According to Romans 15:16 all Christians are “sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” The word comes from the Greek term meaning “to be made separate” or “to be set apart for a purpose.” In 1 Corinthians 1:2 Paul was more specific, saying that believers “who are sanctified in Christ Jesus” have been “called to be saints.” If you’re anything like me, though, “saint” describes you not at all. Nevertheless, the Bible says it’s the Christian mandate. However, it also stresses our transformation into sainthood is an ongoing process wherein we attain our sanctification in increments and advance according to how much effort we put forth in being Christ-minded. So it’s like everything else in life. What we get out of an endeavor depends upon what we diligently put into it and complying with our Savior’s command to “be perfect” is no exception. The Holy Ghost is doing His part, now we must do ours. Billy Graham wrote, “It’s never a question of how much you and I have of the Spirit, but how much He has of us.” I have to say, though, I’m glad the Holy Spirit is patient and long-suffering because living inside me is definitely no picnic. Before continuing we should remind ourselves of how our sanctification evolves. The Bible teaches it has three phases. First, the immediate sanctification we receive when we surrender our lives to Christ. Second, the progressive sanctification we experience as we go forward through life, maturing along the way. The third happens on that wonderful day when we’re ushered by angels into heaven, whereupon our complete sanctification will occur. At that point the term “sanctification” will become moot because then we’ll know what it’s like to not just be perfected but “glorified.”
God sees the end result. Pastor Rick Lemons offered an illustration. When he and his wife Ann were first married they were dirt poor and could only afford an aging rent house. The owner was embarrassed by the run-down condition the abode was in so he made a deal with Rick. He’d buy the necessary materials if Rick would contribute the labor. While Ann was skeptical any amount of work could make a significant difference, Rick was more optimistic. She could only see things as they were. He saw things as they would be. In Rick’s mind he could envision what the place was going to look like with holes in the walls repaired, coats of fresh paint and new carpeting installed. As he began to work on the house the upgrades became more and more evident until one day it had turned into a home he and Ann could be proud of. Often I think the secular world looks at the church like Ann did her domicile in the beginning; old, fault-filled and inefficient. But God sees the body of Christ as it is to be at a future date when its sanctification is finished. Even better, God looks upon His individual children as He does His only begotten Son, holy and unblemished because all our sins were paid for via Jesus’ death and resurrection. Time, as we measure it, doesn’t concern the great I AM. He sees us as we will be, not as we are.
In Romans 8:29 we’re told all who sincerely love God are “predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son…” I take that to mean every Christian is proceeding through their sanctification and on the road to spiritual adulthood that ends up with them acting and thinking like Jesus! That fact should offer hope to anyone who grows discouraged while striving for perfection because the Bible tells us that goal will not be met until we’re inside the Pearly Gates. Pristine righteousness is an honorable and worthwhile earthly aim but it’ll never be an earthly achievement. God knows human beings, without a lofty objective to reach for, will predictably settle for mediocrity. That’s why 1 Peter 1:15-16 encourages us, “…like the Holy One who called you, become holy yourselves in all of your conduct, for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, because I am holy.’” While we complain/moan about the various conflicts, turbulences, troubles, temptations, and tests we encounter here on terra firma those hardships help us to become stronger spiritually whether we acknowledge it or not. We can’t know perfection without first experiencing imperfection. What keeps all this in perspective is the reassurance found in the Scriptures that we will arrive at our ultimate destination. 1 John 3:2 reads, “Dear friends, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that whenever it is revealed we will be like him [Christ], because we will see him just as he is.” So what are we to do in the meantime? We’re to absorb the Spirit, allowing Him to guide us as we progressively hand over all areas of our lives to His oversight and control. Paul wrote in Galatians 5:16, “…live by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh.” Speaking of desires, there’s never been a person born without them. Therefore they, in and of themselves, are not sinful. It’s what we desire that so often is. Adam and Eve had an innate desire for knowledge but Satan turned that healthy itch into a self-empowering obsession and, in the end, they disobeyed God in order to pursue it.
