Some preliminary musings on sanctification

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.]

Parting thoughts

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?’

Grace and peace.

21 thoughts on “Some preliminary musings on sanctification

  1. I’d recommend a couple of other resources in researching this topic and demonstrate further it’s not a particular denominational position. The Book of Concord has quite a bit to say about sanctification, in everything from the the Small Catechism to the Augsburg Confession. Also, my wife has been working through Tullian Tchividjian’s “Jesus + Nothing = Everything” sermon series, which dwells on this topic and echoes the Gospel focus of what you’ve written, Daniel. He has written a book by the same name that I expect is worth reading, but it’s in the queue on my Kindle so I can’t comment yet…

    • Thank you, Jason, that’s helpful. For those who don’t know, Tullian Tchividjian is a minister of the Presbyterian Church in America, which subscribes to the Westminster Confession of Faith.

      With regard to this view of sanctification not being unique to a particular denomination, I’d also point people towards Michael Horton’s article, The Fear of Antinomianism. Dr. Horton is, of course, also Reformed, yet he is able to write this:

      What’s striking is that Paul answers antinomianism not with the law but with more gospel! In other words, antinomians are not people who believe the gospel too much, but too little! They restrict the power of the gospel to the problem of sin’s guilt, while Paul tells us that the gospel is the power for sanctification as well as justification.

      These men are simply teaching what the Reformed have always believed. This, for example, is what the Westminster Confession of Faith (ch. XIII, article I) has to say about sanctification:

      They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, (1 Cor. 6:11, Acts 20:32, Phil. 3:10, Rom. 6:5–6) by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them, (John 17:17, Eph. 5:26, 2 Thess. 2:13) the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, (Rom. 6:6,14) and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; (Gal. 5:24, Rom. 8:13) and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, (Col. 1:11, Eph. 3:16–19) to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. (2 Cor. 7:1, Heb. 12:14)

      Sanctification occurs ‘through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them’. It is expressly rooted in the Gospel (‘Christ’s death and resurrection’). The Word and Spirit dwelling in us makes us alive and strengthen us, with the result that we grow in ‘the practice of true holiness’.

      The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith adopts Westminster’s language here wholesale, so we can also add Reformed Baptists to the Presbyterians and Lutherans in this matter.

      The Belgic Confession is of like mind. From article 9 (my emphasis):

      Furthermore, we must note the particular works and activities of these three persons in relation to us. The Father is called our Creator, by reason of his power. The Son is our Savior and Redeemer, by his blood. The Holy Spirit is our Sanctifier, by his living in our hearts.

      Article 24 of the Belgic Confession (again, my emphasis):

      We believe that this true faith, produced in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a “new man,” (2 Cor. 5:17) causing him to live the ‘new life’ (Rom. 6:4) and freeing him from the slavery of sin.

      Therefore, far from making people cold toward living in a pious and holy way, this justifying faith, quite to the contrary, so works within them that apart from it they will never do a thing out of love for God but only out of love for themselves and fear of being condemned.

      So then, it is impossible for this holy faith to be unfruitful in a human being, seeing that we do not speak of an empty faith but of what Scripture calls ‘faith working through love,’ (Gal. 5:6) which leads a man to do by himself the works that God has commanded in his Word.

      These works, proceeding from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable to God, since they are all sanctified by his grace. Yet they do not count toward our justification – for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works. Otherwise they could not be good, any more than the fruit of a tree could be good if the tree is not good in the first place.

      So then, we do good works, but not for merit – for what would we merit? Rather, we are indebted to God for the good works we do, and not he to us, since it is he who ‘works in us both to will and do according to his good pleasure’ (Phil. 2:13) – thus keeping in mind what is written: ‘When you have done all that is commanded you, then you shall say, “We are unworthy servants; we have done what it was our duty to do.”’ (Luke 17:10)

      Yet we do not wish to deny that God rewards good works – but it is by his grace that he crowns his gifts.

      Moreover, although we do good works we do not base our salvation on them; for we cannot do any work that is not defiled by our flesh and also worthy of punishment. And even if we could point to one, memory of a single sin is enough for God to reject that work.

      So we would always be in doubt, tossed back and forth without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be tormented constantly if they did not rest on the merit of the suffering and death of our Saviour.

