Updated: Sep 22
This is Part II of the Psychology of the Holy. You can find the first post here: https://www.christianmusingsfortoday.com/post/the-psychology-of-the-holy
I wanted the second part to focus on one of my favorite topics: sanctification. My dad, whenever we talk about sanctification, always notes that this is a favorite topic of mine, and he's very right! Thankfully, about 5 years ago I stumbled on a book that would satisfy many of the questions I had had about sanctification for quite some time. It's The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification by 17th century Puritan Walter Marshall, and it changed my life.
But before I talk about that, another sanctification connection popped up this week. As I'm writing this, our nation has just remembered the 22nd anniversary of 9/11. Christianity Today also recently published a special commemorative issue in remembrance of Pastor Tim Keller. This issue included an excerpt from Dr. Keller's 9/11 sermon, when he opened his church to the grieving masses in New York City, and the Lord blessed his efforts by making Redeemer church a shining beacon there and beyond.
True to form, Keller quotes C.S. Lewis in this sermon, from Mere Christianity:
If we let him...He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a...dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long...but that is what we are in for. Nothing less.
First, this is reminiscent of what I wrote about in the first Psychology of the Holy post. We are not on the level of God, on-par with the Lord's glory and holiness. But, by God's grace, we will be made holy. And this is no small thing. It is an extraordinary hope, and it is so beautiful that this is the hope that Keller shared in that dark moment.
I've noticed the meme about hating 9/11 but loving 9/12--which kicked off the brief period of unity in the United States during which all barriers--race, gender, socioeconomic status--seemingly fell away and disappeared. We were all one, victimized by a common enemy and trying to get through together. I was in graduate school at the time, and remember random people from all walks of life and parts of the world smiling so warmly at me on the street. We all felt connected.
We miss times like these because deep inside us, we desperately want all things to be healed and made new. By God's grace, most of us are not so evil that we wish for chaos and destruction, and we would do well to acknowledge the origins of the impulses that may be guiding some in nihilistic stances. These are not of the Lord; these are dark impulses. Our fight is not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). Rather, at the root of many of our political divides is a common goal: what is the best way to bring help and healing and renewal? The impulse is good, and yet we divide deeply on the means to get there.
A friend shared with me the incredible viral video of Rich Men North of Richmond as well as the reaction video of people from diverse backgrounds nodding and crying in response to these words of truth. Truth cuts across these divides and reveals the commonality of pain, hurt, and suffering. Various things seek to divide us, yet, sadly, the very people who become divided are often the ones who have the most in common.
When I taught Introduction to Psychology, in the Social Psychology section, I'd always discuss prejudice and discrimination and the psychological research that explains the various reasons why people become prejudiced against others. Of course perceived dissimilarity is one of the factors. But so is economic competition. Look at Nazi Germany, and Hitler effectively turning the German--and, if we're honest, many other European and European-Americans--against Jewish people, by blaming the Jews for resource scarcity. Anti-Semitisim was at a high in Europe, including the United Kingdom...and it was also at a high in the United States in the decades leading up to WWII (https://alba-valb.org/resource/anti-semitism-in-the-1920s-and-1930s/). Hitler just effectively capitalized on this--showing that scapegoating an entire people group can be an effective way to mobilize others.
To what extent is that happening now, in many different areas?
And, to what extent do we experience a worldly sanctification--an effort to purge and purify the unwanted and un-pure from among us? To what extent are Christians engaging in a worldly purification, full of Shibboleths (I just love this term and find it very of-the-moment! It's from Judges 12:6--it's the origin of our idea of "signaling"--that a word or phrase you use and how you use it reveals what tribe or camp you're in!).
It's a distortion for many reasons--we twist God's laws to self-select the ones we weaponize against others, while eventually even forgetting that the other moral rules even exist. Can most of us even claim to be so knowledgeable about God's laws that we can, with confidence, apply them to say who is and isn't worthy of being a child of God?
All the while, we are ignoring what C.S. Lewis and Tim Keller prophetically stayed on point saying--God is making His children holy, one by one. It isn't the people "out there" who God needs to fix and make better. It's me. It's you. We desperately need God to sanctify us and make us holy. Only then will reach a critical mass of holy people, a "nation" if you will, like I Peter 2:9 says:
But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (New King James Version).
And this brings us to Walter Marshall. The mystery of sanctification, according to Marshall, is that we are to rely on Christ for our holiness. If we pursue holiness ourselves, it's no different than trying to pursue salvation ourself. The Holy Spirit will indwell within us if we are believers and will provide what is needed to become holy. This requires the same thing of us that salvation does: faith. Faith is the means for both justification (being made right with God) and sanctification (being made holy).
