Sanctified By the Spirit by David Dunham

Do-it-yourself spirituality has no place in Christianity! Of course, the way some of us approach our own spiritual growth and development might suggest differently. Some of us think that sanctification is really all about what we do, how we live, how disciplined we are. While it is true that we have a role to play in our sanctification, ultimately we must depend upon God’s Spirit. This reality, then, should affect how we think about discipleship within the church. Our discipleship efforts must rely on the work of the Spirit of God.

There is no magical formula for spiritual growth. As a counselor it is easy for me to begin to view Bible study and prayer as techniques for solving a person’s problem. “Take two verses and call me in the morning.” But it is simply false to suggest that Bible reading, prayer, worship, or even fellowship apart from the working of the Holy Spirit will be sufficient for our soul’s health. Nothing that we do, no matter how valuable, apart from the Spirit of God will accomplish the task of sanctifying. I need the Spirit in addition to my practices, and I need to rely on the Spirit in my discipleship ministry.

The Scriptures often speak of our responsibility to obey Jesus, to pursue holiness, to strive for perfection, and yet with surprising regularity it also speaks about the Spirit’s role in accomplishing our sanctification. It is the Spirit who sanctifies. So Philippians 2:12-13 tells us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” and yet it tells us that ultimately it is “God who works” in us to “will and to work for his good pleasure.” We work, but ultimately it is not our working that brings about our spiritual growth. 2 Timothy 2:25 states that God is even the one who grants repentance for sin. Paul spells out for believers time and again that they are transformed, sanctified, and made to increase in holiness because of what God does (2 Cor. 3:18; 1 Thess. 3:12-13; 2 Thess. 2:13). If I want to change and if I want to help my people change I must turn again and again to the Spirit of God.

Ministry can often focus on results. Unintentionally, many pastors can become so driven by a desire to see fruit that we begin to look at everything in ministry from a purely pragmatic standpoint. We think if we just had the right methods, used the right tools, devised the best vision statement, and utilized the right techniques then we would see great results. It’s true, of course, to some degree that we do need to be thoughtful and reflective on our methods and techniques. Some pastors use the philosophy of “let go and let God” as an excuse to be lazy. Ministry requires regular evaluation, assessment, and reflection. Yet, we can use all the “right” methods and techniques and if the Spirit does not bless them we will not see any fruit. Ultimately, that’s because it is God who works in us “that which is pleasing in his sight” (Heb. 13:20-21). Does your approach to discipleship emphasize the importance of dependence on the Spirit of God?

How we attempt to make disciples will either honor the Spirit or sin against Him. In making disciples we must be careful that we do not merely run people through a program, thinking that will bring about transformation. We must be careful not to reduce the means of grace into mere devices. Justin Holcomb and Mike Wilkerson, speaking of Biblical Counseling, say what really applies to all forms of discipleship:

We know that biblical counseling will involve prayer and Scripture – we can’t go far without those. Yet if we’re not careful, even prayer and Scripture can be deployed in the counseling process as mere techniques – the technologies of biblical counseling – rather than as a means of engaging with the living God who alone is sufficient for the needs at hand. (Christ-Centered Biblical Counseling, 49)

Any disciple-making that reduces discipleship to a program fails to grasp the role of the Spirit in sanctification. We have a part to play, but we do not ultimately make change.

As I continue to wrestle with this in my own discipleship ministry three thoughts have helped to shape the way I approach disciple-making:

First, I need to keep the person of the Holy Spirit before me. The Spirit of God is not an “it,” the Evangelical version of the Star Wars “force”. I want to remind myself always that the Spirit has desires and designs, that he wants and will have our sanctification. I am not the only one pursuing the growth of my people, the Spirit of God is pursuing their growth. He is actively pursuing it. Discipleship, then, should be relational, that is it should seek to relate people to the living God.

Second, I am reminded that the ultimate goal of discipleship is to help people know and love God. I am not merely interested in helping people change bad habits, stop sinning, start obeying, etc. I am interesting primarily in helping them to have a healthy relationship with God that results in all those other things. If I make my goal merely behavioral change then I will be doing something that is entirely non-Christian. Behavioral change is what most psychologists and psychotherapists are after. God is after more than a change in behavior, he wants a change in heart. That means I need to help my people, and indeed myself, connect with God’s Spirit. The ultimate goal is that they would know and love God.

Third, genuine discipleship takes time. Because true growth comes by the working of the Spirit of God, and because each person grows in different ways at different speeds, disciple-makers need patience. Sometimes the Spirit of God works to illuminate the mind and draw out the affections immediately. At other times he may delay, hardening hearts and dulling minds. Our role is not to bring about the change, but simply to faithfully and lovingly point people to the truth. The Spirit of God will work in his own timing to bring repentance and transformation. We may do certain things to put ourselves and to help others put themselves in the means of grace, but ultimately sanctification is what God does. We must wait on him and remind ourselves that he will finish what he starts (Phil. 1:6).

I am a firm believer in the importance of having a well-trained and accountable pastorate. Leaders in the church should consistently reflect on their effectiveness as servants. Yet, we ought to reflect often on how dependent on the Spirit of God our ministry is. If I can achieve all the goals in ministry that I set before me then I probably have pathetic goals. True change comes from God. As I labor to make-disciples I need to rely fully on Him.

Dave Dunham is associate pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Roseville, MI. He is a graduate of Ohio University (BA) and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv).

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