Instant Conversions and the Absence of Sanctification
Prof. Johan Malan, Mossel Bay, South Africa (July 2010)
We are living in a time of unprecedented technological achievements, in which handy aids and instant solutions are offered for virtually all problems. Strenuous efforts are no longer needed to get something done. In the area of communication, all information is literally available in a moment with the push of a button. Searching for hours is not necessary as the internet unlocks to us the whole world. It has become a way of life to put in less effort and to find instant solutions for everything ““ unfortunately also for spiritual problems.
The achievements of modern man not only made him more self-sufficient but also very proud. He takes pride in everything that he has accomplished through his knowledge and technology, and gives himself credit for that which has been achieved. The veneration of humans is the order of the day and leaders, or heroes, are identified and followed in every sphere of life.
In spite of the bewildering progress in the technological and scientific fields, humans are still not able to prevent the far-reaching moral decline occurring all over the world. Modern preachers who use technology very effectively to reach people only offer instant solutions to all the problems of moral depravity. The gospel message is watered down completely and mixed with positive thinking and psychological programmes for self-esteem, while sin is hardly ever mentioned.
During short mass-meetings, and also on television, solutions are offered to successful modern people for their moral and spiritual problems. A good life on earth, as well as eternal life in heaven, is offered as a bonus to the “good people” of modern times. These blessings are easily obtainable by merely raising their hands and praying a short prayer after the preacher. Following that, they are declared to be saved and are ensured of eternal security.
At times, instant conversions of this nature are accompanied by the confession of sins, but very few preachers insist on that. In Rick Warren’s non-offensive gospel, for instance, people are not branded as sinners, as the emphasis in the gospel message is directed towards the big advantages of being a Christian. The crowds receive it with joy without counting the cost of repentance. The things which people have to abandon are not highlighted ““ only those things which they will receive towards a happier and more prosperous life, as well as improved self-esteem.
The Lord Jesus described false conversions of this nature when He said: “Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell by the wayside; and the birds came and devoured them. Some fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth; and they immediately sprang up because they had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away”¦ He who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles” (Matt. 13:3-6, 20-21).
These instant converts received the word with joy and consequently regard themselves as Christians. But joy is a positive emotion which the Bible does not present as the first reaction of salvation. A person who repents is under deep conviction of sin and experiences remorse because of his sin (1 ‚ John 1:9). “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit” (Ps. 34:18). Only after the sins which were dragging a person to hell were confessed and forgiven, a feeling of relief and joy will be experienced by the saved person.
If the matter of sin, as well as confession thereof and being cleansed from it, is bypassed by only emphasising the advantages of the Christian life, the door is widely opened for false conversions. Many people would like to hear that they will go to heaven one day and rule with Christ if they only raise their hand, join a church, and regularly offer contributions to one or other preacher. The problem is that the lives of such “converts” did not change fundamentally and permanently. Subsequently, they again yield to temptations to sin and then continue with their old life. They don’t make any spiritual impact on society or on their churches, and everything just continues as always. It is highly deceptive to refer to situations where hundreds or even thousands such instant conversions occur, as revival. The Bible does not do it.
Even when you repent with deep remorse, this decision should be followed by surrendering yourself to sanctification before you will be able to lead a stable and fruitful spiritual life. Should the newly converted neglect this responsibility they will confine themselves to an infant school for carnal Christians in which they will be of no use to the cause of the Lord (1 ‚ Cor. 3:1-3; Heb. 5:12-13). They do not bear fruit that is worthy of repentance, they are not an asset to the Christian church in that condition, and cause more problems than doing good. Such people’s inconsistent lives of falling and rising are not to the honour of the Lord Jesus, neither are such lives fulfilling to the believers themselves. Frustration and bitterness are often evident in their conduct and they are critical and even completely condemnatory of fellow Christians who differ from them and try to correct them.
Because of these spiritual problems many of them give up the struggle at one stage or another and revert to their former lives. Others continue with their form of godliness and regularly offer excuses why they are not actively involved with the things of the Lord. Very few of them would acknowledge the fact that their inability to successfully serve the Lord is related to their lack of sanctification, and for that reason they do not take any action to solve the problem. As long as the uncrucified flesh is allowed to continue its domination of one’s life it will block any form of spiritual growth. Before the Holy Spirit has full control of our lives we cannot walk in the Spirit and serve the Lord in the power of His Spirit (Gal. 5:16-17).
