I remember hearing somewhere that it is the psychologically healthier mind that can handle holding opposing thoughts and paradoxes in tension. It’s the unhealthy mind that is always trying to rectify the world and make it fit exactly, perfectly into categories. A healthy mind is ok with not understanding everything in the world and knowing that some things are inexplicable and out of control, and yet clearly exist and must continue. It is the unhealthy one that requires the whole world to be explained and under control.
There are some fun examples of paradox, like what would happen if Pinocchio were to say, “My nose will now grow.”?
Or the famous “Ship of Theseus paradox” in which a ship leaves port in Athens to go on a long journey, and along the way as has to replace the rotten planks, the mast, the sails, and eventually every other part. The question is, is it the same ship when it gets back to Athens?
Or my favourite: Since buttered toast will always fall butter-side down when you drop it, and a cat always lands on its feet. What would happen if you tied a piece of buttered toast to a cat and then dropped it?
Here’s one from Proverbs. Proverbs 26:4 teaches, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.” Which means that it’s often impossible to talk to people who want to do foolish things. That’s true, right? If someone is committed to doing something stupid, there’s very little we can do about it. Well, the next verse says this, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he
Well, the next verse says this, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” Which means, we should say something when someone’s about to do something foolish or they might think they’re doing the right thing! Both are true, aren’t they? But it depends on the situation. Sometimes one applies, sometimes another.
As much as Christian apologeticists and theologians would like to have an answer to every question they are posed, God asks believers to hold a lot of truths in tension. Now, these paradoxes are not the same as contradictions. A professor of mine used to say, “The Bible has no contradictions in it, only important differences.” That is to say, the Bible agrees with itself completely, but there are some things in it that are beyond our comprehension.
These paradoxes continue to trouble believers and create a lot of tension. For example:
- If God knows our needs, is all wise and perfectly sovereign over everything, and will always do what is best, then why should we pray or give or serve or sacrifice?
- If God is going to save who He is going to save, then why should we bother sharing the Gospel?
- If God is the one who decides when we are going to die, then how can anyone truly commit suicide or murder?
- If God knows everything and planned everything in advance, but never sins and never tempts, then how can we explain the existence of Satan and Hell?
- How can Jesus be both fully God and fully man?
- How can there be One God in three persons of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit?
These are hugely important questions that have been discussed and debated by believers for hundreds of years, and used by atheists and enemies of the Gospel to try to discredit Christianity.
Those questions may be more theological and theoretical in nature, but these types of paradoxes also spill out into how we live out our faith.
- God says that we are saved by grace not works, but then also tells us that we need to be doing good works because we are saved.
- God says that He will oppose the proud, but exalt the humble (James 4:10), so how can we be humble while at the same time wanting to be exalted by God?
- Paul says that we are strongest when we are at our most weak (2 Cor 12:10), so how do we embrace weakness while at the same time trying to grow stronger?
- Jesus says it’s better to give than to receive, because when we give we will receive blessings from God (Acts 20:35). So is it wrong to give to others because we want to receive blessings from God?
- The Bible teaches that Jesus sets us free and gives us an abundant life, and then tells us in Romans 6:18 that we are “free from sin, but slaves of righteousness.”, and that this world will be full of trouble. So are we free and abundant or slaves in a world of trouble?
- Jesus says, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39). How does that work?
This tension is perhaps most keenly felt as we discuss and live out the Doctrine of Sanctification. What is Sanctification? To sanctify something means to make it “holy or purified”. It is closely associated with the word “Consecration” which is the separating of a thing or person fr divine service. In communion, the bread and wine are Consecrated, or set apart for a special service. When a missionary or pastor or elder is called, we are saying they are Consecrated for their mission, or set apart for a special task.
In the Old Testament, there were various things that were consecrated unto God’s temple: the sacred furniture, the priests, the offering, and even the worshippers, were set apart for a special purpose. And when they had been set apart, the first step would be to take the Consecrated thing or person, and then “Sanctify” it. They would do things like wash their garments, change their clothes, and then sprinkle blood or pour oil on it or the person and declare them clean and ready for whatever God wanted to use them for.
