Beholding Glory: The Dynamics of Sanctification

How Stuff Works - GearsOver the past few days, we have been examining some fundamental biblical truths about the doctrine of sanctification. On Tuesday, we considered three of those truths. First, we saw that sanctification is a fundamentally internal and supernatural work. Second, as a result of that, we considered how sanctification is a sovereign work of the Spirit of God. But then we quickly observed how the Spirit’s sovereign work doesn’t cancel our work, because the Spirit employs means in sanctifying the believer. And yesterday, we looked into five of those means which we are to avail ourselves of in order to grow in Christlikeness.

Today I want to focus on how it is that those means actually work. In other words, I want to look at the actual dynamics of sanctification. Why is it that the Word of God, and prayer, and fellowship with the saints, etc., sanctify us?

“Beholding is Becoming”

The answer to that question comes by considering one other means of sanctification that Scripture reveals. But it’s not just another means among many. It’s actually the foundational means that renders all the other means efficacious. We find that in 2 Corinthians 3:18. Paul writes, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” Here Paul tells us it is as believers behold the glory of Christ with the eyes of their heart, they are thereby progressively conformed into His image.

Or, as the writer of Hebrews tells us, we run the race of the Christian life by “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith” (Heb 12:2). Like Moses, our faith is strengthened to endure all manner of temptation by “looking to the reward” (Heb 11:26) and “seeing Him who is unseen” (Heb 11:27). Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 4:18 that “momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen” (cf. Heb 11:1) And in 1 John 3:2, we learn that even unto glorification our degree of Christlikeness is directly proportional to our beholding His glory: “We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.”

And so these texts teach us that “the pathway to Christ-likeness is ‘beholding the glory of the Lord’ [2 Cor 3:18]. Beholding is becoming” (Piper, God is the Gospel, 90).

The Dynamics of Sanctification

Now why is this so? How does the spiritual sight of Christ supernaturally cause us to increase in holiness? It’s because the spiritual sight of Christ, by virtue of the delightfulness and beauty of His glory, causes us to admire Him in such a way that we are satisfied by Him, and therefore we don’t seek satisfaction in lesser, sinful pleasures. The glory of Christ captures our affections and causes us to love what He loves. Then, our renewed affections inform and excite our will, and we joyfully obey the commands of God.

Charles Hodge puts it this way:

“The Spirit, we are taught, especially opens the eyes to see the glory of Christ, to see that He is God manifest in the flesh; to discern not only his divine perfections, but his love to us, and his suitableness in all respects as our Saviour . . . . This apprehension of Christ is transforming: the soul is thereby changed into his image, from glory to glory by the Spirit of the Lord.” (Systematic Theology, 3:229)

And in one of the greatest paragraphs I have ever read outside the Bible, John Owen summarizes this teaching beautifully. He writes,

“Let us live in the constant contemplation of the glory of Christ, and virtue will proceed from Him to repair all our decays, to renew a right spirit within us, and to cause us to abound in all duties of obedience. … It will fix the soul unto that object which is suited to give it delight, complacency, and satisfaction. … When the mind is filled with thoughts of Christ and his glory, when the soul thereon cleaves unto him with intense affections, they will cast out, or not give admittance unto, those causes of spiritual weakness and indisposition. … And nothing will so much excite and encourage our souls hereunto as a constant view of Christ and His glory.” (The Glory of Christ, 1:460–61)

The Foundational Means of Sanctification

Solid FoundationThe implications of this for the practical pursuit of sanctification are staggering. This teaches us that in all our diligent efforts to appropriate the means of grace the Spirit uses to accomplish His work of sanctification, the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ stands at the very center, giving life to all the other means. In our Bible reading, in our prayer, in our times of fellowship with other believers, in all of our experiences of divine providence, and in our obedience, we are looking to saturate the eyes of our hearts with the all-satisfying vision of the glory of God revealed in the face of Christ.

Let’s cycle back through each of those means that we discussed yesterday, and see how beholding the glory of Christ undergirds each.

1. Beholding Glory in Scripture

Why does Jesus pray that the Father would sanctify His people by His Word? When we consider that question in light of 2 Corinthians 3:18–4:6, we’re driven to the conclusion that it’s because the Word of God reveals the glory of God shining in the face of Christ. Undergirding and vivifying the sanctifying power of the written Word is the sanctifying glory of the Living Word.

When Moses cried from the depths of his soul for the Lord to show him His glory (Exod 33:18), the Lord responded not merely by passing by in a cloud, but by passing by and proclaiming the essence of His character (Exod 34:5–7). This illustrates the intimate relationship between God’s glory and His Word, and shows how His Word is a vehicle for revealing His glory. Further, in a day when “word from Yahweh was rare” and “visions were infrequent” (1 Sam 3:1), the Lord spoke to Samuel and called him into prophetic ministry. Commenting on this momentous event, the author writes, “And Yahweh appeared again at Shiloh, because Yahweh revealed Himself to Samuel at Shiloh, by the word of Yahweh” (1 Sam 3:21). Here again, the Word of God is shown to be the means of revealing God Himself, Glory in the Wordand thus the Scriptures are the vehicle for communion with our Father in the person of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. Holland, Uneclipsing the Son, 70–71). In this way, the Word of God rests on the broader sanctifying foundation of the glory of the God who is revealed thereby. Scripture sanctifies because Scripture reveals the glory of God in the face of Christ.

