How Does Sanctification Work? by David Powlison, Free for CAPC Members
David Powlison dispels the myth that there is a “key to sanctification” and then lays the biblical groundwork for spiritual growth.
[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 4, Issue 13 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Dabbling in Other Gospels” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
Getting ready for bed one night, I winced at the familiar sound of my daughter whimpering in her darkened bedroom. Weeks had passed since her days and nights became overshadowed by fear. She was now crying in her bed most nights, and during the day, she was tensing-up any time she heard sirens nearby and always begging for the news to be shut off on the car radio.
It started one night as I watched President Obama give a speech on ISIS, and my oldest son asked for clarification on what was said. As I explained, I measured my words: There is a group of people who captured and killed two American journalists. We call them terrorists because they use fear to get what they want, which is why they did what they did.
That answered him well enough, but my 7-year-old daughter overheard and reacted strongly with shock and anxiety, pleading to know, “Why do they want to do that? What if they come here?” It’s as if, at that point, her understanding of the world and human beings transformed. And that started a lengthy battle to assuage her fears.God hasn’t promised us perfect safety here on earth, but if you believe He has, you will have to question His character when it vanishes.
My husband and I consoled her every way we could, engaging all the typical parental tactics for dealing with the boogeyman and calming fears. We prayed with her for protection. We told her she lived in one of the safest countries, in a safe neighborhood, and in a safe home. Using a globe, I showed her how far away the terrorists were. We stressed that we’d always protect her and her brothers. And most important of all, the God of the universe watches over her and loves her more than anyone else possibly could. For all these reasons, she could rest assured of her safety.
And all of these factors seemed right . . . so why did something about it feel so wrong?
At the forefront of my misgivings were these questions: Were we teaching our daughter to hope in the right things? Were we giving her solid ground to stand on? We were essentially telling her she doesn’t need to worry about terrorists because she lives in the United States and loves Jesus. But were either of these assertions patently accurate? And did they overlook other important aspects of the issue worth considering?
After all, reassurances of ironclad safety don’t square up neatly with real life. U.S. Christians, like all people, experience cancer, auto accidents, and homegrown violence. Neither our U.S. citizenship nor our Christian faith stops that. And what about our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world who experience heavy persecution and even death, not despite their faith, but because of it?
The Bible does tell us about David defeating Goliath, Daniel being rescued from the lions’ den, and Peter being supernaturally freed from jail. But it also tells about Elijah running for his life, the beheadings of John the Baptist and James, and the stoning of Stephen. Jesus Himself repeatedly told His disciples that they would experience persecution for His name (John 16:1–4, John 15:18–20), and Paul describes such experiences as normal, even positive, in the lives of believers (Phil. 1:29, 2 Tim. 3:12, 1 Peter 4:12–19).
By teaching our daughter that her affluence and faith guarantee her safety, we were giving her a “security gospel,” which is essentially a version of the prosperity gospel, offering promises that were never made to us as followers of Christ.
In The New York Times article “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me,” Kate Bowler recounts what it’s like dealing with her recent Stage 4 cancer diagnosis. Her reckoning with this is further complicated because she is a Christian writer who has spent considerable time critiquing the American prosperity gospel, which, she explains, “is the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith.”
It’s tempting to scoff at the prosperity gospel by drawing a simple parallel between our culture’s obsession with riches and the promises of the same by televangelists looking to boost donations. But Bowler digs below this surface correlation to expose how the prosperity gospel is rooted more in American values than Christian ones:
“The movement has perfected a rarefied form of America’s addiction to self-rule, which denies much of our humanity: our fragile bodies, our finitude, our need to stare down our deaths (at least once in a while) and be filled with dread and wonder. At some point, we must say to ourselves, I’m going to need to let go.”
This addiction to control also sheds light on our culture’s high value on safety and security—and Christians’ tendency to reflect the same in their theology.
It’s difficult to recognize the damage that can be done by hyper-focusing on security. After all, what could be the fault in prioritizing safety and leveraging our resources toward it? Or, at least, in letting our children take comfort in it?
If the mantra of our culture is “Safety First,” then no risk is perceived as tolerable. In a fallen, less-than-perfect world where risk is unavoidable, the unanticipated byproduct is pervasive fear which monopolizes our media content, dominates our politics, and handicaps our parenting. In a Time article titled, “Why Americans Are More Afraid Than They Used to Be,” the point is made that “most Americans live in what is arguably the safest time and place in human history,” but high fear levels persist, even when they aren’t justified by the facts.
These levels of fear are terribly costly in terms of our quality of life and decision-making abilities. And yet, the stakes are even higher for the Christian who hopes in the security gospel.
Weighted with my uncertainties about security, fear, and hope, I gravitated (as I usually do) toward places of community and discussion. Research suggests that women are significantly more likely than men to engage on digital platforms such as blogs and social media, and this interaction goes far beyond the stereotypical home, fashion, and “mommy” blogs.