If you recall last week, I talked about the importance of knowing you are “called”. I could just have easily used the word “consecrated”. Christians have been called out by God to be set apart as something special in the world. But before they can be used by God, they must be Sanctified. Before sanctification we are “unclean” or “profane” and not worthy to be in God’s presence or used by God.
Remember I said we are spiritually dead, enemies of God, a citizen of the Kingdom of Darkness? That’s our position before we are saved, so in order to be brought into God’s presence, into Heaven, and be used for His Holy purposes in this world, we need to be “Sanctified”, or “cleaned”, or “made holy”, or “purified”. Now, how does that happen? The same way it did in the Old Testament. We need to be chosen, cleaned, changed, and then covered in a blood sacrifice.
Hebrews 10:10-14 says:
“…we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”
Jesus provides the blood offering that allows for us to be cleansed of our sins and sanctified before God. When the Israelites in the Old Testament were doing it, the priests had to keep killing more and more animals, every day, every month, every year, to atone for the people. Jesus’ sacrifice was the once-and-for-all, final sacrifice that would allow anyone who would believe in Him to be saved.
What does that mean? It means that anyone who believes in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour are washed in His blood (that’s why we use that phrase), cleansed from their sin, and set apart for God’s special purpose. We can come before Him because He has made us clean. That’s the rules He set out from the beginning. Hebrews 9:11-15 puts it this way”
“But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 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 serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.”
Jesus fulfilled everything that was required by God in the Law and completed the work of all that had come before. The sacrifices of the Old Testament were imperfect and wore off. Jesus’ sacrifice is perfect and eternal. God says that “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) and that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” and that “under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (Hebrews 9:22)
The only one who could die for a human would be a human, but since we all have a sin problem, we can only die for our own sin! We needed a human being to come and live a perfect life, who could then be the final blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of the rest of humanity. Jesus chose to be that final sacrifice. Only through His death and the shedding of His blood could we be free from our sins. Therefore the author of Hebrews tells us that we can “have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus”. Not by what we have done, but what He has done.
Jesus sacrifice has made it possible for us to be cleansed of our sins and made right with God. When we come to God for forgiveness, He doesn’t say yes because He’s so nice. He can only say yes because our sins are already paid for. Sin must be paid for, and Jesus took the payment. God can’t be in the presence of sin, so everything must be purified, cleaned, and sanctified. It is Jesus’ blood that does that.
What does this mean for us? As I said last week, knowing this keeps the accusing demons at bay. When He starts to say that you aren’t saved, that God rejects you, that you’re not good enough, that you’ve lost your salvation, or that you need to clean yourself up to come to God, then you can say, “No. My salvation isn’t dependent on my own goodness but on the shed blood of Jesus. I can’t sanctify myself or make myself good in His sight – I need Jesus to do that, and He has because I’ve put my faith in Him.”
Now, this kind of thinking seems terribly foolish to a lot of people. Paul says as much to the Corinthians in just a few verses in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Before God gets a hold of our hearts and saves us, this whole idea of sanctification and being saved by the power of a blood sacrifice seems terribly foolish to us. Paul will say something similar in chapter 2:14, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
Herein lies another paradox: that even if we already know this truth, we will always refuse to accept it until God opens our eyes to it. Only God can choose us and clean us up. Only God can sanctify us, gives us the mind of Christ, and give us the capacity to make the choice to love Him.
Until God opens our eyes we can’t even see the problem of sin and our need for sanctification. I was watching a sermon by Alistair Begg this week and he said this,
“Humanity, as it confronts the reality of the human condition has all kinds of suggestions as to how it can be fixed. But that is in large measure because contemporary notions of the state of man are frankly unprepared to give any credence at all to this diagnoses which… runs throughout the Bible whereby the Bible tells us that outside of Christ we are dead, we are enslaved, and we are condemned… It speaks to the issues of our state that everyday we live our lives, every newspaper that unfolds before us, every broadcast that comes across our screen, confirms the reality of what GK Chesterton observed that ‘whatever else may be in doubt, man is not what God intended for him to be.’ And so the explanations that are given are fairly routine.
