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Counterfeit Sanctification

Monday, October 22, 2012

by John MacArthur

Sanctification isn’t easy—it takes faithfulness, hard work, and self-discipline. And even then, it’s not purely a function of your will, but the work of the Holy Spirit in you. It’s not manufactured overnight.

As with anything that takes time, effort, and patience, people are prone to look for shortcuts. Some people substitute a mystical, subjective feeling of closeness to God for actual spiritual growth. Others cling to outward expressions of godliness while sin still makes a home in their hearts.

But that’s not true spiritual growth—it’s counterfeit. If you truly love the Lord, you can’t be willing to move the goalposts on biblical sanctification.

There are many varieties of counterfeit sanctification. Some are easier to spot than others, but all lead to the same kind of spiritual shipwreck. Here are a few to be on the lookout for in your own life.

Moral virtue can often pass for true spiritual growth. Some people, for varying reasons, are fair minded, loyal, kind, conscientious, hardworking, and generous. They can make it through life without scandals and outrageous immorality.

But morality alone isn’t an accurate measure of a person’s spiritual condition. Moral virtue can exist apart from sanctification—even apart from salvation. You’ve probably known nonbelievers who hold to a high moral standard, perhaps even higher than some believers. But their virtue isn’t a substitute for saving faith. Outward morality doesn’t always equate to inward transformation. True spiritual growth isn’t just about good exteriors.

Another counterfeit of spiritual growth is religious superstition. Some believers methodically go through the motions of their daily Scripture reading, prayer times, and other practical spiritual disciplines as if the actions themselves merited God’s favor and blessing. You even see this attitude in little things, like praying before a meal. It becomes a mindless, empty ritual instead of an opportunity to express real thanks and praise to God.

The Catholic faith is built on exactly those kinds of superstitious rituals. But just as lighting candles, sprinkling holy water, praying the rosary, and confessing your sins to a priest don’t earn salvation, going through the motions of your Christian life—even fastidiously—cannot substitute for true spiritual growth.

Restraint is another possible kind of counterfeit sanctification. People don’t always avoid sin in favor of righteousness—sometimes they’re simply afraid to face the consequences of sin. They don’t necessarily have a heart to obey God or His Word. They’re just afraid of pursuing temptation because of the results.

That fear could be the sign of a well-trained conscience. Maybe the person was raised in a Christian home and has built-in convictions about right and wrong. Maybe he grew up under the moral standard of God’s Word and can’t shake the nagging of his conscience. Rather than face a troubled conscience or the consequences of his sin, he’ll simply not do it.

Restraint from sin might eventually lead someone to true, saving faith. But on its own, it’s not an indication of God’s sanctifying work.

There’s one other category of counterfeit sanctification that we’ll call false profession. You’ve probably known people who parade their holiness and exhibit a kind of over-the-top, superficial religiosity. There are all kinds of ways to draw attention to yourself and your good behavior. But if you’re just putting on a show for others—if your outward holiness isn’t prompted by inward growth—then your holiness is phony.

Another example of false profession is the kind of subjective, mystical experience that’s emphasized by some in the spiritual formation movement. Feeling closer to God and more in tune with His Word is not an accurate measure of your sanctification. In fact, relying on those superficial emotions is a sure way to short-circuit the work of the Holy Spirit in your life, dulling your discernment and watering down your wisdom.

True sanctification isn’t about outward morality, religious observance, restraint from sin, superficial holiness, or your feelings (1 Samuel 16:7). It’s about growing in Christlikeness in all aspects of your life. Anything less is a counterfeit.