Can you see how this transforms your daily devotions? This means that you don’t go to the Word every morning just to check off the boxes on the reading plan. You’re not just reading to gather information, to learn new theology, or new apologetic arguments. It means you’re going to the Word every day to see Jesus. To get to know Him. To admire Him. It means every time your Bible is open you’re praying what Moses prayed in Exodus 33:20: “Show me Your glory!” And you’re asking the Father to give you a heart to treasure Him, to worship Him, and to obey Him.

2. Beholding Glory in Prayer

The same is true for prayer. Rather than just praying to ease your conscience, or when you need something, or just as some sort of catharsis, you need to see prayer as the occasion for personal worship. This is the time for you to meditate on the beauty of the Lord’s manifold perfections as revealed in His Word and experienced in His providence; to praise Him for His goodness and bounty; to taste the goodness of His infinite sufficiency as you present your requests to Him. B. B. Warfield identified prayer as “conscious communion with God” (Faith and Life, 152). And as we behold His glory through that communion with Him, we are transformed into that same image of glory (2 Cor 3:18).

3. Beholding Glory in Fellowship

This impacts our fellowship as well. We tend to think of fellowship as simply having an enjoyable time with Christian friends, or that time in a worship service or a Bible study when the teaching is over and everyone hangs out and has some coffee and a nice snack. But because we are each being progressively conformed into the image of Christ, fellowship with other believers sanctifies us because of what we can see of Christ in each other. Anthony Hoekema writes,

“Believers learn what Christ-likeness is [in part] by observing it in fellow Christians. We see the love of Christ reflected in the lives of our fellow believers; we are enriched by Christ through our contact with them; we hear Christ speaking to us through them. Believers are inspired by the examples of their fellow Christians, sustained by their prayers, corrected by their loving admonitions, and encouraged by their support.” (Created in God’s Image, 89)

And so the lifeblood of biblical fellowship is the glory of Christ that is to be enjoyed in one another. Shouldn’t that transform your interactions with your brothers and sisters in Christ? It would mean that the focus of the time you spend with one another would be on seeing Jesus in each other and reflecting Jesus to each other.

4. Beholding Glory in Creation and Providence

Providence also stands on the sanctifying foundation of the glory of the Lord. When we learn to see all of the experiences of life—both joys and trials—as gracious dispensations of God’s providence, we can treasure the glory of the Giver that is revealed in His gifts, and give Him thanks and praise for “richly supplying us with all things to enjoy” (1 Tim 6:17; cf. Jas 1:17).

Heavens DeclareEven suffering for Christ’s sake provides new avenues for communion with Him, as Paul tells us in Philippians 3:10 that we have a unique fellowship with Him when we share in His sufferings.

And of course, since “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps 19:1), the conscientious believer learns to see all the beauties of the creation as streams of glory that trace back to the God who is the Fountain of all goodness and grace.

5. Beholding Glory in Obedience

And finally, the glory of Christ also undergirds and motivates our acts of obedience. In John 14:21, Jesus says, “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.”

So, keeping Christ’s commandments results in further disclosure of the Savior to the eyes of our hearts. This is the great motivator for all our efforts of obedience: that when I forsake sin and follow Christ in obedience, I get to see and enjoy more of Him!

So fight sin like that! When you’re tempted to sin and you don’t feel like obeying, reason with yourself! Tell yourself that all sinning will get you is a fleeting, false pleasure that destroys rather than satisfies. And remind yourself that obedience will bring you a greater vision of the glory of your Savior, who is the greatest satisfaction your heart can experience.


So how can we summarize our thoughts over the past three days?

Well, as you seek to put sanctification in practice, let the implications of Philippians 2:12–13 and 2 Corinthians 3:18 have a place of paramount importance in your thinking. We can’t fall into the error of the Quietists who prescribe that we simply “yield” and “surrender” and wait to be magically catapulted to holiness. We must be active.

But our study guards us from the opposite error as well—the error of the moralists. And that is to conceive of holiness as merely the modification of our behavior, which we achieve in the strength of our own moralistic will-power, as we clench our fists, grit our teeth, and bend our wills to perform external duties that we have no heart to do.

We don’t want to make either error. The Christian’s pursuit of holiness is, as Scripture says, a fight (1 Tim 6:12), a race (Heb 12:1), and a battle (Eph 6:10–18). But because the foundational means of our sanctification is beholding the glory of God in the face of Christ, we must recognize that that battle is fought first on the level of spiritual sight. That race is run, fixing our eyes on Jesus (Heb 12:2).

As we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, we are conscious that it is the Holy Spirit of God who is working within us. And He works by illumining the glory of Christ to the eyes of our hearts, winning over our affections by the delightfulness and beauty of that glory. And then our affections inform and direct our wills, so that as a result we might will and work for His good pleasure.

And precisely because He works in us in this powerful way, we arouse all diligence to put away anything that would cloud our vision of that glorious Savior, because the prospect of fellowship and communion with Him promises a greater pleasure than the false and fleeting pleasures of sin.

And we make every effort to saturate our minds with the loveliness of Christ’s glory, delightfully disciplining ourselves to behold Him in His Word, to seek His face in worshipful prayer, to enjoy Him in fellowship with the saints, to see Him at work in creation and providence, and to obey Him in the hope that obedience brings greater communion with Him.

It’s fitting to conclude with the words of the 18th-century Baptist pastor, John Fawcett. Fawcett said,

“Christ Jesus is the life of all the graces and comforts of a Christian in this world. By the knowledge and contemplation of Him, and of His death in our stead, faith lives, and is strengthened from day to day; all the springs of repentance are opened, and flow freely, when the heart is melted by views of a dying Savior; love feels the attractive power of its glorious object, and is kindled into a holy flame; sin is mortified; the world is subdued; and the hope of future glory is supported, enlivened, and confirmed, so as to become sure and steadfast, like an anchor of the soul.”

