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Flying by Faith Alone


Suppose you are paranoid about flying. After months of therapy, you are coaxed into actually entering a private jet. Weak-kneed, you drop to the floor of the cabin and crawl to the nearest seat. The stewardess then shows you how to get buckled in. You quickly don the football helmet and official Disney water-wings you brought along.

She then asks, “How high would you like to fly today?” You reply nervously, “I'm not sure how powerful this jet really is or how much I can trust the pilot. Let’s just taxi around the runway…OK?”

So, the engines are revved up and the plane is skillfully motored all around the airport. Afterward, the stewardess stops by once again to see how you are doing, and you exclaim, “Great flight, huh!” She looks a bit puzzled and replies, “Well, we never really left the ground sir. Why don't you let us take you a little higher this time?” Your confidence is up a tiny bit, so you reluctantly agree. This time the plane slowly circles over the airport a couple of times and lands smoothly. Apart from the three times you ran up and down the aisle screaming, “We're all going to die!” the flight went well.

Finally, after several low-level flights, you have enough confidence to say, “Hey, I guess I can trust you guys after all. Take me up as high as you want.”

In like manner, the scriptures talk about God being anxious to take us to new levels in our personal lives, new levels of love and caring, if we simply choose to surrender to His leading and trust. “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9)

This life-long journey is usually referred to as sanctification. Unfortunately, the subject is fraught with misunderstandings. The mere mention of the word can send many Adventists into paroxysms of unnecessary fear yelling, “Make them go away!”

The truth is that sanctification can be very good news. Before we can explore that subject, however, we have to settle two fundamental issues in our minds and hearts. First, God is my friend and always loves me unconditionally, just as I am. Second, I have the assurance of salvation by faith and grace alone. These are the essential prerequisites. Once those are in place, we can then venture into the deeper waters of how to grow as a Christian.

First Misunderstanding: Scary definitions
Sanctification can sound intimidating because it has so often been used to engender guilt and spiritual insecurity. It can conjure up images of rules and laws and standards that are hammered into us and only serve to remind us of our shortcomings. The whole subject can suck the joy out of your day and make you fearful of sharing anything about your inner life with others.

Biblical speaking, words like sanctification and holiness are simply synonyms for love. Jesus told us plainly what is most important to Him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Matt 22:37-39 NIV)

That is why it is so incongruous to see self-styled reformers in the church try to impose their theological views and behavioral practices on others. Individuals who truly do have lofty insights into scripture should be the most loving, kind, empathetic, considerate, accepting people on the planet. The fact that self-appointed reformers are not like that is a clear indication that they are fake. Most people’s theology grows out of their personality and judgmental people might as well wear a sign on their back that says, “Actually…I’m incredibly insecure!”

Second Misunderstanding: The Howard Hughes school of sanctification
Howard Hughes was an eccentric billionaire. He owned almost anything he desired. He also had a phobia about germs. His approach to health was to avoid germs at all costs. In his later years he rented an entire floor of a fancy hotel and secluded himself in there to avoid contact with the germy masses outside.

One day he thought, “My word, there must be a lot of germs coming in through these windows,” so he had them nailed shut. On another day he reasoned, “My staff is coming in and out of this room regularly and they must be loaded with germs,” so he covered the door with hard plastic that had a doggy door at the bottom through which to pass food. Later he observed, “Hey, this food I get three times a day must be crawling with germs,” so he stopped eating altogether. Within weeks he died as a shriveled, old prune.

Now suppose that instead of trying to be healthy by avoiding germs, Howard had taken an entirely different approach to health. Suppose he had focused, instead, on absorbing all the good things of life. Suppose he had taken into his life all the water, fruit, nuts, vegetables, fresh air, and sunshine possible? Suppose he had exercised daily and lived to bless others? My guess is that no germ would have had a chance. And what a different, more positive outcome there could have been!

Jesus spoke of the Howard Hughes approach to sanctification in Matthew 12:43-45 when He talked about the man who cast out one evil spirit but left a vacuum for seven more to move in. Likewise, we can follow Howard’s approach to spiritual health by focusing primarily on avoiding sin (germs), getting rid of sin, and become shriveled old Pharisees. Or we can focus on Jesus’s approach, taking in all the good things in life He has provided and cultivating an expansive, welcoming perspective. If we did that, selfishness wouldn’t have a chance.

One approach leads to anxiety and fear. The other leads to confidence and joy. One approach leads to a fortress mentality. The other engages the world with hands turned outward to serve. One puts up walls. The other builds bridges to people unlike ourselves.

A loving pork eater is more spiritual than an unloving vegetarian. A loving Sunday keeper is far more spiritual than an unloving Sabbath-keeper. A loving Catholic priest is more spiritual than an unloving proponent of the Three Angels’ Message.

