The Practice of All True Holiness
Chapter XIII, Paragraph 1
of the Second London Confession:
They who are united to Christ, effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, are also farther sanctified, really and personally, through the same virtue, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them; the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified, and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of all true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.
The gospel events constitute the fountainhead of our sanctification.
For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).
Lest anyone should think that sanctification is our contribution to the “working out” of our salvation, the confession grounds it in the gospel events. We are now in union with our Lord and Savior. It was God who called us to Christ, with a calling that worked spiritual resurrection in our hearts. And it was God who did what needed to be done to provide a righteousness not our own, a justification which in no way depended on our endeavors. The chief event of history is the cross. Without the death of our Lord all would have been lost, the eternal purpose of God, the renewal of creation, the renewal of the race now, without the Lord’s intervention, hopelessly careening toward only eternal damnation and nothing more, all lost. But Christ appeared and everything is changed. And, as the Old Testament prophets looked forward to His appearing in hope, so we look back to His salvific work. Our hearts fill, and our mouths open with praise to such a God who would in mercy provide what we never could have accomplished.
In the same way, though we are different now, having a renewed will, we can make no claim to merit other than that which comes from Christ. The sanctification process, like justification, is the work of God, and it is God who must have the glory and honor of it. All of our salvation was won by the death of our Lord on the cross. The satisfaction of divine justice, the application of saving grace, and the final state of glory all depend on what the Lord Jesus Christ accomplished by His death on behalf of His people. He works righteousness in them, as He has worked righteousness for them, but that work of righteousness in them is His work, even though, by union with Christ, we come to own it. Thus the sanctification won is now our sanctification but Christ is surely the author and finisher of it. Indeed, Paul calls Christ our sanctification (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:30–31).
The Hebrew word kadosh means “separate.” To be holy is to be separated to the Lord and to His purpose to save a people for His eternal glory. The pots and pans used in the tabernacle’s priestly work were separated to the purposes of the Lord. They were not for ordinary use. Our Lord is the truly holy one of God. He has come into the world and lived a life of true separation, a life unique in its pristine character. Just as His righteousness is the ground of our justification, so His righteous obedience is the ground of our growth in obedience. Without His atoning work there would be no hope of sanctification in this life or glorification in the next. There is no independent righteousness, either personal, or of departed saints, which becomes the substance of our holiness. It is all of Christ.
Sanctification is progressive.
Now this I say, and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds (Ephesians 4:17).
This is not to say that sanctification may be represented on a graph as an ascending line of progress with inevitable percentages of growth, year by year. Though it is God’s work, it varies as the renewed man engages his three great enemies, this world and its siren’s song, Satan and his wiles, and the flesh with its strong inclinations. We grow in grace but in a fallen world, that growth is uneven in its progress. Nevertheless it is progress. If one could have a bird’s eye view of the history of our lives he would see, that in spite of failures both great and small, there may be discerned a genuine change in the thinking and affections of the true believer in Christ. Transformation that is clearly discernable would be seen, and it would not be hard to do so.
The progress of the believer demands a ministry of God’s Word. He must hear the command of God to turn from sin to righteousness and obey. But the disciple of the Lord does disobey. And so the life lived is one lived hearing the Word as commandment, or often as rebuke, but responding to the Word as the normative guide for all things. Thus the disciple either hears, and engages the foe, gaining victories by faith in Christ, or when disobedient, hears the Word and repents with a will to more consistent fidelity. He agonizes over the presence of sin and, by faith, hopes for greater love for the one who died to take his sins away. Such love for Christ holds a sure promise of growth and the blessing of seeing more and more transformation. He is moved to a more successful experience of self-examination leading to more Christ-likeness.
Again and again, the Scriptures speak of our walk in the Lord. Our life in Christ is like a journey. There is a destination. We are to grow in Christ, and just as Christ is presented to us as the one in whom “…the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,” we are assured that we have been “filled” in Him. (Colossians 2: 6–10) We cannot think that we are left by divine providence to stumble along. No, faith in the one who is perfect in righteousness proves that we have all that we need, in Him. He is not only an all-sufficient Savior but is an all-sufficient sustainer as well. Therefore we grow; we change. We are not merely told that we should grow, that we should change. We actually do change because this process is an integral part of our salvation. This too was won by Christ’s death on the cross. Paradoxically, we must be told to obey. We must be called to repent when we sin. But, by God’s grace, we will have growth, and one day we will see that what was won by the death of Christ was a sure transformation ending in full glorification.
