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. – St. Paul
We Methodists talk a lot about sanctification. Our emphasis on this doctrine distinguishes Methodism from other Protestant traditions more than anything. Heaven knows, no other Christian tradition besides the Wesleyan movement (of which our Holiness brethren are part) has routinely spoken of “perfection,” the completion of the process of sanctification, as a real-live possibility on this side of heaven.
But we are also children of the Reformation. Even sanctification, we say, is as much a free gift as justification. As with justification, the only thing we offer is our consent, which itself is made possible only by the Holy Spirit.
That sounds nice, I guess. But I think I’m finally able to articulate something that I’ve been sensing within myself for a while: I have twisted this doctrine of grace into something it was never supposed to be: a list of rules, a means of self-justification, a program for self-improvement.
And it is killing my spirit.
I have turned sanctification into the Law all over again. As the apostle Paul describes, the “old man” within me keeps thinking this Law will bring life, but it only condemns me and brings death.
Hence, when I read these words, courtesy of Mockingbird Ministries and the late Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde, about my corrupted view of sanctification, I literally cried:
Sanctification is thus simply the art of getting used to justification. It is not something added to justification. It is not the final defense against a justification too liberally granted. It is the justified life. It is what happens when the old being comes up against the end of its self-justifying and self-gratifying ways, however pious. It is life lived in anticipation of the resurrection.
Sanctification, at least my mistaken view of it, is the “final defense against a justification too liberally granted.” Yes! “Cheap grace” and “easy-believe-ism,” I say, can easily sneak in the door if we’re not careful! Let’s put a hedge of good works around God’s grace, so we can charge more for it!
God alone does the justifying simply by declaring the ungodly to be so, for Jesus’ sake. Most everyone is willing to concede that, at least in some fashion. But, of course, then comes the question: what happens next? Must not the justified live properly? Must not justification be safeguarded so it will not be abused? So sanctification enters the picture supposedly to rescue the good ship Salvation from the shipwreck on the rocks of Grace Alone. Sanctification, it seems, is our part of the bargain… The result of this kind of thinking is generally disastrous…
… as my experience bears witness.
So I’m done with it. God must do the sanctifying or it won’t happen at all. I can’t do it myself. I’m not even sure I can safely talk about sanctification anymore. As Forde says, even talking about it is dangerous and seductive to the “old man” of Romans 6.
But not just Forde… Listen to what John Piper says, in this post entitled “Should We Teach that Good Works Come with Saving Faith?” (I assumed the question was rhetorical before I read the article, since we have to contend with the Book of James.) But it isn’t for Piper:
I don’t think that question will ever be settled at the experiential level. You may settle it in a group with some sentences that are biblically grounded, but the reason it won’t be settled experientially is because human beings are wired to be legalists. We are wired to trust in what we do as the ground of our assurance.
Now along comes a gospel preacher who says, “Christ died for your sins and he provided a righteousness, so that all of your guilt can be taken away and all the righteousness that God requires of you can be provided totally by another. And this forgiveness and righteousness is received totally by faith alone.” Then he follows it up in a subsequent message, saying, “The faith that justifies justifies by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone. It will always be accompanied by graces like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.”
And as soon as you say that this faith is going to bear fruit, people shift back into their legalistic mode of “Oh, I see. We’re really justified by our works.” And it takes a lifetime of fighting that battle…
So it’s not that it isn’t true, Piper says. James is right: faith without works is dead. It’s just that the moment we hear that—that the “faith that justifies justifies by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone”—it awakens the legalist within. So now, having been born again, we climb back on the hamster wheel of works righteousness and try to earn salvation all over again. It’s true: we begin the process of sanctification “in the black” on God’s ledger, but we very quickly find ourselves in the red; then comes guilt; then comes self-condemnation. Satan, who—remember—is literally “the Accuser,” says to us: “You call yourself a Christian? You’re not good enough! You’re too big a sinner!”
Maybe that shouldn’t happen, but it did to me—as it has to many others. Otherwise, why are Forde and Piper and many others talking about it?
I took a class on the theology of Augustine, taught by a conservative English Catholic scholar named Lewis Ayres. Augustine was the chief opponent of the fifth century heresy of Pelagianism. At least a few times during the semester, Dr. Ayres complained about the sermons that his priest preached: “It’s just one Pelagian message after another! Do this! Do that!”
Are we Methodist pastors guilty of the same thing?
Even as I write this, the “old man” within me is protesting: “James chapter 2! Don’t forget about James chapter 2!” I promise I’m not. But the guilt-ridden message of “sanctification by self-improvement” isn’t more likely to motivate anyone to good works than the life-giving gospel of free grace! In fact, even if it could, this very motivation would nullify the good work before it started. Love is freely given, never compelled.