We come this morning to the third and final sermon in this series of messages examining 2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1. Now, I’ve entitled this series, “Equally Yoked: The Minister’s Proper Partners,” because in this text Paul is chiefly concerned with the legitimate and illegitimate partners that genuine followers of Christ may be yoked together with in the task of Christian ministry. And this instruction comes in the context of Paul’s conflict with these men whom he calls in chapter 11 verse 13 “false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ,” who, he says in chapter 11 verse 4, are preaching “another Jesus whom [Paul had] not preached” and a “different gospel which [the Corinthians had] not accepted.” And that different Gospel was the false gospel of legalism. These men were Judaizers. They taught that faith in Christ was necessary for salvation, but that it was not sufficient. To be saved, you need to believe in Jesus, sure; but they taught that you also had to be circumcised and keep the customs of Mosaic ceremonialism as well (cf. Acts 15:1, 5). This is salvation by faith in Christ plus works. And Paul says that is a different Gospel and a different Jesus. These are not fellow Christians who have a few areas of theology to tighten up; these are false teachers peddling a heretical gospel. And they’ve infiltrated the church at Corinth, have led the Corinthians astray, and have undermined their confidence in the ministry and message of the Apostle Paul.
And so this letter comprises Paul’s defense of his character and ministry against the false accusations of these interlopers, as well as a passionate plea to the Corinthians to repudiate the false apostles and to be reconciled to him and to the one true Gospel of Christ. And it is in this passage that he calls them to that separation: “Do not be bound together with—do not be unequally yoked with—unbelievers.” And while that certainly has application to how Christians conduct themselves among the unbelievers of the world (cf. Rom 12:2; Jas 4:4; 1 John 2:15), Paul’s primary concern isn’t to exhort the Corinthians not to compromise with the Greco-Roman paganism of their society. It’s to explain that they can in no way involve themselves in any ministerial partnership with these false apostles, because—professing Christians though they may be—they are nevertheless unbelievers, with whom the Corinthians cannot be yoked together in common spiritual cause.
Just as much you can’t yoke together an ox and a donkey—two different animals, with different physical builds, different gaits, different constitutions and dispositions—just as you can’t yoke together those two fundamentally different kinds of animals and expect them to plow the field harmoniously and effectively, neither can you yoke together a believer with an unbeliever in spiritual or ministerial partnership and expect anything good to come of it. They are “different breeds,” so to speak. Believers and unbelievers are moving in different directions; they live in two different worlds; they’re energized by different powers, and motivated by different passions. Any intimate association or spiritual partnership between them will eventually only result in dissonance, difficulty, and disaster.
In other words, this text fundamentally undermines all ecumenical approaches to ministry, which seek to preserve a superficial, substance-less “unity” by downplaying the importance of essential Gospel truth. Over and against ecumenism, this text teaches that no genuine Christian is to take up common spiritual cause with a non-Christian—even if that non-Christian calls himself a Christian, but denies his profession by his life or his doctrine.
And that call to a total spiritual separation between believers and unbelievers is grounded in the fundamental difference between them. And we saw that Paul illustrates that essential incongruity between believers and unbelievers by asking five rhetorical questions—each one of them exposing a fundamental difference between believers and unbelievers, and illustrating the impossibility of their being yoked together in common spiritual cause.
Review I: Governed by Different Rules of Life (v. 14b)
First he asks, “What partnership have righteousness and lawlessness?” That is to say, believers and unbelievers are governed by different rules of life. The believer walks in righteousness; obedience to the law of God is the rule of his life. The unbeliever is characterized by lawlessness, which is to say rebellion to the law of God. So Paul asks: How could there be any partnership—any sharing of common cause, common goals, common efforts—between righteousness and lawlessness? Obedience and rebellion are diametrically opposed! They are total opposites!
Review II: Subjects of Different Kingdoms (v. 14c)
Second, believers and unbelievers are subjects of different kingdoms. He asks, “What fellowship has light with darkness?” And Colossians 1:12–13 says that God “rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son,” and thus “qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light.” And nothing can be more incompatible than light and darkness; the presence of one drives out the presence of the other. Suggesting that the children of light can partner in ministry with the children of darkness is to suggest that it can be light and dark in the same place at the same time.