Our imperfect human nature can be expressed by one term, “the flesh.” Drop the h, reverse the letters and you have “self”, the highly-corruptible thing we’re stuck with when we choose to ignore God’s instructions. I’m not saying being mindful of ourselves is inherently wrong. Sometimes we behave decently, act morally and ethically simply because we’ve found life runs smoother when we’re nice guys but sooner or later our self will turn selfish. On our best days we’re able to manage, train and discipline our ego. That’s admirable but, unfortunately, it’s ultimately unmanageable, spiteful and insurrectionary. Paul opined that the flesh has a mind of its own and naturally rebels against the laws of God. The Apostle presented himself as an example when, in Romans 7:18 he said, “…I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh.” Yet it’s the moment we realize this about ourselves and wisely yield to the guidance of the Holy Spirit that we become receptive to gaining Biblical revelations about how to act like Christ. Desires can change. Men and women who’ve found freedom from their hurts, habits and hang-ups through the Celebrate Recovery ministry often say their old friends feel sorry for them because they no longer indulge in the “fun” things they used to revel/wallow in. Thing is, they can still get drunk when they want to. They can still spread judgmental gossip when they want to. They can still explode in anger when they want to. The difference is that, when the Holy Spirit created the new person in them at their conversion, He graciously altered the want in them. He didn’t remove their desires; He just shifted the direction they were pointed in. Psalm 37:4 states, “Delight yourself in the Lord; And He will give you the desires of your heart.”
Yet, mounds of evidence to the contrary, many people think they can conquer all their mammalian urges without the assistance of an all-powerful God although history reveals nothing but failure in that undertaking. Unless the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in our hearts we’re slaves to our base instincts. Unless we surrender to Christ we’re virtually powerless and the new person we have the potential to be never gets born inside us. Our stubborn “self” will defiantly defend itself to the death. As Paul wrote in Galatians 5:17, “For the flesh has desires that are opposed to the Spirit, and the Spirit has desires that are opposed to the flesh, for these are in opposition to each other…” I stressed in my previous essay that when we become Christians a war breaks out in us that won’t cease to rage this side of heaven. I know because I find myself in the thick of that battle every day. It’s not unusual for me to vow to my Lord I’ll walk the straight and narrow all day long yet within the hour I’ll be following the devil’s lead. If I turn my mind to the Holy Spirit He wins every time but I don’t always practice what I preach. I end up sinning because I foolishly think I can rely on my own power and understanding. I repeatedly have to learn the hard way that without Christ I can do nothing. Nothing! Of all the truths contained in our faith that one seems to be the most difficult to digest, especially for the newly-converted. They know just enough about Christianity to be vulnerable to experiencing disappointment. They forget the old person in them is still breathing, slugging it out with the new man/woman God turned them into when they accepted Christ and the former landlord will create mayhem in their life whenever possible. Many don’t realize it takes concentrated intestinal fortitude on their part to trust and follow God faithfully. “Yield” must become their unwavering motto. In Romans 12:1 Paul spells it out explicitly: “Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice – alive, holy, and pleasing to God – which is your reasonable service.” Dutifully offering up one’s self-centered will to the will of the great I AM is every believer’s greatest challenge.
Therefore, leaning toward the Holy Spirit residing inside us and away from the flesh is a full-time job. Paul said the flesh is the sum of human nature with all its weakness, impotence and helplessness. It’s our unflattering side and what we are without God and Christ. No further proof than evidence gained sitting through an evening newscast is required. Not a day passes without murders, savagery, injustice and every kind of malice imaginable going down somewhere on the planet. Sadly, the people responsible for the atrocities sometimes include church-going, avowed “Christians” who’ve succumbed to the lure of their sinful nature. Just in case folks aren’t clear on what constitutes “works of the flesh” Paul took the liberty of providing a fairly complete list in Galatians 5:19-21. He wrote, “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, depravity, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissentions, factions, envying, murder, drunkenness, carousing, and similar things.” All believers, no matter how pious they consider themselves to be, are susceptible to one degree or another to committing one or more of those sins unless they remain spiritually strong and vigilant. The second we think we’re immune we’re at our most vulnerable. That’s why 1 Corinthians 10:12 warns, “So let the one who thinks he is standing be careful that he does not fall.”