      And from article 29:

      We believe and confess one single catholic or universal church – a holy congregation and gathering of true Christian believers, awaiting their entire salvation in Jesus Christ being washed by his blood, and sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.

      The Heidelberg Catechism, question 18, cites 1 Cor. 1:30 in making Christ the source of our sanctification:

      Question: Who then is that Mediator, who is in one person both very God, and a real righteous man?

      Answer: Our Lord Jesus Christ: ‘who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.’

      Thus, those in the Reformation traditions, whether Lutheran, Reformed or Reformed Baptist, have historically agreed on the matter of sanctification being God’s work in us by His Holy Spirit, rooted in the Gospel merits of Christ, resulting in our doing good works.

      Finally, as I mention in my post, it is highly instructive simply to work through the entire New Testament and look at every mention of sanctification, asking of each who is doing (or, at least, originating) the work. Ultimately, what matters is not what certain men teach or have taught, but what the Scriptures say.

      Thanks again for the pointers – I’d appreciate any more that you might have.

  2. Daniel, once again thank you for entering the conversation. I suspect the legit struggle people have is seeing how they cooperate with the Holy Spirit in regards to His work in our life. I believe it was Lloyd-Jones who was helpful to help me see there are kind of three at work in us. There is the new man who delights in the law of the Lord then there is the flesh which strives against the Spirit and then there is ‘me’, who in some sense can remove myself from the two and observe the interplay. I confess that I may have misrepresented MLJ and also that I may be missing something in the picture but for the sake of a starting point many in the ‘works sanctification’ camp (my designation) try to figure out what is ‘my’ role in it all. Surely, I resist the Spirit, I grieve the Spirit or I yield to the Spirit. Isn’t that perhaps what people see is the ‘work’ that I must do?

    Thanks again for you excellent insights.

  3. I enter this discussion at a late stage so I hope I will not cause confusion by commenting on this excellent and illuminating post but reading it I was reminded of several 19 or early 20th century hymns which express a view on the subject of sanctification including one by William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army called ‘Send the Fire’. This and some others have the idea of the fire of the Holy Spirit (cf day of Pentecost), filling the believer and burning up sin, whereas the Holy Spirit descended upon the (sinless) Jesus as a dove. So verse 2 runs:

    God of Elijah hear our cry!
    Send the fire!
    Oh, make us fit to live or die!
    Send the fire!
    To burn up every trace of sin,
    To bring the light and glory in,
    The revolution now begin,
    Send the fire!

    Perhaps not the best of hymns but you get the idea. Another is ‘Jesus only is our message’, verse 3 of which runs:

    Jesus is our sanctifier,
    Cleansing us from self and sin,
    And with all His Spirit’s fulness,
    Filling all our hearts within.

    What is clear is that these people had no doubt that sanctification is solely the work of God, whether by the Holy Spirit directly who ‘proceeds from the Father and the Son’ or by Jesus, through the agency of the Holy Spirit.

    While some early pentecostals ( and perhaps the Holiness movement?) appeared to equate sanctification with the ‘Baptism in the Holy Spirit’, I think most saw the ‘Baptism’ rather as an enduement of power (You shall receive power, after that the HG is come upon you’) and Sanctification as an ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the regenerate believer. Certainly, I am sure none thought fo one moment that Santification was the result of their own efforts.

    • Thank you for those thoughts – you demonstrate how important hymns are to our doctrinal understanding, and thus why we need to be so careful in choosing what we sing. And, of course, you show the usefulness of the ecumenical Creeds (hymns of a sort, perhaps?), such as the Nicene creed that you quote – I do think that those who don’t use these regularly in their worship are missing out. Lex orandi, lex credendi is true, I think.

      With regard to which members of the Trinity are involved in sanctification, Scripture (as I am sure you know, but I will state here for the benefit of anyone else) clearly teaches all three. First, the Father. Jesus prays to Him:

      ‘Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.’ (John 17:17)

      The writer to the Hebrews shows us that our sanctification has been achieved and secured through the virtue of Jesus’ sacrifice:

      ‘By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified.’ (Heb. 10:10–14)

      And, of course, we are sanctified by the agency (as you helpfully put it) of the Holy Spirit:

      ‘And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.’ (1 Co 6:11)

      I was trying to sum up these truths when I wrote, ‘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.’

