In this post: Introduction; What is sanctification? The essential difference between justification and sanctification; The relation of justification to sanctification; Whose work is sanctification?; Through what means does God work sanctification in us?; Parting thoughts
In response to my post of Dr. Rosenbladt’s refreshing presentation, The Gospel for Those Broken by the Church, both Charisse and Jason weighed-in on the topic of sanctification. I greatly appreciate thoughtful comments like theirs, and I read them all with care and interest. I respond here with some initial thoughts.
I have been observing some of the wider debate on sanctification that has recently been occurring.
I say ‘debate’, but some of what I have been seeing has been, regrettably, outright and uncharitable hostility towards those of us who would argue that sanctification is God’s work in the life of the believer, rooted in the Gospel, and causing us to produce fruit. Careless (and certainly, as far as I can see, unwarranted) accusations of antinomianism have been thrown around by some, though there have been many other, more honourable, voices also engaged in the discussion. I wish all were as measured in their comments as are Jason and Charisse.
I have been forcing myself to read some blog posts that I find intensely frustrating, as I want to be sure that I am properly grasping the nuances of the opposition’s position and understand their arguments. I am inclined to suspect that much of the heat is the result of various misunderstandings of what other people are actually intending to say, and perhaps a fair degree of people talking past each other by using identical terminology to mean different things. Which is not to say that there are not also important differences of substance at play here – there most certainly are.
In her comment, Charisse seemed to think that Dr. Rosenbladt was perhaps blurring the line between justifcation and sanctification. My memory of the detail of what Dr. Rosenbladt said is fading fast, though I don’t personally recall thinking anything amiss with his doctrine of sanctification in his lecture. As a Professor of Theology at Concordia University, Irvine, and LCMS minister, I’d be very surprised if Dr. Rosenbladt were anything other than in complete conformance with the doctrine taught by the Book of Concord (the Lutheran Confessions). Of course, not everyone would agree with the Confessional Lutheran view.
I wondered whether Jason had read Francis Pieper (a Confessional Lutheran theologian) on the subject of sanctification. Pieper writes about this in volume 3 of his Christian Dogmatics. (I have the Logos edition.) I found Pieper very helpful when I was looking into this topic early last year. I think I should benefit if I were to read him again soon.
From my preliminary reading thus far of Francis Pieper and the Lutheran Confessions, I would say that they both seem to be in accord with what I had understood about sanctification from my prior reading of Scripture. (I say this as a non-Lutheran.)
I have endeavoured to summarize below some of the main points of what Pieper says on sanctification. What he teaches conforms to the Lutheran Confessions. I trust that, in my desire for brevity here, I shall not inadvertently misrepresent the Confessional Lutheran position too badly. (I welcome correction if I do.) The following is in no way an exhaustive treatment of the subject.
What is sanctification?
There are two senses of sanctification: the wide and the narrow. Pieper quotes Quenstedt (another Lutheran theologian, and nephew of Johann Gerhard):
‘Sanctification’ is at times used in a wide sense, including justification, as in Eph. 5:26; Heb. 10:10; at other times, however, it is used in a narrow sense and, so understood, is identical with renewal in the strict sense, as in Rom. 6:19, 22; 1 Thess. 4:3–4, 7.” (II, p. 914.)
Pieper goes on:
In its narrow sense, sanctification designates the internal spiritual transformation of the believer or the holiness of life which follows upon justification. It is so used in Rom. 6:22: “Now being made free from sin and become servants to God [namely, by justification], ye have your fruit unto holiness.” Vv. 18–19: “Being then made free from sin [namely, by faith in the Gospel, v. 17, or by justification], ye became the servants of righteousness … even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness.” In the narrower sense of sanctification the Formula of Concord states: “In the same manner the order also between faith and good works must abide and be maintained, and likewise between justification and renewal, or sanctification. For good works do not precede faith, neither does sanctification precede justification. But first faith is kindled in us in conversion by the Holy Ghost from the hearing of the Gospel. This lays hold of God’s grace in Christ, by which the person is justified. Then, when the person is justified, he is also renewed and sanctified by the Holy Ghost, from which renewal and sanctification the fruits of good works must then follow.” (Trigl. 929, Sol. Decl., III, 40 f.)
