Either God sanctifies us—or it doesn’t happen at all!

January 26, 2017

A clergy friend posted the following on Facebook last week:

pope_francis_quote

I hated to be an ecumenical wet blanket, but I thought the last part of Pope Francis’s quote was overly optimistic. If there’s something about our “alliance” with Christ that “makes” us live without sin—indeed, to be “far away from” it—I haven’t discovered it. So I quoted Luther’s maxim concerning our nature as Christians: In Christ, we are “simultaneously righteous and sinners.”

My friend, a Methodist pastor, demurred:

Is your assumption that the pope is referring to some before justification or after? I take his meaning to be at the moment of or after. At the point of justification one would then be simultaneously progressing in a state of sanctifying grace. That would be most Wesleyan. Otherwise it’s purely Lutheran and therefore holiness or justification has little if nothing to do with your progress in holiness since it doesn’t require your participation, i.e., it’s all imputed.

To which I replied:

But suppose you die moments after being justified and born again. On what basis are you fit for heaven other than Christ’s righteousness—imputed or not? Certainly not your own “holiness,” such as it is. I don’t think the imputed righteousness of Christ negates personal responsibility. But I also don’t think that sanctification is ever more than our saying “yes” to God’s grace, just as we do when we are justified. Grace is still grace. Our participation, whatever it is, isn’t something of which we get to be proud. Sanctification isn’t “we do a little, then God does a little,” although I agree that’s how it’s popularly understood.

The truth is, I have become slightly more Lutheran and more Reformed in my theological perspective. (Of course, I had already been indoctrinated in Augustine by Candler’s only conservative professor [at the time], Lewis Ayres, so I wasn’t far from this perspective—at least as soon as I started believing the Bible again). If that makes me less comfortably Wesleyan, so be it. But Wesley wasn’t too far from this. Didn’t he compare sanctification to respiration: God breathes in, we breathe out? What we do is very small compared to what Christ did and the Holy Spirit does.

So twice my friend referred to our “progress” in holiness and implies that it’s something that we do, or something for which we’re (mostly? 50-50?) responsible. From my own experience, talk of “progress” in the Christian life makes me nervous. We are not sanctified by what we do! God is going to have to do the sanctifying in our relationship with him, or it won’t happen at all! 

While I don’t think my friend accurately represents John Wesley’s thinking on the subject, who cares what Wesley says? We have to contend, as always, with the Bible. Like Wesley, “I am a man of one book”—or I strive to be. We are saved by grace from first to last. Our cooperation in this salvific process, while not nothing, is minimal—certainly in comparison to what God does. It’s never something about which we get to boast and say, “Look what I’ve done!”

All that to say, I embrace the Reformation affirmation of imputed righteousness. As a result, these words by Matt Johnson from the Mockingbird Devotional are sweet music to my ears:

In reflecting on the temptations we’ve faced and the the sufferings we’ve undergone, no doubt we’ve been faithless amidst life’s domestic complexities. Juggling home, career and family; coming to terms with illness, debt, death—it hasn’t gone too well. We’ve not laid our burdens down like we should have. And with this failure comes shame…

We often have similar experiences where we feel this close. We had great plans, and we almost got there, but now the hope of deliverance seems too good to be true—and now it’s back to the old life.

In those moments of regress or failure, nothing quite pegs our identity like shame does. It becomes the way we self-describe. The “Who am I?” framework only shows us what we aren’t: an ineffective employee. A failed father. A basket case. A pervert. Your shame has the power to terminally name you. Sure, Jesus-loves-me-this-I-know and all that—but what about here and now? What about this sea of shame?[1]

Let me interject here to say that my clergy friend’s notion of “progress” as something we accomplish, even in part, does nothing but contribute to this “sea of shame”—at least in my experience. (His mileage may vary.) I need to be reminded again and again of God’s grace.

Johnson continues:

In Christ, you are God’s treasured possession. As part of His family, you are the beloved first-born son. Rather than receiving the wrath of Pharaoh, the chaos of the sea is the moment of His salvation. Naturally you’ve forgotten that and have placed an old shame back onto your shoulders again, but it was never yours to lug around in the first place. As Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” In Christ, you are clothed in righteousness and when God sees you, there is nothing more to be ashamed of. He sees the perfection of Jesus.[2]

1. Matt Johnson, “January 24” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 53.

2. Ibid.

One Response to “Either God sanctifies us—or it doesn’t happen at all!”


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