Review III: Ruled by Different Kings (v. 15a)
Third, Christians and non-Christians are ruled by different kings. Verse 15: “Or what harmony has Christ with Belial,” or Satan? Christ is the king of righteousness, the ruler of the kingdom of light. Satan is the spirit of lawlessness, the prince of the domain of darkness. And every person in the world is ruled by one of these two different kings. And to think that there could be harmony between the subjects of these kings is as blasphemous as the Holy Son of God linking arms with Satan Himself in common spiritual cause!
Review IV: Possessed of Different Worldviews (v. 15b)
Fourth, the regenerate and the unregenerate are possessed of different worldviews. Paul asks, “Or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?” He’s saying that there is a difference in fundamental convictions that drive one’s life. The unbeliever trusts himself and the man-made philosophies of false religion. The believer puts all his trust in the person of Christ and the promises of Scripture. The unbeliever’s life is centered on self, and his passion is to magnify his own worth. The believer’s life is dominated by Christ, and his great passion is to magnify the glory and worth of Christ! What commonality can there be between belief and unbelief? Between faith and no faith?
Review V: Worship Different Gods (v. 16)
And we spent the entirety of our sermon last time examining the fifth fundamental difference between believers and unbelievers—namely, that we worship different Gods. Verse 16: “What agreement has the temple of God with idols?” And this rich imagery of the worship of the one true God in His temple in contrast to the worship of idols dominates the rest of this passage. And it once again throws into bold relief the difference between believers and unbelievers. Even those unbelievers who call themselves Christians and claim to worship Jesus—if they undermine the pure doctrine of the Gospel of Christ—are not just worshiping the true God in a wrong way. They are idolaters. They worship the demons that impersonate the dead idols and energize all false religion.
And Paul’s point is: as the body of Christ, the Corinthians—if they’re genuinely saved—are the temple of God. Because all the fullness of deity dwells in Christ, and because Christ dwells in us His people, the Church is God’s temple—the new divine sanctuary, where the living God most fully expresses his presence (cf. Harris, 505). All of the wonderfully rich history of the Tabernacle and the Temple—filled with the glory and presence of God, the center of communion between God and man, the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise to dwell with His people and walk among them and be their God—all of that is fulfilled in the church! In us, the people of God, who partake of the New Covenant. God no longer dwells merely with us, in a sanctuary or a building that we construct for Him; He dwells in us, in hearts that He has recreated for Himself, and we ourselves become His temple.
And to apprehend how sacred God considers His temple to be, we need only to observe how jealously God preserved the glory of His own name against the idolatry of the nations, and how severely He treated Israel when they defiled His temple by polluting it with the worship of idols. The prohibition of idolatry is His very first priority in the Ten Commandments, where He devotes the first two to underscoring that He alone is to be worshiped (Exod 20:3–5). Moses repeats this to the second generation in Deuteronomy 6:14–15, where he says, “You shall not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who surround you, for Yahweh your God in the midst of you is a jealous God; otherwise the anger of Yahweh your God will be kindled against you, and He will wipe you off the face of the earth.” And we saw in 2 Kings 21, that when the Israelites did just that—when they built altars to idols in the very temple where God had made His holy name to dwell—God abandoned the remnant of His inheritance and brought harrowing destruction upon them by delivering them to the Babylonian exile. And in Ezekiel chapters 8 to 10, God responds to the adulterous idol-worship taking place in His own temple by causing His shekinah glory—the symbol of His presence dwelling with His people—to depart from His temple. God leaves!
And if believers are the temple of God in this age, and if all false religion is demonic idolatry, how can there be any spiritual partnership between the two? “What agreement has the temple of God with idols?” If it was unthinkable—the height of blasphemy—for a temple made of wood and stone to have any association with idols, how much more unthinkable—how much more blasphemous—is it to bring idols into the temple which is constructed with living stones? If God brought such destruction and judgment upon Israel for desecrating His temple with idolatry—if He delivered them over to death and to exile, if He removed the glory of His presence from their midst, and destroyed the very temple where He had caused His Name to dwell—how much severer should His punishment be for those who unite the living temple of God with idols?
