The Truth about God in our Sanctification by Martyn Lloyd Jones
All the passages below are taken from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “The Assurance of our Salvation.” The sermons were preached at Westminister Chapel, London, from 1952 to 1953. It was originally published in four volumes: Seed in Eternity, Safe in the World, Sanctified through the Truth, and Growing in the Spirit. It was published in one volume in 2000
Sanctify them through the truth: thy word is truth (John17:17).
We have been emphasising the point that the truth, this word of God which is the truth that sanctifies, is large and great and comprehensive, and that it is wrong to regard it just as one section of biblical teaching, and to say that you have now come to the truth of sanctification, as if that is divorced from every other aspect of truth. Our emphasis is that it is the whole of the truth, every aspect of the truth, that ultimately is used of God by the Holy Spirit in our sanctification.
But obviously, though we hold to that, it is yet a truth which we can sub-divide in an intellectual manner, under certain main headings; Scripture itself does that, and it is right that we should do so also. God condescends to our weakness, and he knows that it is easier for us to receive truth, and to remember it, and to retain it, if it is presented to us under certain groupings or headings. And so it has always been the custom in the church to divide up this one great comprehensive truth, the word of God which sanctifies, under various headings. But again I emphasise that they are nothing but headings; they are not distinct truths which can be isolated and separated from other truths. They are simple sub-divisions in the one all-inclusive comprehensive truth. And it seems to me that we are not presenting the doctrine of sanctification truly unless we at least glance at some of these main headings of the truth which sanctifies.
Clearly we cannot go into any one of them exhaustively at this point. The object is rather that we may make sure that certain key principles are emphasised; and as we come to do this, we shall see that there can be no doubt or question at all as to which comes first. I wonder what your answer would be if I put that question: What should be the first heading when you come to consider in detail the truth which sanctifies? What is the first thing you want to emphasise? This is very important, and surely the heading which, without a doubt, should occupy the first position is the truth about God himself.
I wonder whether we would all have started with that? I want to emphasise it because I think we must all plead guilty to the fact that there is a tendency and a danger among us (I am referring now to Christian people, who think from the evangelical standpoint with regard to truth)—though I say it with fear and trembling—to take God for granted. I mean by that, to assume God, to imagine that because we are Christians, and evangelical Christians in particular, then we do not need to consider constantly the truth about God himself. `That is a truth,’ we say, `that the unconverted need, of course, because they do not think of God; God is not in all their thoughts or in their mind; they are living a godless life.’ We know that we need to preach the truth about God himself to the unconverted, but we think that people who are Christians are obviously believers in God, and that therefore there is no need to preach to them and to present constantly the doctrine about God himself.
I wonder what the result would be if we made a careful examination of large numbers of addresses and sermons on this question of sanctification? I wonder how often we would find that the doctrine concerning God himself has been preached on such occasions? I think we would find the answer illuminating. The tendency, the danger is, as we have seen, that we start with the idea that sanctification is just one department only of salvation. We forget that the first beginning of sanctification is the doctrine of God himself.
Let me illustrate this, remembering always that it is a matter which we must approach carefully. Is it not true to say that among certain Christian people there is a tendency to pray to the Lord Jesus Christ rather than to God the Father? Do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that it is wrong to pray to the three persons of the blessed Trinity separately, for there is evidence in the Scriptures that that is the right thing to do. You will find, incidentally, a much greater tendency to do that in the hymns. There is much more individual prayer to the three persons separately in our hymn-books than there is in the Scriptures. Yet surely no one can dispute the point that in the Scripture itself prayer is generally addressed to God in the name of Christ, through and by the Holy Spirit. We cannot come to God except by the blood of Jesus. We ask everything in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake. But the prayer is ultimately addressed to God the Father. I am simply indicating that there is an increasing tendency for people to pray to the Lord Jesus Christ and it is entirely due to the same reason, it is just another indication of the way in which, because our doctrine is not based four-square upon the teaching of the Scripture itself, we have departmentalised it and somehow or other (it is a terrible thing to say) we tend to forget God. I am emphasising, therefore, the fact that the Bible itself always starts with God in every respect. God is at the beginning, and he continues right through. It is a book about God. It is all about him, and everything in it is designed simply to bring us to him. Thus, not to remind ourselves that the doctrine concerning God is central, and always covers and overrules everything else, is, it seems to me, to fall into very grievous error, for if we are wrong at this point it is certain we shall be wrong everywhere else.
