The Way To Usefulness Is Holiness
Topic: Sanctification Passage: 2 Timothy 2:20–26
Sanctification. The progressive, ongoing growth in godliness. The increasing Christ-likeness that is to be exhibited in the life of a Christian. The positive advance of a life of practical holiness.
This is a subject that doesn’t get the airtime it deserves. Think about it. The moment we believe all our sins are forgiven. Every one of them nailed to the cross and paid for. Therefore, we can never be more forgiven. The moment we believe, we are fully justified - declared innocent, not guilty, righteous. And as such, we can never be more righteous or justified than the moment we believe, for the perfect righteousness of Christ is counted as ours.
However, sanctification takes a lifetime. Becoming like Christ takes the rest of our lives. John says, “We know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” The end of this process of sanctification (becoming like him) is when Christ appears - his second coming. And this hope is purifying hope.
One way to think about it in terms of the doctrines of salvation is that we are forgiven, adopted, and justified in an instant and then we are put on the path of sanctification. And we are to give ourselves to this process of growing. The goal is not merely to be forgiven. It is not merely to be counted righteous in Christ. It is not merely to a child of God. It is to be holy; to be like him in our thoughts, words, and actions.
I think one one of the reasons why this doesn’t get the emphasis that forgiveness, justification, adoption get is because it sounds like effort. And we can wrongly assume that effort in the Christian life is akin to earning salvation and that is bad. We cannot earn our salvation. It is by grace alone, through faith alone. However, to grow up in Christ is not without effort, or work. I think it was Douglas Wilson who said that sanctification has two main ingredients - grace and sweat. JC Ryle had a pithy saying, “there are no spiritual gains without pains.” No pain, no gain.
I think there needs to be a revival of an emphasis on practical holiness, a progressive freedom from sin in all its forms, and positively a progressive growth in likeness to Jesus Christ. JC Ryle lamented this when he wrote his classic book on the subject “Holiness”. Listen to what he said back in 1879 when he wrote the book - I think it applies today…
I have had a deep conviction for many years that practical holiness and entire self-consecration to God are not sufficiently attended to by modern Christians in this country. Politics, or controversy, or party spirit, or worldliness, have eaten out the heart of lively piety in too many of us. The subject of personal godliness has fallen sadly into the background.
Let’s pray for a revival of a lively desire and grace-filled effort to grow in practical holiness. This was God’s intended purpose from the beginning for his children. Romans 8:29 says we have been “Predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…” This is what God intends. This is the path that leads to eternal life (Romans 6:22, 2 Thessalonians 2:13). And without real sanctification in our lives, without growth in holiness, there is no salvation (Hebrews 12:14). Someone who does not exhibit a changed life, has not been born again. So this is of utmost importance.
BIG IDEA: The way to usefulness is holiness
Our text this morning makes it abundantly clear that the way to greater usefulness in God’s kingdom is holiness. The way to be of greater usefulness to God is holiness, purity, sanctification. There may be some who recoil at this. Let me make one thing clear. Every person that God uses is imperfect. So I am not talking about sinless perfection. God in his mercy and glory uses people who are still growing, who have not arrived yet - which is all of us. But I think all of us ought to be able to affirm what John Newton said:
I am not what I might be, I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I wish to be, I am not what I hope to be. But I thank God I am not what I once was, and I can say with the great apostle, “By the grace of God I am what I am.
Our text is clear that those who would be useful to the Lord, must be on the path of sanctification, seeking to grow in practical holiness. Look at verse 20:
Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use and some for dishonorable.
The picture here is of household gear or utensils in ancient times. Some would be used for honorable purposes, like gold and silver bowls used for serving food to those of the household. And some of the vessels would be used for dishonorable purposes, like a bucket to collect and take out and dispose of the garbage with. Now, I need to be clear up front. There are two schools of thought here on what these two vessels refer to. And there are good bible teachers and faithful theologians on both sides. And I think there are compelling arguments for both sides. Let me tell you where I landed after struggling in prayer through this. My understanding is that this is referring to two groups of Christians, rather than Christians (honorable vessels) and non Christians (dishonorable vessels). Let me give you three reasons why I landed here:
First, Paul says, that the way to move from being a dishonorable vessel to an honorable one is by cleansing yourself. That doesn’t sound like the language of getting saved, but of growing in sanctification - at least in Paul’s language. For instance, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 7:1,
Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.
