Note: Due to the lack of explicit “Gospel-in-the-narrow-sense” content – which I acknowledge should pervade our conversation (post is already quite long) – some [Lutheran] theologians reading this may want to supplement this post with a reading of Luther’s Large Catechism (the third part of the Apostle’s Creed)
Note II: In light of some recent posting in the Lutheran blogosphere (here, for example*), I am re-printing this article from a couple years ago.
Before I jump into my post however, some excellent words of wisdom from tweeting pastor Christopher Jackson. As he shows, this really this isn’t about pointing at one’s own holiness – it is more about acknowledging and appreciating God’s work in one’s neighbor – in addition to the simple fact of recognizing what the Scriptures say.
- Denying progressive sanctification is a double edged sword. It keeps one from pride in one’s holiness.
- But it also keeps one from acknowledging the holiness in others.
- It prevents one from exalting oneself, but it also causes one to bring others to ones own level.
- Personally, I can’t help but admire and have profound gratitude at the holiness of a persecuted African Christian who remains faithful.
- I refuse to say that she is no more sanctified than me, fat, comfortable, western Christian that I am.
- Another double edged sword has to do with identity.
- Denial of progressive sanctification differentiates one from Methodists and Roman Catholics.
- But, denial of progressive sanctification also differentiates one from such as Walther, Gerhard, Chemnitz, Krauth.
We think some people are better than others. Every kid knows it.
We all do it. Can’t say we don’t. And there is nothing wrong with this, even as we also assert that all persons, without exception, are loved by God who desires the salvation of all. And, as many a parent of multiple children knows (and hopefully many a child), to say this is not to say that one is loved more than another. So our statement stands: we certainly do think some people are better than others. For example, women might prefer the company of the “bad boy” for a brief season, but the wiser of them, sensibly, end up thinking that when it comes to a long-term prospect, other qualities need to be sought in a man (these are the better women). Likewise, we will seek out certain persons for particular jobs – when we are having automotive difficulties, we look for a mechanic who knows what he is doing – we trust them regarding that area (perhaps we also think they would overcharge us on their own, but we trust their supervisor!). On the other hand, when it comes to choosing a roommate, for example, we generally will seek someone who we think is a better person overall according to our standards, which may be more or less in accordance with God’s. This is not done according to quantitative criteria – although a “pros” and “cons” list may be produced to aid in the decision – but qualitative criteria – we “measure” the whole person. Can’t say we don’t – and if we do, that is false humility.
Not only this, but God also measures the whole person.
What? Yes. Not as it has to do with our justification of course. That must, as respected Lutheran teacher Dr. Rod Rosenbladt has said, remain in “column A. ” We cannot bring our love born of strong faith, our good works, our holiness, or our conformity to Christ’s image into that column. We cannot even bring our godly suffering and our “deep” repentance into that column. All of that belongs in column B, which pertains to our sanctification. When it comes to our standing before God – when it comes to the either/or question of truly being His child or not – there are only these things we must look at: Christ, grace, and faith (which also is a gift He provides). And column A is to remain column A until we breathe our last.
But sanctification? Different story.
Now it is true that Jesus Himself dwells in our hearts by faith, and He is perfectly righteous before His Father in Heaven. And it is also true that those with faith are completely new creatures in Christ – with “new desires, attitudes, and dispositions to align [our lives] with God’s design”** – albeit ones that are immature. Still, when it comes to justification, even these things are all column B stuff (see Hebrews 10:14), for God justifies the wicked when they look to him in desperate, groping, and loveless trust – via the alien, or external righteousness of Jesus Christ given in His Word! Regarding our being new creatures, it is therefore true that we have a new nature – even if we don’t feel it – who is not Jesus. In other words, it is we who are new men, not Jesus, and it is we who cooperate with Him – or not – in our sanctification. As such, God does judge some of us to be more in line with his designs, desires, thoughts, words, and deeds than others (even as each are conformed in distinctive ways) and rewards them as such. Of course they won’t care about the fact that they will certainly be in charge of many mansions in heaven (note: not on earth!) – but they will be nonetheless. And of course, those of us with only one mansion or so (I guess) will be nothing but happy for them by that point (I’m guessing there will be some great “commons” areas : ) ).
