Metaphors, Sanctification Is War

Metaphor Introduction

Metaphors are fascinating. I say this less as an observation on poetics and more as a comment on utility. So much of our everyday speech is packed with metaphors, whether they operate explicitly or implicitly in our lives. Take the following examples from Dr. Fred Putnam:

“Their marriage is a train wreck.”

“She’s in a dead-end job.”

“He’s an accident waiting to happen.”

“Where will you end up?”

The commonality between these discrete statements is that they all communicate one conceptual metaphor: LIFE IS A JOURNEY. These examples are a glimpse into how frequently and commonly we engage metaphors, from the explicit “_____ is a train wreck” to the implicit “Where will _____ end up?”

Given this sort of subtle ubiquity, the fascinating thing about metaphors is just how powerfully they function within our everyday language. Lakoff and Turner offer this example in their book, More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor: when two people are involved in a disagreement, how they view that argument will profoundly alter the way they approach it. For most people, the dominant metaphor is ARGUMENT IS WAR, and so it follows that in a disagreement, both parties are opponents with one goal: to destroy the other argument. However, if ARGUMENT IS DANCE, the inference structures change entirely. The two people in disagreement are partners, not enemies thirsty for blood and glory; and as such partners in dance, all strivings will be selfless—neither will set up defenses and launch attacks for self-serving victory. Instead, both will make up for their partner’s lack and both will work to make their partner look as good as possible.

Metaphors are windows into a vast world. The windows we choose will frame our perceptions, and these perceptions will define our life approaches. Essentially, change the metaphor and you’ll change the narrative. Which metaphors will we choose? Which narratives will inform our lives?

Sanctification Is War

Today, I want to work with a prominent metaphor in the life of a Christian: SANCTIFICATION IS WAR. We hear it more commonly as spiritual warfare. In the Old Testament, this warfare is literal. Israel is called to glorify the name of God by destroying the idols of neighboring pagan nations. Why? Because Yahweh and Yahweh alone is worthy of worship. This idol removal transpires as a militaristic endeavor: Israel is to fight against nations that worship pagan gods, destroying their images and altars. This militaristic theme continues into the New Testament where war metaphors are employed instructionally for holy spiritual living within the church. We can understand why contemporary believers have consequently used such a metaphor as the dominant signpost in their spiritual walks.

If sanctification is war for the believer, the implications are many. At its most basic, sanctification as war implicates the existence of hostility, which implicates the need for a defense. The question is, who is the hostile one and who is the victim in defense? Too often we find that God is the enemy in our sanctification, so our default attitude and mentality are to self-preserve and defend. Though we may not mean to make God the enemy, our questions betray our best intentions. How often do we, in the midst of hardship, question God’s sovereignty, benevolence, and wisdom, asking why certain trials and events have come to befall us when we deserve much less? How often do we doubt, accuse, and resent him, wondering if he will ever intervene with his love, if he even does love us? How often do we, in turn, make him the enemy? If God is the enemy and we are the poor victims in defense, what then is at stake? Put another way, which idols are we desperately trying to protect? Furthermore, what is God doing to threaten them? Can we locate, then, the deeper battlefield not simply in our external circumstances but more deeply in our hearts? Where, then, is the praise? How is the believer to give thanks in all circumstances as Paul charges in 1 Thessalonians 5:18?

Sanctification Is War
Source (Metaphor) Target (Correlative)
  1. Enemy
  2. Victim in defense
  3. Idol at stake/under protection
  4. Threat
  5. Battlefield
  1. God
  2. The believer
  3. _______
  4. _______
  5. _______

Of course, counseling the troubled heart requires more than a reductive formula for understanding heart matters. This is not a quick band-aid solution. What I do want to propose is that we are viewing the metaphoric map all wrong. Surely, God is not the enemy. Surely, our idols need no protection. So how do we reverse the map?

Definitive Sanctification Is Allegiance Transfer and Progressive Sanctification Is Battle

To reverse the misguided metaphor, I propose bifurcating it completely. That is, one metaphor is not enough to understand sanctification, because the believer in actuality experiences two separate events of sanctification: definitive and progressive sanctification.