Indeed, is it not the case that in this matter of sanctification our tendency is always to start with ourselves, instead of starting with God? I have got this sin that is worrying me and always getting me down, this sin that defeats me, and my tendency is to say, `What can be done about this sin, this problem of mine? How can I get rid of this thing? How can I get peace?’ I start with myself and my problem, and as certainly as I do that when I am considering this doctrine of sanctification, I am sure, in some shape or form, to end by regarding God as merely an agency who is there to help me to solve my problem. And this is a totally unscriptural approach to the almighty ever blessed God.
There was a book, written in the 1930s by a distinguished American preacher, who, incidentally, was a Roman Catholic, with the startling title, Religion without God. The contents of the book were equally startling, because they were so terribly true. In many ways religion may be our greatest danger. We can worship religion, and we can be very religious without God. I mean by that, that we can be very punctilious in the observance of days and times and seasons. We can fast, we can deny ourselves things, and the whole time we are just centring upon ourselves and thinking about how we are going to improve ourselves and make ourselves better. We are trying to get certain lessons for ourselves, and the whole thing may be really self-centred. We may be highly religious, but there may be no place for God; or even if he does come in, he is simply there as someone who may be of help to us. We are at the centre of our religion; our religion really is a religion without God. And that is, I suppose, the last, and the ultimate, sin.
However, if we pay attention to these truths about which our Lord speaks we find that kind of position or attitude is a complete impossibility, because the first truth of sanctification, according to the Scriptures, is the truth of God himself. A very convenient way, I find, of realising that and of getting it fixed in my mind, is to look at it as follows. The condition, or the state, of sanctification (let me remind you once more that it is a condition and a state and not merely an experience) is, of course, the antithesis of the condition and the state of sin. Sanctification is that which separates us from sin unto God, whereas sin, ultimately, is to forget God. The essence of sin does not reside in the particular thing that I do, but rather in refusing to glorify God as he should be glorified. And all these sinful actions of ours are the manifestations of that central disease which is forgetfulness of God.
That is why sin is sometimes defined very rightly as self-centredness. It is selfishness. Sin really means that instead of living unto, and for God, and in the way that God desires of us, we are living for ourselves, in our own way, forgetful of him, and after the manner and the fashion of this world. So clearly, therefore, sanctification must of necessity start with this—my relationship to God. The first thing is not my getting rid of this particular sin that is in my life. No! The first thing must be God and my relationship to him. That is why the Bible always, everywhere, starts with God, and that is why we say once more that sanctification is really that condition or state in which a man lives his life continually under God and for God, and for his glory.
In other words, the main characteristic of people who are sanctified is that God is in the centre of their lives. That is the first thing we may say about them. Before we get them to say what they do or do not do with regard to a particular action, we must be clear about the central, primary, most vital thing, which is how the truth sanctifies us. It starts by holding us face to face with God and it tells us the truth about him. The Bible is primarily a revelation of God. It is not primarily interested in man, but in God. It is designed to bring man to a knowledge of God, and so it tells us about him.
And here again we must be careful to take the whole truth, because with our subjectivity we tend to be interested in God only from the standpoint of what we want, so that there is always a tendency to think of God only as a Saviour. But the Bible tells us much more about God than that. It gives us a revelation of the whole truth about God. We cannot take in the whole revelation, but the whole is good. So it tells us about God as Creator as well as God as Saviour. It tells us about his greatness, his majesty, his might and his dominion. It tells us something about the attributes of God. My friends, I am sure that as I bring these things before you, you will agree with me when I repeat once more, startling and surprising though it sounds at first, that the main difficulty with every one of us is that we forget God, and fail to realise who God is. It is because of this subjectivity of ours that we fail to realise, even when we are engaged in prayer, what we are doing and whom we are approaching. We are so concerned about our desires and our petitions that we fail to worship God, and to come to him in the way that the Scriptures everywhere tell us to approach him.