And yet that is what we do, friends, when we propose to unite in common spiritual cause or ministerial partnership with the enemies of the Gospel, who blaspheme the perfect sufficiency of Christ’s once-for-all atonement by insisting that man must add to it the filthy rags of his own “good” works. It doesn’t matter if they call themselves Christians and say they love and worship Jesus; if they do not confess faith in the only true and saving Gospel—they are not true Christians, they do not worship God in Christ, they worship an idol whom they’ve fashioned in their image, and thus they share in the worship of demons. And we are not to bring demons into fellowship with the temple of God. Whether Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Mormonism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or even “liberal” Protestantism—it doesn’t matter how many social issues or political positions we agree on, the people caught up in these idolatrous false religions are not our partners in ministry. They are our mission field.
And that brings us to the end of our review, and to the portion of our text that we’ll consider this morning. If we are the temple of the living God, and all false religion is idolatrous, what is the consequence of that reality for our lives? What responsibility does it create for us as God’s temple? We see it starting in verse 17: “Therefore, ‘come out from their midst and be separate,’ says the Lord. ‘And do not touch what is unclean.’ And I will welcome you. ‘And I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to Me,’ says the Lord Almighty. Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”
And we’ll unpack these verses in three points. First, we’ll consider the divine prescriptions; second, we’ll consider the divine promises; and third, we’ll consider the divine practice.
I. The Divine Prescriptions (6:17)
First, there are the divine prescriptions. Verse 17: “Therefore,”—because we are the temple of the living God, because God’s promise to dwell in and walk among His people, and to be their God, is fulfilled in us—Therefore, ‘come out from their midst and be separate’ . . . ‘And do not touch what is unclean.’” If we are God’s temple, we must keep that temple pure. We must refuse to pollute it by any alliance or fellowship with the idolatry of false religion. We must be separate.
Now these calls for separation are quotations from the Greek translation of Isaiah 52 verse 11. And in Isaiah 52, Isaiah is prophesying Israel’s return from exile out of Babylon. Though Israel hadn’t been delivered to exile yet, Isaiah was already prophesying God’s gracious deliverance of them. In verse 8, the prophet says, “Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices, They shout joyfully together; For they will see with their own eyes When Yahweh restores Zion. Break forth, shout joyfully together, You waste places of Jerusalem; For Yahweh has comforted His people, He has redeemed Jerusalem. Yahweh has bared His holy arm In the sight of all the nations, That all the ends of the earth may see The salvation of our God.” God is going to deliver His people out of exile. And when He does, He gives instructions to the priests and Levites in the next verse. Isaiah 52:11: “Depart, depart, go out from there, Touch nothing unclean; Go out of the midst of her, purify yourselves, You who carry the vessels of Yahweh.”
The priests and Levites were the keepers of the vessels of worship in the Temple of God. And God is commanding them, when they leave Babylon, to go completely out of the city, and to touch nothing unclean—that is, to bring none of the idolatrous vessels that pertained to idol worship in Babylon. The people of God were chastened by the exile, but were now set free, and they had to separate themselves entirely from that pagan nation, and conduct themselves in the purity of true worship of Yahweh.
And Paul quotes this verse and applies it to the Corinthians. He says, “Dear brothers and sisters, has God not delivered you out from the captivity of sin and the idolatry of paganism through the redeeming blood of Christ? He has saved you out of that spiritual exile, and restored you to a right relationship with Himself! And in light of that deliverance, just as He said to the priests of the Old Covenant He says to you—a royal priesthood, 1 Peter 2:9—‘Come out from them and be separate, and touch nothing unclean!’ As a kingdom of priests (Rev 1:6), don’t pollute the temple of God by attempting to mix the pure worship of Christ with the trappings of pseudo-Christian idolatry manifest in the Judaizing heresy of the false apostles. Make a complete and total separation from everything that you were called out from in the world! And that includes false doctrine concerning Christ! Because of their false doctrine, the Judaizers are still in the Babylonian captivity of the soul from which you have been delivered! Therefore, there can be no spiritual partnership between you!”