The essential difference between justification and sanctification
Justification takes place outside of man – justification is God’s declaration that we (who have no righteousness of our own) are accounted righteous for the sake of Christ.
Conversely, sanctification (in the narrow sense) takes place within us. Pieper: ‘God changes the unrighteous into a righteous man’, and, ‘the sanctification which flows from faith consists in an inward moral transformation’. This work, of course, is never complete in this life – we are simul iustus et peccator.
The relation of justification to sanctification
Although they are distinct, justification and sanctification, faith and works, are inseparably connected. On the relation of justification to ‘renewal’ (that is, sanctification in the narrow sense), the Formula of Concord states:
This should not be understood as though justification and renewal were sundered from one another in such a manner that a genuine faith sometimes could exist and continue for a time together with a wicked intention, but hereby only the order (of cause and effects, of antecedents and consequents) is indicated, how one precedes or succeeds the other. For what Luther has correctly said remains true nevertheless: Faith and good works well agree and fit together (are inseparably connected); but it is faith alone, without works, which lays hold of the blessing; and yet it is never and at no time alone. (Trigl. 929, Sol. Decl., II, 41.) [My emphasis.]
Whose work is sanctification?
Pieper and the Lutheran Confessions affirm that it is God who works sanctification in us. However, they both also affirm that we cooperate with this work. Yet, certainly we do not participate in our sanctification as an equal or even junior partner. Rather, God works in us to cause us to cooperate with Him in His work of sanctification within us. In other words, the entire work of sanctification, including our cooperative part in it, is utterly and entirely dependent upon God and His work. Here is Pieper, again:
However—and let this be dearly understood—the working of God and the working of the new man are not co-ordinate, “as when two horses draw a wagon,” but the activity of the new man is always and fully subordinated to God’s activity; it always takes place dependenter a Deo [dependent upon God]. In other words: it is the Holy Ghost who produces the activity of the new man; the new man remains the organ of the Holy Ghost.
All these points are set forth in the Formula of Concord: “From this, then, it follows that as soon as the Holy Ghost, through the Word and holy Sacraments, has begun in us His work of regeneration and renewal, it is certain that through the power of the Holy Ghost we can and should co-operate, although still in great weakness. But this (that we co-operate) does not occur from our carnal, natural powers, but from the new powers and gifts which the Holy Ghost has begun in us in conversion, as St. Paul expressly and earnestly exhorts that as workers together with Him we receive not the grace of God in vain (2 Cor. 6:1). But this is to be understood in no other way than that the converted man does good to such an extent and so long as God by His Holy Spirit rules, guides, and leads him, and that as soon as God would withdraw HIS gracious hand from him, he could not for a moment persevere in obedience to God. But if this were understood thus, that the converted man co-operates with the Holy Ghost in the manner as when two horses draw a wagon, this could in no way be conceded without prejudice to the divine truth.” (Trigl. 907, Sol. Decl., II, 65 f.)
This is, of course, exactly what Paul teaches the Philippians when he exhorts them to outwork in their lives the consequences of the Gospel that he has just presented to them:
…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. (Phil. 2:12b–13).
Thus, in a certain very limited sense, the word ‘synergism’ (= ‘working together’) could be applied correctly to the work of sanctification. But, to do so would, I think, immediately risk conveying to anyone without a firm grasp of the correct doctrine of sanctification the gravely erroneous impression that somehow we were contributing to our sanctification in the same kind of way as is God. Yet, the truth is that we only work ‘to such an extent and so long as God by His Holy Spirit rules, guides and leads’. Were it not for God’s active working in us, we could contribute nothing whatsoever to our sanctification – no obedience, no good works, no good intentions, no cooperation at all.
