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Deepening sanctification in antinomian times – always be prepared

19 Apr
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.—Psalm 44:22

we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.—Psalm 44:22

In the Lutheran blogosphere, the “Fearsome Pirate”, has always been a bit of a loose cannon who marches to his own drummer.  But I suggest the man makes some good points and his perspective is worth paying some attention to.  See here and here for some recent bombastic but informed commentary.

If you want a more refined, reasonable, and respected voice saying much the same thing – i.e. the church’s faith and love is weak – see Pastor Peter’s latest post.

Although I have said that “the Gospel of Jesus Christ, rightly understood, has had relatively little influence among the leaders of men – even in the past times” (see here for context), there is no doubt that the influence of the Word of God in the churches of the western world is waning.  There is a famine of the word in minds and hearts.

I think this is very true of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, of which I am a part.  In the LC-MS, missions have been cut back as churches as a whole are increasingly self-focused.  The church is “weak on sanctification”.  We listen to the word, but do not seem to hear it.*  And there is little courage to do it.  I to, am to blame.

I went to a conference for confessional Lutherans the past two days near the twin cities in Minnesota, where the topic was “It’s the Law – or is it?  Legalism vs. Antinomianism”.  There were some very good talks, but apart from a few who began to tackle tough questions, few delved deeply into this issue (again, I have done a series entitled “We are all antinomians now” and I will stick to my guns on this).

Professor David Maxwell, from Concordia seminary in St. Louis, at one point asked: “How to extol God’s Law without undermining the Gospel?”  It seems to be the question only a modern confessional Lutheran could ask – if they dare to haul the elephant out into the room.  In our healthy zealousness to defend the doctrine of justification, I believe it is our unique temptation as serious Lutherans to wonder about how to extol God’s Law.  

Professor Maxwell put forth the teaching popularized in recent years by Dr. Robert Kolb and Charles Arand, also from Concordia seminary in St. Louis, the “two kinds of righteousness”.  I will not explain it in detail now, but suffice it to say I think one of the weaknesses of this teaching is that it allows the world’s reason to define what a “good work” is.  And we know, according to human reason that teaching your children the catechism, attending weekly worship, and simply proclaiming the deeds of the One True God are not a good work!

But do we even think that it is?  Do we even believe that we can talk about these First Table things as being God’s Law – things we should do for our neighbor’s sake? (see this post).  Yes, we know that we cannot make the law of God do-able such that we can be saved.  And yet, should we – as men and women saved by the Lord Jesus Christ and called to serve Him by serving my neighbor – seek to know and do God’s love more and more – unto the perfection that we will only know on the last day?

Should I, for my neighbor’s sake, be actively seeking to be where He is at – about His Father’s business in the world?  Should I, for my neighbor’s sake, strive with all my heart to increasingly live within (not by) the 10 commandments according to their positive applications? (the possibilities are endless!)  Should I, for my neighbor’s sake, strive to consistently discipline my “old man” by fasting, praying, and giving alms?  And above all, should I, for my neighbor’s sake, seek to it at my Lord’s feet more and more that I might grow in my understanding and realization of every word that proceeds from His mouth? That I might more deeply be found in Him in the profound intimacy of His supper?

And If I catch myself doing these things to be saved or simply to make God “get closer” to me so I can feel Him, should I not simply repent?

But perhaps some might say that “when the law is do-able the sinner is in charge”.   I respond: didn’t the  16th century Lutherans believe that they should always strive to love God and neighbor more and more precisely because they were saved?  To bring the “two kinds of righteousness” back into this, that is precisely why Luther distinguished these as he did – for consciences who were striving to love God and their neighbor!  Why?  Because those who truly do strive to love God more and more see how short of God’s love they fall – and sinners perpetually need to be assured that God continues to forgive us, heal us, and give us peace in spite of our failures – and even our tainted good works!

For we are not to live by the law, but by His Spirit!  This means we live in the love of Christ who lived in the law – that is, in that objective form of life where our relationships with God and neighbor are nourished and are brought to fulfillment. 

But as regards God’s Law – being perfect as He is perfect – is there much striving going on today?  Do modern understandings of Lutherans theology even allow for it?  (note in this passage about perfection Jesus is not using the Law to try and show us our sin, even if that does happen in the process)

It should, for this is the way it used to be understood.  For this is how we grow in sanctification! This recent post on the Brothers of John the Steadfast is good in that it shows there is growth in sanctification.  But just how do we mature?

The answer is as simple as it is profound: hearing the Word of God, participating in the sacraments, and exercising ourselves according to the whole counsel of God. This goes hand in hand with the drowning of the old Adam that is daily repentance. Knowing that we live by them, we seek out every word from his mouth, and these comfort and help equip us, so that we leave childhood behind and attain to the “mature manhood” mentioned in Eph 4: 13-15. Since “the word of God…is at work in you believers” (I Thes. 2:13), this is the kind of activity we actively run to, and initiate ourselves as well.