      The first article of ch. XIII of the Westminster Confession that I quoted in an earlier comment above is helpful. Likewise Luther’s Small Catechism on the third article of the Apostle’s creed:

      I believe in the Holy Ghost; one holy Christian Church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.

      What does this mean? Answer:

      I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.

      Luther’s Large Catechism is also extremely helpful on this article. Interestingly, Luther there points out that the Holy Spirit’s main work is to make us holy, ‘as His name implies’. Here’s a snippet:

      This article (as I have said) I cannot relate better than to Sanctification, that through the same the Holy Ghost, with His office, is declared and depicted, namely, that He makes holy. Therefore we must take our stand upon the word Holy Ghost, because it is so precise and comprehensive that we cannot find another. For there are, besides, many kinds of spirits mentioned in the Holy Scriptures, as, the spirit of man, heavenly spirits, and evil spirits. But the Spirit of God alone is called Holy Ghost, that is, He who has sanctified and still sanctifies us. For as the Father is called Creator, the Son Redeemer, so the Holy Ghost, from His work, must be called Sanctifier, or One that makes holy. But how is such sanctifying done? Answer: Just as the Son obtains dominion, whereby He wins us, through His birth, death, resurrection, etc., so also the Holy Ghost effects our sanctification by the following parts, namely, by the communion of saints or the Christian Church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting; that is, He first leads us into His holy congregation, and places us in the bosom of the Church, whereby He preaches to us and brings us to Christ.

      For neither you nor I could ever know anything of Christ, or believe on Him, and obtain Him for our Lord, unless it were offered to us and granted to our hearts by the Holy Ghost through the preaching of the Gospel. The work is done and accomplished; for Christ has acquired and gained the treasure for us by His suffering, death, resurrection, etc. But if the work remained concealed so that no one knew of it, then it would be in vain and lost. That this treasure, therefore, might not lie buried, but be appropriated and enjoyed, God has caused the Word to go forth and be proclaimed, in which He gives the Holy Ghost to bring this treasure home and appropriate it to us. Therefore sanctifying is nothing else than bringing us to Christ to receive this good, to which we could not attain of ourselves.

      Learn, then, to understand this article most clearly. If you are asked: What do you mean by the words: I believe in the Holy Ghost? you can answer: I believe that the Holy Ghost makes me holy, as His name implies.

      From Luther’s words, ‘sanctifying is nothing else than bringing us to Christ to receive this good, to which we could not attain of ourselves’, it is absolutely clear how sanctification must necessarily be rooted in the Gospel (which is, of course, exactly where the writer to the Hebrews locates it). This also shows how the Holy Spirit’s work, in making us Holy, is to bring us to Christ.

      Continuing this idea of the office of the Holy Spirit being to make holy, it has been observed (I think I heard Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller say this on his radio show) that in this third article of the Creed we have a ‘holy, holy, holy’: the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian church, the congregation of the holy ones. This is clearer in Latin:

      Credo in Spiritum Sanctum,
      sanctam Ecclesiam catholicam
      sanctorum communionem,
      remissionem peccatorum,
      carnis resurrectionem,
      vitam aeternam.

  4. Dear Daniel,

    Your post has been so enlightening. It has helped me really walk through this issue and its implications. I think you hit the nail on the head with your assesment:

    “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.”

    My personal take away is “Justification is a one time act whereby God declares us righteous imputing Christ’s perfect record to ours. It is not of ourselves. It is wholly of God by His grace.” (my husbands description for me:) Which is of extreme comfort in that by the continual preaching of the Gospel that we are reminded of Christ’s work on our behalf and the assurance of our Salvation through Christ alone.

    Sanctification is the process by which we are made more Christ like through the work of the Holy Spirit within us. “…he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” John 15:5

    “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs accourding to the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want to speak confidently, so that those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds. These things are good and profitable for men.” Titus 3:5-8

    “But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way. For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints. And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you will not be sluggish, but be imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” Hebrews 6:9-12

    “let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds…” Hebrews 10:22-24

    While we are on earth I think it is important through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit within us to encourage and stimulate brothers and sisters in Christ onward towards being more Christ like – not doing deeds to be seen by men, but working as unto the Lord and being a living sacrifice.

