THIS WE BELIEVE
WEEK FIVE: SANCTIFYING GRACE
Intro: “The Bible is true. The Bible is true for me. The truth of this Bible should change the way I believe and behave.”
We’re in a series called, “This We Believe, Essential Christian Doctrine from a Wesleyan Perspective.” So far, we’ve talked about two beliefs: (1) JESUS IS LORD, and (2) THE BIBLE IS TRUE. (3) PREVENIENT GRACE; (4) JUSTIFYING GRACE. And today, (5) SANCTIFYING GRACE. Our Scripture launchpad has been Ephesians 2:8:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8).
Today, let me credit a couple of extra-biblical sources to help explain John Wesley’s doctrine of sanctifying grace: The Way to Heaven (By Dr. Steve Harper), and A Firm Foundation (by Rev. Dr. Maxie Dunnam).]
Biblical grace is getting what we don’t deserve (e.g., forgiveness, salvation, restoration, righteousness—and NOT getting what we do—unforgiveness, eternal death and damnation, separation from God, and continuing state of sinfulness.
I also stressed that we can’t experience God’s grace without first being in need of it. Therefore, we must understand the nature of ORIGINAL SIN. Sin doesn’t sneak up on us…it comes up out of us. And the result of sin is sickness. Wesley would use the term “corruption.” Because of sin HUMANITY IS SICK UNTO DEATH. Sin has struck at the root of what it means to be human.
One of the effects of sin in our lives is that is makes us dead toward God. “Once you were dead in your transgressions and sins,” says Paul. Dead people can’t ask for help and they don’t even want to. People who are dead in their sins are under the illusion that they are just fine without God. They have a false sense of security and peace.
Were it not for the work of God through the Holy Spirit in the life of the unawakened sinner, he or she would remain oblivious of their need for salvation. This inner working of God is known by Wesleyans as, PREVENIENT GRACE. For Wesley, prevenient grace is the grace of God that operates BEFORE our experience of conversion. It is the activity of God before we give conscious thought to God or to our need of him. As Paul says in Romans 5:8, “While we are still sinners, Christ died for us.” The first move toward salvation is God’s, not ours.
Not only does God lean toward us and lead us toward himself by making us aware of our need for a cure to our sickness (PREVENIENT GRACE), but God then ACTS through his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to make a way for ALL to be saved. We call that JUSTIFYING GRACE (a.k.a., Converting or Saving Grace).
From the divine side of things, God sent Jesus Christ to justify us through his crucifixion, quenching the wrath of God. Hear again God’s Word through Romans 5:1-2: 1Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.
We are guilty of sin because of the sin nature and we cannot save ourselves. But God declared us CLEARED OF ALL CHARGED because of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who took the penalty for our sin. This is the divine initiative of God. He acted on our behalf. But we must respond through REPENTANCE AND BELIEF.
We turn away from sin and toward God while believing that Jesus’s paid the price. From a human standpoint, salvation is by FAITH. But even THAT is a gift from God : For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8).
So, is that it? Not by a long shot. One of Wesley’s major emphasis in ministry was to nurture people in their faith. Once we have become a new creation through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are now able to be transformed by the renewing of our minds by the inner working of the Holy Spirit in our lives. This life-long process is called , SANCTIFYING GRACE. To be sanctified is to be set apart for God’s special purpose. More on that in a minute.
Wedged between the doctrines of justification and sanctification is a vital piece of Wesley’s theology: the doctrine of assurance. We grow in grace out of a sense of assurance of our salvation. Romans 8:16 was one of Wesley’s favorite verses: “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”
I was having lunch with Hannah Rose Friday and, in one of those special moments between a father and his daughter, we had a heart-to-heart conversation about spiritual matters. She confessed to me what most of us occasionally experience but are too cowardly to admit. There are times when she doesn’t feel close to God and she has doubts.
After a lengthy dialogue, and using Romans 8:16, she came to the understanding that she has the assurance of her salvation EVEN THOUGH she may have occasionally doubts about certain truths of God and his work in the world.
