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DISCOVERING THE MEANING AND IMPORTANCE OF SANCTIFICATION
By R. C. SPROUL
David C. CookCopyright © 2012 R. C. Sproul
All rights reserved.
"I see men like trees, walking" (Mark 8:24). What a strange experience. Walking trees are not a normal sight. But the man who saw "walking trees" was a man in transition. He was at an intermediate stage between total blindness and full clarity of vision. He was, as we shall see, a representative of all Christians in their progress toward pleasing God.
The miraculous healings wrought by Jesus were usually instantaneous and complete. Jesus did not partially raise Lazarus from the dead. The man with the withered arm did not recover in stages. In most of Jesus's miracles, the person was changed instantly.
So the episode recorded in Mark's gospel is unusual. It records the healing of a blind man in two stages:
And they came to Bethsaida. And they brought a blind man to Jesus and implored Him to touch him. Taking the blind man by the hand, He brought him out of the village; and after spitting on his eyes and laying His hands on him, He asked him, "Do you see anything?" And he looked up and said, "I see men, for I see them like trees, walking around." Then again He laid His hands on his eyes; and he looked intently and was restored, and began to see everything clearly. (Mark 8:22–25 NASB)
This is a story of the power and the grace of Christ. It is a story of tender grace. When Jesus was approached by people concerned about the plight of the blind man, the first act He performed was to "[take] the blind man by the hand" (Mark 8:23). Holding his hand, Jesus led the man out of town.
Picture the scene. The Son of God surely had the power to heal the man on the spot. Instead, Jesus led him away from the crowd. He ministered to him in private. The blind man was not a spectacle for the curious to gaze upon. Our Lord directed the man's steps. Never in his life did the blind man have so secure a guide. There was no danger of falling, no possibility of tripping. He was being led by the hand of Christ.
Had Jesus's act of tenderness ended at that point, I am sure it would have been enough. The blind man could have told the story to his life's end. "He touched me!" he could have exclaimed, and he could have savored the experience forever. But Jesus was not finished. He took the next step.
When they were away from the crowd, Jesus did something that could offend our sensibilities. He spat on the man's eyes. In our day, to have someone spit in one's eye is to experience a shameful, degrading insult. But it was not Jesus's purpose to insult, but to heal. He touched the man and asked him whether he could see anything.
It was at this point that the man began to see men as walking trees. He saw what any blind person would give anything to see. His vision was dim, blurred—but he could see. Moments earlier, he could see nothing. His eyes were useless. He lived in perpetual darkness. But suddenly he could discern moving forms. He could detect the difference between light and shadow. A new world was opening before him. No longer did he require that someone lead him by the hand. He could see well enough to move about on his own.
But Jesus was not finished. He applied a second touch. With the second touch, the things that were blurred came into sharp focus. Suddenly the man could clearly distinguish between trees and men. He saw trees standing still, their branches swaying gently in the breeze. He saw men as men, walking. He could discern the difference between short men and tall men, fat men and thin men, young men and old men. He began to recognize the minute facial characteristics that provoke recognition of specific individuals. Perhaps he could have done it before by means of touch. Possibly he could have run his fingers over a person's face and recognized him or her. He surely would have noticed the unique sounds of different people's voices. But now he could keep his hands in his pockets and still know who was standing before him. The first face he saw clearly was the face of Christ. For him, it was the beginning of the blessed vision.
Though the Bible does not say so, it appears certain that his eyes were not the only part of the man that was healed. With the touch of Christ comes also the healing of the heart. His heart of stone was changed to a heart of flesh, pulsating anew with spiritual life.
The story of this healing was not intended as just a parable of the Christian's spiritual renewal. The event was a real miracle in space and time, a prodigious display of the power of Christ. But it serves us well as a parallel of spiritual renewal.
The Bible uses the metaphor of blindness to describe our fallen estate. We are all born blind. We enter this world in a state of spiritual darkness (Eph. 2:2–3). We do not see the things of the kingdom of God (John 3:3; 1 Cor. 2:14). By nature we have scales on our eyes, cataracts so thick that we cannot even perceive men as trees, walking. It requires a special act of tender grace for us to see the kingdom of God.
THE BEGINNING: REGENERATION
The act of grace by which our eyes are opened to the things of God is regeneration, spiritual rebirth. It is an act that only God can perform. We are no more able to regenerate ourselves than a blind man is able to see by a sheer act of the will. A blind man can decide to see, but he cannot see unless his eyes are healed.
