What We Believe
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November 25, 2007 Q & A

Sanctification

Question:

Since God is at work in us both to will and do his good pleasure, why aren't we all searching the scriptures more diligently? Why aren't we all aching to know him more?

My background is legalistic. I'm almost weaned. The focus was always the fabricated walk. Heart issues were almost never mentioned. Why does God seem to withhold the desire to grow in knowledge of his Word? With legalism your spiritual life is measured by your outward walk, no mention of heart issues. Everyone seems to be spiritual. Someone said that I cannot judge people by my definition of spirituality. I don't think I do. I just wonder how sanctification really works—operationally defined.

Answer:

The question you ask isn't easy to answer. Do you ask it for yourself or because of what you see in Christians about you? If the latter, you're not alone. See Hebrews 5:11-14 and 2 Peter 1:9-15. That reticence to draw near to God, hungrily feeding on His Word, is a serious defect in today's Christians. How can we explain it?

An agricultural analogy may help. In previous years I was a gardener by hobby. Where I lived, the soil was rich, but it had a lot of clay in it. In the spring the soil was soft, and plants shot up. But in late June and July the same rain fell, and when the sun shone hot, it formed a hard crust, which inhibited good growth. And walking on the soil between rows made it worse—hard as a beaten path. I had to battle that soil by breaking up that top crust.

We have this same picture in Hosea 10:12: "Sow with a view to righteousness, reap in accordance with kindness; break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the Lord till He comes to rain righteousness on you."

Let me say that in 55 years in the active pastorate I have encountered this relative hardness in the church. It's not unbelief. People faithfully attend worship and do not reject the preached Word. But from year to year I saw no great growth in most of them.

Most of these were seasoned Christians, not newly converted. Many were reared in Christian homes. Maybe there was an incipient legalism in them: "I'm good. I go to church, pray at meals, live a fair Christian life (nobody's perfect!) and I believe I'll go to heaven when I die. 2 Peter 1:9-10 doesn't say that these are unsaved people, nor does the writer of Hebrews (5:12-14), But it is a lamentable condition.

What's the cure? Convincing God's people to seek the Lord's face in the matter. James 4, the whole chapter, ought to be read and re-read, asking all along, "Is God through his Spirit speaking to me?" If there is no deep peace, no joy, no hunger for the Word in the heart, it's sin.

And here's where legalism may have slipped in through the cracks. To "say" prayers without their being the cry of the heart, could it not be a breaking of the Third Commandment? If we read the Bible simply as a matter of duty, is it not legalism, as well as any act of obedience rendered out of a sense of duty?

James 4:8 puts the matter properly: "Draw near to God and He will draw near to you Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double minded...." Not drawing near to God suggests that our hands (labors) are not clean, i.e. done for the praise of God; and double-mindedness may also lie at the root of our coldness.

Consider James 1:2-11. James is not evangelizing the heathen, but exhorting "brothers"! I've found this true numberless times in my own life: If you meet God in the way of obedience, he'll meet you in the way of blessing.

Now, what brings on this dullness? Who and what greases the way so we'll slip? It's the mother of all sin, pride. Satan is the purveyor of pride, which can take our eyes off Christ and His cross and put them on ourselves.

What do we do with the entrance of pride? Recognize the depth of our own sin and depravity. Matthew 15:11, 12-20 tells us what is in our hearts. Jeremiah 17:9-10 also says it.

That doesn't mean that our true selves as Christians are characterized by these evils. The "old man" is dead, but his rotting flesh is still there. And we need to realize that we are capable of every sin, should the Holy Spirit let go his restraint on our hearts.

Once I dreamed that I had broken the Seventh Commandment and I was soon to be exposed. I was filled with dread—the end of my ministry! Then I woke up. I was so happy that I didn't do it, happy for some time. Then the thought entered my mind, "It was in your heart, or you wouldn't have dreamed it!"

Jeremiah 17:9 ends with the question, "Who can know it?" Verse 10 follows: "I, the Lord, search the heart; I test the mind, ..." Realizing, especially when one comes to the Lord's table, the depth of one's native depravity, which will never leave us till we enter the church triumphant, will make our hearts rejoice when we contemplate the length, breadth, depth and height of the love of Christ.

This answer has been long enough. But no wonder God sends us chastening, sorrow, disappointment, humiliation and other troubles. It's because he loves us and wants us to cope with our remaining sin. That's why our Shorter Catechism says "Sanctification is a work of God's free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled to die more and more unto sin and live unto righteousness" (Q. 35). He wants us to recognize his work within us as we fight the battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil.

 

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