At least since the mid-1970’s, nearly all Adventists in the developed world have enjoyed a relatively sound understanding of Justification by Faith; at the same time, most of us have not been quite as well-informed with respect to Sanctification—a doctrine which treads close to the old canard that anyone who cares about personal holiness or who possesses close lifestyle scruples must, by definition, be considered a legalist. The latter distortion reveals, I think, a general failure on our part to appreciate the central role of the Holy Spirit as the necessary means to character transformation.
You may recall how in the 1970’s, certain influential preachers would confidently assure their audiences that after Justification they would ‘naturally’ want to keep the Law of God; in other words, after Justification, you would become a virtuous man or woman merely by enjoying some yet-to-be defined emotional transformation. I believed this, and waited impatiently for my feelings to change post baptism: nothing much happened. I continued to experience Justification as a free gift, but in terms of personal transformation from sinfulness to holiness, well, I still felt like sinning much of the time. In short, many of us enjoyed full assurance of salvation even as we found ourselves trapped in a cycle of conscious repentance stimulated by a habitus of unrelenting vice. Sadly, for many, the only way we know how to avoid legalism is to embrace our sinfulness as both inevitable and necessary if we are to be saved by ‘faith’ alone.
As a young man, my heart thrilled to read Paul’s confident words regarding Sanctification, “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death….”, but I could not discover how I could obtain this Romans 8 experience of ‘walking in the Spirit’ rather than ‘after the flesh’.
Meanwhile, I watched a college room-mate spend hours on his knees begging God for the Holy Spirit (this included fasting and all-night vigils). He asked with all his might, but he confessed that he did not receive the Holy Spirit. Again, we come up against a common misconception regarding the Holy Spirit: we think of the Holy Spirit as real only when we feel it. We accept Justification by faith alone (with or without attendant feelings) but we believe in Sanctification only by emotion. Of course, this same misconception lies at the heart of our ambivalence towards Sanctification in general, since if our feelings serve as the primary mechanism for our Sanctification, then it stands to reason that our being made Holy (via subjective emotions) potentially contradicts the ‘free gift’ and by faith contract under which we are saved.
The doctrine of the Holy Spirit is simple: “ask and you shall receive”. We need only ask and take God at His Word. Special feelings are not required as the means for Sanctification. Ellen White tells us that once we have ‘given ourselves to Jesus’, we ought not to ‘draw back’, but rather, “day by day say, ‘I am Christ’s’… and ask Him to give you His Spirit and keep you by His grace.” I am saved by the Cross, but I am made fit for heaven by the indwelling grace of the Holy Spirit. This, too, is a free gift. We can ask for it just as we ask for forgiveness—both are ours by faith, and not by feelings.