New Testament sanctification typically happens in corporate contexts, not in isolation. The apostle Paul wrote mostly to local churches, teaching those communities how to do mutual, reciprocal, life together.
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People, according to Paul’s sanctification theology, were a primary means of grace in helping each other to grow in Christian maturity. And the primary roadblock to personal growth and relational harmony are our sins.
Seek Mature Communities
Do you remember the first time you heard yourself on an audio recording? Were you surprised at what you were hearing? No one else was surprised, right? You were the last to know what everyone else already knew, which is why you don’t want to under-value the opinions of others about you.
A rich man is an individual who has mature Christian friends who are willing to help him grow into spiritual manhood. And he makes it easy for his friends to care for him by insisting that they be honest with their assessments. He understands how sin is unavoidable.
And he said to his disciples, Temptations to sin are sure to come. – Luke 17:1
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. – James 5:16
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. – 1 John 1:8
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any (sin), you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. – Galatians 6:1
All in the Family
The family is one of these fallen communities where sanctification can happen. It would be a frustrating experience to expect our children not to sin. We understand that a more reachable goal is to provide a context for our children to succeed and fail, and then respond in godly ways to both inevitabilities.
We want to encourage, motivate, and celebrate with them when they succeed and we want to comfort, confront, and help them when they sin. What better place for children to sin than in a family community where the parents equip them for life?
A healthy community embraces the positive and negative of people’s lives while coming alongside each other to mutually equip one another.
- The Bad News: We are sinners who live with other sinners in a fallen world.
- The Good News: The gospel is the perfect solution for sinners in a fallen world.
We’re not in heaven yet, and the implication is clear if you’re a Christian: you are not entirely sanctified. From a Christian worldview, you understand that complete sanctification will happen only when you reach heaven.
The sobering reality for all of us is that the time between God’s salvation and our eternal destiny is a “getting progressively sanctified kind of life.” Our “incomplete salvation” generates two possible responses to the doctrine of sin.
- We can deny that sinfulness exists in our lives.
- We can embrace sin’s sobering reality by aggressively fighting against it in a context of friends who are doing similarly for the Lord’s fame.
Deniers, Avoiders, and the Fearful
Occasionally you will hear someone say “the gospel is for our salvation and the gospel is for our sanctification.” I firmly believe this statement, and would further assert that this belief is necessary for any Christian to live victoriously.
Of course, one of the critical implications is that sin is always lurking in the shadows. If there were no sin, there would be no need for the gospel. If Adam had not fallen (Genesis 3:6), there would be no need for a redeemer (Genesis 3:15). Thus, Christ came to save us from ourselves.
Where the rub generally comes is how we live between the time of God’s regeneration and when He takes us to heaven. There are three broad categories of people who struggle with the “sin is present with us” idea.
The Deniers – these Christians say that sin does not exist once you become a Christian. They say, “I am dead to sin.” This perspective is a product of legalism. Legalists try hard to separate themselves from sin. They misinterpret John’s perspective on worldliness by teaching that worldliness is in the world as opposed to being in the heart (1 John 2:15-16).
For the “deniers” to be faithful to their theology, they have to ignore, re-categorize, or justify their sin. This posture is not tenable because it leads to personal frustration and relational conflict.
The Avoiders – this group puts their fingers in their ears and scream, “Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na,” ad infinitum. They are sincere and want to live for Christ. Sadly, they are stricken with the same sin as the deniers.
If you say you have no sin, you make God a liar, and the truth is not in you. – 1 John 1:8
To be an avoider, you also have to re-categorize, ignore, and rationalize your sin away. The avoiders generally go from conflict to conflict, rarely ever resolving their issues.
The Fearful – this group knows they sin but they don’t want anyone to discover their problems. Transparency is a frightening proposition for them. To be vulnerable about their struggles is not a “best case scenario,” which is a manifestation of self-righteousness.
Many times these people come from discouraging and condemning relational communities. For example, they may have had harsh dads, or they were part of a legalistic religious culture. They love “grace” but over-react to it by denying the truthfulness of their sinfulness. It is hard for them to juxtapose sin and grace the way Paul did. (Cf. 1 Timothy 1:15-16)
To avoid, deny, or respond fearfully to the actual sin in your post-salvation experience, is to mock and devalue the gospel. To say you have no sin is to say you do not need the gospel. This posture is a dangerous and heretical position for any believer to take.
Jesus did not come for the “healthy,” which brings us to the value and beauty of small contexts for change. Sanctification is a community event, a shared life between fellow sinners who have been saved by the grace of God.
A small group that embraces the reality of sin and the potential of conflict will position itself to be able to resolve its disputes in ways that glorify God.
Art and Care of Correction
An elderly lady from our church approached me about a complaint that she had with a friend. Her buddy was an “irritant,” and she wanted me to do something about it. I’ll never forget her reaction when I told her that in the spirit of Matthew 18:15-18, she needed to go and confront her friend.
My friend was terrified. Her eyes widened, and her mouth dropped slightly, and she whispered something to the effect of “I can’t do that.” The thought of confronting another person about their sin is one of the more difficult things for Christians to do.
I understand. I continue to struggle with my obligation to others and obedience before God to confront folks. As I told my dear friend, this is not primarily about bringing correction to her friend as it is about honoring our heavenly Father.
She needed to “step up to the plate” and honor God in a challenging situation by saying a few hard things. Because of the inevitableness of saved sinners sinning against one another, there will always be opportunities to honor God by carefully and lovingly confronting others.