First, there is a certain finality to sanctification in that once a believer is united to Christ by the Spirit, he or she is no longer a slave to sin. This does not suggest total sanctification; rather, it means the enslaving power of sin is once for all breached in the believer because of the saving work of Christ in him or her. This is called definitive sanctification. There is a defining moment in the believer’s union to Christ in which sin is rendered powerless. I use the metaphor DEFINITIVE SANCTIFICATION IS ALLEGIANCE TRANSFER, because in fact, we were once enemies of God (Rom 5:10). In our former evil ways, we walked in the path of slavery to sin and stood opposed to God as alienated and hostile in mind (Col 1:21). But because of the justifying work of Christ on the cross, because of his death and resurrection, we went from sinner to sinner redeemed, from enemy to reconciled friend, from prisoner to prisoner set free. There was an allegiance transfer in that we now no longer identify with sin. Rather, in Christ we find our identity. We belong to him, not sin, and we bear new allegiance to our Savior King.

This is the foundation that then grounds and informs the second event of sanctification: the believer’s ongoing Christian experience of daily dying to sin (putting off sin) and daily living to God in holiness, whether that holiness means choosing the way of righteousness over against sin or saying in hard times as Job once did, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (Job 13:15). This is progressive sanctification, and I intentionally use the metaphor PROGRESSIVE SANCTIFICATION IS BATTLE over against “war.”

That said, what does this all mean for the struggling believer? What are the counseling implications?

First and foremost, this means that Christ our Champion Warrior has gone before us and defeated the power of Satan and sin once for all. This is our definitive sanctification reality. We are no longer at the mercy of sin, because we are no longer enslaved to it. No, we belong to Christ. As freed prisoners, we’re now mopping up the mess like the Israelite army did with the Philistines once David defeated their Philistine champion, Goliath (1 Sam 17:50-53). Satan is defeated. He has no power over us. Christ has won our victory, and it is in this very confidence that we as Christ’s army now go forth, pursuing a life of holiness to God, fighting the mess of sin till our very last days, yet all the while remaining assured that even if we err, the victory is still the Lord’s. This is our progressive sanctification reality.

The danger of viewing spiritual warfare as a single metaphor is that it can conflate the two separate events of sanctification, burdening the believer who, in an ongoing struggle with the same old sin, is utterly demoralized, utterly spent from the failure of once and for all overcoming his or her sin. We are called to put off sin and live in holiness to God, but we are not David in the story; Jesus is. Just as David first went and the Israelite army followed, so Christ has gone before us and we, too, follow. Why? Because the great spiritual war in the full scope of redemptive history was won on the cross. This lifts the burden off the believer, knowing that his or her progressive sanctification is not the war itself but instead the smaller battle within the Lord’s victory.

The implications of this paradigm are incredibly comforting:

1. There is hope for the believer who struggles with a slow, painful progressive sanctification, where growth is bare and the same ugly sins recur in cycles with disappointing frequency. When we confuse growth with glory and are tempted to desire it drastically here and now, we can look to our definitive sanctification and see that the greatest change that we could ever experience on this side of glory has already been won for us: we have been RAISED from the DEAD, been made a NEW CREATION, been FREED from IMPRISONMENT AND SLAVERY. We have been REDEEMED! These are loaded words. This comforts the struggling believer because if Christ has won the single greatest, most dynamic victory for us, we can be sure that likewise this good work he began in us, painfully slow as it may seem, he will bring to completion (Phil 1:6), because his promises are Yes! and Amen in Christ (2 Cor 1:20) who, yes!, has made a way for us. Amen.

2. There is hope for the believer who doubts his or her salvation, the believer who looks at his or her Bible, but, disappointed by his or her sinfulness, sees only rebuke and condemnation for the wicked instead of sweet words of grace for the believer. The good news is that we can never turn back to our former ways. Even if we were to rebel in sin, our allegiance transfer is final and God’s grace is sufficient to forgive.

3. There is hope for the believer who grows anxious when God is silent, believing that he or she has been forgotten or worse, ignored. If we’re waiting for something that hasn’t yet arrived, it doesn’t change the fact that God is still our God and we are still his people, because the soldier who hasn’t heard from his commanding officer isn’t shaken with doubt that his commanding officer has abandoned his soldiers. He just hasn’t yet received his orders.