Our sanctification is both forensic and experiential.
But you were washed, you were sanctified… (1 Corinthians 6:11b). Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous (1 John 3:7).
Here are two great truths. We, like the vessels of the tabernacle, have been declared to be holy. We have been separated to the purposes of God. We have been delivered from the kingdom of darkness, and cleansed by the Lord. We have become citizens of the kingdom of God’s son. And, though we are holy, separate, and cleansed by the Lord, we still have remaining sin in us.
We have asserted the Christocentric character of the life of holiness. We did not originate this holiness; it is Christ’s and was won by His death on the cross. But the holiness that is worked in us, and worked out by us, is real in our experience. It is not merely the declaration of God. He has declared us holy as He has declared us to be righteous. But the process of sanctification involves the life lived. That means that there will be a struggle for the kingdom to be manifested in the way we live. The struggle will be real, and sadly, it will be uneven in its zeal and effect. But the struggle will produce victories that are genuine, victories that are real in our experience.
Sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit.
But I say walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:16).
Salvation is the work of our triune God. The Father chose us in eternity. The Son came in the history of this world to die in our place. And, the application of that eternal choice, and that historical atonement, is wrought by the Spirit in our experience, whenever that may be. Here again is the truth of God’s work on our behalf as the sole ground of our holiness. The choice was the Father’s, and we had no contribution to make. The death was our Lord Jesus Christ’s, and we had no part in it. And, the life we live, by the grace of God, is the work of God’s Spirit.
We lay dead before the Spirit brought us to life. We are now alive to the Lord but the righteousness that is made manifest is only ours by grace. It is the work of the Holy Spirit, and the proof of that work is evident as the believer grows in imitation of Christ, as the believer grows in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. In the end those may be what we have practiced, but they are not ours to boast about. God’s Spirit was at work in us.
There is a difference between what may be said of us in our relationship to the eternal choice of the Father, the cross of Christ, and the work of the Spirit on our behalf. The Father’s work was done before we were called to exist. And although many, who were saved by the death of our Lord, lived long before He came to die, it may be said that, whether in the age of anticipation, or in the present age, His death was for those who were found to be lying dead in sins, helpless and without a will to serve the Lord. The work of the Spirit changes that. Our wills are renewed, and as Charles Wesley wrote, “his eye diffused a quickening ray, the dungeon flamed with light, my chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth and followed thee.” This was the Spirit’s work at the start and continues to be the Spirit’s work throughout all of life.
The holy life is a life of struggle, of mortification and renewal.
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you (Colossians 3:5a).
Here the framers of the confession go to what should always be the heart of experience, the death and resurrection of our Lord. Again and again the apostles command us to put to death those things that are contrary to both law and gospel. This assumes that we have a renewed will, and are able to say no to sin. We find ourselves sinners who still often sin because we are not yet made perfect, but we also find ourselves to be followers of Christ, who when they recognize sin as sin can say, “by faith in Christ, I will have no part in that!” Willful sin is more and more seen as the great trap which once was the essence of our life, but now is to be mortified.
In this, the apostolic example abounds. This is very clear in Paul’s letter to the Colossians. We are commanded to remember that Christ’s death was His victory over sin, and death, and hell. He overcame, offering His pristine life of obedience, and defeated all the enemies of God and humankind. Therefore, since He is victorious we, now united with Him by the goodness of the Lord, are able to say no to all those things that He overcame. We are able, by faith in Him, to agonize over the horror of sin against our holy God, and by faith to reject willful disobedience. Thus, sins like sexual immorality, covetousness, malice, and slanderous talk are identified for what they are and rejected as not consonant with the righteousness of Christ.
This is no claim to perfection. We are being sanctified. We are not yet glorified. But the follower of Christ, though he may allow even great licentiousness in himself far too often, cannot live comfortably in such a state. He must say, “Christ suffered for me. His suffering was beyond comprehension. Such love shown to me at the cross cannot allow me to be false to Him. I will take His forgiveness, and by grace I will say no to those things that the Word of God reveals to be sin. How can I stubbornly say that His death is of so little consequence that I can persist in sinning against my Lord? No, we should pray “Lord, work such thankfulness in my heart that I will rise to meet the foe and conquer in the name of Christ!”