    Grace and peace, gratefully, charisse

    • Hey Paula, thank you for that, and thank you too for running with my post on purposedrivel.com.

      I found that article by Pastor Matt Richard thought provoking and helpful – especially the latter half. I agree with him that ‘progress’ in sanctification is (as he quotes Luther’s Small Catechism) ‘the daily putting to death of the old nature that the new should come forth daily and rise up, cleansed and righteous’. This putting to death of the old nature is not a one-time event in this life, but something that must occur daily. For no matter how many times the sinful nature is drowned by our sorrow and repentance, it stubbornly revives, and needs forcefully to be held once more under the waters of our baptism.

      I wonder, though – and here I am thinking out loud – is it not the case that, as the merits of Christ are applied to us by the Holy Spirit through His word over a long period of time, the old nature becomes more mortally wounded and the new rises to more vigorous life? Yet, even this gives us no cause for complacency or satisfaction, for the more the new nature is vivified, the more we grow to realize the true horror of our old sinful nature, perceiving ever more accurately its hideous rebellion against God’s holy perfection.

      Progress in Christian sanctification, then, is a daily realization of our utter dependence upon Christ and a reliance of His work for us and in us.

      Thus, if anything, as we mature in Christ, our state seems to us worse than before. We see with increasing clarity how far we are falling short of the holy standard of perfection that God reveals to us by His Law. We see afresh each day that we are worthy of death, for to fail in even the least detail is to be guilty of the whole Law. And thus, with Paul, we cry ‘Oh wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?‘ And, with Paul, we are forced back to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who delivers to us through His sure word the forgiveness of our sins that He won on a Roman execution cross nearly two millennia ago. Our comfort is never in ourselves, but in the certain promise that ‘He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ’.

      • “For no matter how many times the sinful nature is drowned by our sorrow and repentance, it stubbornly revives, and needs forcefully to be held once more under the waters of our baptism.”

        Amen.

        I liked how he illustrated his own depravity here, this is something I totally identify with:
        “I don’t really feel as if I have ‘progressed’ or moved on to more holiness. A former parishioner once told me that I was too hard on myself, but I am not too sure about that, because the way I typically try to justify myself is… well, pretty pathetic.”

        I so want to echo this… and yet in the moment in which I do it I cannot see myself doing it, or I wouldn’t do it, would I?

  5. Daniel, when you say old nature do you mean the flesh? and if you do, I would say that the only ‘mortal wound’ our flesh can receive is physical death when corruptible becomes incorruptible for ‘the flesh lusts against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh’.

    And if you don’t mean flesh then are you talking about the ‘old self’ that ‘was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin? I read that to say that the old man has been fatally wounded on Calvary. The wrestling that now as God leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake is the discipline of my flesh to keep it in subjection to Christ by walking in the Spirit. As I present my members to God to be used according to His good purposes the lusts of the flesh cannot be gratified. Also, as my mind is renewed in the word of God having been given by God’s mercy the mind of Christ and conformed by that same mercy to the image of the Son, I experience transformation from glory to glory, from faith to faith.

    So for me, the flesh cannot be improved (die a slow death) and the Spirit will strive against it until it is removed by physical death and the resurrection. Therefore, I must rely on the Spirit to complete the work which Christ has begun by bringing the full weight of what God has done in Christ on my behalf to my day by day consciousness. He then provides a way for my escape where my flesh would burden me to sin, He leads me day by to day to a confidence in the realities of the gospel, that is God’s final victory over sin and it’s verifiable and profitable application to my present life as a downpayment to the glorious life to come.

    Is your view of the old nature different?

    PS What is your thought on ‘study Bibles’? and particularly have you seen the Lutheran study Bible?

    I am so glad you are back at it. I learn so much from your writing.

    Bobby Capps

    • Hi Bobby,

      Daniel, when you say old nature do you mean the flesh?

      Yes. The sinful nature, the old Adam, the ‘body of sin’, the ‘old man’ (cf. Rom. 6:6). In the language of Romans 7 & 8, the flesh as opposed to the spirit.

