The Sanctification Cycle

Several weeks ago I preached a message at Hope Church called The Sanctifying Work of the Holy Spirit (audio is above) as part of our 5 Marks of a Healthy Disciple series. A big chunk of this sermon was taken up by an explanation of what I call the sanctification cycle. I have found that sanctification happens in four general phases. (I use the word phases rather than steps because these do not always go in order, they often overlap, and sometimes happen all at the same time.) These phases represent the cyclical work of the Holy Spirit as he forms believers into the image of Jesus. Just as we are never truly done with phase one, we never truly master phase four in this life.

As you journey with Jesus, perhaps the sanctification cycle can serve as a sort of map for where the Spirit has you. On what is the Spirit focussing his sanctifying efforts in your life? Identifying the work of the Spirit in specific terms will help you cooperate with him to achieve his goals for your good. Is he convicting you of sin? If so, what sin? How can you focus your energies on overcoming that sin? Is he empowering you for mission? If so, has he given you specific direction? Of course, it may not be so easy to identify the work of the Spirit, but having a map could help you hear his voice more clearly.

Phase One: Conviction of Sin

The first phase of the sanctification cycle is the conviction of sin. As he was describing the work of the Spirit, Jesus told his disciples that one of his primary tasks was to convict the world of sin and righteousness. This is true for every believer, too. One of the most important tasks of the Holy Spirit is to name our sin and call us to repentance. Unnamed sins maintain their hold on our lives, but God longs to set us free from the power of sin. He wants us to live in the same freedom, and with the same power over sin, in which Jesus lived.

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Over Your Head
Ezekiel was an enigmatic prophet who saw and proclaimed strange and beautiful things. In chapter 47 of his book, he records part of a powerful, hopeful vision given to him by God. In this vision he saw a river flowing from the restored temple. At first, the water of the river was only ankle-deep. But as he was led out a little bit farther, it became knee-deep. A little farther still and it was waist-deep. Beyond that, however, it grew deep enough to swim in – so deep, in fact, that no one could cross it.

Everywhere the river flowed, even in the wasteland, life sprang forth. Fruit trees grew up on either side, yielding all kinds of fruit for food and leaves for healing. The river flowed down to the Dead Sea, where it turned the salt water fresh, and fish from all over the world lived in it. Where the river flows, the prophet testified, everything will live.


Where the river flows everything will live.
Wednesday night at General Council (the biennial national conference of our denomination, the Christian & Missionary Alliance), David Hearn, president of the Alliance in Canada, preached a powerful message on this passage. His main point was this: The Spirit is the river, and it’s time to get in over your head. Too many Christians are settling for an ankle-deep experience of the Holy Spirit. We ask the Lord for a favor, but not for power. We ask Jesus to save us from our sins, but not to send us on mission. We’re not interested in discovering or using the gifts the Spirit has given us, and even when we are it’s usually for the purpose of self-fulfillment. We’re ankle-deep in a bottomless river because we’re afraid of losing control. We’re afraid of what might happen when we get in over our heads.

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Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society by R. R. Reno

What Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society Is About

R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things, the only magazine to which I subscribe and read regularly. His book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, takes its inspiration from T.S. Eliot’s essay, “The Idea of a Christian Society.” For Reno, this grand idea of the possibility of a truly Christian society has been rejected by, and therefore lost to, American culture, much to that culture’s detriment. This is not to say that America ever was a genuine Christian society, but that the mere thought of such a society has vanished.

At the heart of the American story, one discovers the idea of freedom. But what is freedom? Reno argues that the meaning of freedom has shifted over time, and is now understood as “unimpeded choice and self-definition.” Freedom has become an end in itself, a sort of circular reasoning that never escapes the orbit of its own justification. We understand ourselves as free for freedom’s sake, not to perform a duty or responsibility for some higher good beyond ourselves. This, he argues, is a dangerous misunderstanding that deconstructs social norms upon which the poor and weak depend for stability and livelihood.

The logic of faith runs counter to the cult of freedom. The freedom for which Christ makes us free is quite different from the freedom championed by modern liberal culture, the freedom of self-determining, even self-defining, choice that ends up paradoxically reinforcing our slavery to worldly powers. …Christian freedom grows in proportion to our obedience to Christ and to the natural truths of the human condition. A society encourages human flourishing to the degree that the supernatural authority of God’s revelation is proclaimed and the natural authority of his creation sustained.

-Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, p. 5-6

We need a Christian society because only Christ offers the freedom that is full and true. Apart from him, haunted by the half-truths of post-protestant preaching, a culture’s pursuit of freedom becomes militant to the point of tyrannical. “Securing a total freedom – always only for the sake of freedom – will require us to criminalize nature.” (p. 31) Nothing, even nature itself, can withstand our quest for absolute autonomy. This is seen most clearly in progressivism’s sudden and militant campaign for transgender rights, in which nature’s most basic (and forthright) indicators of gender are despised as oppressive transgressors of the individual’s right to self-definition. But the self is not a reliable telos of freedom. True freedom is discovered only in the service of something beyond the self. “In order to be free we need a higher truth to serve. …Our American dream of freedom will become a nightmare if we do not put it in the loyal service of something greater than ourselves.” (p. 36-7)

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Executive Order Refugees Perfect Love Drives Out Fear

I don’t know much about the refugee crisis, or why President Trump has issued an executive order to close our borders to people from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, Lebanon, and Libya. I’ve read the executive order, but I couldn’t parse the political or social implications of it for my children. The global political situation is beyond my comprehension. I don’t understand the causes of the war in Syria. I can’t tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys, and I’m not sure there is a difference anymore. My Twitter timeline and Facebook feed are filled with posts of varying degrees of outrage at Trump’s executive order. I don’t know whether I should be outraged, and if so how much, because, in our post-truth culture, I don’t know who to trust to explain this to me.

