Home > Sanctification, The Real Deal > Conformed to the Image of God, by KarenR

Conformed to the Image of God, by KarenR

6 October 2009

[Elder’s note:  This is the second of two excellent articles written by KarenR.  This line really resonates with me:

“I was a young child I have felt very close to God. I have always viewed God as a loving parent and friend, and as the only one whom I trust to love me unconditionally. It is a very positive thing that I can experience such intimacy with God. Not everyone can. I am blessed by this. However, the down side is that it is hard for me to fear God, to be in awe of God, and to view God as holy.”  – KarenR.

This is great stuff, Karen.  Thank you again, very much.  ]

Recently, I have begun to think about the role of sanctification in my life of as a Christian. By sanctification, I mean the process of becoming holy, that which is set apart, and of taking on the nature of Jesus and conforming to the image of God. I will admit up front that I do not personally know very much about holiness and sanctification, and that I have only recently begun to see its importance in my growth as a Christian.

I want to start by looking at why we need sanctification. We need to be sanctified because we are sinners. In the first chapter of Genesis, we find God saying, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness,” and then we are told, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them,” and then: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” So we have two human beings created in the image of God, in the likeness of God, and they are very good. They are given all that they need. They have each other, animals for companionship, plants to eat, and they are in full fellowship with God. God gives them only one commandment, and that is to not eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and they are told that if they do that, they will die.

Then in Genesis 3, along comes the serpent, who tells Eve that she will not die if she eats the fruit of that tree, but rather that her eyes will be opened and she will be like God, knowing good and evil. Eve decides that eating the fruit is a good idea because she likes its appearance, it looks like it will taste good, and also because she wants this knowledge that will make her like God. She eats and then gives some to Adam, and he eats. I had a professor of Old Testament in college who pointed out that while Eve gets most of the blame for the Fall, at least she had a theological discussion with the serpent. Adam just ate the fruit without question. However, both of them tried to pass the buck. Adam said, “The woman made me do it,” and Eve said, “The serpent made me do it.” Although both try to deny responsibility, they are both guilty. Both sinned by disobeying God, and the knowledge they obtained from their disobedience left them feeling ashamed and they felt the need to clothe themselves and to hide from God. Their sin had separated them from God.

This Garden of Eden story of the original sin is a really good insight into human nature. At the heart of it is pride and deception, and it could be argued that all other sins originate from pride and deception. Because of our pride, we are easily deceived. We tend to think we have a good understanding of the knowledge that is required to determine what is good and what is evil. I live in a university community that teaches me to value knowledge that does not originate with God’s Word. Therefore, I easily relate to Eve’s situation when someone flatters me that I don’t need to listen to the authorities because I have the knowledge to figure out on my own what is the right thing to do. I am educated. I have much knowledge.

After Adam and Eve, all humans have been born in sin, and have started out separated from God. Although every person is still created in the image of God, and therefore capable of love, goodness and creativity, everyone is also born a sinner and separated from God. In the Old Testament books of Exodus through Deuteronomy, we find a detailed account of the Mosaic Law with its many commandments and methods for reconciling the sinner to God. The blood of animals is shed as a way to atone for sins. This is very unappealing to our modern sensibilities. But if we can understand that an animal without blemish, one that is valuable and even precious, is sacrificed in order to remove sin and restore holiness and relationship with God, then we can perhaps appreciate why God made these commandments in the time before Jesus. The word “sanctify” or its synonym “consecrate” is used often in the Mosaic Law to refer to an object or a person being set apart and made holy through a ritual process that is specified by God. The first use of the word “sanctify” in the Bible is in Genesis 2, when God sanctifies the seventh day as a day of rest. The seventh day is set apart as the Sabbath and called holy.

I struggle with understanding and accepting this view of holiness. Not only do I have difficulty with the idea of God commanding animal sacrifice because I am an animal lover, I also have difficulty with the need for this degree of purification in order to come into the presence of God. Perhaps it is simply that because I have been blessed enough to have been born after the time of Jesus, when the blood of Christ has atoned for the sins of all who accept the gift of grace through faith, I cannot fathom what it was like for people who served God before the time of Jesus. But I do not wish to dismiss this matter by saying that this was just an Old Testament law that is no longer relevant.

The holiness of God is a difficult concept for me. Since I was a young child I have felt very close to God. I have always viewed God as a loving parent and friend, and as the only one whom I trust to love me unconditionally. It is a very positive thing that I can experience such intimacy with God. Not everyone can. I am blessed by this. However, the down side is that it is hard for me to fear God, to be in awe of God, and to view God as holy. God is my warm and fuzzy buddy. Therefore, I have sometimes been lax in my obedience. If I mess up, God will forgive me. God understands. And if I don’t like a certain commandment, if in my own inflated opinion of my knowledge of good and evil, I decide that I know better than the Bible, I can just skip that one. It’s the product of an ancient culture and it offends my sense of justice and equality. So I tell my buddy God that I’m not cool with that commandment, and for a long time I assumed I had every right to take that attitude. I’m not just talking about the dietary laws and other parts of the Mosaic Law that Jesus released us from. I am talking about any commandment in the Old or New Testaments that I did not like for whatever reason.

