By Rev. Mark Buetow
But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption— that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.” 1 Corinthians 1:30-31
Have you ever witnessed someone’s behavior and just wanted to tell them, especially if they are a Christian, “Stop it! Stop doing that! Do the right thing! Do the Christian thing! Act like a Christian! Behave!” All of us have particular sins which we like to judge in others. All of us have particular sins others enjoy judging in us. But aren’t we saved? Aren’t we supposed to be holy? Are we sanctified? Where is our sanctification?
“Sanctification” is one of those big words we hear in the Bible and in the church. It literally means “holy-fication.” It comes from the Latin word “sanctus” which means “holy.” Sanctification is being holy. Acting holy. Living holy. But what is holy? For most people who misunderstand sanctification, holy means a certain type of behavior that is Christian as opposed to pagan. People assume that we are sanctified and lead holy lives simply by being told what is wrong and being told to avoid it and do the right thing. What’s more, many preachers, even some Lutheran ones, assume that if they just tell people God’s Word of Law, it will enable a Christian to do what it says.
“Sanctification” is one of those things we’ll get completely wrong if we think it’s about us and not about Jesus. In fact, in the words above, St. Paul says that Jesus IS our sanctification. Whatever our sanctification is, it’s Jesus. So let’s clear up some of the myths and false ideas about what it means to be a Christian and be holy, that is, sanctified.
False Statement #1 “Jesus saving us is our justification. Our living for Jesus is our sanctification.” It’s like Jesus saves us but then it’s on us to live the right way. But St. Paul declares, “ I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Jesus doesn’t save you and then leave it up to you to “stay saved” by living a good life. Rather, it is Jesus who lives in you. When you sin and break the commandments, forgiveness means God doesn’t count that against you. It’s covered up by Jesus. When you do good for another person, that’s Christ living in you, loving others through you. Sure, it’s your hands and mouth and mind and body. But Christ living in you means you are the instrument through which Christ loves and serves others. This rescues us from despair that we haven’t “done enough” because it is Christ’s to live and to do in us.
False Statement #2: “If you are a sincere and mature Christian, you will sin less and less as you grow.” Here’s Paul again: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing…Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:18-19,24-25) Does that sound like a man who is improving or getting better? Paul recognized that the more “mature” he got, the longer he lived, the more he sinned and the more he struggled against God’s will and Word. But he also knew his deliverance and peace were found in Jesus. Jesus’ forgiveness wipes out Paul’s sin, while at the same time working through Paul to make him a better person for his neighbor. You might say that the longer you are a Christian, the more sin you’ll see in yourself. And the bigger a Savior Jesus is!
False Statement #3: “God wouldn’t have given the Commandments if we couldn’t keep them.” Oh yes He would! He did! Why on earth would God tell us to do and not do what we can’t do and not do? To show us our sin. To teach us that we can’t make ourselves holy. Jesus said, “I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20). These words tell us that we are not going to inherit the kingdom of God by our works because we can’t be that righteous. But Jesus is that righteous and therefore because He lives in you, His righteousness, His standing, is yours.
The obvious argument to anything we’re saying here is this old saw: “Well, if it’s just Jesus living in you and you’re forgiven, you can live however you want!” And that’s exactly right. But how do you want to live? Here we are reminded of the saying, “simul iustus et peccator” (at the same time sinner and saint). The Small Catechism nails it: What does such baptizing with water indicate? It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever (Baptism, Fourth Part).
So what does it all look like, this sanctification stuff? It looks like Jesus living in you. How does that happen? By Holy Baptism, Absolution, the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and the Holy Supper of Jesus’ body and blood. Which means the Christian life looks like this: You get up and go out into the world with all sorts of good works to do based on whatever your vocation and calling are. And when you mess those up, you live in the grace and forgiveness of Christ which is yours in His church, which He gives in His gifts of water, Word, and Supper. And so it goes back and forth. Round and round. Day in and day out. Christ lives in you to the world through your good works to your neighbor. He dwells in you by forgiveness and faith to cover your sins. Over and over, every day, Jesus lives in you until the day He raises you from the dead. That’s what it means to be holy. That’s what sanctification is: Jesus living in you; His Spirit working in you; Jesus being Jesus, and you along for the ride.
Rev. Mark Buetow is pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church in DuQuoin, Illinois and serves as the deputy and media services executive for Higher Things. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.