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In Us, Through Us, As Us

The Christ-life and sanctification

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During the nearly 50 years since I was born again, my understanding of sanctification has grown. I first understood sanctification to be a positional truth, that I was set apart as holy once and for all through God’s work for me the moment I was saved through faith in Christ (Eph. 2:8–9, 1 Cor. 1:2, 6:11, Jude 1). Then I learned that there is an experiential, progressive aspect to sanctification—that I am being made holy through God’s work in me over time (2 Cor. 3:18, 1 Thess. 4:3).

Early in my pastoral ministry, I began to learn about Christ living in me as I struggled with living the Christian life. Part of my education came through discouragement and frustration over failure to live a godly life consistently. I found myself praying, “Why do you tell me to be holy [1 Pet. 1:14–16, 2 Pet. 3:11, Lev. 11:45] when it is impossible for me to do so? I try and I do succeed a little but not as much I’d like.”

Finally, I said, “God, you saved me by grace through faith but you’ve left me to paddle my own canoe when it comes to Christian living. I can’t do it, but I want to! What’s wrong with me? Am I really saved?” It was a real Romans 7:14–25 moment, which I learned later was my “crisis” experience of sanctification. I was to find out that I could not live the Christian life in my own strength.

God answered me in my struggle with my lack of holiness through a new (to me) translation of the Bible: The New Testament, An Expanded Translation by Kenneth S. Wuest (Eerdmans). In Matthew 17:2a, Wuest translates the word “transfigured” as follows: “And the manner of His outward expression was changed, that expression coming from and representative of His inner being.” When Jesus was transfigured, deity was outwardly expressed through Him. I then realized that as I saw Jesus in the New Testament, I was seeing the very life and character of God the Father outwardly expressed through Christ (John 14:8–9).

This led me to 2 Corinthians 4:5–12, where Paul says that Jesus lived in him, and it was Jesus that was manifested in his mortal flesh; deity was seen through Paul. Then I checked Romans 12:2 and found that Wuest translated the words “be transformed” as “change your outward expression to one that comes from within and is representative of your inner being.” Wow! God the Father lived in and through Jesus, and Jesus lives in and through me! That’s why Paul said in Galatians 2:20: “. . . nevertheless I live, yet not I but Christ lives in me and the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”

A few years later, I experienced one of many examples of what “Christ in me” meant when my family and I were traveling on home assignment. We had visited Astroworld in Houston, where our youngest son, Andrew (then about nine years old), bought a souvenir cap. On the way to our next destination, we stopped to eat. We got back in the car, and about 25 miles down the road, I noticed Andrew in the back seat silently crying, tears running down his cheeks.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I left my Astroworld cap in the men’s room,” he said.

My natural instinct was—and still is—always to be in a hurry and especially to be punctual (or even a little early). Ordinarily, I would just tell Andrew, “Tough it out! We can’t run late.”

But in an instant I saw an exit—and drove back to the restaurant. Andrew ran in and came out with the biggest smile on his face. He had his cap!

I, my son and the whole family had experienced me, under the control of the Holy Spirit, manifesting (outwardly expressing) the patience and love of Jesus in my mortal flesh. Some would say, “That was just you doing right.” I say, “That was Christ in me, as me.” We all experienced my inner life—Christ (Phil. 1:21). Since then, more Scripture has shown Christ living in and through me: for example, 2 Corinthians 3:18 and 4:6–12, Philippians 2:12-13, Colossians1:27, 1 Thessalonians 5:23–24, Hebrews 13:20–21.

Here is my challenge to everyone in ministry in The Alliance: Do we believe and teach what the Scripture teaches—that Jesus is our life and that He lives in and through us? Do we believe and teach that in the same way God the Father was in Christ, Christ is in us? We do not become God, but we really can outwardly express His Son. This is liberating truth that every Christian we minister to needs to know, believe and experience. Jesus is our substitute for salvation and He is our substitute for godly Christian living; our Savior from the penalty of sin and our Savior from the power of sin!

In my lifelong experience of sanctification, I’m learning daily that I can’t live it in my own strength; only Christ can live it. I do not become more holy day by day—Christ lives His holiness in, through and as me. It’s a continuing crisis, day in and day out. No more trying to be holy—I look to Christ to be holy through me (Rom. 12:2). No more trying to live the Christian life—I look for Christ to live it through me (Gal. 2:20). No more trying to produce the Fruit of the Spirit with His help—I look for Christ to be the fruit through me in the power of the Holy Spirit (John 15:4–5; Gal. 5:22–23). No more striving to will and to do God’s good pleasure—I look for Jesus to will and do it through me (Phil. 2:12–13). No more trying to love and give myself for others—I look for Christ to love and give Himself for others through me (Gal. 2:20). No more trying, striving, struggling to overcome the power of sin—I look to Jesus to overcome evil with good through me (Rom. 12:21), a believer who is being transformed (Rom. 12:2).

Finally, God has shown me that progressive sanctification is not my becoming more holy but that it is simply and profoundly the holiness of Jesus being manifested more and more in my mortal flesh. When Jesus said “without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), I don’t believe He was saying “without my help you can do nothing” but rather “without my doing the doing through you, you can do nothing that pleases or glorifies me or my Father.” This fits with what ought to be our ministry of grace—the centrality of Christ (Col.1:18), that He in all things has preeminence.

We must preach Christ crucified for the salvation of lost sinners (1 Cor. 2:2), but it is the message of Christ in, through, and as us that is sorely needed in the Church. This deeper understanding of sanctification will set believers free from struggling to live a godly life and bring them to spiritual maturity (Col.1:24–29). Truly, this is grace for salvation and grace for Christian living.

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