      I have probably instinctively shied away from the term ‘flesh’ in my comments here, as I didn’t want to introduce any kind of dualistic or gnostic confusion and inadvertently lead someone to think that the dichotomy was between that which is material and that which is spiritual, as if matter were inherently bad. It’s not, of course, as God created Adam with a physical body and called him ‘very good’. From the context, as you know, Paul’s use of the terms ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’ isn’t setting the material against the spiritual, but that which has been corrupted by sin and is dying against the new life which has been created within us. Our physical bodies are dying because of sin. These two natures, the flesh and the spirit, as Paul puts them, war with each other in the life of the unbeliever (and hence the tension that he describes in his own life in Rom. 7:13–25).

      …and if you do, I would say that the only ‘mortal wound’ our flesh can receive is physical death when corruptible becomes incorruptible for ‘the flesh lusts against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh’.

      Yes, I agree. But there is a now-and-not-yet aspect to this. We have been baptized into Christ’s death, and united together with Him in the likeness of His death, and Paul uses this as a cause for certainly that we shall also be united with Him in the likeness of His resurrection. Paul says that, ‘our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin.’ (Rom. 6:6–7). The old nature has been crucified, but it hasn’t yet quite gotten the message and given up the ghost.

      That’s why I wrote ‘the old nature becomes more mortally wounded and the new rises to more vigorous life’. More ‘mortally wounded’, not ‘more dead’ – the old nature is going to die. But, right now, even though it keeps receiving deadly blows through our daily sorrow and repentance, it hangs in there grimly, seeking to fulfil all its wicked desires. Perhaps this isn’t a helpful (or possibly even correct) way to put things – as I said, I was thinking aloud :-)

      And if you don’t mean flesh then are you talking about the ‘old self’ that ‘was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin? I read that to say that the old man has been fatally wounded on Calvary.

      Agreed.

      The wrestling that now as God leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake is the discipline of my flesh to keep it in subjection to Christ by walking in the Spirit. As I present my members to God to be used according to His good purposes the lusts of the flesh cannot be gratified. Also, as my mind is renewed in the word of God having been given by God’s mercy the mind of Christ and conformed by that same mercy to the image of the Son, I experience transformation from glory to glory, from faith to faith.

      You’ll have no argument from me there.

      So for me, the flesh cannot be improved (die a slow death) and the Spirit will strive against it until it is removed by physical death and the resurrection.

      Again, agreed absolutely. The flesh, that old nature, can’t be improved. At all. It must therefore be resisted and ‘be drowned by daily sorrow and repentance and be put to death’. This is done ‘that the new man should come forth daily and rise up, cleansed and righteous, to live forever in God’s presence’ (to borrow again the language of the Small Catechism).

      Therefore, I must rely on the Spirit to complete the work which Christ has begun by bringing the full weight of what God has done in Christ on my behalf to my day by day consciousness. He then provides a way for my escape where my flesh would burden me to sin, He leads me day by to day to a confidence in the realities of the gospel, that is God’s final victory over sin and it’s verifiable and profitable application to my present life as a downpayment to the glorious life to come.

      Again, I think we’re in agreement.

      Thanks, Bobby – as you know, I see questions like yours as being a great way to uncover any confusion of perhaps latent infelicities of expression (or, even outright error!) in my words. It’s really good to work through these things together.

    • Oh, as for study Bibles…I do not object to them, but I prefer to treat them as a high-level commentary. That is, I tend to leave them on the shelf and only take them off when I want another view on the meaning of the text. I fear that, if I were to use a study Bible as my main Bible, I should be tempted to reach too readily for the interpretation provided in the notes, rather than to wrestle with the text for myself. This is a fault more with me than with study Bibles themselves as a concept, perhaps!

      As for the Lutheran Study Bible, yes, I have seen that – I have the large print edition, which I would say was a ‘sanely-sized print edition’. (The smaller one has very small text.) What can I say? It is a very good study Bible if you’re looking to have the ESV text. But, of course, it is very Lutheran. I find this to be an excellent thing when I happen to concur with Lutheran theology (or at least, one particular take on Lutheran theology) on a point, and sometimes a little perturbing when I don’t. I say ‘perturbing’ and not ‘bad’, because a point of view different from the one that we have received from our own tradition often forces us to reexamine a familiar passage with more diligence than we have hitherto applied. We are then in danger of learning something :-)

    • The Lutheran Study Bible put out by Concordia is Solid (but obviously Lutheran in its distinctives!) but avoid the Augustana Press one (that is ELCA, they are apostate).

