What you believe makes a big difference in your Christian life. Even if the categories of formal theology seem remote and unfamiliar, you have a theology. Everything you think about God, Jesus, law, sin, salvation, holiness, the Spirit, the church, human nature, life, death, and eternity is theological. We are all theologians. The real question is whether or not our theologies are true to Scripture.
One of the most important areas of theology is sanctification: the doctrine that concerns our consecration to God, the restoration and renewal of God’s image within us, and our practical progress in holiness. I’ve seen a number of common errors that Christians make in this area. In fact, here are seven errors to avoid in following Christ.
1. Looking to your sanctification for your justification
Justification and sanctification are related, but not to be confused. Justification concerns our legal status before God. Scripture teaches that we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. If you believe in Jesus, your sins are pardoned and God already accepts you as righteous – even though you still struggle with sin.
And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness… (Rom. 4:5)
God justifies the ungodly! Full forgiveness is freely given through faith in Jesus crucified and risen alone. The verdict is in: “not guilty.”
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 8:1)
Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. (Rom. 8:33-34)
Don’t measure your acceptance with God by your progress in holiness or apparent lack thereof. Sanctification depends on justification, not the other way around.
2. Adding rules to Scripture
Make no mistake: there are commands in Scripture and we must obey them. Even Christians, who are freed the law (Acts 13:39; Rom. 7:4; 8:2; Gal. 5:1-13), are commanded to walk in love, work out their own salvation, bring holiness to completion in the fear of God, and more (Eph. 5:2; Philip. 2:12; 2 Cor. 7:1). While obeying God’s commands does not justify us, obedience is an essential part of sanctification.
But sometimes people require more than God requires. When Paul warned of those who would forbid marriage and require abstinence from certain foods, he said it was demonic (1 Tim. 4:1-3). That’s pretty strong language! But it underscores the absolute sufficiency of God’s word for training us in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16).
If the Bible doesn’t forbid it or require it, neither should you. Doing so won’t help you or others become holy. It will only undermine confidence in Scripture. Beware of adding rules to the Bible.
3. Focusing on behavior to the neglect of the heart
Behavior is important. But our words and deeds always flow from the heart.
For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. (Luke 6:43-45)
If you want to change the fruit, you have to change the root. This doesn’t mean we either can or should neglect behavioral issues until we feel different. You should do what God says, even when you don’t feel like it. But if you don’t go after the underlying motives, passions, and desires that drive your sinful behavior, your efforts to change will be short lived and superficial.
And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Gal. 5:24)
4. Thinking you can go it alone
One of the most overlooked facts about the New Testament letters is that almost all of them were written to churches. Even Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus were written with a church context in mind. This means that most of the exhortations and commands given in these letters are given to churches, not individuals.
It was John Wesley who said, “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.” But when it comes to holiness, too many of us try to go it alone. It won’t work. You need the church. You need the church because you need the means of grace: the preached word, prayer, and the sacraments. And you need the church because you need other people. Even the Lone Ranger needed Tonto. Holy living is a community project.
5. Neglecting the ministry of the Holy Spirit
Sanctification is part of the Spirit’s ministry (1 Pet. 1:2; 2 Thess. 2:13). The Spirit is the one who fills us (Eph. 5:18), strengthens us (Eph. 3:16), and reproduces the character of Christ in us (Gal. 5:22-23). And while the Spirit indwells the heart of every believer (Rom. 8:9), we are responsible to “keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25) and to put sin to death in his strength (Rom. 8:13).
Neglecting the Spirit’s ministry is a sure recipe for stunted spiritual growth. We therefore need to cultivate continuous, conscious dependence on the Spirit. And Paul’s writings indicate that the primary ways we do this are through the word and prayer (study, for example, the parallels between Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18-20, and Paul’s many references to the Spirit in his prayers).
6. Failing to put effort into the pursuit of holiness
Sometimes an emphasis on the Spirit has led believers to spiritual passivity – the old “let go and let God” approach. But the biblical path leads in the opposite direction: the greater our dependence on the Spirit, the more active we become. Dependence on the Spirit is fully compatible with fighting the good fight of faith (1 Tim. 6:12) and running the race set before us (Heb 12:1). Effort is an essential ingredient in spiritual growth (2 Pet. 1:5-10).
7. Forgetting the reality of your union with Christ
But we must never forget the reality of the new identity we already have through union with Christ. In fact, in Paul’s fullest teaching on the Christian life, this is always how he starts. We see this pattern in Romans 6 where he argues that continuing to live in sin is deeply incongruous for those who are already dead to sin through their faith union in the death of Christ. This is also the focus of Colossians 3, where all Paul’s commands (imperatives) rest on the realities (indicatives) that we are already dead, raised, and hidden with Christ. Or consider Ephesians 4:17-32, where Paul admonishes us to holy living, because we’ve already put off the old man and put on the new, in learning Christ. As Paul says in another familiar verse:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:20)
Brian G. Hedges is the lead pastor for Fulkerson Park Baptist Church in Niles Michigan, and the author of several books including Active Spirituality: Grace and Effort in the Christian Life and Hit List: Taking Aim at the Seven Deadly Sins. Brian and his wife Holly have four children and live in South Bend, Indiana. Brian also blogs at www.brianghedges.com and you can follow him on Twitter @brianghedges.