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Different Strokes for Different Folks
Salvation means different things to different people. For some, it’s a “get out of hell free” card, the cosmic fire insurance policy they checked off and filed away years ago. For others, it’s trying to be a good, moral, upstanding person and attend church— at least on Easter and Christmas. Most don’t give it much thought beyond hoping to end up in the Pleasant Place and not the Hot Place when they die.
But is that really the extent of what Jesus accomplished on the cross? Did He endure scourging and nails just to offer a slight upgrade in our afterlife accommodations, leaving our day-to-day lives largely untouched? I don’t think so.
I’m convinced salvation encompasses far more than this shallow version we’ve settled for. The eternal life Christ promised involves a radical transformation into new creations, holy and acceptable, right here and now. But so few seem to grasp this truth.
I understand why, though. I used to view salvation the same way. As a young believer, I prayed for forgiveness, believing Jesus’ death paid the penalty for my sin. I looked forward to heaven but figured holiness would have to wait. Meanwhile, I assumed grace gave me the green light to keep living as I pleased. And so I did.
What changed my perspective? The book of Romans.
Buried in Paul’s masterful exposition hides a powerful secret that sparked the Protestant Reformation, but remains obscured to many believers today. Let’s dust off this treasure and explore how the gospel offers, not just a ticket to paradise when we die, but victory over sin’s grip in our daily lives.
The Path to Real Change
Chances are you know the famous verse that ignited reform in Luther’s heart back in 1515: “The just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17). Luther had tried everything to obtain salvation: self-denial, penance, indulgences, pilgrimages, and even becoming a monk. At last, thankfully, he finally grasped that a man is justified not by works, but through faith alone (Rom. 3:28).
Yet mere intellectual assent cannot change hearts. I know, I’ve tried. Mere head knowledge never hindered Paul from persecuting Christians, but an encounter with the risen Christ transformed him in an instant.
In the same way, justification marks only the beginning of the work of salvation in our lives. The just are not only declared righteous, but enabled to live righteously through an ongoing process called sanctification. Surprisingly, this practical component of redemption receives little pulpit airtime today, though the epistles address it constantly. It’s the part of our salvation experience that primarily rests on our shoulders.
Sanctification means being set apart for holy use. It means growing into the likeness of Christ. And it is how we glorify the Lord today. Just as temple implements were consecrated for God’s service, we who trust in Christ are sanctified and empowered to serve the Lord rather than ourselves. Although complete sinlessness awaits eternity, believers can receive real deliverance from the mastery of evil in the here and now, today. This is what it means to live out what Jesus promised as the “abundant life” found only in Him (John 10:10). Consider these promises:
For sin shall not have dominion over you – Romans 6:14.
For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live – Romans 8:13.
His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue – 2 Peter 1:3.
“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” – Acts 1:8.
Through Christ, God enables His children to overcome sinful passions and bear righteous fruit by cooperating or partnering with the sanctifying work of the indwelling Spirit. We see this in Romans 6, where Paul explains the implications of our spiritual baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection— a joining together as one that transfers the benefits of the cross into the believer’s life.
United with Christ
Consider the amazing truths found in Romans 6.
Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? – Romans 6:3.
When we trust in Jesus as Savior, we spiritually unite with Him in His death and resurrection. Our old self— our identity in Adam that was corrupted by sin— dies with Christ. And we rise anew in Him, as joint participants in Jesus’ own victory through His resurrection. This profound union means His power replaces our weakness and, therefore, we are complete in Him (Col. 2:10).
For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection – Romans 6:5.
Furthermore, through this union, we can now walk in Christ’s newness of life, no longer enslaved to our old carnal habits and sinful desires. Sin used to dominate us when we operated in the flesh, independent from God. But no more. Now, our dependence on the Spirit breaks the power of sin and our flesh and allows us to live lives worthy of the price of our redemption.
Our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with – Romans 6:6.
For he who has died has been freed from sin. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord – Romans 6:7, 11.
This “reckoning” involves continually choosing to see ourselves as God does— as those who have died and risen again with Christ. It means believing that His death fully paid the penalty of our sin in our place. Our old self and its sinful desires perished, and no longer define us. We now inhabit a new “house”— Christ’s own body (2 Cor. 5:1), which means we now have the power and ability to stop obeying the cravings of the flesh and live victoriously over sin. And all of this is possible because His Spirit empowers us to honor and obey Him instead of giving in to our selfish desires (Rom. 8:9, 13).
A Life-Changing Revelation
Do you see how our union with Christ enables our sanctification? This truth radically transformed Paul’s own spiritual walk. After struggling to obey God in his own strength, Paul finally grasped that his human efforts could never please God while his heart remained carnal and unchanged. He understood that outward conformity, apart from an inward renewal, only breeds self-righteousness and hypocrisy. And his life before Christ was a testimony to that fact.
But once Paul understood the grand implications of his identification and union with Christ, he realized God accepted him solely on the basis of Jesus’ completed work and perfect merits, His righteousness and holiness— and not on the basis of Paul’s own feeble efforts to gain salvation by his own works. This revelation launched Paul into a life characterized by immense joy, gratefulness, freedom, boldness, contentment, surrender, obedience, sacrifice, and selfless service to his Lord and others. The spiritual transformation in Paul resulted directly from recognizing his new identity and position as one crucified and raised with Christ. And it gave birth to the incredible phrase found throughout his writings that defines the essence of the Christian life— “in Christ.”