In view of the danger of being misunderstood, I think it wiser to avoid entirely the term ‘synergism’ when describing sanctification. Sanctification is God’s work in us by the Holy Spirit through His Word applying to us the merits of Christ, thereby causing us to produce fruit.
Incidentally, the Westminster Confession of Faith ch. XVI seems to me to be in agreement with the Lutherans concerning the origin of our sanctification and good works:
Their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ. (John 15:4–6, Ezek. 36:26–27) And that they may be enabled thereunto, beside the graces they have already received, there is required an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit to work in them to will, and to do, of His good pleasure: (Phil. 2:13, Phil. 4:13, 2 Cor. 3:5) yet are they not hereupon to grow negligent, as if they were not bound to perform any duty unless upon a special motion of the Spirit; but they ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them. (Phil. 2:12, Heb. 6:11–12, 2 Pet. 1:3, 5, 10–11, Isa. 64:7, 2 Tim. 1:6, Acts 26:6–7, Jude 20–21)
Through what means does God work sanctification in us?
God works sanctification in us through His word (John 17:17), and more specifically, through the Gospel – though the Law is also a servant to the Gospel in this endeavour. Pieper writes:
Strictly speaking, only that Word which mortifies the old man and supplies strength to the new man is the means of sanctification, namely, the Gospel (the means of grace), not the Law. It is only the Gospel which dethrones sin; the Law can only multiply sin (Rom. 6:14; 7:5–6; Jer. 31:31 ff.). However, the Law has its place in the work of sanctification; it serves the Gospel. Over against the inexact statements of some Lutheran theologians Carpzov shows that only the Gospel (solum evangelium) is the means (organum) of renewal and sanctification, but that “the work of the Law is needed to accomplish a certain purpose.”
How does the Law assist in the work of sanctification? The Law continually prepares the way for the Gospel. Since the Christian, having the old evil flesh clinging to him, is ever inclined to make light of the sin which still adheres to him, it is necessary that the Law continually show him his sinfulness and damnableness. Where the knowledge of sin ceases, there also faith in the remission of sins, faith in the Gospel, has come to an end (cf. Luther against the Antinomians, St. L. XX: 1646), and thus the Gospel, the only source of sanctification, is choked off. Again, according to his flesh the Christian is always inclined to follow his own ideas as to what constitutes a saintly, God-pleasing life, and he will look upon certain sins as virtues and upon certain virtues as sins. And in view of this fact that by nature he is but dimly conscious of the holy will of God, he is in constant need of the revealed Law as a “rule” to show him at all times the true nature of the God-pleasing life and truly good works.
Here, Pieper shows us how both the second and the third uses of the Law serve the Gospel in the work of sanctification. In its second use, the Law continually shows us our sin and thus forces us to take refuge in the Gospel, which delivers to us the remission of sins in Christ and His righteousness put to our account. In its third use, the Law shows the standard of perfect holy living that God has willed for our lives, thus keeping us from accepting any measure of godliness that is lesser or other than God’s own.
Pieper immediately goes on to reiterate his critical point that, even though the Law serves the Gospel in these ways in our sanctification, it is only the Gospel – and not the Law – that has power to put to death the old nature and vivify the new. He writes:
But we must bear in mind that the strength to do good works and to abstain from evil works is supplied solely by the Gospel. Paul admonishes the Christians “by the mercies of God” (Rom. 12:1) to present their bodies a sacrifice unto God. The only thing that will create the love of God and of the brethren in us is “because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19, 11). In every case the Gospel must write the Law of God into our hearts. Luther reminds us that those preachers who use the Law instead of the Gospel to effect sanctification are to blame for the paucity of sanctification and good works. [My emphasis.]
Well, there’s much more that could be be said, but perhaps the above might be somewhat helpful to one or two readers. I also recommend hunting through the New Testament for all references to sanctification, asking of each, ‘Who here is doing the work of sanctification?’
Peace and grace.