In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul says that the children and spouse of a believing man or woman are sanctified, “holy” because of the faith of the one. I think frequently we over-spiritualize this, or understood rightly, we under-spiritualize this. We think “spiritual” means immaterial, invisible, and only just barely felt in the recesses of the warm tinglies in my belly. Spiritual happens when my eyes are closed.
And so we mystify Paul’s words, we think some kind of covenantal voodoo is going on, magic vibes flowing through the house like some kind of karma.
But what if holiness is more like living well before God? If sin thrashes the lives of those it enslaves, and it does, then righteousness restores, justice sets free.
Anyone who’s done much counseling or evangelism or missions work knows that those individuals, saved out of families and cultures where the sin and darkness is deep, frequently have significant sanctification battles to fight. And in one sense this is true of everyone of us. We’re all sons and daughters of Adam.
But on the other hand, it is simply not true that we all start from the same point. Dead in sin, yes, but history really is the story of God’s knowledge and mercy flooding the earth. This means that sinners come to life in different places at different times where the flood of God’s grace is deeper or shallower depending on many details.
Coming back to life in a puddle of grace is still coming back to life. It’s still true; it’s still miraculous and the final resurrection is coming. But that puddle may be surrounded with mental illness, poverty, abuse, ignorance, physical handicaps, and any number of other effects of the Fall. And conversion doesn’t magically make them all go away. Families and cultures in darkness do not have the blessings of faith surrounding them like families and cultures that have more generally embraced the Light. Coming back to life on Lake Erie is better than coming back to life in a puddle.
Many middle class Americans may have rejected the faith, but it’s more than likely that they rejected the faith. It was the faith of their parents or their grandparents most likely. They are “holy” because they are still tasting the benefits, the blessings of the faith of their parents or grandparents. And of course at the end of history, these blessings will all testify against them for their rebellion against the God who gave them. These blessings will end up being millstones around the necks of thousands who spit in the face of God’s mercy. But those whom God is pleased to save will repent and wake up to find a number of tools and benefits already all around them, an inheritance from faithful forebears. As God works in their lives, in some ways, sanctification will come more naturally given the blessings of faith from previous generations.
We must not reduce holiness to material circumstances, but we must not reduce holiness to ethereal circumstances either. The good news of Jesus is for people who need good news, for people enslaved, for people with broken hearts, for people buried beneath their sorrow’s load. And that load comes in the form of children out of wedlock, emotional disorders, imprisonment, castigation, and all manner of broken relationships. Of course, of course, of course, the central enslavement, the fundamental emotional disorder, the most important broken relationship is the great chasm between an individual and God. Of course. And apart from the grace of God there, the rest will just be like dressing up a corpse. But if God is planning to resurrect the graveyard of humanity, it is not faith to sit around just whistling and waiting. This is about as helpful as Christopher Robin walking around with an umbrella saying rather loudly, ‘tut-tut, it looks like rain.’
I do insist that we start with the message of Jesus. I do insist that we preach Jesus Christ crucified to the dry bones of humanity. Always lead with the gospel proclaimed, but the fabulous, mind-blowing point is that this will work. The declaration that Jesus is King will miraculously work! And you will find teeming hordes of recently resurrected corpses wandering around in your sanctuary. And they will smell and look like recently resurrected corpses. And some of them will be fakes. But some of them will come back to life in a part of the graveyard where the Spirit has already been at work, sanctifying a family and a culture. Those individuals still have the battle of sanctification ahead of them, but they do so with a number of blessings already piled up around them. Others will come back to life as the first fruits of a family, the first fruits of a culture. This is why the Church as the community of Jesus gathered around the Word and Sacraments is so central. This body of Christ is to be the family and culture, especially for those who wake up in a part of the graveyard where most of the tombs are still sealed. Those people need grace not only in the form of Lord’s Day worship, the sacraments, Bible studies, Psalm Sings, and prayer, they also need grace in the form of childcare assistance, job training, help learning to read, maybe housing, clothing, and health care assistance as well as legal advice and bail money. Because practically speaking, all of these and many others are barriers to individuals growing in grace, they are just as much part of the spiritual battle as overcoming selfishness and bitterness and hate.
The fact that most people reading this are sitting at a computer in a warm, comfortable office or home, or glancing at their iPhone or Blackberry is part of the blessing of God to us. The fact that we have free time to even think about this is the blessing of God; you’re also probably well clothed and not terribly concerned about where your next meal will come from. I think that’s at least part of what Paul means when he says that believing individuals share holiness with their family members. Throughout the Bible, holiness means access to God, holiness breaks through the barriers, and while God always breaks through wherever He pleases, these material circumstances do matter and are part of the blessings and curses that follow generations.
One last important point: our material, physical circumstances must not be our rock or our fortress. They do not define us. Some men trust in chariots and horses, but we rely on the Lord our God who is strong to save. God’s Word defines us. Like Paul, we must be content in every circumstance, whether rich or poor, whether slave or free, whether healthy or diseased, whether raised in a loving, Christian family or raised in an abusive hellhole. God is in heaven and He does what He pleases, and He is good and wise. We can and must trust Him. But in so far as God has given us freedom from sin, freedom of speech, free time, hearts full of joy, and plenty to share, we want to mimic the God of freedom, the God who is our rock and fortress. As the body of Christ, we are the hands and feet and face of the God who breaks through.