It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9) The central doctrine of Scripture and the foundational doctrine of Christianity is justification by grace through faith. Because this is the doctrine on which the Church stands or falls and without which no one will be saved, we emphasize this Gospel each and every week. But there’s a side-effect to emphasizing Christ’s work for us over and against our own works: we are sometimes accused of ignoring or forbidding good works and Christian living. (AC XX: 1) Luther and the later Lutheran confessors faced this accusation – and we still do to this day. But the accusation is baseless. We do teach, instruct, and admonish believers to lead holy lives and do good works. We do confess that good works are necessary – but with the important distinction that they are necessary not for salvation, but as a necessary fruit of the salvation that is already ours. With that distinction in mind, the apostle Paul leads us to consider our Christian lives of sanctification, beginning, middle and end.
In contrast to his other letters – which were written to correct specific errors or heresies – Paul’s letter to the Ephesians was written to lead the Christians in Ephesus to a greater understanding and appreciation of God’s gracious plan for them. He highlights important doctrines like election (Ephesians 1:4), original sin (Ephesians 2:1), conversion (Ephesians 2:8-9) – and the nature and essence of the Christian church (Ephesians 2:11-3:13). Then, in the second half of his letter, Paul shifts his focus from what God has done for us in Christ to what God is doing in us through Christ. He connects justification to sanctification, stating that saved people are changed people. Saved people are new people. Saved people are sanctified people – that is, they are set apart in their thoughts, words, and actions from the ungodly, unbelieving world and for God.
While justification is a change in status before God – sanctification is a change of life before God. Where does this change of life begin? Sanctification begins with God; it is rooted in justification – with God’s free and unconditional declaration that we are “not-guilty” in his sight for Jesus’ sake. Very much like creation – where God created everything out of nothing with only his Word – justification is God declaring us to be what we are not. By nature we are spiritually dead, unable to please God or enter eternal life. But because God credits Jesus’ perfect life to our account and has punished him for our sins on the cross – we now are what we were not: we are justified, forgiven, and eligible for eternal life in heaven. God – completely out of grace – has changed our status in his eyes: from enemy to child, from damned to saved. This changed status only becomes ours through faith in Jesus. But the Holy Spirit’s work doesn’t end with changing our status before God. He also changes our heart, our character, our attitudes and lives here and now.
Understanding that sanctification is the work of God the Holy Spirit keeps us from confusing it with mere moralizing and behavior modification. From self-help books and diet and exercise plans to interventions and prison sentences – the world is filled with programs and methods intended to change behavior. While there may be some outward similarities between sanctification and man-made reformation – there is one huge difference: the motivation. People are motivated to diet and exercise to enhance and extend their lives. Would-be criminals don’t commit crimes because out of fear of punishment. Unfortunately, many churches are filled with a false “gospel” that consists of nothing more than teaching you how to change and better your life. But none of these are Christian sanctification. They may change behavior, but because this change does not spring from faith in Jesus – this behavior does not please God. (Hebrews 11:6) It’s like putting lipstick on a pig – the outward appearance is changed, but the heart is untouched. The work of the Holy Spirit is not simply behavioral modification; his work is heart transformation. And so true Christian sanctification doesn’t begin with the law, but with the Gospel – by the Spirit renewing and transforming our hearts through his gift of faith in Jesus.
Only when God has already given us new life through the Gospel, are we able to grow in sanctified living – in growing daily to be more obedient to God and more like Christ. This is the process Paul describes in our text: you were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self. Paul describes sanctification in terms of clothing – taking off the old and putting on the new.
The first part involves scraping away our old self, the old Adam, the sinful character we were born with. Paul says that this old self is being corrupted by its deceitful desires. He’s saying that our nature is so corrupted by sin that we are actually drawn to the things that lead to our own destruction. The prime example of this took place in the Garden of Eden when Satan led Eve to believe that eating the forbidden fruit would be good for her. In reality, it led to death – not only for them, but for all mankind. And that’s still how the sinful nature works. Prodded by Satan, we are deceived into believing that evil, wicked, and harmful things are actually good. God’s law serves to diagnose and expose these deceitful desires – so that they can be removed. The old self leads us to seek happiness and contentment in money, in our possessions, in our spouses, our families, in our own strength or potential or future. But these things can never lead to happiness or contentment, which is why God forbids trusting them in the 1st commandment. We have a natural tendency to put our experience, our feelings, our reason on the same level, or even above Scripture. But because going our way leads to death (Proverbs 14:12), God forbids placing anything above his Word in the 2nd commandment. By nature we believe that if we want to go to heaven we must earn it, which is why God commands that we take time regularly to stop, to rest, to listen to his Word which tells us that there is nothing we must or can do to save ourselves. The devil leads us to believe that any and all authority over us is a bad thing, but because the only result of rebellion against God-given authority in marriage, in the home, in the church, in the state is chaos – God protects the authority of his representatives in the 4th commandment. Putting off the old man consists of looking deeply into the mirror of God’s holy law to see which of our attitudes, desires and behaviors are contrary to his will – taking them off like stinking, filthy clothing and laying them at the foot of Jesus’ cross in repentance.
