Sanctifying LeBron

LeBron James needs a coach. I’ve thought about how untrue that statement is for a while. There are certain players that are just so good, have such a mastery of their game, that coaching almost seems pointless. Think of Tom Brady or Michael Jordan. These guys seem uncoachable to me. Not in that they can’t be coached, but in that they are so good and they make their teammates so good that coaching them seems pointless. It’s almost like the coaches benefit from these guys more than the other way around. 

But then, this week Anthony Davis, LeBron’s right-hand man on the Lakers, got hurt. LeBron came out and said he’s going to have to take on more responsibility and carry the team on his back until Davis returns. At 36 years old, LeBron is an old man by NBA standards. He’s played more games than nearly anyone else in the league. Though he’s probably in better shape than almost anyone on the planet, he still has to watch his body. If he pushes himself too hard, puts in too many minutes, he is far more likely to incur a major injury. He’s got to be careful lest in his zeal he hurts himself.

But he won’t. He’s not wired that way. He is all in all the time. He loves the challenge. Aches and pains are minor battles to be won, not reasons to quit. That mentality is what has made him great. It’s what produces so much success for him. But, his 36-year-old body can’t sustain that mentality like it did twelve years ago. He needs someone to step in and slow him down, reduce his minutes, and keep him from hurting himself and his team’s chances of winning. Without LeBron, the Lakers won’t repeat as champions. Someone needs to keep him in check.

This is why LeBron, whether he likes it or not, needs a coach. He needs someone who won’t let him play like he’s 22-years-old. He needs someone to tell him “no.” He needs a coach who has the guts to tell him to stop and slow down, or at least, one who is smart enough to manage LeBron’s minutes for him. As one radio host said this week, “LeBron needs to be protected from LeBron.”

LeBron’s situation reminds me of a great conversation I listened to the other week on the Ringside Podcast where the guys were talking with John Pless from Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN. You can check it out in this clip called “Suffering Sanctification.” Pless is one of our great theologians of preaching, especially when it comes to the distinguishing of God’s words of Law and Gospel, justification and sanctification, and the Christian life. In this conversation, he speaks to the issue of sanctification. Pless says, “Sanctification is what God is doing in your life to save you from yourself.”

Before we move on, let’s do a little theology here. For those unfamiliar, the scriptures draw a very important distinction between God’s work of justification and God’s work of sanctification. The justifying work of God is what He accomplished on our behalf in Christ’s death on the cross. There, Jesus is declared a sinner in your place and pays for all your sins, suffering the wrath of God on your behalf. On account of Christ dying for you, in your place, God declares you righteous. You are justified. It is what God has done in Christ for you. Sanctification, on the other hand, is what God does to, through, and even in you in order to combat the old sinful nature that just won’t leave you alone. God gives to His justified children His Holy Spirit who sets the Christian apart to accomplish good works in the world in opposition to the devil, the world, and your own flesh. To oversimplify, justification is what God has done to save you and sanctification is what God does to, through, and in you—the already saved one–for the sake of the creation.

Despite how we so often hear the Christian life described in terms of mere morality (don’t drink or smoke or go with girls who do!), sanctification is primarily the work of God the Holy Spirit in our lives. But, the work of the Holy Spirit needs to clarified as well. We like to think of the Holy Spirit who is this sort of force or power that mysteriously and miraculously changes us from the inside out. But, I’ve actually come to think it is the other way around. The Spirit works on us from the outside in. He is no inner force that merely fans our feeling in the direction of Jesus. He is the God who works through means to sustain us in our faith and produce good works. In fact, as strange as it may sound, the Spirit does this by means of institutions, namely, the church, the family, and the state.

Like putting LeBron on a team with a coach, God has placed us in these institutions to save us from ourselves. Through these institutions, the Holy Spirit works on us for our good and He works through us for their good. And, we need these. Otherwise, we’ll start to think like LeBron, that we’re going to take everything on ourselves, run everything ourselves, and do everything our way. God’s instituted these estates (as Luther calls them) to keep us from running ourselves into the ground ruining our faith.

Think about church. In that church, the Spirit delivers Christ to you in the Word and sacrament constantly to sanctify you lest you grow proud and think that , somehow, your holiness depends on your spiritual aptitude. Such vain thinking is a recipe for pride or despair. You grow proud, but in the church Jesus shows up saying, “You need forgiveness again, and I’m here to give it!” The instituted Word puts you back in your place.

Or, think about the family. We are so prone to live selfishly and greedily. But, it is almost impossible to physically only care about yourself when God has given you children or a spouse or parents who are in need of you. It is certainly humbling to realize that the Holy Spirit is at work through my kids to teach me to die to myself. I’d prefer to drink beer, watch sports, and nap in a room alone for most of my life. But, those noisy little sanctifiers need rides, food, clothes, and attention. And, I thank God for it. Otherwise what good would I be to the creation without those neighbors to serve and love? 

You and I need these beautiful institutions to sanctify us, to save us from ourselves. Like LeBron’s coach, protecting him from his own drive and pride, the Holy Spirit works through the family, the church, the state and all the places in between to get me outside of myself and serving my neighbor. More importantly, He works through them to keep me trusting in Him.