During the revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries it was common practice to proclaim the doctrine of sanctification to young converts. It had the effect that Christians examined themselves, parted with unconfessed sins, and also completely surrendered the flesh to be crucified. The Lord then filled them with His Holy Spirit in order to live godly, fruitful lives. The preparatory phase of self-examination, confession of sins and surrendering of the flesh is essential for the receiving and filling of God’s Spirit. In this regard many believers fail in their efforts.
Sanctification should be clearly distinguished from justification. The latter may be described as “imputed righteousness”. On the cross the Lord Jesus paid the full price for the saving of sinners, and this atonement is imputed to them when they receive it in faith and with the confession of their sins. We do not work for it as salvation is freely given to us by faith without ‚ ‚ works (Eph. 2:8-9). Our filthy garment of sin is removed so we can put on Christ’s garment of righteousness. In this way we become new people and it demands that we reckon ourselves to be dead to sin (Rom. 6:11). This means that we should surrender our old life to be crucified, otherwise we cannot regard it as being dead (Gal. 6:14). Doing this, should become a daily walk of life (Luke 9:23).
A specific action is needed on our part if we wish to have a pure heart and complete victory over the flesh, which is the old, sinful nature. That which the Lord expects of us in the experience of sanctification renders it “co-operative righteousness”. We must be fellow workers of God if we are serious about holiness becoming a reality in our lives (cf. 1 ‚ Cor. 3:9).
Our co-operation does not mean that we can fulfil the command to holiness in our own strength ““ we are only required to give our co-operation to work out that which the Lord has already given us. The Lord alone can give us a pure heart, but if we do not fully commit ourselves by complying with all the conditions it will never happen. We do not simply of ourselves grow into holiness. The following convictions of faith and practical steps are necessary in the process of sanctification, and we must meticulously carry them into effect:
A next step: We should firstly realise that sanctification is a further work of grace after justification. It follows after salvation and must be actively pursued. “For he who lacks these things [a life of holiness] is short-sighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was purged from his old sins” (2 ‚ Pet. 1:3-9). We should realise that after the first purging of our sins there is a deeper work of the cleansing of our hearts which the Lord wants to do for us. It is known as “complete sanctification” (1 ‚ Thess. 5:23) and is aimed at conforming our whole life ““ spirit, soul and body ““ to the image of Christ. Do not stop at the entry point of God’s work of grace in your life, but continue diligently until the promise of sanctification is fully realised in you. You may begin by identifying the works of the flesh in your life and forsaking them together with your condition of carnality so that the Holy Spirit can fill and control your life: “Do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). The command to be filled with the Spirit is given in the present continuous tense and indicates an ongoing process in our lives. Paul commends the brethren in Philippians 2:12-13 to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.”
Positional (inward) holiness: We should realise that we are only positionally holy after our hearts have been cleansed and fully delivered from the dominion of the flesh. Only then can the new nature of Christ which we have since regeneration be established and observed without any obstacle. Before that time we are not spiritual but carnal (1 ‚ Cor. 3:1-3). To be imbued with Christ’s new nature and to live accordingly, demands self-examination and commitment from our side in which the old nature is surrendered to be crucified. Paul counsels the Christians in Ephesus: “”¦that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in righteousness and true holiness” (Eph. 4:22-24). This command is given to people who were already Christians, and underscores the necessity of a complete surrender. Although Paul speaks of their “former conduct” which refers to their life before conversion, they were still influenced by it and had to rid themselves of it. A believer’s responsibility to completely put down his old nature is clearly evident from this scripture. It calls for self-examination and the confessing and forsaking of all sin and carnality, as well as faith in the Lord’s promises on sanctification through the Spirit.
Outward holiness: After the obstacles have been removed and our hearts were cleansed we are faced with the challenge to live in accordance with our new nature. Paul says, “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 ‚ Cor. 7:1). We have to heed the command to holiness by consistently acting to make it a reality in our lives. In the first instance, there are sin, fleshliness and worldliness which should be avoided and, secondly, the instructions of the Lord towards active service which should be executed in a purposeful and disciplined way. Paul committed himself on a daily basis to serving the Lord: “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 ‚ Cor. 9:27). We have all been called to holiness and service to the Lord, and will be regarded as failed disciples if we do not heed this call.
