Pastoral ministry has a way of sobering up theological debates. Far from dumbing them down, ministry shows how good theology helps makes sense of reality. The recent justification/sanctification debate, for example, has significant pastoral implications. Pastors and soon-to-be pastors are bringing this debate into the fires of their pulpit, discipleship, and counseling ministry. In so doing they follow the example of Martin Luther, who dismissed the use of the law in the Christian life in his polemical writing and yet still instructed children by devoting the entire first section of his Small Catechism to the Ten Commandments.
Biblical Expectation for Change
At the very heart of this debate is the biblical reality that Christians have been justified, born again, joined in union with the risen Jesus Christ, and indwelt with the Holy Spirit. Therefore, there is a real expectation for change.
So when we preach or teach passages that exhort our listeners to turn from unrighteousness and pursue holiness, to put to death their patterns of sin and walk in godliness, inevitably, we will get questions along these lines: But how do I change? How do I stop looking at porn? . . . losing my temper? . . . despising my husband? I want to put to death my sin, but I can’t.
Most certainly we explain the benefits of the gospel, our right standing as justified sinners, and the power we have as new creatures, in union with Christ and his Spirit. And we should counsel them in practical ways of fleeing from sin and guarding from temptation.
But the pastoral concerns run still deeper. For Paul wants us to shepherd God’s sheep with what has “value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col 2:23). In other words, we need something to guide our people in killing sinful cravings, not just preventing sinful actions.
We’ve Been Given New Eyes to See
When the New Testament instructs us towards holiness, it does not only counsel us to remind ourselves of the gospel or make every effort to avoid sin. God’s Word also encourages us to know God. This knowledge of God comes through Christ, made possible by the gospel. Now we have a whole new set of sense perceptions, where we can taste, feel, and see the goodness of the Lord. Our knowledge of God takes the 18-inch drop to the heart, so that the “eyes of the heart” can see (Eph 1:17-18) and be transformed into his image.
There are a number of places in the New Testament where we see this. Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, warns against methods of purity that have no “value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col 2:23) and, in fact, run in opposition to the gospel (2:16-17; 20). Yet Paul is still concerned with holiness and purity: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5). How then does Paul instruct us to pursue holiness?
Colossians 3:1-2 helps us to answer that question. Since “you have been raised with Christ”—notice that Paul bases what he says on the finished work of the gospel—“seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (3:1). Being raised with Christ has all kinds of implications, and Paul wants to emphasize that we’ve been given new abilities to see. He emphasizes again, “Set your minds on things above” (3:2). We can now taste, see, seek, and know God in a way that we weren’t able to before. Our gaze is a transformative one.
Paul emphasizes it again later in Colossians 3:9-10. Notice how he exhorts his readers: “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” Paul is reminding his readers of the gospel and our new identity. But the change, the transformation into holiness, is also happening with increasing knowledge of God. And our knowledge of God comes by tasting and seeing, seeking and savoring.
It’s not hard, then, to begin to see this them throughout the New Testament. In 1 John 3, John reminds his readers that our future hope and reality has not yet happened, but what we do know is that “when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (3:2). The sight of the risen Lord will have such a transformative effect that we will immediately be like him. But now, we see him in faith, “And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:3).
This is, again, Paul’s point in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
The “beholding” of the Lord’s glory, little by little, transforms us into his likeness. As we see him, we become like him.
Impressed and Changed
Athanasius, the renowned bishop of Alexandria, clashed with the heretical Arians, who denied the deity of Christ. He argued that if Christ is not God, in unity with the Father, then reading his gospel, meditating on his perfections, and rejoicing in his indestructible life has no effect on his followers. But if Jesus is the very God the apostles boast in—and he is!—then the God upon whom we set our gaze, impresses himself on us and changes us.
Should we conform our minds to the truth of the gospel and remind ourselves of its truth? Yes. Should we bring to bear all the imperatives of the Bible, with the knowledge that Christ has already qualified us for heaven? Yes. But let us also open up our Bibles and search for Jesus, meditating on his glory, rejoicing in his perfections, tasting and seeing his goodness, and, then, let us put to death our sin as we are being transformed into his image, from one degree of glory to the next.