“Say These Words…”

During the terrorist incident in Mali this past week, many hostages died. But one hostage was let go after an Islamic attacker told him to recite verses from the Koran. 1 This reminded me of an episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown where he was at the wailing wall in Jerusalem. Anthony said he didn’t believe in a higher power. But after finding out he was a Jew, a rabbi quickly grabbed him, strapped on a phylactory, and got him to recite the words of a bar-mitzvah blessing.

I think it’s pretty obvious the freed hostage did not become a Muslim merely by reciting verses from the Koran, just as Anthony Bourdain did not become a practicing Jew and believer in God merely by reciting the words of a blessing. Words are just words. They don’t have the power to do anything… and they are very often said in vain.

Yet many people believe they will get to heaven because they said the words of a “sinner’s prayer” at some point in their lives. It’s as if the words had some kind of miraculous power to save. But this is unbiblical. There is no command or example in the scriptures that show salvation comes by means of saying certain words. 2 Salvation is a gift from God, and it comes by grace through faith. Faith can be expressed by the words of a prayer (written or not), but it is not the words that save. God saves, and He does so in response to from-the-heart faith.

This goes beyond salvation. Living the Christian life is also by faith, not words. Christians do not grow by speaking affirmations, positive words, or blessings. Only God has the power to cause things to happen by speaking them into existence. We don’t. Our part is to trust God in every situation we find ourselves in and to obey Him, leaving the results in His hands.

The saved have already been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms 3. To believe otherwise is to buy into a lie like the one Eve fell for: God is withholding good from you.

Notes:

  1. http://www.foxnews.com/world/2015/11/20/mali-hotel-attack/
  2. The first part of Romans 10:9 is not about repeating the words “Jesus is Lord”, but about testifying to His lordship in your life. But notice the requirement for faith in Jesus (“…believe in your heart…”). This faith requirement is repeated throughout the New Testament, but mouthing words is not.
  3. Ephesians 1:3

Zombie Ants and the Flesh

For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I do not wish to do, that I do; moreover, what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I do not wish to do, I agree with the Law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I doing it, but sin that dwells in me.

– Romans 7:15-17 (VW)

Paul struggled with sin, even after he was saved. He wanted to do good by obeying the Law, but he found he was not able to. No matter how hard he tried, he kept doing what he didn’t want to do. It was like he had two natures: one that rejoiced in God’s law, and another that held him hostage to things he now found abhorrent.

Paul was not making excuses for his sin when he said, “It is no longer I doing it, but sin that dwells in me.” He was admitting there was something in him that prevented him from obeying God. It was like he was possessed, …not by an evil spirit, but by his old sin nature. There’s an interesting picture of this in the life cycle of the lancet fluke.

The lancet fluke (dicrocoelium dendriticum) is a parasite that infects different creatures at different stages in its life. Adult lancet flukes live in ruminant animals such as sheep or cattle, but how they get there seems like something out of a budget horror movie.

An adult fluke lays eggs in the bile ducts of its host. The eggs move to the intestines and then leave the animal in the droppings. The eggs remain unhatched until a particular variety of snail ingests the droppings. Once inside the snail, the hatchlings (mericida) replicate into many more sporocysts, and then into larvae called cercariae. These larvae eventually migrate to the snail’s respiratory system where they produce slime balls. The snail sheds these slime balls and larvae as they move along.

Now remember, the adult lancet fluke lives in a cow or sheep. How do the larvae make their way back into these animals so they can complete their life-cycle? I’m glad you asked!

Along comes a particular variety of ant looking for a source of moisture. It finds a larvae-infested slime ball, and eats it. And this is where things get weird.

Inside the ant, the larvae again transform into hundreds of metacercariae that live in the ant’s gut. But after living there for some time, a single metacarcaria leaves its siblings and heads for the ant’s sub-esophageal ganglion where it takes control of the ant’s actions. The ant is now a zombie, unable to function as a normal ant.

During the day, the zombie ant appears to act like a normal ant and works with the other ants. But in the evening, the zombie ant leaves the others, climbs to the top of a blade of grass, and holds on to it with its jaws all night until morning. It then returns to its fellow ants for the rest of the day as if nothing happened. The next evening and the next, it climbs to the top of a blade of grass, until a chance cow or sheep comes by, eats the grass with the ant, and returns the parasite back to a large host. It then fully matures, mates, and produces eggs, closing the cycle of life.

