Part 1. Christ our Sanctification: The Reformed View of Mortification and Vivification by Grace

Taken from, Chapter 1. Sanctification via Union With Christ
Written by, John Hendryx

luz_mundoGod chose what is low and despised in the world…

…even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 cor 1:28-31)

I often think that our continued sanctification is not unlike our original conversion experience. The more we grow in grace, the more we lose all confidence in ourselves. It seems, somewhat ironically, that as Christ works sanctification in us, the greater is our recognition of our own sinfulness. It is as if Christ actually shines more light in previously dark, hidden places of the heart. And it seems He does this for a purpose, for, as we come face to face with our own corruption, we are again driven back to Christ as our righteousness, holiness and redemption, our all in all…our only hope before God. So it turns out that sanctification is much less about our own spirituality as much more about Christ and Him becoming greater. Christ commanded us to partake of Communion “till He come” and one reason for this is so we would continually focus our eyes less on what we do for Him, and more on what He has done for us, and relish it. What we do in response to Him is only penultimate or secondary. The most critical error we make as believers is to look in ourselves for something that can only be found in Christ.

The Bible teaches that the principal means of the believer’s sanctification is union with Christ.

We are united to Christ in his death and resurrection in which He, as its first fruits, inaugurated the new creation. The Age to come presses into this Age in such a way as to bring kingdom benefits to those united to Him. We do not grow in our sanctification when we are overly focused on our own spirituality. These blessings come only as we gaze on the beauty and excellency of Christ. We are united to Him in such a way that his death is viewed as our death and his resurrection ours. (Rom 6:1-11) The identification is complete in Christ, who is our life! We must, therefore, never separate the Benefactor (Jesus Christ) from benefits of redemption, including our sanctification.

Dr. Sinclair Ferguson explains,

“Union with Christ in his death and resurrection is the element of union which Paul most extensively expounds…if we are united to Christ, then we are united to him at all points of his activity on our behalf. We share in his death (we were baptized into his death), in his resurrection (we are resurrected with Christ), in his ascension (we have been raised with him), in his heavenly session (we sit with him in heavenly places, so that our life is hidden with Christ in God), and we will share in his promised return (when Christ, who is our life, appears, we also will appear with him in glory) (Rom. 6:14; Col. 2:11-12; 3:1-3). This, then, is the foundation of sanctification in Reformed theology. It is rooted, not in humanity and their achievement of holiness or sanctification, but in what God has done in Christ, and for us in union with him. Rather than view Christians first and foremost in the microcosmic context of their own progress, the Reformed doctrine first of all sets them in the macrocosm of God’s activity in redemptive history. It is seeing oneself in this context that enables the individual Christian to grow in true holiness…The Christians who are most focused on their own spirituality may give the impression of being the most spiritual … but from the New Testament’s point of view, those who have almost forgotten about their own spirituality because their focus is so exclusively on their union with Jesus Christ and what He has accomplished are those who are growing and exhibiting fruitfulness. Historically speaking, whenever the piety of a particular group is focused on OUR spirituality that piety will eventually exhaust itself on its own resources. Only where our piety forgets about ourself and focuses on Jesus Christ will our piety nourished by the ongoing resources the Spirit brings to us from the source of all true piety, our Lord Jesus Christ.”

As long as we live in this world of sin, we should let it drive us to Him.

The Scripture clearly states that Christ is our sanctification. The whole of Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension have provided to us a deposit of His own sanctified life, from which all our needs can be supplied. So we feed on Him in the Eucharist as a visible gospel, where He communes with us in a spiritual way. Because of our union with Him, we partake of His resources. That is why he can “become for us” sanctification, just as he is also our wisdom, righteousness and redemption (I Cor. 1:30).

With this in mind, John Calvin once said:

“We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ [Acts 4:12]. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else. If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it is ‘of him’ [I Cor. 1:30]. If we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, they will be found in his anointing. If we seek strength, it lies in his dominion; if purity, in his conception; if gentleness, it appears in his birth. For by his birth he was made like us in all respects [Heb. 2:17] that he might learn to feel our pain [compare to Heb. 5:2]. If we seek redemption, it lies in his passion; if acquittal, in his condemnation; if remission of the curse, in his cross [Gal. 3:13]; if satisfaction, in his sacrifice; if purification, in his blood; if reconciliation, in his descent into hell; if mortification of the flesh, in his tomb; if newness of life, in his resurrection; if immortality, in the same; if inheritance of the Heavenly Kingdom, in his entrance into heaven; if protection, if security if abundant supply of all blessings, in his Kingdom; if untroubled expectation of judgment; in the power given to him to judge. In short, since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from the fountain, and from no other.”(2.16.18.)

