Act the Miracle: Future Grace, the Word of the Cross, and the Purifying Power of God’s Promises

Desiring God 2012 National Conference

Act the Miracle: God's Work and Ours in the Mystery of Sanctification

When God predestined his people to be conformed to the image of his Son (Romans 8:29), and when “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy” (Ephesians 1:4), what is clear is that he intended that someday the world would be filled with the beauty of his holiness — or, to say it another way, the glory of God. Someday it will be a world of people, created and recreated in his image, in the likeness of his Son. It will be a world filled with the glory of the Lord the way the waters cover the sea. It will be a world radiant with the beauty of holiness.

The Breathtaking Beauty of Holiness

I know that, for some of us, the biblical vision of holiness is too new and too strange to fully realize what is meant by the beauty of holiness — the beauty of sanctification. So let me give you one person’s effort to put into words the beauty of holiness. To my knowledge, no one has done this better than Jonathan Edwards:

We drink in strange notions of holiness from our childhood, as if it were a melancholy, morose, sour, and unpleasant thing; but there is nothing in it but what is sweet and ravishingly lovely. ’Tis the highest beauty and amiableness, vastly above all other beauties. ’Tis a divine beauty, makes the soul heavenly and far purer than anything here on earth. . . . ’Tis of a sweet, pleasant, charming, lovely, amiable, delightful, serene, calm, and still nature. ’Tis almost too high a beauty for any creatures to be adorned with; it makes the soul a little, sweet, and delightful image of the blessed Jehovah.

Oh, how may angels stand, with pleased, delighted, and charmed eyes, and look and look, with smiles of pleasure upon their lips, upon that soul that is holy; how may they hover over such a soul, to delight to behold such loveliness! . . . What a sweet calmness, what a calm ecstasy, doth it bring to the soul! How doth it make the soul love itself; how doth it make the pure invisible world love it; yea, how doth God love it and delight in it; how do even the whole creation, the sun, the fields, and trees love a humble holiness; how doth all the world congratulate, embrace, and sing to a sanctified soul! . . . It makes the soul like a delightful field or garden planted by God . . . where the sun is Jesus Christ; the blessed beams and calm breeze, the Holy Spirit; the sweet and delightful flowers, and the pleasant shrill music of the little birds, are the Christian graces.

Or like the little white flower: pure, unspotted, and undefiled, low and humble, pleasing and harmless; receiving the beams, the pleasant beams of the serene sun, gently moved and a little shaken by a sweet breeze, rejoicing as it were in a calm rapture, diffusing around [a] most delightful fragrancy, standing most peacefully and lovingly in the midst of the other like flowers round about. (Jonathan Edwards, The “Miscellanies”, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 13, [Yale University Press, 1994], 163–64)

What is this beauty of holiness in God? It is the infinite worth of his transcendent Trinitarian fullness, along with the perfect harmony between that worth and all his feeling and thinking and acting. None of God’s acts contradicts the supreme value of his transcendent fullness. There is perfect consistency. Without exception and without interruption, God’s acts perfectly express the value of his fullness. The beauty of God’s holiness is this perfect harmony between all that God does and the infinite value of all that God is.

The Beauty of Holiness in Us

The beauty of holiness in us is similar. “Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16), God says to us. God is disciplining us, Hebrews says, “that we may share his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10) — this divine holiness. Which means that the beauty of holiness in God’s children is the harmony between our lives and the infinite value of all God is.

When our lives gladly express the value of God’s all-satisfying fullness, we are holy. And we are beautiful. The only thing ugly — the only thing bad — in the world is the failure to reflect the infinite value of all that God is. But wherever our emotions and thoughts and deeds show forth the all-satisfying fullness of God, there is the beauty of holiness.

Some day this is what will fill the whole earth. Someday all that is unholy will be cast into outer darkness. The saints of God — the holy ones — will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father (Matthew 13:43). They will obtain what Paul calls “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21) — freedom from all unholiness and all misery. Then the whole creation, Paul says, will be made to conform to the beauty of the holiness of the children of God.

In that new universe of God’s recreation, there will be perfect harmony — perfect concord — between the natural world, and the fullness of human life, and the infinite worth of the fullness of God. Everything, every emotion, every thought, every act will perfectly testify to the infinite worth of God’s transcendent fullness. The redeemed universe will be filled with the beauty of holiness.