Does the zombie ant truly want to get eaten? Of course not. But it can’t help itself. It is no longer the ant doing what it wants to do, but the lancet fluke that dwells within dictating what the ant’s actions. (Here’s a cartoon version of this cycle.)

I see in these zombie ants a picture of ourselves when we allow our fallen nature to control our thoughts and actions. The illustration isn’t perfect, as the whole human race has been infected since the fall, but it’s close enough. When Jesus saved us, He gave us His Holy Spirit to overcome our sinful fallen nature. But we need to give Him control instead of letting our little parasitic nature run our lives. Like the lancet fluke’s control of the ant, allowing our sin nature to run things leads to death, but letting the Holy Spirit run things leads to life.

How To Gain Victory Over Sin – Additional Notes

Here are some additional notes that didn’t make it into the book, but may appear in a second edition. How To Gain Victory Over Sin was intended to draw attention to the most neglected, yet essential part of resisting temptation, but it isn’t the only important part. You should also spend time with other like-minded believers where you can share each other’s struggles and burdens, pray for, and encourage one another. Each member of the Body of Christ needs the others to grow.

Book location Notes
Page 4
“He begins with our need for salvation…”
Our need can be seen in Romans 2:1-6, our inability to save ourselves in Romans 3:9-20, and God’s solution to our problem in Romans 3:21-26.
Page 6
“Only after salvation…”
Another clue that Paul is saved is in verse 17: “So now it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwells in me.” It used to be Paul sinning, but it was no longer. This can only be said by the regenerate.
Page 7
“We all need…”
Some believers, by God’s grace, recognize from the beginning of salvation the futility of living in the flesh. They rely on the Holy Spirit right away. But this is not true of most believers. It wasn’t true of Paul.
Page 8
Footnote 13
Also remember Paul wanted to do good, and chapter 6 shows it is God’s will that we do good. So this victory is a practical one.
Page 9
Footnote 15
Some translations include an additional phrase in verse 1: “…who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit.” This verse begins with the word “therefore,” which always looks back to what has already been said. Paul refers back to the last time he mentioned the Holy Spirit in Romans 7:6. The verses between there and here contain a parenthetical argument showing the insufficiency of the Law to restrain sin, and hence our need for the Spirit. Also, remember this condemnation is self-condemnation (as in 1 John 3:20). Paul had just spoken of his sense of wretchedness in conquering sin, not about God judging him for his sin. Walking in the Spirit has nothing to do with justifying us in God’s eyes. That only happens through faith in what Jesus has accomplished.
Page 10
“He condemned sin in the flesh”
I take this to mean Jesus condemned sin in His own physical body. He kept Himself from sin.
Page 10
“The Mosaic law… empowers sin…”
The Law empowers sin like food empowers cancer. Food is always good, but if you have cancer, those cancer cells feed off the same nutrients as your healthy cells… and the cancer cells eventually take over the healthy cells – never the other way around. The Law does not cause sin, just as food does not cause cancer, but it does empower it. That’s its purpose, so that sin might become “exceedly sinful” (Romans 7:13).
Page 10
“…this law of sin and death that is already in us…”
Justification does not remove the sin nature. Suppose you are a kleptomaniac – someone with the urge to steal things. You go to court because you got caught stealing. If the judge pardons you, you have been justified from the crime… but you still have the urge to steal. In the same way, you still have sinful desires even though you have been justified of your sins. The Holy Spirit was given to enable you to overcome those wrong desires.
Page 11
Footnote 23
As much as we would like, the Spirit usually does not remove the lusts of the flesh. But it is sufficient that He enables us to resist them.
Page 11
“…because the mind of your natural self is an incorrigible rebel against God…”
This will seem shocking to those not familiar with Romans. The flesh will revolt against this! I’m uncomfortable with this! But that is what the following scripture (Romans 8:7-8) says.
Page 12
Footnote 24
Romans 7:18 is the point I’m getting across: “For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing…” Also, in Romans 7:23, Paul writes: “I see a different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity under the law of sin which is in my members.” (Some translations say “carnally minded” in Romans 8:7. “Carnal” is the same word elsewhere translated “flesh”. Unfortunately, translating the word differently here tends to obscure the meaning.)
Page 12
Footnote 26
Be careful that you don’t view the Holy Spirit as a tool in your hands. The Holy Spirit is God. You don’t wield His power, you submit to Him.
Page 13
“While it’s certainly better…”
Resisting sin deals with the manifestations of the flesh, while sanctification deals with the flesh itself. Both are needed, but in terms of sanctification, we must place all our hope in God’s power.
Page 13
“…unless the root is dealt with, sin will keep coming back.”
James 1:14-15 says the lust (desire) of the flesh leads to sin, but sin when it has matured leads to death. This is why Paul says if you live by the flesh, you must die. It is the end result of this natural progression.
Page 13
“Just as…”
And both are appropriated through faith.
