As a new year approaches, most Christians desire a more intimate walk with the Lord. The transition from “last year” to “next year” is accompanied by hopes of a better tomorrow and plans to improve our lives through adjusted routines and habits. For followers of Jesus, this usually means resolutions to faithfully read our bibles, become more committed to church-related activities, memorize Scripture, spend additional time with family, and begin tithing to the local church.
And I think that’s great. The change of seasons – the passing of something old and the arrival of something new – is an appropriate time to ask questions and consider the quality and character of our lives. Self-reflection and evaluation is certainly a biblical concept (1 Timothy 4:16). But as we know, it tends to fall apart rather quickly.
There are many possible reasons why our new year discipleship resolutions are difficult to keep, but one of the most fundamental is our forgetfulness of the means through which we have power to pursue holiness – our union with Christ.
The last few weeks I have been preaching on the tendency in conservative evangelical theology to separate the work of Christ from the person of Christ. By that I mean we emphasize (rightly so!) the concepts of justification and sanctification and glorification that are all possible because of the work Christ has accomplished on our behalf at the cross and through his resurrection. No doubt, those are essential truths of our faith that do not deserve to be less preached, less taught, or less modeled by the church.
But the problem is when we present these benefits of faith as “things” Jesus goes and gets for us, turning the theological concepts of justification and so forth into the primary gift of our faith, and creating Jesus as a kind of “errand boy” who runs to the cross and delivers for us a beautiful package called “justification.” What’s wrong with that, you might ask? Isn’t justification a primary gift of our faith?
Well, yes. But here’s the thing. Jesus doesn’t deliver a package labeled “justification” to us. He delivers himself. Jesus is our justification. Jesus is our sanctification. Jesus is our glorification. And what happens when we unknowingly divorce the work of Christ from the person of Christ is the creation of a benefit-centered faith that Jesus handed to us instead of a Jesus-centered faith that Jesus is for us. Every single blessing of our salvation – all those wonderful terms such as justification and adoption and sanctification and glorification – they are all possible because of our union with Christ. If our oneness with Jesus does not exist, then neither does our justification. If we are not found in Christ, then we are not found adopted into God’s family. All of it relies on Christ in us and us in Christ. All of it.
Consider 1 Corinthians 1:30 – “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” Jesus became to us our righteousness. Jesus became to us our redemption. Jesus became to us our sanctification. And why? Because we are “in Christ Jesus.” The work must never be separate from the person. Anthony Hoekema has said, “If Christ is indeed our sanctification, we can only be sanctified through being one with him.” (Saved By Grace).
How does this relate to our discipleship and a new year? Well, if we divorce the work of Christ from the person of Christ, we will undoubtedly divorce our work of discipleship from the person of Christ. Although we would never consciously suggest that Jesus is left out of our plans for discipleship and personal sanctification, we will become convinced that the right bible reading plan or the appropriate small group or a better church or healthier life or a increased determination will accomplish our freshly written resolutions. “It’s all for Jesus” we might say. But it’s not. It’s all in Jesus.
Whatever resolutions and whatever plans you have for 2019, I wish you the very best. If it is a new Bible reading plan, that’s great! (I have a new one myself I am excited about). If it is a commitment to a small group, that’s great! The point here is not to dissuade us from pursuing holiness. The point is to persuade us that these things will not sanctify us; Jesus is our sanctification. Jesus is both the one who provides the power of grace to pursue holiness and he is the object of that pursuit. We toil in Jesus to be shaped by Jesus to look more like Jesus.