The ongoing life of putting off and putting on is strongly emphasised in Colossians 3, where converts are admonished as follows: “But now you must also put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him. “¦ Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection” (Col. 3:8-14). These are all commands that need to be heeded and for that reason sanctification is not a static position with which a believer is imbued when he is in Christ.
The crisis and process of sanctification
From all the scriptures on sanctification it is evident that distinction has to be made between the crisis and process of sanctification. The Lord sanctifies us completely when we make a full surrender as He expects of us. That is a crisis experience, and should be repeated if backsliding has occurred. The word “completely” as used in 1 ‚ Thessalonians 5:23 means “to be completely surrendered to something”. This is followed by a lifelong process of sanctification in which we have to give expression, in a dedicated way and on a daily basis, to the complete sanctification which the Lord has worked in our hearts.
Both aspects of sanctification are mentioned in Luke 9:23, i.e. dying of self and the daily walk with the Lord. He says, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” I first have to deny myself by identifying with the cross of Christ so closely that I will die with Him to the old life, the world and sin. Paul says, “I glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). When I have died with Christ, I will also live with Him (Rom 6:5-8).
After this surrender I should “daily” take up my cross to follow and serve Christ. The flesh must remain in a crucified position, lest it revives and again takes control of my life (cf. Gal. 3:3). The flesh should not only be suppressed ““ it should be mortified ““ but since it can again revive care must be taken that it remains on the cross. Only the Holy Spirit can give me the power and motivation to persevere to the end with a life of victory and fruitful service: “Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). Do you persevere with all the saints on this new and living way upon which the Lord has put us through the death and resurrection of His Son, as well as the outpouring of the Holy Spirit?
Deceptive shortcuts to holiness
The enemy of our souls will do everything in his power to deprive Christians from a Spirit-filled, holy life, thereby rendering them powerless in the service of the Lord. One of his methods is to give people ecstatic experiences, e.g. speaking in tongues and slaying in the spirit, which make them think they are under the full control of the Holy Spirit. This is a serious misconception as the Lord Jesus has not promised us ecstatic experiences but only the filling, power and guidance of the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:46-49; Acts 1:8).
The other false shortcut to sanctification is the deceptive allegation that all Christians are already positionally holy in Christ and therefore do not need the filling of the Holy Spirit as a second work of grace. This statement is, among others, made in terms of 1 Corinthians 1:30 where Paul says that Christ is our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. According to the view of positional holiness in Christ, sanctification is therefore also, like redemption, imputed to us at conversion; God looks at us through the blood of Christ and sees us as completely perfect.
Another scripture which is erroneously applied to make this conclusion is Galatians 5:24 where Paul says, “And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” In view of this scripture it is not deemed necessary to finally put off your fleshly nature after conversion in order to put on the holy nature of Christ ““ you already have it.
Let us investigate these two scriptures to determine their real meaning.
As far as 1 ‚ Corinthians 1:30 is concerned it is true that the Lord Jesus is our redemption and sanctification. However, it is only His redemption which is imputed to us by faith without any works on our side. Christ died in our place and paid the full price for our salvation. His garment of righteousness was put on us. But as far as our sanctification is concerned He did not live holy on our behalf ““ He only put the means of grace at our disposal so that we can use them to become fellow workers in the process of sanctification. The most important of these means of grace are His cross with which we can identify to reckon ourselves to be dead to sin and the world, the ongoing cleansing by His blood, the surety of all His promises in the Bible, the power and guidance of His Holy Spirit, the free access to His throne of grace through prayer, and all the commands towards service of which we have the privilege to be involved with. We will one day before the judgement seat of Christ have to give account on how we have used these means of grace. On that day, many believers will be ashamed.
If sanctification, like justification, was imputed to all Christians, there would not be any carnal Christians who are not filled with the Holy Spirit, and who will one day stand empty-handed before the Lord, saved as through fire, because of their failure to serve the Lord (cf. 1 ‚ Cor. 3:15). Why then does Paul reproach members of the congregation in Corinth because the works of the flesh were still dominant in their lives (1 ‚ Cor. 3:1-3)? Why does he call them carnal Christians who are like babes in Christ if they were positionally holy in God’s sight? They were so full of themselves that they were not even aware that their bodies should be a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 ‚ Cor. 3:16). The Holy Spirit did already dwell in them, but because of their fleshliness and failure to surrender themselves completely He was not fully in control of their lives. They continuously grieved Him.
