Sanctification: The next big debate within the church?

For the first few hundred years of the church’s history the big debate within the church was the nature of Jesus Christ – who, exactly, was he in relation to God? This is where the doctrine of the Trinity came from – as theologians debated and discussed God’s revelation of himself in the Bible. Similar debates have happened through the years. Around 500 years ago, at the time of the Reformation, the debate was about justification: that is, whether justification was sola fide – by faith alone – or whether we co-operated with God in our salvation through good works.

I think we are entering into another debate within the church – this time in the area of sanctification. Sanctification is a theological word which basically means the process by which we become holy – becoming more and more the people who God wants us to be, setting aside sin and increasing our love for him and others.

So why do I think this is going to be the next big debate within the church? Allow me to explain with a particular example.

Earlier on today I watched a video by John Piper:

The video talks about how we should ‘flee youthful passions’ – we should do what we can to avoid things which are sinful, and even things which would cause us to sin. (I should add at this point, I have nothing against John Piper and have benefitted from his books and videos – I am using this video because I think it’s a good example of a wider issue in many churches). Many churches might preach a similar message. What’s the problem with that?

As I see it, there are a few problems:

  • It locates the source of the problem as external to us. This is a problem because we know that the source of the problem is our hearts, from which sin flows (e.g. Mark 7:15). If I see an attractive woman and look at her lustfully, the problem is not with the woman – it’s with me. The problem is our hearts need to be changed, not our circumstances.
  • It’s a self-centred way of looking at sin: it’s about fixing myself, rather than loving God and loving others. Of course, if we sin we will harm others – but I think the Bible calls us to more than avoiding harm!
  • Following on from that – it focusses on ‘stop it’ as a solution to sin – stop thinking the bad thing, stop feeling the bad thing, stop doing the bad thing. It doesn’t think about what we should do instead. So when Paul talks about ‘fleeing’ evil desires – what should we flee to?

All of this has come home to me as I’ve been thinking about my other Friend Zone project. Recently I reviewed Aimee Byrd’s book Why Can’t We Be Friends?, which is subtitled Avoidance is not Purity. As I read that book, and as I’ve been thinking about the issue of friendship between men and women, it has struck me how our understanding of sanctification has become deficient.

Too often I think Christians are so fearful of sin they don’t want to do anything! I was born and raised in evangelical churches, from a Christian home, and yet I think I spent many years of my life scared of sin – scared of just the kind of thing that John Piper talks about in the video. It’s only come home to me in the last few years that we are not to avoid doing what is right out of fear! I think Christians should have more confidence in God, who “has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Peter 1:3).

I believe that our understanding of sanctification is what lies behind much of the debate in the church at the moment around sexuality and particularly same-sex attraction (e.g. the evangelical criticism of the Revoice conference – see a few thoughts I wrote, for example). I don’t want to offer any particular position on that here, other than I think there is an area which could do with further discussion and thinking about what the Bible does and does not say.

The root of the problem seems to be whether we think of sanctification as primarily about stopping doing / thinking / feeling wrong things, or whether we think of sanctification primarily about the transformation of our desires to orient them to love rightly.

You can hear my thoughts about sanctification in this sermon I preached from Galatians 5:13-26 (see below), but if you’d like a book recommendation to explore it further I can think of nothing better than Sinclair Ferguson’s book Devoted to God (as well as his previous book The Whole Christ, which is also well worth reading).

Debates in the church are not necessarily a bad thing: I think the Reformation was a good thing and led to much good fruit. I pray that any upcoming debates on sanctification in the church will lead to more light, and lead the church to grow in holiness and love for the Lord and his people.

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