If Paul meant that someone needed to become a Christian, I think he would have used different language for that. Second, Paul is writing to Timothy, his spiritual son. Verse 21 is speaking more generally. It says, “if anyone cleanses himself…” But the later exhortations for how to go about this are clearly written to Timothy and for that reason I think Paul is writing about two groups of Christians. He exhorts Timothy to pursue what would make him more useful to the Lord.
Third, there is no instruction to repent and believe, but rather several exhortations to do things that Christians would do in order to please God, which we will get to shortly. So for these reasons, I think this is written to Christians who are honorable vessels and those who are considered dishonorable vessels and the difference is moral purity. Look at verse 21:
Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable us, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.
Again we see the way of going from being a dishonorable to an honorable vessel is through cleansing. And this cleansing makes us more useful to the master. We are more fit for our holy and gracious God to make use of us. More usable. The Master of the house would never dream of serving food out of a garbage bucket. Never. But on a clean plate of gold and silver. And when we are useful to the Master, we are ready for every good work. This is what Christ saved us for (Ephesians 2:10 - saved by grace through faith, saved for or unto good works).
It must be said that we do not cleanse ourselves in our own strength. Sanctification is not done in our own strength. But it is a grace-based effort. Listen to the way Paul combines grace and effort in 2 texts:
By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me (1 Corinthians 15:10).
For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. (Colossians 1:28)
So, the way to usefulness is holiness. If you want to see and get a taste of the way in which God can use us just look at the end of our text. This is glorious and we should all eagerly desire to be useful to the Master in this way:
… God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (v. 25b-26)
Through our work as honorable vessels, the Lord works salvation; he grants repentance; he frees from the devil’s grip. So, beloved we should want to be as useful as possible for the sake of God’s glory and the salvation and transformation of others.
Robert M’Cheyne said, “It is not great talents God blesses, so much as likeness to Jesus.” JC Ryle said almost the same thing: “A very close walk with God should be pressed on believers as the secret of happiness and usefulness.”
So, if you want to be useful to the Master, and I have no doubt you do, there is hope! Verse 22 and following shows us how, by God’s grace and with the help of the Spirit, we pursue sanctification and thus make ourselves as useful as possible to the Lord Jesus Christ. So, there are three strong words to unpack: FLEE, PURSUE, SERVE. You must flee certain things, pursue certain things. And you are called to Christ’s service for the sake of others.
So, flee youthful passions… (v. 22a)
Flee means to shun or avoid. To run away from! Oh, how often Christians linger around temptation until it ensnares them. How often Christians coddle their sins, justify their sins rather than running away from them! God told Cain in Genesis 4, “Sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” We must get in the practice of fleeing from sin. This is no mere passive disapproval, but a full on resistance!
If we do not deal with temptation and sin forcefully it will wreak havoc in our lives. By the grace of God, we can and must. So, flee youthful passions. Paul is thinking of something in particular. Youthful passions. Gordon Fee translates this “headstrong passions of youth.” In other words, desires or lusts that are characteristic of youthfulness and immaturity. Paul does not leave us scratching our heads wondering what he has in mind. He fleshes this out.
First, he tells us to refuse, “foolish ignorant controversies”:
Having nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies… (v. 23)
Paul has been using language like this throughout 1 and 2 Timothy (1 Timothy 1:4, 6:4; 2 Timothy 2:16), so it’s important to have an idea of the general concern Paul has. He is not talking about biblical truths that some believe are controversial. There are truths in the bible that are controversial. In fact, most precious truths in the bible at one time were (or are) controversial. Not because the bible is unclear, but because we simply don’t like what it says. So Paul is not talking about biblical truths that rub people the wrong way. So what is this? I think all of these warnings are about different bitter fruits that come from the same rotten root.