Consider the message of Hebrews 9 and 10. The great theme there is just this question of how to approach God. You go to the Old Testament and you see all that ritual and ceremonial—was it meaningless? Why were all these details given about the building of the Tabernacle and of the Temple? Why were the priests told to present certain offerings and sacrifices? Is this all meaningless? No! The answer is that it is all designed to teach man how to approach God, how to worship him. The shekinah glory was something real and absolute, and people could not rush into the Holiest of all whenever they liked. Only one man went in, the High Priest alone, and then only once a year, and then always with an offering of blood. The whole of the Old Testament, in a sense, is just this great teaching about how we are to approach God.
`Ah yes,’ says someone, `but wait a minute, that is the Old Testament. Do you not realise that Christ having come, everything is entirely different?’ It is different in this way, that we are no longer dependent upon the Levitical ceremonial, and that in our Lord, we have the `great High Priest’. But let us never forget that the New Testament, in the full light of the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ, still goes on emphasising the importance of realising what we do when we approach God. The fact that I do not go into the `Holiest of all’ in the elaborate way in which the ancients went, but that I go in Christ, does not mean that I therefore need any less reverence! Let us approach God with reverence, and with godly fear, for `our God is a consuming fire’ (Hebrew 12:29).
The Scripture therefore promotes our sanctification, our holiness, by reminding us about all this; that the God whom we approach and whom we worship is the Creator of the universe, the sustainer of everything. There is no end to his might and his majesty, to his dominion and his power. The Scripture emphasises God’s holiness in a very special way. No one ever emphasised that more than the Lord Jesus Christ himself—you never hear him pray, `dear Lord’, or `dear Father’ but rather, `holy Father’! That is the prayer of the one who was without sin at all, and who was absolutely perfect. When he approaches God, he addresses him as `holy Father’! This is the truth that sanctifies, the truth that reminds us that God is in heaven and that we are on the earth; the truth that puts us into the right position and setting before God.
The greatest need of all of us is the need to be humble; our greatest lack is humility. It is our whole approach to God that is wrong, and the first great truth that we need to be taught is this truth that overrides everything else in the word of God. It is the truth about God’s holiness, about God’s eternal judgements and about his absolute righteousness. It is the truth that God is the judge eternal. `Ah but,’ you say, `I am a Christian and I am surely not concerned about judgement.’ The Bible does not tell you that. The whole epistle to the Hebrews is a warning that we must meet God as Judge, and as Judge eternal. He is the one who shook the earth and who has now shaken the heavens. He is the judge of all men, and we must all appear before him.
That is a part of the truth of sanctification; it is not something that need only be preached in an evangelistic meeting. It is of the very essence of sanctification, and is its first principle. Our God is a consuming fire! John puts it this way, in teaching sanctification in his epistle. The first thing he lays down concerning sanctification is this: `God is light, and in him is no darkness at all’ (1 John 1:5); so I suggest to you that we have no right to go on to consider any other aspects whatsoever of the truth of sanctification until we have realised that truth. And then John, having started with this emphasis concerning the truth about God, especially stresses in following verses that salvation is God’s plan.
Here again let me put this negatively. Are we not sometimes prone to think that salvation really is something that arises from man; that God is just waiting passively for us to go to him, and that when we do go and ask him for certain things, he will be graciously pleased to give them to us? Our tendency is to think of salvation only from our side. But the Bible puts it solely on the other side. Salvation and heaven are the plan of God. They are the scheme of God. They come from God and originate with him.
The Bible tells us that God’s great purpose in salvation is to separate unto himself a `peculiar people, zealous of good works’ (Titus 2:14). Everything that has been done in this great design of salvation—every aspect, every movement, every vision of it—is all designed for that end. I have always found that nothing has helped me with this whole question of sanctification so much as the realisation that I am simply someone who, as a Christian, has been taken into this scheme and plan of God. For instead of thinking primarily of myself and of my problems and of my needs and of my desires, I have awakened to the glorious, stupendous, thrilling fact that the great God who has planned this scheme of salvation has looked upon me, and has brought me into that scheme. So I do not start thinking of myself as myself; I see myself in God’s plan and in God’s purpose.