Let us, then, fix our eyes on Jesus, and run our race with endurance for the joy set before us.

  • Tim Daigneault


    I’m really trying to grasp what is being taught by you and other voices within our “camp” (I don’t like using the word camp, I just can’t think of a better word) as to what is the motivation in our sanctification.

    When you say
    “As we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, we are conscious that it is the Holy Spirit of God who is working within us. And He works by illumining the glory of Christ to the eyes of our hearts, winning over our affections by the delightfulness and beauty of that glory. And then our affections inform and direct our wills, so that as a result we might will and work for His good pleasure.”

    How does this compare to what Jerry Wragg said in his article on the subject here:

    “This brings me to a pastoral concern about how this young generation has become so vulnerable and easily confused about sanctification. Their new-found grasp of justifying grace has thrilled their souls, but their love of cultural aesthetics and sensual stimuli leads them to pursue sanctification by “feelings” rather than faith-driven obedience. When facing everyday temptations, they simply cannot go forward in obedience unless their “affection and longing” for God precedes their faith and submission. What a tragedy of epic blindness! The very thing that produces love, joy and longing for Christ—simple faith in Him—is what they’re expecting their emotions and life’s aesthetics to produce. This is to turn the process of sanctification on its head.” source

    I’m not trying to bring up controversy, I’m just trying to see where the balance is in our motivations. What you and Jerry say at first glance seem contradicting to me. Now I’m most likely just misunderstanding something, but that’s why I’m asking for clarity.

    Also in the following messages it seems that one of the critiques of the hyper-grace advocates is their view of what changes us in Sanctification (starting at 44 min Wayne discusses this issue)

    • Hey Tim,

      Thanks so much for asking your question, and for asking it in the spirit that you did. I don’t receive it as your trying to stir up controversy at all. It’s definitely a legitimate question, and I’m really grateful for the opportunity to clarify. This should probably be its own separate post, but we’ll see what we can do.

      I think the question that you’re asking, and the question that Jerry’s quote is brought to bear on, is: “What happens when I don’t feel like obeying? I know I should feel like it, but the reality is that I’m still battling with sin. So what do I do when I don’t feel like obeying?”

      I think what Jerry is saying in that paragraph is: You shouldn’t fail to do your duty simply because your heart is sluggish in terms of motivation. And I agree wholeheartedly with that. There’s no reason to compound your disobedience because you’ve already disobeyed commands concerning your frame of heart. But what I’m saying is: In the truest sense, you haven’t obeyed until you’ve “felt like it,” because God commands us not only to behave righteously, but also to be holy. Let me explain what I mean.

      The first post this week argued that sanctification is fundamentally internal and supernatural. As Hodge said, sanctification doesn’t consist exclusively in a series of a new kinds of acts, but it is a change in the state of the soul—so that the soul loves what God loves and hates what God hates, and acts out of that pure heart. If that wasn’t the case, Hodge says elsewhere, “such external reformation may leave man’s inward character in the sight of God unchanged. He may remain destitute of love to God, of faith in Christ, and of all holy exercises or affections” (ST, 3:214). Hypocrites—people with no love for God or His Word—can perform external duties that they have no heart to do. But that’s not what holiness or sanctification is. Christ isn’t interested in praise from lips while the heart is far from Him (Matt 15:7–8).

      See, God has not simply commanded us to carry out a series of external duties. He has also commanded us to have a particular frame of heart as we do those external duties. Call them “internal duties,” if you like. We are commanded not only to do justly, but also to love mercy (Micah 6:8). We are commanded not just that we should be givers, but cheerful givers (2 Cor 9:7). Pastors and elders are commanded not only to shepherd the flock of God, but to shepherd the flock of God willingly and eagerly (1 Pet 5:2). God’s Word contains commands that cover the full range of human emotions, as well as human behavior and actions: we are not to covet (Exod 20:17), but to be content (Heb 13:5). We are to hope in God (Ps 42:5), to fear God (Lk 12:5), to experience peace (Col 3:15), to long for (i.e., earnestly desire) the pure milk of the Word (1 Pet 2:2). We’re commanded to be tenderhearted (Eph 4:32), to be broken in spirit and contrite over sin (Ps 51:17), and, of course, to rejoice always (Phil 4:4).

      I go through all of that to try to make it plain that God commands us not only to do, but also to feel. Joy, gladness, hope, cheerfulness—all of that is our duty. So if God loves a cheerful giver, and you give begrudgingly without cheerfulness, you’ve done your duty to give, but you haven’t done your duty to give cheerfully. You’ve obeyed the command to give, but you haven’t obeyed the command to give cheerfully.

      Now, it’s at this point that Jerry’s caution makes sense. A lot of people who agree with what I’ve presented so far, get here, and then they say, “So if you can’t give cheerfully, don’t give at all! Wait till you can drum up your emotions to cheerfulness, and then give!” And I’m not saying that at all. I’m not saying, “Neglect your external duty to give until you feel like doing your internal duty to give cheerfully.” No. As I said above, it’s never right to compound your disobedience because you’re in a sluggish frame of heart. Do your duty to give, even if you can’t do it cheerfully. Do your duty to serve, even if your heart is unwilling.