That’s a good thing. She said, “I may have questions, but I never doubt that God sent Jesus to die for my sins.” Amen. The Holy Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. And from that place of assurance we can grow through all that God wants to pour into us over our lifetimes.
Which brings us back to sanctifying grace. It’s out of assurance of our salvation that we can grow in our walk with God through sanctifying grace. The true desire of God is NOT to get us to heaven but to get heaven into US!
You see, Justification is what God does FOR us; Sanctification is what God does IN us. Paul connected the two halves of salvation—justification and sanctification—in his letter to the Corinthians. He had named some of the behaviors that divided people from the kingdom of God (which included all manors of sexual immorality). Then he reminded them , “And that is what some of you were,” after which he spoke that victorious word: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor. 6:11)
Faith in Jesus Christ is a vital part of God’s plan of salvation. But being sanctified…being set apart by LOVE—holy love—becomes the final goal of the plan of salvation. Complete love for God and love for others. The essence of sanctification is love in action, loving God with an undivided heart.
For most of us, we don’t have a problem saying “yes” to a God who saves us through his Son on a cross. But we have more difficulty saying “yes” to a God who is calling us to have love and affection for no other object—not our money, hour stuff, our work, our hobbies, our SEC football, or even our families—but God alone.
Holiness is probably one of John Wesley’s most distinctive doctrines. MaxieDunnam says , “We Wesleyans believe that behind the biblical and theological themes of the meaning of creation, the fall of humanity, the understanding of law and grace, the meaning of justification, and the new birth, the ministry and work of the Holy Spirit is the call to holiness.”
The call to holiness may sound strange and difficult to many of us; yet the call is clear throughout the Old and New Testaments:
“Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.’” (Lev. 19:2 NIV) and again in Lev. 20:26. By the way, this word is also in the midst of what is known as the holiness code, which included prohibitions against improper sexual relations. Can you guess at least ONE of those prohibitions?
The Apostle Peter echoes this theme when he says this : “13Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. 14As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. 15But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” 1 Pet 1:13-16 NIV
And through the Apostle Paul, the Holy Spirit gave us this Word about the former and the new life of a Christian: 17So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed. 20That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul expressed sanctification in contrast with separation of sin this way: 3It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; 4that each of you should learn to control your own bodyin a way that is holy and honorable, 5not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; 6and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before (1 Thess. 4:3-6 NIV).
There are those in the UMC, however, who have detached themselves from this understanding of sanctification. They view holy love as mushy love and tolerance for specific, biblically prohibited sexual sins. To be sure, sexual immorality is broad. It includes infidelity, perversions, incestual relationships, bestiality, sodomy, as well as homosexual practices. Being set apart for God’s special use (sanctification) includes controlling our bodies in at least all these ways, if not also the prohibition of alcohol abuse and drug abuse.
And celebrated author and scholar, C.S. Lewis , captures this understanding of holiness in this way in his book, Mere Christianity (pg. 171): “Christ says, ‘Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work. I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it.
No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree cut down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will you Myself: my own will shall become yours.”
Dunnam says, “To respond to sanctifying grace is to pay attention to all that is out of harmony with God’s will and God’s image within us…With the power of the Holy Spirit, we can pursue holiness and march forward in the fullness of faith.”
So, how are we to pursue holiness and march forward in the fullness of faith? Wesley believed and taught that God provides channels by which we can grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. He called these channels, MEANS OF GRACE. Let me mention quickly two sets of channels. One group Wesley believed Christ ordained called: INSTITUTED. The other group he believed the church ordained called: PRUDENTIAL. Wesley focused more on the instituted means for growing in holy love.
Here are the FIVE instituted means of grace:
1.Prayer. Wesley called prayer the “grand means of drawing near to God.” I like what I read from J.D. Walt this week on the subject of prayer when he said, “What if prayer is less about talking with God and more about walking with God.” Think about it. We can’t really be in conversation with God unless we are walking in His presence. Conversely, Wesley called the lack of prayer the common cause of “the wilderness state” (a state of spiritual dryness).
