Friday, April 9, 2010

The Reformed Doctrine of Sanctification

Did the Reformers then have any doctrine of sanctification? Of course they did. We are all familiar with the biblical announcements as to what is involved in sanctification: the Word, the sacraments, prayer, fellowship, sharing the gospel, serving God and neighbor. And the Reformation tradition acknowledges that there are biblical texts that speak of sanctification as complete already. This is not a perfection that is empirical or observable, but a definitive declaration that because we are "in Christ," we are set apart and reckoned holy by his sacrifice (1 Cor. 1:30; Heb. 10 and so on). Anybody who is in Christ is sanctified, because Christ's holiness is imputed to the Christian believer, just as Jesus says in John 17:19, "For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified." God sees the believer as holy. That means that Wesley should not have terrified Christian brethren with texts such as, "Without holiness, no one will see the Lord." The Christian is holy; it is all imputed. And then there are texts such as, "Be holy as I am holy." What would the Reformers do with that? They would say we are called to be holy. But why should we be holy if we are already perfect in Christ? Because we are saved unto good works, not unto licentiousness, according to Romans 6; the question has been asked before. Good works are done out of thankfulness of heart by the believer who has been saved, not by one who is trying to be saved.

Clearly the Reformers had a doctrine of sanctification. They believed that the law in the Bible has three uses. First, it is a civil ordinance to keep us from stealing each other's wives, husbands, and speedboats. The civil use of the law applies to the whole of culture. Second, the theological use of the law is to reveal our sin and drive us to despair and terror so that we will seek a savior. Luther believed that is a primary use of the law in all of Scripture. But the Reformers also believed in a third use of the law, and that is a didactic use, to teach the Christian God's will for holy living.

If a Christian is reading the law and says, "This is not yet true of me: I don't love God with all my heart, and I certainly don't love my neighbor as I love myself. In fact, just today I failed to help a poor man on the side of the road who was having car trouble. I must not yet be a Christian, " here the Reformers would counsel, "You hurry back to the second use of the law and flee to Christ where sanctification is truly, completely, and perfectly located." After this experience, the believer will feel a greater sense of freedom to obey, and this is the only way that one will ever feel free to obey. The difference between all Higher Life movements and the Reformation perspective finally turns on the question of what Baptists call the assurance of salvation and what the Reformers called fides reflexa (reflexive faith). The answer of the Higher Life movement to the struggling Christian is, Surrender more, or, What are you holding back from the Lord? The Reformation answer is different.

A friend of mine was walking down a street in Minneapolis one day and was confronted by an evangelical brother who asked, "Brother, are you saved?" Hal rolled his eyes back and said, "Yes." That didn't satisfy this brother, so he said, "Well, when were you saved?" Hal said, "About two thousand years ago, about a twenty minutes' walk from downtown Jerusalem."

The most important thing to remember is that the death of Christ was in fact a death even for Christian failure. Christ's death saves even Christians from sin. There is always "room at the cross" for unbelievers, it seems. But what we ought to be telling people is that there is room there for Christians, too. This, then, is what was meant earlier by the motif of law—gospel—law in many evangelical circles. The law condemns, driving us to Christ the gospel, from whom we receive both instantaneous justification and progressive sanctification for the rest of our lives, according to the Reformation perspective. While the law still guides, it can never make threats. But in contemporary evangelicalism, the law can come back to undermine the confidence of the gospel. It can still make threats; it can still condemn. There is wonderful grace for the "sinner," and the evangelical is at his best in evangelism. But the question as to whether there is enough grace for the sinful Christian is an open one in many gatherings, and I have had many students tell me, "My last state is worse than the first. I think I've got to leave the faith because feel worse now than I did before." I have had people come up to me after I had spoken and tell me, "This is about the last shot I've got. My own Christian training is killing me. I can understand how, before I was a Christian, Christ's death was for me, but I am not at all sure that his death is for now because I have surrendered so little to him and hold so much back. My trouble really began when I committed myself to Christ as Lord and Savior." That perversion can be the result of pastoral teaching, Sunday school curriculum, and the declarations of evangelical Christian leaders.

Instead, there must be a clear and unqualified pronouncement of the assurance of salvation on the basis of the fullness of the atonement of Christ. In other words, even a Christian can be saved. The other "gospel," in its various forms (Higher Life, legalism, the "carnal Christian" teaching, and so on) is tearing us to pieces. I must warn you that the answer to this devastating problem is not available on every street corner. It is available only in the Reformed tradition. This is not because that particular tradition has access to information other traditions do not possess. Rather, it is because the same debate that climaxed in that  sixteenth-century movement has erupted since in less precise form. In fact, since Christ's debates with the Pharisees and Paul's arguments with the legalists, this has been the debate of Christian history. At no time since the apostolic era were these issues so thoroughly discussed and debated, as they were in the sixteenth century. To ignore the biblical wisdom, scholarship, and brilliant insights of such giants as the Reformers is simply to add to our ignorance the vice of pride and self-sufficiency. The Reformation position is the real evangelical position.

The only way out is an exposition of the Scriptures that has to do with law and gospel—an exposition of the Scriptures that places Christ at the center of the text for everybody, including the Christian. All of the Bible is about him. All of the Bible is even about him for the Christian!

I used to tell my students at an evangelical Christian college that they had never heard real preaching, with the exception of a few sound evangelistic appeals. Their weekly diet in the congregation was not, as it should have been, a proclamation of God's grace to them because of the finished and atoning death of Christ—God's grace for them as Christians. That emphasis is desperately needed. And the only way to find that kind of preaching is to go back to when it was done, and it was done in the sixteenth century. The real hope for the church in the West, humanly speaking, lies with evangelicals. Barring an unusual act of God, the mainline churches are not going to get the church back on its feet. Generally speaking, they simply do not have a high enough view of the inspiration of Scripture to listen to it anymore.

The evangelicals do. They believe that the Scriptures are true, but tend to read them as a recipe book for Christian living, rather than for the purpose of finding Christ who died for them and who is the answer to their unchristian living. We must have that kind of renewal, and it can only come from the evangelicals. The evangelical movement in America must begin reading from the Reformers instead of pretending that they are committed only to the Bible, without any system of doctrine, when it is clear what books, tapes, and sermons have shaped their faith and practice. Another thing we are going to have to re-examine in connection with Christian growth is the question of the sacraments—not sacramentalism, but the very nature of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord's Supper), which receives far more attention in the Scriptures than in contemporary evangelical discussion and piety. We are going to have to talk about them again. The major themes of the Reformers are precisely the ones the evangelical must be encouraged to recover.

Rod Rosenbladt, "Conclusion, Christ Died for the Sins of Christians, Too," Christ the Lord (The Reformation and Lordship Salvation), ed. Michael Horton (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1992), 204—208 (italics original).


  1. Law and then faith, and then no more law. The reason people stumble is because the law is not of faith, so people take their eyes OFF Christ to obey some rules.

    The law, and the despair of sin, leads me to the new covenant by faith in Jesus Christ. Now, it isn't "Don't steal or else"; it is "give", because God has blessed you with so much and forgiven all your sins. The method of cross centered motive is essential. The woman that was FORGIVEN loved much, and if we want people to do good works, it must be by the atonement of Christ before them always. By faith, only..

  2. Martin Luther said that a man who had the right balance between gospel (grace) and law should be put at the head of the table and called a "theologian" no matter how much education he has. What the church needs today is more of such "theologians".


Related Posts with Thumbnails