In my constant quest to understand sanctification, I have come across some new questions and new ideas that I would like to share and hopefully get some feedback/clarification on.
In my denomination, pastors are supposed to report how many salvations, baptisms, and sanctifications occur in their congregation each year. Now, I know how to count salvations. When someone makes a confession of faith and repentance, the basic criteria has been met for a salvation. Baptisms are even easier. If I dunked someone in my church in water this year, I’m pretty sure I can count them as baptized.
But sanctifications are trickier…much, much trickier. Maybe it shouldn’t be so complicated. But I honestly don’t know what I am supposed to be looking for to report, and I don’t think I am alone.
On the one hand, I don’t think many churches worry about this category, partially because sanctification is neither preached nor emphasized, and partly because I have a feeling that most pastors are just as confused as me. When was the last time your pastor asked who in the congregation was sanctified?
On the other hand, the average parishioner probably does not know enough to report that they are sanctified, whether they are or not. Sanctification and a holy life were some of the central tenets of early Methodism. When I read Wesleyan history, I read all sorts of accounts of people who testified that they were ‘entirely sanctified.’ But we don’t hear such confessions anymore, and I’m not surprised. We are far too scared of absolutes to make such a bold statement as ENTIRE sanctification.
So that’s where I find myself, mired in uncertainty. Recently, however, I have begun to wonder if the former emphasis on ENTIRE sanctification was a step too far. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t be aiming for such perfection with all that we are, but rather that maybe sanctification should be identified and embraced at a much earlier stage.
I say this because I’m beginning to think that a sanctification should be evaluated under much the same criteria as a salvation. The truth is that salvation and sanctification are both works of grace that require faith. They are enacted by God’s Spirit, and we must believe that they are happening before we necessarily see results.
When reporting salvations, we don’t necessarily wait until we see fruit of salvation to report them, even though the transformed life is what confirms that someone has indeed experienced God’s saving grace. Since salvation is a step of faith, our acceptance of the new believer into the community of faith is also a step of faith on our part. We are believing with them that their new faith will take root, that they will endure, that they won’t one day fall away or reject the faith.
As far as I can tell, any church that counts the number of hands raised at the end of a church service and reports them as salvations may be reporting an inflated number, because some of those new confessing Christians may turn their back on the faith tomorrow. Or maybe not. But we honestly don’t know. I don’t think this is a bad thing. We are reporting in faith that their faith in Christ will become a reality that changes everything about their lives.
I was reading in a commentary by J. Michael Walters not long ago about James 2:17-20, the famous passage where James says that faith without works is dead. In v. 19, James says that even demons believe in God (and shudder), with the point being that faith is not authentic Christian faith without accompanying works.
Then Walters posed this question: In the rush to claim huge success in our evangelistic endeavors, might we not end up, in effect, counting ‘demons’? Are we accepting into our fellowship people who share the same level of belief as the demons without the transformed life of a follower of Christ?
Maybe we are. Maybe we need to be more careful in certain situations, but maybe our belief in what God can potentially do in converts as they take the leap of faith into his saving grace is overrides our need for caution.
Maybe we have been too loose in counting salvations and conversions at times, too eager to pad our statistics without worrying about transforming lives. But conversely, maybe we have been too strict in counting God’s sanctifying work as a reality in our congregants’ lives. If both are truly our response in faith to God’s work of grace, do not both begin in the humble moment of belief?
If this is so, then isn’t it weird that someone can raise their hand to receive Christ, and we can automatically add their name to the list of our salvations, yet we are practically looking for a perfected human being before we can consider them sanctified? (At least I think that’s what we have been looking for. It’s possible I have just been completely confused.) Might not the origins of salvation and sanctification be more similar than we have been trained to think?
So maybe this is the question: If we are going to count sanctifications, at what point do we count them? Do we count them at the moment of the prayer of faith, or only after we see the evidences of the Spirit? And if we wait to see evidence, how much evidence are we looking for? What kind of fruit must we see? How do we define what we are looking for?
Or maybe, just maybe, is sanctification something that cannot and should not be quantified in numbers and statistics? Though it has an instantaneous element to it, sanctification is also a lifelong process of becoming more and more like Christ. In that regard, sanctification is awfully hard to measure.
These are my questions, and my small attempts at working on a solution. But I need help understanding this issue. For those of you who have a better grasp of what we are talking about when we talk about sanctification, I’d love to hear your ideas about how we can talk about and look for sanctifications in the 21st century church.