      But what I’m saying, which I think could stand to be said more clearly in “our camp,” as you put it, is: confess your lack of joy and cheerfulness as sin, and ask God to give you the heart to do all of your duty with joy, as you have been commanded. Don’t think you’ve “obeyed” because you’ve kept external commandments begrudgingly. Recognize that sanctification is a matter of the heart, most fundamentally. We do the people of God a disservice if we lead them to believe that they’re progressing in sanctification as long as they’re performing external duties, if their hearts and affections are all the while contrary to their actions. Again, we are commanded not only to perform righteousness; we are also to love and desire righteousness.

      So, when Jerry says that “simple faith in Christ” is what produces love, joy, and longing for Christ, I say Amen! And in this post, I’m just trying to work out what the dynamics of that simple faith actually looks like. It means going to the Word of God, believing that the sanctifying glory of Christ is revealed there, and, while confessing and repenting of your not feeling like it, letting the prospect of that glory compel you to disciplined pursuit of Christ. Same with prayer, fellowship with the saints in church, and seeking Him at work in creation in providence. And even in acts of obedience, the motivation that I believe Scripture presents to us is love for Christ (John 14:15), and that the disclosure of Christ’s glory to the eyes of my heart that comes as a result of obedience (John 14:21) is what feeds more love. So, when I’m confronted with my sinful heart that doesn’t feel like doing my duty, I exercise my faith in Christ that tells me that all sinning will get me is a fleeting, false pleasure that destroys rather than satisfies; and that obedience will bring me a greater vision of the glory of my Savior, who is the greatest satisfaction my heart can experience. So “beholding the glory of the Lord”—even the prospect of it—becomes the foundational means of sanctification.

      Brother, I know that was long and complex. Probably the longest comment I’ve ever left. But I really do think it is a complex question, and it is something that all who are truly concerned to live a holy life wrestle with. I hope I haven’t multiplied words uselessly, but that “this poor, lisping, stamm’ring tongue” might bring some clarity to a difficult issue with the Spirit’s help. Thanks for bearing with me.

      • Dennis HC

        I think this is an excellent comment, and I agree that it could certainly be a post of its own. Too many in “our camp,” as you say, either neglect the importance of internal motivation or seem to give it very little attention as a brief pre- or post- script, perhaps.

        The reality is precisely as you say, a lack of joy and/or cheerfulness and/or love is in fact SIN to be repented of, and it’s important to remember that as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

        (And as a side note, as I state this, I think it’s interesting to note the contrast here between doing so in fear and trembling, while striving for genuine joy and cheerfulness and love.)

      • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

        As simple as this sounds, I believe when Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command,” it wasn’t a threat, but a promise.

        In other words, if I spend time loving Him or “beholding His glory,” through prayer, study and fellowship, the obedience seems to come more naturally. However, if I try to obey without taking that time for intimacy, my Christian walk becomes more of a duty and my joy is absent.

        I love your point that God truly commands us to have joy and that not having joy is a sin. And while that IS something to confess, perhaps the better confession would be one of neglecting the intimacy that produces the joy. I believe God longs for us to spend time with Him. Times when we sit at His feet telling Him we love Him, that we’re grateful for Him and that we trust Him in all things.

        I wish I could say all this with more eloquence, but I’m not great with words. But I’m so grateful that God has given you that gift to say so beautifully what is in our hearts! God bless!

      • Tim Daigneault

        Thanks for your thorough response. You definitely cleared up, the areas that I was confused about.

      • jbb

        Mike – thanks for the helpful post and response. Both were very encouraging. I appreciate the direction toward Christ as the center of this issue, and your heart to lead your readers to Him!
        One thing that might be helpful is the very practical dynamic of ‘beholding the glory’ when we ‘don’t feel like obeying’.

        The texts you included above (point 1 on beholding via Scripture) are so helpful because both in 2 Cor. 4:4-6, and in Ex. 33:19, the center of the glory of God in Christ is in His free, unconditional, merciful, salvific love in the Gospel. Christ’s glory can be seen in the whole of the Scriptures, but these texts seem to indicate that the center of that glory is revealed in the Gospel.

        What’s so helpful there is that when I ‘don’t feel like obeying’ (which is often!), the Gospel reveals the glory of Christ to me specifically in that moment by showing me that my sluggishness of heart and my guilt over that, and even the sins that might have led me to that place of sluggishness are all forgiven in the finished work of Christ – that is, that nothing can separate me from the love of God that is in Christ…even my sins and failures. When I read the Gospel in the Scriptures, the Spirit produces faith in my heart (Rom. 10:17). This faith in God’s loving forgiveness (even of the specific failure in that moment) reveals the glorious heart of God in Christ to save sinners like me, and in believing these truths, I am beholding His glory. And, as you so helpfully put it above, this is the practical power for true obedience.

        Thanks again for a great series. Truly thankful to the Lord for your clarity!

      • Matt

        Hi Mike!

        I’m so glad you’ve written these posts! As I don’t think sanctification is easy to understand, I’ve been musing over your writings the past few days, trying to see them from different angles, and trying to understand it more fully.

        I’m going to list a couple of my thoughts, feel free to comment or not. Don’t know that they add much, but they’re my two cents. (As I look over my post again, I think I’m being a little nit-picky, so please don’t be offended.)

        There is one aspect that I’m having trouble swallowing completely, and that is that we have a duty to feel – and if we are not feeling as we ought, we are not fully obeying. As I understand it, emotions are not random, but come about because of how we’re thinking about a particular thing. From my perspective, the issue, or sin, isn’t really that I’m feeling a particular way, but that my thoughts are sinful. Kinda like “when the dog bites, when the bees sting, when I’m feeling sad…I simply remember my favorite things, and then I don’t feel so bad.” So I would think that I’m not fully obeying from the heart because of my lack of Biblical perspective. However, I was also thinking about Jesus’ experience in the garden. He was in anguish, to be sure, and even prayed to have the cup pass from Him. But, despite His feelings He obeyed, and I would say fully so. Perhaps obedience period is acceptable and it’s a bonus if it feelings are right?