And friends, this rich imagery of pure temple worship versus the idolatry of false religion only further underscores the main lesson of this text. The church has no business partnering in ministry with the world. Even that part of the world that goes to church and calls themselves worshipers of Jesus. Whenever true Christians join in common spiritual cause with unbelievers, we are like exiles, delivered out of the Babylonian captivity, set apart to the pure worship of Yahweh, who then set up Babylonian idols in the middle of Yahweh’s temple! It’s just unthinkable!
And in the providence of God, as I’ve studied through and preached this passage in the last several weeks, the Lord has given me the opportunity to put it into practice. Many of you remember that my pastoral duties at Grace Church include the oversight of our local outreach ministries—our attempts to bring the Gospel to our community here in Los Angeles. Well, I’ve been praying for a while about how to get our church involved in frontlines abortion ministry. And about two months ago I, and some of the seminary students who work with me, began joining several other members of Grace Community Church at an abortion clinic on Wednesday mornings. About 10 minutes from here in Mission Hills, there’s an office building where—on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 8 to 10am—women go to murder their unborn children. And so a number of us have gone there during those hours to plead with the women entering the building not to follow through with their plans, and also to raise our voices into the waiting room from outside in order to preach the Gospel to those who can hear us on the inside. And it has been a difficult, intense, glorious ministry. The Lord’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. We’ve had opportunities to preach the Gospel to all sorts of people—from men and women intent on killing their children, to the men who transport the “medical waste” from the facility, from passersby on the street, to the police offers who responded to complains about our preaching. And I don’t believe there has been a time when we have been preaching when at least one woman hasn’t left the building. We pray that means that several children have been saved from death.
But an interesting factor concerning this ministry is that there is always a group of Roman Catholics there as well. They usually stand a bit apart from us, holding signs, clutching their rosary beads, and praying to Mary. And of course, we’re friendly to them; we’re glad that the Lord might use their presence to deter some women from killing their babies. But there have been some interesting developments. There have been times when they have come over and bowed their heads with us while we were praying. There have been times when they’ve come to pray for us as we’re preaching. And there have even been times when they’ve come and stood next to us while we were pleading with the mothers at the entrance, always holding their rosary beads, and some of them holding images of Mary and Jesus.
And so we’ve asked ourselves: At what point have we crossed the line from (a) co-belligerence on a political issue over to (b) partnership in ministry? It’s a public sidewalk; we can’t tell them where to stand. But we decided that we can explain to them that there is a genuine separation between us because of the Gospel of Christ, and that we cannot stand together in ministry. We’ve engaged several of these friends in conversation, asked them what they believe about the Gospel, and explained to them that we believe in fundamentally different Gospels, and therefore fundamentally different Jesuses. And we’ve explained that the Jesus they worship isn’t the Jesus of the Scriptures, but is an idol that their religion has made up, and therefore we are not brothers and sisters in the Lord. And while we’ve affirmed to them that we want to keep talking with them about the Gospel, we’ve asked them that we not stand together as if we are partnering in Gospel ministry.
Now, why did we do that? It certainly would have been easier and less offensive to just pretend we were all on the same side. But it would not have been faithful. It would have stood in stark violation of this very passage of Scripture. It would have been for us to have taken the unclean idols of Babylon and introduced them into the Holy temple of the living God. It would have been to join together with those of whom God has said, “Come out from them and be separate,” and “Do not touch what is unclean.” These are the divine prescriptions that the Scriptures have placed on our lives. And we dare not think that we can be faithful in the ministry that God has called us to if we refuse to obey the prescriptions He has outlined in the carrying out of that ministry.
II. The Divine Promises (6:17–18)
But we don’t only have the divine prescriptions to come out from them and be separate. We also have, secondly, the divine promises that motivate us to this obedience. Number two: the divine promises. Look at verses 17 and 18. God says, Come out from among them and be separate, and do not touch what is unclean, “And I will welcome you. ‘And I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to Me,’ says the Lord Almighty.”