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#1  Posted by Lamar Carnes  |  Monday, October 22, 2012at 5:34 AM

Countefeit sanctification is closely connected to counterfeit salvation. The concept of "Once Saved Always Saved" many times creates a life where a person lives as they wish to live without any concerns about sanctification. Surely this statement was given to provide a Christian with assurance God is the total author of redemption, but it has devolved into some type of slogan whereby a person lives as they want to live in immorality or other type of activities contrary to the will of God! Having said that, we also must realize that the Gospel is not a "one time" deal for us at the moment of the New Birth, it is in fact, A DAILY POWER IN OUR LIFE IN WHICH WE RELY UPON ALL OF THE FACETS OF THAT GREAT WORK OF REDEMPTION BY CHRIST TO LIVE THE SANCTIFIED LIFE. Christians tend to lay aside the Gospel under that "statement" and think the Gospel is just for the lost and after we get saved, it is only to be used in that context or at best with them, to remember we were once saved and always saved because of its power, but forget, it is through the same Gospel we move and have our being, and we are depending upon it totally for our sanctification process daily! We can't abandon the Gospel in our own daily life. It is the POWER of God unto Salvation, both past, present and future! Grace has to do with sanctification also not just the new birth!

#2  Posted by David Allen  |  Monday, October 22, 2012at 5:35 AM

I am apparently and unwittingly guilty of at least one of these areas of counterfeit sancitification. Until now, I viewed restraint as not only a blessing of the Lord but as an indication of growing sanctification. So how do I know? Is turning away more and more from temptation a result of an increasing desire to be a righteous follower? Or is it merely a recognition that restraint is simply a wise choice? Could you provide some examples of what true sanctification looks like?

#3  Posted by Cameron Adkins  |  Monday, October 22, 2012at 6:02 AM

Thanks for a great post this morning! I needed a reminder that sanctification happens as a work of the Spirit inside of a person in the core of his being and then produces fruit in that person's life. It is easy to skip that inward process and just look for the fruit; that will ultimately lead to self-righteousness and/or cause someone to give up all together because they are unable to meet the outward standard they have set. Thanks again for a wonderful reminder!

#4  Posted by Lysandra Figueroa  |  Monday, October 22, 2012at 6:38 AM

I have been praying to the Lord to help on this issue of Sanctification. I have been hearing so many different teachings on this and reading and searching. The one place , reliable source I find I have is of course The Holy Sprit as I pray and read Scripture to help me understand , in addition John MacArthur always clearly lays out his theology and doctrine biblically.

One view I have been hearing about is how you can be a genuine Christian and then maybe still go out into the world, "reversion ism , a made up term from a well known pastor , but also "carnal Christian" and still believe that you are saved because you professed your faith in Christ by the Grace of God at one point in your life. How can this be I ask myself ? I always get the answer that you can never truly tell who is saved by looking at someone's life because that it is judgemental and arrogance on my part.

So I always go back to what Jesus said , "you will know them by their fruits or if you love Me you will obey Me".

Of course, I still get looks from people that show me a lot of them are confused on this issue. I just received a book by an evangelist , I will not mention his name, but he goes all around the world and he believes this type of doctrine and being a carnal Christian but you are always saved no matter what happens afterwards. But at the same time he does preach that it is important to apply doctrine in our lives and truly live it out so the world can see . The book was a commentary on James and he writes that a believer can be saved by faith , but not live it out and this will lead a person eventually to the sin unto death.

Why are so many church leaders so obscured on this issue? Once saved, always saved!? But what about we are a "new creation in Christ"? So I just keep on enduring and praying that God will guide and help me to rightly divide the truth. I will keep on searching and reading scripture like the noble Bereans of Paul's days.

Thank you John for your ministry and faithfulness to teach the Word in this famine of sound bible doctrine exposition. God is truly using you to help so many of us and I pray He keeps you stronger than ever.

#5  Posted by Alan Smith  |  Monday, October 22, 2012at 11:28 AM

In John MacArthur's booklet, 'Is it Real?' he lists 11 indicators for 'true salvation' or saving faith. One of them being 'Do you see a decreasing pattern of sin in you life?' If the answer is 'yes', I suppose you must consider one of the possible motives under 'Restraint' listed above. I'm not sure what the consequences of my sin might be. But the one thing that always seems to come to mind is 'Be holy for I am Holy' or 'what does light have to do with darkness'. However, I do find myself 'going through the motions' at times that was listed under 'religious superstition'. I do believe in the importance of daily reading but find that it can be drab and unproductive at times. Can anyone offer any suggestions?