Page 13
“Your sanctification is God’s on-going work”
See Philippians 2:12-13 “…For it is God who works in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure.” Also, Colossians 1:29: “…according to His working…” Following Jesus is both easy (Matthew 11:28-30) and difficult… the difficulty lies entirely in the struggle with the flesh – putting it to death. But this the Holy Spirit equips us to do (Romans 8:13).
Page 13
“We’ll look…”
Another shocking paragraph. The “Don’t beat yourself up…” sentence is probably the most of all, but it is the logical conclusion when you consider God is the one who sanctifies us.
Page 13
“I’m not against works…”
We must learn to recognize the source of each of our works. Whatever we do, we need to ask ourselves: “Is this of the Spirit or the flesh?” If it is of the Spirit, then don’t quench or down-play it. But if it is of the flesh, it needs to be put to death by the Spirit.
Page 13
Footnote 27
Again, Paul not interrupting his topic with something totally out of the blue, i.e. the resurrection of our physical bodies. “Mortal bodies” means the bodies we are living in right now. Our resurrection bodies are immortal.
Page 14
“A chapter 6 believer…”
Some believers never even make it to chapter 6. They are the ones who presume on grace, and live like the world. Works of any kind are seen as unnecessary – even wrong. Yet, God saved us so that we could do the good works He has planned for us (Ephesians 2:8-10). Good works do not lead to salvation, but they do procede from it.
Page 14
“A chapter 7 believer…”
If you think lawkeeping is easy, read Matthew 5:17-43. The Law primarily deals with the heart, which is desperately wicked.
Page 14
“A chapter 8 believer…”
This believer is also enabled to live up to the Chapter 6 standard. Real victory happens for him. He realizes we are “more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Romans 8:37, compare with Romans 7:24-25).
Page 15
Footnote 35
You will always serve a master – either the flesh or the Spirit. If you are not submitted to the Holy Spirit, then you are in slavery to the flesh. You cannot make the flesh your slave or make your fleshly mind serve you.
Page 16
“If your focus is…”
Not that trying in general is bad. It is the law-focused variety that is bad for believers because we live by faith. But law-focused trying for non-believers can be good if it leads to conviction of sin and the realization that law-keeping is impossible. Romans 3:20 says, “…through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” This is not just the knowledge of what sin is, but the revealing of the sin that is in ourselves. The Law is an essential part of the gospel (Galatians 3:24, 2:19, Romans 7:7).
Page 16
Footnote 37
“Flesh” here is easily seen not to be our carnal desires but simply our natural power, will, ability, etc. The flesh is what I can do, as contrasted with what God can do.
Page 16
“…there’s a war…”
Remember Romans 7:23 (“I see a different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind…”). Also, Galatians 5:17 says, “For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, that you may not do the things that you desire.” (This ties with the earlier note for page 12.)
Page 17
Footnote 38
The next verse is also important to remember: “Let us not be weary in doing good, for we will reap in due season, if we don’t give up.” We do not reap what we sow right away. This principle works both ways. We think because we haven’t suffered any consequences of living in the flesh right away, we got away with it, but that is not so. Sowing to the flesh will eventually come back to bite us. And as is with nature, the harvest is always greater than what was sown. (Remember these three principles of sowing and reaping: you always reap of the same kind, there is a gap in time between sowing and reaping, and you reap more than you sow.)
Page 17
Footnote 39
It is easy to focus too much on grace or too much on the Law. The Bible must be understood as a whole, without focusing on pet doctrines. For example, Jesus said not the slightest part of the Law would pass away until the end. Paul said the Law has been abolished. Both are correct, for Paul was speaking of the Law in relation to living for God’s approval – for salvation. The Law is the standard, but it is not a means. Arguments arise when each party looks at only a portion of scripture instead of the whole. You must understand that no biblical doctrine conflicts with another, so don’t set one passage against another. Instead, study to understand it so that it all harmonizes together.
Page 17
Footnote 39
Also see Galatians 2:19, 5:18. The Mosaic Law applies to the flesh. When the flesh dies, the Law is no longer needed to control it.
Page 17
Footnote 40
The effort we expend in sanctification is focused not so much on keeping commands as on denying ourselves and crucifying the flesh through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:12-13). Without this, we won’t be able to keep His commands. Sin is the outward manifestation of an inner problem. As long as we allow the mind of the flesh to operate, sin will result. To gain practical victory over sin, the fleshly nature needs to be addressed. Otherwise, we’re just attempting to cover up the symptoms.
Sanctification involves active dependence upon the Spirit to become aware of the fleshly mindset behind the sins in our lives (like Psalm 139:23-24). It includes confession of those areas as they are revealed, and trust in God to not only forgive those things, but to sanctify us (1 John 1:9). It involves relying on the Spirit to be able to say “No!” to the flesh – to put the flesh to death. It involves the ‘reckoning’ of Romans 6:10-11, and the ‘presenting’ of our bodies as instruments of righteousness to God (Romans 6:13, 12:1). It involves relying on His power to obey. All of this requires some effort on our part, but it is the Holy Spirit who grants the success in these efforts. As such, keeping Jesus’ commands is the result of walking in the Spirit, not the means to walking in the Spirit.