You will notice that I am repeating this because it seems to me that not to realise this is the root cause of most troubles. Kierkegaard, the great Danish theologian, who lived in the last century, coined a phrase which has been very popular in our own days. He said that `religion is subjectivity’. He lived in a country where you had orthodox Lutheranism which had been dead and petrified for a long time. The teaching was perfectly orthodox, they never said anything that was wrong, but it was lifeless. Kierkegaard saw that such orthodoxy was of no value. He said that merely to hold a number of correct intellectual notions and subscribe to a number of correct propositions was not religion. `That is not what I find in the Bible,’ he wrote. `That is not what I find in the lives of the saints. They had something vital, something living, something had happened to them.’ So he said that `religion is subjectivity’.
He was, of course, over-emphasising. He wanted to shock the people out of their dead orthodoxy. He was right in this, but in the end he went too far. It is always the danger when we try to correct an error. The danger, if we are not careful, is always that we start by speaking out in a striking manner that will shock people out of one error and end by going into another error, which is the exact opposite of the one we are correcting. If Kierkegaard had said that in religion there must always be a subjective element, he would have been right, but when he says that `religion is subjectivity’ he is wrong.
So it would be equally wrong for me to maintain that `religion is objectivity’, and I am not saying that. But what I am saying is that as you tend to need particular emphases at different times and in different epochs, I have no hesitation at all in saying that the emphasis that is needed at the present time is objective, because we are all so subjective in our approach, and we forget God. The truth is that we must start with the objective fact and truth of God, and then think of it as ours in relation to that—our object and our objective. It must be both. It is neither one nor the other; it is both one and the other. It is the objective eternal truth outside myself, God’s plan of salvation; and also it is the fact that I myself am brought into that, so that I am aware of God dealing with me, and of things happening to me.
But my emphasis here is that we must start with God and the fact of God, and not simply with our own subjective moods, our own states and feelings and our own personal needs and problems. That then is the truth in general. But there are certain particular emphases that I want also to mention. What is holiness? Well, I do not know a better definition than this: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength’ (Mark 12:30). That is holiness.
For holiness is not simply to have certain problems solved in your life, because you may get certain sins taken from your life and still be far removed from holiness. Essential holiness is a condition in which a man loves God with his heart and his soul and his mind and his strength, and the greater the degree or the proportion of each part of the personality that is engaged in this love, the greater the sanctification. Thus, to be sanctified does not just mean that you are not committing certain sins while you are enjoying that particular experience. No, that is a negative view; that is a corollary.
The essence of sanctification is that I love the God in whom I believe, and who has been revealed to me, with the whole of my being. Indeed I do not hesitate to assert that if I think of sanctification in any lesser terms that that, I am being unscriptural. This is scriptural holiness. This is the holiness, the sanctification, that is produced and promoted by the truth of God, because it is the truth concerning God. Then it follows from that—I think directly—that a man who does thus love God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength does so because he is called upon to do so and is commanded to do so. To such a man the main thing in life is to glorify God and to show forth his praises.
This is the argument of the apostle Peter when he reminds the people to whom he is writing that at one time before they became Christians they were not a people. `Which in time past,’ he says, in 1 Peter 1:10, `were not a people but are now the people of God.’ You who are called out of darkness into light are a `peculiar people’. Why? What is the object of it all? `That ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light’ (1 Peter 2:9). `Praises’ there means `excellencies’ or `virtues’; it means the glorious, marvellous attributes of God. And so, sanctification is that condition in which we praise God just by being what we are. Of course, it includes not doing certain things, but it is not only that. It is much more. By being what we are in all the totality of our personalities and in the whole of our lives, we reveal and manifest the virtues and the excellencies of God. God, of course, calls us to do that. The whole of the biblical teaching about our sonship of God in Christ, is the same argument. `Be ye holy,’ says God, `for I am holy.’ My reason for being holy must not be that I stop committing that sin so that I shall not suffer remorse and have the need of repentance, and that I shall not be miserable and unhappy. Not at all! I am to be holy because God is holy.
Is that not the teaching right through the Bible, in the Old as well as in the New Testament? Why did God give the children of Israel the Ten Commandments? Why did he tell them in detail what to do and what not to do? The reason he always gave was: You are my people; you are unlike all the other nations. I have adopted you; I have taken you; I have created you. You are my people. I want you to live as my people. I want everybody to know that you are my people. Let your life be such that everybody will know that you are God’s people. `Be ye holy for I am holy.’ It is exactly the same in the New Testament. `Let your light so shine before men [or, among men] that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven’ (Matthew 5:16). `That is the way you must live,’ says our Lord in effect in the Sermon on the Mount, `that is how I am living. I live in such a way that people see me glorifying my Father.’ And when he performed his miracles, people praised and glorified God.