Extra-biblical revelation or special knowledge that was part of the early heresy known as gnosticism. Gurus that have a direct line to God and receive insight, revelation, information not found in the scriptures. That’s why Paul uses words like “myths”, “speculations”, “irreverent babble”). We love to hear new things. We have a fleshly impulse for some new message, some novel experience. But this is something we must flee! Paul tells Timothy to guard what has been entrusted to you. To grow in sanctification, you will need to develop and conservative posture. We aren’t given the responsibility to come up with something new or novel, but to conserve what we have been given. Timothy is told to “guard the good deposit”. We are to “contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints”. So we must have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant speculations. Here’s why:
You know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome… (v. 23-24a)
These things give birth to fruitless arguments, which leads to the second thing we must flee. We must flee a combativeness. We are told to flee combativeness. Some of the most combative people I have ever come across are combative about things that 1) cannot be found anywhere in the bible or 2) are obscure teachings in the bible that just aren’t that clear. We must flee foolish speculations and the fights they produce.
Pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. (v. 22b)
The word pursue, like flee, is a strong word. In fact, interestingly it is most often translated as persecute in the New Testament. So the idea is to run after, to seek with zeal. So to flee is to run away, and to pursue is to run after. I think it’s instructive for us to notice what’s not here. Think about what you pursue with great passion. Is it in this list? We are not told to pursue our dreams. We are not told to pursue comfort. We are not even told to pursue joy directly at least. We are not told to pursue money or beauty or personal pleasure. Quickly, look at what we are exhorted to run after.
Righteousness. Pursue righteousness. This is not talking about the righteousness of Christ that we receive as a gift through faith in him. We have that! This means personal integrity, virtue, purity, faithfulness of life in thought, word, and action. To pursue righteousness means to energetically run in the direction of doing right (Matthew 6:33). Find out what is pleasing to the Lord, and do it with great zeal (Titus 2:14)! In every situation, seek God’s word and Spirit to know and do what is the righteous thing before God and man and do it!
Faith. Pursue faith. Pursue a lively and strong and growing faith. Faith in Christ is the root of every other virtue. Every virtue you seek to grow in will grow out of a strong and lively faith. Peter said, “Supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and so forth…” (2 Peter 1:5-8). It all begins with faith, so pursue faith. Don’t just passively ask for faith. Do the things you know feed your faith. How does faith grow? Faith is fed by the truth - it grows in the seedbed of truth. Faith in God, faith in Christ, faith in the gospel flourishes as it is fed truth. It grows through prayer (Jude 20). Pursue faith.
Love. Pursue love. In particular, love for the brothers. Love is the highest of virtues. It is the apex, without which we are nothing. Less than nothing. The word love here is “agape”, it is the kind of love that gives without respect to what the person deserves. This love gives without looking for something in return. It’s the kind of love that God gives sinners. Paul prays in Ephesians 3 that they would be filled with the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge (Ephesians 3:14-21). We should as well - daily, in fact!
Peace. Pursue peace. Live at peace with all men. Especially those of the household of faith. I think that is what’s meant by the phrase: “along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart”. There is a time to throw down. No doubt. And there is a time even to confront a brother, no doubt. But our primary mode of operation is to be peacemakers as sons of God. If someone has anything against you that is undealt with. (Matthew 5:23-24)
The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting opponents with gentleness… (v. 24)
We must seek to be faithful servants of Christ. We see this throughout in the language of the “Master of the house” - that’s Christ. Verse 24 refers to us as “the Lord’s servants”. We are called to serve and what is in view specifically is serving in how we carry and communicate the Lord’s truth.
How we speak. Now, I think there is specific instruction here for pastors (pastoral epistles, Timothy a pastor). But there is general application for us all, as we are all called to be vessels who carry God’s truth to others. Here is how we are to faithful servants in speaking the truth:
- Kindness: “kind to every one…”
- Faithfully handling the word: “able to teach…”
- Patient: “patiently enduring evil…” When reviled, we don’t revile in return. Rather, we endure evil.
- Gentleness: “correcting opponents with gentleness…” To my shame, I have often answered an opponent with a rash, harsh tone. As though that will help. It’s more about my ego at that point.
The word of God may offend people, but we must always seek to not be offensive in our behavior. As a servant of Christ, let’s seek to speak his word with kindness, patience, and gentleness. It is God who grants repentance. He gives salvation.
The way to usefulness is holiness. We want to be the honorable vessel, useful to our Lord, to serve up his choicest spiritual food for the salvation and transformation of lives.