Seems to me a brief mention of a few of the worst of these “works of the flesh” would benefit this discussion. It’s no surprise that sitting atop the list are three sex-related sins. One can’t read the Bible without encountering repeated admonitions about how dangerous and soul-staining misappropriation of the gift of sex can be. The Greek word for “immorality” covers all areas of deviant wickedness and is, incidentally, porneia, from which the word “pornography” comes. It’s my opinion that the widespread, unrestricted and blatant propagation of sexually obscene imagery throughout the world (cheap and easily-accessed via the internet nowadays) makes Satan happier than he’s been in eons. It’s made his task so much simpler he’s had to lay off a division of demons! Porn destroys hearts and corrupts minds efficiently and no one (even church leaders) dares to say a word against it because they don’t want to be labeled prudish, uptight opponents of the first amendment. I fear civilization has opened a Pandora’s Box of filth that can’t be shut again until Jesus returns. Next Paul listed “impurity” and he probably had no idea just how grossly impure our attitudes toward sex could become. “Depravity” connotes the abominable actions that stem from sexual lust being allowed to run rampant and unchecked throughout the population. The number of innocent children who’ve been subjected to unspeakable, devastating treatment from people they trusted is staggering and to think their abuse isn’t an ugly byproduct of the “if it feels good, do it” mindset modern society endorses is to be woefully blind to reality.
The rest of the iniquities in Paul’s compilation make for an infamous slate of ignoble character defects and most are obvious and/or self-explanatory. They’re decidedly unspiritual traits no Christian should intentionally nurture but I’d venture to say there’s not a single follower of Christ who can plead “not guilty” to committing one or more of those crimes against God. Paul ended his enumeration of sins in Galatians 5:21 with this ominous statement, “I am warning you, as I had warned you before: Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God!” Yikes! Does that mean as transgressors we’ll be barred from heaven, forever locked out of paradise? Not according to the Scriptures, thank God. 1 John 1:9 states unequivocally, “But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous, forgiving us our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness.” So then what, exactly, was Paul trying to convey to his readers? The consensus among scholars is he was addressing those who erroneously thought that, by becoming a Christian, they had license to sin without restraint because all is forgiven in the long run. What he was telling those misguided souls was this: every item on his list should be viewed as an outrageous, inexcusable affront to God Almighty. God hates those sins so much He’ll judge those who do them and, sans sincere repentance, those who persist in participating in those behaviors are doomed. Our true colors will eventually bleed through. In other words, professing one’s Christianity and steadfastly living it are two entirely different things and, while we can deceive each other, we’ll never fool God. There’s no “gray area” when it comes to conversion. You’ve either been born again and the Holy Spirit now abides in you or you’re still lost. Church membership alone is not a ticket to heaven.
The majority of non-believers in the world see many of the iniquities on Paul’s list as individual “rights” and nobody else’s business. What they fail to understand is that in doing those things they become imprisoned by sin. They forfeit the very liberty they claim to own and deserve. Dr. Graham wrote, “True freedom consists not in the freedom to sin, but the freedom not to sin.” The consequences of their actions will create havoc in their lives and eventually they’ll try to “clean up their act” out of desperation. Some will succeed. For a while, anyway. But their temporary change of heart won’t last because those who live “in the flesh” can only be transformed by the inner workings of the Holy Spirit. He alone can birth the new creation that possesses divine potential to one day transcend and escape the sinful animal nature that dominates the old man/woman and just loves to sin. What Jesus demonstrated to us is that keeping God’s laws and achieving victory over the temptations of the flesh is possible. He walked this earth as a human being the same as the rest of us yet he remained faithful and obedient to his Heavenly Father. We can, too.
In Galatians 5:24 Paul stated; “Now those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also behave in accordance with the Spirit.” He wasn’t spouting an impossible dream. He was stating fact. Once we surrender our lives to Jesus we’re endowed with the ability to be like Him and the more we rely on the leading of the Holy Spirit the more able we’ll become. But it requires we murder our old flesh-obsessed self every day and it’s hard. So much so that, if we had to do it on our own we’d be up a creek without a trolling motor. That’s why the cross is so vital. Christ did there what we can’t do for ourselves, bearing the full weight of our sins, exonerating us from the punishment we deserve and then sending God the Holy Spirit to live in us so we’ll never be forsaken. The old self is still lurking around but he/she’s not in charge anymore. Christ is. So the pressure’s off and our focus should daily be centered on filling ourselves with the Holy Spirit, letting His perfect influence manifest itself in our actions and attitude.