        I’m also curious about the reference to being a “cheerful giver” – the full verse says: “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Here it seems Paul IS saying, “don’t give if you’re not doing it cheerfully.” Which, as I’m rethinking this, does partially agree with what you were saying about feelings being tied to obedience. Though I would say not so much in the “give until you feel happy” way, but more like the “give to the point where you’re still doing it cheerfully.” I don’t know. Maybe I’m way off. I didn’t actually read the whole book of 2 Cor to get the full context. 🙂 (full disclosure: I am one of those people who didn’t tithe for a long time because…well, I didn’t want to – I do now, though not always cheerfully. 🙂

        Hope you’re having/had a great weekend!

        • As I understand it, emotions are not random, but come about because of how we’re thinking about a particular thing.

          I agree with this. I think the dynamic of obedience is: mind-affections-will-actions. Our affections (or feelings, or emotions) are a result of truth accurately perceived in the mind. So for example, when Christ says, “Do not fear, for your Heavenly Father knows what you need before you ask it,” we are to take that statement of truth — that God is our Father, kindly disposed to us, and knows everything that we truly need — and the implications of that truth ought to affect how we feel: we are not to be afraid of things.

          From my perspective, the issue, or sin, isn’t really that I’m feeling a particular way, but that my thoughts are sinful.

          I think the thoughts are the root of it, but I don’t think you can separate the two as this last sentence implies. That’s especially so because, again, Scripture enjoins commands upon us regarding our affections (see the numerous references above). Just because you recognize that right thoughts are at the foundation of right affections, doesn’t mean that if you have wrong affections your sin is in your thoughts only.

          So I would think that I’m not fully obeying from the heart because of my lack of Biblical perspective.

          Again, this is a true statement, but it doesn’t change the reality that you’ve been commanded to have a certain frame of heart, and you don’t have it, even if you might perform the outward duty. Again, we’re not just to perform righteousness, we’re to love righteousness as well. We have a word for people who seek to perform righteousness but don’t love it, and the word is hypocrite (Matt 15:7-8). It’s not only a sin not to do the right things, it’s also a sin not to want to do the right things. Christianity is a religion of the heart. And if our heart is not right, we’ve sinned. It’s true that we fix our wrong heart by seeking to be right in our thinking, but it doesn’t change the fact that failing to have holy affections is itself sinful.

          However, I was also thinking about Jesus’ experience in the garden. He was in anguish, to be sure, and even prayed to have the cup pass from Him. But, despite His feelings He obeyed, and I would say fully so.

          This probably deserves its own post, too. I think that Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane was entirely unique, and not at all analogous to our own experience as we fight to walk in obedience to God. Let me explain why.

          Obedience for Christ in Gethsemane meant doing everything He could to be cut off from His Father. Literally, for Jesus, obedience in Gethsemane means experiencing the wrath of God. Now, because Jesus was perfectly holy — both in everything He did, and everything He loved and desired — it would have been wrong for Him to have unhesitating delight in this task that He had been given. It is holy and righteous to desire fellowship with His Father, to seek His Father’s pleasure and approbation. And it is holy and righteous to recoil from anything that would decrease that fellowship, pleasure, or approbation. But here, obedience for Him, in the most horrific paradox in history, was a sure route to God’s wrath. This is something that was unique to Him and His mission as the great substitute and sin-bearer for His people.

          In contrast, obedience for the Christian never leads to God’s wrath. Obedience for the Christian always leads to greater fellowship with the Father and with Christ, to God’s pleasure and His approbation in our lives. We are never asked to obey God such that we would experience His displeasure. The sure result of our obedience, thank God, is always God’s pleasure and God’s blessing.

          So, for that reason, I would say that using Jesus’ obedience in Gethsemane as a paradigm for the Christian life is an apples-to-oranges comparison. In that one instance of His life, obedience meant embracing alienation from God. In every other instance, as with every instance of our obedience, obedience means fellowship and enjoyment of God.

          Nevertheless, even with all that said, I do find it extremely interesting that when the writer of Hebrews comments on Jesus’ motivation for enduring the cross — even given the uniqueness of His ministry — He explicitly says it was “for the joy set before Him” (Heb 12:2). What sustained Christ’s deeply-troubled soul in Gethsemane, and what kept Him on the path of obedience (both in heart and in hand), was the sure hope of the joy of reunion with His Father in glory that awaited Him beyond the cross (cf. John 17:4-5). And because of that, He could do His duty with a heart that loved it as well.

          There’s a greater explanation of this that Piper gives in Desiring God, pages 132-136, that I would heartily commend to you. Let me reproduce what I think would be the most helpful portion, where he’s seeking to give legs to what it means that Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before Him:

          I think that when Jesus rose form his final prayer in Gethsemane with the resolve to die, there flowed through his soul a glorious sense of triumph over the night’s temptation. Did he not say, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work’ (John 4:34)? Jesus cherished the Father’s will like we cherish food. To finish his Father’s work was what he fed upon; to abandon it would be to choose starvation.

          I think there was joy in Gethsemane as Jesus was led away — not fun, not sensual pleasure, not laughter, in fact not anything that this world can offer. But there was a good feeling deep in Jesus’ heart that his action was pleasing to his Father, and that the reward to come would outweigh all the pain. This profoundly good feeling is the joy that enabled Jesus to do for us what He did.