Of course, all of this sanctification talk makes some persons nervous – especially today. Some may feel this shows a lack of humility. Now I am not saying that we should go around saying that one person may be 99.9% saint while another is only 63% % or even 6.3%. That way of speaking is a bit ridiculous, akin to taking the pros and cons list and blowing it up to all-encompassing proportions. Quantitative evaluations, those evaluations that measure specific things numerically, are not the best thing here (still, note Luther in the Large Catechism’s explanation of the third part of the Apostle’s Creed: “for now, we are only half pure and holy”), in spite of all that follows. Let me be clear: before God, in column A (i.e. that which pertains to justification), we are always 100% saints and 100% sinners.
Having said this now, even if we were to speak in a quantitative way in regards to our sanctification as a whole, would this necessarily be wrong? After all, we can’t deny that we will all be “measured” in some way, though as I have argued, more of a qualitative measurement is in mind (see II Cor. 5:10). Think about this: none of us will make it to 100% saint before we die. If we are at .1% sinner we will still need the blood and righteousness of Christ just as much as the next person, for whoever breaks one part of the Law breaks the whole Law. Walther said that the Christian is the one who fears to commit even a single sin (“didn’t he also say something about not attributing beliefs and attitudes to the average Christian he does not have?”, we say today without much reflection…) Yes, even one particular sin is serious – even as we also acknowledge that our good designs, thoughts, words, and deeds are tainted by the sinful infection that affects and clings to the godly desires the Spirit gives. Of course, God’s promise to provide a way out of temptation is only for sinner-saints, and stronger believers will recognize temptation to sin more, not less.
Further, these hypothetical 99.9% persons will always see their sin! They would not be the proud ones, but humble ones. And that .1% will seem all-encompassing to them, and given that God means for us to be perfectly loving like Him, it is right for that sin to bother them. They will, in all honesty, feel like they are, really and truly, the chief of sinners before God – and they will constantly be looking to Christ for forgiveness that they may be renewed. In addition, these persons are well aware that they could take a terrible fall, a la Chutes and Ladders, or even lose their faith altogether (i.e. justification) through faith-destroying and doubt-inducing sin. Finally, if a person is at 99.9%, you can rest assured they did not get to that point primarily because of fear of punishment and hope of reward, but because of the love of God from God that they allowed to shape them and flow through them. They certainly knew the passage about laying up treasure in heaven and not on earth – but the Treasure they were longing for more than anything was to know the love of God more – to simply dwell in His house and (not their own mansions). For He was always was their sanctification (I Cor. 1:30), by whom their faith and love grew (for without faith in Him, there is no beginning of sanctification, much less continued progress in the same). “Keeping track” of any good they did was never on their mind, although pleasing Him (not to be saved) certainly was. Maybe you would contend these persons don’t exist, but I’d say Scripture – not to say, some of our experiences – says otherwise.
Again, Jesus did come for sinners – and that means all of us all the time. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. Since John says so we all clearly qualify here. If we need more evidence, we should ask why all believers in Christ physically die, when in the Garden death is only ever said to be a consequence for sin.
All of this is not meant to promote worry in us, but awareness – of all we have been given in Christ amidst our enemies of the flesh, the world, and the devil.
I don’t know about you, but I think I have a long way to go. But spurred on by the fact that my salvation is secure in my Lord Jesus by grace through faith, how can I not be eager to “catch up to myself in Christ”?
*My pastor comments: “…a number of non-sequiturs. Just because we are justified by faith through Christ does not mean we do not grow in sanctification. Just because we grow in sanctification does not mean we become less and less dependent upon Christ, nor not justified completely through Him. Just because our sanctification can both increase and decrease does not mean we do not wish it to increase, nor strive for it to increase.
And questions: What ultimately is an increase of faith if not a growth in sanctification? How can the “breaking out” of the new man not be considered a growth in sanctification? How can the Christian be a “completely new creature” and yet die?”
**Kolb and Arand, “The Genius of Luther’s Theology”, 126 – note that their view seems a bit different than the one expounded on here.