As a pastor there are two questions that I get quite often. Although different in many ways, they are intricately intertwined with one another. The first question is something along the lines of this: “How do I have a relationship with God?” The second question typically goes like this: “How do I live out my relationship with God?”
These are two very distinct aspects of theology, but they go together in the practical day to day living out of our faith. I want to spend a few minutes and give you a quick theology lesson and also a quick application to think about how these areas of your life are played out every day.
The first answer of how to have a relationship with God deals with an area of theology called justification. The simple definition is justification puts us back in right relationship with God. What we must understand is that right relationship with God is only possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Scripture is full of references to this concept. John 3:16, Romans 3:21-26, 1 Corinthians 1:30 all tell us that justification happens through Jesus.
What we need to realize in our lives is justification is only the first step in the life of a follower of Jesus. Justification is our stepping across the line of faith. It is our moment when we surrender our life to Jesus.
The second question has an answer that lies in another theological term called sanctification. Sanctification is the process of being made holy that result in a changed lifestyle. This is the concept that the more we understand about god and his desires for our lives the more it changes our attitudes, actions, thoughts, words, deeds and heart. This is an on-going process for the rest of our lives. Hebrews 12:14 tells us that we should pursue holiness as an on-going growth pattern in our life.
The danger in not fully understanding sanctification is that it can lead to legalism. As humans we have the habit of reducing the passions and desires of God into rules and laws that we use as a checklist for our life. We hold ourselves and others to extra-biblical standards that are not truly the passion of God.
The flip side of this coin is liberalism; not of thought but of action. This is the concept that since God has forgiven me through Christ I can do or say anything I want. A brief reading of Romans 6-8 will show that Paul firmly condemned that view.
So, why do these two ideas demand discussion and such a long blog post? There are two reasons: some people tend to stop in their walk with Christ after they have been justified and some people tend to take their growth in Christ to legalistic and harsh rules.
We need to learn to leave in the blessed middle. God has forgiven us through Jesus, has wiped away all of our sin and shame and has made us his eternal children. That is justification. As a result of what God has done for us we should desire to live our lives to honor him and to hold him as the highest standard of love and grace and honor that is possible. That results in changed lifestyles for us. That is sanctification.
Today I see many Christians, including myself, who are living in the extremes at times. We need to learn to live in justification and sanctification. We need to learn to live in grace and holiness. I see this lived out so often among my ministry peers. Some are so caught at the point of justification that they do not live lives of holiness and therefore fall prey to the enemy of God. Others are so bound by laws and rules that they become Pharisees who impose standards on others not according to the Word of God but according to our own rules.
Several years ago I had breakfast with a man who I respect very much. We had never met, but he was the speaker at a camp I was attending with the youth ministry from our church. Shortly before we met, a friend of his and a man I very much respected had died. If I mentioned their names everyone would know them, so I won’t. We were talking about this when he said, “John the thing about _____ is that he understood justification but not sanctification.”
That has stuck with me to this day. Do I understand both? Do I live in the tension of grace and freedom? Am I a Pharisee or a hypocrite?
My prayer is that each of us understands that God’s love is not based on our actions. I also pray that we understand that our actions should be a daily reflection of God’s love.