The “Second Half” of the Gospel

At Asbury Theological Seminary, one of the ways we try to frame the Wesleyan emphasis on sanctification is to refer to it as the “second half of the gospel.” As I recall, I first heard the phrase from my colleague and friend, J. D. Walt, who serves Asbury’s Seedbed publishing and New Room network. The phrase immediately resonated with me. The idea behind it is that “justification” is the first half of the gospel, which was so wonderfully renewed at the time of the Reformation. We are saved by grace, through faith. But the “second half” is what happens after you become a Christian. This is the good news not just of our forgiveness, but of our complete deliverance from the bondage of sin and our victorious life in holiness. So much of the church has been focused on “getting people into the door of faith,” we can be at a loss as to what to do once they are in the door.

In the last few weeks I saw another way of looking at this as my wife and I have been reading the book of Acts aloud to one another. I was struck by how many times the early apostolic community laid hands on people to “receive the Holy Spirit.” Water baptism was followed by the laying on of hands. The sacrament of baptism we know quite well, because it is associated with the “first half” of the gospel. It is like the “doorway.” When we are baptized we are following Christ in His death and resurrection. When we go down into the waters of baptism, we symbolize our dying with Christ, and when we come joyously up from the waters of baptism we are symbolizing the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

But, in the book of Acts they didn’t stop there (though sometimes God had to act first to give the early Apostles the nudge they needed! See, Acts 10:44). They would lay hands on baptized men and women and pray for them to receive the Holy Spirit (See Acts 6:6; 8:17; 9:17; 13:3,4; 19:5,6). Just as water baptism is a symbolic re-enactment of the death and resurrection of Christ, so the laying on of hands to receive the Holy Spirit is a re-enactment of the Day of Pentecost when God sent His Spirit. The Day of Pentecost is re-enacted multiple times in the Book of Acts (Acts 2, 4, 7, 8, 9, 10, 13 and 19). We should assume that this is a precedent that the Day of Pentecost should not be regarded as a one-time event, but as an ongoing experience in the life of the believer, since the Spirit not only helps us to appropriate the good news of our justification through Christ, but to live in the power of the Christ as we witness in the world and live in holiness.

For too long we have come to accept the collapse of holiness and the invasion of evil and sinful activities into the life of the church. Our culture has become increasingly marked by crudity, vulgarity, profanity, and the embrace of unspeakable evils. The church has, at times, turned a deaf ear to the plight of the immigrant. We have, at times, been indifferent to the rising time of racial bigotry and the need for racial reconciliation in our land. The indwelling Holy Spirit will help us to identify and to eradicate these sins in our lives, as well as produce the fruits of the Spirit which are so desperately needed to be manifest in our culture today.

So, perhaps an even better way of talking about “justification” and “sanctification” is to not talk about “first half” and “second half,” but water baptism and laying on of hands. The first we know quite a bit about, the latter not so much. The result is that often our Christian experience is diminished, powerless, and lacking boldness. Too often our Christianity is “in our heads” and “nominal” rather than vibrant and moving through our hearts, feet, and hands. Today, as much as ever, we need the infilling of the Holy Spirit in our lives and throughout our churches. We need to have that full, Trinitarian salvation which orients us not only to Jesus Christ as our glorious redeemer, but to the Holy Spirit as our blessed sanctifier.