      The works of the flesh from which we are redeemed also include believing that we can by our behavior please God.

      It is only Christ’s passive and active obedience that is credited to us as pleasing God. Since our lives are hidden in him, everything we do is seen as if Christ did it it his perfection. The sins are not seen, the imperfect obedience we attempt is seen as perfect.

      This whole ‘gospel irony’ as Tullian Tchividjian refers to it, is something that frustrates and inspires me to make my behavior more godly, not less. Over time I have seen many of my old lusts and perverse preoccupations disappear entirely. For years I thought they would never go away. I always knew them to be sin but sometimes did indulge them and dally with them, and then felt horrible afterward.

      But since I no longer feel that pull to sin, then what does that leave me? I can’t take credit for struggling against them anymore! I don’t actively seek to resist them, they are just gone away. How does that make me ‘cooperative’ in my sanctification?

      What about my pride? How do *I* crucify that? Isn’t that what Luther tried to do at Erfurt, “cooperating with God in sanctification” and failing miserably? I mused to Jason also last night that perhaps this *is* one of God’s ways of destroying our pride – by allowing us to go down this false road of taking control our own sanctification. By letting us get on the rat wheel of Christian performance for as many years as it takes to burn us out, so that once we are broken, he can lead us with a very light hand on the reins and pull us out of that church that told us we had to do this to succeed at the Christian life.

      The Galatians were guilty of works of the flesh, as were the Colossians (2:20-23), and the Teachers of the Law were also guilty of “works of the flesh” in spite of their outward conformity TO that law.

      FWIW…

      • Thank you, especially for the description of a lust that has disappeared. I am suspicious and cautious of those victories, heeding the warning be careful if you think you are standing lest you fall, and knowing that my flesh lusts continually against the Spirit. Having said that I too have experienced great freedom in some areas that used to vex me. I am sure that I am still susceptible and constantly look to the finished work of Calvary weekend to “deliver me from this body of death” but rejoice that for this season, Christ has given me rest in some areas.

        Thank you for your encouraging thoughts. I have read your blog several times and although I have a deep love for Rick Warren that seems to (and maybe blindly) cover his ‘multitude of sins’, I have appreciated your thoughts on many subjects.

        Please don’t write me off for it. :-) Daniel thankfully hasn’t.

        Bobby

  6. Totally agreed, Ryan. Fabulous post, glad to see Daniel is back and in fine form.

    For simplicity I am going to refer to Daniel’s position as the “radical grace” position and the opposition as the “non radical grace” – even though these are somewhat misnomers on both sides because of how they’ve been used in arguing this issue.

    I appreciated the link to the Singaporean blogger who is studying Lutheran theology. Very interesting and accurate summary.

    Evans and others keep saying we are ‘confusing sanctification with justification.’ I asked Jason how they can possibly accuse us of this when we are CLEARLY saying that one flows from the other (i.e. as you say, they are two different things although as you say, inseparably connected to each other). The answer he gave me was what I was thinking. They accuse the ‘radical grace’ crowd of this because they at least temporarily suspend their belief that sanctification is a necessary part of a true believer’s life. They for a moment buy into the ‘easy believism’ crowd’s argument that you can actually “believe” (i.e. “mental assent) unto salvation but then just live in debauchery, knowing that your sins are now ‘covered.’

    I agree that sanctification is separate from but necessarily flows from justification and both are God’s work. That much is crystal clear from Scripture. I don’t know how you can get more crystal clear than Philippians 1:6, for example, or 2:12-13 as you quoted. There are many other Scriptures to support this. What I don’t understand is how Calvinists of all people can suddenly say that their will is suddenly stronger than God’s will in sanctification when it was not in justification.

    No one argues that we *don’t try* to obey. NO one argues for a ‘hyper calvinist’ or “quietist” version of sanctification except those who want to justify their own sin.) What we argue against is charting our progress by looking at our outer behavior. Or that by striving HARDER we will have more success in sanctification. No one argues that the Christian life is something you just float through effortlessly. But Jesus did say his yoke is easy and his burden is light!

