I’m reading a book called ‘The Sin of Certainty’ by Peter Enns.
One of his thoughts is that we should use the word ‘trust’ (in God) instead of belief. He thinks that trust better describes our relationship.
He writes, ‘Working on the lifelong habit of cultivating trust has meant learning to express my faith with words that rarely came to mind before - and that I might have mocked if they had - like journey, pilgrimage, and mystery. I know these ancient words of Christian wisdom can sometimes sound trendy and insincere, but not for me. They are my letting-go-of-control words. I’ve needed to be intentional in using different vocabulary not simply for describing my faith but for reconstructing it. The way we talk is not only a byproduct of how we think; vocabulary actually affects our mental architecture.’
Thus, our understanding and use of spiritual words can affect how we build on what we think and believe.
Here is an example. Several months ago, a commenter remarked on the use of the term ‘sanctification’ in the book of 1Corinthians. He wondered how Paul could write that the Corinthian believers, ‘who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus’ (past tense - see 1:2 or 6:11) were still as ‘men of flesh’, not ‘spiritual men’, but mere ‘infants in Christ’ still on milk and unable to partake of ‘solid food’. Paul related that the church suffered from all kinds of immorality - arrogance, malice, wickedness, idolatry, drunkenness, fraud, incestuous relationships. So, his words leave us with the conclusion that God’s efforts at sanctification of this group failed miserably, which means that in reality God couldn’t deliver what He said He had already done! Thus, how can we trust God to carry out His promises to us? It appears He really isn’t omnipotent but rather impotent. Our entire ‘theological architecture’ is affected.
But what if we are misunderstanding the words in this letter?
I have come to the realization that the term ‘sanctification’ has two Biblical meanings.
Here is a simple definition of sanctification: ‘the act or process of acquiring sanctity, of being made or becoming holy’. Notice that it can be an act or a process, two very different things.
The first definition is a one-time act by God, man or even an object that sets apart a person or thing for future holy purposes. For example, the seventh day by God (Gen 2:3), a field by a farmer (Lev 27:19), the tabernacle, its altar and vessels by Moses (Num 7:1), an offering by the temple altar (Matt 23:17), food by the word of God and prayer (1Tim 4:4,5), us by the blood and body of Jesus (Heb 13:12; 10:1), the Lord in our hearts by us! (1Peter 3:15).(Some more modern and less literal versions of the Bible substitute the words dedication or consecration for this meaning of sanctification.)
The second and more widely used definition is the lifelong process of the believer learning the ways of God, of being trained in holiness to be more useful to God. I see it as nurturing the seed of Christ planted within and surrendering to Him which produces faith in the promises of God, e.g., 2Tim 2:21; 1Thess 4:3-5; 5:23 (despite some interesting past comments, I still see these ones as valid examples of definition #2).
The problem occurs when people try to use the second definition when the first applies. An example is 2Thess 2:13: ‘But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth;’. I was told by an Adventist apologist who believes in salvation by faith plus works that this verse proves his view, that salvation comes partly by the degree of our success in becoming holy. I think he has misunderstood this verse because he applied (incorrectly I believe) the second definition of sanctification instead of the first. To me ‘sanctification by the Spirit’ means this verse says that the Holy Spirit acted to set us apart (i.e., sanctified us) to accept the faith by which we are saved. See also, for example, Acts 13:48 ‘When the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.’ Because we are now carnal in nature, this initial action by the Holy Spirit precedes our belief. Acts 16:14 says, ‘A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyratira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul.’
Adventists don’t use the first definition because they don’t agree with Calvinism which states that because of our fallen state we are incapable of coming to God. (Yet Scripture says ‘Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be’ (Rom 8:7) and ‘But the natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.’ (1Cor 2:14)). Calvinists believe that God acts first and must regenerate us (which I see as really the first definition of sanctification).
The point I’m trying to make is an obvious one - our understanding of words is a crucial element of our theology. Often it can be difficult to apply words designed to describe our physical world to the spiritual realm and is it not also true that our misunderstanding of words (or ignoring those that disagree with us) can lead us away from truth?