Page 18
“It is the Spirit of Christ actually living through us…”
The Greek word for actor is ‘hypocrite’. Don’t act like Christ. Be real: Let Christ live through you by His Holy Spirit.
Page 19
“Fruit is the evidence…”
You cannot fake this fruit. No amount of self-effort will produce it. But you can produce counterfeits that might convince yourself or others.
Page 19
“We can’t do it on our own.”
Our dependence on the Spirit to live as Christians is sprinkled throughout the New Testament. Many of us (myself included) tend to gloss over the phrase “in the Spirit” or “by the Spirit” is superfluous in passages such as Ephesians 6:18, Colossians 1:8, Philippians 3:3, 1 Peter 4:6, and Romans 8:13. But we need to realize we can’t do it on our own. This takes mental discipline, which comes in the continual, conscious reliance on God’s power in us to live holy lives. There’s awareness that without Him we can do nothing, but with Him we can do all things. We must continually look to God to daily provide what is needed in us to live in the manner He desires. We never come to the point where we think we’ve matured enough to obey on our own. And we seek to avoid whatever hinders (grieves) this dependent relationship with God.
Page 20
Footnote 51
It is possible to think we have let go of the flesh when we haven’t really. Sometimes God lets us struggle on in our own strength until we truly give up on our flesh before He empowers us with the Holy Spirit. It is dishonest to intend to give credit to God for what you attempt in your own strength (Luke 18:11-12).
Page 22
“Romans 6 will no longer appear to be full of impossibilities.”
Romans 8:20 says the creation has been subjected to vanity. As a result of man’s fall into sin and the resulting curse (Genesis 3:17-19), we find our efforts in bettering and preserving ourselves continually frustrated, and ultimately unsuccessful, especially in regards to spiritual matters. (This ties with the condemnation of the Law in Romans 3:19 and the curse of the Law in Galatians 3:10.) But now we have received the “first-fruits of the Spirit” (verse 23). The Holy Spirit undoes the work of the curse, and our effort is no longer subject to frustration as we walk in the Spirit. It is now possible to successfully resist temptation. This benefit is only the beginning of what we will eventually receive, leading to the redemption of our bodies (verse 23).
Page 23
Footnote 58
A sacrifice is always of something good, not of evil. This sacrifice is not just the giving up of one or more sins, but the giving up of what you want to do to God.
Page 24
Step 1.c and 1.d
When I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:10). Outside of Christ, I can do nothing (John 15:4-5). In Christ, I can do all things (Philippians 4:13).
Page 24
Step 3
“You don’t have, because you don’t ask.” (James 4:2)
Page 24
“God always provides a way of escape from temptation.”
Jesus told us to ask our heavenly Father to “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13). Some translations say “evil one”, but “one” is not in the original language. We need God’s help to protect us, not only from the evil that can happen to us, but from the evil we can do.
Page 25
“…real fellowship with God…”
“the Spirit of truth … You know him, for he lives with you, and will be in you.” (John 14:17)
Page 26
Footnote 64
If you have been born again, there should be evidence of the Holy Spirit in you. What evidences do you see in your life? Do other people notice you are becoming more like Christ? (Don’t be self-deceived into thinking you are making progress if nobody can see it.) There should be spiritual fruit developing, progress towards Christ-likeness, an increasing grief and abhorance of personal sin, and increasing love, trust, and obedience for Jesus Christ. The world should have less of a hold on you, and there should be an increasing burden for the lost. There won’t be perfection, and you may have occasional setbacks, but there should not be stagnation.
You should be able to perceive the Holy Spirit in you, just as you can perceive you are alive. One purpose of the Spirit is to testify that we are children of God (1 John 5:10, Romans 8:16, 1 Corinthians 6:19). The word for “know” in that last reference is eido, which means the knowledge of perception, not the knowledge of doctrine or learning. Eido means to see. You should be able to detect the Holy Spirit in you, not as a feeling, but through His work in your life.
If you don’t have the Holy Spirit, but you think you should, are you truly saved? Were you ‘saved’ as a result of something you did (i.e. agreed with a doctrine, asked Jesus to come into your heart, etc.), or because of something God did in response to your faith? Are you born of God?
Page 46 Taking on Christ’s yoke and carrying His burden implies effort on our part. However, the thing about His yoke (as with any yoke) is that it makes the work we are to do easier. Many Christians act like the yoke or burden is the Law. But Peter basically ruled this out in Acts 15:10. I understand His yoke to be the Holy Spirit, who helps us in our weakness, and the burden to be the work God has for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).
Page 71
Footnote 147
The things these people did was not how they came to be Spirit-led. It was the result of being Spirit-led.

