- When you think about your sanctification, what do you think about?
- What is required in your pursuit of Christlikeness?
After a person is born again (John 3:7) he becomes a Christian, where he spends the rest of his life progressively being transformed into Christlikeness. We call this progressive sanctification–a process that is never perfected, though we are always transforming.
The lifelong process of progressive sanctification is an inside to outside operation, which is a simple and solid way to think about the two main component parts to the process. There are essentially three sanctification camps.
- Those who focus mostly, if not entirely, on inside transformation.
- Those who focus mostly, if not entirely, on outside transformation.
- Those who focus on both. (This is the group I believe to be the most biblical.)
This piece is about the first group. Some call this process quietism or passive obedience. I call it the sitting and soaking method to sanctification. Over the past decade this method has gained a lot of momentum because of the Gospel transformation movement. Everybody is talking about the Gospel nowadays.
Some of this Gospel-talk, which I am a proponent, has had too much of an internal focus. You hear this in our language, e.g., preaching the Gospel to yourself every day.
Though this is good and needful language in our Christian culture, there has been an unintended negative consequence in some sectors because of this language.
While trying to do battle with the legalists in our church, who land more in camp two, there has not been enough clarification about what preaching the Gospel to yourself should mean. And because of this there have been unnecessary misunderstandings and confusion.
I have been accused of being a quietist–a person who believes that marinating your mind in the Gospel is all you need. These accusers have cherry picked some of my material and made a conclusion without carefully examining enough of my material or without having a direct conversation with me.
I am not struggling with their wrong conclusions, insufficient data gathering, or their written critiques. I have made way more mistakes than they could imagine and, for the record, I am grateful that they do not like quietism exclusivity. I dislike it too.
Praises for passive obedience
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 3:18 (ESV)
The term I prefer in this discussion is passive obedience. A misunderstanding of passive obedience could be defined as the act of believing God and based on your ability to believe and the proportion in which you believe will determine the purity and largeness of your obedience.
Sanctification, according to this view, is primarily about believing in the LORD, which I totally agree we must do. To press the point further, to believe God is the basis for our relationship with Him and all of our sanctification flows out of our belief in God. There is no other place from which our sanctification to be derived.
Everything we do in life flows out of what we believe about God, even if a person is an atheist, agnostic, unbeliever, nominal Christian, seeking person, new Christian, growing Christian, or mature Christian. All of us live out our theology, which is our personal experience with the LORD, regardless of what that experience may be.
The more time you spend with your Bible and your God, meditating and reflecting on them, while building a robust, sound, and comprehensive theology, the more profound your sanctification will be. There is no reasonable argument against this.
I have counseled hundreds of people whose lives were dysfunctional and without exception there was always something wrong with their internal, personal relationship with the LORD. For starters, they have not been passively obedient.
- Are you in love with the Bible?
- How are you being mastered by the Bible?
- Do you have a passionate and intimate relationship with Jesus?
- How is that relationship transforming you on the inside?
If these things are not happening to you, then you are not even passively obedient. The animating center of your life should be a growing, wild, powerful, satisfying, reciprocal, intercourse with God, as the Puritans framed it. If you are not incrementally heading in that direction, then stop and turn around because you are going the wrong way.
Caution for passive obedience
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. – James 1:22 (ESV)
With that said, there is an unintended consequence to the passive obedience teaching. This is not new. Passive obedience exclusivity has crept into some of our Gospel sanctification teaching over the past few years. Some people who have jumped on the centrality of the Gospel train have made more of passive obedience and less of active obedience.
- The Gospel plus nothing does equal salvation.
- The Gospel plus nothing does equal progressive sanctification if you work at it.
Some will say our sanctification is all of grace, therefore the Gospel plus nothing equals our sanctification. This is poorly communicated. It happens all the time. In our effort to make a memorable point, we dip our toes into hyperbole.
Nobody disagrees (or they should not disagree) that our salvation and sanctification are all of grace. For by grace we are saved and sanctified. I am really cool with that if in our desire to beat back the legalists we do not forget to add we are to do some stuff if we want to mature in our sanctification.
The stuff we do is all made possible by grace. Agreed. Nobody is supposed to brag about their obedience, but all of us are called to be obedient. If our obedience is not active, then we have no way of putting Jesus on display in our culture, unless we just walk around letting our little light shine through our teeth.
For by grace we actively obey
At the end of most of my articles you will find application questions. Many times I title these questions a call to action because I am hoping the reader will do more than pray and mentally reflect (passive) on what they read. I want the reader to activate their faith with clear, specific, and practical action items.
The reason for this is because there is a big struggle with us in living out an obedient life. There is a war going on in our souls, in our relationships, and in our world. While the teaching of 2 Corinthians 3:18 is good and needful teaching, there are scores of Scriptures that talk about the need for working out our faith (Philippians 2:12).
The recipients of Paul’s letters (Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, etc.) were caught in all kinds of things and he appealed to them about how to overcome their sin problems. Part of Paul’s solution was knowing God (passive), but there was also an active element that he gave equal time to.