Regeneration does not take place in stages. It is instantaneous. It is accomplished by one touch of the Holy Spirit on our souls. It is a sovereign work, a thoroughly effective work accomplished by the immediate power of the omnipotence of God. Only God can bring something out of nothing and life out of death. Only God can quicken the human soul.
When God quickens a human soul, He does it immediately. When I say "immediately," I am not speaking with respect to time, though, indeed, regeneration happens spontaneously. I mean by the term that He does it directly without means, without the use of secondary causes. (The Latin word immediatus actually means "without intermediary.")
When I am sick, I do two things: I pray and I take my medicine. I ask that God will bring healing to me by means of the medicine. I ask God to guide the doctor's hands, to guide the means of healing by His providence.
Yet when Jesus healed the blind man, He did not use any indirect means. No medicine was necessary. Jesus could heal by the sound of His voice. I am puzzled by the narrative at one point. Why did Jesus spit on the man's eyes? Obviously the power was not in the spit. On other occasions, Jesus dispensed with such a device. His power was direct and immediate.
So it is with our regeneration. We are required to be bathed with the water of baptism. But the water in the baptismal pool does not contain a magical elixir to redeem human souls. The water is a sign that points beyond itself to the living water that makes us alive. It is an outward, concrete symbol of the healing power of God.
There is another parallel, however, in the story of the healing of the blind man. Though we are regenerated instantly by the sovereign power of God and are transferred immediately from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light, our sanctification is indeed in stages.
When we are born again, we see men as trees, walking. Our spiritual vision is clouded by ongoing sin. We do not see all things in sharp spiritual focus. But there will come a day when all remnants of our old nature will be destroyed, when our hearts will be so purified that Christ's beatitude will be fulfilled: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Matt. 5:8). This is what many Christians in the Middle Ages called the "beatific vision."
The work of perfecting our spiritual state is called glorification. Glorification does not take place in this life. We must wait for heaven for our sanctification to be complete. Now, though we see what we could not see before, we still see through a glass darkly (1 Cor. 13:12).
In this life, we need the second touch of Christ. Indeed, we require a third, fourth, fifth, and continual touch. Though the scales are removed from our eyes, we still need to be led by the hand of Jesus.
Regeneration is the beginning of a journey. It is a journey with successes and failures, with growth amid stumbling. At times, the progress seems painfully slow, but progress is there. It is a movement to sharper focus—a life that begins with a touch of tender grace and moves toward more grace.
Sisyphus was the tragic hero of an ancient Greek myth. Because he offended the gods, he was doomed to an everlasting hell of repeated and constant frustration. His task was to push a huge boulder up a steep hill. It took all of his strength to move the rock. However, every time he reached the top, the boulder rolled over and crashed once more to the bottom. Sisyphus's task required that he race to the bottom to start all over again. His task was never finished.
Sometimes Christians feel like Sisyphus. Progress seems so slow in the Christian life that it feels like we are walking in place, spinning our wheels, doubling our efforts, and gaining no ground.
The image that captures the torture of the damned is the image of the circle. The circle goes round and round with no beginning and no end—merely endless repetition.
The Philistines' treatment of Samson followed this pattern. After he revealed the secret of his strength to his traitorous lover, Delilah, he was captured by the Philistines. His dreadful disgrace is summarized in one verse of the Bible: "Then the Philistines seized him and gouged out his eyes; and they brought him down to Gaza and bound him with bronze chains, and he was a grinder in the prison" (Judg. 16:21 NASB).
I do not know what a grinder in a Philistine prison did, but I remember how the job was depicted by Hollywood. In an old film, Victor Mature played the mighty man of Israel. The scene that sticks in my mind is that of the blinded Samson replacing an ox on the wheel of a grinding machine. The ox was yoked to a lever that turned the gears of the machine as the ox plodded around in a circle, wearing a rut in the ground. I can see Victor Mature with vacant eyes, his muscles glistening with sweat, walking around and around in an endless cycle of toil, getting nowhere, only digging the rut of his path deeper and deeper.
That is the brutal image of the circle.
THE CONTINUATION: SANCTIFICATION
But the Christian life is not futile like that. It does not follow the pattern of the circle. The image of the Christian life is a line. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. There is an end goal of glory. The God who started all things in the beginning has a goal for His people. We reach ahead for the day when we will hear Christ say, "Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Matt. 25:34 NASB).
With the Apostle Paul we say, "Forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:13–14 NASB). In the Christian life, there is an upward call. One does not move upward in a circle. We are on a line that is going somewhere. It is moving forward. In a word, there is progress in the Christian life.
