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White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

What Really Drives the Christian Life?



Release date:

March 13, 2014

Especially as Americans, we are often given to over-simplification. We like bumper stickers and sound bites. Problem is, sound bites get forwarded, linked, tagged, “liked,” and tweeted. And then the “aha!” moment passes as quickly as it struck.

Even confessional folks have slogans. I’m quite sure that mainline Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde didn’t intend “Sanctification is getting used to your justification” as a slogan. The place where I first saw it was in Christian Spirituality: Five Views on Sanctification, edited by Donald Alexander. There is a lot that Professor Forde says before and after this sentence. Nevertheless, in my view at least, it’s all making the same point in different ways.

Sinclair Ferguson contributed the Reformed chapter in that volume. Not surprisingly, his chapter is distinctly Reformed. Yet what becomes intriguing is the way in which Forde and Ferguson become obvious allies over against other approaches to sanctification in the remainder of the book.

And yet, with Ferguson, I have a mixed response to Forde’s statement, especially as it has become a widely-used slogan. It’s certainly an important part of what Scripture says about sanctification, right? Through the gospel the Spirit gives us faith, and that faith in Christ bears the fruit of love and good works. The more that we hear the objective accomplishment of Jesus Christ for us, the greater our heart swells with joy and love for God and neighbor. If it’s nothing less than “getting used to our justification,” sanctification is also something more than this aspect. God’s marvelous work of sanctifying us can’t be reduced to a single thesis, much less a slogan.

By the way, even more conservative/confessional Lutherans have offered a similar critique. For example, the Rev. John F. Brug of Wisconsin Synod says that Forde’s presentation doesn’t quite represent confessional Lutheran teaching. Pastor Brug offers a series of his own theses, supported by numerous scriptural passages.

  • “True Lutheran teaching emphasizes the importance and necessity of sanctification, Christian living, and good works in the life of every Christian.”
  • It “emphasizes the distinction of justification from sanctification.”
  • “It clearly distinguishes the roles of the law and the gospel in sanctification.”
  • “Lutheran teaching emphasizes the priority of the means of grace as the tools God uses in producing sanctification in the lives of his people.” These means are preaching, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. “Nevertheless, in our preaching and teaching we should also refer to other means which God may use in a secondary way to strengthen and encourage us in our sanctification.Foremost among these is prayer.” Prayer is not a “means of grace” because it is our activity toward God. Yet prayer is indispensable to our growth in Christ.
  • “Lutheran teaching of sanctification emphasizes God’s power, rather than human effort, as the source of sanctification.”
  • “Lutheran teaching, nevertheless, emphasizes also the importance and necessity of our cooperation and effort in our sanctification. Unlike Christ’s work in justification, the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification does not substitute for our efforts.” He adds (again, with key passages), “Scripture often admonishes us to be eager participants in Christian living. Sometimes it does this with general admonitions…. At other times it encourages zeal or dedication in specific acts of sanctification…. Although the Holy Spirit is the creator of our faith, he does not believe for us. In the same way though God is the source of our sanctification, he does not do our good works for us.”
  • “Lutheran teaching of sanctification also warns of the struggle and difficulty that every Christian will face in sanctification.”
  • It “recognizes the sanctification will never be perfect in this life” and… we are to “thank God for progress in sanctification and commend Christians for the gains that have been made. A Lutheran preacher assures his people that God is pleased with the works which they do as a result of their faith… A Lutheran preacher should not hesitate to praise and commend Christians for the good works which he sees in their lives.”
  • “Lutheran teaching of sanctification urges people never to rest on their laurels, but to keep striving to advance.”
  • “Lutheran teaching of sanctification keeps believers’ eyes on the goals of sanctification. Present goals are the glory of God, assurance of faith for ourselves, testimony to others, and help to others.”

Pastor Brug then contrasts this view with other positions. He offers traditional Lutheran critiques of the Reformed position. Nevertheless, he recognizes that Lutheran and Reformed confessions are allied in opposition to other approaches. “Often trends that are decried as ‘Reformed’ influences on Lutheran theology are not ‘Reformed,’ but Wesleyan/Arminian.  In fact, of all of the views commonly held in American Evangelicalism, the Reformed view of sanctification is closest to the scriptural teaching. Generally, it is more orthodox than the view of heterodox Lutheranism.” Pastor Brug especially appreciates Sinclair Ferguson’s presentation in Christian Spirituality. “At least the response of Ferguson, the Reformed spokesman, refers to ‘Dr. Forde’s edition of the Lutheran teaching.’”