An excellent example of this is the book of Ephesians. The first half of the book (three chapters) talks about God, who He is, what He has done, how He thinks about us, His overall trustworthiness, and the multifaceted benefits of His great salvation.
These three chapters should always be clearly understood when we talk about obedience because God is our foundation. As important as this is, and it is, Paul did not stop his teaching. He then gave us a three chapter call to action.
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called. – Ephesians 4:1 (ESV)
In chapter four Paul launches into how we are to practically apply this Gospel truth. There is no doubt from reading these passages that sanctification is hard active work. There are things we must do in order to mature in progressive sanctification.
Paul urged us to walk in a manner that is worthy of the calling. Rather than saying all we need to do is believe, we should say,
Because of the great love in which He loved us, we are motivated and empowered to obey (walk) Him in all ways and, thus, we workout our obedience by doing things.
This is a better statement for Gospel sanctification, which puts the Gospel as first, foundational, and fundamental. The Gospel comes before (Ephesians 1-3) our obedience and it because of the Gospel that we are motivated and empowered to obey (Ephesians 4-6)
Underselling Gospel obedience
A wrong view of passive obedience teaches, “The only thing to think about and the only thing to put your energy and resources into is belief and if you do this, you are not going to fail. And if you do fail, it proves you do not believe in the LORD the way you should.”
This kind of teaching does undersell temptation, sin, the enemy, and our depravity. There is a proportional responsibility on my part to do things. I must obey and my obedience is more contoured than just my belief system or my identity or how I think about and know the LORD.
- I am to believe God (John 3:16).
- I am to amputate sin (Matthew 5:30).
- I am to mortify (to make dead) the members of my body (Romans 8:13).
- I am to put off the old man (Ephesians 4:22).
- I am to renew my mind (Ephesians 4:23).
- I am to put on Christ (Ephesians 4:24).
- I am to be a doer of the word, not just a hearer only (James 1:22).
- I am to put on the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6:11).
- I am to flee fornication (2 Timothy 2:22).
- I am to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).
- I am to forgive those who persecute me (Matthew 5:44).
- I am to actively try to live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:18).
- I am to suffer (Philippians 1:29; 1 Peter 2:21).
This list goes on and on and on and on. (Download the one another passages.) This is not a works based theology (or salvation). The Gospel is the foundation to my salvation and my sanctification and any response to the Gospel is only because of the LORD’s unmerited favor that enables me to respond.
Below are four examples of people who need more than belief in God. These examples come from my life narrative. In the moment of these tragic circumstances I needed more than,
“Trust God; it will be okay. You are loved by Jesus. Just believe.”
A person who has experienced a tragic circumstance like the murder of a loved one, will need to do a whole lot more than just “believe” God to work through all the webs that sin has brought upon them.
A person who has been verbally abused by his parents, especially his dad, and then grows up to be crippled by fear of man, will need to know more than believe God. He will need to believe God, no doubt, but he will also need to be helped to fight against the onslaught of sin that attacks his belief system.
A person who just found out his wife committed adultery, will have a lot more to work through than just trust God. There is no question his stability will be proportional to his belief in God, but like the aforementioned illustrations, he will be called upon to do some mighty things.
A person who just lost his spouse and children because of sin will need to trust the LORD. This is essential and not debate-able. This person also needs to be trained in how to overcome the complexity of sin that is trying to entrap him.
In these four illustrations, I had to do more than trust God, believe in Him, and rest in Him. This was more than a mental mind game of shaking myself until my belief was strong enough to keep me from sinning. There was a lot of wrestling, over a period of years, that helped to bring my soul back around to Christian normalcy.
Both/and not either/or
The Bible teaches passive and active obedience. I am a proponent of “marinating your mind” in the Gospel, which is learning who God is and what He has done for me. I have been making a big deal of this for years–we must become overwhelmed by the Gospel and based on this “overwhelmed” condition of the soul, our obedience will be affected.
If our obedience is not affected by the Gospel, then we will run the risk of becoming legalists–works that are not born out of a heart that is overwhelmed in the knowledge of God’s heart and good intentions for us.
However, there is an active obedience aspect to our sanctification that must not be avoided. When a sensual woman pops up on my computer screen, I will need to do more than just ramp up my belief in God. I need to “flee fornication” (2 Timothy 2:22).
According to the passive obedience teaching if I had enough belief–appreciation for God’s heart and good intentions for me, then I would not be tempted. This begs the question: when is enough belief, enough belief?
It is the “lightning rod question”. When someone asks the size of the lightning rod they should put on the house, the answer is in a question: tell me how big the lightning will be that will strike your house?
It is an unanswerable question. Nobody knows. When will you have enough belief? I do not know. In the meantime, it would be good to always be growing in your awareness of and appreciation for God while you are actively putting off your old person and putting on the Christlike person (Ephesians 4:22-24).
Your call to action
- How do you need to change after reading this piece?
- What will you do about it?