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A Christian's Pocket Guide to Growing in Holiness: Understanding SanctificationThis year at GA I went to the RTS Alumni and Friends luncheon. They gave those who attended a gift box that included some books by professors at the various campuses. One book was by J.V. Fesko, Growing in Holiness: Understanding Sanctification, which is part of the Christian’s Pocket Guide series by Christian Focus.

This is the first installment of the series I’ve read, and I’m encouraged to read more. This is a succinct volume on the subject of sanctification that should appeal to those in our congregations who aren’t big readers. It is a mere 3 chapters and 64 small pages. I read it in 3 sittings of less than an hour each.

Fesko does a good job in laying out the material. The 3 chapters are Sanctification Defined, Sanctification Applied and Sanctification Undermined. At the beginning of each chapter he charts the course for the chapter. He interacts with Scripture and the Westminster Confession of Faith.

The one thing lacking is the use of illustrations from everyday life. This results in a more abstract book than some may be comfortable reading.

But what he does is provide a theologically rich summary of the Reformed understanding of sanctification.

Fesko begins with, and often returns to, union with Christ. This is the distinctive view of Reformed Theology. This is rooted in Paul’s theology, not just Calvin. He does explain the “double grace” of justification and sanctification that we receive in union with Christ. We actually receive all spiritual blessings in union with Christ, but these two in particular complement each other and were the focus on the dispute of the Reformation.

Fesko defines each and distinguishes them from one another. But we can’t one without the other. Logically, justification comes first and is the foundation for our sanctification (wherein He make those He has declared positionally righteous personally righteous as well).

Image result for justification and sanctification

(chart source)

Union with Christ is the ultimate basis of sanctification as Christ works in us by the Spirit to make us like He is. This means that like justification, sanctification is by grace alone through faith alone. In Christ we have a new identity that we begin to live out.

In living out that new identity, Fesko discusses the two parts of sanctification: mortification and vivification. Big terms he defines. We put to death that which is associated with Adam our old covenant head because it is corrupt. Sanctification is more than putting sin to death, it is also giving life to virtues or godly character. Both putting the old man to death and bringing then new man to life done in the power of the Spirit. It is a work of God’s free grace, not man’s ceaseless effort.

In Sanctification Applied he goes more fully into the “nuts and bolts” of how this happens. He lays out the means of grace, and therefore the centrality of the body of Christ. Prominence is given to God’s Word: read, preached and in the sacraments. In other words, the church offers us the Word spoken and sacramental. He discusses how we are to pray for God to work so we will understand, believe and obey the Word as revealed in the worship of the church.

In temptation we flee to Jesus in prayer, recalling the Word in its promises and warnings pertaining to our particular need. We are active, not passive, in sanctification. But it is always God who works first: for us and then in us.

In Sanctification Undermined, Fesko identifies the predominant false views of sanctification. He does this briefly, indicating how each of them leads us in the wrong direction. He begins with self-renewal which is rooted in Pelagianism but popularized by Charles Finney as one of his many errors. Sins are habits and we can just stop through the power of our will. It is rooted in self, not grace through faith and our union with Christ. Sanctification without Christ is no sanctification at all.

He then highlights imitation of Christ, particularly the mystical form of Thomas a Kempis. This looks in, not out to Christ. Meditation seems to be separated from the Word of God. (I’m not sure he’s entirely fair to a Kempis, but it has been a number of years since I’ve read him.)

He then outlines Roman Catholicism which has a very different understanding of grace and how that grace is received in the sacraments. Grace is mystical and magical, received through the simple receiving of the sacraments rather than the Reformed understanding of received by faith in the promises of the sacraments.

He then moves to legalism which rightly sees a place for the law, but wrongly depends on the law. This is his opportunity to begin introducing the proper place of the law. But he also shows the weakness of the law. While it reveals, it contains no power in itself. It reveals my sinfulness but cannot change it. I need to be united to Christ!

It’s evil twin is antinomianism which in its various forms indicates that the law has no significant place in our lives after conversion. It is a neglect of the law’s role in revealing righteousness to God’s children. It provides guard rails for us as we grow in Christ. How we lives does matter. The Holy One is making us holy ones.

He includes some book recommendations for further reading. He’s includes some important ones including Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Walter Marshall The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification and Edward Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity. I also recommend these great books for better understanding how the gospel is at work in our sanctification.