We remember the classic of Christian literature written by John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress. The pilgrim is the Christian who moves toward heaven. His progress is made slow and cumbersome by the weight he carries on his back. He faces obstacles at every turn. He is threatened by the Slough of Despond. He is tripped up by the likes of Mr. Worldly-wise.
Bunyan understood the many temptations and pitfalls that stand in the path of every Christian. But he also understood two vitally important truths about the Christian life: we are pilgrims, and we make progress.
Pilgrims are those who are on a journey. Their travels take them to strange places. They are a people on the move. Like the Old Testament Hebrews, Christian pilgrims live in tents. They are seminomads. They are never so at home in this world that they completely settle in. Life is always a frontier for them. The water they drink is never stagnant. Like Abraham, the father of the faithful, they search for a better country whose builder and maker is God (Heb. 11:10). All of God's people are pilgrims and sojourners on the earth (1 Pet. 2:11).
All Christians make progress. Progress is made certain by the indwelling Holy Spirit, who refuses to allow us to stand still. Oh, we try to stand still. We even regress. Like the disciples, we hide in our upper rooms, huddled in fear. But Jesus will not allow us to stay there.
No one is born a Christian. By nature we are flesh (Eph. 2:2–3). The Christian life begins with the work of the Holy Spirit in rebirth. The term "born-again Christian" is a redundancy. It is a kind of theological stuttering. If one is born again, then one is a Christian. If one is a Christian, then one is born again. There are no non-born-again Christians and no born-again non-Christians. To be reborn is to be born into Christ by the Holy Spirit. This is a prerequisite for the Christian life. It is also the genesis, the beginning of the Christian life.
Everyone starts the Christian life the same way: by being born again. Our experiences of rebirth may differ, but the fact of rebirth is necessary for all of us.
It is important for us to understand that no two Christians begin their Christian walk with the same baggage. Some people are born again at five years old, some at fifty-five. Some come to faith from a well-disciplined background, others from a life of riotous and unbridled wildness. We struggle with different sins. We carry mixed and matched luggage.
Some of us know the day and the hour we were converted. Others have no distinct recollection of when we were reborn. The famous evangelist Billy Graham spoke of meeting Christ at a gathering held by Mordecai Ham. Graham's wife, Ruth, could not pinpoint within five years the date of her conversion. Some people weep at conversion; others are giddy with joy.
It is a grave mistake to insist that everyone display the same outward signs of conversion that we experienced. Those with a sudden and dramatic conversion experience tend to be suspicious of those who cannot name the day and the hour. Those whose experience is less dramatic may wonder about the emotional stability of those who cite a sudden experience.
Here we must honor the work of the Holy Spirit, who convicts people in different ways at different times. The ultimate question we face is not when we were converted or where we were converted. The only real question is whether we are converted. If we are born of the Spirit, then we are brothers and sisters to all who are in Christ.
Paul told us: "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them" (Eph. 2:8–10 NASB).
At this point, we are all equal. None of us has converted ourselves. Rebirth is the work of God. We are the workmanship or the craftsmanship of Christ. Christ is the master craftsman. His workmanship is neither dull nor monotonous. When He redeems us, He does not destroy our identity or our individuality. Each Christian is a distinctive work of art fashioned by Christ. Each redeemed person is literally a masterpiece.
Jesus does not fashion His art on an assembly line. His work of molding and shaping is done with infinite care and patience. We have seen the bumper sticker that reads "Be patient with me, God is not finished with me yet." There is truth in that statement.
Sanctification is a process. It is a gradual process. Run for your life from those who promise you instant sanctification. There is a poisonous doctrine—one that dies hard in Christian circles—called the doctrine of perfectionism. It teaches that some people have already attained spiritual perfection in this world. Those who teach this doctrine promise a "second work of grace," a "second blessing" of instant sanctification. Turn away from such teachers.
I was a Christian for only a few months when I met my first preacher of instant sanctification. He offered to lay hands on me and pray that I would receive the second blessing. I found the idea very attractive. The most serious frustration I experienced in my new Christian life was that I was still sinning. I had experienced profound victory in some parts of my life, but other areas were proving very stubborn. I was already acutely aware of the ongoing warfare between the flesh and the Spirit.
I prayed with the preacher for instant sanctification. It did not work. The second blessing eluded me. Martin Luther, who spent so much of his early life trying to be completely righteous, said that if ever a man could get to heaven through "monkery" (faithfully living the monastic life), it was he. I was thinking that if ever a man could get the second blessing by seeking it, it was I.
Excerpted from PLEASING GOD by R. C. SPROUL. Copyright © 2012 R. C. Sproul. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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