          And so I reject the conclusion that suggests feelings are simply a bonus to obedience, because (a) Scripture commands us to feel certain ways, and so it’s disobedience itself to not feel those ways, and (b) the only example which would lead to that conclusion (Gethsemane) is demonstrably unique and different for Christ in His ministry as the sin-bearer than it is for His people.

          Here it seems Paul IS saying, “don’t give if you’re not doing it cheerfully.”

          There may be a sense in which Paul is saying that — something like, “If your heart is so tight-fisted and stingy that you can’t give without bearing a grudge in your heart against God, keep your money; God doesn’t want it.” But can you honestly tell me that you think such a person has obeyed God in that instance? Of course you can’t! We are commanded to honor God in our giving. And here, we’re commanded to do so cheerfully and not begrudgingly. Paul says, That’s what the grace of God in the Gospel does to people (cf. 2 Cor 8:1-5). And if that is not the experience of your heart, you are devoid of the grace of God.

          The main point of all this, brother, is that sanctification is most fundamentally a matter of the heart. That doesn’t meant that holy acts are unimportant, or that they should be diminished in any way! Holy acts are the required result of sanctified affections. But it does mean that holy acts are not the sum and substance of what it means to be holy. God is after the heart, most fundamentally. And so any model of “obedience” that makes allowance for the hypocritical performance of external duties while the heart is not engaged is not the model of the New Testament.

          • Matt


            Thank you so much for your patience and taking time to respond to my thoughts. In trying to wrap my head around all this, you’ve been great in helping me understand where my own thinking is amiss. I’ll definitely check out Piper’s book.

            Have a wonderful Sunday!

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  • tovlogos

    Great depth, Mike, in this and the articles before on the issue of sanctification. This is where scholarship meets the Spirit. It takes time and understanding to explain spiritual realities. Im particularly moved by the combination of love and obedience as we progressively grow into the Lord’s Image. In 1 Corinthians 13:4–8, a practical way to think of Love, I’ve found, is to replace the word “love” in those four verses, with the name of the person reading. The first time I did that I realized what a wretch I was; but over the years, progressively grew.

  • James


    I found this 3-part series extremely helpful in light of reading many less helpful “contributions” to the discussion currently taking place on the pursuit of holiness and the dynamics of grace.

    Would be willing to comment on a statement you made in your June 24, 2011 post titled “Affections and the Christian Life”. In the second paragraph you stated regarding the conversation/blog post that took place between Kevin DeYoung, and Tullian Tchividjian at the time that “…to be honest I’m not sure there’s much to be settled, as I’m unable to discern a whole lot of disagreement between Kevin and Tullian.”

    My sanctification (beholding and becoming like Christ) has benefited from a wide range of leaders in the church, who have pointed me to Christ, from Dr MacAuthur, Al Mohler, Rick Holland, Kevin Deyoung, John Piper, Matt Chandler, Paul Tripp, and Tullian Tchividjian (just to name a few).

    Because of your recent series I would like to know: Do you still believe that in substance there is not “a whole lot of disagreement” in this area? I completely understand differences in emphasis, and that one contributor might not be comfortable with the language being conveyed by another, but I’m very interested in your opinion. The more I read entire books by these authors (rather than short blog post, brief quotes, and non-helpful tweets), the more I’m thinking that they are much closer in substance than they might admit, but I may need to be corrected and I may be very wrong in my assessment.

    By His grace, for His glory,


    • Hey James,

      Glad to hear you’ve found this series helpful. I’m thankful to the Lord for His grace and His Word.

      Regarding my comment on Kevin and Tullian, after three years and a lot of follow-up conversation, I do think there’s actually a substantive difference between them. I remember reading the blog exchange between them back in 2011 and thinking, “Either they’re unwilling to call each other out clearly for what they perceive to be errors for the sake of being nice, or there’s really less disagreement than people have been saying.” Back then I gave them the benefit of the doubt and believed the latter. I think with all that’s taken place since then, looking back on it I’d have to say it was the former.

      Now, I don’t mean to say that I think that Tullian’s model makes such a perversion of the Gospel so as to brand him a heretic. But I do think he fails to adequately represent Scripture’s emphasis on effort and activity beyond “remembering” that Christ’s justifying work on our behalf is done.

      From what I’ve gathered, Tullian was trying to protect against the “Just Do It” model of sanctification that left a generation of churchgoers morally acceptable but unchanged in their affections. In what was a good desire to correct that, he emphasized the necessity of looking back to the justifying grace of the Gospel as the ground of our obedience. But as often happens, the pendulum swung and he overcorrected, now often suggesting that the only work of sanctification is to seek for strength and power through contemplating past grace.

      Where I think Kevin has been helpful is to say, Yes, look back at past grace. Receive strength from Christ’s sufficient and finished work on your behalf, recognizing that your union with Christ is unassailable, and fight for holiness as a justified sinner. But don’t just look back to past grace. Look forward, too, ahead to (what Piper calls) future grace, and let the promises of God engender strength for obedience.

      And then what I’m saying is (following the Reformed tradition, especially the Puritans), recognize that those promises of future grace that we must believe, are promises of visions of satisfying glory and communion with God in Christ. Read, pray, fellowship, and obey because they bring you more of Him to know and love and enjoy.

      So, to summarize, I see Tullian saying, “Just look back, and everything will just sort of magically fall into place.” And I see Kevin and others (and myself) saying, “Do look back, but then look forward, and let the glory of past grace and the promises of future grace propel you to dedicated, diligent, no-matter-what-it-takes effort.