Now, separating from unbelievers in ministry—especially from unbelievers who think they’re Christians—explaining to them that their version of Jesus is nothing but an idol and that their religion is virtually equal to paganism, and refusing to stand alongside them—all of that is extremely offensive to people. In many cases, being obedient to these divine prescriptions is going to alienate people. We’re likely to find ourselves isolated from the very people we’re trying to reach with the Gospel. Because of that, obedience to this call to separation is not going to be easy. But in these verses, we learn where the church is to get the strength to follow Christ in faithful obedience. And it is in the promises that, though we may be shunned by and alienated from the enemies of the Gospel, God Himself says, “I will welcome you.”
Now Paul is once again quoting from the Old Testament—and the way he weaves these Old Testament passages together is just astounding. Every single phrase has significance. It’s a reminder that the Apostles saw the Old Testament as perfectly authoritative, entirely consistent with the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, and relevant to life under the New Covenant. And it’s also interesting to see how they quote the Old Testament contextually. Paul doesn’t take these Scriptures out of context to make a point; he makes his point precisely by taking each passage in its context.
Well, the phrase he quotes here, “I will welcome you,” comes from Ezekiel 20 verse 34, another passage that prophesies the rescue of Israel from exile—this time speaking of the final eschatological restoration of Israel. God says, “I will bring you out from the peoples and gather you from the lands where you are scattered, with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm and with wrath poured out.” He goes on to say, in verse 40, “For on My holy mountain, on the high mountain of Israel, . . . there the whole house of Israel, all of them, will serve Me in the land; there I will accept them and there I will seek your contributions and the choicest of your gifts, with all your holy things. As a soothing aroma I will accept you when I bring you out from the peoples and gather you from the lands where you are scattered; and I will prove Myself holy among you in the sight of the nations.”
This is the New Covenant promise for the nation of Israel, which she will inherit when she repents from her apostasy and trusts in her Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. And O what a welcome Israel will receive from her God in that day! A reunion that will have been thousands of years in the making! And Paul is saying, because we have trusted in this divine Messiah and partake of the blessings of this promised New Covenant, we experience that welcome now, in the present age!
And what a privilege it is to be welcomed by God! What greater blessing could there be than to be welcomed into the fellowship and the favor of the God in whose presence is fullness of joy, and in whose right hand are pleasures forevermore (Ps 16:11)! We who were alienated from God, by nature hostile to God and to His law, deserving only to be abhorred by the One who is holiness, cast out of His presence into outer darkness and misery for eternity, we are welcomed by Him! To enjoy the glory of His presence! To be satisfied by the beauty of His character! We who deserve to be told, “Depart from Me” (Matt 25:41), are told, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father.” (Matt 25:34). How is it that I can be motivated to face the rejection of the world that I’m sure to receive if I obey God’s command to be separate? I must trust in the divine promise that when I do, I will be welcomed by My Father. His fellowship outweighs all the world’s rejection! His smile outweighs all the world’s frowns! Come out from them, dear people! Make a clean break with the world, and God will welcome you!
And it gets better than that. Not only will He welcome you—not only will you be to Him a holy temple and a people for His own possession—He will be your Father, and you will be His sons and daughters. Verse 18: “‘And I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to Me,’ says the Lord Almighty.” And this is yet another Old Testament promise finding its fulfillment in the salvation of the Church. The promise, “I will be a father to you,” was first spoken by God, in 2 Samuel 7:14, to David concerning David’s son. That promise is the substance of the Davidic Covenant, in which God promised that He would raise up David’s seed and establish his kingdom forever (2 Sam 7:12–13). And while there was a proximate fulfillment of that promise in David’s son Solomon, the ultimate fulfillment of the Davidic promise is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Hebrews 1:5 quotes 2 Samuel 7:14 and applies it to Christ. The author of the Hebrews says that Christ is greater than the angels, and then he proves his point by asking, “For to which of the angels did He ever say, ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You’? And again, ‘I will be a father to Him and He shall be a Son to Me’?” Jesus is the Son of David, the eternal Son of the Father.