Tim Keller agreed, and in that commemorative CT issue, Pastor J.D. Greear writes of Keller,
"Before I encountered him years ago, my messages were heavy on how-to's and performance. Do this. Become that. But in every single sermon I preach today, I strive to direct people to worship Jesus and adore him more as opposed to inspiring them to worker harder as Christians. I believe Tim was quoting D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones when he said, "There ought to come a time in every message where the pen goes down and the eyes go up and you stop saying, 'Oh my God, look at all the things I have to do for you.' And you start saying, 'Oh my God, look at all the things you've done for me.'
Yes and yes! And one of the greatest things God has done for us is to promise to make us holy. Marshall says,
there is no way to be saved, without receiving all the saving benefits of Christ; his Spirit as well as his merits, sanctification as well remission of sins, by faith. --It is the ruin of many souls, that they trust on Christ for the remission of sins, without any regard to holiness; whereas these two benefits are inseparably joined in Christ, so that none are freed from condemnation by Christ, but those that are enabled to walk holily, that is, not after the flesh, but after the Spirit (Rom. viii.1). It is also the ruin of souls, to seek only remission of sins by faith in Christ, and holiness by our endeavors, according to the terms of the law...That faith which receiving not holiness, as well as remission of sins from Christ, will never sanctify us; and therefore it will never bring us to heavenly glory (Heb. xii. 14).
This is what changed my perspective on sanctification and therefore changed my life. In my journal at the time, I noted this reflection, "This reminds me of a good psychological principle--that change happens when your identity changes. You don't do drugs, for example, because you can't even imagine yourself as the type of person who does drugs. You give to the poor, because you see yourself as the type of person who gives to the poor. Identity is the root of behavioral change."
We receive a new identity in Christ, not just due to the remission of sins, but because through God's great love and Jesus' resurrection power, the Holy Spirit remains with us to make us more like Him. Consequently, our behavior can change.
Does that mean we do nothing? No. Just as with salvation, we aren't made holy by our own efforts, but our behaviors--which are subordinate to faith, according to Marshall--are the means by which God can work through us to make us holy. Marshall lists 10 classic means of holiness:
Knowing Scripture--becoming educated to its truths.
Examining yourself diligently, to make sure that you are in a state of grace.
Meditate on God's word.
Baptism--a seal of righteousness that encourages us to lay hold of God's grace.
Communion, to nourish our faith. We remember not only the history of Christ's sacrifice, but the mystery of it.
Prayer--intercessory prayer is our priestly work. Marshall minces no words: "prayerless people are dead to God...heathens in nature, though Christians in name."
Singing psalms, and Marshall says that composing psalms is also good, following the example of King Solomon and King Hezekiah. Other parts of Scripture are good to sing as well. I have been reading various sources encouraging people to follow the model of the psalms to write out their laments and praises before the Lord.
Fasting, which Marshall says is a help to "extraordinary" prayer, although it is not for the weak.
Vows (kinda---I have to admit that Marshall is a little confusing to me here!).
Fellowship--communion of the saints.
So, basically, your pastor is right that you should do such things! Just realize that you are not earning your sanctification by doing them, but allowing the Spirit to work in and through you.
I'll conclude with these great quotes from Marshall on sanctification:
Sanctification is an effect of justification, and floweth from the same grace; and we trust for them both by the same faith.
Sanctification in Christ, is glorification begun; as glorification is sanctification perfected.
The Western church may be uncomfortable with the concept of participating in the divine, but in addition to sanctification, we are told in Scripture that we will be glorified. For example, Colossians 3:4: "When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory." It is sad that this bit of theology is seemingly being lost today: Justification--Sanctification--Glorification.
Yet, psychologically, how helpful is it to know and understand that we are not carrying the weight of our own spiritual fulfillment? Let the burden of that roll off, and surrender it to God.
God's got this, as many encouraging people say today. Far more than God having our backs at our jobs or in the midst of some personal difficulty, God is ensuring that we will reach the finish line of a completed spiritual journey. And if He has His way with us, we will become what Tim Keller quoted C.S. Lewis as saying: dazzling, radiant, immortal creatures. We'll be full of energy, joy, wisdom, and love, beyond what we can imagine, and we will reflect God's own holiness and glory (on a smaller scale indeed, as Lewis notes).
This is the real spiritual journey.