A couple of weeks ago, I stopped by Kroger on my way back from Atlanta on a Sunday afternoon. I’d been sharing with another church so someone else from our preaching team had the message at Mosaic that morning. One of the first people I saw at Kroger was a Mosaic person. She hugged me and said, “Mark’s message today was great but it was hard. I’m telling you, sanctification is hell.”
Amen to that.
This person is a new Christian (or at least, a renewed one). She’s come home to Jesus after years away. Watching her find her place in the body of Christ and watching Jesus do some significant healing in her life has been a joy for me. I happen to know, because I’ve prayed with her and listened and shared tears, that it has not been all fun and games.
She’s right, of course: sanctification is hell. It is hard work. By the time someone gets serious about the process of changing spiritually, they’ve usually tried all the other options and have discovered there is no short cut. If change is going to happen something has to die, and deaths are not easy. Ask anyone who has had to quit smoking or drinking or drugging or who has had to quit any unhealthy habit. The quitting itself is hard work. Somewhere in the death of that thing, we get a glimpse if not of where we are then of where we’ve been. We see in the rearview the depths to which we’d let ourselves sink.
Sanctification happens while we are doing it — like that boom that happens when an aircraft breaks the sound barrier, or like when a spaceship re-enters earth’s atmosphere. We may not be able to see the line we’ve crossed, but there is an unmistakable shift. We feel it when we walk from death to life, from darkness to light. We know from the contrast that hell has been in the equation; it is only for the promise of what is on the other side that we bother. Or because our hell got bad enough to move us on.
Holiness is not for wimps.
The writer of Hebrews says, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Not even Jesus got a pass on that walk through pain to get to the other side where the joy is. This is the part of solid, orthodox Christianity we don’t often dwell on. Sanctification isn’t designed to keep us safe; it is designed make us sanctified. Holy. Strong. Wise. Mature.
Paul closes his letter to the Colossians with these three words: “Remember my chains.” Those are the words of a man who is working out his salvation, who is practicing the art of holiness prolifically.
Remember my chains. People don’t say that kind of thing as they reach for a glass of iced tea while they sit by the pool. These are the words of a man who has learned to let every beating, every jailing, every debate become part of his sanctification. He has embraced the hard road because he knows that is the only road that leads to Jesus.
We do no one any favors when we preach a gospel that neglects the cross nor the process of sanctification. We help no one when we refuse to speak truth in love when it comes to things that shackle people and keep them from going someplace spiritually. We don’t help the cause when we avoid words like sanctification. My friend the new Christian proves that anyone can learn that word and grasp its meaning and find power in it as she practices it. We don’t have to shield people from the vocabulary of freedom.
“Remember my chains,” Paul says. Because he needs the people of Colossae to remember that this following costs, that things won’t always be easy. Sanctification can be hell when you’re in the middle of it, but the real problem in any morality equation is not sanctification. The real problem is the thing that got us stuck in a hell of our own making in the first place.
And that ends up being quite the point and quite the freedom of this beautiful theology we who follow Jesus are living. Sanctification is that part of the Christian life that points out our hell … and then delivers us from it.