Yet, even with this revelation, Paul confessed he continued battling his sinful nature, not having attained perfect holiness while still living in his sinful flesh (Rom. 7:14-25, Phil. 3:12). He agonized over failures and shortcomings but did not resign himself to spiritual defeat or throw up his hands in resignation and despair. Instead, again and again, he affirmed, as a redeemed believer in Christ, his freedom from condemnation and confidently expected God to complete the sanctification He had begun in him (Rom. 8:1, Phil. 1:6). And this is exactly what God promises to do for each of us.
Paul shows us that discouragement over our failings proves we still depend on ourselves rather than resting, or abiding, in our union with Christ. We will remain self-focused on our own performance, even after our conversion, until we grasp that pleasing God depends entirely on His work in us, and not our own efforts. As Jesus said, “Without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). And Jesus meant exactly what He said.
Sanctification requires continually reckoning ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ. It means acknowledging the absolute sufficiency of Jesus’ sacrifice to cleanse us from anything standing between us and a deeper relationship with God. It involves consciously seeking the things of the Spirit rather than the flesh. And it means believing God has accepted us as His beloved children, no matter how we may feel or the circumstances in which we may find ourselves. The key to sanctification is not self-discipline, but utter dependence on Christ, through faith, alone.
Abiding in the True Vine
In John 15, Jesus likens Himself to a vine providing life and fruitfulness to its branches. By “abiding” through faith in Him, we receive His spiritual life flowing and transforming our thoughts, desires, words, and actions. Sometimes pruning is needed to destroy sinful growth and stimulate fresh fruit, but our focus remains on staying connected to the Vine. The branch does not bear fruit by striving, but simply by drawing strength from Christ and remaining connected to Him. This is the nature of what Jesus means when He says, “Abide in Me” (John 15:4).
This abiding faith in Him consists of the following:
• Praising God for making us perfectly righteous through Christ’s sacrifice. Our deepest identity is now “in Him” and not in anything else, especially us.
• Thanking Jesus for breaking sin’s dominion over us. If sin still rules us, it’s because we have not properly understood or relied on the power of the cross. We have His power at our fingertips; all we have to do is incorporate it into our lives by faith. So what are we waiting for?
• Asking (or begging) the Holy Spirit to cultivate the mindset of a dead/raised person who now lives for One greater than ourselves and produces Christ’s likeness in us. Our natural tendencies rebel against the idea of sanctification. But once we understand those old, natural tendencies are now dead, then our new life can begin.
• Asking God to reveal any lingering elements of self-trust and independence we may have and freely grant Him full Lordship over every area of our lives. We must see ourselves as crucified in Christ and reject any claim to personal rights we may think we deserve.
• We must learn to confess and turn from sin the moment it occurs by freely receiving His forgiveness, and then believing the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). If not, then our guilt will inevitably lead to more self-effort, hindering our dependency and intimacy with Christ.
When we obey by faith out of hearts grateful for Christ’s love, mercy, and grace, we bear much fruit to His glory. But self-effort and legalistic conformity only breeds self-righteousness and pride. Only after we fully accept our death and resurrection in Christ’s death and resurrection, will we experience liberation to walk in the newness of life through the Spirit’s power, and watch Him bring radical transformation in our lives.
Remember the Lesson from Saul?
Remember what happened to Saul? After encountering the risen Christ, he became Paul, an exemplar of the Spirit-filled life and cornerstone of the early church. In the same way, encountering Jesus also revolutionized the lives of fishermen, zealots, and nobodies into world-changing disciples. And the same can happen to us. But first we, like them, have to grasp our new position in the crucified and resurrected Savior.
Have you attained the holiness you desire? Do your besetting sins continue plaguing you? If so, consider Paul’s example. Transformation dawns when we truly apply the cross to our identity and draw life from our union with Christ. The victorious Christian life depends on you understanding “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). The hope is not you, but “Christ in you.” Don’t miss this.
Think of the addict set free when she realizes, “I have died to that old life; it no longer controls me.” Or the abrasive husband who stops abusing his wife and children once he accepts “My old self was crucified with Christ; His Spirit now lives in me.” Union with Jesus provides freedom from sin’s dominion if we walk by faith in His finished work. But if we still struggle against the flesh in our own power, we lack this revelation and have not incorporated this truth into our lives.
If you share Paul’s battle with sin, take heart. You are not alone in your struggle. But as Paul discovered, our victory is not self-obtained by our own efforts, but Christ-imparted by what He has already done. Just as His grace secured our justification, His life now enables our sanctification. And through this faith-union with Jesus, the Spirit transforms us into new creations bearing godly fruit only He can produce. And most importantly, fruit-bearing now requires abiding in Him and not striving to create something you were never designed to do.
We cannot work for sanctification, we only receive it by faith as a gift flowing from the sacrifice of Jesus and the impartation of the Holy Spirit. As we learn to rest in His perfect acceptance of us, just as we are (Rom. 12:1), the Spirit then prunes unfruitful habits and dead branches and conforms us to the image of Jesus (Rom. 8:29).
Remember, “Christ in you” is not only the hope, but the source, and guarantee of glory. So embrace the full benefits of your salvation, and walk in the newness of the life He provided.
And begin that process today.