A few days later my dear friend came back beaming. She obeyed the “go” imperative of Matthew 18, and God surprised her with the grace of a restored friendship. Those two old ladies remained friends and deepened their affection and care for each other.
The following are a few useful confrontational tips that will help you as you seek to serve your friends in their sanctification.
Affection – you should not confront a person with whom you do not have affection. If you confront a person that you do not “carry in your heart,” there is a possibility that you will not confront them carefully or lovingly. Paul had this kind of affection for the Corinthian church, which was the preface to his confrontational letter to them (1 Corinthians 1:1-9).
As you read the text, you will feel the affection that Paul had for the Corinthians. He genuinely loved them. My elderly friend loved her friend, which was one of the reasons it went so well. Be careful about confronting folks with whom you lack affection.
Thanksgiving – Paul said that he spent time before God, thanking Him for them (1 Corinthians 1:4). Are you thankful for the person you are about to correct? Does the person know you are grateful to God for them?
Gratitude to God for the person you are about to correct will make a huge difference in how you go about correction. Your friend will be able to discern your gratitude for them.
Patience – one of the implications of the gospel is God’s patience with stubborn people. Typically when I am impatient with an individual, it is because I’m asking them to change in an area that I have somewhat mastered.
Perhaps I have spent the past five, ten, or fifteen years applying grace to that particular area of my life. If this kind of self-righteousness grips your soul, you must “preach the gospel” to yourself by reminding yourself how patient God continues to be with you.
Encouragement – always begin your time of correction by encouraging the person. Most assuredly they have done something right. Even Paul was able to speak about evidence of grace in the Corinthians.
Identify evidence of God’s gracious activity in their lives and let them know about it. Are the people you generally correct more aware of your correction or your encouragement? The Lord loves the people that He corrects. He confronts in a context of love. What is the primary setting in which you correct people? (See Hebrews 12:6)
Think the Best – Philippians 1:6 teaches that God will complete what He began with His children. God is a finisher! Are you more prone to be discouraged or complain about an unchanging Christian or are you more prone to rest and trust in God to finish what He has begun?
In the heat of the moment, it is imperative that you “preach the gospel” to yourself. It may seem bleak, they may be irritating, and change seems such a long way off, but God is a finisher. Can you rest and trust in His excellent work in the life of the person you are correcting?
All Correction Is Speck Fishing
What are you more aware of when you think about correcting another person? Are you more aware of your sin or theirs? How you answer this question will have a practical effect on the person you are adjusting.
Christ appealed that when it comes to addressing the sin of others, you must approach them with the awareness that there is a log in your eye, but only a speck in theirs. He could not be more explicit in Matthew 7:3-5.
And trust me, this is so easy to forget. Paul seemed never to forget he was the worst sinner that he knew. (See 1 Timothy 1:15) Though Paul did not wallow in “what he was,” he never wanted to forget who he was before the Lord found him. This thinking is counter-intuitive for the self-righteous, self-esteeming Christian.
For Paul, it was a healthy way to think. This theological point was a key component for him when it came to correcting others. Rarely was he harsh, unkind, or uncharitable to those who needed his admonition. He was acutely aware of who the biggest sinner was.
One of the questions that I have asked my counselees is, “Who do you think the biggest (or worst) sinner is in the office, from my perspective?” I know the correct answer to that question will guard my heart regarding how I think about myself and them.
It will also mitigate temptations to sin, i.e., unkindness, harshness, uncharitable judgments, condescension, impatience, and general rudeness.
Sadly, I have committed all of these sins with those that I have served. Each time that I sin these ways, it is because I get the “log and speck dynamic” reversed. A practical way that I adjust my heart biblically is by sharing the following with my friends.
I do not know what all you have done, but this is what I have done: I put Christ on the cross. And no matter what you have done, you have not done anything that comes remotely close to the sin that I have committed against my Lord.
I am sharing this from my perspective, not theirs. If they are humble, they will want to “argue” the point by saying that they are a worse sinner than I am. That is a “healthy argument” for two Christians to have.
Making It Practical
Here are four more tips that will serve you if you make them part of how you correct others.
Examine Your Heart – make sure your motives are right. It is essential that you have their best interests in mind (Philippians 2:3-4). If you are not other-centered in your correction, you can assume that your correction will not go well for you or them.
Assume You Missed Something – you’re not omniscient. There have been too many times in my life when I believed that I had all the data needed to correct a person, only to find out afterward that I did not know the whole truth. You and I are not God. Assume you don’t know everything there is to know about the situation.
Ask Questions – if you assume you don’t have all the data, you’ll more than likely ask the person questions, rather than make statements. A wise man will ask questions rather than assume he already knows everything when correcting someone. Here are some sample questions:
- I heard you say (fill in the blank). Is that correct?
- Is that what I heard? Tell me what I am missing?
- You know that I can miss things from time to time. Will you help me fill in the blanks so I can understand better?
- The other day I heard you say (fill in the blank), and it sounded a bit harsh from my perspective, but I probably misunderstood. Can you help me with this? What am I missing?
All of these questions approach the person with the “log in your eye” rather than telling the person he has the log in his eye.
Confess Your Sins – if the confronting person is humble enough to share his issues with the other person, he is releasing that individual from the fear of transparency. Once they know that you struggle, they will more than likely let you know their challenges.
If you come across as having it all together, it will inhibit them from sharing openly. Let him know what he already knows about you. With specificity, share how you are flawed and watch him relax and open up right before your eyes.
If you plan to correct others, with the hope that they will listen to your correction and respond by confessing their sin, then you must lead by being what you want them to become.
Also published on Medium.