A Pastor’s Labor for the Obedience of Faith

A Pastor’s Labor for the Obedience of Faith

The question for those engaged in ministry is whether we ourselves have learned Christ as Paul describes, and can then teach others the grace of God in such a way that leads to sanctification in those who have faith in Christ Jesus. Paul tells Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16).

The matter of sanctification can be simply stated. It has been defined as “the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin and live unto righteousness” (WSC 35). The manner in which this work progresses in a person’s life, however, is more difficult to fathom. This is evident in Paul’s description of his own experience: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15). With consternation he continues, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (v. 19). He questions with deep conviction, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (v. 24), yet concludes with confidence, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v. 25).

While the doctrine of sanctification may be simply stated, understanding our personal experience as we continue to struggle with sin is another matter. And personal confusion in our experience may cloud our comprehension of the doctrine itself.

Perplexity concerning sanctification is not surprising in part because it is not new. Historically, the word mystery has been commonly used. The seventeenth-century pastor Walter Marshall wrote a treatise, stemming in part from his own personal struggle, entitled The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, taken from Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 3:16, “Great is the mystery of godliness.” Another well-known pastor-theologian from the seventeenth century, John Owen, repeatedly uses the word mystery in speaking of sanctification in his treatise on the Holy Spirit, claiming, “The work itself, as hath been before declared at large, is secret and mysterious.” Later, he confesses: “The sense of what the Scripture proposeth, what I believe, and what I desire an experience of, that I shall endeavor to declare. But as we are not in this life perfect in the duties of holiness, no more are we in the knowledge of its nature.”

Despite these difficulties, Marshall and Owen, along with many other Reformed pastors and theologians, have labored to explain the pattern of sanctification and its application as taught in Scripture. In my experience, however, those entering ministry speak with greater clarity about the doctrine of justification than they do sanctification. While confident concerning the necessity of Christ’s death and resurrection for pardon of sin, there may be unease in describing the efficacy of the same for our being conformed to the image of Christ through the work of the Spirit. The question is whether Scripture teaches a clearer pattern of sanctification than we seem able to articulate.

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