And you and I must live like that. That is sanctification, and it is, of course, impossible unless we understand the truth about God. We must realise that our whole life is meant to be lived to the glory of God. The whole purpose of salvation is to make us such that we shall glorify him, and therefore the test of sanctification is not the giving up of my sins, nor my happiness, nor whether I have sacrificed so much in my life; rather, it is whether I am indeed concerned to live only and entirely to the glory of God.
One further point that we must make is that the essence of the Christian life is that we have fellowship and communion with God. Our Lord has already said in John 17, `This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.’ As Christians, then, our first and great claim is that we `know’ God, that we `know’ the Lord Jesus Christ. The privilege that we enjoy as Christian people is that we are in fellowship with God, we are in union with him.
Therefore, say the Scriptures, realise who he is and what he is. The apostle John works out the argument for us in his first epistle. The Christian life, he says, is essentially one of walking with God in this life. Therefore, `If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth’ (1 John 1:6). He goes further in the second chapter and says, `He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him’(2:14).
John’s basic definition of sanctification is clear. He teaches that it is the knowledge of God which leads to a life that corresponds with that knowledge. In other words, we are interested in the commandments. How often, I wonder, have you heard the Ten Commandments preached in sanctification and holiness meetings? But we must keep them; it is a part of the preaching, and of the truth, it is the word that sanctifies. It is the truth about God, because to be sanctified is to be walking in his fellowship, realising what we are doing, and living to his glory. So it is still the truth about God which is applied in our lives, and the result of all this is that we begin to understand what the apostle Paul means when he says, `Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’ (Philippians 2:12).
`Oh,’ you say, `but I thought the truth about sanctification was that it is that which delivers me from fear and trembling, that which makes me happy, and which takes the struggle out of my life.’ But we must `work out’, and `with fear and trembling’ because sanctification means essentially that we are in this relationship with God, and that we realise what it means. It is not a craven fear—it is the reverence and the godly fear spoken about by the author of the epistle to the Hebrews (12:28-29). It is the fear of wounding or of offending or of hurting such holiness and such love. It is the fear of marring God’s purpose and plan, his scheme and his perfect work that is going on in me, for he works in me both to will and to do.
Let me summarise it all by putting it like this. I notice that the Bible itself always describes sanctification in terms of `godliness’ and `holiness’ and `righteousness’. I do not see that the characteristic biblical description of the sanctified life is `victorious living’ or `the life of victory’ or `overcoming’. We are familiar with these terms, are we not? They have come in, in recent years. But the Bible describes sanctification in terms of godliness, god-likeness; that is its biblical term—holiness, which is a description of God himself.
We tend to describe sanctification as the `victorious life’ because we think of it in terms of getting rid of particular sins. `How am I to get victory over this sin? How am I to get victory in my life?’ Again, you see, I am starting with myself—I want victory. But the Bible describes it in terms of my relationship to God. How often do you hear the term `holiness’ used today? How often do you hear men described as ‘god-fearing’ men? Those were the biblical terms; until comparatively recently those were the great evangelical terms. But the whole outlook has changed. We have become subjective, and I would suggest to you that, to that extent, we have become unscriptural.
Of course, if we are godly we shall have our victories; but if you describe sanctification only in terms of `victories’ you have got the negative view. If you describe it in terms of `holiness’ and `godliness’ and ‘god-likeness’ and `righteousness’, then your view will always be positive. And though you may not be guilty of certain sins, you will still see yourself as a sinner; you will still be dissatisfied, but you will press on; you will still strive; you will still reckon yourself dead to sin; you will still go on reaching after holiness, hungering and thirsting after righteousness. Whereas if you only look at it in terms of victory, the great danger is to be self-satisfied and content, to be smug, and to lead a superficial, incomplete and inadequate Christian life.
The first message, the first aspect of truth, the truth which sanctifies, is God—the holy, righteous, eternal, ever-blessed God, who, in Jesus Christ, has become my Father, and with whom I can walk while I am left in this life, and with whom I shall spend my eternity. Let us ever approach him with reverence and godly fear. Let us remember that godlikeness is the end we strive for. (429-441)