And through the divine grace of the Gospel, we are united to Christ by faith alone. And by virtue of our union to Him, all that is His is ours. So we participate in His Sonship in such a way as to become sons and daughters of God. To be adopted into God’s family! John 1:12: “As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God.” This is a staggering privilege, especially when viewed against the backdrop of the reality that—spiritually speaking—we were orphans, under the cruel oppression of sin and Satan. By nature, we are not children of God. Ephesians 2 says that by nature we were “children of wrath” and “sons of disobedience.” In fact, Jesus speaks of the condition of unregenerate human beings in John 8:44 when he says that we have the devil for our father. “But,” Galatians 4:4, “when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.”
What an extravagant expression of love is this adoption! It is an unspeakable blessing to be indwelt by the Triune God, and thus to be honored by being called His temple! It is a remarkable privilege to be welcomed by Him as the people of His own possession! If that’s where the blessings of salvation stopped, no one would question God’s goodness or regard His grace as deficient! But in a superabundance of grace, God makes us His sons and daughters! We are not merely His people—though that would be enough! We are not merely His temple—though that staggers the imagination! We are His family, entitled to all the rights and privileges that belong to the family of Almighty God.
Charles Hodge writes, “God declares that he will not only receive into his favor those who regard themselves as his temple and keep themselves aloof from all contaminating associations with the wicked, but that he will be a father to them. It is not with the favor of a master to a servant that he will regard them, but with the favor which a father exercises to his sons and daughters. . . . To be his sons and daughters is a dignity and blessedness before which all earthly honors and all worldly good disappear” (548). And the Apostle John wrote in 1 John 3:1: “See how great a love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!” How great a love indeed! Can you be enticed by that love, friends—strengthened to separate yourselves from the world and endure its scorn—by the divine promises that God will be your Father, and that you will be His sons and daughters? What an infinitely greater privilege than to have a big church, or political victories, or societal influence! God is your Father! You are His children! “And if children, heirs also, heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:17) in the inheritance of all things! The strength to walk in faithfulness to the divine prescriptions is granted by faith in the divine promises!
III. The Divine Practice (7:1)
But what does that actually look like? Once we have put our trust in the divine promises to motivate us to obey the divine prescriptions, how do we actually walk in obedience to the command to separate ourselves from unbelievers as it concerns any spiritual partnership or ministry of the Gospel? That brings us to our third point—namely, the divine practice. And for this we come to the summary conclusion of chapter 7 verse 1: “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” In this summary verse, we have, in miniature, a concise doctrine of sanctification in practice, outlined across three practical principles. If we’re going to make any progress in sanctification—whether pursuing holiness in general or whether pursuing faithfulness to biblical separation in specific—we need to understand and heed these three principles.
The first principle is that sanctification involves a negative aspect—a putting off of the ways and patterns of unrighteousness. He says, “Let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit.” And the word “defilement” is another Old Testament word that refers to “something that makes a person ceremonially or morally unclean and therefore unfit for worship” (Harris, 512). Each time it appears in the Septuagint it has reference to the defilement or pollution of idolatry. And Paul exhorts us, “Let us cleanse ourselves from that!”
And when it comes to this negative aspect of sanctification—this putting off of unrighteousness—there really is no complicated formula for going about it. You are to put it off! You are to be cleansed from it! You are to separate yourself from it! You are not to associate yourself with it! I love the simplicity of Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 15:34. Just after he tells them that bad company corrupts good morals—which implies that he’s exhorting them to stop associating with bad company—he says as plain as day: “Become sober-minded as you ought, and stop sinning!” I love that! “Stop sinning!” Now friends, I am the last person to be reductionistic and overly-simplistic about sanctification; as we’ll see, there are three principles here and not just this one. But woe to us if our doctrine of progressive sanctification ever gets too complicated for us to balk at a simple, straight-forward command to stop sinning! Just stop it! “Get out of there!” “Put it down!” “Turn it off!” “Throw it away!” “Have nothing to do with that!”