When the chaos and confusion of our culture swirl around me, my instinct is to lash myself to the only fixed point I know – Jesus Christ. He is my Rock, and the one on whom I can rely in distressing times. When I don’t know how to move forward, I try my best to find Jesus and just follow him. While I cannot speak to the complexities of holding political office (particularly the office of President), I believe I have something to say to my fellow Christians, particularly my evangelical brothers and sisters.

The world is a dangerous place. It has always been this way, though some of us in America have not had to experience the kind of imminent threats that people in Syria deal with today. But the reality is that death, disease, and suffering are never far away. Whether the threat is from a microscopic virus or a bloodthirsty warlord, there is much in our world to make us afraid. Fear is, more often than not, the rational choice.


Fear is not an option for those who follow Jesus.
But it is not a choice that Christians are permitted to make. Fear is not an option for those who follow Jesus. All of life is an act of discipleship, therefore all of life must be a demonstration of the agape love Jesus exemplified in his life, and most completely at the cross. The Scriptures are clear: “Perfect love drives out fear.” (1 John 4:18) Our own love may be imperfect, but if the Holy Spirit dwells within and among us, then so does the perfect love of God. The Church is the place where fear does not get to have a voice because the melodies of God’s love are too loud, too strong, too catchy.

As the people of God, we do not have a choice between fear and love. We are compelled to love and commanded to reject fear. Fear must never be our rationale for any decision, large or small. We cannot support public policy that rejects refugees because one of them may (by the tiniest of chances) be connected to a terrorist organization. It is impossible to faithfully follow Jesus by carrying your cross while at the same time deny hospitality and refuge to those in need because you are afraid that they might mean you harm. Jesus knew what the Romans were going to do to him, and he overcame the fear he expressed in the Garden by steeling himself toward the cross. Why did he do this? Because he loved the world – even the Roman soldiers who crucified him!

Perhaps there really are terrorist agents trying to sneak into this country through the refugee process. Jesus didn’t command us to be unwise or naive. But in the absence of clear information, we must not assume the worst of others. We must love without fear. We must welcome the stranger; after all, how do we know we aren’t secretly entertaining angels? We must provide for the needy, because as Jesus himself said, when we do this we are doing it for him. We must love others and entrust ourselves to God.

I admit, that’s not a very good public policy. But I’m a pastor, not a politician. My primary citizenship is in the kingdom of God, not the United States of America. I’m not calling on the state to enact a more Christian policy. I’m calling on the Church to act more Christianly. Don’t be afraid, Church. Jesus has conquered our greatest enemy, death itself. There is no one, then, that we should fear; but there is everyone that we can love.

Onward by Russell Moore

What Onward is About

Onward by Russell Moore is a call for American evangelicals to engage the culture in a way that is faithful to the Gospel. American culture has changed. It is no longer allied with Christian values. The Bible Belt is collapsing. In Moore’s view, this is not necessarily a bad thing. For too long American culture has embraced Christian values while simultaneously rejecting the Christian Gospel. This has created a cultural Christianity that is a perversion of the true faith, a moralism that exalts Jesus as right or correct, without submitting to him as Lord. “We ought to see the ongoing cultural shake-up in America as a liberation of sorts from a captivity we never even knew we were in. The closeness of American culture with the church caused many sectors of the American church to read the Bible as though the Bible were pointing us to America itself.” (p. 7)

The demise of the Bible Belt and American Christianity is an opportunity too good for the Church to miss. This allows for a sort of purification of the Church in America, a disentanglement from partisan politics and ethnic nationalism. The end of American Christianity ought to open the eyes of Christians in America that our country is not, and really never was, Christian. Rather than clinging to the last vestiges of political influence, we ought to turn our attention to true Gospel influence, which is far bigger than any political party’s platform. In a particularly prescient passage, Moore writes, “If politics drives the gospel, rather than the other way around, we end up with a public witness in which Mormon talk-show hosts and serially-monogamous casino magnates and prosperity-gospel preachers are welcomed into our ranks, regardless of what violence they do the gospel. They are, after all, ‘right on the issues.'” (p.32) In the wake of the election of President Trump, and the strong evangelical support that helped get him into office, this passage cuts to the core of what is wrong with American Christianity.

Keep Christianity Strange Onward by Russell MooreThe thematic thrust of Onward is made clear in a pithy statement, written in bold letters, on the back cover of the book: Keep Christianity Strange. Calling to mind bumper stickers like “Keep Austin Weird,” Moore urges us to recover the peculiarity of the Gospel. When culture faith become entangled, it is always faith that suffers. The Christian faith lost its peculiar power in America precisely because it became normal. As Moore writes, “The church of Jesus Christ is never a majority – in any fallen culture – even if we happen to outnumber everyone else around us. The Scripture speaks of a world system that is at odds with the kingdom, a world to which we are constantly tempted to pattern our own intellects and affections after, until we are interrupted by the ongoing transformation of the kingdom.” (p. 29) The systems of the world are always antichrist; they are always inimical to the Gospel and the transformative work of the Spirit. This was as true in ancient Rome as it is in modern America.

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