I was teaching through 1 Corinthians last year around this time when I was first struck by something very odd in that letter. It’s something that can sneak past you unless you go through the thing a few times. Right at the outset of Paul’s letters he usually broadcasts what he’s going to be writing about in a kind of intro-prayer or in the greeting.
Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes,
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
(1 Cor 1:1-3)
Did you catch those words in verse 2 that I helpfully bolded for you to notice? Good. In the space of a few words, Paul calls the believers at Corinth “sanctified” and “saints”; he calls them holy.
Surprised by Sanctification
For those of us who have read the letter through, this is surprising to say the least. This is easily the most jacked-up church we know of in the New Testament. Scholars think that Paul probably wrote more letters to the church than 1 and 2 Corinthians because of the issues with it. To give you a picture, the problems include: factions being formed dividing the church due to people buying into cultural notions of wisdom and power (chapters 1-4), Christians suing each other (5), one dude sleeping with his step-mom and everybody just acting like nothing was going on as well as people visiting prostitutes (5-6), screwy views about sex and marriage (7), people eating food offered up to idols and demons at pagan temples (8-10), groups treating the poor like crud at church (11), getting drunk at communion (11), freaky pride connected to spiritual gifts (12-14), and, to top it off, false teaching about the resurrection (15).
Now, how in the world is Paul go and call this church “holy”? If you look up the word “saints” in a thesaurus, the antonym would probably be “Corinthians”. There is nothing that you could term righteous, moral, or upright about their character. In fact, in some ways Paul says they’re worse than the surrounding pagan culture. And yet, time and again Paul does call them just that. What’s more, in chapter six after listing off a number of practices they were supposed to avoid, he says “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor 6:11 )
Did you see that? “You were sanctified” is talking about a past tense action that makes the believer holy starting at a particular point resulting in a continuous state of holiness in much the same way that in the text he speaks of justification as occurring at a specific point in time resulting in you now being “justified.”
For those of us raised in general evangelicalism this is not typically the way we think or speak. Generally we think of justification as the once and for all legal declaration by God that we are vindicated, pardoned, no longer held as guilty against the covenant because of Jesus’ death and resurrection and now part of the people of the Messiah. It’s what happens at the beginning of our experience that we look back at. Sanctification is then the process that begins afterwards and is the increasing growth in holiness that makes us look more and more like Jesus. It’s the life-long process of becoming righteous in our character.
This is not a bad way of looking at things. Still, it’s also not the most accurate way of thinking about sanctification biblically. Historically Reformed theologians have talked about the difference between “progressive sanctification” and “definitive sanctification.” The first process is the one we’ve been describing that a lot of us understand. Definitive sanctification is that “once and for all act of claiming us as saints.” (Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, pg. 650)
See, the original idea of holiness or sanctification in the Old Testament was to “separate” something away from their ordinary or common use to a special use for God. The Temple, the sabbath, the tithe, the utensils and furniture for the temple were all normal things, taken and set aside, consecrated for use by God. God even does this with a people, Israel, (Exod. 19) He takes one people and sets them apart to be a light to the nations and show the world what life with God is like. They were to be “holy, for I the LORD am holy.” (Lev. 20:26) Paul and the rest of the New Testament picks up on this by seeing God’s act of saving us in Christ as a setting apart, a making holy totally independent of our own righteous acts. Jesus tells us that we are clean because of the word that he has spoken to us. (John 15:3) Indeed, Jesus says that he will be the one who sanctifies us by sanctifying himself, setting us apart through setting himself apart in his death. (John 17:19) The author of Hebrews follows Jesus by telling us that “by God’s will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (10:29)
In Christ, by the Spirit, God definitively sanctifies us, sets us apart to be his own in a once and for all way. When we place our faith in Christ, we’re united with him so that what is true of him, becomes true of us. We are holy because Christ is holy. “All that is found in Christ is holy, because it is in Christ.” (Horton, pg. 651) This is why before we’ve done anything good, righteous, holy, cleaned up our act, made good on our promises or done anything but trust Jesus’ work for us, we are declared saints. Before we clean up, God declares us clean in Christ. This is the holiness, the saintliness that Paul is often speaking of in his letters.
Motivating his instructions to the Corinthian congregation is the reality that, in Christ, they are clean. In essence, “You’re holy! Now act like it. Become what you already are in Christ.” Over and over again in the New Testament we are told that we have been made righteous in Christ or holy in Christ and so now we should live like that’s true.
But I’m Still A Mess
“So, I’m already holy, so now I should live like it? Is that what you’re saying? Okay, here’s my problem: I don’t feel holy. In fact, most of the time I feel angry, lustful, annoyed, proud, downcast and anything but holy. Where does that leave me? It’s fine that God legally sets me apart as holy, declares me righteous, etc., but I still feel like me. What does God saying something out there have anything to do with me in here?” Everything, for at least two reasons.
First, as Michael Horton points out, for an orphan to enjoy the love and care of a new family, they must first by legally adopted. Or, for two nations who have been at war with each other to begin peaceful relations, they must first declare a legal peace. (Pg. 652-653) The definitive declaration of God “out there” is the legal basis of that secures our relationship to the sanctifier. God’s declaration is your hope of sanctification.
Second, God’s declaration isn’t really something that happens “out there.” When God sets us apart, he sets us apart in Christ, in the power of the Spirit. This act actually connects us to Christ like branches being inserted into a vine from which it then begins to draw strength. (John 15) We are connected to Christ like members of a body to the head. (1 Cor 6; 12; Eph. 4) We are given the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, who is a new power at work in us to progressively conform us to reflect the image of Christ. We receive strength and righteousness from the source of all goodness, Christ. God’s definitive sanctification of us is the source of God’s progressive sanctification in us.
You don’t feel holy, but honestly, your feelings are not the ultimate reality you need to be focusing on. Instead, you should be focusing on who you are in Christ. You’re a mess, but in Christ you’re a holy mess who’s getting cleaned up because you’re in the one who is clean. In fact, forget even focusing on who you are at all. Focus on Christ. “Abide in my and I will abide in you.” (John 15:4) When you do that, that’s when things start coming together.
Maybe this is why what Paul writes to his wayward saints the way he does. In the first 9 verses of 1 Corinthians he mentions “Jesus”, or “Jesus Christ”, or “our Lord Jesus Christ” 9 times. Apparently he believes that if his people are going to become holy, start living into the holiness that they’ve been brought into, they need to focus their eyes on Christ, the Holy One.
May we do the same.
Soli Deo Gloria