If you get a chance, I recommend some other books that may be more helpful to you in your walk with Jesus and struggle with the flesh:

Absolute Surrender by Andrew Murray

The Calvary Road and/or We Would See Jesus by Roy Hession

The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee

“If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”

– Luke 11:13

Beware Of Leaven

… When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” … Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

– Matthew 16:1-12 (ESV)

The Pharisees and Sadducees are no longer with us, but their leaven is. You can’t see it, but you can see its effect.

Most bread today is leavened with plain yeast. But yeast in packets or jars was not available until relatively recently. Leavening in Bible times was accomplished by using a bit of dough from the previous batch to seed the next batch. We know this today as sour-dough. Chametz is the Hebrew word for bread made this way, which means sour, fermented.

Sourdough starterBread dough is inflated through the action of yeast and bacterial spores which produce carbon dioxide by converting the sugars in the flour to alcohols. Yeast is a living organism, and as it reproduces, it takes over the whole lump of dough (1 Corinthians 5:6 “a little leaven leaves the whole lump”).

In the Bible, leaven is first mentioned in connection with the Passover. God told the Hebrews to bake unleavened bread, because in the rush to leave Egypt, there would not be enough time to let the bread rise. 1

Once a year at Passover, the Jews got rid of the old sour-dough. God had commanded Israel to do this, but He gave no such command to the Gentiles. Today there are some famous sour-dough cultures that have been alive for tens or hundreds of years. The most famous is probably the one used to make San Francisco sour-dough bread. There are also well-known cultures from Naples that upscale pizzerias use.

In Matthew 16, Jesus was not condemning physical leaven. He was using leaven to represent teachings that ‘infect’ our thoughts – that start out small but eventually take over our whole mindset. The leaven of the Pharisees was one of hyper-legalism. It probably began hundreds of years before Christ with a few small commands intended to help people avoid sin, but it quickly expanded to the point where it virtually replaced the Law. Similarly, even today with our secular law, we see it is very easy to add more and more laws and regulations to the system, but very hard to remove them. (And the laws we add seem powerless to reduce crime.)

Natural leaven comes from the air. You can make leavened dough by mixing equal parts of flour and water, then leaving it out in the open for a while. The air is full of yeast spores, and eventually some will take residence in the dough, causing it to ferment. (For this reason, today’s Jewish dietary regulations consider dough to be leavened 18 minutes after it comes in contact with water.) But bread made with this dough might not taste good, depending on what variety of yeast takes up residence. Not all ‘wild’ yeast is the same. Some is good for baking and some is not.