      Hope that’s helpful, brother. Thanks for your question.

      • James

        Thank you! I appreciate the thoroughness of your reply! My heart’s desire is to walk in a manner worthy of my precious Savior, and your response to my question was clear and helpful. I’m grateful for your voice in this “conversation” and I’m looking forward to your future blog posts.

      • I thought I saw a comment here a moment ago, and now it’s disappeared. Whoever wrote that comment: I’m not sure why it’s not showing up. Try posting it again.

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  • Hi, Mike. I think it was me. I saw it flash up for a moment and then it was gone. (Does that make me a “flash in the pan”? 🙂 ).

    Weird. I think this one may have disappeared too. Hopefully I can reproduce enough of the comment in my reply that it makes sense. I’m sorry that it’s not showing up. I still don’t know why that is.

    Question: It seems that back or forward, meditating on God’s grace is that which is to engender obedience. Other than time, what is the difference between what Tullian teaches and what you are teaching?

    I think it’s that the forward-look provides a God-centered, grace-fueled, glory-driven foundation for disciplined action, diligence, and straining in the fight for holiness. Tullian sounds to me to be saying, “Just look back, relax, and it’ll all fall into place.” I’m saying, “Look back, look forward, and for the joy set before you, run this race with absolutely everything you’ve got! See the glorious reward promised (i.e., Christ Himself), and let that beautiful prospect be fuel on the fire of earnest efforts in disciplined obedience.” I don’t hear that kind of active language from Tullian.

    It seems to emphasize gratitude as a motivation. Good motivation. However, it begins to seem rather me-focused.

    I agree that Tullian’s emphasis can sometimes come off as me-focused. “Look how much God loves and accepts me. Look at all He’s done for me. God is entirely and unalterably happy with me.” I get your point here. It sounds like the basis for my obedience is being overwhelmed about how much God makes of me.

    What I’m saying is precisely opposite. Yes, the love of God displayed in the Gospel provides enormous strength and motivation for obedience. But not because that love makes
    much of me, but because of how gloriously it makes much of Him. The strength for the obedience that we’re called to comes from beholding the glory of the Lord (2 Cor 3:18), not from beholding how much God makes of me in His Gospel. So it’s not me-focused, but entirely God-focused.

    And actually, if you read Piper’s book, Future Grace, he specifically speaks about how gratitude for past grace is an insufficient motivation. That’s why he speaks about faith in future grace as the engine of all of this. That’s the “looking forward” that I’m speaking about. As I explained above, faith is the instrument by which I appropriate all those means of grace that I’ve outlined in the post. I go to the Word/prayer/fellowship, etc., believing that sanctifying glory of Christ is on display there. And I go there believing that the promises of sin do not ultimately satisfy. And so I forsake sin and pursue righteousness.

    I thought we were to be Christ-centered, and while I would not want to diminish His grace in my salvation one iota, does not Revelation show that He is more than what He has done in redemption on the cross?

    Yup. I agree with this. We should not limit ourselves to deriving strength for worship and obedience from the Gospel alone. God has manifested His glory in all of His works, and is worthy of worship for all of who He is. Those who focus on the cross or the Gospel to the exclusion of the rest of who God in Christ is, I think, forfeit an enormous amount of enjoyment of sanctifying glory by not beholding the fullness of what God shows of Himself
    for us to enjoy.

    But, as you say, the Gospel is glorious. And it may be the apex and pinnacle of where the glory of God shines most brightly. Paul calls the Gospel, “the Gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4) which glory, he’s just said, is the means by which we are sanctified (2 Cor 3:18). So, while I am wary of the “Gospel-centered” crowd being too reductionistic, it is veryfaithful to Scripture to see the glory of God in Christ displayed in the Gospel—perhaps even above anywhere else—because of the place Scripture gives to the Gospel in revealing God’s glory.

    In both cases, it seems to me that the meditation, the remembering, the rehearsing, whatever you want to call it, becomes a way to stir the feelings to engender obedience. Doesn’t that become feeling oriented?

    Well, I would say, because Scripture issues commands concerning our feelings, that God Himself is feeling-oriented, in that sense. There’s a difference between emotions and emotionalism, and I think that some in our camp, because they are rightly fearful/cautious against
    emotionalism, unnecessarily (and perhaps even unintentionally) de-emphasize the role of the emotions (or, as I prefer to say, the affections) in the Christian life.

    Now, besides this, I think that’s precisely what Paul is teaching in 2 Corinthians 3:18—that as we behold the glory of the Lord in all the channels in which it is revealed (yes, meditating on Scripture, communion with God in prayer, etc.), we are thereby transformed. It’s what David longed for in Psalm 27:4: to behold the beauty of the Lord and to meditate in His temple (cf. Pss 1:3; 63:6; 77:6, 12; 119:97; 143:5).

    So, the dynamic of sanctification/holiness that I see in Scripture does pass through the affections. The classic, Puritan conception of this is that (1) truth is adequately and properly perceived in the mind, and thus must of necessity (2) mold and shape the affections so that our hearts are in concert with the truth we’ve understood. Then (3), the will, being properly informed and motivated by holy affections, issues in (4) external acts of obedience.

    And a key point that I’d like to get across is: that conception is not new with me, or anyone in my generation. It’s classic Puritan spirituality and classic Reformed theology.

    B. B. Warfield says that the affections are the “fount of moral character,” and that they “give character to the will” (Works, 8:422). Affections direct the will. And so if we want our will to behave in a certain way, we have to cultivate our heart to desire that end. How do we cultivate our hearts?