Reductionistic sloganeering happens on the Reformed side, too. Part of the story—indeed, a major part of it—can become the whole story. Sometimes we’ve employed the structure of the Heidelberg Catechism—Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude—as if it said everything.  “Grace is the essence of theology,” said Berkouwer, “and gratitude is the essence of ethics.” Get the gospel and everything else falls into place. If you understand the indicatives, the imperatives will make sense. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q. 35) defines sanctification as “the work of God’s free grace.”Similarly, John Murray wisely exhorts,

It is imperative that we realize our complete dependence upon the Holy Spirit. We must not forget, of course, that our activity is enlisted to the fullest extent in the process of sanctification. But we must not rely upon our own strength of resolution or purpose. It is when we are weak that we are strong. It is by grace that we are being saved as surely as by grace we have been saved. If we are not keenly sensitive to our own helplessness, then we can make the means of sanctification the minister of self-righteousness and pride and thus defeat the end of sanctification. We must rely not upon the means of sanctification but upon the God of all grace. Self-confident moralism promotes pride, and sanctification promotes humility and contrition (John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 147).

Again, this is entirely true and it needs to be said—again and again—because we are living in an age of “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” Besides, Jesus said this first, as did Paul (Rom 12:1-2). Our default setting is to think that we need the gospel for justification and then turn sanctification into a fear-and-anxiety-driven enterprise.

The Apostle to the Gentiles assumed that the first thing to do in a crisis of church discipline is to remind the Corinthians of the full power and extent of the gospel. When a church forgets this and reacts to over-simplification, it does not to “preach the whole counsel of God,” but submerges the core motivation for Christian living in a sea of contradictory messages. After all, both legalists and moralists downplay the seriousness of the law and the expansiveness of the gospel. In Romans 6, Paul answers the charge of antinomianism by explaining that the gospel is the answer not only to sin’s condemnation but to its dominion as well.

It is certainly true that Scripture—specifically, the New Testament—exposes us to a multiplicity of reasons and motives for growth in Christ. Nevertheless, some motives are more obviously “core” in the NT than others, and the good news of who we are in Christ is always the major driving force in the Christian life. For example, we are not to be driven by fear of a judge, but by the favor of a Father (2 Tim 1:7).

The problem, then, is not making the gospel the source and gratitude the primary motive for the pursuit of godly living. Rather, it is reducing the gospel to one of its gifts.  There is no divine gift greater than justification. We never “get over” or “move beyond” the wonder of that gift we have in Christ. Or at least we shouldn’t.

And yet I wonder if we are forgetting sometimes that regeneration, adoption, and sanctification are part of that same gift that we receive when Christ himself is the Gift par excellence. That’s the way Paul handles the charge of antinomianism in Romans 6, after celebrating and explaining our justification by Christ’s imputed righteousness. He doesn’t take back or tone down anything that he has said before. Rather, he says, “Wait, but that’s not all!  If you share in Christ, you are a beneficiary of regeneration as well as justification.” In other words, it’s more gospel!

Of particular concern, in my view, is the way in which the marvelous doctrine of glorification has fallen off of our radar in recent decades. It used to be a major doctrine in Reformed treatments of sanctification. Our motivation for the Christian life is anchored in what Christ has accomplished outside of us in history. But it is also anchored in the Spirit’s act of uniting us to Christ here and now, so that we are actually made beneficiaries of these blessings. Still, we haven’t taken in the whole vista until we recognize that the future glorification of the saints penetrates our lives here and now. We are driven by the gospel, with justification at its heart, but the gospel is more than justification.

So sanctification is not just getting used to your sanctification, but to your election, regeneration, adoption, suffering, and the hope of glory. Sanctification is a lifetime of getting used to God as a Father rather than a Judge, the law as a friend rather than an enemy, the new creation as a reality that makes us uncomfortable in this passing evil age, the Spirit as the indwelling presence of God that not only comforts and assures us but keeps us longing for the “more” up ahead.  Those who are united to Christ himself will become increasingly restless until they share in the glory of their Risen King.