A Divine Miracle in Us

Until that day, we are in the grand process called sanctification, or glorification, or becoming holy as God is holy. What I want to show is that this process is a divine miracle in you, and you act the miracle. God is wholly engaged in bringing your life and this world to its appointed destiny of holiness. And this full engagement of God in the process of your sanctification is no limitation on your engagement, but is, in fact, the creation of your engagement. He works the miracle of sanctification; you act the miracle. He produces it; you perform it. If you don’t use your will to act the miracle, there is no miracle. God’s sovereign enablement of holiness does not contradict the act of duty; it creates it.

  • When God opens the eyes of the blind, it is the blind who see.
  • When God gives strength to shriveled legs, it is the lame who do the walking.
  • When God touches the ears of the deaf, it is the deaf who do the hearing.
  • When God calls Lazarus from the grave, it is Lazarus who walks out on his own two feet.
  • When God changes Zacchaeus’s heart, it is Zacchaeus who gives back fourfold what he had stolen.
  • When God fills you with compassion, it is you who exercises your will to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and visit the prison and take in the refugee.
  • When God gives you merciful humility, it is you who turns the other cheek.
  • When God inclines your heart to his Word, it is you who gets out of bed early in the morning to read your Bible.
  • When God gives you courage and love, it is you who shares Christ with your neighbor.
  • When God puts a generous spirit in you, you are the one who writes the extra check for the ministry of the church.
  • When God gives you a patient confidence in his timing, you are the one who drives the speed limit and stops at stop signs and buckles your seatbelt.
  • When God makes you content with his provision, it’s you who tells the truth on your tax returns.
  • When God makes his glory more satisfying than lust, it’s you who turns away from pornography.
  • When God gives you a sweet satisfaction in your future reward, you are the one who blesses your enemies and does not curse them.

God authors the miracle of sanctification, and you act the miracle.

God Authors All, We Act All

Here’s the way Jonathan Edwards describes God’s sanctifying grace and power in our lives:

We are not merely passive in it, nor yet does God do some and we do the rest, but God does all and we do all. God produces all and we act all. For that is what he produces, our own acts. God is the only proper author and fountain; we only are the proper actors. We are in different respects wholly passive and wholly active. (Jonathan Edwards, Writings on the Trinity, Grace, and Faith, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 21, [Yale University Press, 2003], 251)

This is what I want to try to shed light on from the Bible in this chapter: God producing our holiness, and we acting our holiness; God as the author of the miracle of sanctification, we as the actors of the miracle of our sanctification. How does the Bible teach this? And how do we experience it in real life?

It Is Crucial We Start with the Cross

Let’s start with the cross of Christ. God cancels our sins at the cross through faith alone, so that we can then conquer our sins by the Holy Spirit. Or, to use doctrinal language, the enjoyment of justification must precede the energy of sanctification. It is crucial that we start with the cross. If we reverse the order of justification by faith alone and sanctification by the Spirit, we have another religion, not Christianity.

When Charles Wesley taught us to sing, “He breaks the power of canceled sin” (from the hymn “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”), he was teaching the fundamental truth about how the cross relates to sanctification. The cross cancels sins for all who believe on Jesus. Then on the basis of that cancellation of our sins, God breaks the power of our actual sinning. It’s not the other way around. There would be no gospel, and no music, if we tried to sing, “He cancels the guilt of conquered sins.” No, first the cancellation. Then the conquering.

Defeating Pardoned Sins

Here is one New Testament example of how this works. Paul says in Romans 6:5, “We have been united with [Christ] in a death like his.” That’s how our sins were canceled. When Christ died, we died (2 Corinthians 5:14). He suffered the condemnation for our sins (Romans 8:3), and by union with him through faith, our sins are canceled. They are already punished, condemned.

On that basis, Paul commands us in Romans 6:12 to act: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body.” Your sin is canceled because of union with Christ. Now, dethrone it. Break the power of canceled sin. So the death of Christ in our place is always foundational for our defeat of sin. The basis for our conquering sin is always Christ’s canceling sin. Or to say it another way, the only sin that we can defeat in practice is a pardoned sin. Or to say it another way, the pursuit of sanctification can only happen on the foundation of justification.

If we try to defeat an uncanceled sin, a sin that is not already covered by the blood of Jesus — that is, if we try to conquer our sin before it is canceled — we become our own saviors; we nullify the justification of the ungodly (Romans 4:4–5); and we head straight for despair and suicide.