#6  Posted by Lysandra Figueroa  |  Monday, October 22, 2012at 12:46 PM

Hi Alan,

I will pray that God will increase your desire for His Word and work in you that wonderful , perfect transforming power that it produces through the work of the Holy Spirit. A lot of us go through these dry times in our daily walk with the Lord, but the essential thing to remember is that if we truly desire to obey Christ and learn His Word , He will be faithful to answer your prayer as long as its according to His will . I think we would agree that was what Christ wanted. As we gaze into His perfect Word His glory reflects off of the pages so to speak, and we start to realize His plan for our lives ; doing all for the glory of the Lord. In addition, as you read His Word you personally engage in knowing Him progressively and this is such a blessing . It's through His Word He speaks to us and it's through prayer we are able to communicate back to Him what He has taught us in our personal reading of Scripture.

Another important point to remember is that prayer and reading God's Word go hand in hand if I may borrow that term. This keeps us also away from false teachings , because we search the Scriptures and ask God to help us rightly interpret it. We could never do anything on our own. It is always God working in us and through us. When we begin to understand that Christ is dwelling within us here is where our whole perception starts to change. From our priorities to our daily activities.

Read Psalm 119 , it is one of my favorites just because it explains and talks all about the Word. It shows you just how beautiful and powerful God's Word is to heart of a believer. I pray that this helps in some way. Just know you are not alone in this and the Christian walk was never meant to be that way. The Word truly does renew our minds.

#7  Posted by Brian Durocher  |  Monday, October 22, 2012at 1:52 PM

I'm with you, David.

I would like to know what the Bible teaches on true sanctification, as well.

#8  Posted by Daniel Wilson  |  Monday, October 22, 2012at 2:40 PM

Hebrews 4:12

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

#9  Posted by Brian E  |  Monday, October 22, 2012at 5:30 PM

David,

Would you say your restraint is completely devoid of considering God's word on the matter? Are you simply avoiding because of perceived consequences or do you consider God's word as well.

When I read what John wrote I think the restraint issue is marked and highlighted by an absence of a mind that considers God.

Ask yourself if you do consider God's word when fighting battles against sin. If God's word does indeed come to mind then I would cast doubt you are the type of person that John is referring to here. Correct me if I am wrong.

Recently I have been reading Holiness by JC Ryle. This really breaks down sanctification wonderfully from what I have read so far.

#10  Posted by Lysandra Figueroa  |  Monday, October 22, 2012at 8:13 PM

In response to Brian's comment,

This is a rather long quote I admit from the very book you mention by JC Ryle and it is very helpful in many aspects. But of course I will always proclaim that The Word of God is the only and best commentary on any issue or doctrine , always in deep humility and prayerfulness primarily to God. the book of James is very applicable and has informed me greatly what the progress of Sanctification looks like and gives several tests to the genuiness of a believer's faith. Not downplaying intense diligent commentaries of faithful teachers of God, but We all agree that God's word is the true source, pure and eternal. His words will never fade away. With the Holy Spirit in us to teach and guide us , it really is not a mystery . God never intended for His Word to be overly complicated. When the true desire is there in your heart , He will give you the knowledge and understanding.

John 15:7-10

" If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

8 “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.

9 “Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love.

10 “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. "

And now quoting from JC Ryle 's book Holiness:

"That a life of daily self-consecration and daily communion with God should be aimed at by everyone who professes to be a believer —that we should strive to attain the habit of going to the Lord Jesus Christ with everything we find a burden, whether great or small, and casting it upon Him—all this, I repeat, no well-taught child of God will dream of disputing. "

#11  Posted by Lysandra Figueroa  |  Monday, October 22, 2012at 8:18 PM

"When people talk of having received "such a blessing," and of having found "the higher life," after hearing some earnest advocate of "holiness by faith and self-consecration," while their family and friends see no improvement and no increased sanctity in their daily tempers and behavior, immense harm is done to the cause of Christ. True holiness, we surely ought to remember, does not consist merely of inward sensations and impressions. It is much more then tears, and sighs, and bodily excitement, and a quickened pulse, and a passionate feeling of attachment to our favourite preachers and our own religious party, and a readiness to quarrel with everyone who does not agree with us. It is something of "the image of Christ." which can be seen and observed by others in our private life, and habits, and character, and doings. (Romans 8:29.)"