Jesus compared the growth of the kingdom of heaven to leaven in Matthew 13:33 and Luke 13:21. But most of the time leaven is used in the Bible to symbolize sin. I think there’s an interesting analogy of yeast coming from the air. Satan is called the prince of the power of the air. In a spiritual sense, his bad “yeast” is all around us, and if we’re not careful, it will readily take over our hearts and minds. We must not let it do so. We need to remain unleavened…

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

– 1 Corinthians 5:6-8 (ESV)

Christians have a Passover to remember. When we share in the Lord’s Supper, we remember what it cost for Jesus Christ to free us from our sins. But we should also examine ourselves (1 Corinthians 11:28) for the leaven of malice and evil, hypocrisy and fleshly regulations, and so on. Let’s cast out the old leaven of sin, and not follow the Pharisee’s example of adding to what God has said.

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

– Colossians 2:16-23

Notes:

  1. You can also see this as a picture of separation from life in Egypt.

Praying For Patience

Take thy share in suffering as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.

– 2 Timothy 2:3 (JND)

It is not our purpose to seek out suffering, but neither is it to avoid it.

It is jokingly said that one thing you should not pray for is patience, because if you do, God is going to send all sorts of calamity to try what little patience you do have. However, patience is a virtue that we need to have. It is a fruit of the Spirit. Patience is a good, godly thing, and the only way to acquire it is to have it tried. To say, even jokingly, that you should not pray for patience focuses on the suffering rather than the goal. It cheats you out of Christ-likeness.

It is good to pray for patience, for that leads us to a greater likeness to our Master. To live as a Christian means we will suffer for Christ, and to suffer for Christ is to know Him better. Does our desire to avoid suffering exceed our desire to know Christ?

…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, …

– Philippians 3:10 (JND)

Is Sanctification By Law Or By Faith?

We tend to misunderstand what was going on in the Galatian church. Well, let me rephrase. I have misunderstood what was going on in the Galatian church, …but I do think many of us share the same misunderstanding.

What I mean is, as we read Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, we assume they were trying to be saved by the works of the Law of Moses. It’s real easy to come to this conclusion when we see warnings of “a different gospel,” and read statements like “a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through the faith of Jesus Christ,” and “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” There is so much justification-by-grace-through-faith doctrine in Paul’s letter that we think he was correcting their misunderstanding about how we come to salvation. And there is nothing wrong with applying the doctrine in this manner. We are saved by faith, not by works. Any gospel that says otherwise is a false one. But salvation by works was not their main problem.

While there may have been exceptions, for the most part, the Galatians were not trying to earn their salvation. They had already received the true gospel (Galatians 1:9,4:9), and as a result they had already received the Holy Spirit by faith (Galatians 3:2, Ephesians 1:14). Getting saved was not their problem. The issue was how they lived after they were saved. They had a misunderstanding of sanctification.

That their problem was a practical one can be seen in Galatians 2:10, where Paul mentions Peter, James and John’s instructions on how believing Gentiles are to live, while leaving out any instructions on how Gentiles are to be saved 1. But it becomes much more evident in chapter 3 where Paul really starts chewing them out:

Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?

– Galatians 3:3 (KJV)

This is the first place where Paul directly confronts them with their error. Notice the word ‘Spirit’ here. This is a gigantic clue he is not talking about how to become or stay saved …otherwise he would have said something like, “having begun in Christ.” It is the Holy Spirit’s role to make us practically righteous, not to declare us righteous before God.

The Greek word for ‘perfect’, epiteleo, is used nine times elsewhere in the New Testament. Every one of those usages refer to accomplishing something through actions 2. Epiteleo is never used in reference to our gaining or maintaining a right standing before God. In other words, we have no need to perfect our righteous status before God, because Jesus has already perfected it.

Also notice Paul did not condemn his readers merely for seeking perfection. He condemned them for the manner in which they sought it. This is another clue that sanctification is the topic at hand. The Galatian believers were trying to attain practical perfection through the Law. They thought they could achieve sanctification by works of the flesh. But sanctification is purely God’s work (John 17:17, Romans 15:16, 1 Corinthians 1:30, 2 Corinthians 3:18, Ephesians 5:26, 1 Thessalonians 5:23, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, Hebrews 2:11, 10:10, 13:12, 1 Peter 1:2, 3:15). They began their walk correctly (‘by the Spirit’), but then they ceased submitting to the leading of the Holy Spirit and let the Judaizers divert them. No wonder Paul was upset with them!