I suggest that confessional Lutherans everywhere – including me – need to “grow into” this teaching.  Saying that “reverse progress” is how we should be talking is not sufficient, for what Pastor Kleinig says is not opposed to what I have said here.   Further, in his recent post where he says the “Lutheran sanctification debate is completely unnecessary”  Issues ETC. host Pastor Todd Wilkin recommends his article “Sheep Don’t Keep Track”.  It’s a great article, but “keeping track” is not what this debate is about.  It’s not that confessional Lutherans who speak of progressive sanctification (or “deepening sanctification”, which sounds great to me) are “keeping track” of their sanctification, it is that they want to, by the grace of God, to be faithful witnesses to Christ – even unto death.  It’s about being ready for the slaughter at any time, even as we are ready to share God’s mercy – in its manifold forms – with our enemies.  It is about being those whose trust is increasingly not in one’s self and one’s own strength, but in Christ.  For the sake of our neighbor.  Like Paul, in Christ, we become less concerned about ourselves (see Rom. 9:1-5)

I submit that is God’s program – and it’s something we should get with.  If you want to debate me on this, I suggest you read through this debate first.  Here I discussed with Scott Diekmann this quote from Pastor Bill Cwirla: “You can only say you’re weak on sanctification if you view sanctification as your work.”

No.  When it comes to sanctification, we exist in synergy with God.  Full stop.

+Nathan

*-I volunteer I Cor. 5 as one of the most relevant but ignored Bible passages of our day.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chris_aston/7514761568

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6 Comments

Posted by on April 19, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

6 responses to “Deepening sanctification in antinomian times – always be prepared

  1. Mark Surburg

    April 19, 2013 at 6:29 pm

    Nathan,
    Thank you for your very thoughtful piece. I think that you are entirely correct that the idea of “deepening sanctification” has nothing to do with “keeping count.” Deepening first and foremost is being more and more rooted and grounded in Christ (to use the language of Ephesians) through his Means of Grace. It is also then about that the Spirit really has done something to us as Christians and this actually means something in how we live. The statement at the end of my piece is intentionally general and open ended: ” But on the basis of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions we must be ready to grant that there is some measure of growth or increase in sanctification during this life, even if it is hindered greatly by the old Adam.” I don’t believe that we never see any changes or improvement at all. Sometimes we do and when we do as Lutherans we know it is the work of the Holy Spirit though the Gospel – HE gets the credit. At other times deepening in sanctification may mean a greater understanding of what God’s will really is, and this may in turn make our deeds seem more plagued by sin. In this case the Word of God provides the assurance against our experience that yes indeed, he is at work and deepening is taking place.

    One can simply not get around the fact that the is biblical and confessional evidence that speaks in this way. It is also not acceptable to give people the idea that it’s really not that big a deal if they try to live in godly ways. Those are my primary concerns and reason I wrote something in the first place. I have been very surprised by the reaction it has received from some quarters.

    Once again, thank you for your thoughtful engagement with the issue.

    In Christ,

    Mark Surburg

     
    • infanttheology

      April 19, 2013 at 6:35 pm

      Mark,

      I’ll just say “Amen” to everything you said. Getting your comment here is a big encouragement. Thank you.

      +Nathan

       
  2. Matt Jamison

    April 22, 2013 at 10:26 pm

    Nathan,

    This line of thinking that you and Pr. Surburg and others have been pursuing is one that in the past led me very close to despair. Anything that leads us to examine our own lives or works for evidence of the authenticity of our faith or conversion is deadly, deadly dangerous. Maybe I’m just misunderstanding you guys (I hope I am!) But you need to understand the grave responsibility you bear when you lay this sort of thing on the consciences of Christians like myself.

    I think Pr. Surburg is on the right track when he ties sanctification to the Means of Grace. And I agree that Christian faith results in good works that serve the neighbor in the real world; our good works are not merely theoretical. And in some sense, we are judged favorably for the real good works we do, though it is only in and through Christ, by faith, that we can do anything that pleases God in any sense.

    So here’s the problem: In my life, I am not increasing in good works. By any measure, I really am doing worse. And this is not theoretical or some kind of false modesty. I have big problems, in my own estimation and in that of those around me. So is my faith in vain?

    No! Praise be to God! But there was a time I thought it might be and I had a very serious discussion with my Pastor, and I considered pitching this whole Confessional Lutheran business because of its total failure to turn me into a better person. And I could look around at my congregation and see others who’s lives were stinking it up as bad as mine. In other words, I was keeping score.