Fesko provides us with a clear, succinct volume to help us understand sanctification. This could be a useful book to share with new(er) Christians and to aid conversation about this great work of God in us.

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This time last year the internet and FB groups were abuzz with discussion and disagreement about Revoice. Now we have the sequel as a number of PCA presbyteries are putting out their reports evaluating the Revoice conference. Unlike last year there is evidence to go on instead of speculation and fear.

One of the more weighty reports is the Central Carolina Presbytery report. It is relatively brief, focused and generally fair. I don’t say that last thing to impute wrong-doing. I’ll explain it as we go through.

For those who say “What is Revoice?” that is a complicated question. The answer can sometimes seem like the old proverb about blind people describing it based on the one part they hold. “A tree!” “No, a snake.” “I am holding a rope.” It is an elephant but those individuals have partial knowledge.

It does refer to a conference held at Memorial Presbyterian Church (PCA) in July of 2018. After the initial planning of the conference, Revoice was formed as an organization. This order of actions may explain some (not all) of the lack of clarity regarding their purpose(s). They have scheduled another conference in 2019, which will not be hosted by a church. They also have a new advisory board.

In addition to hosting the event, the pastor of Memorial was a speaker at the initial event. A professor from the denominational seminary was the speaker for a workshop. He was asked because he is particularly qualified to speak to his topic based on his Tyndale Commentary of the Old Testament volume on Leviticus. Dr. Sklar spoke about the continuing relevance of the laws against homosexuality from Leviticus 18 and 20. These connections to the PCA created the false impression that it was a “PCA event”, sponsored or authorized. The church was a host sight, and hosted many events from outside groups. As the Missouri Presbytery ruled, they should have used more discernment and wisdom when approving this.

Their stated goal was misunderstood, as well as other elements of their language or vocabulary. Here is their recently updated purpose:

To support and encourage gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other same-sex attracted Christians—as well as those who love them—so that all in the Church might be empowered to live in gospel unity while observing the historic Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.

They observe the historic doctrines of marriage and sexuality. This is an important thing to keep in mind. This means that they believe and teach that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that sexual activity is to be limited to the marriage relationship.

But the controversy comes with “gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other same-sex attracted Christians”. Their use of those terms creates lots of heat and very little light.

Let’s pause for a moment because I’ve gotten ahead of myself. The Central Carolina study committee limited their work to the main speakers and their sessions. I understand, there were too many workshops to exhaustively examine. The downside of that is that Dr. Sklar was not vindicated as I desired to see happen. I did see one of the more controversial workshops having to do with “queer treasure” being brought into the kingdom. That workshop didn’t address that topic until the last few minutes, and I was still confused. It most mostly a sociological history of homosexuality in America.

They examined messaged by Matthew Lee Anderson, Ron Belgau, Brother Trout, Johanna Finnegan, Eve Tushnet, Nat Collins and Wesley Hill. Wesley Hill is one of the keynote speakers based on how influential his book Washed and Waiting was to the Revoice Founders.

As the Committee notes, this is a very diverse group of people. It is ecumenical in nature. Therefore they don’t speak from a unified set of beliefs beyond basic Christianity. I think this explains some of the lack of clarity as well. But they do represent a diverse set of opinions on topics like sanctification.

Anderson, for instance, talked about “sanctifying our illicit desire”. It would be much better to say we mortify or put to death our illicit desire. Illicit desires are those that we more and more die to. We more and more live to righteous desires.

I wish they had explored his talk more to see if he’s saying this in a way similar to the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s definition of sanctification, or as those those “illicit desires” somehow become good.

Question 35: What is sanctification?
Answer: Sanctification is 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.

Belgau sees same sex attraction as a produce of the fall and needing to be mortified. Brother Trout focused on seeing oneself in the Story such that we have value and direction about how to live beyond the “do’s and don’ts”. Finegan touched largely on issues of language and identity. She also addresses what change a gay person should normally expect to see as they are drawn closer to Jesus. For her, the reality of SSA is part of God’s sovereignty to experience their weakness and seek Him. She also spoke about learning to agree with God when He speaks in His word.

Tushnet sought to provide wisdom for same sex friendships from some of the friendships we find in Scripture. This means she isn’t viewing them as romantic relationships. These become a goal for people. Secondly she wanted to comfort people from God’s love for the marginalized.

