A Necessary Joy
The Bible often asks us to put words together that seem to pull in opposite directions. Dependent responsibility. Loving discipline. Necessary joy. It seems axiomatic in our culture that joy attends leisure, or at least a lack of compulsion. Duty is rarely conceived of as a theatre for joy. Biblically, however, a believer’s sanctification is held up as a necessary joy. Both of those words are important for the biblical picture. Sanctification is necessary for the believer. And, simultaneously, it is a joy for the believer. And the common root that holds the duty and delight of our sanctification together is our justification by faith alone apart from works of the law.
I. Justification by Faith Alone Makes our Sanctification Necessary. In Romans 3:28 Paul writes: For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. So we are made right with a holy God by faith alone. What does that means for me at the moment of my justification, as I am born again by the Spirit, united to Christ, and adopted by the Father? Romans 4:5 tells me that I am, at the moment of my justification, ungodly! To the one who does not work but trusts Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.
Justification is a legal declaration. My sin and its penalty is imputed to Christ (He who knew no sin is made to be sin for me), and His righteousness and its blessing is imputed to me (so that I might become the righteousness of God in Him, I Cor 5:21). And on the basis of this double reckoning, the Judge declares my justification. I carry the status of one who is right with God. I am accepted in the Beloved. God relates to me as if I am holy – in fact He relates to me as a Father – and all the while I am in fact ungodly! Not even my act of faith is godliness. It was grace, given to me by God. So at the moment of my salvation, I am still Lazarus in the tomb, wrapped in grave clothes, reeking of decay, but my eyes blinking open. I am spiritually alive, but a far cry from being ready for the marriage feast! So what Paul goes on to say in Romans 4:11 is that the work of sanctification (real moral change in obedience to God’s holy word) is necessary, not as a foundation for justification, but it necessarily follows from my justification. The words he uses picture my steps of obedience as a sign and a seal of my justification. The fruit of my obedience is a sign that the roots of my life are drinking from the well of salvation. The steps I am taking to put off ungodliness and put on godliness is like a seal validating the fact that God has indeed begun a good work within me, and will therefore surely complete it at my glorification.
Continuing this thought into chapter 5, Paul reasons: since we have been justified by faith we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. As freshly justified believers, we rejoice in the beauty of God’s holiness both because we see it as irresistibly beautiful, and because we know we are going to be transformed into that very image. We rejoice in hope at enjoying and sharing in the glory of God! More than that we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance and endurance character. So we do more than rejoice in the hope of our goal, we rejoice in the process God has ordained to get us there – the character formation of trial and suffering. Because we rejoice in the glory of God, we rejoice in the sufferings that incrementally form it in us. And character comes back around at the end of vs 4, to hope. Growing in the character of God is our good! As Hebrews 12:10 reminds us, God disciplines us for our good, that we might share in His holiness. Putting the two halves of this verse together we see that the good God is working in us even through the present-tense pain of discipline, is His own holiness! So when we see the moral perfection of God bearing increasing fruit in our lives, we have reason to hope in its final consummation!
So sanctification is necessary because we are justified by faith alone apart from works. When we get saved, it is not because of how good we are! It is because God has purposed to make ungodly enemies – sinners – holy! This means that at the moment of salvation, we have a whole fight ahead of us. We still have a whole race to run! We have not arrived, we are just beginning! So don’t think it strange, Christian, when you have to work hard to put off ungodliness! Don’t be discouraged when you struggle with sin. Don’t be defeated by the devil’s slanderous lies or your own self-accusation when you do not have the holiness you love and long for. Sanctification is necessary because God justifies the ungodly.
II. Justification by Faith Alone Makes our Necessary Sanctification a Joy. Before we were justified, Romans 9:29 tells us that God was for us in terms of His foreknowledge, His predestination, and His calling. He had graciously, unconditionally determined to do us good. But before we were justified, we still carried the debt of our sin and we still lacked the obedience God required. So Jesus tells us in John 3 that the wrath of God was on us. We were children of wrath like the rest of mankind. God could not pretend all was well between us. Instead, He was bound by His righteousness to be against us in our unbelief. And that wrath would have remained on us if God had not opened the eyes of our heart to see and trust Jesus as our substitute curse bearer and righteousness-provider.
