Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
Last time, we looked at the Lord’s plan of salvation for the world. God knew all the evil we would do, but rather than wipe out humanity for being rebellious, ungrateful, and extremely wicked; he developed a plan that only he could perform through his love. First he gave us the Law as a means to rightness with God- an impossible means; then he made some great claims as to who the messiah would be and what he’d be able to bring to Israel through the prophets. Again, these seemed liked extraordinary claims much like the impossibility of the Law, and still there was no answer in sight for how this messiah’s sacrifice would be able to cover everyone’s sins. But in his love God did the unthinkable, he stepped down off his throne and became born of a woman in the form of his Son, Jesus Christ and lived among his people, and died a sinless death; providing a God-sized, legally binding, sacrifice for the whole world. But the story doesn’t end there. After we experience salvation through the saving grace of Jesus’ blood that was shed for us to be cleansed we enter into the next phase of God’s plan: sanctification.
Now there’s a lot of confusion (especially for new Christians) as to what exactly sanctification is. I think it’s good to think of it this way: upon receiving Christ’s forgiveness we’re re-classified from sinners to saints. However, aside from a change in title, not much else has changed. Therefore, the rest of the time we spend on earth is kind of like a “Saint-in-Training” course. This is what sanctification is, because we are made to become more Christ-like. Paul explains what sanctification is this way,
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed- not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence- continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose (Philippians 2:12-13).
Oh yeah, there’s fear and trembling in the New Testament as well. People can read verses like this and misinterpret what sanctification is actually like. We get the idea that if there’s fear and trembling required, then certainly the Lord is using some sort of negative reinforcement. However, this isn’t the case at all. The same can be said about some sort of plan of positive reinforcement. Many pastors preach that God blesses righteous behavior to the extent even that you can measure a person’s relationship with God by how well things are going for them- this couldn’t be further from the truth. When speaking to the people of Israel, Isaiah noted,
All of us have become like one who is unclean,
And all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
We all shrivel up like a leaf,
And like the wind our sins sweep us away (Isaiah 64:6).
I don’t want to misquote this. Isaiah was speaking to an Israel that was sinking deeper and deeper into sin and would eventually be cast out from the Lord’s sight. However, it does call to mind just how small anything we do before God is. We are worms in his sight- saved or otherwise- and he is God. When we act, there are many motivations behind it, and much of our decision-making process is sullied by “how does this help me?” This is one of the reasons I’m very strongly opposed to people who try to obey God in order to prosper (though Scripture does support that righteous acts will lead to treasures in heaven). Such a person is looking out for themselves and kind of misses the point of sanctification.
So the question comes up again: then what is sanctification? This is what the Holy Spirit taught me: Sanctification is the effect of God’s love. And once again, the Lord defies all logic and has presented us with another insane plan- this time to make us into better people. Why is this plan insane? It’s insane because the God doesn’t make us do anything- nor is there any pressure to change or grow. Sure, Paul says to work out our salvation, but it’s pretty easy to ignore Scripture and just keep living life, and as a person saved by grace, this means you can encounter grace even more as you continue to sin and God keeps forgiving you. This was actually an issue within the early Roman church. Therefore, Paul wrote to the people in Romans 6:1-2, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Honestly Paul? It’s pretty easy to keep sinning…or is it? I already mentioned that the Lord doesn’t use negative reinforcement on his children (those saved through Christ’s blood). This is backed up in Scripture. Paul tells us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, but John reminds us, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18). This tells us that while we’re going through the process of sanctification that we shouldn’t be living in fear that God’s gonna bring the hammer down on us for messing up because our Lord acts in love. The fear and trembling that Paul is referring to is our realization of where we stand in relation to God (big as he is) and respecting our position while we continue in our lives.
This is where we get to the true heart of sanctification- past all of the works and the acts of righteousness. Scripture tells us,
If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him (1 John 4:15-17).
Our sanctification is (unsurprisingly) rooted in our salvation, which was an act of love on the part of the Lord. God loved us, and through his love he brought salvation to all people on the earth who are willing to accept his Son as Lord and Christ. Sanctification is a direct result of this act of love on God’s part. Before we had done anything righteous before God, he sacrificed himself (in the form of his Son) for us. Paul reminds you and me, “But God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). That which we call “sanctification” is not a series of actions, but rather the direct response to this love. For it is written, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Because of his amazing love for us, we are compelled for the rest of our days on earth to return our love to God. Just like the plan of salvation, God had the plan for sanctification planned from the beginning. To this end he wrote through Asaph,
Sacrifice thank offerings to God,
Fulfill your vows to the Most High,
And call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you will honor me (Psalms 50:14-15).
Every other religion in the world is based upon our performance. However, the Lord says, “I will love you, and then you in turn will love me.” Because of our sinful state before coming to Jesus it is impossible for us to love God until first he loves us; and exposes us to that almighty love of his. It is through this love from the Lord that we’re able to love the way he intends us to and to truly be able to think and act righteously. And so John gives us the mark of salvation: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, who he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).
This is sanctification; the process of God’s love permeating our heart and mind as we begin to embody the love that he showed us in our lives. For a non-believer it is impossible to fully understand love the right way. The Bible tells us, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it” (John 1:5). Without the love of God and his sacrifice on your behalf being a part of your life it is impossible to fully understand what love really is. That’s what Paul means when he says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” Through Jesus’ death on a cross in our stead, we are exposed to true love and it changes our whole genetic makeup- our base programming if you will; and sanctification is the process by which we become that which God has made us: creatures of love. And so our lives become less concerned about what we do but by the motivation that drives our lives. For the saved person, life is driven by the two greatest commandments,
“The Most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31).
This is why Paul was able to throw most of the Law’s regulations and formalities to the wayside while still forwarding the laws of mercy and obedience. This is why even though James 2:17 says, “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead,” Paul is able to write extensively on the oppressive nature of the Law. We don’t live through the Law, we live through the love that God gave us and it is by this that we find our status in Christ. We read, “And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love” (2 John 1:6). God loves us so that we are motivated out of love to obey him, and his command to us is to love. Love is the beginning, love is the goal, love is the means, and love is the motivation. Sanctification is us acting out of God’s love for us because we love him- from that springs everything else good and wonderful. All of this is motivated and assisted by the Holy Spirit, who carries the love of God within him, and dwells within you after you receive Christ as your Savior. From the beginning to the end the answer is always love. And why shouldn’t it be? After all, the Holy Spirit of the Lord penned to us, “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away” (1 Corinthians 13:8). Love never fails- and the works being performed by believers worldwide are proving just that.
Rock on God!