Nate Collins’ message was about lament, and touched on some potentially controversial areas when he talked about church leadership. Both Jesus and Jeremiah lamented the corrupt leaders of God’s people. Surely, many pastors and elders have not treated repentant people who struggle with SSA well. Surely some have made the nuclear family into an idol. Many have heard these things and been quite upset. But he does call those who have SSA to suffer with Jesus, to take up the cruciform life.

Hill spoke about the woman caught in adultery to address hope in the midst of shame. He noted that Jesus was not soft on sin. Jesus sees all sinners as needing grace, not some more than others. But Jesus frees her to live a new life.

The Study Committee organized their analysis around five themes:

  • Desire and temptation
  • Labels and identity
  • Spiritual friendship
  • Homosexuality as a gift
  • The pervasiveness of pain

The section on desire and temptation is the longest and most complex.

The Revoice speakers we heard were all united in their belief that the Bible does not allow for gay marriage and that sexual activity between persons of the same-sex is forbidden by God. Given the mood of our culture, not to mention the many revisionist theologies clamoring for our attention, Revoice’s affirmation of certain aspects of biblical sexuality is to be highly commended. We thank God for their commitment to an orthodox, Christian understanding of marriage, especially when such a commitment comes at a personal cost for many in the Revoice movement. (pp. 6)

They turned to the question of: desire for sin or sinful desire? Some may wonder about the difference. Are they desires to do something that is sinful, or are the desires sinful in themselves? The speakers seemed to give different answers to that question. Some spoke of permissible forms of same sex desire. Others spoke of redirecting or redeploying those desires. Others about mortifying those same desires. This is a key area where the ecumenical flavor wrecks havoc.

This is a key area of disagreement among Christians who hold to a traditional understanding of marriage: are same-sex desires sinful, or are they merely disordered desires that become sinful when acted upon? (pp. 6)

TImage result for do not enterhis is a key area, and has large implications for how to care for people as pastors (and elders). One critique that I have of this report is that it polarizes this question. In other words, there are more than two answers to this question. Is temptation sin from the get go, or only when acted upon? fits the two pole theory. But some would argue that temptation is not sin but can become sin in thought (aka lust in this case) even though you don’t act upon it.

One way of looking at this is that temptation is a door. You can see the sin in the other room. Do you close the door and walk away, mortifying that desire? Or do you “enter into temptation” and become carried away. by your lust so you are sinning in thought, and may then sin in deed as well?

This is a difficult question. I reject that idea that it is only sin when acted upon (unless you mean entering into temptation). To lust is clearly sin.

Back to the report.

Most of our disagreements with Revoice start with the theological conviction that the desire for an illicit end is itself an illicit desire. (pp. 6)

They begin with the use of “covet” particularly in the tenth commandment. They then discuss sinful desires or lusts. I prefer the term inordinate desire since the word seems to indicate uppermost desires. The question is: are temptation and lust, or inordinate desires identical? The study committee is answering yes.

Question 18: Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell?
Answer: The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.

They rightly note that we are guilty not only for our sins, but also for original sin. We are corrupt in Adam and our sinful desires flow out of that original corruption. Or as the Catechism says “actual transgressions which proceed from it.” There is a distinction made between indwelling sin or the remnant of sin and the actual transgressions. Is temptation transgression?

The Report brings us to the difference between Roman Catholic Theology and Reformed Theology. In Catholic theology the inclination to sin is called concupiscence. It is to be wrestled with but does no harm unless consented to. Our disordered desires are a result of the fall, but do not become sin (actual transgressions) without our consent (though this is not necessarily defined in the report).

The Study Committee call upon John Calvin, Herman Bavinck and John Owen not only as representatives of Reformed Theology but also to indicate the uniformity of Reformed Thought in disagreeing with Rome AND saying these “inordinate desires” (Calvin) are in fact sin.

I would say that inordinate desires are sin as well. But I’m not identifying temptation with inordinate desires. Using James 1, they ask if ‘temptation’ provides that moral space.

On the face of it, this passage seems to indicate that it is possible to be tempted by evil desires without sinning. Only when the will consents to the temptation does the alluring and enticing desire become sin. Although a plausible reading of the text at first glance, the Reformed tradition has consistently interpreted James 1:14-15 along different lines. (pp. 8)

It gets murkier as we seek to separate bone from marrow. I will confess, my head starts to hurt.

