Editor’s note: This is an eight part series by Charlie on expository preaching.

In my last blog post, I asked the question, “What elements are necessary—in the strongest sense of that word—to develop sermons that glorify God and transform lives?” In asking this question, I’ve made a rather significant assumption, namely, that the primary aims of preaching are to glorify God and transform lives. Certainly, there are other important aims that could have been mentioned like evangelism, instruction in truth, training in righteousness, correction, and rebuke. But in my view all of these aims are subordinate to the two I’ve suggested. Not every sermon should be crafted for evangelism or instruction or training or correction or rebuke but every sermon should serve to maximize the glory of God and effect transformation in the lives of people. Let me explain why I think this is so.

First, the purpose of life is to glorify the God who gave us life, and this purpose extends to the practice of preaching. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do [including preaching], do all to the glory of God.” Therefore, we can say that the ultimate goal of preaching is to expose and exalt the glory of God in all things so that the God of glory might be prized and praised in all things. There is not a single aim of preaching, no matter how important, that’s greater than this, and thus the preacher must strive to fulfill it in every sermon. He must press himself to deliberately exalt the glory of God every time he’s called to preach or teach, otherwise his sermons will be something less or other than sermons.

Second, God has purposed to display His glory, in part, by lavishing His grace in Christ upon sinners so that they are transformed into saints, and for this He will be eternally praised (Ephesians 2:1-10). As you likely know, this transformative work takes place in two related but distinct ways.

First, the moment a person believes in Jesus Christ, by grace through faith, he or she is instantly transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of the Beloved Son (Colossians 1:13). He or she is forever changed so that all things become new (2 Corinthians 5:17). He or she is no longer under the just condemnation of God for their sins but under the blessing of God in Christ so that God now calls them “beloved” and “saints” (Romans 1:7; 3:21-25; Ephesians 5:1). This aspect of salvation is instant and permanent and is most often called justification.

Second, even though a person’s standing before God is radically transformed the moment he or she believes in Christ, by grace through faith, God has willed to transform the character and behavior of that person over time. This is called the process of sanctification, that is, of becoming holy as God is holy. This process is a bit complicated because, on the one hand, we are commanded to work out our own sanctification but, on the other hand, we are told in no uncertain terms that God works out our sanctification. So the question arises, then, how are we to understand the nature of the process of sanctification? Let’s consider three texts.

Philippians 2:12-13: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” This text clearly commands believers to take action. It commands us to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” which very much sounds like we are responsible for the process of sanctification.

However, Philippians 2:13 simply won’t allow this conclusion. Philippians 2:13 teaches us that the reason we’re to engage in this life-changing work is because God himself is working in us. God Himself is giving us the desire to change, to be holy, to be like Him. God Himself is giving us the power to carry out this desire. God Himself is causing us “to work for his good pleasure.” Thus, the logic of these verses is, “You work out your own salvation because God is working out your salvation. You do it because God is doing it in you.”

Titus 2:11-14: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”

This text also teaches that the grace of God trains sinners to renounce the world, live godly lives, and wait for the second coming of Jesus Christ. In other words, the grace of God trains believers to take certain actions, to live a certain way, to work out their own salvation. But Titus 2:14 tells us the reason they desire to do these things and are in fact able to do them, namely, because Jesus Christ is “purifying for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” The recipients of God’s grace are able to live as they ought precisely because Christ is working in them, making them holy, purifying them for Himself. Thus, again, the logic of these verses is, “You strive to be pure because Christ is making you pure. You do it because Christ is doing it in you.”

Hebrews 13:20-21: “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” The author of Hebrews prays for God to equip us that we might be able to do his will. If the author stopped there we might be tempted to conclude that the burden for doing God’s will is on our shoulders but, praise be to God, he doesn’t stop there. He completes his prayer by affirming the fact that God himself is “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ.” Once again the logic of these verses is, “May you do the will of God because God is working in you to do his will. May you please him as he causes you to do what pleases him.”

In a sense, the process of sanctification is synergistic, that is, it comes about as God works together with His children to make them holy as He is holy. Therefore, God calls us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, to struggle and strive and fight against the flesh and the world and the devil. And the fact of the matter is that if we don’t fight we won’t grow in holiness. Just this morning I laid before the Lord some of my fleshly tendencies and through His Word He bid me to rise up and fight against my sin. If I obey Him, I will make progress but if I ignore His command I will continue to fail. I do have a part to play in my own sanctification, and if I sit on the couch, eat potato chips, and waste my life watching television, I will not become more like Christ. Passivity is not the path to holiness.

However, at the end of the day, God Himself is wholly responsible for our growth in holiness because He has worked it in us. We have fought, yes, but we have fought with His strength. We have worked hard, to be sure, but we have worked with His energy that so powerfully works in us (Colossians 1:29). We have pleased Him, no doubt, but we have pleased Him because He’s working in us that which is pleasing in His sight. We have done it because He has done it! This is the logic of the process of sanctification.

There’s a very simple, even if profound, reason why God has designed the process this way: since He has worked His holiness in us, He must get all the glory for that work. As it is with our justification, so it is with our sanctification: it is “not a result of works so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:9-10, emphasis mine).

Indeed, we are granted the privilege of sharing the joy of Christ as we become more like Him but we are not granted the privilege of sharing His glory. Every creature in heaven and earth will not praise us for our own salvation in the age to come, rather, they will praise the God who lavished “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness [upon] us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7). We cannot rightly take credit for what God Himself has done, and in this way our Father has masterfully removed even the possibility of pride in the age to come.

My flesh amazes me, or better put, it horrifies me. As soon as I wrote those last few sentences my flesh cried out, “Yes, but I’ve played my part.” I do apologize, dear reader, but I must respond: “Flesh, humble yourself in the sight of God. You’ve played your part—rather imperfectly, I might remind you—because God has been working in you ‘both to will and to work for his good pleasure.’ Whatever you have become in Christ is owing to Him and therefore all the glory goes to Him. This is the logic and reality of the process of sanctification, so I say again, humble yourself in the sight of God.”

In my next entry I will address the reality that God’s work effects transformation in the lives of those who receive it, but for now let me put a few questions before you: What are the primary aims of sequential, expository preaching? How can a preacher preach to the same congregation week after week and glorify God in ways that are faithful to the text and fresh for the people? How would you articulate the balance between (and mystery of) God’s part and our part in the process of sanctification?

Next Post: The Word of God Effects Transformation