A guest post by Chris Green
1 Thess. 4.3
God means to make us holy. As one of our texts put it, “This is the will of God: your sanctification.” But what does this actually mean? What exactly is it that God wants for us? Simply this: to make us like Christ. St Paul says it directly; we are predestined to be conformed to the image of the Son. Sanctification, then, names the process by which the Father, working in, with, and through us by the Spirit, accomplishes this work of making us like the Son, our humanity through and through glorified by sharing together in the Triune life.
Making us like Christ requires a healing of all that sin has corrupted, disfigured, and destroyed in us. And it requires a reordering and reenergizing of our loves and habits of body, mind, and spirit so that we come to live lives worthy of the gospel. Such radical renovation of our lives depends upon our being baptized in and filled with the Spirit—made to partake of the divine nature, as St. Peter has it—so that we come, over time, to take on Christ’s divine-human likeness. Only in this way are we made apt for God, neighbor, and creation. Only in this way are we made truly ourselves.
If we aren’t careful, however, our talk about holiness will slide into nonsense—or something worse. In many people’s minds, the call to holiness is a call to a certain kind of moral rigor. To be holy is to be “good” in an extraordinary, perhaps even superhuman, way. For me, this kind of perversion is exemplified by Bro. Wright, a cranky old man from the church my family attended when I was kid. Bro. Wright—it’s impossible to overstate how pleased I am that this happened to be his name—believed that he was “fully sanctified,” and so not only couldn’t sin but also couldn’t even be tempted to sin. Every December 31st, during what we called the “watch night” service, he would testify that if he had the year to live again he would do nothing differently. I don’t need to tell you that he was unbelievably distant, mean-spirited, condescending. No lie: he sat to the side of the sanctuary, in a metal folding chair, and presided over the services. In the end, not long before he died, he became so weary of dealing with the rest of us that he quit coming to church altogether.
Of course, Bro. Wright—or, more accurately, my memory of him—is a caricature. Still, I suspect that many of us recognize in this sketch an image we know. Perhaps we recognize something of ourselves? Regardless, it’s safe to say that if we’re thinking of the saintly life as one that leads away from the ugliness and inconvenience of life together, then we have utterly misunderstood the gospel. Sanctification moves us always deeper in, more toward the center of community, in the world as well as in the church.
The Fourth Gospel teaches us that Jesus is the one who prays for us to be where he is, interceding for us to have a home in his nearness to the Father. To be like Jesus, then, is to be “with God,” to abide “in the Father’s embrace,” and precisely in that place to open our lives for others, especially those most removed from God—the godless, the ungodly, the godforsaken. Christ prepares for us a place in the Father, the room he himself is. “I go to prepare a place for you,” he promises, “that where I am, you may be also.” He is the Father’s house, and as we become like Christ, we too become roomy, opened more and more for others to find their place in God through us. To be where Christ is, is to embody the mind of Christ, as Philippians 2 describes it; that is, to refuse to fixate on or take refuge in our personal relation to God, but instead to go on emptying ourselves, in myriad ways, in the unpretentious care of our neighbors and enemies, becoming obedient, day after day, to the cross we’re bound to bear.
The horizontal beam of this cross is the otherness, the strangeness, of our sisters and brothers, outside and inside the church, and all the difficulties their strangeness causes for us and for them. As Bonhoeffer says, “Only as a burden is the other really a brother or sister and not merely an object to be controlled.” The vertical beam is the otherness, the strangeness of the God whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are beyond our thoughts. Enduring this manifold strangeness, we identify ourselves with Christ in his intervening, atoning agony and just so find ourselves taking on his character. Look again at Hebrews 12. The holiness to which we are called, the holiness without which we cannot see the Lord, is a holiness we are called to make possible for others. “See to it,” the text says, “that no one fails to obtain the grace of God.” See to it that the weak are made strong, that the lame are healed. See to it that bitterness can take no root. See to it that Jacob and Esau live at peace.
Intercession, then, is the surest mark of holiness. Like Abraham, we intercede for Sodom—not only for God to spare their lives but also for God to forgive their sins. Like Moses and Aaron, we stand in the midst of the rebels—the very ones calling for our demise—and resist the divine judgment against them. Like Christ, even as we are dying, falling into the abyss of godforsakeness, we cry out for our oppressors’ forgiveness. “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” A.W. Tozer famously said that the most important thing about us is what comes into our minds when we think about God. That’s not quite right. The most important thing about us is what comes into our hearts when we see the sins of our enemies. In the end, the sheep are known by how they see—and see to the needs of—the goats.
Finally, I want to return to the language of the “beauty” of holiness. In what ways is holiness beautiful? In just the same way that Jesus himself is beautiful. The beauty of holiness is the unrecognized, undesired beauty of the Suffering Servant who suffers for others’ salvation, his life utterly expended for theirs. As we become like him, we too will be despised, held in no account, as we, like and with him, bear others’ infirmities, carry their dis-ease, making their wounds our own, letting their iniquities fall upon our heads. Oppressed and afflicted, we will hold our tongues, and find ourselves again and again led like lambs to the slaughter. For his sake, we are sure to be killed all day long—and precisely in these moments to know ourselves to be “more than conquerors.” It is this beauty that will captivate the world, so that they’ll say of us, “they have been with Jesus.” By this the world will know that we are his disciples. What more could we want or ask for?
[Chris’ recent book, Toward a Pentecostal Theology of the Lord’s Supper: Foretasting the Kingdom, was reviewed here]