Sanctification by Faith

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? (Galatians 3:2-3 NRSV)

Justification by faith in Jesus Christ is the biblical doctrine which teaches that Jesus died on the cross for our sins; when we accept this wonderful gift of forgiveness through faith we are justified and the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us. While we are still sinners, we are nevertheless considered by God to be as perfect as Jesus. For many Christians this would appear to be the “end” of the story. Many churches, and a great deal of preaching these days, is focused upon trying to “save” souls. And, while such is important, it is not the totality of the Christian message nor the “end” of God's grace in our lives. In other words, there is more to the Christian life than just salvation.

Methodism proclaims a “method,” or “discipline,” of spiritual formation and growth through partaking of the many means of grace. Wesleyan-Arminianism (the theology of Methodism) affirms that, apart from the grace of God we can do absolutely nothing; if we are going to respond to God in faith, if we are going to live a life which is exemplified by the fruit of the spirit, if we are ever going to change and do good works, we must first receive God's unmerited favor. This is true for salvation and, indeed, for sanctification. As Paul affirmed in his letter to the Galatians, we begin our Christian life with faith in Jesus Christ; we continue our Christian life, we grow in grace and live the life that God wants us to live, through faith in Jesus Christ. We don't have to “cut on ourselves,” obeying external rules and regulations, in order to become a Christian, and we don't have to do this in order to continue to be and grow as Christians. In other words, if Justification is by faith – and it is – then Sanctification is also by faith.

It is this gospel, this “good news,” that Paul proclaimed to the early Gentile Christians. He didn't require that the add to their lives Jewish practices of circumcision, dietary regulations, clothing regulations, or other features of the Mosaic law. He recognized that the law played a role as a teacher, showing us how much we fall short of God's standard and how much we are in need of the grace of Jesus Christ, but Paul never made keeping the law as part of what was required for one to either begin one's life as a Christian or to grow as a Christian. The Jewish Christians who followed Paul into the mission field, and were preaching to the new Church which Paul had founded in Galatia, were “bewitching” these gentile Christian. They were telling them “you must obey the law of Moses if you're going to be a Christian.” They viewed the Christian Church as if it were a sect, or a denomination, of Judaism. It was okay that Gentiles began their Christian lives by faith, but now they must complete their Christian conversion and be sanctified by works. Paul's letter to the Galatians rejected this idea, and instead proclaimed our freedom from doing the works of the law for either salvation or sanctification.

“But how are sinners going to know that they need to change if they're going to be Christians?” That's an excellent question, but it is one that misses the whole point of the role and nature of God's grace in Sanctification. It also reflects a failure to truly trust that God can change sinners; indeed, it reflects a deeply-seated desire on our part to remake others not into the image of Christ but into the image of what we think they should be. So often we want to tell sinners what they should do and how they should change their lives when, in point of fact, if God wants a sinner to change God can and will change them. God will provide the insight, the ability, and the will for them to change ... and without us having to stick our nosey opinions in the middle of it. We should be more concerned with our own Christian walks and less with the walks of others – or, to quote a certain Jewish Rabbi, we should be more concerned with the logs in our own eyes before we pretend to deal with the specks in other people's eyes.

This is why I don't often preach against particular sins. I preach grace and peace; I preach about faith and the means of grace as the foci of faith through which we are enabled to live the Christian life and overcome the power of sin in our lives. Even though I don't preach against specific sins, it is amazing to witness that people will hear the Gospel and their lives are changed by God's grace. Imagine that! I don't beat on people, and yet God still changes them!

This was true for Darius, a 25 year old fashion model and male prostitute who, over a year ago, began listening to my on-line audio sermons and bible studies. A few months back he began writing to me, telling me about who he was and what listening to my internet ministry meant to him. In one very powerful E-mail, he wrote:

"Since I began listening to you I gave my life to Jesus. I told him, several months ago, to take me and change me. If there is anything in my life that He wanted to change, I told him to change me. I accepted Jesus as my Lord and savior, and I meant it. Little did I realize that Jesus means it too.

As I said in a prior e-mail, I have been an "Escort," a male prostitute, for 7 years. I have lived a life that did not give glory to God but, rather, denied God. Faith in Jesus was the farthest thing from my interest but God through your writings your sermons and your Bible Studies has been working on me. He has shown me how my life style was harmful and wrong and not what He wanted from me. And, so, last week, I quit and renounced the male prostitution business. I began informing my clients that I was no longer in that business, and I told them why. Most don't understand, many have been angry, but as few are curious. And, who knows, maybe Jesus will now use me in a way to tell them about the love of God that I have learned from your messages. Maybe people can see in me that God really does change lives, that forgiveness of sin is possible, that a new life in Christ is real if only we will accept the grace He freely offers."

I know I'm still not the person Jesus wants me to be, but I don't think He's done working on me. My prayer is that I can continue to learn about Jesus, continue to grow in his grace, and to do this I'll keep listening to you.

As Darius discovered, Jesus intends to be the Lord of our lives. If we accept the life he offers us, a life of forgiveness and an eternal relationship with the Father, we cannot help but be changed. The changes may not be quite what we, or others, expected, nor may they happen as fast as we or others might expect, but they will come. And, when they do, they will be real and life-transforming.

I thank God for the Gospel, the “good news,” of Jesus Christ which enables not just salvation but true sanctification. I thank God that we have been placed here to proclaim this message through words and deeds. And, I am thankful that God has blessed us with a voice which, through the internet, reaches around the world with this most important message. May all that we do and say be directed toward sharing the Gospel with every "Darius" whom we meet, and let us simply trust God that God will know where and how to change them.

© 2006 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from