Sanctification and Lutheranism

I recently posted a status on facebook regarding the spirited debate that is ongoing on the topic of sanctification between Lutherans. I said:

"I'm not getting embroiled in this debate, but here is what I think.

Justification is not sanctification. Scripture uses two terms for a reason. So to say that sanctification is justification is a mistake and ends up eliminating sanctification altogether. If you want to call it the "new obedience," fine. I'm OK with that.

On the other hand, the word sanctification is the same word used for "saint...
" and "holiness." Those are not things you can achieve yourself by anything you do. The thought of us making ourselves holy? God forbid!

I also think sanctification is used in two senses in Scripture. There is the 1 Corinthians 6:11 sense (But you *were* washed. You *were* justified. You *were* sanctified...etc). There is also the 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 sense, in which we cooperate. Yet we must explain what is meant by cooperation here. It does not mean libertarian free will. I like the horse and rider illustration used by Luther here. It is God alone who sanctifies, yet we willingly act. The Spirit, therefore, drives our sanctification, both positionally and ongoing, or progressively. (We ARE sanctified, we are also BEING sanctified, etc) We do not perfect the Spirit (much less ourselves!) by our actions, yet we willingly repent and desire to please God out of sheer thankfulness for what He has done for us at the cross, in our baptism, and continuing through Word and Sacrament.

Ap V (IV II) 73-74a
SD II 65-66, 88

That is what I think."

I suppose now I am getting embroiled in this debate in a way. I think there has been much more heat than light shed on the topic and it's probably not worthwhile to stay quiet and keep people guessing as to where I stand much longer.

From the outset, I recognize that one side of the discussion recoils at any mention of cooperation or synergism. I sympathize. I am squeamish with those terms as well. Holy Scripture is clear that we are not saved by cooperation or synergism, and a misuse of these terms will lead to an abuse of the Law and preaching that results in constant moral exhortation apart from the Gospel; or something in addition to the Gospel that perfects us. That misuse and abuse is clearly a big mistake.

Yet, to coin a cliché, throwing the baby out with the bathwater (I hate this phrase. Why am I using it?) is not something we want to do. The simple fact is, from where I stand, I can see two types of sanctification spoken of in the Scriptures. BOTH of them are completely driven by the Gospel, not by the Law. We're not sanctified by the Law, nor is our new obedience by the Law. This is a mistake. St. Paul states in Galatians:

Galatians 3:1-3: O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

Lex Semper Accusat. The Law always accuses. But is that all the Law does? I don't think so. We have numerous Confessional statements regarding the third use of the law. We also have numerous Confessional statements that plainly say we cooperate in this "new obedience." After all, it is us doing the actions, albeit they are driven by God. We act out of our own will precisely because we want to; out of sheer thanks for what Christ has done for us. Not as robots, for it is us acting and not God acting for us, but as new creations, driven by God to act in love.

Holy Scripture is clear that we are sanctified; as a state we already have. Christ has made us holy. That is the meaning of this sanctification. This sanctification is positional and is something belonging to everyone in Christ. The Scriptures speak of this a lot. One prime example is found in 1 Corinthians.

1 Corinthians 6:11: And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

God is the active agent in positional sanctification. He alone does this completely apart from us.

Yet, I also will not shy away from holding to what could be called an ongoing or progressive sanctification in which we cooperate. However, allow me to clarify what I mean by that.

I DO NOT mean that we are continually getting better and better and becoming more and more conformed to the moral law. It is true that our conformation to the moral law can increase, but only in great weakness, because it is God who works in us (Phil 2:13). But it does not always increase. We are still simul iustus et peccator, after all. We may do more good works on certain days than others.

This all means that if a person is looking to themselves and the quantity and quality of their works as assurance for salvation, they will eventually come to the conclusion that they are not saved. Only Christ crucified given to us extra nos (outside of ourselves) can assure us. What other conclusion could a sinful human come to? I suppose one could come to the conclusion that they are doing really well, but in that case, all they are doing is putting on their spiritual pride. And ironically in the process they're sinning.

I DO mean that God continually works in us and He is pleased to use us as His instruments on Earth to act on His behalf, mainly through confessing the truth about Christ crucified, but also acting in love towards our neighbor. So, I affirm that God continually sanctifies us and we cooperate with this sanctification.

I DO NOT mean that we are making ourselves holier by our cooperation. This would be a vast undermining of the Gospel and sola fide. I DO mean that God continually works, and despite the fact that He is pleased to include us in His action, He is still the sole sanctifier. Our cooperation does not mean we are sanctifying ourselves. We are simply acting upon the grace that God has given to us, as a horse responds to its rider, as Luther said.

I DO mean that we are aware of sin and live a life of repentance for our sins, as Luther's first thesis famously states.

I prefer to use language that says that we are willing participants of our own will precisely because we ARE holy, and as we ARE holy and saved, in that light we cooperate in an ongoing sanctification in our Christian life, of which God is the author.

A good biblical example of this is found in 1 Thessalonians.

