On Sanctification, Personal Holiness, and Ecclesiastic Re-appropriation

  • David B. Doty © 2018

The greatest deterrent to sanctification (and irritant along the way) is the flesh.  We should be clear that by “the flesh,” we are not actually referring to our physical bodies but, like Paul, we are speaking of that attitude of self-determinism within us that rebels against God’s commands and leading.

For years, I have tried to be very sensitive to the Spirit and be obedient to God. That has meant leaving a lucrative business behind for the sake working with my wife to assure our marriage endured. It meant leaving a good job behind to return to my home state to be closer to my aging father. It has led to sacrificial lifestyle changes that required dramatic commitments. I really want to take credit for the willingness to act on these things but it in truth has been movements of divine grace. I know myself to much to selfish to think all this originated from within.

But obedience is not always about actions. It is more often about attitudes. I must confess, I have issues with authority figures. Not the good ones. I have had some great bosses along the way. But I have had some that were dehumanizing to the point of psychological abusiveness in their approach to their subordinates. My natural reaction has always been to push back. Oddly enough, I never seemed to gain much ground with them but always found myself miserable in those jobs. I have never allowed myself to compromise my pursuit of excellence in performance of my work but too often I awoke to dread the day ahead due to the angst of working in a disrespectful, and thereby, contentious environment.

Paul wrote to the Ephesians: Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. – Ephesians 6:5-8.

This, for me, is the hard place in the sanctifying process. I tell myself that I want to be holy but I cannot be with a rebellious attitude toward my bosses when they do not behave as I believe they should. I want to be treated well, and in many places, I have been. But for those who make what I think are unreasonable demands, I have a very low tolerance.

I believe the root of my rebelliousness was being raised by a very authoritarian mother. Unlike some of the issues my older siblings suffered through, I was, for the most part, a model child. I had some obvious faults but scared to death to get in any serious trouble. I desperately wanted my mother’s approval. But my rebellion manifested late in my high school years and exploded in college in drug abuse and sexual activity. I was determined, being out of my home environment, that I would live and do as I saw fit and as it pleased my flesh.

There are two biblical principles, inextricably linked which I must now address in my growth toward obedience to God, my growth in holiness, as I seek to subdue this enduring rebellious nature.

I wrote a book several years ago entitled Eden’s Bridge: The Marketplace in Creation and Mission. It was, obviously, a study on the role of the marketplace in God’s created design, before Adam’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden, then the role it plays in God’s mission of the redemption of all of creation. In that book, I included a subchapter, titled “On Justice and Righteousness,” as these two concerns are instrumental in reforming the marketplace through time to restore it to its original design and purpose.

Along the way, I posted that essay from the book on my web site. Since posting, it has been far and away the most read thing I have ever written, have now garnered nearly seven thousand views and growing in number every daily. The essay is a word study of the Old Testament terms most often translated as justice and righteousness, mishpat and tsadaq, respectively.

Two key points of the essay stand out. One, biblical justice is not easily reconciled to our common belief about the concept. Our tendency is to think of justice as someone getting their due, the Old Testament idea of an eye for and eye, a tooth for a tooth. In effect, we think of justice as comeuppance. We even paraphrase it by calling it karma or saying “what goes around comes around.” Justice has an outcome focus. It is brought about by acts of righteousness.

The second point is what turns us on our heads. Righteousness, at least from the divine perspective (being explained through the biblical stories), requires an undue sacrifice on the part of the righteous party. If we think of justice from a human perspective, Jesus’ sacrifice was a demonstration of the most unjust events in human history. But God, being perfect and never-changing, cannot act unrighteously. Jesus’s self-sacrifice is the ultimate revelation of what divine righteousness looks like. He gave what he did not have to give – his life – for those of us who do not deserve it.

Jesus’ crucifixion was the foundation of all divinely redemptive movements toward the reconciliation of humanity to God and the restoration of creation to God’s design and purpose. And we, as Christ followers, have a role to play: We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. – Romans 8:22.

