“But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.” (Romans 6:22)
The basis for successful Christian living, according to many, is a transforming intervention of the Holy Spirit subsequent to salvation. The experience goes by many names — the second blessing, the baptism of the Spirit, being filled with the Spirit, entire sanctification, perfect love, and a host of other labels, but there is one common denominator: to experience the fullness of God’s blessing on your life you must have a second encounter. To this, others stoutly object: there is no qualitative difference among Christians. From the new birth on, gradual sanctification occurs in every true believer by the sovereign grace and power of God.
To the first group we would say, “show me your Scripture;” to the second group we would say, “how can you miss so pervasive a biblical teaching that there are differences among Christians?” At the same time, let us say to both, “We commend you for emphasizing an important biblical truth; now let’s examine how we may draw closer to one another into the main channel of Scriptural sanctification!”
For now, let us agree with those who insist on a second work of grace. Very few people are like the Apostle Paul who grew from new birth to translation into his Lord’s presence with no second experience. To get around this apparent exception, those who adhere to a theologically necessary second work of grace are pushed into the corner of claiming that Paul had both experiences virtually simultaneously. I think it more natural to hold that Paul demonstrated the normal Christian experience available to all — steady growth toward Christlikeness from birth to death. Nowhere in Scripture are we told of a theologically necessary “second work of grace,” an omission truly astonishing if indeed the Spirit intended such an experience to be the cornerstone of Christian living.
On the other hand, though Paul’s experience may be normative it certainly isn’t typical. Practically speaking, most Christians, especially those who came to faith at an early age in a Christian home, desperately need a second work of grace! Or a third, or fourth. In fact, when through rebellion or drift, a Christian begins to spiral downward again, nothing will do but a major turn-around. To failing Christians, the Apostles never mention a new and different experience, a spiritual booster rocket, but consistently point us back to the original contract—don’t you know who you are? Don’t you realize the Spirit is in you? Such Christians need a fresh encounter with God, a crisis, a u-turn. So let me invite us to meet on common ground — an experience of the Holy Spirit in transforming grace is indeed needed by most Christians at some time subsequent to salvation. But please don’t insist that such an experience is theologically necessary for all.
Those on the other side of the channel, however, will object to this strongly. “That creates two classes of Christians, and the New Testament knows only one.” To these friends I respond, “But of course. There are only the saved and lost. Let us agree.” But to hold that there are no distinctions among Christians, that God in his sovereign grace is transforming every true believer whether he cooperates or not, flies in the face of pervasive biblical evidence to the contrary. Some respond, “There are certainly many church members who are not growing spiritually, but they are simply unconverted.” The theologians who hold thus must never have pastored a church! Or, for that matter, not read the epistles with open eyes where failed Christians, Christians who behave like worldlings, Christians who have lost their first love, Christians who crucify Christ afresh, Christians who need to present themselves anew as a sacrifice can be found on almost every page.
So let us agree on this: we’ll leave the judgment to God as to whether a professing Christian is one in reality. And to any who seem to be failing of promised blessing in their attempts to live the Christian way, let us agree to encourage them to have a fresh encounter of surrender and faith.