Although we apply the doctrine of justification in this epistle to our evangelism of the lost, it was written primarily to us believers, because we are vulnerable to the Galatians’ error. Sanctification by works is a much subtler error than justification by works, because it infects our minds so easily without knowing it. In some churches today, the Holy Spirit’s role goes no further than doctrine. Practically speaking, the Trinity becomes the Father, the Son, and the Holy Scriptures. Perhaps this is a reaction against the errors of some who tend to have a fixation on the Holy Spirit at the expense of good doctrine. I don’t know. But I do know there are serious dangers in trying to live by the Law:

• It actually empowers sin in our lives (Romans 5:20, 7:5,8, 1 Corinthians 15:56). The more we seek to live by the Law, the more power sin has over us, even if that sin is only a prideful self-righteous attitude over others. It’s not the Law’s fault – the Law is righteous and good. But our flesh still has sinful desires which attempts to use the requirements of the Law to make itself look good.

• We downplay what Paul said in Galatians 3:10, that those who insist on living by the law are under a curse, because they put themselves in debt to keep the whole law, with its sacrificial system, holy days, circumcision, etc. While this is not the curse of Galatians 1:8,9, it is still a very bad thing.

• And a legalistic sanctification mindset slowly infects our justification mindset, eventually sowing seeds of doubt about our salvation.

I think a big part of the problem is our lack of appreciation of the gospel. When we read or hear a message about the death of Jesus, or the importance of trusting in Him, we file the information away under the heading ‘How To Be Saved’, not realizing the gospel is also good news about what God does to enable us to overcome sin in our day-to-day lives 3. Jesus’ death on the cross not only has justification benefits, it has sanctification benefits (Romans 8:3-4), and both come on the same basis: by grace through faith.

The Christian life is not one of following a standard but of following a Person. Many believe the only way to avoid sin is by keeping the Law. They are unaware that walking in the Spirit and abiding in Christ prevents sin, and does so much better than trying to obey the Law. (I’m not advocating lawlessness – that would lead to sin. Instead, we are to live by a different law: the law of the Spirit of life (Romans 8:2-4).)

But we lack faith to live this way. We’d rather hold on to our own works through law-keeping because we’re afraid to trust God to make us holy. As a result, we find no real victory over sinful habits.

Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster [to bring us] unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.

– Galatians 3:24-25 (KJV)

Justification happens as a one-time event, but sanctification is a process that continues for the rest of our lives. We don’t drop law-keeping at the point of salvation, and then immediately take it back up again afterwards. We are no longer under that schoolmaster 4. We live by faith. Faith is not only the beginning of the way of life but its entirety. The faith that trusts God to justify us when we abandon our self-righteous works and believe in Jesus is the same faith that trusts that He will sanctify us as well when we abandon our self-righteous works and walk in His Holy Spirit. It is part of the same gospel. This is why Paul uses the doctrine of justification to address how the Galatians lived the Christian life. Sanctification is tied inseparably to justification.

We do not partake of a partial grace that gets us into heaven but doesn’t make us fit to live there. The gospel is the good news of all that God does to restore us to Himself. If we continue to rely on law-keeping to make ourselves presentable to God, it would be well to ask ourselves what Paul asked the Galatian believers: “Are we so foolish?”

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of {i.e. ‘in’} the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness [come] by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.

– Galatians 2:20-21 (KJV)

Notes:

  1. This is also seen in the practical words “our liberty in Christ” in verse 4, and “walked” in verse 14. Even the word ‘gospel’ in chapter 2 is repeatedly used in the context of how believers are to live, showing the gospel includes the doctrine of sanctification as well as justification. When Paul rebuked Peter in Galatians 2:11-21, it was over a practical issue of how he lived, not about his lack of faith in Jesus to save him.
  2. The word is used elsewhere in Luke 13:32 (‘perform cures’), Romans 15:28 (‘I have performed this’), 2 Cor. 7:1 (‘perfecting holiness’), 2 Cor. 8:6 (‘he would finish‘), 2 Cor. 8:11 (‘perform‘), Php 1:6 (‘He will perform‘), Heb. 8:5 (‘make the tabernacle’), Heb 9:6 (‘accomplishing the service’), 1 Pet. 5:9 (‘afflictions are accomplished‘).
  3. Another confusing point is that Paul uses the word ‘justified’ six times in his letter, while never using ‘sanctified’. We like to separate the meanings of the words into how to get saved and how to live. But these words are sometimes used interchangeably. We need to pay attention to the context. In this letter, even though we see Paul using the word ‘justified’, he writes about how we are live.
  4. The Law still has a purpose: to convict men of sin and to lead them to Christ. As the standard, it remains. But the Mosaic Law is eliminated as a means of living (Romans 7:1-6). Look at Paul who used to follow the Law “blamelessly” before he was saved (Philippians 3:6). After he was saved he didn’t use his salvation as an opportunity to keep the Law more perfectly. Instead, he counted law-keeping a total “loss”. This is what he meant when he called the Galatians (and us) to “be as I am; for I am as you are.” If you find this difficult to accept, I suggest reading straight through the epistle to the Galatians once a day for at least a week, so you can get familiar with the flow of Paul’s argument.

