The Putrid Chicago River and the Purifying Grace of Union with Christ

A. H. Strong, in his 1905 sermon in London:

How shall I, how shall society, find healing and Purification within? Let me answer by reminding you of what they did at Chicago.

In all the world there was no river more stagnant and fetid than was Chicago River. Its sluggish stream received the sweepings of the watercraft and the offal of the city, and there was no current to carry the detritus away. There it settled, and bred miasma and fever.

At last it was suggested that, by cutting through the low ridge between the city and the Des Plaines River, the current could be set running in the opposite direction, and drainage could be secured into the Illinois River and the great Mississippi. At a cost of fifteen millions of dollars the cut was made, and now all the water of Lake Michigan can be relied upon to cleanse that turbid stream.

What the Chicago River could never do for itself, the great lake now does for it. So no human soul can purge itself of its sin; and what the individual cannot do, humanity at large is powerless to accomplish.

Sin has dominion over us, and we are foul to the very depths of our being, until with the help of God we break through the barrier of our self-will, and let the floods of Christ’s purifying life flow into us. Then, in an hour, more is done to renew, than all our efforts for years had effected. Thus humanity is saved, individual by individual, not by philosophy, or philanthropy, or self-development, or self-reformation, but simply by joining itself to Jesus Christ, and by being filled in Him with all the fulness of God.

War and Peace

Tobias Crisp, the best named Puritan preacher of all-time, writes [The Complete Works of Tobias Crisp (London: 1832), 1:12–14]:

It is neither the tyranny, nor the troublesomeness of sin in a believer, that doth eclipse the beauty of Christ, or the favor of God to the soul. Our standing is not founded upon the subduing of our sins, but upon that foundation that never fails; and that is Christ himself, upon his faithfulness and truth. … Though there be ebbings and flowings of the outward man, nay, of the inward man, in the business of sanctification; yet this is certainly true, “That believers are kept by the mighty power of God, through faith, unto salvation.” They are kept in holiness, sincerity, simplicity of heart; but all this hath nothing to do with the peace of his soul, and the salvation and justification thereof: Christ is he that justifies the ungodly; Christ is he that is the peace-maker; and as Christ is the peace-maker, so all this peace depends upon Christ alone. Beloved, if you will fetch your peace from any thing in the world but Christ, you will fetch it from where it is not. …

While your acts, in respect of filthiness, proclaim nothing but war, Christ alone, and his blood, proclaim nothing but peace. Therefore, I give this hint by the way, when I speak of the power of Christ subduing sin; because, from the power of it in men, they are apt to think their peace depends upon this subduing of sin. If their sins be subdued, then they may have peace; and if they cannot be subdued, then no peace: fetch peace where it is to be had; let alone subduing sin for peace; let Christ have that which is his due; it is he alone that speaks peace.

Where Do Good Works Spring?

Ephesians 2:8–10:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, 479–480:

Good works are not independently and newly brought into being by the believers themselves. They lie completely prepared for them all and for each one of them individually in the decision of God’s counsel; they were fulfilled and were earned for them by Christ who in their stead fulfilled all righteousness and the whole law; and they are worked out in them by the Holy Spirit who takes everything from Christ and distributes it to each and all according to Christ’s will.

So we can say of sanctification in its entirety and of all the good works of the church, that is, of all the believers together and of each one individually, that they do not come into existence first of all through the believers, but that they exist long before in the good pleasure of the Father, in the work of the Son, and in the application of the Holy Spirit. Hence all glorying on man’s part is also ruled out in this matter of sanctification. We must know that God in no way becomes indebted to us, and that He therefore never has to be grateful to us, when we do good works; on the contrary, we are beholden to God for them, and have to be grateful to Him for the good works that we do.

Daily Renewal and Resurrection

It’s very easy to dislocate daily renewal (personal growth, progressive sanctification) from the much broader picture of God’s redemptive plan for your life and from future personal bodily resurrection. Our hope of resurrection does not negate the value of our daily progress; daily progress does not diminish the incredible transformation that must happen in the resurrection. In that light Murray Harris makes an important point in his comments on 2 Corinthians 4:16, and the place of this text within the broader flow of Paul’s book. Harris writes:

For Paul, the spiritual body was not simply the state of the renewed “inner self” at the time of the believer’s death, but it seems a priori likely that he saw a relationship between the two, that he regarded resurrection not as a creatio ex nihilo, a sudden divine operation unrelated to the past, but as the fulfillment of a spiritual process begun at regeneration. The daily renewal of the “inward person” (2 Cor 4:16) contributed toward the progressive transformation of the believer into the image of Christ (3:18) in a process that would be accelerated and completed by resurrection. Paul does not explicitly say that his ἔσω ἄνθρωπος [“inner self”] is the embryo of the spiritual body or bears its undeveloped image, but the natural transition of his thought from 4:16 to 5:1–4 shows that this sentiment would have been congenial to him. As a result of the final convulsion of resurrection, the butterfly of the spiritual body will emerge from the chrysalis of the renewed “inner person.”