A host of talented thinkers and writers have found platforms to tackle political and social issues, and Christians in the blogosphere are no exception. These women hammer out tough questions of the Christian faith, including what it means to live out our beliefs and impart these values to our children. Their voices helped me recognize the bankruptcy of the security gospel.
At the very best, our affluence and security are undeserved gifts to be grateful for. But without proper perspective—that is, if we put our hope in them or believe that to serve God is to be guaranteed either safety or riches—they can serve as more of a curse. It’s hard to overstate how destructive the security gospel is to our ability to obey the greatest two commandments: love God and love others (Matt. 22:34–40).
The damage to our ability to love others is especially tangible. Like the prosperity gospel, the security gospel shows a lack of awareness of and empathy for those without our same advantages. In her recent book, For the Love, blogger and author Jen Hatmaker explains how she deconstructs the health and wealth theology of her upbringing by filtering it through this criterion: “If it isn’t also true for a poor single Christian mom in Haiti, it isn’t true,” because “[t]heology is either true everywhere or it isn’t true anywhere” (pp. 18–19).
Similarly, when I tell my daughter, “ISIS can’t hurt you because God loves you,” the fact is, if it’s not true for the Christian child in Syria, it isn’t true. And saying so does great harm to both children and flies in the face of the true Gospel, which offers the hope that “blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10).
Yet we have a warped, misguided understanding of what it means to be “blessed.” We take it as a given that abundance equals blessing, which is hugely problematic, as writer Jamie Wright emphasizes in her blog post “#Blessed.” She skewers that notion and points out that believing this way causes those with abundance to interact with others (specifically those without) in unhelpful, condescending, self-serving, repugnant ways.
Our service is ineffective because our theology is inaccurate, based on our culture rather than on what Jesus taught. Wright explains:
“If you read the gospel of Facebook, you might be lead to think the blessed people among us are fulfilled, happy, whole, and satisfied. But according to Jesus, the opposite is true. The people Jesus calls blessed actually sound kind of miserable. And sad. And needy.”
Our “hashtag blessed” culture contrasts sharply with those whom Jesus called blessed in the Beatitudes, but, as Wright asserts, “blessed does not mean pleased. Blessed does not mean happy. Blessed does not mean fulfilled. It doesn’t even mean fed or clothed or housed or healthy . . . What it really means is that you are not alone, for God is with you.” Recognizing our very deepest need—one which we cannot meet—He has provided a way to meet us in that need.
Just as a disproportionate value on abundance and affluence causes us to give dreadful “help,” an unbalanced concern for safety can cause us to withhold help when it is actually needed.
In September of 2015, the devastating image of Alan Kurdi, a drowned toddler washed ashore in Turkey, humanized the plight of Syrian refugees fleeing their war-torn, ISIS-plagued homeland as never before. In the dialogue that arose because of little Alan (misnamed “Aylan” in early reports), people demanded to know how this had been allowed to happen. In Ann Voskamp’s widely shared blog post, “5 Ways To Stand Up and Be The Church in The World’s Worst Refugee Crisis Since WWII,” her words reflected our collective outrage, heartbreak, and regret:
“You could have stayed with us, Aylan. Your whole family could have stayed with us. […] You could have all come. There’s enough room in our hearts. There’s enough room for all of you in our imagination of the future, Aylan. There’s enough room in this land, in our embarrassment of riches. […] There was enough space in our schools, in our streets, in our dreams for you.”
Inside and outside the church, there was an overwhelming call to action, and from the individual up through the national, people asked how they could help.
Then, Paris. Just two months later, the City of Light trembled through a night of horrific ISIS-sanctioned attacks, which left at least 130 dead and hundreds wounded. The discussion about refugee migration policies ricocheted back again as the realization set in that opening our land to refugees—and potentially, to camouflaged terrorists and other potential problems—would involve risk and sacrifice. Our help could be abused and turned on us. Believers and nonbelievers alike ask if we should really be expected to risk our safety for this cause.
I do not write this dismissively; such risk is real and possibly sizable. But the cost of fear is significant as well, as singer and songwriter Audrey Assad reminds us in a recent interview. As a child of a Syrian immigrant and a Christian, she shared her perspective on the current refugee crisis:
“Ultimately, especially for American Christians, I keep coming back to the thought that the Bible commands us to be hospitable to foreigners, plain and simple. National security is not a kingdom value, but hospitality is. Amos 5 says our religion is a ‘stench to God’ if justice for the poor is not a priority to us. I take that very, very seriously.”
Now, as the United States nears it’s goal of resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of next month, there are plenty of pertinent, nuanced variables to consider in our response to the refugee crisis (i.e., What actions actually help? What are the costs? Whose responsibility is it—government, church, individual—to supply such help?). But as Christians who are called to “spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed” (Isaiah 58:10), we must ask ourselves if the potential risk of our safety is enough to relieve us of the responsibility to acknowledge and engage with the crushing need of so many for hope and compassion. But the security gospel completely undercuts this crucial conversation.