That believers are exhorted to "perfect holiness in the fear of God"—to "go on to perfection"—to "be perfect," no careful reader of his Bible will ever think of denying. (2 Corinthians 7:1; Hebrews 6:1; 2 Corinthians 13:11.) But I have yet to learn that there is a single passage in Scripture which teaches that a literal perfection, a complete and entire freedom from sin, in thought, or word, or deed, is attainable, or has ever been attained, by any child of Adam in this world. A comparative perfection, a perfection in knowledge, an all-around consistency in every relation of life, a through soundness in every point of doctrine—this may be seen occasionally in some of God's believing people. But as to an absolute literal perfection, the most eminent saints of God in every age have always been the very last to lay claim to it! On the contrary they have always had the deepest sense of their own utter unworthiness and imperfection. The more spiritual light they have enjoyed the more they have seen their own countless defects and shortcomings. The more grace they have had the more they been "clothed with humility." (1 Peter 5:5.)" JC Ryle Holiness

#12  Posted by Mark McClenahan  |  Tuesday, October 23, 2012at 5:33 AM

I have some confusion regarding the moralism point - "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge"... and several other blessings are listed as a result of having "fear of the Lord" - is there a practical way to know if my decisions to reject sin are "moralistic" only vs. having a spirit-led "fear of the Lord"? Thanks.

#13  Posted by William Stinson  |  Tuesday, October 23, 2012at 7:01 AM

I find the discussion on sanctification, interesting in that so many people make it so complicated. I am 58 now and when I was born at 38 my life changed before it was sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Now, I begged God to take over my life when I was 33, but I slowly reverted back to my old ways BUT I was miserable I was very lonely and tried really hard to fit in somewhere, I did not fit in with church people, and I did not fit in with the world. Then I started going downhill drug dealers prostitutes etc. I was on my motorcycle going to work, drilling water wells on the Island of Hawaii (The Big Island) and one night well, 3:00 am I was hit by a car, when I was in the hospital it came to me that God allowed it to happen because if I kept going the way I was, I and died I was going to HELL, oh I should have died, I did have my leg amputated (BKA) the driver of the car was hired to kill me it was about me being white and some Hawaiian pot growers anyway the point is everything started to change I went to AA for a couple of years that didn't take, tried a couple of churches (they did not teach the Bible) then I started attending Calvary Chapel on the beach just out side of Lahaina and Pastor Steve Santos gave me a little book to read "More then a Carpenter" by Josh MacDowell it was as if I could really understand that Christ was a very real person and He really suffered for me and loved me, shortly after I went to U-Turn For Christ a rehab (I had been to 4 others for 27 day the program) I was at U-Turn for over a year then went to Bible College. As time past I was conscious of some attitude changes that were surprising and other that were chosen by me and my attitude and joy just took off all I can say is I can never show enough love to Christ because He loved me so much and forgave me so much I am driven to and want to please Him because I love Him. Is this sanctification?

William Scott Stinson

#14  Posted by William Stinson  |  Tuesday, October 23, 2012at 7:16 AM

Oh I love listening to John M. about 2-3 hours a day for the last 4 years before that Chuck Smith, for 8 years, read and pray (5:30 am-8:30 or 10:00) because it sets the tone for my whole day, I am a member of the prayer team and am a driver for the homeless shelter I have never been happier and fear nothing, worry very little it is interesting the more I learn about Christ the farther I realize I am away from His perfection but He is my GOD and I am His creation.

William Scott Stinson

#16  Posted by Lisa Teel  |  Wednesday, October 24, 2012at 1:05 AM

Sanctification is a big word and what I mean is: it's kinda churchy sounding when you say it. Of course I want Sanctification the Holy Spirit to work in me and bring me into Christ likeness, so I submit my entire self to him. I'm not thinking about Sanctification, it's happening in me by the work of the HS. I can't control his work, but I submit my life to him and allow him to do it.

