Theologians like big words. They like to analyze. They like to wrap things up in a system that covers all eventualities. There are big books of systematic theology that are read by Bible students. For most Christians such tomes are extremely boring and have no apparent relationship to their everyday life.
For most of us the instruction, “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31) is good enough. We believe and we are saved.
If we are asked the question, “What do you believe about the Lord Jesus Christ?” we answer that we believe that he died on the cross to take away our sins. The theologians call this Justification. As an aide-memoir we often say ‘just-as-if-I’d never sinned’. In the Bible this is pictured by baptism – a good all-over wash.
One of the problems that we face is that although we may feel clean and changed after we are converted, we soon slip back into our old ways. Even those who seem to be going on very well in their Christian walk are conscious of the imperfection of their lives. We fall short of the standards of Jesus. In fact the Bible confirms that: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (I John 1:8). John is writing to Christians – it is clear that Christians go on sinning after conversion.
The way that the Early Church dealt with this was to take upon itself the care of souls. Minor sins could be dealt with by taking part in the communion service, major ones by confessing to a priest and performing a penance, thus receiving absolution. Later, certainly since St Augustine, this became formalized in what its disparagers call ‘priestcraft’. The priest was endowed with special powers: the power to turn the bread and wine into the body and blood; the power to forgive sins and give absolution; the power to say masses for the souls of the dead. Since these powers reside only within the Catholic Church, the Church becomes a secular power. It is the abuse of this power in the sale of indulgences – get out of jail fee cards – to the relatives of sinners to release their souls from purgatory to heaven that prompted Martin Luther to revolt, and attempt to reform the Church.
One of the great questions that the Reformers addressed was how believers are made holy. It is clear that the new creation pictured in Revelation as the New Jerusalem is a Holy place with no hiding place for sin: “Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful.” (Rev 21:27) If Christians remain prone to sin how can they ever enter heaven?
The first answer is in the theologians’ word “regeneration”. The English translation may be more familiar – “born again”. Jesus tells of its absolute necessity, “Jesus declared, ‘I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again’ “. (John 3:3). Paul’s letter to Titus tells us that we were saved through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). The word ‘washing’ here has led some to believe that our new life is worked by baptism – one form of baptismal service has the words, “this child is now regenerate”. Baptism certainly symbolizes the new birth – going down into the water symbolizes death to the old life and coming out symbolizes being born again – but the new birth is ascribed to the Holy Spirit; only He can make it happen. However, Romans chapter 7 tells us of the continuing struggle within between the old self and the new self. Even St Paul was conscious of it.
The second answer is in the theologians’ word “sanctification” which means “made holy”. It should be plain by now that I have no truck with the idea that this is anything to do with priestcraft. No-one can be made holy by magic, whether it is by sprinkling on of holy water, attendance at mass, auricular confession, penance, or priestly absolution. Sanctification is also the work of the Holy Spirit. Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “May the God of peace sanctify you through and through.” (I Thess 5:23) and to the Ephesians, “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being.” (Eph 3:16).
His letter to the Romans puts it completely: “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you. Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” (Romans 8:9-14)
But while sanctification is the work of God, it is a work in which believers are required to co-operate. Notice the ‘you have an obligation’ in the passage from Romans. And in Romans 12:1-2 Paul tells us “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
As soon as we talk about our co-operation with the Holy Spirit we run the risk of boasting of our good works. You can see it: Jesus takes the blame and shame for our sins; we take the credit for our good works. It cannot be stressed too much; sanctification is the work of God. It is attendant on justification; without our first being justified we cannot be sanctified. Similarly, we cannot be made holy unless we have been born again. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who is the source of our new birth and our sanctification, occurs at conversion. We may be privileged to co-operate with the Spirit of God; we may be obligated to do so; but we can only co-operate with Him by virtue of the strength that the Spirit imparts.
Sanctification partly takes place in our subconscious life, but inasmuch as it takes place in our conscious lives it does so through the constant exercise of faith, which the Spirit provides, by the Study of the Word, which the Spirit interprets, in prayer which the Spirit aids and the association of other believers whom the Spirit indwells.
Sanctification is usually a lengthy process. For some death occurs immediately after conversion and for them we must assume that sanctification is complete at death, but for others it is not complete until death. James tells us that we all stumble in many ways (James 3:2). While Wesleyan teaching and that of others claimed that sinless perfection is obtainable in this life. That this is not so is borne out by experience of life and more importantly by St Paul’s own testimony near the end of his life, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:12-14)
This is what I believe, but this life is not a course in advanced level theology and no-one gets to heaven by passing an examination in the subject. I am sure there are many Christians with a different understanding of theology – perhaps they have been brought up in a different tradition. What matters is how you work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12) – not a reference to salvation by works, but to the expression of one’s salvation in spiritual growth and development.