    If we chart our or anyone else’s progress by looking at outer behavior, this leads to legalism/pharisaism in those with a deficient understanding of their own depravity and God’s wrath, holiness, and requirement of perfect behavior and motive, or despair in those who do understand those things.

    When I was focused on my own outward behavior, as Paul said, I did actually DO more sinful behaviors, just as Paul says in Romans 7!

    “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.”

    “Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. “

    (ASIDE: Now we will have the subset of the non-radical-grace bunch chime in that Romans 7 is not Paul talking about himself as a regenerate man, but before he was regenerated, which is fraught with all kinds of heremeneutical errors and is worth a whole other discussion! END ASIDE)

    Now, granted, looking at the outcome of a belief (pharisaism or despair) is not evidence that it is wrong, but Scripture also makes it clear, as exemplified in Romans 7, that as Paul grew in maturity he also grew in his knowledge of his own sinfulness and God’s holiness. It actually supports the idea that we become more and more aware of our own depravity AS sanctification takes place! I realize I am more of a sinner than I thought previously! Therefore I love Jesus more each day because he has removed the curse of that sinfulness from me. I learn more and more just HOW MUCH he has forgiven!

    You refer to the debate which is summarized on the Lutheran Theology study group blog. Martin Yee says

    Evans questioned if it is really the case that legalism and self-justification are the great problems facing the church and its mission? He highlighted the anachronism in this view. This may be true for the baby boomer generation but the emerging post-modern culture is both indifferent to and largely ignorant of the Law of God, and for which any proclamation of biblical imperative is likely to be deemed “judgmental.” How can people embrace the “radical grace” of God in justification when they see no need for it in the first place? In other words, biblical imperatives are needful, and that’s why the Bible is full of them! Instead from his experience in the ministry, many Christians do not doubt that God’ loves them. They do not worry that they might not be accepted. They have no problem with grace. They do not come to church with crushed consciences. They do not need to rediscover God’s forgiveness. Instead, they need to work hard to live like they have died to sin and been raised with Christ.

    In the first part of the paragraph, he seems to rightly assess that this bunch rightly sees no need for grace. And then he withdraws that in his analysis in the rest of the paragraph and bases his argument on that *withdrawal* of a proper Biblical definition of grace to which we would all agree. This is poor argumentation, if Yee has summarized correctly. I believe he has, as I have run into the same thing many times with people on that side of the issue.

    In some cases the emerging bunch are correctly deeming what they are hearing as ‘judgemental’ and then incorrectly labelling ALL law preaching as the same. They cannot hear the difference. SADLY many of “non radical grace” folks make this same mistake when they preach law-light (as a means to climbing a ladder of holiness) and so rightly receive such a reaction. They can’t see what the difference is in how they preach law as a means to success and how good Lutherans preach law as a means of crushing everyone’s pride including the long-time saved person.

    However Lutherans obviously also do preach the third use of the law! But in a saved person it doesn’t take a lot of shaming and clobbering with the law to get them to feel conviction. Even if they are a stubborn saved person, the Christian is far better served with a starfish/clam approach. What we are seeing expressed in this “Non Radical Grace” bunch at least in some cases, seems to be is an impatience with people who are “not as far on the road of sanctification as they are.” Don’t they see how this is essentially the “holier than thou” attitude, justified by prooftexts taken out of the context of Scripture as a whole?

    For the unsaved person faking it in a church full of “radical grace” or “non radical grace” people, do they think that taking a law-based approach to sanctification and pleasing God will help those people come to a saving knowledge of the gospel? In that case you are likely to drive away the despairing person, the very person the church needs to encourage! The false convert will just learn a few new dance steps and keep on the path of self-deception and deception of the local church body.

    I don’t understand, it couldn’t be more clear that what all of us need, saved and false convert and openly unsaved alike, is the unfulfillable law brought to bear in all its terror, that unfulfillable perfect law which we are *still* held RESPONSIBLE to fulfill, (Romans 9) along with the good news of the gospel of free forgiveness of sins in Christ.

    “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed him five hundred silver coins, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

    Therefore I tell you, her sins, which were many, are forgiven, thus she loved much; but the one who is forgiven little loves little.”