The trouble is that man is simply sad, or perhaps he is dysfunctional, or we may be prepared to acknowledge that he is sick. That’s why he does these dreadful things, why he kills and maims and rapes and turns in upon himself. This is explained in terms of sickness. The one thing that is almost wholesalely rejected is the diagnoses that the bible gives here, namely that man is sinful. And the reason that this is so crucial is because a superficial view of the human condition results inevitably in attempts to fix the condition in similarly superficial fashion. So that for example, we may try, if man is simply misguided, to cure the predicament by increasing the level of education. If he is sick, by increasing the amount of medication. If he’s just rebellious, then perhaps by legislation – or even by indoctrination or domination…. This is how society as a whole, and towns and cities and families and sports teams and businesses and academic institutions try and do something about the fact that man is messed up.”
You see, this is how man tries to fix his sin problem, and you can see it all the time as the governments of North America try to figure out how to fix what’s wrong with the world. They refuse to believe that sin is the problem, so they can’t find the real cure, which is Jesus Christ. So instead they treat everything topically, or superficially, by giving more access to medication and healthcare. And whatever sins they can’t solve through education, they will create laws against.
- They solve the problem of loneliness, sadness and sickness by making laws so doctors can kill their patients more easily.
- They solve the problem of sexual addiction and broken families by allowing people more access to easier divorces and give them the right to kill the unborn.
- They truly believe that they will solve the world’s problems with education – if we can just educate the youth to be more open minded and teach the terrorists to be more inclusive and kind, then everyone will get along.
- That’s why we have a nanny state where governments want to ban sugary drinks to cure people of gluttony.
- They mandate being nice by jailing anyone who makes others uncomfortable with their opinions, because no one should ever have hurt feelings.
- They rebrand mental illness into alternative lifestyles.
- In some places they try to force people to take care of their stuff by fining them for not recycling and having a vehicle that is too muddy.
- Did you know that doorknobs are being banned in Vancouver, even in private homes, because they aren’t easy enough for some people to open?
How can the world stem the tide of violence and hatred without admitting we need a new heart from Jesus? They make laws.
- One 5 year old girl in Pennsylvania was labled a “terroristic threat”, suspended from school, and ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation because she brought a Hello Kitty gun that shoots bubbles to her school.
- Seven year old Joshua was suspended from second grade because he chewed a pop-tart into the shape of a gun and said “bang, bang.”
Do you see how different the Christian view is to this? Christian say that we are evil on the inside, we have a heart problem that needs a complete regeneration from the inside out, a new birth, a recreation, a resurrection by the power of God. We need to be cleansed and given a new heart through Jesus Christ. We need Him to kill the effects of sin in us and then raise us up to new life. We don’t think we can do this on our own. The only way to battle sin is through a miracle from God.
Outside the Christian church it’s exactly opposite. They believe people are basically good on the inside and with enough education, rules, encouragement and tolerance, everyone will finally conquer their sadness, or sickness, or differences, and finally come together.
It’s totally opposite, isn’t it?
This is why Christians preach the existence of sin, the depravity of our hearts, and our desperate need for the sanctifying power of the blood of Jesus Christ.
The Paradox of Sanctification
This is where the paradox comes in. All of what I have said is absolutely true. If you are in Christ you are a new creation. That’s what the Bible says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Cor 5:17) It’s a present reality. The Bible speaks of it in the past-tense as though it’s already happened!
- Colossians 3:1: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”
- Ephesians 2:5-6: “…when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…”
- Romans 6:6: “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.”