As for Galatians 5:4, Christians can only in principle say that they have renounced their old lives after having received the Lord Jesus as Saviour. That is what the Lord expects of us and thus it should be in practice. Whether this is indeed a reality in the lives of believers is quite another question. This question is exhaustively answered in Galatians 5, so we have no excuse to entertain wrong views about it: “Those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another” (Gal. 5:24-26).
In these verses a clear distinction is made between a situation in which we “live in the Spirit” and one in which we “walk in the Spirit”. The first one refers to spiritual quickening or salvation, and the second to a life of victory and fruitful service under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Most of the Galatians did not make this transition, and for that reason they became conceited, provoking and envying each other. To walk daily in a life of holiness the flesh must be crucified. Should the uncrucified flesh be allowed to continue and retain its dominant position in their lives, it will block the work of the Holy Spirit in them: “For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish” (Gal. 5:17). How can such a person be regarded as positionally holy and someone who lives victoriously over sin?
The Spirit cannot be put in control before the flesh has been surrendered to be crucified. When I do take up the cross of self-denial and make a complete surrender, the Spirit will fill me. Paul draws the attention of such people to the process of sanctification to which we are called: “Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16).
The case of the Corinthians
Some people still object to the doctrine of sanctification as a second work of grace when 1 ‚ Corinthians 3:1-3 is quoted as an example of carnal believers who walk in the flesh because they have not yet made a full surrender. They say that these were young Christians, and given enough time they would of themselves have grown into holiness. Let us examine this statement to determine its validity.
This congregation was established in the year AD 51, when Paul ministered there for more than a year. Afterwards, Apollos also ministered in Corinth (Acts 19:1). It was later reported to Paul that there were serious quarrels in the church (1 ‚ Cor. 1:11). During Paul’s third missionary journey, when he was in Ephesus, First Corinthians was written in AD 54 or 55 to address these problems. But this did not resolve the problems and Paul decided to revisit the church, which he called a “sorrowful” experience (2 ‚ Cor. 2:1). After this visit and his return to Ephesus, Paul sent a second letter which grieved him deeply to write because of its disciplinary nature (2 ‚ Cor. 2:4; 7:8-9). This letter was followed up by a third visit in which he challenged the Corinthians to examine their faltering faith (2 ‚ Cor. 13:1-6).
The Corinthians did not only suffer from a lack of spiritual growth ““ they were seriously bogged down by aggravating problems which threatened to destroy their faith. In their Bible Knowledge Commentary (p. 506) Profs. Walvoord & Zuck say: “First Corinthians provides a glimpse of life inside one first-century church, and far from saintly it was. Yet that is the reason Paul wrote this letter ““ to make positional sanctification practical. The spirit of the world seemed more influential in the Corinthian church than the Spirit of God, despite the splendidly evident gifts given by the Spirit. Paul wanted to change that.”
Paul clearly refers to two forms of sanctification ““ the one related to justification and the other to a life of holiness. The former may be termed “initial sanctification” and the latter “complete sanctification”. In the introduction to his letter Paul refers to church members as “those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 ‚ Cor. 1:2). He further qualifies this statement when he says that formerly they were lost sinners, “But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and the Spirit of our God” (1 ‚ Cor. 6:9-11).
Paul goes on to challenge these “sanctified Christians” that they should cleanse themselves “from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 ‚ Cor. 7:1). They should also pursue complete, or perfect, sanctification. How must that be done and how does Paul convey this message to the Corinthians and all of us?
- We must fully realise that Jesus Christ did not only sacrifice Himself for our redemption but also for our complete sanctification (1 ‚ Cor. 1:30; cf. Eph. 5:25-27). He enables us through the Holy Spirit to live lives that are pleasing to God.
- Preaching should not be with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power (1 ‚ Cor. 2:4). When people are properly ministered to, they will fully surrender themselves and the power of the Holy Spirit will also become evident in their lives. Before that time, the flesh was dominant.
- We should dedicate ourselves to be taught by the Holy Spirit. “For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God” (1 ‚ Cor. 2:10). Do you know the depth of the riches, wisdom and knowledge of God?
- We should realise that there is not only the basic distinction between natural (unsaved) and spiritual (saved) people. Christians are further subdivided into carnal and spiritual people. Paul said to the Corinthians: “And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ” (1 ‚ Cor. 3:1).
- All church members have the obligation to ensure that they do not build with corruptible works (wood, hay, straw) on the foundation of repentance, but rather with imperishable works (gold, silver, precious stones). The latter are the fruit of the Holy Spirit and the former the works of the uncrucified flesh. Are you under the control of the Spirit or the flesh? It is extremely important to know whether you are spiritual or carnal.