Daniel and his three friends are an excellent example of this. These four young Israelites went into the exile in Babylon with the rest of the nation. And because they were, according to Daniel 1:4, “youths in whom was no defect, who were good-looking, showing intelligence in every branch of wisdom, endowed with understanding and discerning knowledge, and who had ability for serving in the king’s court,” Nebuchadnezzar snatched them up to be trained for his personal service. But this training meant indoctrination. It says the king ordered Daniel and his friends to be taught “the literature and the language of the Chaldeans.” And that “literature” is religious literature; it was the accounts of the pagan gods of Babylon. And more than that, the officials changed the men’s names to Babylonian names that incorporated honor to the Babylonian idols such as Aku and Nebo. And the king also made provision for these men to eat of his choice food and wine. But not only was the king’s food not kosher—not in line with the dietary restrictions outlined in the Law of Moses—it was also always offered to the gods. Eating of the king’s table would basically be participating in a pagan feast.
So what was Daniel’s response? “Oh, well, you know, if I don’t eat the king’s food he may be offended. And if I offend him, it’s not likely that I’ll have much of a hearing with him when I want to tell him about the pure worship of the one true God. Maybe I’ll just compromise a little bit, so that I can try to get him saved!” No! Daniel 1:8: “But Daniel made up his mind that he would not defile himself with the king’s choice food or with the wine which he drank.” No matter what the consequences would be, Daniel resolved not to compromise. If God was going to save Nebuchadnezzar, He was not going to do it through His people’s compromise! In fact, He would do it through His people’s holiness—through their otherness—through their refusal to be polluted and defiled with the idolatry of the unbelievers. And the same must be true of us: We are not to compromise with idolaters, thinking that our politeness will win them to Christ. We are to cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit.
And notice: “all defilement of flesh and spirit.” What does that show you? That false religion defiles both flesh and spirit, and therefore that sanctification concerns both external and internal matters. It’s not enough to walk in outward purity; Christianity is fundamentally a matter of the heart. And the point is: false worship isn’t only a matter of externals; it’s not as if, for example, as long as you don’t go to a Catholic church—or, if you go you don’t kneel, and pray, and participate in the Eucharist—well then you’ll be just fine if you minister alongside them on the streets! No, even your spirit is defiled by such things. And you won’t have any hope of making progress in holiness—of advancing in maturity in the Christian life—if you are consistently exposing yourself to false doctrine and to the company of heretics. You say, “No, you don’t understand! I’m a strong Christian! I’ll be fine! And maybe I’ll even have an impact on them!” No! Paul says false religion defiles the spirit. It will fundamentally hinder your sanctification. If you want to have an impact on the enemies of the Gospel, you don’t compromise with their false doctrine and link arms with them in ministry. You draw those lines, refute their false doctrine, and preach the Gospel to them.
So, the first principle of sanctification is that we must put off unrighteousness—we must cleanse ourselves of every defilement of flesh and spirit. A second principle of sanctification is that we must put on righteousness in its place. There is a positive as well as a negative aspect to sanctification. Not only are we to put off, we are also to put on. Look at the next phrase in verse 1: “. . . perfecting holiness in the fear of God,” or “bringing holiness to completion,” or “pursuing the completion of holiness.”
Now, Paul is not saying: “Achieve perfect sanctification.” He knows that that is impossible this side of heaven. But he is saying: “Pursue the completion of sanctification! Press forward in the fight for holiness!” And we see that progressive component to sanctification even by the way he uses a present participle in this verse: “perfecting holiness”—that is, engaging in the ongoing, continuous process of maturing in holiness. Paul teaches the same concept in Philippians 3:12–14, where he says, “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.”
And so we must press on in putting on. Sanctification doesn’t just involve the negative aspect—putting off unrighteousness; it requires that we put on righteousness in its place. So Paul says in Ephesians 4:22, “that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” So we do not merely put off fellowshipping with and ministering alongside unbelievers; we put on, in its place, the active pursuit of holiness, which would include fellowshipping with and ministering alongside the genuine people of God!