Thoughts On Running The Race

Picture of older runner

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.

– 1 Corinthians 9:24-25 (ESV)

The way a runner runs depends on the kind of race he’s in. When the distance is small, an all-out sprint to the finish line is probably best. But when the distance is great, more self-control must be exercised.

For the best possible chance of making it to the finish line first, a runner must control his expenditure of energy such that he has just enough strength to make it across the finish line. If he runs the course with some energy left over, he hasn’t run as fast as he could have, and someone else might win. If he seeks to be the fastest at all points in the course, he exhausts himself before he gets to the finish line… and again, someone else might win. The goal is not being the fastest on the course or not being out of breath at the end. Getting to the finish line first is the goal, and sometimes that is only possible by treading the fine line between running too fast and too slow.

Paul compares our lives with running a race, but how does this control-of-energy idea play out in the spiritual realm? We don’t know how far away our finish line is (i.e. how long we are going to live), so how can we know if we should be trying for speed or endurance? What if I try to pace myself spiritually for a long life, but I die early? Or what if I go all out for Jesus, and burn out decades before I die?

Most of us don’t know how long our race is. But the writer of Hebrews tells us to assume we are in it for the long haul:

…let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith …

– Hebrews 12:1-2 (ESV)

We are in a spiritual endurance race, and so we must seek to make the most of the strength we do have. We must avoid stumbling blocks, making level paths for our feet. And we must seek out and remove whatever will slow us down unnecessarily.

Many of today’s athletes wear high-tech outfits designed to minimize wind resistance (or water resistance for swimmers). The tiniest detail of these clothes may make the difference between first and second or third place. In ancient Greece, runners would run naked for even greater speed advantage. They were not concerned with appearances. Their eyes were fixed only on the goal: a temporary crown of leaves.

In our race, our eyes are to be fixed on Jesus Christ. Like those ancient runners, we are also commanded to lay aside everything that hinders. The most obvious candidate for what hinders us is sin, but we must be aware that our fleshly nature will also slow us down tremendously. It’s those little details we tend to overlook that can take our prize away from us – details like false humility, love of money, apathy, jealously, and the like. We usually overlook these things because we think if we haven’t outright sinned, we aren’t hurting ourselves …but we are. These internal attitudes of the flesh will drag us down unless we deal with them as seriously as sin.

The finish line is the goal, but notice Paul does not tell us to merely make it to the finish line. He tells us to run as if there is only one prize, and you intend to be the one to obtain that prize, whatever it takes. Not knowing if our race is long or short, I believe the only right way to run this race is to rely on the strength that God supplies (1 Peter 4:11, Ephesians 3:20-21). When we learn to rely on God’s power, we will be able to run the spiritual endurance race as if it is a sprint. We will be able to go all out, exhaust ourselves, and yet continue running on God’s power.

May you finish your race and receive your prize! (2 Timothy 4:7)

What Doesn’t Produce Righteousness

…for the anger of man doesn’t produce the righteousness of God.

– James 1:20

It’s a familiar verse… one that is easy, in hindsight, to apply to the rash actions of a believer who has let his temper fly with disastrous results. Those who have a temper problem may acknowledge the truth of this verse when everything is going according to plan. But awareness of such truth seems to flee when they need it the most.

Those of us who do not have a problem blowing up may think we are safe here. Yet, we can take the word ‘anger’ out, replace it with another word, and the verse will address our weaknesses also.

…the love of man does not produce the righteousness of God.

…the apathy of man does not produce the righteousness of God.

…the work of man does not produce the righteousness of God.

…the wisdom of man does not produce the righteousness of God.

The truth is, nothing that is of us will produce the righteousness of God. God has to make us righteous – both positionally and practically.

But of him, you are in Christ Jesus, who was made to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption: that, according as it is written, “He who boasts, let him boast in the Lord.”

– 1 Corinthians 1:30-31