[Source: Murray Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 360.]

Working Out What God Works In

Philippians 2:12–13:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Eerdmans, 1955), pp. 148-149:

God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works. Neither is the relation strictly one of co-operation as if God did his part and we did ours so that the conjunction or coordination of both produced the required result.

God works in us and we also work. But the relation is that because God works we work. All working out of salvation on our part is the effect of God’s working in us, not the willing to the exclusion of the doing and not the doing to the exclusion of the willing, but both the willing and the doing…. The more persistently active we are in working, the more persuaded we may be that all the energizing grace and power is of God.

Greg Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, as quoted in the pre-pub manuscript:

True saints should be psychologically motivated to fulfill God’s precepts because they know that God has given them the power to do so. … This kind of motivation is comparable to my neighbor’s desire to remove snow from his driveway. He has a fine snow-blower and gets his driveway cleaned off quickly. On the other hand, I do not own a snow-blower but have only a rusty snow shovel. When it snows a few inches, I have no desire to go out and shovel the snow. After it keeps on snowing and I still don’t go out to clear it off, my wife gives me a polite implied command by way of questioning, ‘when are you going to shovel the driveway?’ But I have no desire to respond positively to her command. I continue to let the snow build up until after the snow has finished falling, and then I go out rather reluctantly to shovel. I don’t have the motivation to clear off the snow because I don’t have the power to do it effectively. On the other hand, my neighbor has all the desire in the world because he has the power to remove the snow effectively. When one has the power to do something, the motivation for doing it follows.

Daily Progress to Perfect Holiness

We often imagine personal holiness is a ladder climb through this life, each day we take one more step heavenward. The reality is that for most of us it doesn’t work this way. Sanctification is played out in the fierce struggle between flesh and spirit, requiring all our Spirit-given exertion just to stand firm in one place without falling. Not to mention, on top of this, our ultimate glorification is tied to our faithful endurance during personal suffering (Rom. 8:17, 2 Cor. 1:5, Phil. 3:10).

Sanctification is no simple topic. And the most carefully balanced study of personal renewal (or progressive sanctification) that I have read is David Peterson’s Possessed by God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness (IVP, 1995). In it he firmly roots his study of progressive sanctification in the finished work of the Savior and in our union with Christ. Notice the carefulness with which he explains the path of personal renewal in its various forms.

He writes on pages 91–92:

The challenges to holiness examined in this chapter convey both warning and encouragement. No Christian should doubt the need to give practical, everyday expression to the holiness that is our status and calling in Christ. Only those who trust in his sanctifying work on the cross, and take seriously the warning to ‘pursue holiness’, will ‘see the Lord.’ …

On the other hand, it is possible to be so zealous for ‘progress’ that one’s attention shifts from God’s grace to human effort. Moral growth and development will be God’s gift to us at different stages of our lives, but spiritually must not be measured in terms of the rate of change. We are to go on exhibiting what we know of God’s character and will, motivated by the certainty of his acceptance, cleansing and enabling in Christ, together with the promise of entire sanctification when we meet him, face to face. Progress may be seen as we exercise ourselves in that godly devotion which issues from a true knowledge of God in Jesus Christ.

These gospel perspectives on the Christian life must not be obscured by the uncertainty of a moralisic perfectionism. Scripture emphasizes that holiness is a divine gift – a share in the life and character of God. In practical, everyday terms it means being dedicated to God and separated from all that is sinful. This condition need to be renewed and re-expressed every day, especially when testing comes or fresh challenges to please God confront us.

And then later, in the conclusion to the book, he writes this on page 136:

Although the language of glorification may be used to speak of the Spirit’s present work in our lives (e.g. 2 Cor. 3:18), the New Testament offers no simple picture of daily progress to future glory. Flesh and Spirit are locked in a conflict that does not always see victory going to the one side. We are presently being conformed to Christ’s sufferings so that we might share with him in the ultimate transformation of resurrection. (136)

Those are wise and balanced words from a book to help a pilgrim like me who struggles to understand that sometimes merely standing firm and enduring is itself supernatural progress along the path to glorification.