Canceling Sin Precedes Conquering Sin

Here are two other examples from the New Testament. (1) “You were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20). (2) “[Forgive] one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). Canceling sin precedes conquering sin. When the cross cancels the condemning power of our unholiness, it doesn’t make battle for holiness superfluous; it makes it possible. And in the end, it makes it totally successful.

So now we find ourselves loved by God, accepted, adopted into his family, forgiven for all our sins, and justified — all because of Christ. In this condition of profound security and assurance, the Bible says to us, Pursue “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:24). “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4). In other words, conquering canceled sin is essential if we are to be finally saved. Not because sins can be uncanceled, but because the will to kill canceled sin is the necessary sign that it is canceled.

How Do We Act the Miracle?

The questions before us now are, How do we go about “pursuing the holiness without which no one will see the Lord”? How do we “strive to enter through the narrow door”? How do we “keep the commandments”? How do we dethrone and kill canceled sin?

Let’s consider a sequence of passages that answer these questions. First, Romans 8:13 (which is the basis of John Owen’s book The Mortification of Sin): “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Here, imbedded in the greatest chapter on assurance in all the Bible, the Great Eight of Romans, is in verse 13 a warning that if we surrender to the flesh and decide we don’t want to make war on sin anymore, we will perish. We will show that our sins were never canceled.

“By the Spirit”

What is the alternative to that surrender and that death? “But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” So our first answer to the questions, How do you pursue holiness? How do you strive for the narrow door? How do you dethrone and kill sin? is, you do it “by the Spirit.” “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

Continuous, Sustained, Strenuous Effort

Now put alongside that Philippians 2:12–13: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

When Paul says “work out your own salvation,” the word (Greek katergazesthe) means “produce it,” “bring it about,” “effect it.” (Romans 5:3: “Suffering produces endurance.” Romans 7:8: “Sin produced in me covetousness.” 2 Corinthians 4:17: “Affliction is producing a weight of glory.” 2 Corinthians 7:10: “Worldly grief produces death.” James 1:3: “The testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”) Commentator Peter O’Brien sums it up with the words, “continuous, sustained, strenuous effort.” As dangerous as this language is, it is biblical. “Bring about your salvation.” “Produce your salvation.” “Effect your salvation by continuous, sustained, strenuous, effort.”

Act Your Salvation from Sin

Don’t let salvation remain a vague, distant outcome. Let it be the daily deliverances from sin. This is our salvation — salvation from sin. So daily produce salvation from sinning. Act your deliverance. Act your victory. Act your dethroning and killing of sin.

Act your deliverance from anger, resentment, fear of man, discouragement, self-pity, self-promotion, hardness, envy, moodiness, sulking, indifference to suffering, laziness, boredom, passiveness, lack of praising others, lack of joy in Jesus, and more. All these need daily killing.

How? Just as Romans 8:13 says, “by the Spirit” put sin to death. So Philippians 2:12–13 says bring about your own salvation from sinning, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Pick up your sin-killing sword, because God is picking it up with your hands. Wield it because God is wielding it with your hands. Thrust sin through with it, because God is thrusting him through with it.

Act the miracle of sin-killing sanctification, for God is willing and doing it in you. This is the mystery of sanctification. “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). The work of Paul was a wonder of grace. Oh, did he work! And when he was done, he said it was all of God — all of grace.

How Do We Tap into the Power?

Which leads now to the question, How do we consciously tap into God’s miracle-working power in our lives? If it is “by the Spirit” that we kill sin and pursue holiness, and if it is by God’s willing and working in us that we will and work for holiness, how do we connect with the divine Spirit who wills our willing and works our working?

Paul answers us in Galatians 3:5: “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” The answer is that the miracle-working Spirit is supplied to us, and active in us, by hearing with faith. God wills and works in us to defeat sin and produce holiness through the hearing of faith. We hear God speak, and we believe him, and in and through that believing, the sin-killing, holiness-creating power of God produces the miracle that we act.

Blood-Bought Promises for Our Situation

Let’s get even more specific. As I read the New Testament, the pervasive focus of that sanctifying faith is faith in future grace, that is, faith in all that God promises to be for us in Jesus because of what he did for us on the cross. (For what I mean by “sanctifying faith,” see Acts 26:18, as well as 2 Corinthians 5:7 and Galatians 2:20, where the new life of the believer is lived “through faith” or “by faith.”)

