Called to Sanctification:
I think, beloved child of God, that it’s sometimes easy for people to keep important Biblical concepts, like the idea of personal discipleship, in the realm of theory. People like to discuss it, and even preach about it. But our explorations into authentic Christian living continually beckon us to move beyond mere theoretical considerations and into the realm of practical applications. Our surrendered hearts prompt us to ask, “What does genuine discipleship really look like on a daily basis?”
May I offer for your consideration the idea that authentic discipleship begins with the very common, almost mundane, practice of repentance? In some of His parting words to His disciples, shortly before leaving this earth and ascending to the right hand of the Majesty on high, Jesus said:
Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
(Luke 24:46-47, NASB)
In this statement, Jesus made repentance a fundamental aspect of our Christian walk of life; and, even more than that, absolutely essential in order to receive forgiveness of sins. But it is important for us to understand that repentance is not a one-shot deal. A person does not simply repent once of everything he or she has ever done wrong in life and then proceed from that point on with perfect righteousness. Rather, repentance is a continual walk of life, a continual battle against sin, a perpetual turning away from sin. It is discipleship in action; and practiced on a daily basis.
While I may relish the thought of being able to simply repent one time of whatever transgressions I have committed in my life, the truth is that I need to repent daily—sometimes hourly—as I continually seek to turn away from sensual desires and evil impulses; and battle within me against the pride and selfishness that threatens to dominate my life. I need to be continually reminded of the Hebrew writer’s exhortation, where it is said:
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
(Hebrews 12:1-2, NASB)
Like a long distance runner, I have need of endurance; and so do you. We cannot afford to allow ourselves to be continually encumbered by all the obstacles and hindrances that threaten our faith. There is always going to be something to fret about, or something to divert our energy. Life gets busy and we can be consumed with so many seemingly important distractions that we lose sight of Jesus and the daily commitment to which He calls us. Sometimes we get slothful and lazy, or go about our Christian walk in a haphazard, half-hearted way. In those moments, the enemy presses hard in his efforts to take our eyes off of Jesus if he can; and to entice us to conform to the ways of the world. How many times I have found myself drifting off course and in need of reminding to fix my eyes on Jesus. The Apostle Paul put is this way:
Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.
(I Corinthians 9:24-27, NASB)
Here we see that discipline is at the root of authentic discipleship. Paul is not simply discussing theology, he’s giving us a picture of practical daily living. Like an athlete in training, so also genuine disciples discipline themselves daily so that their lives may bring glory to the One whom they love most. Discipleship is the seed of God’s word planted in “an honest and good heart,” growing, and bearing fruit (Luke 8:15, NASB). Discipleship is that “walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light” (I John 1:7, NASB). Discipleship is that pursuit of the “sanctification without with no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14, NASB).
Remember that, to be sanctified means to be “set apart,” to be “consecrated” or “dedicated” to God (Sanctified, 2014). It means that we commit ourselves to being different from the world around us; in that we choose to live each day for Him now, not for ourselves, nor for the things of this world. And just as Jesus said that repentance is necessary for the forgiveness of sin, so also the Hebrews writer tell us that, without pursuing sanctification, no one will see the Lord.
What this says to me is that, if I call myself a disciple of Christ, I dare not excuse or make light of the sin in my life. I dare not use my “human condition”—the fact that I am weak and sinful—to justify my wrong doing and to give myself license to continue the practice of sin. The Bible issues dire warnings against those who take that attitude, saying:
For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
(Jude 1:4, NASB)
This was, apparently, the teaching of the Nicolaitans—a sect of Christianity that had arisen among the ekklesia of the 1st century. According to some of the early Christian writers, such as Irenaeus (130-202 AD):
The Nicolaitanes are the followers of that Nicolas who was one of the seven first ordained to the diaconate by the apostles. They lead lives of unrestrained indulgence. The character of these men is very plainly pointed out in the Apocalypse of John, [when they are represented] as teaching that it is a matter of indifference to practice adultery, and to eat things sacrificed to idols. —Irenaeus, Adversus haereses, i. 26, §3 (Nicolaism, 2014)
Concerning these Nicolaitans, the Apostle John penned these words directly from the mouth of Jesus to the Christians who lived in Ephesus:
But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent. Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
(Revelation 2:4-6, NASB)
The problems presented by the Nicolaitans also plagues the Christians who lived in Pergamum. To them, Jesus said:
But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality. So you also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent; or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth.
(Revelation 2:14-16, NASB)
Whatever the specific sins of the Nicolaitans were, it is clear from the Biblical text that God hated this philosophy and that He would not tolerate it. In His love and patience, God was willing to give those who had fallen prey to this teaching time to repent. However, those who would not repent would soon find themselves at war with God.
The Hebrew writer admonishes all of us to turn away from sin and to seek to pursue lives of sanctification with these words:
For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
(Hebrews 10:26-31, NASB)
This passage is not talking about people who, like us, stumble and fall in moments of weakness; but rather, people who “go on sinning willfully.” Instead of pursuing sanctification, they pursue a self-indulgent lifestyle; and their faithless hearts render meaningless the sacrifice of Christ. The Apostle John address a similar scenario when he says:
Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.
(I John 3:4-10, NASB)
John is using the concepts in this passage to provide a way of distinguishing the “children of God” from the “children of the devil.” The difference is pretty easy to see. Those who are pursuing sanctification—the practice of righteousness—are the children of God. They “cannot sin”—that is, give themselves over to the perpetual pursuit of a sinful lifestyle—because “His seed”—the word of God—abides in them; and, like all good seed, it brings forth good fruit. Their righteousness is the natural outgrowth of what is in their hearts.
So what does all this mean for the new covenant child of God in practical terms? Jesus said, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master” (Matthew 10:24-25, NASB). Our goal is simply to be like Jesus. The Apostle Paul put it this way, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (Ephesians 5:1-2, NASB).
As the children of God, we have new goals, new values, and new priorities for our lives. No longer do we live for the gratification of the flesh, “indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind,” (Ephesians 2:3, NASB). Rather, we seek to take “every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5, NASB).
I don’t know what it might take to motivate any particular person to want to be like Jesus and to pursue “the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14, NASB). But I firmly believe that it all comes down to matters of the heart. Jesus said:
The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart.
(Luke 6:45, NASB)
What are our deeds? What are our words? Jesus says they are nothing less than the pouring forth of the content of our heart. This is why it is impossible to separate love from obedience or faith from works. Remember that He told us, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” and “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me” (John 14:15&21, NASB).
So, where my heart leads me, there I will follow. But I can only trust my heart in so far as it reveals itself in godly decisions and actions. The prophet Jeremiah warned, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” To which God replies, “I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds” (Jeremiah 17:9-10, NASB). There is a definite heart-to-body connection. Whatever is filling our mind will translate into behavior, words, and actions. This is why God can, and will, justly judge the content of our hearts by examining our deeds. There will be some very religious people who, on that last great day of judgment, will cry out to Jesus, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?”—only to stand in utter astonishment as He declares to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness“ (Matthew 7:22-23, NASB).
Finding the motivation to live a life of authentic discipleship—to cultivate the commitment and discipline necessary to always want to turn away from sin and do the right thing—is not always easy. James says, “For we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2, NASB). But when it comes to deciding how we want to conduct our lives on earth, for the authentic disciple of Christ whose heart is simply enraptured with Jesus, there can be no higher motivation than that set forth by the Apostle Paul in His admonition to the children of God at Corinth when he said:
For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.
(2 Corinthians 5:14-15, NASB)