    So, if I am under the impression that I don’t daily sin as much as I used to, would it not follow that I would not be inspired to love Jesus as much as I used to? Since I am growing in my estimation of my own depravity (not necessarily because I go out and literally view porn every day, for example) my love for Christ is growing. I cannot say that I don’t sin as much as I used to. I may just be deceiving myself, and better at hiding it from others AND from myself! How dare I suggest that I have acheived anything in sanctification by ‘cooperating’ with God. It is he who makes me appear to cooperate. And sometimes he has to do it with the proverbial 2×4 between the donkey’s ears. I can take no credit. What I think worth working on next is often not what God thinks needs to be taken out of my life next.

    If someone doesn’t respond to the gospel message of free forgiveness in Christ properly (when it is properly preached – bringing both unattainable law AND free gospel to bear), then ought we to CHANGE the message, the only message Christ commissioned us to preach? Obviously that is nonsense and the Non Radical Grace people would agree (no matter what they think the proper message to be). And yet that is exactly what they do. They have in fact changed the message by giving the law as a means to sanctification, rather than sanctification (by God) resulting in more outward conformity to his standards of behavior. He also sanctifies inwardly, though we rightly are often unaware of it because of our increasing sensitivity to sin. In Matthew 25:31-41 the servants are completely unaware that they have done anything to consciously serve Jesus, and yet Jesus commends them. They are unaware because they haven’t spent much time thinking about their own progress, but simply looking at what their Master’s character is and what he desires. Those that are very conscious of their own efforts on behalf of Christ, to please him, are soundly condemned.

    There are a mixture of things going on in any of these arguments. People on either side are incorrectly labeling issues of conscience “sin” as well (and then coming to the same conclusion as mentioned above – that being that someone who is ‘sinning’ in this regard is obviously not trying hard enough in their opinion – not as hard as THEY are trying, anyway). If the person doesn’t see the behavior as sin, especially in an area where there is much cultural context needed to judge, etc, how are they expected to *consciously* work on it anyway?

    And just a note regarding the frustrations that have been occurring on each side: I am thankful this issue is being discussed even though there is much division (both angry and civil). One should not instinctively react to anger or sarcastic comments as evidence that the person’s *position* is wrong. That would be a fallacious reason to reject *anything.* There could be a million other factors as to why that person is expressing themselves in a way that makes people uncomfortable. And reading “tone” and “angry motive” into someone’s argument online is iffy at best. As reader may not like it but that’s as far as it goes. So I would encourage anyone, in any discussion, to analyze the position for its Scriptural worth and pray for and love the person, and leave the person’s heart motives to God since you are likely not anywhere near the person in real life to make a difference there or know what they are going through.

    As in everything, God works through these things to feed his despairing and hungry sheep who are deprived of the sustaining message of grace in so many places today.

    • Paula, thank you for that! In my estimation, you hit the nail squarely on the head when you say this:

      They have in fact changed the message by giving the law as a means to sanctification, rather than sanctification (by God) resulting in more outward conformity to his standards of behavior. He also sanctifies inwardly, though we rightly are often unaware of it because of our increasing sensitivity to sin.

      Sanctification produces good works. Good works (i.e. the works of the Law) are not a means of sanctification.

      Those of us on what you call the ‘radical grace’ side of the fence are not arguing for less Law, and certainly not for no law. We are not antinomian. No. We want the Law proclaimed in all its severity and strength, and the Gospel in all its glorious sweetness.

      We want and yearn for the Law to do its painful work, both of convicting us of our sins (second use) and of showing us that perfect standard of holy living to which we continually fail to attain (third use). We want the Law to do its work in us as a servant for the Gospel, so that the Gospel can then do its saving work in us, delivering to us the forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ.

      What sets us apart from the ‘non radical grace’ position is not that we deprecate the Law and they regard it, but that we understand the Law to have no power to make us righteous. Only the Gospel is the power of God for salvation – justification, sanctification and glorification – to everyone who believes. Only the Gospel has power to put to death the old nature and vivify the new. (I merely reiterate my post on this point.)

      The proper distinction between Law and Gospel and their correct use is critical, for otherwise their medicine will be applied to the wrong subjects and at the wrong time. Those who misuse Law and Gospel risk killing their patients, not curing them.

Comments are closed.