    I could write pages about this, but let me contribute this to the discussion: My sensation of getting worse is, I think, a result of meditating on God’s law and applying it correctly to my life. It *appears* that I’m getting worse and worse because I’m growing in my understanding of the perfect holiness that God requires and his deadly serious wrath toward all sinners.

    And yet: I really am doing God pleasing works through my vocations in the home and workplace and congregation and other areas. Yet these works are so humble and trivial in the eyes of the world and my own sinful eyes, that neither I nor anyone else pays them any regard. Yet God judges them utterly, totally, completely holy and acceptable for the sake of His beloved Son. God only expects *perfect* holiness, the holiness that only He gives. And this is all or nothing, there is no growth in this kind of holiness. It is given to us in faith completely, without blemish.

    So: does my life as I’ve described it evidence sanctification as you define it? Or am I deceiving myself and others? This is a completely serious question.

     
  3. infanttheology

    April 23, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    Matt,

    “I could write pages about this, but let me contribute this to the discussion: My sensation of getting worse is, I think, a result of meditating on God’s law and applying it correctly to my life. It *appears* that I’m getting worse and worse because I’m growing in my understanding of the perfect holiness that God requires and his deadly serious wrath toward all sinners.

    And yet: I really am doing God pleasing works through my vocations in the home and workplace and congregation and other areas. Yet these works are so humble and trivial in the eyes of the world and my own sinful eyes, that neither I nor anyone else pays them any regard. Yet God judges them utterly, totally, completely holy and acceptable for the sake of His beloved Son. God only expects *perfect* holiness, the holiness that only He gives. And this is all or nothing, there is no growth in this kind of holiness. It is given to us in faith completely, without blemish.

    So: does my life as I’ve described it evidence sanctification as you define it? Or am I deceiving myself and others? This is a completely serious question.”

    Awesome comment. Thanks so much for writing it. We are on the same page. Here is what I wrote to Anthony Sacramone on his blog Strange Herring (http://strangeherring.com/2013/04/08/a-strange-review-broken/comment-page-6/) :

    Anthony: “If I’m hearing anything, Nathan, is that there is no higher level of sanctification. No growth or process.”

    Me: No, no, no. If we are regularly in God’s word (this is something our new man seeks) we will indeed be progressing in holiness. Are we going to see this? Maybe – and if so, we will give glory to God alone for the times we simply find ourselves “caught up” in doing good as well as the time that we, empowered by His Spirit, cooperate with the various good things He gives us to choose from or the stricter duties that Luther says we are to “make a pleasure”.

    But because of our sin and because of the attacks of Satan, it is just as likely that we are not going to feel like we are progressing at all. But here we need to cling to His Word of forgiveness which says He always is eager to cover even the evil that clings to the good we do and also the clear words He gives us which tell us that we will be growing.

    In any case, we do want to have discipleship, the pursuit of holiness, etc. This primarily means putting down the old man when he stears us away from time in the word (in worship [with the Supper!] but also other time we have to do this but squander). But this also means our new man subduing old Adam by making time for fasting, prayer, alms as well. In all this there is vocation. And the ten commandments. This does not necessarily mean I should be in a small group Bible study although for some persons (esp. those without families) I think this may be very helpful to them.

    In vocation, I think we do need to make room for persons to do “ministries” at church – let them loose with their gifts! But churches can be pretty self-righteous in all the “programming” they do – I’ve seen it. Also, we have to be careful about “guilting” people when they don’t get involved in everything like this. I for one have 5 boys and I will tell you I think going to Platt’s church would kill me. We try to be generous for example, but the resources are sparse (I’m a librarian – my wife works about 10 hours a week and homeschools our boys).

    For the 10 commandments this is key. As I’ve said: The Law of God describes that objective form of life wherein (not whereby) our relationships with God and neighbor are nourished and are brought to fulfillment. That said, all of these are summed up in love and the applications of these commandments in their positive forms are endless. There are many ways we are free to seek God’s face (not to be closer to Him in one sense since He is already as close to us as He can be, but for us to realize all we have in Him more and more – like Mary, sitting at His feet!) and serve our neighbor!

    Am I growing as much as I should be? I don’t think I am and do honestly think I’ll feel that way my whole life. There is more I could be doing for sure. Not to be saved, but because I have been saved. I want to re-start this process of pursuing holiness every day, for I am baptized! Even as I long to be found outside of myself – in other words where I loose the “me” and am “lost” in the joy of simply being where He is (where I am there my servant will also be) – finding Christ in everyone I meet even as I, being in Christ, am a “little Christ” to all.

    Still, there is a me. There is an I. The “new man” is not just Jesus or Jesus in me. And that is glorious for He knows all the hairs on my head and treasures even me. I participate with Him in synergy.

    And so do we all.

    +Nathan

     
  4. infanttheology

    April 23, 2013 at 12:49 pm

     

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