A Pastor’s Labor for the Obedience of Faith

The matter of sanctification can be simply stated. It has been defined as “the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin and live unto righteousness” (WSC 35). The manner in which this work progresses in a person’s life, however, is more difficult to fathom. This is evident in Paul’s description of his own experience: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15). With consternation he continues, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (v. 19). He questions with deep conviction, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (v. 24), yet concludes with confidence, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v. 25).

While the doctrine of sanctification may be simply stated, understanding our personal experience as we continue to struggle with sin is another matter. And personal confusion in our experience may cloud our comprehension of the doctrine itself.

Perplexity concerning sanctification is not surprising in part because it is not new. Historically, the word mystery has been commonly used. The seventeenth-century pastor Walter Marshall wrote a treatise, stemming in part from his own personal struggle, entitled The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, taken from Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 3:16, “Great is the mystery of godliness.” Another well-known pastor-theologian from the seventeenth century, John Owen, repeatedly uses the word mystery in speaking of sanctification in his treatise on the Holy Spirit, claiming, “The work itself, as hath been before declared at large, is secret and mysterious.” Later, he confesses: “The sense of what the Scripture proposeth, what I believe, and what I desire an experience of, that I shall endeavor to declare. But as we are not in this life perfect in the duties of holiness, no more are we in the knowledge of its nature.”

Despite these difficulties, Marshall and Owen, along with many other Reformed pastors and theologians, have labored to explain the pattern of sanctification and its application as taught in Scripture. In my experience, however, those entering ministry speak with greater clarity about the doctrine of justification than they do sanctification. While confident concerning the necessity of Christ’s death and resurrection for pardon of sin, there may be unease in describing the efficacy of the same for our being conformed to the image of Christ through the work of the Spirit. The question is whether Scripture teaches a clearer pattern of sanctification than we seem able to articulate.

Paul declares that the purpose of the apostleship in which he shares is “to bring about the obedience of faith,” a statement he uses to bookend his epistle to the Romans (Rom. 1:5; 16:26). According to John Murray, in this instance, faith itself is the act of obedience to which Paul refers. Here, faith in Christ comprehends the whole of the obedience to which we are called, for “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith” (1:17). Yet as Paul later explains, it is both a faith that justifies, receiving righteousness as a gift through Christ Jesus (3:22–25), and also a faith that sanctifies, through which we count ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus, as we present ourselves to him in obedience leading to righteousness (6:16). This dynamic role of faith is expounded in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which describes “the principal acts of saving faith” as “accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace”; faith functions in “yielding obedience to the commands” as well as “embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come” (WCF 14.2). Sanctification, no less than justification, is a matter of faith in Christ Jesus.

The pastor, therefore, must labor for the obedience of faith in the fullest sense. Paul describes a parental-like concern for those to whom he ministers, telling the Galatians that he is “in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19). In Colossians, he describes the aim of his ministry: “that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). He reminds the Ephesians of how they had “learned Christ” as they were “taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus,” explaining again the putting off of the old self and the putting on of the new, “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:20–24). Telling Titus to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1), he continues:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11–14)

“Declare these things,” Paul exhorts (Titus 2:15). The grace of God does not simply tell us to say no to ungodliness, but trains us, teaches us. And this training is not merely negative, but positively presents a new pattern for our lives, with a focus on Christ Jesus. The question for those engaged in ministry is whether we ourselves have learned Christ as Paul describes, and can then teach others the grace of God in such a way that leads to sanctification in those who have faith in Christ Jesus. Paul tells Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16).

In our labor for the obedience of faith, then, we must be able to teach the pattern of sanctification while also portraying it in our lives.

Excerpt taken from Chapter 14 of Theology for Ministry: How Doctrine Affects Pastoral Life and Practice edited by William R. Edwards, John C. A. Ferguson, Chad Van Dixhoorn

Rob Edwards is assistant professor of Pastoral Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. 

Related Links

“Christ’s Pattern, a Masterful Work” by Nathan Eshelman

“How Are Saints ‘Farther Sanctified’?” by Jeffery Smith

"The Cross-Bearing Life" by Mike Myers

Holiness; Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots by J. C. Ryle 

Theology for Ministry How Doctrine Affects Pastoral Life and Practice, ed. by William R. Edwards, John C. A. Ferguson, Chad Van Dixhoorn