1 Thessalonians 4:1-8: Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.

This is a clear example of us cooperating or participating in, not only a state of sanctification that we already have, but also in a process where God continues to work in us. Only the Gospel can drive these things, not our cooperation or the Law.

Therefore, I affirm an ongoing or cooperative aspect of sanctification. However, in the same breath, I also think that preachers of the Word need to be very cautious with this topic. Using exhortation wrongly can and does lead to a neglect of the Gospel, a downplaying of sola gratia and sola fide, and in extreme cases, outright moralism where the Gospel itself is turned into just another command to follow.

In other words, assurance cannot be had by looking inwardly at our works or fruits. Even this ongoing sanctification is completely driven by the Gospel. Only Christ and His work given objectively to us can assure us. It's driven by what is given to us in our Baptism, the Word, and the Sacrament. Our cooperation drives none of this nor does it merit us anything. Yet, God is pleased to have us as children justified by faith who desire to follow Him and cooperate in our lives. And it is us doing the acting, not God, although God is the sole driver of the actions.

Thus, I argue that it is completely valid to speak of sanctification in similar terms as salvation. Just as we can say that we are saved, are being saved, and will be saved, I think we can say the same regarding sanctification: We are sanctified, we are being sanctified, and we will be sanctified.

+Grace and Peace+


The Law Kills, But the Gospel Gives Life

2 Corinthians 3:6b: For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Here is a short passage of Scripture that is set up -out of context- to combat people who rely on Scripture alone and hold that the Word is Sacramental. That is to say, the Scriptures are gracious and create faith.

The normal interpretation of the enthusiasts here is to set up a dichotomy between the letter (Scriptures) and the Spirit, which is separated from the Scriptures and therefore gives life independently from the Word. That is to say, the Spirit speaks to us directly apart from means. Even Reformer Ulrich Zwingli took this position.

The problem with this interpretation however, is that is not at all what St. Paul is saying. He is not demeaning the Holy Scriptures at all, nor is he setting up a false dichotomy between the spiritual and the natural. In some ways this interpretation reeks of Gnostic dualism.

So what is St. Paul saying? If we continue reading, he explains.

2 Corinthians 3:7-8: Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses' face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory?

He explains that the letter that kills is not the Holy Scriptures but is the Law. The Law kills us, precisely because it brings knowledge of sin (Ro 3:20) and we are incapable of keeping it (Ro 3:23) and are therefore guilty of breaking all of it (Js 2:10). St. Paul even goes as far as to say that the Law is the "ministry of death." The Law does not save us. It can't. The function of the Law is to command, not to give life. Only the Spirit can do that. Yes, the Law is holy, righteous, and good (Ro 7:12). After all, it is from God and reveals His standards. Jesus even ramped up the Law in the New Testament (Mat 22:36-40), saying that we must love the Lord with everything in our being and love our neighbors as ourselves.

So what then is the ministry of the Spirit? It's none other than the ministry of the New Covenant. In other words, it's the ministry of Word and Sacrament. Christ for you. The Spirit works through means. This is the clear teaching of the New Testament. He does not work in a vacuum separated from the means of grace. Not in the manner which the enthusiasts claim by speaking to us personally apart from Word and Sacrament, and not in the manner of the Neo-Calvinists and other non-traditional Calvinists, apart from Word and Sacrament based on a mysterious inward call.

We could phrase this passage in another way if we wanted: The Law kills, but the Gospel gives life. That is the point St. Paul is making. Only Christ's work at Calvary, given to us by the ministry of Word and Sacrament -the realm in which the Spirit works- gives us life.

+Grace and Peace+


Unity and the Sacrament of the Altar

Christian unity is quite a large topic now days, and rightfully so. After all, it was our Lord Jesus Christ who prayed for it in St. John 17 in what is known as His High Priestly Prayer.

St. John 17:20-23: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me."

So we see, Jesus prays for unity. And, we should add, He will get it. But why doesn't He have it yet? Hint hint, we're sinful and stuff...

Anyhow, one of the major dividing doctrines in Christianity are the Sacraments. Baptism divides churches, but so does the Sacrament of the Altar, aka Holy Communion or the Eucharist.

Is the Eucharist worth dividing over? Absolutely yes, and here are some reasons as to why.

What is the Eucharist?

The three common interpretations of this (and this is simplified) are:

The Eucharist is the true body and blood of Christ given for the forgiveness of sins. This interpretation is the traditional Christian one that went virtually unchallenged for the first 1500 years of the Christian Church. Whereas the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church dispute on how that happens (we Lutherans refuse to go beyond the Word here, Rome has transubstantiation), the Real Presence is affirmed. The Eucharist is the real bodily presence of Christ.

Enter Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli was a pure memorialist. In simple terms, the bread and wine are nothing but a bare sign, done by us as a thanksgiving unto God. To put this bluntly, Zwingli denied the Real Presence. Communion is just bread and wine. This was THE issue that disallowed unity between Luther and Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy.

And then there is John Calvin, who strove to concoct a via media between the two systems. Calvin tried relentlessly to be faithful to both the ascension of Christ as well as the Words of Institution. What he came up with however was quite novel: The Holy Spirit carries us by faith into the throne room where Christ is in heaven to feast on His body and blood. Some theologians have accused this view of being Nestorian.