We grow in grace by looking to Christ, not ourselves for our spiritual nourishment.

We would exhaust ourselves very quickly on our own resources because God requires holy perfection from us and we fall woefully short. Since all we do has mixed motives and we seldom if ever love others as we should, we can confidently say that we do not bring anything of additional worth to our relationship with God. He is fully satisfied in Christ. Yes, as Protestants, we all should know that we are declared righteous because of our union with Christ but few consider that we are also sanctified in the same way. The gospel not only justifies us but the gospel is also what we run back to in order to sanctify us. Justification, where God has already fully accepted us based on Christ’s alien righteousness is what he has done for us, but sanctification is what He progressively does in us. This is also a gift of grace appropriated by faith. The difference in our standing before and after salvation is that we have the Spirit indwelling us constantly renewing our affections which delight in His law and drive us to feed on Christ.

The power of the Holy Spirit working in us is never to be the basis of our relationship with God because the imputation of Christ’s righteousness already sees us as holy before Him.

Thus when you long for His acceptance just look to Christ, whose blood of the covenant “reminds God” not to treat us as our sins deserve.

You will never be holy enough, even for an instant, on your own. Christ alone is your righteousness.

But each day subjectively the Spirit is also uniting you to the nourishment of Christ, who imparts life to you from the root. God desires that you grow in conformity to Jesus Christ. He even “predestined us to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29) He purifies you so that you would be eager to obey and delight in Him. As we lose confidence in self, we gain confidence in Christ and the Spirit experimentally imparts life to us daily so that we might see more of our own unrighteousness and be willing to forsake it in glad obedience to Him. This is as much a gift of grace as is our justification. We respond, yet the response is wrought by the life of grace that we now partake of in Christ. “His commands are not burdensome”(1 john 5:3) because in Christ we now view them as holy and good (Rom 7:12).

The prophet Ezekiel, inspired by the Holy Spirit, expresses it thus:

“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27).

Please do not misunderstand me. I believe that true Christians will obey God because they have had their affections changed, yet, as A. W. Pink once said, “it is not the absence of sin but the grieving over it which distinguishes the child of God from empty professors….[for] to mortify the lusts of the flesh, to be crucified unto the world, to overcome the Devil, to die daily unto sin and live unto righteousness, to be meek and lowly in heart, trustful and obedient, pious and patient, faithful and uncompromising, loving and gentle; in a word, to be a Christian, to be Christ-like, is a task far, far beyond the poor resources of fallen human nature.” We can neither look to ourselves for the native resources to exercise faith or obedience to God’s law. Both require renewal of heart and a daily abiding in Christ.

The Word as a Means of Grace

The Puritan Richard Sibbes said, “The Word and the Spirit go together. Therefore if we will have the comforts of the Spirit, we must attend upon the Word.” It is indeed we ourselves who obey God’s imperatives, yet it is because of the Spirit that He put within us that we even have the heart to do so. The Holy Spirit has conquered our hatred of the light, disarmed our hostility to God and moves within us to desire His law. To grow into His likeness more and more, let us constantly feed ourselves on the reading of the Word, looking into the face of Christ as it were, and put ourselves before good exposition of the Word, for this is the outward means the Spirit uses to bring us into conformity to his likeness (2 Cor 3:18). This means taking our eyes of of self and our own spirituality. So Let us always pray that the Spirit removes our faithlessness and illumines our minds that we might to grow in out Knowledge of Him in the Revelation He has given us. Again John Calvin said,

“Indeed the Word of God is like the sun, shining upon all those to whom it is proclaimed, but with no effect among the blind. Now, all of us are blind by nature in this respect… Accordingly, it cannot penetrate into our minds unless the Spirit, as the inner teacher, through his illumination makes entry for it.” (Calvin’s Institutes 3.2.34.)

Only the Holy Spirit (applying Christ’s work) is equal to the task of sanctification in us.

We are commanded and are indeed responsible to put on and act out Christ like character, but these are fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22), not of the flesh. That means they work themselves out in us as the Spirit unites us to Christ, not through our sheer willpower or exertion. While responsible to obey and exert all of our energy, we are also dependent on Him to obey. All spiritual blessings are ours in Christ (Eph 1:3) and apart from Him we can do nothing.

“Dependence” is the key word here.

The more we depend on Christ, the less we do on self, and our own resources. So sanctification is all about Christ becoming greater and we becoming less. It is worthwhile to remember that sanctification does not earn merit for us. Christ’s merit alone plus nothing is sufficient. He is “our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” The regenerate person loves the law, not as a savior, but because it perfectly reflects the heart of the Savior.