also include righteousness on the part of God's people ... because both 'getting in' and 'staying in' are the work of Spirit."

Holiness is not a matter of gritting our teeth and trying really diligently to do what God requires. We may grit our teeth, and we do try hard. But I am not able to do what God wants of me, I am not capable of the life God wants for me. A changed life is the gift of God's Spirit. As a humble believer, I know that any good that I manage is "not I, but Christ in me' (from Galatians 2:20). The Spirit gets up in the morning and hounds us, pursuing a changed life, what Fee called "the reproduction of the life of Christ in the believer." Paul described this new life, the life for which we were made, the only life that will ever satisfy us, as "the fruit of the Spirit." Not "the fruit of my good intentions," but "the fruit of the Spirit": "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law" (from Galatians 5:22-23).

Not only are these not against the law. They are not the law! Paul does not say, "You must be joyful, patient, faithful." Rather, if we just calm down and let the Spirit have its way with us, we discover to our delightful surprise traces of joy, peace, gentleness in our lives, all gift, all the work of God in us.

Why should it matter if we are sanctified (made holy)?

Because in creation, God made us, you and me, in God's own image. We are the image of God, we are the way God is imaged in this world, and so we must be holy. Paul said that my body is the "temple of the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 6:19). How humbling! How fearsome! How manifestly impossible it is for me to be anything like the kind of temple our splendidly wonderful God would need! And yet I am to be, you are to be this temple. St. Basil said it is "the Lord who commands...the Spirit who strengthens. What kind of strengthening is this? Perfection in holiness, which expresses itself in an unyielding, unchangeable commitment to goodness. Such holiness is impossible without the Spirit." And such holiness is exceedingly difficult in our culture.

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