The Spectrum of Sanctification in Youth Ministry, Part 4

I ended the last article with a discouraging note about the futility of the steps we often employ to guard against the flesh. Steps like being accountable and placing barriers of activity between ourselves and our temptation actually have “no value miller_rules.jpgin stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:23, ESV). These steps are not worthless, but they have no effect on our true heart’s desire.

Although man-made rules are of no value, something else has power in “stopping the indulgence of the flesh” or “restraining sensual indulgence” (Col. 2:23, NIV). This issue is the spectrum of this paper: What causes sanctification? Rules of men or holding fast to Christ?

These rules of men are tempting. Paul says they have the “appearance of wisdom” in promoting religion. The Pharisees (Matt. 23:23-24), the Colossians, and those in Timothy’s future (1 Tim. 4:1-5) all succumbed to this mistake. The rules men set up can provide external, visible, apparent victory in our teens. But those minor victories are short-lived.

The Prevent Defense

When one football team is way ahead and the end of the game is near, they sometimes use what is called the “Prevent Defense.” Not needing to score to win, they just want to keep the clock running. They stop the long pass at the expense of allowing some short runs.

Sometimes we view the teen years this way. “Our son is sixteen, and we appear to be winning. He hasn’t rebelled, fallen into any bad sins, or given up the faith. If we can get him to the end of high school without any big slip-ups, then we win.”

John Madden says, “All a prevent defense does is prevent you from winning.” The prevent defense overemphasizes preventing the other team from hurting you with big plays, but it allows for easy short-yardage. Some debate whether the prevent defense is useful at the end of games with a big lead, but one thing is sure. Any team using the prevent defense as their defensive strategy for the whole game will lose. It deliberately allows the opponent certain types of success. The enemy who plays against this strategy will make slow advances, keep the ball, and eventually score.

In discipleship, we use the prevent defense when we teach external, man-made standards as the way to sanctification. This strategy seeks to prevent the enemy from making a big play. But the problem is that it doesn’t actually produce sanctification. Remember Colossians 2:23: “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (NIV).

Football has a clock. When the game’s over, it’s over. But the lives of our teens don’t end at age eighteen. When it’s time for them to leave home, they need to be ready to live active Christian lives because their faith is personal. Preventing disaster is insufficient. We should be on the offensive.

Sadly, the state of being offensive is often not the case. “Only one-fifth of twentysomethings (20%) have maintained a level of spiritual activity consistent with their high school experiences. Another one-fifth of teens (19%) were never significantly reached by a Christian community of faith during their teens and have remained disconnected from the Christian faith” (Barna Group, September 11, 2006). Let that data really sink in.

Independent Acting

Bob is one of the guys in my youth group. One night Bob came to me and explained that a friend at school believes in speaking in tongues. He had been trying to discuss the topic with his friend. And … what do I think about that? Only one month before, we had discussing those gifts in youth group. I said to Bob, “Oh, well, we just went over that, so that’s cool.”

Jumping up and down and gritting his teeth, he said, “I know! I wish I could remember what we said!”

Bob does not stare at patterns in the carpet or appear to be sleeping. He was an active participant in these discussions. But when the time came to put his knowledge into action, only three weeks later, he seemed to have experienced little benefit from those weeks of teaching. This retention problem is like knowing how to get to your friend’s house. If you rode in the back of the car, you may not remember how to get there. But if you drove the car, you are more likely to remember the route the next time.

We need to couple learning the faith to acting on that faith. Teens should be in a position to hunger for knowledge. In part, that hunger comes from facing situations like Bob did. In them we see our true need for understanding. Therefore, the training of our youth will be enhanced by their exposure to outsiders.

While interviewing a man who is now one of my pastors, our board asked him about Scripture that has had special impact on him. One of his responses was Philemon 6:

I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.

He pointed out a concept I had never seen in Scripture before. We must share our faith in order to understand our faith. That concept was a surprise to me. Why must I share my faith in order to have a full understanding? Why not just study?

Sharing our faith forces us to review our understanding of it. It forces us to see spiritual questions through the eyes of those who do not believe or already believe other things.

Also, sometimes because of our lack of faith, we give the gospel but don’t believe it is going to work. Some people seem too arrogant, too secular, or too educated to believe. This doubt might be in our own ability. We think we won’t say things the right way. We will learn that our doubt is unfounded as others accept Christ, dive in, and follow Him.

When it comes to missions, most of us recognize that natives who know and love Christ can reach their own people better than an American missionary could. They understand their culture and can better contextualize the gospel. I believe that the same is true of each of us. A physician is probably best suited to reach his medical colleagues. A believer who is a member of a Harley-Davidson biking group is probably best suited to reach his friends in that group. Discipleship is incomplete when we ignore our unique opportunities.

Each of our teens should view himself as a unique part of a group. No one else is in band, math class, or study hall; or eats lunch with the same group that one of my teens does. These teens also share a language set, likes, dislikes, taboos, and so on. In short, they are a subculture. Therefore, perhaps no one else except one of the teens in our church will be as uniquely qualified to reach his circle of teens. This qualification should be part of youth discipleship.

Hebrews 10:23-27, NIV

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.

We should encourage each other to have a personal sense of mission. We aren’t really completing discipleship until others have a practical ability and heart desire to follow Christ in service.

Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, said, “God’s mission is not to create a movement of moral and decent people but rather to create a movement of holy loving missionaries who are comfortable and truthful around lost sinners and who, in this way, look more like Jesus than most of his pastors do” (Mark Driscoll, The Radical Reformission [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004], p. 35).