In other words, the way we tap into the power of God for the miracle of sin-killing sanctification is by hearing a blood-bought promise of God for our situation, and by believing it, that is, by receiving it and embracing it as a treasure more precious than the pleasures of the temptation in front of us.

In other words, as the Holy Spirit awakens and moves through that faith in God’s promise, the power of canceled sin is broken. It is dethroned. It loses its compelling force because, by the Spirit, faith embraces God’s promise as more satisfying. The power of canceled sin is broken by the power of a superior pleasure. And faith is the soul’s embrace of that superior pleasure.

Made Plain in Hebrews

No book of the Bible makes this more plain than the book of Hebrews. What is faith, according to the book of Hebrews? “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). The assurance of things hoped for. Faith is future-oriented. And the future it hopes for is the promise of Hebrews 11:6: “Without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” So faith that pleases God believes God is and that he is preparing us for great, all-compensating, all-satisfying reward.

That expectation of an all-satisfying reward is why faith taps into the power of the Spirit to produce the beauty of holiness. Watch how it works in the case of Moses in Hebrews 11:24–26:

By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.

How does the Holy Spirit kill sin and produce the beauty of holiness in Moses? He does it “by faith.” “By faith Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.” And what was that faith? It was the assurance of things hoped for. Verse 26: “He was looking to the reward.” So faith embraces the reward of all God promises to be for us, and in comparison with that, the wealth of Egypt looks puny and the pleasures of Egypt look fleeting, and Moses receives the power to see the mission of leading this people as thrilling, and he acts the miracle of the beauty of holiness.

Having a Better Possession

Centuries later the same thing happened to the early Christians mentioned in Hebrews 10:34. How did they kill the sin of fear and greed and selfishness? How did they act the miracle of the beauty of compassion and risk their lives to visit their friends in prison? They did it by faith in future grace. That is, they did it by the assurance of things hoped for. “You had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.”

How did they tap into such beautiful holiness-producing power? “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3:5). They heard a promise such as Psalm 16:11: “In [God’s] presence there is fullness of joy; at [his] right hand are pleasures forevermore.” They embraced this promise of all that God would be for them in Jesus, and the certainty and greatness and extent of this promised reward broke the power of canceled fear and canceled greed and canceled selfishness. They were given the power to act the miracle of the beauty of holiness, the beauty of mercy and compassion, as they risked their possessions and their lives for the all-satisfying reward of God.

On and on the Scriptures go, giving promise after promise of God’s future grace, and breaking the power of sin after sin, and compelling believers into more and more beautiful holiness.

Harmony Between Our Lives and God’s Value

Which brings us back to where we started. I argued at the beginning of this chapter that the beauty of holiness in God’s children is the harmony, or the concord, between our lives and the infinite value of all God is. And I said that God predestined us to holiness because his aim is that earth be filled with the beauty of holiness — the expression of the infinite worth of his transcendent fullness.

On the way to that predestined beauty, we have seen that God canceled the sins of his people by the death of his Son. Then he commanded that we break the power of this canceled sin — that we kill sin and pursue holiness. Then he instructed us to act the miracle of holiness by the power of the Spirit, and to do so because he is at work in us to will and to do this very miracle. He authors it; we act it. Then he showed us that we tap into this sanctifying, sin-killing, holiness-producing power by the hearing of faith — by hearing all that God promises to be for us in Jesus, and embracing this as our supremely satisfying treasure.

The Beauty of Holiness Filling the Earth

Now we can see how this grand process of sanctification is leading us to the predestined glory where the beauty of holiness fills the earth. God has ordained that all the obedience of sanctification — all our holiness — be the obedience of faith, because faith is the soul’s embrace of the infinite worth of the transcendent fullness of the triune God. Which means that at the heart of all Christian obedience, there is an act of the human soul in harmony with the supreme worth of God. This is what makes all Christian obedience holy obedience, which is why one day the earth will be filled with the beauty of holiness. It will be filled with saints.

There will be in the soul of every saint, and in all their outward action, a perfect harmony with the infinite worth of God’s transcendent fullness. Within there will be the soul’s full satisfaction with all that God is for us in Jesus, and without will be the fruit of that faith in perfect love. In that way, the earth will be filled with the beauty of holiness.