And, we are exhorted to remember that Christ has been raised from the dead. And we remember that, in baptism, we have confessed the truth and power of His resurrection. For that reason, we look to the power of His resurrection life dwelling in us by God’s Spirit. We begin to see the universality of grace, recognizing that barbarians, Scythians, enslaved men, free men, in fact all kinds of men, called from every race and tribe and nation, are being joined together for the eternal glory of God. We learn that compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience are the sort of qualities we seek. We forgive as we have been forgiven. We remember the selfless love of Christ’s death, and begin to live in the extraordinary power of his resurrection life.
The process of sanctification is essential to true salvation.
Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).
The whole of the confession’s statement on sanctification mirrors the teaching of the word of God. But the last sentence of the first paragraph is a direct quote from Scripture. “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness …without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14b).
Whether one translates hagiasmos as “holiness” or simply “sanctification,” it is clear that we are not claiming that the progress of sanctification in this life leads to perfection, in this life. The perfection will come to us in the glorified state. That is certain. But it is also the final tense of a salvation that comes by grace alone. Thus the confession makes clear that sanctification is “imperfect in this life.”
So we are not hoping to see perfection on this side of heaven. But we must see sanctification. We must see holiness. To be without holiness, (a sanctification process that is real and produces the fruit of the Holy Spirit) is to fail to see the Lord in at least two ways.
The Lord’s words to Nicodemus are instructive here. To have anything less that a miraculous intervention of God, anything less than the new birth, the new begetting that can only come from above, is to fail to see the kingdom of God. We do not truly perceive what the kingdom is, or what its blessings are for those who are the objects of God’s mercy in Christ, until we have an awakening that can only come by the miraculous work of God’s Spirit. What the Father purposed in eternity, and what the Son accomplished in time, become ours in experience by the Spirit. We can see much of that blessing even in this life. But to see the kingdom, because we have been born again, means more than that we begin to understand something of the mercy of God toward us. It also means that we, by God’s grace, come to see the kingdom because we are now in the kingdom. We have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God’s dear Son. More than our understanding has been touched. We also are in a new state of being. We were dead; we are now alive. All is new. There is a new realm to be lived in for those who know the Lord.
In the same way, we might be tempted to think that to have holiness is only to see God as people who now have the ability to understand his ways. That is indeed true. But it is also true, and the context in Hebrews demands it, that when the writer says that without holiness, “no one will see the Lord,” he means that not only can we not understand God’s character, and the working out of His purposes, he also means that since there is no salvific reality in the life, that person will fail to see God at all. He will not be with him eternally. Just as works are the temporal evidence of true salvation, so holiness in experience is the necessary accompaniment of what began with new birth and ends in glorification and perfection in heaven. There will be no temporal comprehension of God’s truth without holy movement, without a process of sanctification. And, there will certainly be no final glory without it.
God’s Word teaches us that our salvation, as we have said, is the work of the triune God. It is not a truncated proclamation of the benefits of Christ’s atoning work without reference to the eternal work of God and the work of the Holy Spirit in our experience. That is not to say that our preaching should not be Christocentric. It should be. We preach Christ and Him crucified. Lost sinners need to hear about Christ and His cross. They need to hear that His death and resurrection was as Paul said, “…for our sins.” We are not called to preach the eternal work of the Father to poor lost sinners as the essence of gospel truth. We are not called to preach the work of the Holy Spirit or some deviant version of that work. Preaching the gospel is not taking the lost the words, “let me tell you how God has changed my life.” No we preach Christ.
Our faith is not in the eternal purpose of the Father. But the work of the Father is an essential part of our salvation, though we may not understand it well at first. Our faith is not in the Holy Spirit or in His work in the history of our lives. But the work of the Holy Spirit in our experience is an essential part of our salvation, though we may not understand it at the beginning. Unless that work takes place no one will see the Lord.
But suppose that the professor of faith in Christ despairs of seeing evidence of that work in his life, and wonders what he should do. We should tell him not to look to himself, though self-examination is good, but to look to Christ. It is after all the work of the Holy Spirit to reveal Christ to us, and we are thrown back upon Him again and again as we see our deficits. That too is part of the sanctification process. We should encourage ourselves and our brothers and sisters in Christ to say with Paul, “Are we to continue in sin so that grace may abound? By no means!” (Romans 6:1b–2a).