For Calvin, there is indwelling sin (the temptations caused by desire in v. 14b), actual sin (the birth of sin in v. 15a), and—mentioned in the next paragraph in his Commentary—“perfected” sin (the deadly fully grown sin in v. 15b). When James talks about temptations leading to sin, he does not mean that the temptation (in this case) is itself morally neutral.(pp. 8)

TImage may contain: one or more people, people sitting and indoorhey rightly note that both “sin” and “temptation” have ranges of meaning. “Sin” can refer to both the condition and the transgression (want of conformity unto or breaking of God’s law). Temptation can refer to external pressure, such as Jesus experienced yet without sin (Hebrews 4:25). It can also refer to internal pressure, desire that arises from within, which Jesus did not experience because He did not have a sinful nature.

In reading Owen again for a recent sermon on this passage and subject, I wrestled with his nuance and distinctions. They do too!

The parsing of sin and temptation can be thorny, which is why Reformed theologians have typically explained these issues with careful nuance. A case in point is John Owen’s handling of temptation in The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of Indwelling Sin (1667). Once again, James 1:14-15 is a pivotal text:

“Now, what is it to be tempted? It is to have that proposed to man’s consideration which, if he close, it is evil, it is sin unto him. This is sin’s trade: epithumei—“it lusts.” It is raising up in the heart, and proposing unto the mind and affections, that which is evil; trying, as it were, whether the soul will close with its suggestions, or how far it will carry them on, though it does not wholly prevail.”

Up to this point, it sounds like Owen may consider temptation caused by lusts to be morally neutral, to be a kind of spiritual struggle that cannot be called sin until we acquiesce to its allurement. But notice what Owen says next:

“Now, when such a temptation comes from without, it is unto the soul an indifferent thing, neither good nor evil, unless it be consented unto; but the very proposal from within, it being the soul’s own act, is its sin.” (pp. 9)

As I considered Owen’s description phrase “enter into temptation” every example he used the person not only was tempted by acted upon that temptation. Yet, to be simply tempted is not inevitably to commit the act. Yet, they reach this conclusion:

What makes temptation a “temptation” is that it tempts us to actual, observable sin, but this does not make the temptation something other than sin. (pp. 9)

They continue with Owen distinguishing between passive and active temptation. The former is from without, and the latter from within. But here is their conclusion of this section:

Each step of the process is worse than the next. We should not think that the entanglement of the affections is equivalent to obstinately pursuing a life of sin. There is moral space to be found between each step. And yet, this process is not one that moves from innocence to sin, but rather one that sees indwelling sin move from the mind to the affections to the will and finally to the outward working of sin in the life (and death) of a person.

It sounds to me that while admitting moral space, each step is in itself sin (transgression) such that one is heaping up sins until the outward working of sin.

I may be misunderstanding, but they speak of the uniform rejection of the Roman doctrine (rightly!) and seem to imply this is also the uniform doctrine of the Reformed heritage. If that is the case, I argue this is the overreach.

For instance, in her book Openness Unhindered, Rosaria Butterfield writes:

The Bible is clear that all sex outside of biblical marriage is a sin. The Bible is also transparent that homosociality is not sinful. In addition, temptation is not a sin, but temptations to sin are never good. They are never from God. Therefore patterns of temptation can never be sanctified. (pp. 123)

Later on that page she does say that homosexual lust is a sin. Heterosexual lust as well. She’s drawing a distinction between temptation and lust, calling the latter a sin but not the former.

In his book Holy Sexuality, Christopher Yuan reads Owen a slightly different way as well.

“If you’re wracked with guilt for simply having same-sex sexual temptations, hear these words from John Owen: “It is impossible that we should be so freed from temptation a not to be at all tempted.” Being tempted doesn’t mean you have little faith because it is quite ordinary and human to be tempted. The truth of the matter is that temptations are not sinful.” (pp. 57)

You find similar statements in Nancy Pearcey’s Love Thy Body and Sam Allberry’s Is God Anti-Gay?. If we look at the North Florida Presbytery’s Study Committee Report on Same-Sex Attraction we read:

That said, it is important to recognize that temptation is always an inducement to do wrong (1 Corinthians 7.5; Galatians 6.1; 1 Timothy 6.9; James 1.14-15). While the experience of temptation does not incur guilt, the temptation it self is not neutral. Temptation entices the Christian to transgress God’s will. In our sinful weakness, there is a short distance between sexual temptation and lust (Matthew 5.27-28). Therefore, it is wise to exercise caution and vigilance with all temptations to sexual immorality and to set our hearts and minds to what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, and praiseworthy(Philippians 4.8; Colossians 3.1-4).