Third Misunderstanding: Focusing too much on outward behavior
Several times I have given the following quiz to Adventist church members. I list two questions and then give them three possible answers for each one.
The questions are:
How are we justified?
How are we sanctified?

The three possible answers are:
(a) by faith alone
(b) by faith and works
(c) by works alone

For justification, the members always select answer (a) faith alone, which is, of course, correct. And for sanctification, they almost always confidently choose answer (b) by faith and works, which is completely unbiblical. That answer almost seems baked into Adventist culture, perhaps because of the poisonous myth about the last generation needing to overcome all sin. Many members are genuinely surprised when I tell them that, biblically speaking, we are sanctified by faith alone.

The key is to understand that growing up to be like Christ deals primarily with the why of life rather than the what. It deals with motives for doing what we do. Doing a righteous deed for a selfish motive is not doing a righteous deed. Obedience happens in the heart before it shows up in behavior.

Because of our sinful nature, apart from Christ, every good deed is going to be tainted with selfish motives. We treat others with kindness so they will like us. We give to a charity so people will think we are generous. We serve on a church committee in order to be accepted. And on and on.  

The problem is that motives are not something we can change. They reside in a lock box deep inside our hearts and only the Holy Spirit has the key. Only God can access our warped motivations and change them into Christlike selflessness and unconditional love.

That is the reason that sanctification has to be by faith alone. We must rely on God to grow us spiritually just as much as we rely on Him for forgiveness. Ellen White underscores this point, “By faith you became Christ’s, and by faith you are to grow up in Him.” [1]

I used to be perplexed by Jesus’s statement, “Apart from Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5 NIV) It seems quite obvious to me that non-Christians can do a lot of things. So, what does “nothing” mean. I now believe that Christ is telling us that we can’t do anything with a purely selfless motivation until we are re-made by Him.

In order for sanctification to be good news it must originate entirely from outside ourselves. Sanctification is, in fact, a 100 percent gift from the Holy Spirit. The apostle Paul states clearly, “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13 KJV)

“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10 KJV)

God’s goal is to equip you, by His Spirit, to be the kind of person who can both receive love and give it. His Spirit arranges circumstances and situations in our life to accomplish His purposes. He is working 24 hours a day to make you more loving and trusting. At times it may seem like you are going in reverse, but you must continue to trust. God will make it as difficult as possible for you to give up. And if you let Him, God will not stop until you are an open, accepting, transparent, secure, trusting disciple of Christ.

Fourth Misunderstanding: Thinking that sanctification by faith alone makes us passive
At this point you might be thinking, “If the Christian life depends so fully on God, what then is the place of human effort? Am I just a passive rag doll?” Hardly.

When the Spirit enters our life, the first thing He does is to deepen our desire to know Christ, which leads us to make it a high priority in our daily schedules. The central struggle of the Christian life, the central endeavor, is to maintain and build that relationship so it remains strong and life-giving.

It is through that ongoing connection with the Savior that the Holy Spirit is able to pour new life into our hearts. The apostle Paul put it this way, But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory [character] of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.” (2 Cor 3:18 NKJV)

The more we make the effort to behold Christ, the more the Spirit can make us like Him.

Human effort can also be thought of as living out what God puts in. God implants new dreams, desires, and love in our hearts, then He depends on us, in His strength, to carry them out.

For instance, my daughter loves to make music, but her oboe doesn't play itself. She must move her fingers and practice. A friend of mine loves mountain climbing and in order see the view from the top he must move his legs and sweat. Another friend loves teaching children and spends endless hours preparing lesson plans. A mother loves her child and makes an incredible investment of time and money in the little one’s development.

None of these people’s works are forced or artificial. We would call their efforts a “labor of love” that originates from deep within. Because of the combination of inner love and the outward effort that emerges from it, their music, mountain climbing, teaching, and mothering become integrated into their identity, motivations, and worldview.

Right behavior flows from right relationships, not the other way around. Haven't you noticed that the more a young man loves his girlfriend, the more anxious he is to please her in every itsy-bitsy detail? “Is there anything else I can do for you Linda, my darling?” he asks repeatedly. So it is in the spiritual realm. The more we emphasize God’s gift of love received by faith alone, the more we actually establish the law as a result. Wasn’t it Paul who confidently declared, “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” (Galatians 5:14 KJV).

Rightly understood, sanctification by faith alone can indeed be very good news. The apostle Paul summarizes beautifully when he writes, “Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” (2 Peter 1:2-4 NIV)


Notes and References:

[1] Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1956) 70


Kim Allan Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for SDA journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The GiftThe Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.

Kim has recently started an exciting new ministry to teachers at, which is currently accepting donations. Read an interview about this organization here.


Photo by louis magnotti on Unsplash


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