Summary: There is a wrong way that seems so right and a right way which at first seems so wrong in regards to sanctification
The Bible Way of Sanctification
Every Christian knows that God has standards, whether they want to acknowledge this or fight to suppress it. In fact, according to Paul in Romans 1, every human being knows God and that God has standards, because God has revealed this truth to everyone.
The Bible clearly teaches us that we are saved by grace through the means of faith, and not by works. But how does grace and God’s standards of conduct work if salvation is a free gift? This has caused much discussion among Christians. Most would agree that justification is indeed by grace through faith. Salvation is a free gift. But there is a division over how one is sanctified to where their lives will become more like God’s standards. Some are afraid that the preaching of grace interferes with the necessity of being restored fully in the image of a holy God. Some of Paul’s opponents in Romans 6 put it this way: “Should we continue to sin in order that grace will abound?” Paul answers this with an emphatic No!
So then, are we saved by grace, and then sanctified by good works? Is it as though God by His grace erased the slate of sins against us and allows us to start over again, this time doing things right. Does this work? John Wesley tried this approach, yet after many years of constant preaching, he could only point to a few who were perfectly sanctified. And he wasn’t one of them! One could question whether any of Wesley’s followers actually achieved total sanctification despite their strenuous efforts to do so. Many, many others gave up in despair trying.
Is there a better way than the way of sanctification which Wesley tried? I think there is, and it is found in the Book of Colossians. Please turn your Bibles to Colossians 2:20 and follow along.
Exposition of the Text
We don’t know whether Paul actually visited the city of Colossae in person or not. No such visit is actually mentioned in the Book of Acts, but Ephesus was nearby. Paul spent three years there, and taking trips to nearby cities is certainly possible.
There were a lot of similarities between Ephesus and Colossae as can be seen in the similarities between the letters. Some would also say that Ephesians was a circular letter sent to all of the churches in the region. We know that Ephesus had a large Jewish population including those who had emigrated from Alexandria, Egypt, such as Apollos. The Judaism of Alexandria was a mixture of both Jewish and Greek ideas. A man named Philo tried to translate the meaning of the historic Jewish faith into Greek meanings by the use of allegory. This resulted in what was a form of Gnosticism, or was at least one of its roots. Allegory in a sense made the history of the events in the Bible of secondary importance. Adam, Eve, Moses, and other figures were reduced to symbols. Whether these people actually existed or not was not important. Scripture was reduced to useful moralistic and carefully crafted “myths”.
The church at Colossae had been infected by these views. The same allegory which reduced the historicity of the Old Testament could be used to make the historicity of the historical Jesus. Paul in the introduction does admit that Christ is bigger than history, but firmly grounds Jesus Christ within the historical realm. The Son who existed before time and history was a real man who died for us and our sins. It is this cosmic Christ who created the universe and actually holds it together. This must be balanced against the historical Jesus. Both needed to be affirmed.
A group of teachers in the church at Colossae who were interested in this mystical theology had troubled the church. They seemed to be Jewish also, as they apparently held to legalistic teaching of conduct. The Greek philosophers saw life in the body as evil. Their idea of eternal life was to escape the body and be reunited with the spirit of the cosmos. They expressed their understanding of this by either indulging the flesh because what they did in the body was irrelevant. The other way was to punish the body through manmade rules. The latter through Jewish influences seemed to be dominant in Colossae.
So starting in Colossians 2:20, we see a human attempt of sanctification based upon the contempt of the body. They had rules such as “Do not taste”, “Do not touch”, and “Do not handle”. This may have involved food restrictions, but it seems that what is being said here was abstinence from sexual relations. Paul lets them know that these commands were entirely of human origin. They were men’s rules for sanctification, and they were based upon a non-biblical understanding of the world. If they had understood the Bible as a historical document, they would have seen that God said “It is good” after every act of creation and twice after the creation of humans. God also ordained and blessed marriage. So any standard of human origin which conflicts with those of God is plainly wrong, no matter how sophisticated they seemed.