    Puritan Isaac Ambrose says we behold, or meditate upon, the glory of Jesus: This is an “inward experimental looking unto Jesus, such as stirs up affections in the heart, and the effects thereof in our life” (Looking Unto Jesus, 28).

    Charles Hodge agrees: “The Spirit, we are taught, especially opens the eyes to see the glory of Christ, to see that He is God manifest in the flesh; to discern not only his divine perfections, but his love to us, and his suitableness in all respects as our Saviour . . . . This apprehension of Christ is transforming: the soul is thereby changed into his image, from glory to glory by the Spirit of the Lord” (Systematic Theology, 3:229).

    And John Owen— the “Be-killing-sin or-it-will-be-killing-you” John Owen, the very antithesis of Quietism—says it plainly: “Let us live in the constant contemplation of the glory of Christ, and virtue will proceed from Him to repair all our decays, to renew a right spirit within us, and to cause us to
    abound in all duties of obedience. . . . It will fix the soul unto that object which is suited to give it delight, complacency, and satisfaction. . . . When the mind is filled with thoughts of Christ and his glory, when the soul thereon cleaves unto him with intense affections, they will cast out, or not give admittance unto, those causes of spiritual weakness and indisposition. . . . And nothing will so much excite and encourage our souls hereunto as a constant view of Christ and His glory” (The Glory of Christ, Works, 1:460–61).

    Contemplate the glory of Christ, have affections encouraged and excited, and the result will be our abounding in all duties of obedience.

    The point of rehearsing all of that is: what I’m proposing here isn’t a half-baked model of sanctification born out of my own experience (which, yes, is a slight jab at Tullian’s Jesus Plus Nothing Equals Everything model that occurred to him while in the middle of the trial at Coral Ridge). I’m doing my best to simply adequately represent the model of sanctification that our faithful theological forbears have lived by and left for us in their writings.

    Question: Is there a place for an attitude of commitment to God’s glory and to obeying, even rejoicing, that is not contingent upon feeling like it? Is there a difference between the desire to glorify God with obedience and feeling like

    I’m not sure. Iwould say that if I have the desire to glorify God, I feel like glorifying God. I’m not sure that the two are mutually exclusive. But yes, as I said in my original reply to Tim above, there will be times when I don’t feel like obeying. But my desire for God’s glory—to know and enjoy Him and be satisfied by that glory—is going to fuel my efforts in obedience. See that comment for more on this.

    I think of Paul being beaten. … Did he feel joy or did he willfully choose to count it joy based upon commitment to God’s glory and the knowledge of future blessings?

    Again, I don’t think those are too different. I don’t conceive of joy as something so superficial as feelings of perkiness—like Paul was just chipper and tickled by the fact that he was being beaten. See this post for more on how I think Scripture presents what joy is and isn’t, and how our duty to rejoice always works even in unpleasant circumstances.

    But I will say: when the Apostles had been beaten and flogged by the Sanhedrin in Acts 5, Luke does tell us in verse 41, “So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name.” The beatings itself were unpleasant, but when they considered that they were suffering for the sake of righteousness and in the name of Christ, they recognized that there was glory to be enjoyed in the fellowship of His sufferings, and they obeyed with joy (see point 4 in the original post).

    Well, this is longer than I planned. But I so appreciate the ability to ask questions.

    No worries. In this kind of discussion, I think the length is necessary. As I said, we can’t afford to be confused on this matter because it’s where we all live. And I appreciate the privilege of seeking to answer questions biblically. I do pray I’ve done so, and that my grace-driven, glory-fueled effort will be helpful to you. 🙂 Blessings!

  • Steven Quamber

    Great series on sanctification. Just had one question Mike, besides the 5 means of sanctification namely, Scripture, Prayer, Fellowship, Providence and Obedience, would you consider Suffering for Christ (Rom. 8:17; I Pet. 4:13) as a 6th means? It seems to me to be something that is overlooked here in the West (I’m originally from India) though it is an integral part of our living for Christ.

    • Hi Steven,

      Yes. I actually included trials under #4, conceiving of those as the circumstances of God’s providence.

      From Wednesday’s post:

      And that’s especially the case with trials, which, when handled biblically, produce perseverance, character, and hope (Rom 5:3–5), proven faith (1 Pet 1:3–7), and endurance (Jas 1:2–4). In providential affliction the people of God are spurred on to greater holiness (Ps 119:71; Heb 12:10). Paul speaks about the believer’s sharing in the sufferings of Christ as a means of becoming like Him (Rom 8:17; Phil 3:10–11), as well as giving us the occasion to be comforted by the Father and thus comfort others (2 Cor 1:4–6).

      And so as you navigate the joys and trials and all the experiences of life, you need to face those experiences in the knowledge that all of them are providentially designed by God to make you more like Christ. In the midst of trials, we can remember that His purpose in that difficulty or in that affliction is to conform you to the image of His Son. And so you can go to Him and say, “Lord, your Word says you’re working all things for my sanctification. Show me how to grow to be more like Christ through this experience.”

      And from this post:

      Even suffering for Christ’s sake provides new avenues for communion with Him, as Paul tells us in Philippians 3:10 that we have a unique fellowship with Him when we share in His sufferings.

      Hope that helps to clarify.

      • Steven Quamber

        Thanks Mike

  • Kyle Wassell

    Thanks Mike for this series. Also, John Flavel has excellent material regarding Providence and sanctification in The Mystery of Providence.

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