So different views of the Eucharist create division between churches, that is true. And I think, rightfully so. This is why:

First of all, the memorialists accuse the Real Presence advocates of worshiping an idol and holding to a superstition. The charge of cannibalism has even come up. The memorialists also accuse the non-Roman Catholic defenders of the Real Presence as being Romanists or hanging on to a holdover doctrine from Rome.

Another accusation made by the memorialists is that the Real Presence as a Sacrament for the forgiveness of sins (like baptismal regeneration) is a denial of sola fide. The Roman Church outright rejects sola fide anyways, but the accusation is a huge one to Confessional Lutherans who hold to the true bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist, baptismal regeneration, as well as sola fide.

So, how can us Real Presence folks be in communion with the memorialists. Obviously, the theological differences are too great to overlook. From their end, we are idolaters who add works to grace and reject sola fide.

On the flipside, the Real Presence adherents have serious problems with the memorialists. At the Marburg Colloquy, Luther even implied that Zwingli and his ilk were not brothers in Christ, despite reaching agreement on many things!

But why? Is the Real Presence that important? We think so for many reasons.

First and foremost, we believe the Real Presence is the clearest meaning of the text, not to mention the Church has always held to it. Therefore, we argue that the memorialists don't even have the Lord's Supper. They tinker with the elements a lot. Many churches use oyster crackers and Welch's grape juice. By doing this, they're essentially allowing Pietism, Legalism, and the women's temperance movement of the early 20th century to determine what elements are used in communion.

Second, from our perspective, they are guilty of rejecting what the Lord's Supper is. In short, when St. Matthew records the following:

St. Matthew 26:27-28: And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

We argue that the memorialists are guilty of rejecting this. This too is no small charge. If we, the Real Presence advocates are correct, and the Eucharist is the true body and blood of Christ given for the forgiveness of sins, then the memorialists are guilty of rejecting a means of grace and therefore a Gospel promise. That's a big deal.

Those issues are but a few, but they are big ones.

We must have unity, but we cannot have unity in the midst of grievous error. The Eucharist is one of those huge dividing points in the church. And so it shall be until Christ returns.


Smalcald Articles - Luther on Sin

Smalcald Articles, Part III, Article I: Sin

1 Here we must confess, as Paul says in Romans 5:12, that sin originated from one man, Adam. By his disobedience, all people were made sinners and became subject to death and the devil. This is called original or the chief sin.

2 The fruit of this sin are the evil deeds that are forbidden in the Ten Commandments [Galatians 5:19-21]. These include unbelief, false faith, idolatry, being without the fear of God, pride, despair, utter blindness, and, in short, not knowing or regarding God. Also lying, abusing God's name, not praying, not calling on God, not regarding God's Word, being disobedient to parents, murdering, being unchaste, stealing, deceiving, and such.

3 This hereditary sin is such a deep corruption of nature that no reason can understand it. Rather, it must be believed from the revelation of Scripture. (See Psalm 51:5; Romans 6:12-13; Exodus 33:3; Genesis 3:7-19.) Therefore, it is nothing but error and blindness that the scholastic doctors have taught in regard to this article:

4 Since Adam's fall the natural powers of human beings have remained whole and uncorrupted, and by nature people have a right reason and a good will, as the philosophers teach.

5 A person has a free will to do good and not to do evil, and, on the other hand, to not do good and do evil.

6 By natural human powers a person can observe and keep all God's commands.

7 By natural human powers, a person can love God above all things and love his neighbor as himself.

8 If a person does as much as is in him, God certainly grants him His grace.

9 If a person wishes to go to the Sacrament, there is no need of a good intention to do good. It is enough if a person does not have a wicked purpose to commit sin, so entirely good is human nature and so effective is the Sacrament.

10 Scripture does not teach that the Holy Spirit with His grace is necessary for a good work.

11 These and many similar ideas have arisen from lack of understanding and ignorance, both about sin and about Christ, our Savior. They are truly heathen teachings that we cannot endure. For if such teaching were true, then Christ has died in vain. A human being would have no defect or sin for which He would have died. Or He would have died only for the body, not for the soul, since the soul is sound, and only the body is subject to death.

Luther has here pointed out the numerous errors of the medieval church regarding original sin. More importantly, he has also pointed out the extremely problematic conclusions of such a sloppy theology. Ultimately, it glorifies man and devalues Christ.

How much do we see this sort of theology today? I would assert that we probably see it more today than even in Luther's time. It's the standard theology in America. The only theologies that stand against such man-glorifying theology are those of the Reformation.

In short, nearly all theological errors are a result of making way too much out of humanity. We are told we have unlimited potential and that we can do whatever we put our minds to. When we carry this over into theology, we end up with Christ as an afterthought and us as the real Saviors. The more we prop ourselves us, the further we get from Scriptural theology.

This short article written by Luther is just as true today as it was then. And it's just as important too.

As we continue in Lent towards Holy Week, let us remember that it is Christ alone -not us, not us plus Christ- that saves us.

+ Grace and Peace in Christ +