The "fear of the Lord" vs. moralistic restraint in self effort is tough to decipher, but I try to approach my daily walk with Christ as something that is an act of the will. I freely surrender my agenda and attitude to him. Actions follow and out of those actions come the fruit of his work. (Joy, Patience, Self-Control....etc).

My freedom in Christ allows for mistakes. I don't want to mess up, but sometimes I do. I quickly ask for forgiveness and then begin again.

When I approach my everyday life of tasks, whether it's in interaction with God's people, my family, and everything else, I have an attitude at all times that Jesus himself where right there with me at that moment. He is observing all my motives, attitudes and actions and witnesses everything because he is working in me. I'm not over-thinking the issue of Sanctification because that's not what I'm suppose to be focusing on. I am to be obedient and submissive to Christ and the Holy Spirits promptings and desires. I'm not thinking "did I do this for moral reasons or because I fear God". I'm doing it out of love for my Lord and Savior Jesus. I want to do the good things that God has for me to do while totally trusting in him to do the Sanctification work.

Paul says in II Corinthians 5:14 says "that whatever we do, it is because Christ's love controls us".

#17  Posted by Kerry Halpin  |  Wednesday, October 24, 2012at 9:28 AM

David (#2)

I think Brian's (#9) comment it pretty spot on, but let me tell you what I've noticed in my own life. Restraint is a good thing, regardless of the motive, however, using restraint alone as a barometer of your sanctification is inaccurate for the reasons JM listed. What I've seen in my own life is that day-to-day, a lot of my restraint is because I know sin is wrong, and I am convicted by the Word to restrain, but as Paul said in Romans, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak, thus day-to-day restraint is no more an accurate indicator of sanctification than the sin I commit through weakness of the flesh. If I were judged by either alone, I would be guilty of death, the former by empty restraint, the latter by my actions.

BUT, I do see in my life a very clear movement away from my past sinful habits, and I praise God for that. The sinful things I used to enjoy or were overcome by, I now find no enjoyment in (sin is always enjoyable in the moment, that’s why we sin, but if you can sin and enjoy it without conviction, you may not be a true Christian – Romans 1:32, Romans 7:14-25, James 1:1-15) and find it easier (though not perfectly easy) to refrain from.

It's kind of like exercising, you don't see the effects day-to-day, and you may even think it's not helping at all if you obsess moment to moment over your progress, but over the long term you should see a marked difference.

Romans 12:2, Ephesians 5:26, John 17:19, 2 Thessalonians 2:13 tell us that one important part of sanctification is the renewing of our mind by the washing of water by the Word. So it is important for our sanctification to continue to read and study the Word. However, we must always realize that it's not the rote reading itself that sanctifies us, but the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:16), Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:30, Hebrews 10:10, Hebrews 2:11) and the Father (Jude 1:1) all have the glory in our sanctification.

#18  Posted by Kerry Halpin  |  Wednesday, October 24, 2012at 10:16 AM

Sorry guys, I used scripture references based on the KJV, so if the NASB/ESV pop-up translations don't seem to flow well, that's why :(

#19  Posted by Brad Kennedy  |  Wednesday, October 24, 2012at 1:09 PM

To Mark (#12). Here is one practical suggestion:

Are your actions and the motives of your heart to please and glorify God, or to satisfy and protect a love of self?

See Hebrews 13:20,21,22.

#21  Posted by Brad Kennedy  |  Saturday, October 27, 2012at 1:30 PM

To Alan (#5)

The follwoing may sound cliche' and you may have heard something like this before-but if not, it may encourage you:

Some days reading Scripture is like breakfast cereal, kind of dry-but we need it for sustenance (and its the most important meal of the day)! Psalm 19:7

Some days its like eating brussell sprouts-we really don't want to, but we know it makes us stronger.

Most days its like desert, we can't get enough of it! Psalm 119:103, Proverbs 16:24

1 Timothy 4:7