- Sin should be averted at all cost as it contaminates a person’s entire life: “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 ‚ Cor. 5:6-8). The Corinthians are challenged to purify themselves of the leaven of malice and wickedness and to pursue lives that comply with God’s standard of sincerity and truth. Many people think they are already positionally holy and do not thoroughly examine themselves.
- Christians should not live for themselves and for the world: “For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 ‚ Cor. 6:20). This can only be done when the Holy Spirit has full control of a person.
- When the Holy Spirit has given a person enlightened eyes of the mind, and also a vision of the everlasting glory to which we have been called (1 ‚ Cor. 2:9), then he does not only love the Lord for the sake of his temporary, earthly needs, but exert himself to doing things that have value for eternity: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (1 ‚ Cor. 15:19). We should love the Lord Jesus with a view to the imperishable interests of His eternal kingdom since our future is also there with Him.
- Christians are all involved with a race in which we should strive to be awarded a victors’ crown: “Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they [earthly athletes] do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown” (1 ‚ Cor. 9:24-25). Are you a temperate, Spirit-filled Christian who avoids sinful habits and runs the race of life with endurance? Only the Holy Spirit can empower you to do so.
- “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able”¦ to bear” (1 ‚ Cor. 10:12-13). Many Christians yield to temptations because they do not have the power of the Holy Spirit to resist and overcome them (cf. Eph. 6:10-11).
- The biggest of all gifts of the Spirit is not speaking in tongues but love (1 ‚ Cor. 13). The mark of a Spirit-filled Christian is the agape love of God which must be perfected in his life. This love is poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit when we are fully given over to Him (Rom. 5:5) and will urge us to preach the gospel to all people within our reach (1 ‚ Cor. 9:16)
- We should live in such a way that we are worthy of the resurrection of the just and eternal life which will follow our earthly existence (1 ‚ Cor. 15:51-53). Our worthiness will be determined at the judgement seat of Christ where crowns will be awarded to the victors who persevered in holiness to the end (2 ‚ Cor. 5:10). Every carnal believer who was not filled by the Spirit will stand before the judgement seat empty-handed, although he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire (1 ‚ Cor. 3:15). In that situation he will not be able to lay claim to positional sanctification if his life was not under the full control of the Holy Spirit. Such a person cannot, through human efforts of dedication, produce the fruit of the Spirit; consequently, only sanctified Christians can be encouraged as follows: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labour is not in vain in the Lord” (1 ‚ Cor. 15:58). God’s Spirit can empower them to persevere on the right way.
The Corinthians did not merely need more time to grow up to the mature man or woman in Christ. Time alone will change nothing if people do not use the opportunity to examine themselves and make a complete surrender to the Lord. The Corinthians had more than enough time to do so and they failed. Neither did many of the Jewish believers use the passage of time to their spiritual advantage. Paul wrote to them: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food”¦ Therefore leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection” (Heb. 5:12; 6:1).
If we never become aware of the deeper life of victory over sin and the flesh, and of being endued with power from on high, we will stumble along as carnal believers and never receive the blessing of complete sanctification.
Very few Christians live holy and victorious lives under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is much easier to seek after supernatural experiences, or to sit back in an easy chair and hide behind the excuse of positional sanctification which you allegedly received with your salvation. Such people do not know what it is to be a co-worker of God through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Because this power is absent in their lives they later reach the point where they reject the doctrine of sanctification as a second work of grace. Then they try to serve the Lord in the power of the flesh. That is a futile exercise as they cannot really edify other Christians and build them up spiritually if their preaching is not in the demonstration of the Spirit and of power. They first need to be endued with power from on high (Luke 24:46-49). Carnal preachers offer instant solutions to salvation and sanctification, without any emphasis on counting the cost of a complete surrender which the Lord expects from us.
We should not be followers of other people, as the chances are good that we will be deceived. Rather do intensive Bible study and allow the Holy Spirit to be your Tutor. Spend much time in prayer, so it can become quiet in you heart to hear the voice of the Lord. The Spirit of God will guide you into all truth ““ not only about salvation but also about a pure, holy and fruitful life in His service. “For this is the will of God, your sanctification”¦ He who rejects this does not reject man, but God, who has also given us His Holy Spirit” (1 ‚ Thess. 4:3,8).