2 Thessalonians 2:13:
we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation by sanctification from Spirit and faith in the truth
Therefore, I am appealing to you, brothers and sisters, through God’s compassion to present your bodies as sacrifices which are living, holy, and pleasing to God. Do not be comforming to this age, but be transforming for the renewal of your mind so that you may examine what the will of God is – good and pleasing and mature.
2 Corinthians 7.1-2:
Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and of spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of God. Make room in your hearts for us; we have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have taken advantage of no one.
1 Thessalonians 4.1-7:
Finally, brothers and sisters,a we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; that each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honor, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 that no one wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, just as we have already told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness.
Sanctification. Often treated as the lesser brother in salvation to justification in the Protestant Reformation, in the past couple of weeks, I have made the argument that sanctification is foundational to Paul’s understanding of salvation. In 2 Thessalonians 2.13, we get the most explicit affirmation of this, where salvation is spoken of occurring by salvation, alongside faith. As he portrays it in 2 Thessalonians, there is no salvation without sanctification.
Interestingly, Paul makes no mentioned of justification in that passage in 2 Thessalonians, but instead ‘truth’ (ἀλήθεια) in 2 Thessalonians 2.10-13 semantically functions in an ethical sense in contrast to wickedness and unrighteousness. In a similar fashion, truth functions in an ethical fashion in Romans 1.18 and 2.8 when Paul describes God’s judgment on human wickedness. Yet, for Paul, faith is more than just faith in some ideas or propositions, but it is faith s directed ultimately towards the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If “faith in the truth” is synonymous with how Paul talks about faith elsewhere in his epistles, then this leads to a particular conclusion: faith in the crucified and resurrected Jesus is of serious moral implications. This is strongly implied by Romans 10.10, where faith is said to result in righteousness, if one does not automatically assume righteousness is understood here forensically but that it is rather a quality of the heart with which one believes. However, Paul makes it painstakingly clear in Romans 6, where the union with Christ’s death corresponds to freedom from sin in one’s life. Without going further here, there is no clear reason to think that Paul conceives of justification as something that occurs independently of sanctification. Instead, justification is grounded upon the ethical truth and power that the death and resurrection of Jesus has on a believer.
As I have previously observed, in Romans, Paul connects the death of Jesus Christ with people’s moral status and sanctification, whereas justification is connected to having life and resurrection. This becomes evident in Romans 12.1, where people who offer their bodies as a living sacrifice, which can be understood as participation with Christ’s death, are called holy. The death of Christ sanctifies. This accords with the theology of the preacher of Hebrews, who talks about Christ’s death as enabling Him to purify and sanctify believers:
For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!
Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.
And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
The preacher of Hebrews speaks of the blood and body of Christ as bringing about purification and sanctification. The one time he mentions forgiveness, it is mentioned alongside purification, with the recognition that it is the purification that is the condition for forgiveness, much as the blood of the sacrifices in Old Testament were used to cleanse what it was applied to. The significance of the death of Christ is understood primarily in ethical terms of sanctification. We see it similarly said in 1 John 1.7. The one time we see justification connected to blood in Romans 5.9, we don’t get an expanded explanation of how the blood justifies, but it seems to be a restatement of Romans 3.24-25. Yet, in Romans 6.6-7, the freedom from sin by our crucifixion with Christ is the basis for one’s justification apart from sin. In other words, it is reasonable to suggest that for Paul, the sanctifying power of Christ’s blood is the basis for being justified through His blood.
If, then, Paul and the New Testament’s understood of Christ’s atoning death is primarily understood through the lens of the moral transformation/purification/sanctification, then there is a corresponding shift to how we understand what the purpose of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In Protestant circles, it has been usually understood to be the way God saves sinners from the judgment and hell that people’s sins merit; justification is the solution to the problem of judgment. However, a shift to prioritizing sanctification as what the Gospel brings would alter the way we understood the problem that the Gospel solves. I would put forward that the Gospel of Jesus Christ solves the problem of human blindness and resistance to God’s righteous vision for human life that enables people to see the truly good life and live this out with others. The problem for Paul according to Romans is that the world is mired in sin such that widespread injustice and wickedness is being perpetrated that God is going to stand in judgment. In a sanctification-centric vision of the Gospel, the crucified and resurrected Savior provides the way in which people become free from involuntary enslavement to sin that the world was condemned to through Adam so that they can then live in a newness of life that shuns the evils being witnessed in the Roman world around.
Reading Romans 12.1-2 as a summary statement about the holiness that comes from living a life crucified with Christ, then there is a transformation that allows people to discern God’s good will. Far from Romans 12.1-2 being some ethical implications of the Gospel of justification proposed at the beginning of Paul’s letter, it is a concise exhortation expressing Paul’s vision of what happens to believers when they accept the Gospel he preaches. The holiness that comes with one’s union with Christ enables people to see and know God’s will. Eyes are opened.
What our eyes are opened to isn’t simply to some sterile sense of “morality” about the do’s and dont’s of behaviors. Rather, something much more sweeping and significant is at stake: social holiness. As John Wesley observed, “The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.” One can not be holy about from the way one relates to other people, both as individuals, as groups, and as a society. In 2 Corinthians 7.1-2 and 1 Thessalonians 4.1-7, sanctification is spoken of in regards to people’s relations and behaviors with others. As our lives are cleansed from the desires of the flesh so that our bodies and lives are used for holy purposes, people’s relations with each other become transformed. Yet, this transformation is more than just simply “doing what is good” but it is eye-opening; it allows people to comprehend God’s righteous vision for human life that has been brought forward through Jesus Christ. To believe in the truth of the crucified-and-resurrected Savior is to bring light to people’s spiritual eyes, allowing them to see themselves and other people in a new light.
How much is this real Gospel needed in our present day, where many people who parade the name Christ not only disregard other people, but actively justify behaviors and policies that cause harm to others, whether it be resisting basic precautions for Coronavirus or standing against our African-American brothers and sisters who are struggling for justice. Is it because they understood the Gospel to primarily be about their justification that they then feel they can justify living in such a way that risks bringing harm to others and can justify endorsing social practices and political policies that keep others perpetually down? As people are awakened by the sanctifying, moral transforming power of the crucified Savior, they can be raised to live in the newness of life that will stand at the judgment and would become much-needed salt and light in an often spoiling and dark society.
Without sanctification, there is no justification. With sanctification, we can come to comprehend God’s righteous vision and live it out.