It’s all past-tense to God. Already done. Our old self is dead and we have been set free. We were dead, now we’re alive and have already been raise up with Him and seated next to Jesus. It’s already happened in God’s eyes! Just like Jesus was dead and buried for oursins, and then raised to life and seated with God, so we died with Christ and now we’re raised to life and death no longer has dominion over us. The thing we fear most, death, no longer has power over us because our life is hidden in God in Christ. It’s a present reality!
If Jesus doesn’t come back first, our bodies will someday die, but it will be like going to sleep and waking up with Jesus. Death has no sting.
That is, by the way, one of the pictures of baptism. It represents the death and burial of our old selves and the new life we have now that we live in Christ. The waters we pass through represent the cleansing of our souls by the blood of Jesus.
The moment we are saved, that we give our hearts to Jesus, we are immediately and perfectly cleansed. Ready for use in God’s temple, able to stand in the Holy of Holies because we have been cleansed by the shed blood of Jesus.
But… it doesn’t feel like that, does it? We’re not perfected yet, are we? I know I’m not. It is a paradox that all of the promises of God are ours the very moment we are saved, but at the same time we must wait for them. God doesn’t deliver us out of this world and make us perfect. This is why Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Our sanctification is sure, but not seen yet.
Many Christians will describe their process of sanctification, which theologians call “Progressive Sanctification”, with the words, “Already, but not yet.” We are already perfectly clean before God, but not yet perfectly sanctified. We’re right before God and there is nothing we need to do to gain salvation, while at the exact same time we are working out our faith with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12).
This is why Paul could start his letter to the messed up church in Corinth with the words, “to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” That was a super messed up church. They were dividing, arguing, doubting, questioning the apostles, up to their eyeballs in sexual immorality and greed, their marriages and families were messed up, they were slipping into idolatry, and more. And yet, Paul calls them “sanctified… saints”? Why?
Because they were Christians. Their salvation, sanctification and status before God wasn’t based on their actions or maturity – it was based on whether they were called by God and cleaned by Jesus, which they were. Yes, they were messing up their lives and their church a whole bunch, and Paul was going to address that, but he wanted to make sure they knew who they were first. They were God’s people, who had been shown a great love, called out like Lazarus from the grave, chosen from among many to be given undeserved grace, and then sanctified by the blood of Jesus Christ.
They had forgotten their calling and their cleansing, their salvation and their sanctification, and had slid back into living like the world, so Paul needed to remind them of what and who’s they were.
I’m going to talk about the other side of Sanctification next week – that is, our responsibility toward our own holiness – but I wanted to make sure you understood this truth first. You cannot save yourself, you need the blood of Jesus Christ to sanctify you before God. You need to admit you are a sinner who can’t educate or exercise or empower himself enough to save himself. You need a miracle.
And those who have experienced that miracle, I want to you remember how far you were brought – from death to life, from sinner to saint, from impure to pure, and to thank God for that truth. Thank God for saving you from trying to save yourself. Thank God for the knowledge that there is nothing you can do to increase His love for you because He loved you before you ever loved Him. And most of all, thank God for sending His son to die on the cross, shedding his blood for your sake, to make it possible for you to be saved. If it weren’t for Him, you would still be condemned.
A Closing Thought From Ezekiel 36
I want to close today with a reading from Ezekiel 36:22-32 which gives a picture of how salvation works. You see, our salvation through Jesus wasn’t a new idea, but was God’s plan all along – from the very beginning. And even in the Old Testament people weren’t saved by their works, but by their faith – and that faith didn’t come from them, but from God. The Christian faith didn’t come up with anything new that wasn’t in the Old Testament. We simply understand it better because Jesus has shown us what it all means.
Let me read it and as I do, notice how it is God who does the work of sanctification and salvation… and realize why? Not for our sakes, but for His glory: “Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.
“Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.
I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations.
Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord GOD; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel.
…On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt. And the land that was desolate shall be tilled, instead of being the desolation that it was in the sight of all who passed by…. Then the nations that are left all around you shall know that I am the LORD; I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which was desolate. I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it.” (Ezekiel 36:22-36)
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