Sanctification by Grace Alone

How do we become free from the burden of sin?

During a Q&A session after a church service where 2 Tim 3:6-17 was preached, someone asked “How do we become free from the burden of sin and how do we live in that freedom?” The preacher answered “Trust in Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and preach the realities of the gospel to yourself every day.”

This was the right answer. The problem is that the human heart can take a right answer and implement it in the wrong way. A man can indeed find freedom from sin in Christ, but his hopelessly deceitful heart (Jer. 17.9) can lead him right back into bondage to sin, in practice, even though God has justified him by faith, in principle. Knowing how our corrupt hearts can twist a truth, I coped with this tension by asking the question in the negative: How should we not seek freedom from the burden of sin, and how should we not try living in that freedom every day?” In other words, what is the wrong answer to the question?

The wrong answer

There is a prevailing tendency in evangelical Christianity to assume that after a believer is justified by faith in the gospel, sanctification in his/her life is carried forward largely by his/her effort. The problem is the same one Paul admonished the Galatians: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal 3:3). We assume that after God has brought us into Christ, the real work of staying in Christ is up to us. This widespread tendency–to attempt sanctification by the flesh–is not only seen in Christian living, but is also promoted by a type of preaching that has gripped contemporary pulpits.

In the opening chapters of “Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures” (2007) Dennis Johnson, describes this misleading kind of preaching. This preaching wants hearers to focus on emulating the virtues of Biblical protagonists and renouncing the sins of biblical antagonists. This approach has been called moralistic preaching or “the exemplaristic approach” to preaching (p. 37-43).

The right answer

Then, as a response to moralistic preaching, Johnson promotes the “redemptive-historical approach” to preaching, also known as “reformed preaching” or “Christ-centered preaching.” He points us to Tim Keller as a model practitioner of this approach. Keller labeled his own approach as the “Sanctification by faith-alone” way of preaching (p. 55). This label implies that the problem Keller frequently has to address is a kind of “sanctification by works” mindset in the lives of many Christians.

[pullquote]to repent not only of our sins but also of our righteousness–our efforts at self-atonement in lieu of the surrender to the all-sufficient grace of Christ[/pullquote]

Then, in a beautiful paragraph, Johnson characterizes Keller’s approach. Here is good, redemptive-historical, gospel-centered preaching:

 “What both the believer and the unbeliever need to hear in preaching is the gospel, with its implications for a life lived in confident gratitude in response to amazing grace. Christians are constantly tempted to relapse into legalistic attitudes in their pursuit of sanctification, so we never outgrow our need to hear the good news of God’s free and sovereign grace in Christ. Sanctification, no less than justification, must come by grace alone, through faith alone–we grow more like Christ only by growing more consistent in trusting Christ alone, thinking, feeling, acting ‘in line with the truth of the gospel’ (Gal. 2:14). From this grace alone can flow true sanctification, motivated by gratitude and empowered by the Spirit. We need to repent not only of our sins but also of our righteousness–our efforts at self-atonement in lieu of the surrender to the all-sufficient grace of Christ. Keller traces his discovery of this need of two-fold repentance to George Whitefield’s sermon, ‘The Method of Grace’ (p. 55-56).”

Yes, doing good works or striving against sin are involved in sanctification, but my own effort in killing sin and bearing the fruit of the Spirit–or mortification and vivification–is not the sole basis/cause of sanctification. This hits home hard, and distills concisely what I’ve been seeking to grow into as a Christian—and as a preacher: “to repent not only of our sins but also of our righteousness–our efforts at self-atonement in lieu of the surrender to the all-sufficient grace of Christ.”

I have a High Priest already

I cannot be my own high priest, nor can others be, pronouncing forgiveness, manufacturing peace, granting self-atonement when I consider I have done enough minutes of devotion, prayer, or have refrained for this many days from the vice on the left or the vice on the right. I already have a high priest, Jesus Christ. He sits at God’s right hand. I want to live in him and proclaim him, lifting him up as my all-sufficient object of faith, not only for the past act of God justifying me from the guilt of sin, but also for the present act of the Holy Spirit sanctifying me daily from the power of sin!

“How do we become free from the burden of sin?” It’s by grace alone through faith in Christ alone. Christians often get justification right. But “How do we live in that freedom every day?” This comes through God’s work of sanctification, which also comes by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone.  That’s what you learn by reading or listening to George Whitfield’s sermon “The Method of Grace.”

So, how do we become free from the burden of sin? Believe in Christ. How do we live in that freedom every day? Keep believing in Christ! The answer is the same. Only this time we are keeping an eye on the tendency of the human heart to begin with the Spirit but to try attaining sanctification by the flesh.