What’s the Center of Our Holiness?
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Today’s question is a great one, Pastor John. Scripture gives us a constellation of ways to think of the Christian life. And a listener to the podcast named Jason wants to know how they relate. Here’s what he asks: “Pastor John, hello! Can you help me figure something out? Is the key to personal sanctification more about ‘looking to Jesus,’ as Hebrews 12:2 says? Or is it more about being united ‘to him who has been raised from the dead,’ as Romans 7:4 puts it? Or is it mostly about ‘beholding’ Christ’s glory, as 2 Corinthians 3:18 puts it? Or is it more about just obeying and doing the ‘work of faith,’ as 2 Thessalonians 1:11 says?
“I know the answer is likely going to be, ‘Yes, it’s all of those!’ But I am trying to connect them all in a way that is practical to teach and live. I find myself jumping from one to the other as though they are multiple things. Surely there are logical connections that make them all one and the same.” Pastor John, how would you put this puzzle together for Jason?
Wow, I just love this kind of a great question — not only this kind of question, but just this way of thinking. Taking different parts of Scripture — they use very different language — and asking, “Are there deep, common, unified, coherent realities here?” That is so helpful to do.
So let’s see if I can weave these four strands together into some kind of cord that the Lord might use to bring us along in our pursuit of sanctification. That’s what they’re designed for, and I think the Lord is very pleased when we try to put the different parts of his word together in order to see the common realities behind them, even when different words are used to describe those realities.
One Great Work of God
The realities in these four passages of Scripture would include these (I just made a list of them as I read these passages):
- word of God
- death of Christ
- glory of Christ
- law of God
- faith in Christ
- faith in his word
- Christian freedom
- the Holy Spirit
- human resolve
All of those are realities, and they are all at work in these passages, and they are not doing contradictory things.
“There is one great work of God weaving all these realities together in the process of making us holy.”
There is one great work of God weaving all these realities together in the process of making us holy, making us sanctified, more Christlike. Different texts focus on different ones of these realities, but none of them leads us in a direction that would in any way contradict the other passages. We’ve misunderstood the text if one text is sending us off in a direction that flies in the face of the other passages. So, let me take them one at a time and just see if I can draw out some of the common connections.
Looking to Jesus
Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1–2)
So in this text, “looking to Jesus” is given as the means by which we run our race with endurance. That race, of course, includes becoming holy, staying on the narrow racetrack to the end. And when we look to Jesus, we see three things that affect our running.
First, he’s called “the founder and perfecter of our faith,” which means he has done the decisive work in dying and rising and sitting down at the right hand of God. Because of Christ, our faith is well-founded and well-finished. It’s as good as done. In other words, because of Christ, we’re going to make it to the finish line. He founded our faith. He’ll finish our faith.
“Because of Christ, we’re going to make it to the finish line. He founded our faith. He’ll finish our faith.”
Second, we look to Christ as inspiring our endurance because of his endurance — enduring the cross. He ran his race successfully through suffering. This emboldens us to run our race through suffering.
And third, when we look to Jesus, he shows us how he ran his race. He says he ran it “for the joy that was set before him.” Therefore, the key to our endurance is to stand on that finished work of Christ and be confident that all-satisfying joy is just over the horizon. He’s going to finish it. He’s going to bring us great joy. That’s how we keep going, because that’s how he kept going.
So this confidence in the joy that is set before us is called, in Hebrews, faith. In the chapter just before, faith is the substance of things hoped for, the joy hoped for. Faith is the foretaste, the substance (Hebrews 11:1). Right now you can taste it — the foretaste of the joy of the promise of God, over and over. In Hebrews 11, the saints obey by faith — that is, this faith, this confident hope of a joyful future, is the key to their obedience, just like it was the key to Jesus’s obedience. So that’s the picture, and that’s the reality of how we are sanctified, in Hebrews 12.
New Way of the Spirit
Now here’s Romans 7:4, 6:
You also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. . . . We are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.
Now, the new reality that Paul introduces here that wasn’t in Hebrews 12 is the fact that when Christ died, we died. Specifically, we died to the law. We were released from law-keeping as the way of getting right with God, as the way of ongoing fellowship with God.
That’s new, right? Nothing was said about the law in Hebrews 12:1–2. So Paul is coming at sanctification with a different problem in view: not the need for endurance through suffering — that’s the issue in Hebrews; that’s not the issue here — but the need for liberation from law-keeping. That’s the issue here. How do we relate to God? How do we become holy without law-keeping as the foundation for our lives (because that we died to)?
And the other new reality that Paul introduces in Romans 7:4 is the Holy Spirit. He says that we “have died to the law . . . so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6) And that wasn’t in Hebrews.
And I would say that this new way of the Spirit is precisely the way of Hebrews 12, describing the Christian life — namely, the life of faith in the promises of God to fulfill us, to fill us with hope for future joy. That’s the new way of the Spirit in Romans 7. That’s the alternative to law-keeping as a way of walking with God. So, they are complementary texts, coming at sanctification from two very different angles.
Beholding the Glory of Christ
Third, Jason introduces, or he brings up, 2 Corinthians 3:18. In this text, Paul combines the reality of the Holy Spirit (mentioned in Romans 7) and the reality of looking to Jesus (mentioned in Hebrews 12). And he adds the realities of glory and freedom, neither of which had been mentioned explicitly in those other two texts, but are mentioned here. So he says,
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17–18)
What this text adds to the “new way of the Spirit,” described in Hebrews 12 and Romans 7, is that looking to Jesus in Hebrews 12 means not only seeing him as enduring the cross, but seeing him as glorious in all that he’s done.
The focus is on how beautiful and glorious and magnificent he is — and finding that glory so riveting, so satisfying, that it has the effect of transforming us. We tend to take on the traits of those we most admire. This is freedom, because it happens by the Spirit as a natural process.
This is what Paul called “bearing fruit for God” in Romans 7. Faith and hope and joy are not mentioned in 2 Corinthians 3, but I would say that they are implied in the phrase “beholding the glory of the Lord.” I think that transforming “beholding” is the sight of faith. That’s the way faith sees Christ. Faith beholds the beauty of Christ. Faith finds joy in him when it looks at him and all that God promises to be for us in him. And by beholding him that way, faith transforms. And that’s sanctification.
Work of Faith
One more. Jason refers us to 2 Thessalonians 1:11, where Paul says, “May [God] fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power.” So in the process of sanctification, we do make resolves. Yes, we do. We intend things. We will things. We exercise our will. But Paul says that all of these volitional actions are works of faith by God’s power. In other words, we are back in the realm of God’s empowering Spirit. We work by trusting God’s promise that he is at work in us.
So, Jason, good question. I think if you bore into the actual reality of these four descriptions of sanctification, you will find they are deeply unified and mutually illuminating. It’s a thrilling thing to meditate on the realities of Scripture until we see how beautifully they cohere.