And the third principle for sanctification that we learn from this verse is how the promises of God are the ground and motivation for our practical obedience. This is often called the indicative-imperative paradigm. That is to say, biblical imperatives are always based upon Gospel indicatives. The commands we are to obey are always grounded in declarations that God makes concerning our identity in Him. “Because of My grace, this is true of you; therefore, conduct yourself in this way.” Or “Conduct yourself in this way, because My grace has made these things true of you.” And we see this in the first part of verse 1. Paul says, “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves.”
Yes, we must put off unrighteousness. We have a moral obligation to stop sinning. Yes, we must put on righteousness. It is imperative for us to press on in the fight of holiness. But what motivates us for that fight? What strengthens us for that battle? What is the fuel in our tank for the race that God has set before us to run? Answer: the promises of God as revealed in Christ! Look again at how this entire passage reasons:
Verse 14, imperative: “Do not be bound together with unbelievers.” Verse 16, indicative: “For we are the temple of the living God!” The basis for our obedience to the command not to be unequally yoked, is the truth that God has made us His temple.
Verse 16 again, indicatives: “I will dwell in them and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Verse 17, imperative: “Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate.” What is the ground and motivation for our separation from the pollution of idolatry? The blessed promise that God will dwell in us and be our God!
Verses 17 and 18, indicatives: “And I will welcome you. And I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to Me.” Chapter 7 verse 1, imperatives: “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves.”
Scripture never lays an imperative upon the shoulders of the people of God without setting under our feet a Gospel indicative upon which we can stand. “Since we have these glorious promises of God’s grace to us—promises that we shall be His temple, and His people, and members of His own family if we should follow Him in obedience—well then dear friends, let us follow Him! Let us obey Him! If the rewards are so great, let us press on after Him in faithful obedience!” O how necessary it is to behold this gracious framework in which all sanctification takes place! It is not: “Obey this imperative in order that these indicatives might be true of you!” No! It is: “Because God has graciously lavished His upon you the blessings of salvation—because these indicatives are already true of you—therefore obey His commands!” Dear friends, no progress in sanctification can be made apart from an intimate acquaintance with the grace of God that grounds and strengthens and motivates and fuels all our obedience! “Having these promises—since these rewards of pure fellowship and unstained communion with God are so much more pleasing and enticing than the false pleasures of the pollution and defilement of sin—therefore, on that basis, let us cleanse ourselves! Let us come out from among them and be separate! Let us press on in holiness in the fear of God! Let us not be unequally yoked with unbelievers!
And to the unbelievers who sit here under the Word of God this morning—you who do not enjoy a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, and who are a stranger to the grace of God’s salvation from sin—look at how severely God considers your case! Because of your sin, He finds you so abhorrent that He categorically prohibits His children to have any fellowship or partnership with you! You say, “Come on, am I really that bad?” Friend, this is God’s estimation of you apart from Christ! You live in rebellion to His law! You belong to the kingdom of darkness! You are a child of your father the devil! You have, up till this point, refused to believe in the name of the only begotten Son of God! And your search for satisfaction outside of Christ marks your entire life as one polluted mass of idolatry! And if you remain in that state, then you have only to look forward to the very opposite of these glorious promises that God makes to His people: “I will reject and refuse you.” “I will be your Judge, and you shall be as guilty criminals to Me.”
Oh, but dear sinner, there is no reason that you have to remain in your unbelief and idolatry! This holy God has accomplished deliverance from such an exile of sin and judgment by pouring out His judgment upon the Lord Jesus Christ, who bore our sins in His body on the cross. All the punishment, all the wrath of God that was due to sinners because of their sin, was laid upon Christ our Substitute, who died under its weight and rose again in victory over it three days later! And now God promises that if you confess your guilt before God, and turn from the idols that you worship in God’s place, and put your trust in the work of Christ to save you from your sin, then God will say to you, “I will welcome you. I will be a father to you. And you shall be a son or a daughter to me.” Dear sinner, in view of these promises, turn from the pollution and defilement of sin, and live a life of faith in Christ!
And dear saint—dear brother or sister in Christ—in view of these glorious promises—turn from the pollution and defilement of sin, and live a life of faith in Christ!"