It is well said by many in the church that the Christian is not who he’s supposed to be, but by God’s grace he is not who he used to be. This well worn saying strikes at a truth we all know intellectually and experientially but get discouraged by in the aftermath of sin: sanctification doesn’t happen overnight. It is painful and progressive.
By way of example, I think of my friend, we’ll call him George. George used to be dominated by alcoholism, but now by the empowering of the Spirit he has been sober for several years. In the earlier years of his struggle, however, this was not the case. He might go two weeks without a drink only to go on a weekend binder. He’d repent, muster up his strength, and get back on the wagon. Two months, maybe four, and he’d fall off again. While stuck inside this cycle it was easy for George to get discouraged. Didn’t Jesus die to save him from this mess? He hated alcohol, but like a dog returning to its vomit he kept returning to it (Prov. 26:11). That’s where fellow sojourners on this journey toward glorification had to meet with him and remind him of the truths that would get clouded by his sin. If he were to fall off again tomorrow, Jesus’ grace would still be there to help reorient him towards the fixed goal.
One step forward, two steps back. Such is the awkward dance of sanctification. But we do not dance alone. Jesus is our masterful dance instructor, never missing a beat, but always extending a hand to pull us back to our feet when we trip ourselves up.
God has Saved Us
Many people write the date they accepted Christ in the front cover of their Bible. It is a helpful reminder, an ebenezer to the day God first introduced himself to you. Yet, we risk misplacing our faith in a particular date in time instead of a particular person who entered time and took on flesh (Jn. 1:14). While from our human perspective it is helpful to remember the day we acquired a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, it is all too simplistic to think of that as the day we were saved.
Instead, salvation was purchased for us on a cross in Calvary some 2000 years ago. Long before our mothers had planned to birth us God had planned our second birth. Paul says, “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). Jesus knew the names of those he was dying for even before they were born.
In eternity past, God decided it was good for him to make man in his own image (Gen. 1:26, 27). At the cross, he chose to ransom some of every tribe, tongue, and nation and in the future he will bring many sons and daughters to glory. Our salvation, in one sense, was entirely determined in the past by the triune God.
God the Father had a plan and a purpose to accomplish our salvation the moment our first parents sinned in the Garden. As Adrian Rogers was fond of saying, “The Trinity never meets in emergency session.” This plan was then executed by the son who was obedient even to the point of death (Phil. 2:8). He, as the second Adam, succeeded in the desert in contrast to the first Adam who failed in the garden. It was the Holy Spirit who led the Son to the desert (Lk. 4:1) and now indwells all who trust in Christ. All of these events were sovereignly ordained prior to the birth of those of us alive today. When understood and contemplated they should overwhelm our hearts and bring us joy. We have been saved indeed. All that was done to accomplish this was determined in eternity past. And all of it accomplished by grace; we can do nothing to add to it. We can nod in agreement with the truth that “we are great sinners, but Jesus is a great savior.”
Yet, in another sense, our salvation has not been completed.
God Will Save Us
The death of Christ is not our only and ultimate hope, although it was necessary to purchase salvation for us. Paul says that we are hopeless without the resurrection of Christ and should be pitied (1 Cor. 15:19). If the death of Christ was the payment for sin, his resurrection is the proof of purchase to take home the prize.We don’t worship a dead Savior, but a Savior that defeated death and promises that we will too if we place our faith in him.
So long as we toil in these earthly bodies we fix our gaze toward the renewed heaven and earth (2 Pet. 3:13) where even the presence of sin and death will be removed. Jesus’ earthly ministry (Rom. 5:10) and substitutionary death (2 Cor. 5:21) purchased for us nothing less than paradise. It purchased life for our dead souls at the cross and in the future will cast death itself into the grave.
At times Christians have been accused of being “so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.” This criticism is a sort of evidence that most of us understand (at least in part) the future hope of our salvation. Yet, something gets missed. Our hope is misplaced if it is in the paradise. Paradise isn’t important without the one who we are with in that paradise. Jesus promises the thief on the cross paradise in his presence (Lk. 23:43). Note this.
Perhaps you’ve heard the hymn “I Will Trade the Old Cross for the Crown.” While it may comfort us in our suffering, the song misses the gospel. One line talks of carrying a cross for the Savior, but no line about the cross he carried for us—a glaring omission. Furthermore, the hymn writer sets our hope on obtaining a crown in exchange for a cross. But in Revelation 4 the elders cast down their crowns at the feet of Jesus because of his worth and glory. We will receive crowns, no doubt, but we’ll return them to King Jesus.
When we think of our future salvation, we must cautiously direct our thoughts not to the crowns we will receive but to the King who is worthy of our worship. It is there, with him, that every tear will be wiped away and death will die (Rev. 21:4). We will cast our gaze on him and see him face to face (1 Cor. 13:12). His righteousness will dwell there and that will be enough (2 Pet. 3:13). He will be more captivating than the paradise that merely provides the background for his glory. So God has saved you, he will save you, and he is saving you. Past. Future. And now we move to present.
God is Saving Us
We are a fickle people. As another hymn states, we’re “prone to wonder…[and] leave the God we love.” But God has redirected our hearts and minds via signposts to what we need most—himself. We draw encouragement from the actions of God in the past that secured for us salvation. We set our hope on a future day when we will see him face to face. But God is not distant and confined only to the past and the present. His grace is here for our taking now.
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. – Romans 5:1-2
Through Jesus we stand in grace. Yes, we stood in grace when he saved us in the past. Yes, we will stand in his grace in the future when he himself serves as the light of the new heavens and earth (Rev. 21:23). But we are short changing ourselves if we relegate God only to the past and the future. Paul David Tripp, pastor and writer, says:
Many believers have a gap in the middle of their gospel. They understand salvation past—the forgiveness that they have in Christ; and salvation future—the eternity that they’ll spend with Christ. But they don’t understand the present benefits of the work of Christ in the here and now.
We have a mediator interceding for us at the throne of God at this very moment (Rom. 8:34). This should be cause for rejoicing. We have peace with God, not because we have put down the gauntlet, but because Jesus has absorbed our sin in his body on the tree. Because we have placed our faith in him, we can boldly approach the Father (Heb. 4:16). He is not mad at us; we don’t have to avoid him. Do not neglect to plumb the depths of this great grace.
The prosperity gospel teaches us to demand earthly rewards in the here and now—rewards that Christ himself rejected in the desert (Lk. 4). We should reject this over-realized eschatology found in the prosperity gospel. We will enjoy physical blessings in the end, but as I stated that’s never the point. The point is a person. So as we daily struggle with sin and discouragement over our slow progress in sanctification, we should boldly claim the blessings we are promised now. In Jesus Christ, all of God’s promises are yes (2 Cor. 1:20). We can commune with God now in preparation for seeing him face to face. We have the Spirit of Christ within us. We have Jesus enthroned in the heavens interceding for us. We have everything we need to make it home. Rejoice in hope of the glory of our God!
Sean Nolan (B.S. and M.A., Summit University) is the Family Life Pastor at Christ Fellowship Church in Fallston, MD. Prior to that he served at a church plant in Troy, NY for seven years and taught Hermeneutics to ninth and tenth graders. He is married to Hannah and is father to Knox and Hazel. He blogs at Hardcore Grace and the recently started Family Life Pastor.