This is a paper I wrote for Omnibus class. We were reading Dante's Divine Comedy, and this assignment was to explore the path of sanctification. And also to contrast the views of sanctification in Dante and in the Bible.
I know it is long...and it probably gets rather boring in spots...but I decided to post it :)
The young man shivered on the cold stone floor, sleepless and frightened.
His body was covered with welts under the rough, brown monk’s habit. These were welts that he had inflicted on himself with the help of a whip. He knew that he was a great sinner, worthy of damnation. And so he beat his body and starved himself, he slept on the hard floor, or even out in the snow. He confessed his sins at least twenty times every day. All of this, he did to rid himself of his wickedness. But every single day, he would fail himself again and again. No matter how hard he tried to stop, and wanted to stop, he still sinned. He was frustrated with himself, confused, and angry. But mostly, he was terrified of the wrath of God. He knew that he was sinful and he knew that God hates sin. But he didn’t understand why all of his sanctifying was not curing him of his wickedness. How much harder could he be on himself? “What must I do?” he groaned. “What must I do to be saved?”
This young monk’s name was Martin Luther. During all of his spiritual turmoil and attempted self-redemption, young Luther was trying to do good, but, at the same time, he was lacking the most important thing: he was not loving God. “Love God?” he reflected later in life. “No, I hated Him!” Luther tried, in early life, to cleanse himself of his sin, but that’s not the way sanctification works. We cannot clean ourselves. The stain is too deep and dark. In John 15:5, Jesus clearly tells us that, “If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit, but apart from me you can do nothing.” We were “dead in our sins” (Ephesians 2:1). We are unable to do anything good on our own. But this is definitely not to say that we should merely sit back and watch the show, either. We do have a major role to play in our sanctification. But it is the role of accepting our trials; it’s about what attitude we have when we meet adversity; it’s being clay in the hands of the Potter, being willing to be who ever, and whatever, He makes us. And it’s also resisting the Devil and his temptations. But we cannot do that on our own. We need Christ and that’s what makes the difference.
Guilt is primarily what drives us to seek redemption. And pride is often what drives us to self-redemption. We want to do it on our own. It’s so hard to admit that something is out of our hands; that we are incapable. Or, if it’s not pride, it’s often a misplaced sense of duty: that I messed something up and I have to fix it. The protagonist, Ben Thomas, in the
movie Seven Pounds is a perfect example of this sort of “sanctification”. Ben says at the beginning of the movie, “In seven days, God created the world. And in seven seconds, I shattered mine.” He was driving with his wife, and was checking an email on his phone. In that moment, he swerved and hit a van full of people. His wife, and every person in that van died. But Ben lived. Now, he cannot, will not forgive himself. So, he tries to redeem sanctify, clean himself. He wants to wash all that blood off of his hands. And so, he decides to change the circumstances of seven strangers; strangers that he believes deserve a second chance in life. By helping these people, Ben believes that he will be atoning for his sin. He thinks that his good works will somehow scrub away his mistakes, or at least cover them up.
1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” That right there is what both Martin Luther, and Ben Thomas, and countless other men and women have missed. They know they are sinful and dirty. They want to be cleaned, but they try to clean themselves, instead of asking Christ to wash them. The first step in sanctification is confession: we have to be truly repentant; we need to desire forgiveness. As soon as we honestly confess, then Jesus forgives us and washes away our sin. This is not at all to say that we will be perfect now. No, now comes the hard part. We have to war against our sinful nature, because as soon as we let our guard down a little bit, Satan will be there, ready to enter in. Christianity is active, not passive. In contrast to the verse from 1 John, Dante in his Purgatory tells us of a level on Mount Purgatory where the ones who delayed their repentance must stay for a lifetime: “If it is true that any soul who has delayed repentance to the last must wait down there before he can ascend, the same amount of time he lived on earth (unless he’s helped by efficacious prayer) - then how has he arrived so fast up here?” (XI 127-132). This doesn’t seem Biblical. “Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16). Nowhere in the Bible does it indicate that there will be an intermediate place where you will be disciplined and, ultimately, sanctified. What we must do, is believe and confess, because if we have true faith, then good works will inevitably spring forth, just as a good tree inevitably grows delicious fruit.
On another note, I will quote Dante again: “But Reader when I tell you how God wills His penitents should pay their debts, do not abandon your intention to repent.” (Canto X, lines 106-108). This line implies that we will perform some sort of restitution for our sins in Purgatory, in addition to our repentance. On the contrary, I know that my Redeemer has atoned for all my sins. “Jesus paid it all,” the old hymn says. “All to Him I owe. Sin had left a crimson stain. He washed it white as snow.” When we say that we must atone for our sins in order to be sanctified, we are being unappreciative, as well as conceited. The Bible says that Jesus has washed our sins away. Who are we to doubt that and to take matters into our own hands? Hebrews 10:14 says, “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” We are completely taking Christ’s “single offering” for granted if we say that God requires even more compensation for our wickedness.
Sanctification. What does it mean exactly? The dictionary tells us that it means, “set apart and declare as holy; consecrate.” Hebrews 12:10 tells us that, “….he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.” (Hebrews 12:10). That, in a nutshell, is sanctification. It’s God’s discipline to us, his consecrated and set apart people, so that we will be able to share in his holiness in Heaven. Sanctification is painful. It often means having what we love taken away, so that we love God most. It can mean being alone so we will turn to our one true Friend. It means trials and sadness and pain. We often won’t understand what God is doing. It won’t make sense to our finite minds, because, from where we are standing, we are not able to see the big picture. So our job is to trust that He has a perfect plan and He knows exactly what He’s doing. And sanctification also means spiritual maturity and closeness to our Savior and righteousness. Like toddlers, we clutch onto things that are harmful to us. And the tighter we cling, the more it will hurt when God pries our fingers open and takes those dangerous things away. The process of scrubbing the sin away is difficult, but it leads to purity and righteousness. And we need to desire that. As C.S Lewis once wisely said, “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of - throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.)