Relevant Text: Acts 24:25
Full Text: Est. 1; Acts 24

Self-Control | After his arrest and rescue, Paul had one chance to make his defense to Felix the governor [1]. What did he choose to say? He reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment[2]. In other words, he spoke about the three tenses of salvation – “how to be justified or pronounced righteous by God [justification], how to overcome temptation and gain self-mastery [sanctification], and how to escape the awful final judgment of God [glorification]” [3]. It makes sense that he would talk about justification and glorification; they’re integral to the gospel [4]. But sanctification? Why spend time talking about self-control?

Character-Training | Most of our lives are spent in the long, arduous process of sanctification. We’re justified in a moment [5] and glorified in the twinkling of an eye [6], but we spend years working out our salvation [7]. Last year, N.T. Wright came to New York to talk about his book, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters [8]. He said that we are called to be a royal priesthood [9] – “to reflect His wise order into the world and reflect the praises of the rest of creation back to Him.” How does that work? We grow in the fruit of the Spirit – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” [10].

Public-Living | This is not private. Wright continued, “Some people who write about virtue write about it as though it is a private thing, as though Christians do this in order to be a pure community … But it cannot be like that. If this is genuine humaneness we are talking about and if we are acquiring those habits of heart and mind and soul and strength, then this must flow out … We are part of that great thing called the human race and God loves it to bits and we are to reflect that love … [We are] to be rulers and priests and we are to do that through the character training, the faith, the hope, the love, the following of Jesus, which is our calling as Christians.”

Prayer | Lord, Paul spoke of sanctification because it is one of the essential parts of our lives as believers. We long to reflect your love in our lives through obedience according to the fruit of the Spirit. In our culture, therefore, help us “to collaborate without compromise and to critique without dualism” [11]. Make us a royal priesthood, as we pursue you through self-control. Amen.

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Footnotes

[1] Paul ended up having many more chances to speak with Felix, but – at the time of their initial conversation – he didn’t know that the governor would want to talk again.

[2] Acts 24:25 ESV

[3] John Stott, The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today (Commentary Series). InterVarsity Press (1990), p 364.

[4] e.g., John 3:16 (Many consider this verse to be the quintessential gospel passage. Yet, note that, even though it covers justification – “whoever believes in him” – and glorification – “will not perish but have eternal life”, it does not mention sanctification).

[5] Yes, it may takes years for God to draw us to Him, but there is a single moment that we are justified and declared judicially righteous in His sight. See FN7.

[6] Yes, we may suffer for an extended period before we die, but we will be glorified “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet” (see 1 Cor. 15:51-52 ESV).

[7] See, e.g., Phil. 2:12-13. Personally, my favorite verse that highlights the tension between justification and glorification is Hebrews 10:14, “For by a single offering, he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (ESV, emphasis mine). We have been made perfect already, but we are still being sanctified.

[8] N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. HarperOne (2010). Video of lecture: here. If you’re like me, it’s been hard to develop a good theology for why we’re here. Wouldn’t it be better to go straight to glorification right after justification, to enjoy the fullness of the presence of the Lord right after we come to love and cherish Him? In this wonderful work by Wright, he offers a beautiful picture of the excellencies of sanctification in the Christian life. By way of my own analogy, I have come to see that preferring justification and glorification over sanctification is like rejoicing over a ballerina’s registering for classes and then seeing her world-class performance while forgetting all the hard work and tireless hours and broken bones and bloody toes that went into that performance. Our Lord is training us and sanctifying us through the beautiful process of training so that the dance we enjoy in heaven is all the more beautiful. For a review of this book by Publishers Weekly, see here.

[10] Gal. 5:22-23. In his book (and his talk), Wright also spends an extensive amount of time discussing how “the fruit of the Spirit” is a singular, not plural – arguing that these varieties of fruit grow together. In other words, you must be growing – to an extent – in all of them to be growing in any of them. Interestingly, he emphasizes that we must purpose to gain fruit and “self-control” is the hardest one to counterfeit: “If the ‘fruit’ were automatic, why would self-control be needed? Answer: it isn’t, so it is: it isn’t automatic, so it is needed. All the varieties of fruit Paul mentions here are comparatively easy to counterfeit, especially in young, healthy, happy people – except for self-control. If that isn’t there, it’s always worth asking whether the appearance of the other sorts of fruit is just that, an appearance, rather than a real sign of the Spirit’s work.” Chapter 6: “Three Virtues, Nine Varieties of Fruit, and One Body,” part three, paragraph 23 (Kindle, location 3341 of 5612).

[11] See FN8 (N.T. Wright’s talk).


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