2.Searching the Scriptures. It is the power of God’s Word that changes how we believe and behave. He stressed reading the whole Bible, especially reading from both Old and New Testaments daily. But equally important was to APPLY immediately what we read.
3.Partaking in the Lord’s Supper. While Wesley did not believe that the elements of communion become the actual body and blood of our Savior, he did believe that Christ is present with us in the taking of the Lord’s Supper.
4.Fasting. This practice was less about the absence of food and more about the commitment of time exclusively for God and spiritual matters. Fasting helps us refocus on what is important. Wesley would fast on Wednesdays and Fridays beginning at the time after supper the night before and ending at tea time (British!). But later he removed Wednesday as a fast day, but encouraged other Methodists to fast on Fridays.
5.Group fellowship. Wesley called specific small groups of bands, classes, and societies “Christian conferencing.” The primary function of each group was to grow in undivided love for God and neighbor. That’s why we keep suggesting you be a part of Life Groups—to aid you in your Christian walk, you love of God and others.
In addition to institutional means of grace, the three prudential means of grace were these: (1) to do no harm, (2) to do all the good you can, (3) and to attend to the private and public worship of God. Time does not allow to unpack more about these means of grace today.
Sanctifying grace through all these means is God’s way of making us holy. And holiness is not meant for our sakes; it’s meant for the use and glory of God which, by nature, is meant for community. Wesley said it this way: “the gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness but social.” Inward holiness, for Wesley, was a love of God and the assurance that God loves us. Outward holiness is love of neighbor, and deeds of kindness.
So, what are some specific action steps we can take to pursue holiness in the Wesleyan way? Good question. Dunnam offers four suggestions:
1. Exercise Faith. The One ho saves is also the One who sanctifies—sets us apart for his good purposes. He will not require anything of us that he will not make possible through faith.
2. Continue pursuing freedom from sin. Wesleyans affirm that, by yielding to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit within us, we have the power NOT to sin. A call to an undivided heart—having complete love of God and love of neighbor—is a call to allowing sanctifying grace to work in our lives to overcome sin. As Paul admonishes us, “Count yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” What’s our favorite fight song against sin? “I’M DEAD TO THAT!” When tempted, and we will be, we claim God’s grace, which is more powerful than the Tempter’s plea.
3. Be willing to be equipped for ministry. We are set apart for God’s service. If we are being set apart, we are also being equipped with every Spiritual gift for the building up the body of Christ until we reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. The church is to be His presence in the world. We are to look different than the world…we are NOT to be conformed to its patterns, but let God transform us by the renewing of our minds SO THAT we may know what is his good, pleasing, and perfect will.
4. Embrace the experiences that will require us to grow. Perhaps the most difficult for us to do is to get out of our comfort zone. It’s one thing to put down bad habits. It’s another thing to pick up new godly practices that make us feel a bit more uncomfortable. This requires more and more dependence on God under the lordship of the indwelling Christ.
Let me turn off the fire hydrant now. Lots of information and I apologize. But there’s a reason for all this: We want to know what we believe not only as Christians, but as Wesleyan Christians. God pursues us BEFORE we even realize we have need of him through PREVENIENT GRACE. We are JUSTIFIED by grace through faith, both of which are gifts. We are ASSURED of this faith through the gift of the Holy Spirit. And we grow in our relationship with God through SANCTIFYING GRACE until we reach an undivided heart for God. This is called Christian Perfection—a holy love of God and love of others. This is Wesley’s three-fold Doctrine of Grace. It is one of the distinctive teachings of Methodism.
Like all teachings, they are of no value unless you put them to use. Are you born again by the blood of Jesus? Are you assured of your salvation by the Holy Spirit? Are you growing in grace, becoming little Christs, reflecting the image of God in your own lives? We are all on this journey together. May God find us faithful. AMEN.