As Paul celebrates in Romans 8, however, now that we have believed and been justified, God is only, fully, and wholly for us! There is no wrath. There is no condemnation. His first gift to us of justifying faith has opened the floodgates now so that every spiritual blessing can flow to us from His hand. Because we are carry a righteous status legally, God is as free to love and strengthen and resource and empower us as He would be His own Son.
So grace now becomes the power plant of our whole life. I picture it is as a dam of righteousness that was holding back the reservoir of divine grace when I was still in sin. There were certain ways God could not act toward sinners – with their sin uncovered and their obedience absent – and still be righteous. Now that I am justified, however, the reservoir of grace is released, and as it flows through the righteousness of God, it turns the turbines that power my spiritual walk. Justifying grace is the power of our salvation. Sanctifying grace is the power of our increasingly holiness. And glorifying grace is the power of our eternal security and happiness. Now that we are justified, God is free (from the constraints of His own righteousness) to lavish every good gift upon us in the power of His grace.
I wonder how you picture the moment of your salvation. Do you imagine the tide of God’s grace just stretching far enough to moisten your hard heart? And then maybe it ebbs back again to leave you to work things out on your own? That is not the way the Bible pictures our encounter with grace. Justification is like the hole that pierces the dam, and once justifying grace spurts though that hole, it is only a matter of time before the whole ocean of divine grace breaks in and flows over your life.That is why Paul says in Eph 2:7 that our glorification in the coming ages is ultimately what shows the immeasurable riches of His grace. Justification is just the downpayment! If all you know is justifying grace, it is like being awed that Bill Gates wrote you a check for $1000 (and you should be – but don’t forget that when he handed you the check, he whispered, this is just the downpayment to open the bank account so you can receive your full inheritance!)
How does the riches of God’s grace, only beginning at justification, relate to our joy in sanctification? Practically, it means that when we confront a battle with indwelling sin, the question to ask is not whether we have the strength to face this struggle. The question to ask is whether He who is gracious toward us is greater. We ask whether our good Father will withhold any good thing from His children when we ask. Our encouragement in the face of our remaining sin is not found in us, but in the power of His grace that will continue to prove sufficient in our time of need. The fuel in our fight for sanctification is an infinite, increasing supply of grace! And that is cause for security, comfort, hope and joy!
And we could add: our sanctification is a joy because the God who we depend on for sanctifying grace says – it is my good pleasure to make you holy! Listen to the motive Paul reveals in the heart of God as He predestined our sanctification, as He wills it, and as He now works it: work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Phil 2:13). So yes – there is working. There is what Paul calls in Romans 1 the obedience of faith. Yes, there is fear and trembling. Lacking the glory of a holy God is a fearful thing. But there is also what Paul calls in Phil. 1:25 joy in the faith. There is what he calls in Romans 15:13 the God of hope filling us with all joy and peace in believing – even as we are learning and growing in our sanctification and obedience (vs 16, 18).
All of this relates to the way you picture God as He works to make you holy. Do you picture Him stern and dour? Do you picture Him disappointed, sarcastic, or even exasperated at your repeated failings? That is not the biblical picture. The Bible tells us that holiness is unto our happiness and it flows from God’s great joy! The Bible says God works in us to accomplish His good pleasure. The Bible says Jesus endured the justifying cross for the joy set before Him of a sanctified Bride. The Bible says that the Holy Spirit, who is the very joy of God in the holiness of God, fills us with all joy as we see Him and become like Him. Sanctification is an invitation (even a command!) to profound, increasing joy!
So justification makes our sanctification necessary because we are ungodly, and need white garments of good works for the wedding (see Rev. 19:8b). And our justification makes our necessary sanctification a joy because God is working in us to accomplish the delight of His 3 infinitely joyful Persons (Rev 19:8a)!