Self-improvement is killing me

December 4, 2015

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!

Forde continues:

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.

9 Responses to “Self-improvement is killing me”

  1. Cindy Allen Says:

    Oh wow, Brent thank you for this post. I know you have mentioned this subject before. I read your posts religiously and honestly feel each one is a gift. This is a subject that I struggle with and pray about DAILY(just this morning, again!) and I am exhausted! As I said I read all your post and the comments that people write in. I haven’t commented before, fearing of sounding ignorant. I don’t know what the answer is, but it is comforting that this is not something that just I struggle with, I guess my fear is that I will say to God “this is beyond my understanding I can’t figure this out” and give up because of exhaustion. I will look forward to more of your posts concerning this subject. My family and I miss you at AFUMC. Wishing you, your family and your congregation and wonderful and blessed Christmas. Sent from my iPhone


  2. […] in other words, probably couldn’t be better for Brent White’s riff on sanctification, “Self-Improvement Is Killing Me”. Or for that matter, Bill Giavanetti’s explanation of Why I Preach Grace-Filled Sermons. […]

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    You are barreling down this road, and it’s a beautiful thing to see. It is amazing how hard we will fight to keep some element of control/contribution to our salvation. Why is is so hard to simply accept the unconditional electing love of God?
    Once you do yield to God’s sovereignty in the matter, that “peace which surpasses all understanding” moves in and centers you in perfect harmony with the LORD. Keep up these wonderful posts, as God does this work in you.

  4. Nelson Says:

    Brent thank you again for taking us along with you on your spiritual walk. I so often find that what you are struggling with speaks straight to me. I have heard it said that our works are a response to God’s love. Just as my spontaneously bringing flowers home to my wife is a response to my love for her. I don’t do it to make her love me but I do it because I love her. Not a perfect analogy but it works for me.

    • brentwhite Says:

      That’s a perfect analogy. Guilt, fear, or even a sense of “duty” might also motivate you to buy flowers for her. But we both know that that wouldn’t express love for her nearly as much. God wants us to do things for him out of love. And perfect love casts out all fear.

  5. Tom Harkins Says:

    As to your last here to Nelson, i.e., “perfect love casts out all fear,” I have been considering that passage recently. It has to be considered along with the several verses which say, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Does this mean we “start out” with fear as a motive, but as we “progress” we “move beyond” fear and end up just “totally in love” and acting accordingly? This is a puzzler. Then I recall that Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” Does this mean that we only are at a “perfect level” of “love,” where we can then be “TOTALLY without fear,” when we “obey all the time”? A puzzler. I guess I would have to say that, as relates to obedience, my love is not yet “perfect” because I don’t love God so very much that I am always willing to do what I know he wants me to do. Consequently, there is a little bit of “fear of the Lord” there as an “alternative motivation.”

    You say at the end of this post: “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.” It can certainly be argued that a “forced” love is questionable love, but we should still be careful on the point. C.S. Lewis said to the effect, as I recall, sometimes we have to study the Greek grammar, which we hate doing, so as to be able to enjoy reading Homer in the original language. We (or at least I) don’t just jump to instant and complete obedience upon salvation, and even if we would START out that way, as on a “honeymoon,” the “realities of life” start setting in and can dampen the enthusiasm somewhat. Hence, Jesus says, “I have this against you, that you have lost your first love.” What can we make of that? Is he “commanding” us to love? It certainly seems to me that what he says to that church can be read that way. Indeed, the “greatest COMMANDMENT” is to “love the Lord our God with everything we have within us.” How can this be? Well, God knows that loving him will ultimately be the thing that brings us the most joy (not that he needs us to love him, I would not think). But this is a “commandment” because it is something that has to be “worked” in us. I can’t just bench press 250 without working out to get to that point (not that I could anyway!). And so I need some “motivation” to move me toward that “perfect love.” Thus, good parents will rely on spankings initially to get obedience, but hope that as time goes on the obedience will end up being a loving response to the loving parent. Even so with God, I think. Thus, “He whom the Lord loves, He chastens.” So I think that love and fear work together, hopefully moving us to that ultimately blessed place where we indeed “love perfectly,” and “fear” no longer need be in the equation. But I am not there yet! Hopefully moving in that direction.

    So, I do think that “sanctification” means somewhat more than just glorying in our “justification.” We do have to “move along” and it does “take effort” on our part. We can’t be “saved” by our works; but, indeed, works must follow. Again, “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

    • brentwhite Says:

      You can’t bench 250? What’s wrong with you? 😉

      The point of my post is to say that in my striving to obey Jesus (and I completely agree that it’s work) I have lost sight of the fact that nothing I do saves me. In fact, I have underestimated my sinfulness—my utter helplessness before God—if I even think of my sanctification in terms of “progress.”

      Can you relate to my struggle? It may be something inherent within the Wesleyan tradition that makes me feel this way. I think we emphasize sanctification as “making progress” toward perfection. I no longer think that’s a helpful way of picturing it. I think I would do better to keep my eyes fixed on the cross and my baptism into Christ’s death than on “how I’m doing.”

      Does that make sense?

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Well, I understand the point, but I don’t think wondering “how I’m doing” is necessarily a bad thing. We certainly do that as a matter of course in a lot of life in general. So I think it is at least “okay” to keep track of our “progress” in sanctification as well. For example, “Add this to that,” Peter says.


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