They put moral space between temptation and lust, the later of which incurs guilt.

Before I leave this subject, Kevin DeYoung wrote a blog post in 2013 entitled Temptation is Not the Same as Sin. He is one of the members of the Central Carolina Presbytery study committee. He may have changed his views since it has been 6 years. But the whole article creates that moral space. Here is part of his rationale:

Debts and trespasses require forgiveness; temptation needs deliverance. They are not the same. Just because you are struggling with temptation does not mean you are mired in sin. The spiritual progression in the human heart goes from desire to temptation to sin to death (James 1:14-15). We are told to flee temptation, not because we’ve already sinned, but because in the midst of temptation we desperately feel like we want to.

To sum this up. Some of the teaching of Revoice embraces the Roman Catholic view of concupiscence which states it is not a sin until consented and acted upon. We believe this view to be wrong.

We believe that temptations do arise from our sinful nature. Those should be mortified. There is some disagreement as to whether they are “a sin” or transgression. But based on the 10th commandment, among other passages, we should recognize that lust, or covetousness, is a sin because it is idolatry or an inordinate desire. Whether that is homosexual lust, heterosexual lust or the coveting of my neighbor’s possessions, it is a sin. We add further sin if we satisfy that lust.

 

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NPR’s Weekend Edition took an unusual turn. When I listen to NPR, which I do periodically, I don’t usually agree with their perspective on things. But it is good to hear opposing viewpoints. Sometimes they have interesting stories about people. This was not a story I expected to hear on NPR since it doesn’t fit their usual narrative.

They interviewed PCA pastor Allan Edwards. In his teens he realized he was attracted to men, not women. As a Christian he sought to figure all this out in terms of his relationship with God. It was not easy for him, he wanted to make sure he understood the Scriptures correctly. He came to the conclusion that he did, and that acting on those desires was wrong.

“I think we all have part of our desires that we choose not to act on, right?” he says. “So for me, it’s not just that the religion was important to me, but communion with a God who loves me, who accepts me right where I am.”

Here is what we have to remember; we ALL have wrong desires, including wrong sexual desires. Homosexuals are not the only ones who have sinful desires. We do them a disservice when we talk like they are. Those desires, at times, seem quite powerful. We can allow them to define us, to form our identity.

Allan wisely did not let his sexual desires define him. He finds his identity in Christ, as his parents’ son and his wife’s husband. Soon he’ll add his child’s father. Yes, he is married to a woman. Yes, they have a sexual relationship. He chose the route of marriage, not celibacy. Some of his friends chose celibacy.

The interviewer brought up the word “suppress” which wasn’t one he was wild about. He expresses his sexual desires in the context of marriage. He puts to death his same sex desires, as we would put any other sinful desire to death. We are to do this with our greed, hatred, fear and other sinful desires.

His wife displayed wisdom in discussing this.

“There’s always going to be situations where a partner is sexually attracted to someone else and isn’t necessarily dealing with sexual attraction with their partner,” Leeanne says.

We often don’t admit this or want to talk about this. At times we will be attracted to other people. Just about everyone deals with sexual attraction toward people other than their spouse. It is just a question of whom.

“Everybody has this experience of wanting something else or beyond what they have,” Allan says. “Everyone struggles with discontentment. The difference, I think, and the blessing Leeanne and I have experienced is that we came into our marriage relationship already knowing and talking about it. And I think that’s a really powerful basis for intimacy.”

What should be obvious is that he isn’t suppressing this or hiding it. He is open and honest. As a result it becomes a matter for prayer and encouragement, as well as ministry. Too often pastors are limited in ministry because people think they aren’t sinners. Maybe they used to be, long ago, but not now. But pastors continue to have struggles with sin, including sexual sin. They struggle with the desires of their hearts, including sexual desires.

When we hide these struggles they gain power over us. We suffer in silence. We don’t enjoy the fellowship with other sinners saved by grace, as Bonhoeffer notes in Life Together. As Steve Brown would tell us in seminary, “demons die in the light.”