But that’s only half the story. Paul not only says that we should put of the old, but also put on the new self. Just like it’s not good to take off your dirty, filthy clothes and remain naked – so the old, sinful nature is to be replaced by the new man created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. In his explanations to each of the commandments, Luther does an excellent job of balancing the taking off of the old and the putting on of the new. Instead of despising and neglecting God’s Word and becoming so busy that we don’t have time for it, we will gladly hear and learn it. Instead of pushing the limits of disrespect and dishonor for God’s representatives, we will honor, serve, and obey them and give them love and respect. Instead of merely refraining from hatred and murder, we will help and befriend them in every bodily need. Not only will believers put off the evil of sexual immorality, homosexuality, divorce, and living together outside of marriage – but they will hold marriage in high regard and husbands and wives will love and honor each other. As a redeemed child of God, not only will I not covet anything I should not want to have, I will do all I can to help my neighbor keep his property and possessions.
Our sinful nature cannot stand this. “You mean, not only do I have to avoid what is evil – I have to actively do what is good?” Yes! And to put it bluntly, THIS MEANS WAR. It is never easy to do the opposite of what feels and seems right. It is never easy to give up a habit. Living a Christian life means saying “no” to the most important person in the world: me. Make no mistake, Christian sanctification is not as easy as taking off a dirty shirt and putting on a clean one. Paul refers to sanctification as crucifixion (Galatians 6:14) and death (Romans 6:11). This is why Christians are called soldiers and the Christian life a battle. We are called, not to surrender to sin – as if Jesus died so that we could go on sinning (Romans 6:1-2) – but to fight against it. While it’s easy enough to talk about sanctification in here, while it’s easy to decry the evils of society and the world, while it’s relatively easy to leave God’s house with every intention of amending our sinful lives – the real battle takes place out there, in our homes, our jobs, our marriages, our families, our hearts. If the faith we confess in here is genuine, it will reveal itself out there in changed lives; lives of obedience to God and love for others. (James 2:14-26) So each of us must ask ourselves: how’s my battle going? Is the new man winning? Or has the old self again taken control?
Where do we find the strength for such a fierce, intense, personal, daily battle? Remember our Savior’s promise from the Gospel lesson: I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit (John 15:5). If you are tired and worn out from the fight; if you feel like you’ve chalked up more losses than victories – you’re in the right place. This is where the Holy Spirit brings us rest and relief from the war. This is where we are refreshed with the good news that our salvation doesn’t – ever – depend on us, but on Christ. This is where Jesus himself reaches down from heaven with his own body and blood to strengthen and nourish us with the forgiveness of sins. When you are feeling weak and worn out and beaten – that’s especially when you need to receive this sacrament. Martin Luther had a very vivid way of describing the role of Communion in our sanctification: “To give a simple illustration of what takes place in this eating: it is as if a wolf devoured a sheep and the sheep were so powerful a food that it transformed the wolf and turned him into a sheep. So, when we eat Christ’s flesh physically and spiritually, the food is so powerful that it transforms us into itself and out of fleshly, sinful, mortal men makes spiritual, holy, living men.”  Staying connected to Christ in Word and Sacrament is the secret to sanctified living – remain in him and you will bear much fruit, you will grow in sanctified, Christian living.
One question remains: what is the end, the goal of this sanctification, this renewal, this battle? There are two ditches of false doctrine we must stay out of. One the one hand, some contend that if you believe in Jesus you don’t have to put forth any effort toward holy living, since you’re saved by grace anyway. This is antinomianism – the teaching that the law has no role in the believer’s life. But Jesus didn’t die so that we could go on sinning, he died to separate us from sin and ungodliness. (Romans 6:1-4) The other ditch is call perfectionism – the teaching that it is possible for the believer – if you just try hard enough – can stop sinning completely in this life. This too is a lie. Unlike justification, which is done, finished, completed once and for all by Christ for us; sanctification is an unfinished, imperfect process. One that won’t end until we die. The only end of our fight is death. But, in death, comes the blessed release from this life of war. In death, God destroys the sinful flesh forever. He burns away every last shred of the sinful nature – and raises us back to life as new people, truly perfect people. (2 Corinthians 5:1-5) Only then will we finally be what God has declared us to be in Christ. So there’s a tension: perfection is not possible in this life; not as long as the sinful nature is hanging on us like dirty, stinking clothes. But perfection is, nonetheless, our goal. Not to become perfect in God’s eyes, but because God has already declared us perfect in Christ.
The war is won, but the battle rages on. This is life for we who are both sinners and saints. In Jesus, we are declared holy in God’s sight. That’s the beginning of sanctification. In Jesus, we strive to become holy in our everyday lives. That’s the middle. One day, God will take us out of this world and make us what he always intended us to be: perfect and holy forever. That is the end. As you go back out those doors to engage in another week of battle, remember that you don’t go alone: he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6) Amen.
 LW 37:101