Sanctification — Its Human Factor
Having shown that sanctification has a divine source, we must now turn our attention to the human factor in the process of sanctification. To stress the divine source and ignore the human factor is a terrible theological blunder — comparable to a doctrine of the incarnation which acknowledges Christ's divinity and ignores His humanity. We know that a sound doctrine of the incarnation must be balanced. It must give full weight to the reality of Christ's divinity and full weight to the reality of His humanity. The same principle applies to the doctrine of sanctification. If we stress the divine work and ignore the factor of human effort, we run into the error of quietism or mysticism — or something worse. If we play up the importance of human effort and ignore sanctification's divine source, we run into the error of humanistic moralism.
In order to avoid the pitfall of quietism and mystic piety, the first thing we draw attention to is this: The Holy Spirit's work in the human heart is not substitutionary. So often we hear it said in reference to Christian existence: "The battle is not yours; it is God's." "Let go and let God." "Yield yourself to God as a passive channel, and He will live the victorious life in you." "The Lawgiver on the throne can become the Lawkeeper in your heart." But the Bible knows nothing about this type of mystic, passive, effeminate piety. This error results from utterly confusing the work of the Second and Third Persons of the Godhead.
The work of the Second Person of the Godhead was substitutionary. He lived for us a sinless life. He stood in our place in the judgment of God and was wounded for our transgressions. He rose again for our justification. And as our Representative, Substitute and Surety, He now presents the merits of His life and death on our behalf in the presence of the Father. These glorious redemptive acts are substitutionary. They are done for us. They are done outside of us and without our effort or aid. The gospel proclaims that Christ has thus fought and won the battle for us. Sin has been put away, death conquered, Satan defeated, and everlasting righteousness has been presented and accepted in the presence of God on our behalf. This glad word of salvation creates the faith to passively accept this free title to justification and life eternal.
Now the same thing cannot be said about the Spirit's work or our response to His work. His work is in no sense substitutionary, as was Christ's work on the cross. But an inadequate doctrine of justification to life eternal by substitution, representation and imputation through passive acceptance, causes the deadly error of passive sanctification.
The Bible teaches that faith is the gift of the Holy Spirit and that good works are the fruit of the Spirit's working. But the Bible does not teach that the Holy Spirit does the believing and good works for us. Faith is a meaningful human activity. It is the human agent who does the believing. It is called "your faith." 2 Thess. 1:3. The same thing is true about the works which spring from faith. Paul calls it "your work of faith." 1 Thess. 1:3. It is not called Christ's work of faith nor the Spirit's work of faith, but "your work of faith."
While the Holy Spirit imparts the righteous attributes of God to the soul and then inspires, motivates and empowers the believer to a life of good works, He is generally not represented to us as the One who does the acts of righteousness. The great preponderance of Bible texts attribute the actual deeds to the believer, i.e.:
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. — Matt. 5:16.
Although sanctification is a divine work, it does not take place apart from human cooperation and meaningful human activity. The part of divine grace and human effort is neatly balanced in Paul's appeal to the Philippians: ". . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure." Phil. 2:12, 13.
And it shall be our righteousness, if we observe to do all these commandments before the Lord our God, as He hath commanded us. — Deut. 6:25.
Now He that ministereth seed to the sower both minister bread for your food, and multiply your seed sown, and increase the fruits of your righteousness . . . — 2 Cor. 9:10.
. . . your work of faith, and labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father . . . — 1 Thess. 1:3.
Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as He is righteous. — 1 John 3:7.
Blessed are they that keep judgment, and he that doeth righteousness at all times. — Ps. 106:3.
When the righteous turneth from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, he shall even die thereby. — Ezek. 33:18.
In sanctification God's grace is no substitute for human effort. We are called to work out what He works in. The Spirit works in us to will and to do, but He does not propose to do for us the willing or doing. That is our work.
The mystical view which attributes the Christian life solely to the Spirit or indwelling of Christ is not only contrary to the realism of the Bible; it destroys the place for human personality and individuality. God wants every individuality to remain distinct. Union with Christ does not mean the mystical absorption of the human into the divine. He does not intend to denigrate the significance of human personality. Redemption means the restoration of true selfhood and the dignity of true self-possession. The Holy Spirit calls the human faculties into exercise, and man, as a responsible agent, is given the inestimable privilege of being a laborer together with God.