Even here, there is risk. When one of our teens enters into discussions about faith with his friend at school, the possibility exists that he will be more convinced than his friend. I love to hear that my students are having religious discussions with their friends at school. But I also know that those are intimidating and challenging times. Discouragement can possibly set in when attempts to share are felt to be poorly done or not received.

Teens have three general areas of risk: doctrine, convictions, and mission; or what to believe, what not to do, and what to do. When I compare discipleship to football, it might seem reasonable to think of emphasizing convictions as the prevent defense and to think of emphasizing mission as offense. But that would be an easy but costly mistake.

What I want to do is compare those two things that Paul presented in Colossians 2: boundaries and rules of men and whatever actually does have sanctifying power. First, what it is that will sanctify?

Paul’s answer comes in Chapters 3 and 4. It is the application of general principles. Paul starts with the most general of principles.

Colossians 3:1-2, ESV

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.

Look high, where Jesus is. Set your mind there. Set your mind on God. What Paul is talking about is meditation on God. Sin reveals a lack of belief in some aspect of who God is. Step one in sanctification is meditation on Jesus and His glorious honor with God and all of God’s attributes. We sin because we fail to understand some aspect of God’s character. This failure is the basis for “put to death” in verse 5.

Psalm 119:55, ESV

I remember your name in the night, O Lord, and keep your law.

God has many names, each of which describes one of His attributes. The psalmist says that meditating on God’s name is related to keeping the Law.

Step two in sanctification is meditation on God’s Word.

Colossians 3:16, ESV

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.

We are not commanded to read God’s Word every day, but we are commanded to meditate on it every day. Meditation on God’s Word is a major theme of Psalm 119.

Psalm 119:11, ESV

I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.

Step three in sanctification is the reaction of a heart that loves God and knows His Word. It is application of God’s Word, motivated by the desire to worship God with our whole lives. The application of the general principles of God results in various specific convictions. Thus, the result of sanctification is external convictions.

Colossians 3:17, ESV

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Again, as noted in Part 3, the giving of thanks is important in forming convictions. The convictions we develop and obey will be both avoiding sins of commission and doing certain actions (avoiding sins of omission).

But then comes a mistake. These externals are so closely linked to our sanctification that we confuse them with sanctification. We see such a close link between our love of God and our external convictions that we think the conviction is sanctification. Then we take the shortcut of teaching external convictions.

John 15:8, ESV

By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.

Our error has to do with fruit. We say, “Here’s what you need: this fruit, that fruit, etc.” A Christian is not a basket of gathered fruit; he is a tree with fruit. Being a tree means abiding in Christ, meditating on Him, meditating on His Word, and applying God’s principles. Lack of fruit is a problem, but fruit is not the solution.

Paul discusses what leads to sanctification in Colossians 3:1–4:6. He never returns to specific applications. Instead, he gives principles, some of which are based on the culture of his day, but all are founded on meditation on God and His Word.

If we use peer pressure to condition obedience to our various external group convictions, it will be tougher to know the true hearts of our teens. A teen commits sin because he, in some respect, doesn’t believe in God. The answer is not to primarily dissuade from sin. The answer is to help him see God and His Word. Then God will grow fruit.

Difficult Questions:

1. Are rules evil? See the last clause in Matthew 23:23, “without neglecting the others.” These rules are not evil. They just have no power in sanctification.

Jesus said that at judgment “many” would wrongly think they were His because of various “Christian” things they have done. But He never knew them. It is not only insufficient for us to try to prevent disaster but also impossible. By external pressure, we can achieve lukewarmness. Lukewarmness is just as disastrous as coldness.

2. Do these truths mean that we shouldn’t primarily encourage any external behavior? That is, should we discourage certain behaviors, knowing that they are not the personal convictions of the teen?

For example, a youth leader discovers that a teen is drinking alcohol with his friends. Should the leader primarily discourage drinking? Or must he go through the process of developing this conviction in the mind and heart of the student? Of course, in this situation, we must encourage obedience to civil law, parents, and even the wisdom that he should not be drinking.

This is precisely the type of situation in which we tend to produce dead baskets of fruit. We need trees that have their own fruit because they are connected to the Head. We encourage abstinence—insist on it—punish a lack of it. Perhaps the teen enjoys youth group, appreciates the time with his leader, and agrees to avoid alcohol. We might feel that we have done something for this teen. But we have only stuck a piece of fruit in his basket. We have done nothing to change the desires of his flesh. Hopefully with time we will be able to get to the real issue: The teen doesn’t have fellowship with God. He has replaced that fellowship with a replacement heaven—perhaps a good time on Friday night or perhaps temporarily forgetting how discontent he is with his life.

3. Do these truths mean that external actions like being accountable or avoiding situations that might cause temptation should not be done? NO, they should be done. We cannot love God or our neighbor without actually doing something. But we should want to see that teens do these actions because of the voluntary choice of a godly heart and not because externals were imposed. The only difference between a precious conviction and a worthless rule is who made it.

miller_small1.jpgDan Miller is an ophthalmologist living in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He received a B.S. in Premed from Bob Jones University in 1991 and an M.D. from The University of South Carolina School of Medicine in 1995. He serves as youth leader and board member at Cedar Heights Baptist Church, also in Cedar Falls. He has been happily married to Jenny since 1992. His opinions are not necessarily those of his church or SharperIron.
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