by John Weston | May 30, 2018
My Sophomore year of college, I was in my dorm room one night, headphones on, writing in my journal. It was fall. And suddenly, I wanted M&Ms. I got out of chair, grabbed my wallet, left my room, walked downstairs and made a beeline across campus, and then off campus to the Rose Street Safeway store where I bought a pound of Peanut M&Ms, walked back, put my headphones back on, and then proceeded to open the bag. I threw one into my mouth, then set the bag aside. Five minutes passed. I took another. Three minutes passed. And another. Over the next two hours, over half the bag was gone. I knew that even M&Ms with peanuts in them weren't good for me in large quantities. I didn't finish the bag that night, but it took everything in me to make the bag last the week. I felt out of control.
The Holy Spirit comes into our lives and helps us give control to God. I say “give,” because God never fully runs us around like a remote control car. There is always an element of cooperation when we are behaving the way God desires (even for resisting one of the greatest candies ever invented), but for people to act truly good, we need God's power to do it. Christians for centuries have given this the name “sanctification.” The idea is this: something that is made holy—set apart for God's use—is becoming sanctified, just like a room set part for God's use is called a “sanctuary.” But God is far less concerned about how a room is respected than he is how we as his people behave. Godly people, not buildings, are what God truly desires. And he does that by giving us the Holy Spirit.
In his sermon, “Justification by Faith,” John Wesley, starts with a statement by Paul early on in Romans:
Romans 4:5 5 But people are declared righteous because of their faith, not because of their work.
All people are intrinsically flawed and estranged from God, requiring each of us to receive forgiveness through the cross of Jesus. New Living Translation says “declared righteous,” but the King James Version reads “justified.” This is all about God forgiving our sins and no longer holding them against us, or “justification.” But God does much more than simply forgiving us: he moves in. We are not forgiven, and then told to stand in the corner so we don't mess up the world with the rest of our lives or heaven in the one to come; we are made part of God's family. We become his children. And this transformation happens through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
In one of the most fascinating and memorable stories in the gospels, John tells us that Jesus is visited one evening by a religious scholar and politician named Nicodemus. Nicodemus is one of the highest ranking and most influential Jews of his time. He is both a Pharisee, a sect known for their devotion to the scriptures and to holiness traditions of the Jewish people, and a member of the Sanhedrin, the highest governing body over the Jewish people, second only to Rome and its representatives. Nicodemus is cautious and curious. Jesus tells him:
John 3:6-7 6 Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives new life from heaven. 7 So don't be surprised at my statement that you must be born again.
John Wesley talks about this in his sermon entitled, “The New Birth.” The gist of it is this: God doesn't simply forgive us for being bad people; he gives us the Holy Spirit and makes us into good people. And the reason we become good is because the Holy Spirit STAYS with us, inside us, continually working, continually linking us to God. Wesley uses the metaphor of breathing, that God is breathing into us, enabling us to breathe back into God.
Being born again is essential. Jesus makes this clear to Nicodemus. But it is something that God does, not us. We can observe it. We can see signs of it. But we can't make it happen. We can't do it. It is all God happening inside each of us. Baptism celebrates it by using physical water applied externally. But only God can make us truly new.
Early Methodists spent a lot of time thinking about talking about this reality. It drove them in their mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ: producing Christians who were doing good deeds out of an overflow of joy and gratitude aimed at God. Sanctification is a process that starts with the first moment of saving faith and ends when we stand before God in heaven, forgiven, judged, and left to stand before One who will embrace each of us and welcome each of us as our Father.