Under the influence of quietism, where the Spirit is said to "do it all for you," people get the idea that they must go into neutral gear, cast away their God-given individuality and personal identity, and become some sort of zombie under the Spirit's control. Others, feeling that the Spirit must do it all, will engage in no activity unless they "feel the Spirit move." By this error the door is left open to the strangest human eccentricities.
The Christian life is not just a matter of being a passive channel for the Spirit. The Bible constantly calls us to meaningful activity. There is real work to do. The sanctified life is a fight, a race, a battle. We are called to do, work, watch and suffer. Says Bishop Ryle:
I do not say that the expression "Christ in us" is unscriptural. But I do say that I see great danger of giving an extravagant and unscriptural importance to the idea contained in the expression; and I fear that many use it now-a-days without exactly knowing what they mean, and unwittingly, perhaps, dishonour the mighty work of the Holy Ghost. If any readers think that I am needlessly scrupulous about the point, I recommend to their notice a curious book by Samuel Rutherford (author of the well-known letters), called "The Spiritual Antichrist." They will there see that two centuries ago the wildest heresies arose out of an extravagant teaching of this very doctrine of the "indwelling of Christ" in believers. They will find that Saltmarsh, and Dell, and Towne, and other false teachers, against whom good Samuel Rutherford contended, began with strange notions of "Christ in us," and then proceeded to build on the doctrine antinomianism, and fanaticism of the worst description and vilest tendency. They maintained that the separate, personal life of the believer was so completely gone, that it was Christ living in him who repented, and believed, and acted! The root of this huge error was a forced and unscriptural interpretation of such texts as 'I live: yet not I, but Christ liveth in me." (Gal. ii. 20.) And the natural result of it was that many of the unhappy followers of this school came to the comfortable conclusion that believers were not responsible, whatever they might do! Believers, forsooth, were dead and buried; and only Christ lived in them, and undertook everything for them! The ultimate consequence was, that some thought they might sit still in a carnal security, their personal accountableness being entirely gone, and might commit any kind of sin without fear! Let us never forget that truth, distorted and exaggerated, can become the mother of the most dangerous heresies. . . .
We may summarize the human factor in sanctification by saying that it includes both faith and obedience. First, sanctification requires faith (Acts 26:18). By faith the soul is united to Christ as the branch is united to the vine (John 15:1-5). As the branch partakes of the life of the sap and nourishment of the vine, so the soul who by faith is united to Christ becomes a partaker in His life. Second, sanctification requires obedience (1 Pet. 1:22). The believer must work out what God works in. Human activity is enlisted in the great work of building a character after the divine similitude. This is the greatest and most important work that any human being is called to engage in.
. . . is it wise to teach believers that they ought not to think so much of fighting and struggling against sin, but ought rather to "yield themselves to God," and be passive in the hands of Christ? Is this according to the proportion of God's Word? I doubt it.
It is a simple fact that the expression "yield yourselves" is only to be found in one place in the New Testament, as a duty urged upon believers. That place is in the sixth chapter of Romans, and 'there within six verses the expression occurs five times. (See Rom. vi. 13-19.) But even there the word will not bear the sense of "placing ourselves passively in the hands of another." Any Greek student can tell us that the sense is rather that of actively "presenting" ourselves for use, employment, and service. (See Rom. xii. 1.) The expression therefore stands alone. But, on the other hand, it would not be difficult to point out at least twenty-five or thirty distinct passages in the Epistles where believers are plainly taught to use active personal exertion, and are addressed as responsible for doing energetically what Christ would have them do, and are not told to "yield themselves" up as passive agents and sit still, but to arise and work. A holy violence, a conflict, a warfare, a fight, a soldier's life, a wrestling, are spoken of as characteristic of the true Christian. The account of "the armour of God" in the sixth chapter of Ephesians, one might think, settles the question.3 — Again, it would be easy to show that the doctrine of sanctification without personal exertion, by simply "yielding ourselves to God," is precisely the doctrine of the antinomian fanatics in the seventeenth century (to whom I have referred already, described in Rutherford's Spiritual Antichrist), and that the tendency of it is evil in the extreme.—Again, it would be easy to show that the doctrine is utterly subversive of the whole teaching of such tried and approved books as Pilgrim's Progress, and that if we receive it we cannot do better than put Bunyan's old book in the fire! If Christian in Pilgrim's Progress simply yielded himself to God, and never fought, or struggled, or wrestled, I have read the famous allegory in vain. — J.C. Ryle, Holiness, pp. xvi, xvii.
3 Old Sibbe's sermon on "Victorious Violence" deserves the attention of all who have his works. — vol. vii, p.30.