But it is scary. That is because people can over-react or misunderstand. I once told a few other pastors, as we shared prayer requests, that I was struggling with lust. They were afraid I was having an affair. They meant well, but I was not inclined to share more. I did tell them I’d begun treatment for low T, and suddenly felt like a teenager again. Thankfully I didn’t have the acne too. I thought I was more sanctified than I was but it was just getting older. The increased testosterone didn’t put desires in my heart, but revealed them. I saw afresh my incredible need for Christ, my never-ending need for Christ (in this life).

As Christians we have to stop pretending we are more sanctified than we really are. We need more honesty about what is lurking in our hearts. We need to be more honest about weaknesses. Expressed properly they open the door to ministry to both Christians and non-Christians. People recognize they are not alone, and that because of Christ (who is ever and always our justification) we are accepted by God despite our on-going experience of temptation and practice of sin. Perhaps people will see that love does cover a multitude of sin.

114. Q. But can those converted to God keep these commandments perfectly?

A. No. In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience. Nevertheless, with earnest purpose they do begin to live not only according to some but to all the commandments of God. Heidelberg Catechism

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There are few subjects guaranteed to raise a ruckus like that of modesty. This subject tends to bring out the worst in us. We often act immodestly when discussing modesty.

There have apparently been many books written on this subject. Many of them very bad. Or so I hear since I’ve only read one other book on the subject, Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue. As a result, I am no expert on such books. I decided to read Tim Challies and R.W. Glenn’s book Modest: Men and Women Clothed in the Gospel precisely because it seemed to take a gospel-centered approach (which it does).

What they have done is write short, but important, book on the subject at hand. They begin with the obvious, and the most common objection to such a book.

“Discussing modesty among Christians is challenging because the subject typically has not been handled well. … And when a man is the speaker or the author or the discussion leader, women brace themselves, fearing an assault on their fashion sense and wondering if they are about to be blamed for all male struggles with sexual lust. Does he think I have to be ugly to be godly?

This is not like many of the books I’ve heard about: there are no lists, calls for the ruler, blaming of women etc. They recognize that many calls for modesty are not motivated by the gospel, but legalism. This has led to, in many circles, a neglect of the subject. Or a very narrow view of the subject, making it all about women’s clothing when it encompasses far more than that.

“When we build theology without clear reference to the gospel, we begin to take refuge in rules. … Indeed, in this particular area, the regulations become our gospel- a gospel of bondage rather than freedom. … Modesty without the gospel is prudishness.”

They then begin the hard task of defining modesty. They note the dictionary definitions. But they then do something that may surprise some people, they talk about one’s situational context. Modesty is partially a function of your circumstances. They give the illustration of a bathing suit. Appropriate by the pool or beach, but not appropriate for a worship service or funeral (and maybe even Wal-Mart). It would be modest in one context, but immodest in another. Your situation matters.

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WTS Bookstore has a 50% off sale on 3 great books on the subject of sanctification. No, you can’t buy your sanctification. But these books will help you as you seek to understand and apply the gospel in the process of sanctification.

From the past, there is Overcoming Sin and Temptation in which Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor edited 3 classic works by John Owen: The Mortification of Sin in Believers, Of Temptation, and Indwelling Sin. If you haven’t read these, what is stopping you. Here are some blurbs:

“Get hold of this volume edited by Kapic and Taylor. See it as an essential matter to read and devour. But prepare yourself for pain, for Owen will take no prisoners. If you want to keep living the humdrum, half-hearted life of faith you currently do, then pass it by.”
– Derek Thomas, Read the full review at Reformation21.

“The greatest Christian writers are those who most powerfully project to spiritual readers the knowledge of God, of ourselves, and of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Among these are Augustine, Calvin, Edwards, and the Puritan John Owen, who ought to be better known than he is. The editors of this volume have worked hard to make Owen’s unrivalled insight into the Christian’s inner war with sin accessible to all, and the result is truly a godsend. Filled with classic devotional theology which, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, needs to be read again and again to be properly grasped, we have in the three treatises presented here a companion for life.”
– J. I. Packer, Professor of Theology, Regent College

“Dr. Lovelace, in his Basic Dynamics course at Gordon-Conwell, made us read On Temptation and On Mortification. And that’s where I discovered John Owen in 1972… I wouldn’t be in the ministry—my life would be a shipwreck—if I hadn’t read that book.”
– Tim Keller, Pastor, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York, NY.

