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.
Join me, for a moment, in a thought experiment. Don’t worry. It’ll be way less sciencey than a regular experiment.
Okay, imagine that you’re at a wedding reception. You don’t know the bride or the groom super well, but it’s been pleasant. The maid of honor is only moderately tipsy. She is swaying only slightly while gushing that the bride is totally her best friend and is seriously the sweetest girl in the world. Only a handful of people are checking their watches as she babbles on: she’s just, like, SO happy for them and just KNOWS they’ll be so happy together.
Suddenly, some guy you’ve never seen before bursts through the door.
Gasping for breath, necktie askew, the man brushes a mop of sweat-drenched hair out of his face and declares, “Listen! Everyone! This marriage is not real!”
The crowd gasps, shocked. The thought settles, and after a few moments, whispers fill the room: “. . . wait, what? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“It’s not a real marriage!” the inexplicably sweaty intruder yells again. “The bride and groom don’t love each other!”
“Wait, who even is this guy?” asks a noticeably more intoxicated bridesmaid into her crackling microphone. “Does anyone know this guy? How does he even know how the bride and groom feel?”
“Oh, I’ve been watching them through a telescope. It’s—it’s just a general vibe I’ve gotten from my observations,” says the very strange man, as security drags him away.
You shake your head and pour yourself another glass of champagne.
There’s a degree of absurdity to that scenario, but of course, truth be told, we do something very similar every day to celebrities. To state the obvious, there’s an entire industry devoted to publishing aimless gossip about celebrities’ personal lives—who’s dating, who’s getting married, who’s fighting, and how long it is going to last. Even if the constant speculation doesn’t hurt celebrity relationships, I can’t imagine that it helps them. If I were half of Brangelina, I would probably have filed for divorce a lot sooner, because let’s be honest, just how nauseating is the word “Brangelina”?
If someone went before their church, took membership vows, and was baptized into Christ, they’ve formally changed their status before God. I probably don’t have to tell you that the Bible speaks against gossip for reasons the above parable clarifies—at best it’s a waste of time and energy for the gossiper (what good does it do you to speculate about the lives of people you’ve never met?), and at worst it’s downright malicious, making light of people’s problems and often even adding to them. Because of this, you might expect Christians to engage in gossip less often than other people, but as usual (and as Jesus alluded to), we’re seriously the worst, you guys. Not only do we obsess over celebrities’ relationships as much as anyone else; we speculate endlessly about other parts of their lives that—much like their marriages—don’t affect us at all.
I’m talking, of course, about celebrities’ spiritual lives. We’re all familiar, I think, with the rumor mill that starts churning the second a celebrity gives off even the slightest Christian vibe. Most recently I’ve seen this sort of idle gossip swirling around comic-goof-turned-red-hot-leading-man Chris Pratt; before that it was Shia “I Am Not Famous Anymore” LaBeouf; before that it was probably Denzel Washington or somebody, but the beats it hits are always roughly the same.
The first Christians to come out of the woodwork and offer their totally unsolicited opinions are almost always the ones we might call the “Cheerleaders.” These are the ones who credulously buy into every hint of Christian faith they hear, no matter how ambiguously phrased, and immediately start trying to promote the celebrity in question as some kind of advertising mascot for the Christian faith. “If only more people knew this cool celebrity was a Christian,” they think to themselves, “everybody would want to be a Christian!”
Obviously, they’re setting themselves up for disappointment here. Even if the faith of the celebrity in question is genuine, and even if said celebrity is interested in the mascot gig, the reality is that’s just not how Jesus operates. Jesus always preferred the company of lepers and prostitutes to celebrities, and anyway, the Christian faith isn’t a product to be sold. It’s a lifelong commitment that requires suffering and sacrifice, and celebrity endorsements are unlikely to attract anyone other than the most casual fans—what’s cool today is pretty much guaranteed to be passé tomorrow.
For all their misplaced enthusiasm and naïveté, though, the Cheerleaders—like the drunken bridesmaid in the scenario above—are basically harmless. The same can’t really be said for the next inevitable wave of opiners, whom we might call the “Proud Skeptics.” These busybodies apparently think there’s some sort of Most-Dubious-of-Celebrities’-Christian-Conversions award to be won, and they aim to get it, haranguing anyone who will listen: “Dude, that guy isn’t really a Christian. I mean, look—” they’ll tell you, prompted or not—”he drinks! And he performed in that tasteful love scene! And I think I heard him say a swear once!”
By now it should be clear that the Proud Skeptics are the sweaty man in the wedding scenario—the ones determined to offer an opinion that they’re unqualified to give and that no one actually benefits from hearing. Their assessment is absurd in at least two ways. First, and most obviously, because they can’t possibly claim to know the celebrity’s heart. Like the sweaty wedding crasher, they’ve been watching through a proverbial telescope, and have only the vaguest impression of the celebrity’s outward behavior, let alone his internal thoughts and feelings.
Even beyond that, though, the sweaty man’s proclamation is just wrong—not only due to his ignorance of the bride and groom’s internal life, but because his premise fundamentally misunderstands what a marriage is. The bride and groom went before a pastor; they took vows; they signed the little piece of paper—they’re married. They’ve formally changed their status before God, and their marriage is a real, irreversible fact, regardless of how they feel about each other. Trying to divine whether the marriage is real by intuiting their inner thoughts is a nonsensical idea—and in any case, the human heart is a fickle thing. What people are feeling internally changes from moment to moment, and the marriage exists despite what they feel, not because of it.
A Christian conversion is no different. If someone went before their church, took membership vows, and was baptized into Christ, they’ve formally changed their status before God. The conversion is a fact, regardless of how they’re feeling at the moment (and, I should add, regardless of what moral and ethical stumbles they fall into). If you care about their conversion, your duty to them is to support it however you can—through prayer, through reminding them of the gospel and their need for it, through supporting their material needs, etc.—not to gossip endlessly about whether their conversion was genuine.
Obviously, in the case of celebrities, what’s required of you is significantly more hands-off. You probably can’t do much to support their faith other than pray for them—so that’s what you ought to be doing. When you find yourself invited to a wedding of a bride and a groom you don’t know well, your role there is pretty limited: you congratulate them, leave them a gift, pray for God to bless their marriage—and leave the rest between them, their family and friends, their local church, and God. Because God is good. God is the author of love, and the author of faith. He creates it, and he sustains it.
So don’t be the drunk bridesmaid—but especially don’t be the sweaty man. Raise a glass, toast the new life, and thank God for being good.
Luke T. Harrington manages social media for CaPC and writes the column “D-List Saints.” Formerly, he wrote the column “LOL Interwebz”. His work has also appeared at Cracked, BuzzFeed, Christianity Today, and elsewhere. His multiple-award-winning debut novel, OPHELIA, ALIVE (A GHOST STORY), is now available from Post Mortem Press.
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