4. There is hope for both the believer who, on one end, wrestles with a performance-based sanctification and the believer, on the other end, who knows not where to begin. We are not left without defenses. God has equipped us with his armor in Ephesians 6: his truth (belt), his righteousness (breastplate), his gospel of peace (shoes), his object of faith, Christ (shield), his salvation (helmet), and his word (sword). We contribute our ceaseless prayers (v. 18), but even these are a ready dependence on him. He provides us all that we need in him, because he is the Champion Warrior who equips and emboldens his army. In him, through him, and for him, we are equipped. In this, we see that we are not alone in our sanctification. The believer is one soldier in an entire army. We are in the trenches together.

Definitive Sanctification Is Allegiance Transfer
Source (Metaphor) Target (Correlative)
  1. Enemy
  2. Threat
  3. Battleground
  4. Champion Warrior
  5. Victory
  6. Prisoner set free
  1. Satan and forces of evil
  2. Sin and hardships
  3. The believer’s life
  4. Christ
  5. Salvation, irreversible
  6. The believer
Progressive Sanctification Is Battle
Source (Metaphor) Target (Correlative)
  1. Enemy
  2. Threat
  3. Battleground
  4. Commanding Officer
  5. Soldier
  6. Army
  7. Rebel
  8. Orders
  9. Defense Weapon
    1. Belt
    2. Breastplate
    3. Shoes
    4. Shield
    5. Helmet
    6. Sword
    7. Prayer
  1. Satan and forces of evil
  2. Sin and hardships
  3. The believer’s life
  4. God
  5. The believer
  6. All believers
  7. The believer in sin
  8. Provisions of God
  9. The armor of God
    1. Truth
    2. Righteousness
    3. Gospel of peace
    4. Object of faith, Christ
    5. Salvation
    6. Word of God
    7. Dependence on God

And so there is praise for the believer in his or her hard-pressing sanctification. “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor 4:8-9). We have this hope in Christ Jesus because of what he has done for us in our definitive sanctification, bearing an abiding promise and hope for our progressive sanctification. Though our growths may not yet be discernible, though we are tempted to resent the Lord in our frustration with our hardships and sins, we can yet praise him because of the hopeful finished work of Christ on the cross.

These are only a few implications of the metaphoric map. If there are any more you’d like to add or any here that you’d like to further develop, feel free to share them with me!


Updated 1/14/16:

Kevin Lee, a Reformed Margins reader, adds this metaphor to PROGRESSIVE SANCTIFICATION IS BATTLE: sin/hardship is insurgency or guerrilla warfare. He writes,

They [insurgencies] tend to be protracted, everyday battles that are rarely “high intensity.” Most insurgents don’t have access to heavy industrialized weapons such as artillery, armor, air support, navies, etc., and in a pitched battle vs. a professional, well-equipped military, they will lose.

But they are good at three things:
1. Striking at unexpected times/places/locations
2. Resiliency: they are “hard to kill”
3. Convincing you that you are losing/sapping morale and strength when you are winning the majority of the battles.

Through this metaphor, we are reminded to be vigilant at all times, doing away with our false hopes and expectations for an easy Christian life and standing our grounds with watchful eyes, for our “adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet 3:8). Scriptures warns us to persevere, holding fast to the truth (the Word of God), protecting our hearts and thoughts, walking in the path of righteousness, and being prayerful and, yes, thankful at all times so that our weak and susceptible minds might always be reoriented to Christ—Christ in the depths (crucifixion) and Christ in the heights (resurrection and ascension). By this, we are encouraged that these insurgencies of sin—unpredictable, debilitating, and demoralizing—are ultimately powerless in the face of our Victor; and though unpleasant in this present time, the guerrilla warfare of our furious enemy will one day seem only a night compared to the eternal glory, joy, and peace that await us in heaven through Christ. What a hope we have in Christ.


An East Coaster with West Coast affinities, Grace thrives in 60 degree weather and battles the occasional bout of landscape envy. She loves seeing literature, ministry, and education—her three main interests—intersect into one life calling. One of the coolest compliments she's ever received is that she respects the intelligence of children. She looks forward to her lifelong commitment to continue respecting children and youth with the uncompromised gospel on their narrow journey home.

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