How do these things connect? It is a principle I would call ecclesiastic re-appropriation. In effect, how the church works the works that glorify God (Matthew 5:16) as the light of the world that are integral to the process of redeeming the world, that is, reclaiming creation under the order of Christ’s reign.

Paul and Peter both wrote that we should not return evil for evil including our sufferings of injustice due to unrighteous masters. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. – Romans 12:17a. To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing. – 1 Peter 3:8-9

The Israelites were even commanded to bless their captors when in exile. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. – Jeremiah 29:7.

Why would God ask us to submit to even unjust authority? This is a principle of displacement. Think of someone committing an evil act against you. You can retaliate in kind and that evil remains. But when we forgive, laying our offense at the foot of the Cross, that mite of evil is removed from the world, absorbed by grace, so to speak, and overcome by the love of God.

If we have a clear understanding of God’s redeeming grace and sound biblical eschatology, we can see that slowly but surely, evil is being removed from the world over the long term. Christ’s reign in the world is increasing by the growth of the Church and by the spiritual growth of each believer. This is obviously a very long term enterprise to reclaim and rebuild all of creation, but one empowered, initiated, and guaranteed to succeed entirely by the work of Christ.

God wants us to learn to obey authority, even when it is evil (though there are distinct times he would have us speak out or actively resist – responses that must be completely subordinated to the leading of the Holy Spirit in distinct circumstances) for by doing so, we overcome that evil, not by overt battle but by humility and grace.

Frankly, when it comes to my work, I am not there yet. This essay is in direct response to my own latest battle within myself, wrestling with either serving my flesh or serving God. I do not enjoy the angst, my joy and peace are undermined. As I learn to let it go, I can move closer to God, being remade another small step into the image of Christ, the ultimate sufferer of worldly injustice.


Filed under Faith in the Marketplace

2 responses to “On Sanctification, Personal Holiness, and Ecclesiastic Re-appropriation

  1. Thanks David. I find this, and the chapter on justice and righteousness in your book, interesting. The issue is really too big to discuss in the comments section of a blog. I hold a heretical conviction that the future of the church depends on our understanding of these two words, and that we really don’t have a clue at the moment. The word “righteousness,” as we tend to understand it today, simply does not exist in Hebrew or Greek. To translate mishpat as justice and tzedeq and its derivatives as “righteous,” “righteousness” etc. is, in my mind, simple wrong.

    I suspect that the early reader understood these words in a very different, albeit uncomplex way: Tzedeq is the application of justice, Mishpat is the discernment of justice (the highest form of judgment). Clearly the latter determines the former, and so we find it at the heart of Solomon’s prayer for “wisdom,” and as the factor that qualified the judges of Israel and set the just kings apart from the unjust ones.

    Interestingly, the shift from a “righteous”-based understanding of the gospel to a “justice”-based one has grounded my faith in such a way that it has redefined my understanding of ministry unalterably, namely “in the world – for the world” rather than “in the church – to the world.” And so my theological/pastoral past has been replaced by a career in education.

    • Excellent! I agree. I also appreciate your judicious use of the term heretical as the justice-based is only heretical in a modern sense of the church’s teaching generally today. I have come to that same viewpoint though I often differ with others as to how that is best carried out. But, Scripture does warn us the way is narrow so I am not surprised that the majority make it about themselves “above” the world with a strong sense of escapism (thank you the invasion and influence of modern false doctrines).

      My own transition was (I think obviously from my other posts) to see the marketplace as a venue of ministry as opposed to the isolating effect of pulpit-only focus. Interestingly I have been heavily influenced (through a personal relationship) with Howard A. Snyder. He would agree, I think, that the vast majority of the church is headed the wrong direction, especially in the West but I have been to India on three occasions and find the Christians there much more engaged in what I will call “real world” ministry.

      I would love to know more about your theological and pastoral history and what influences have helped with your shift.


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