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Golden Retrievers and Sanctification

Category Articles
Date February 25, 2011

How blessed is the man whose strength is in thee, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. (Psalm 84:5)

In the summer of 2008 our staff and wives enjoyed a two day retreat at a house in upstate New York. On our first afternoon there we all drifted peacefully down the Batten Kill, a beautiful river that borders New York and Vermont. We finally came to a sand bar and stopped and enjoyed the scenery and watched others drift by us. I looked up river and saw a golden retriever dog swimming merrily, going along with the swift current, beside a family of four on inner tubes. As the dog came near he rushed about, allowing all of us to pet him. He was definitely in his element. But quickly he was back at it. He jumped back in the water and continued on his way. I called out to the family, saying, ‘That’s awesome. You brought your dog with you on your journey.’ The man replied, ‘That’s not our dog. We never saw him until a few minutes ago. He jumped in a mile or so up the river and he has been with us ever since.’

I thought, ‘This golden retriever is so enjoying this. He was created by God for times such as these.’ Likewise, we are made in God’s image and the great intention of God in creating us is for us to worship him and to enjoy all his excellencies in creation and redemption. Our problem, however, is that we forfeited our freedom and liberty by the original sin of Adam, imputed to all of us at our births, and by our own actual sin as we live in this world. We all are bound up with sin, guilt, and shame until the Lord Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, applies his work of redemption to us, regenerating us, justifying us, and beginning the lifelong work of sanctification, making us more and more like Jesus in thought, value, word, and deed.

Indeed, without question this work of divine grace is all of God. He declares us ‘not guilty’ and gives us the righteousness of Christ by faith alone (Eph. 2:8-9), but even the faith we have is from God. We could never muster up that faith by ourselves. But now, even as believers, our tendency is to move toward legalism on the one hand (if I do certain things then I will gain or maintain God’s favour by these deeds), or toward antinomianism on the other (I can do whatever I want because I belong to God). The legalist, at first glance, seems to be very concerned about holiness, about keeping a close watch over his sinful propensities, but actually, he reveals the very opposite attitude. Instead he is too little concerned with his sin. He thinks sin is mere outward activity. He narrows the commands, as the Pharisees did (Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28), focusing on outward performance while neglecting the inner recesses of a corrupt mind, emotions, and will. The legalist will always move toward self-righteousness and pride. He will rarely be able ‘to come clean’ about his sin with others. He has a reputation to uphold.

The antinomian, on the other hand, broadens the permissions (Matt. 5:31-32, 33-37), convincing himself that if God gives him an inch then he can take a mile. If God allows freedom to enjoy all good things he has provided (1 Tim. 6:17) then God is not concerned at all with how he spends his time and money. The antinomian will always move toward laziness and sloppiness. He confuses God’s sheer grace in justification with his own responsibility in sanctification to ‘work out his own salvation with fear and trembling’ (Phil. 2:12). So, the antinomian is sloppy with his money and time, sloppy with his dress and eating habits, sloppy with church attendance and availing himself of the public and private means of grace. He is lazy in seeking God, convincing himself that it really does not matter. After all, God loves him anyway. So if the legalist is not concerned enough about his sin, the antinomian is not concerned enough about God’s grace. He abuses it.

But the Psalmist tells us that the blessed man finds his strength in the Lord. This is the one in whose heart is the highways to Zion, living in the very presence of God, now and forever. So, neither legalism nor antinomianism is the answer. What then are we to do? How do we keep the car on the road to Zion? How do we finish the race well (1 Tim. 6:12, 2 Tim. 4:7-8)?

It is vital that we remember two things. First, with Paul we must come to see that we are the foremost of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). Paul was not speaking in self-deprecation or with false humility. He really meant it. He says that he formerly was a blasphemer, persecutor, and violent aggressor, yet he had been shown mercy. Our tendency is first to look at the sin of others. Take your marriage, for example. When you have a disagreement or argument with your spouse you no doubt focus on his or her sin. You tend to excuse or minimize your sin while maximizing and bringing to the front your spouse’s sin. If you see the vileness of indwelling sin (Rom. 7:18-20), the utter corrupting influence of the lusts of the flesh, if you realize that the devil constantly brings upon you a myriad of temptations, against which you have as much power to withstand as a mud hut does a tsunami, then you can begin to focus on your sin. Don’t look at the sin of others. Allow God to deal with your spouse or whoever it is with whom you are having conflict. Don’t make excuses for your sin, and do not take it lightly. One of the subtleties of indwelling sin in moving us wrongly to apply the doctrine of justification by faith is to view it flippantly or casually, to easily dismiss it. As the Puritans said, ‘Do not heal yourself too quickly.’ Allow the Spirit to bring deep and profound conviction of your sin. Grieve over it. Mourn over your sin. Jesus said this is the way to happiness (Matt. 5:4).

And second, confess your sins to one another (James 5:16, John 20:23). Dietrich Bonhoeffer has noted1 that we have little trouble confessing our sins to God, but great difficulty in confessing them to brothers and sisters in Christ. Why? Could it be that we are not really confessing them to God, but to ourselves in order to salve our consciences! If we truly want a breach with sin then we must be humbled by confessing our concrete or specific sin to brethren. And since we are part of Christ’s mystical body (1 Cor. 12:12-13, Eph. 4:4-6, Col. 1:18) there is a sense in which the absolution we receive from our brethren comes also from Christ. There is something profoundly humbling about admitting your vile, lascivious, and untoward wickedness to those who love you in Christ. And there also is something profoundly healing and edifying to believers who do so. Practice these things daily and you will find a greater consistency in keeping your car out of the ditch of legalism or antinomianism as you progress toward Zion, your eternal home.


  1. Life Together, pp. 110ff.

Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.

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