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Regional Sanctification
or Are You a Holder for Where You Live?
by Peter Meney

Once upon a time.

The leading elders of a strict group of Calvinist churches in the Netherlands were dismayed by reports received from church members who had recently visited America. All was not well. The returning brethren spoke of clear evidence that the American daughter churches were backsliding and failing to maintain their true Christian testimony. Dismayed, the Dutch elders decided that a delegation should be dispatched to establish the facts. A formal report would be made to the mother church in due course.

A few months later the church leaders assembled to hear the results of the fact finding mission. There was an air of solemn expectancy among the gathered brethren. Sure enough, the message was not good. Their worst fears were confirmed. The elders heard with heavy hearts how worldliness had infiltrated the churches. The American women used lipstick, dyed their hair and wore earrings. Their husbands no longer wore dark suits or ties to church, their children attended sports and recreational events.

It was all too much for one old elder. As the evidence of worldly behaviour mounted he began to sob gently. Others too, joined in, overcome with emotion at the seriousness of the situation. Soon, heads bowed, they were all crying. As they wept their tears flowed freely, running down their faces, along their cigars and dropping into their beer.

This story is an example of what is engagingly called 'regional sanctification'. It shows that our views of what is correct and proper conduct can be influenced by our cultural and geographic surroundings and our upbringing. Religious group norms and peer pressure can forge a pattern of behaviour that in time we come to view as 'the right way' to live. And human nature as it is, it is a short step to judging, and even condemning, those who live differently.

Some Christians are very strict about outward conduct and appearance. They live by a code that has grown up over years. It may have little to do with the Bible, although usually it will be claimed to be 'necessarily derived'. We have no desire to parody or condemn this. People are free to live as they please under the regulation of scripture. If they wish to dress a particular way, eat and drink a particular way, or worship a particular way, they have liberty to do so unless they breach the explicit direction of God's word. General principles of modesty and moderation apply with respect to our outward witness for the gospel and we are to be known as people of good reputation. Equally we must be careful not to become pharisaical by setting down or imposing for others, rules and standards of behaviour that go beyond Scripture.

Hair, hemlines and humour

For example, we may have strong opinions on the best length for hair or hemline. We may be teetotal or not. We may smoke or not. We may have a television but not watch it on Sunday. We may drive a car to church and always fill up with petrol on a Saturday night. We may see little difference between watching a film or football match on television and going to the local cinema or stadium. We may wonder if some people's understanding of separation from the world means conscientious abstention from everything the world finds entertaining and enjoyable. A friend once emphasised this to me, 'We read of Christ weeping', he said, 'We never read of Him laughing. He was a man of sorrows.'

Biblical sanctification

In the Bible we read of sanctification. The meaning of sanctification encompasses cleansing from sin and setting apart or 'consecration' for God's service. Sanctification is closely related to holiness and is usually presented as being twofold. First, it is said to be a one time event in which believers are sanctified (cleansed and consecrated) in Jesus Christ. Some people call this definitive sanctification because it happened, certainly and definitely-once and for all. Second, sanctification is sometimes presented as 'progressive'. This is taken to mean that a believer's sanctification or holiness increases progressively over time, and is thus something that believers must work for and pursue.

It is into this second meaning that much wrong thinking has been poured. Certainly we acknowledge that Christians grow, develop and mature. Spiritual growth is a worthy aim and a Christian privilege. We are to be fruitful and fruitfulness presupposes cultivation and increasing maturity. But spiritual growth and Christian maturity do not equate to quantifiable holiness. It is rather a growth in knowledge of Christ and the Holy Spirit at work in our lives. Achieving greater holiness or lesser holiness depending on the level of our efforts, experiences or mistakes is not part of the equation.

Christ is our sanctification

Consequently, we are not more sanctified if we keep up our daily tally of good works nor less holy if we do not. We do not please God more by working harder, or disappoint Him by falling short. God's measuring tape for our accomplishments was put away at Mount Calvary. Our holiness is complete in Christ. Our sanctification is secure in Him. Our Lord's perfect obedience has ensured that God always beholds His children with the greatest pleasure. Some will protest that if God never holds our sins against us then why are we chastised? We reply that chastening, like pruning a plant, is for the good of the Christian and to increase his usefulness. It is evidence of God's cultivating hand, a blessing rather than a punishment. Furthermore, it is applied to all true Christians.

But many of our brethren do not see this. They mark one another's conduct as being either conducive to holiness or detrimental to holiness and subliminally, every action is assessed as being positive, negative or neutral.

The trouble is that this standard of acceptable / unacceptable behaviour varies from person to person, time to time and place to place, hence 'regional sanctification'. What one person allows another condemns and in the end all that remains is that the pattern of personal conduct preferred and practised by one person is different to that preferred and practised by another.

There is a danger in some church circles of failing to distinguish between things that matter and things that do not. Few of us, no matter how strict we are about our lifestyle and outward witness, will be as rigorous as were our parents and our grandparents. This does not mean that we are better or worse Christians, it means simply that we are different. Changing times, altered circumstances and new surroundings require different responses. Change is not to be used as an opportunity to lay on one another feelings of guilt and inadequacy.

We can argue all day about limits of Christian liberty or safeguarding weaker brethren, but under Scripture rule these are largely private issues for the conscience of each believer. They cannot to be legislated for nor put up as a form of coercion.

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