Now that I have been convicted that I need to be radically obedient to God, I find that I am just not very good at it. I am a person who struggles with authority in general. I do not easily trust or accept the authority of the government, the medical profession, or the church. I have lived my life doing things my own way, rebelling against authority any time I thought it was wrong and I could get away with it. Now that I find I want to obey, I find that I need to learn how to obey. This is where sanctification comes in.

We are told in 2 Corinthians 5: 17 that if we are in Christ, we are a new creation and the old has passed away and everything has become new. That’s a wonderful promise to claim. But what about when that old sinful nature rears its ugly head again? What about when we really try to obey God and love everyone and somehow, we just don’t? We may have a particular sinful behavior that we cannot stop doing or a particular relationship that we cannot approach with love no matter how hard we try. It can be very discouraging if this goes on for a long time, and we begin to question how new of a creation we truly are. In Romans 7: 15, Paul says, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate I do.” Even after Paul’s dramatic conversion and his many years of serving God as an apostle and missionary, he is still sometimes a slave to sin. Every Christian experiences this at times.

It is helpful to understand that both salvation and sanctification are experienced in the past, present, and future tenses. God and eternity may be outside of time, but we mortals with our limited minds need to look at things from a linear perspective. In John 3:16, we see the three tenses of salvation. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” In the past, God gave his Son, in the present, we believe, and in the future, we have eternal life. In the plan of salvation, Jesus Christ, Son of God, the Word made flesh, fully God and fully human, God incarnate, was born of a virgin, lived for 30 some years, in the last few teaching, and healing and casting out demons, and then he died on the cross, was resurrected, and lives and reigns forever with God the Father. His life on earth, his death, and his resurrection occurred at a particular point in history about 2000 years ago. However, since that time, anyone who believes Jesus is the Christ and accepts him as Lord and Savior can be saved, and salvation means that for the rest of our earthly lives we work out our salvation by following and living in relationship with Jesus, and we also know that we will spend eternity with God in heaven. One day Jesus will return and the fullness of God’s kingdom will be expressed in a new heaven and a new earth. We thus experience salvation in the past, present, and future.

Sanctification can also be understood in terms of tense. There is a type of past-tense sanctification that occurs at the time of salvation which establishes believers as set apart to participate in God’s holiness. In the John 17, verses 17-19, Jesus prayed to his Father, asking him to sanctify his disciples as Jesus sanctified himself. This is also expressed in 2 Peter 1: 3: “His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.4” In 1 Corinthians 6:11, Paul refers to the Corinthians as washed and sanctified, referring to sanctification that took place at the time of salvation, as he goes on to list sinful behaviors that they must no longer do. Because we are a new creation in Christ, we are clothed in Christ’s holiness, and God no longer holds the uncleanness of our sins against us. Because of the sacrifice of Jesus, we are free to come into the presence of God, even if we still sometimes sin.

Present-tense sanctification is the process of spiritual growth that involves the Spirit of God transforming our character so that we become more like Jesus and begin to conform to the image of God in which we were created. This process is expressed in Colossians 2: 6-7: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” This is the type of sanctification that allows us to overcome our enslavement to sin and to truly manifest the new creation that we have become. This is the spiritual growth that comes from a life of obedience, prayer, spending time in the Word of God, resting in a relationship with the living Christ, being part of a Christian community, and acting in a loving manner toward all. While our will is involved in this process, we cannot do it on our own. We have to allow the Holy Spirit to transform us, so that we are conformed to the image of God, becoming the fully human beings we were created to be.

Future-tense sanctification refers to the ultimate perfection of believers. Paul connects our present transformation to our future perfection in 1 Thessalonians 3: 12-13: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.”

Whether past, present or future, I am only beginning to get a glimmer of what it means to be set apart and holy and sanctified. I barely know what I am talking about yet. But as I begin in even the smallest way to understand what holiness means for me and for other believers, I start to feel more comfortable about the holiness of God. I can still feel close and at home with God, a trusting child resting in a loving Father’s arms. But at the same time, I can begin to develop reverence and awe for the majesty and perfection of God.

The Christian path to growth is not one that goes steadily upward. There are peaks and valleys, and so many steps forward followed by so many steps back and then forward again. When we’re in a valley, or we’ve moved backward for a while, it can help us to remember that we have been sanctified and made holy through our salvation in Jesus Christ. We might not feel holy right now, and we might not act holy, but we still are holy. We are the holy children of a holy God. We have been set apart from sin and corruption and washed clean. We all struggle with our stumbling blocks to spiritual growth. I have shared that one of mine is a difficulty being obedient. Others have different struggles. But whatever keeps us from living a full and abundant life in Christ, we know that we have the Holy Spirit to help us to do better, to grow stronger, and to live more fully as a child of God. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15: 57-58, “But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”

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