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While preparing for the Maundy Thursday service, I went digging for a quote from Sinclair Ferguson in his book By Grace Alone.  I found quite a bit more appropriate for an addictions group I meet with.

I thought of 3 different things: Unrealistic Expectations, The Agenda of the Enemy and the Agenda of the Father.  I’ll cover these in 3 different posts.  So let’s start with the first of these.

Unrealistic Expectations

“When a person is delivered from an addiction, the effects remain and the ‘pull’ of the old life lingers on.  Constant vigilance is essential.  It is exactly the same with ‘addiction’ to sin (and we are all by nature addicts to sin in one form or another).  The addiction is broken so that its energy no longer dominates our lives.  We no longer want the old way, it is not part of the family life we now enjoy.  But while we no longer want the old way, we are not finally delivered from its ongoing influence.  Increasingly sanctified we may be, but we are not yet glorified.  We are free from sin’s cruel dominion, but we are not yet free from its seductive presence.  So we battle against its influence for the rest of our lives.”

We often suffer from unrealistic expectations with regard to our sin, especially when we are repenting of an addiction.  Jesus has delivered us from the penalty of sin and the power of sin.  But not from the practice of sin, yet.

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It was a fight to read this chapter because I was fighting a migraine at the time.  But it served as a good reminder that progressive sanctification is not automatic, nor easy.  There is no passivism to be found in the Bible.  Hebrews 11 is full of people who acted because they believed.

Anyway, Ryle addresses why this is a good fight (1 Timothy 6:12).  He notes the horrible consequences of war in our world.  Consequences that have not changed.  People may choose to be pacifists when it comes to earthly conflicts.  But in our internal battle against sin, no Christian may be a pacifist or appeaser.  We are all to be soldiers of Christ.

Keep in mind, the battle is not between nations, or religions or theological squabbles.  The battle in view is the battle with the flesh, the world and the devil.  “But with a corrupt heart, a busy devil, and an ensnaring world, he must either ‘fight’ or be lost.”

Interestingly, he quotes “the wisest General that ever lived in England”.  I wish I knew to whom to attribute this great quote to, but: “In time of war it is the worst mistake to underrate your enemy, and try to make a little war.”  I can think of some politicians that need to read it.  But the point Ryle is making, and we need to hear, is that we must not underestimate the flesh, the world and the devil.  It is not a minor skirmish, or ‘police action’ or ‘act of terrorism’.  The battle against sin is a full-time, full-blown war.  It is not a hobby, or an option activity for the ‘serious’ Christian.

“Where there is grace there will be conflict.  …. There is no holiness without a warfare.  Saved souls will always be found to have fought a fight.”  This should cause us to recognize our own weakness before our foes.  How we need the work of Christ progressively applied to us by the Spirit through faith!  How we need to recognize it is all of grace, even as we dig in or press on.  We will feel the heat, and pressure, if we are to be purified and transformed.  As John Owen has said, “Be killing sin or it will kill you.”

The key, as Ryle notes, is faith.  Not generic faith- but a faith in Jesus.  We trust in his “person, work and office” as revealed by Scripture and portrayed in the Gospel.  We need our Prophet to reveal our sin, our Priest to cover our sin, and our King to kill our sin.  Faith is also rooted, as Piper often notes, in God’s promises.  We are to believe, and act upon, God’s promises for grace.

We are not alone in this fight, or at least should not be.  Sadly we tend to isolate ourselves from the very helps God has provided.  We have allies in the Word and Spirit.  God has joined them together (Calvin & Owen among others) though sinful men drive them apart.  We have allies in one another (Ephesians 6 speaks of tight ranks to oppose the foe).  Do not go it alone, but stand by your brothers and sisters.  And in the words of a great coach, “Fight, fight, fight!”

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Kris Lungaard recently spoke at the Omaha Bible Church.  If you are not familiar with Kris, he is a student of John Owen.

He has written 2 books in which he summarizes Owen’s thought, making them suitable for spiritual kids like us.  The Enemy Within summarizes a large portion of Volume 6 of Owen’s Works- On Temptation, On the Power of Indwelling Sin, and The Mortification of Sin.  His book Through the Looking Glass tackles Owen’s The Glory of Christ.

I was just reviewing The Mortification of Sin today for sermon prep.  This is the subject of Kris’ lectures at Omaha Bible Church.  The Irish Calvinist (on staff there) has a link, or you can go directly to their website to download or listen.

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