Scripture makes it clear: when we are apathetic to fellow believers in need, Jesus takes it personally, and ignoring the marginalized and oppressed makes our religiosity repulsive to God. Ultimately, we cannot love God well if we don’t love others well, and vice versa. But the security gospel, with its idols and succeeding fears, makes this impossible.
If you believe that serving God guarantees your safety, your relationship with Him will suffer both when you have it and when you don’t. In Jesus’ messages to the seven churches recorded in Revelation, two churches stand in stark contrast to each other. The Church in Laodicea is the picture of abundance, security, and ease, yet Jesus tells them they have fallen prey to a lie as a result: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17). They’d been lulled by their comfort into forgetting about the need they (and every human being) have for Jesus and the hope only He can offer.
But to the Church in Smyrna, Jesus says, “I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich!” (Rev. 2:9). He acknowledges that they are in poverty and in danger (which so very often are bedfellows), and yet He reassures them, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev 2:10b, emphasis mine). This promise is neither dependent upon nor threatened by their standing in this life.
God hasn’t promised us perfect safety here on earth, but if you believe He has, you will have to question His character when it vanishes. The result is often that God is rejected when a loved one dies unexpectedly, or He is accused of giving a raw deal when a baby is born sick. But we must assess God’s goodness, power, and faithfulness on the promises He has made, rather than the ones we imagine He has.
Then the question remains, why on earth follow Christ? If being a Christian doesn’t mean God’s got your back, what’s the point? As Paul puts it, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19).
This is not to say that God doesn’t give favor in this lifetime, or that we shouldn’t pray for and desire it. I am the first to acknowledge that God is the Giver of every single good gift we receive. There are multiple verses in the Bible where God’s people are promised provisions, health, and safety—just as He also promised to provide a Messiah who would usher in an eternal, peaceful reign where His people are freed from oppression and bondage. And that’s just what He did . . . but definitely not in the way or the timing the Jews then were expecting. While we may hope for the fulfillment of His promises mainly here in this lifetime, ultimately, they point to something greater to come.
But we are not there yet. Fear, suffering, carnage, cruelty, as well as the tendency to twist the Gospel—all point to the problem of sin. They are clear illustrations of an integral part of the Christian worldview: We are currently living in a broken world in desperate need of restoration. In response to violence and suffering, we may feel many things (heartbroken, outraged, etc.), but we can’t really be shocked that it’s not possible to have “Your Best Life Now” in a fallen world. It’s not now. But the day is coming when all will be made right, and we long for that day.
In the meantime, though we are not exempt from the consequences of the fall, we believe that God walks with us in pain and suffering, and we even have to nerve to believe that He can use this pain and suffering in His plan to make all things right. When things don’t go the way we think they should, God can be trusted with the outcome. After all, the entire Christian faith revolves around the assertion that these very eternal promises we so deeply long for are achieved completely and solely through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. As Christians, we hold the Gospel in such high esteem, we believe so strongly in its surety and complete goodness, and we trust so fully in God’s power and faithfulness to fulfill it, that our hope and confidence in the future overcomes fears for today.
So, to bring the issue back home, what do I then teach my little girl? Protection and well-being for our kids are visceral and universal concerns for parents, but how do we resist the idolatry of safety in our parenting? How do we prepare our kids to process the hard things they see in the world?
For starters, I tell my girl that she does live in a relatively safe country, neighborhood, and home, and that she does live far away from most of the terrorists’ violence . . . but not because I want her to believe that these things are guaranteed. They are not.
But I do want her to have accurate risk assessment skills and not fall prey to exaggerated fears. I want her to understand that she possesses privilege that not every person has, and I want her to struggle with the tension of what that may mean about her responsibility to those people. I want her to move through the world with resilience and compassion, no matter how her environment may change. I want her to recognize that too high a value on safety naturally gives way to fear, which then quickly transforms into hate. I want her to know that, while safety is obviously preferable to being without it, there are also times to be willing to lay it down—especially by those who profess to be Christians.
And most of all, I want her to know to her core that, as with all believers worldwide, she has a hope that is guaranteed, and I want her to champion that hope in the dark places. Jesus encouraged His disciples, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matt. 10:28-32). But one day all—the comfortable American, the weary refugee, the zealous extremist—all will stand before One whose power and might are worthy of fear, and not one has righteousness sufficient to endure on that day. And yet, in glaring contrast with my idolization of my daughter’s safety, God sent His Son to take on and overcome the destruction meant for us—our truest cause for fear—in order to guarantee us eternal life with Him (1 Peter 3:18). So with her hope dependent upon Jesus and His true Gospel, what could my daughter, or any of us, truly have to fear?
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