Editors’ note: 

“There is a difference between having a rational judgement that honey is sweet and having a sense of its sweetness,” Jonathan Edwards wrote. “A man may have the former that knows not how honey tastes.” The Bible often describes our knowledge of God and his gospel with experiential language, using “sense” language like “taste and see” or the “eyes of the heart.” The term Christians have used to identify this emotive knowing is spirituality. Expressions of spirituality have taken many different forms, from Catholic mysticism to Pentecostalism. Evangelicals rejoice in the objective work of Christ in the gospel, yet an important aspect of our knowledge of the goodness of God and his saving work is through, what Edwards calls, “the sense of the heart.” That’s hard to define and often harder to bring about. So, over the next several articles, writers for The Gospel Coalition will consider issues related to evangelical spirituality.

“I cried when I turned 25.”

So said my hairdresser, an attractive young lady with pictures of her precocious 7-year-old daughter cluttering her stylist’s table. Prompted by inquiries about progress on my book, which tries to give a gospel-centered account of the human body, we had landed upon discussing the challenges women face in a world dominated by impossible standards of visible beauty.  In a moment of candor, she acknowledged her addiction to the unattainable ideals of contemporary standards of beauty.

This is the backdrop against which our teaching about sanctification stands. Perhaps more than ever before, our world is devoted to treating the body as a task, as a project to be completed. From Tim Ferris’s The Four-Hour Body to do-it-yourself transhumanism to the mainstreaming of cosmetic plastic surgery, we are relentlessly occupied with the pursuit of perfecting the body according to the pattern that has been given to us in Hollywood and elsewhere. The shape of holiness has many imitators, and in a technologically sophisticated affluent culture such as ours, bodily perfection is among the most seductive.

The difference we see between modern anxieties about the body and controversy over the mandatory visible marker of holiness in Galatians is one of degree, and not of kind. The fate of the Torah in light of the announcement of Jesus is obviously not at stake when we walk into a shopping mall. But boasting (Gal. 6:13-14), envy (Gal. 5:26), biting and devouring (Gal. 5:15), misplaced approval (Gal. 1:10)—these are the marks of a community of people whose criteria for acceptance is fundamentally flawed, marks that prevail in a world where communal acceptance and esteem is inextricable from body type. (And lest we look outward too quickly, we should pause and reflect about the possibilities of an “ugly” megachurch pastor or pastor’s wife within our quirky movement).

It is tempting to go in for the inevitable overreaction against artificial standards for acceptance and treat sanctification as an invisible, “spiritual” affair, a matter of the heart or intellectual psychology. And I worry that there is a lazy, cheap sanctification that walks down that road by overemphasizing the role of motivations for personal holiness. On this account, provided the “heart is in the right place,” nothing else matters. In such communities, the critical task of safeguarding Christian liberty turns into an abdication of our responsibility as Christians to discern the ways in which the gospel bears witness on the ambiguous circumstances of life.

Holiness is, of course, a matter of the heart. We need read no further in the New Testament than Matthew 5 to discern that: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Or, as Paul puts it in Galatians, “neither circumcision or uncircumsision” (or Gucci or Prada) counts for anything but “faith working through love.”

But the invisible reality of our union with the Spirit takes visible form in the world, and does so primarily through our submission of our mortal bodies to his empowering presence. Over the past 30 years, evangelicals have labored to escape our anti-intellectual roots through recovering Jesus’ admonition to “love the Lord your God with all your mind,” and with some success. But we have yet to devote the sort of theological and educational capital to plumbing precisely what it means to take seriously Paul’s admonition in Romans 12: “I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.”

Paul’s grand exhortation in Romans 12:1 is the capstone of what turns out to be an unremitting focus on the physical body throughout Romans. In Romans 4, the faith that is counted to Abraham “as righteousness” is specifically Abraham’s belief that God can overcome his body, which was “as good as dead.” In Romans 6, Paul exhorts us to “present your members to God as instruments for righteousness.” In Romans 8, Paul reminds us that “he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”

In other words, the union we have with Christ in the Spirit sets us free into a unique form of bodily life, a life of conformity to the pattern of Jesus’ death in accordance with the power of his resurrection. The Spirit “bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,” but also prompts us to “groan inwardly” as we await our “adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” Sanctification is the process of conforming every aspect of our person to the reality of the love of God in Jesus, including (and especially) the members of our body.

Such sanctification is not a task or a project, in the way losing weight, making ourselves presentable, or maintaining a particular standard of beauty has become in our late-modern world. Increasingly, those goals—however worthy—are being accomplished by technologically circumventing the hard work and discipline they formerly required to achieve. Against this, a notion of sanctification that starts with the reality of our union with Christ through the Spirit personalizes the pursuit of holiness in such a way that it ceases to be a project to be accomplished and instead becomes a response to the grace of God in Jesus, a response that is grounded in our looking backward to the cross and forward to the “resurrection from the dead.”

A man, for instance, may fast for many reasons, some better than others. But when the practice ceases to be an obedient response to the confrontation with the grace of God in Jesus, it loses its distinctly Christian status as invocation, wherein we affirm that the God who made the world will someday return to make all things new. The reformation of the heart takes shape in the presentation of the body, and fasting is only Christian when it takes the character of offering, sacrifice, and worship.

The liberating grace of God also sets us free from the artificial standards of acceptance and validation that are based on body shape or type by exposing the stunted notions of “perfection” for the grotesque mimicry that they are. The pursuit of bodily perfection that makes some women cry when they turn 25 is a tragic parody of the more real, more beautiful body that has been given to God, just as the tragic hideousness of Good Friday has become the source and fountainhead of the best Christian art.