Saturday, April 14, 2007

Forde on Sanctification

In the comments on an earlier post, the question of sanctification was raised. I recalled some remarks by Gerhard Forde questioning the possibility, even, of progress in the Christian life. I found the remarks I was thinking of in the book Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Santification in which Forde offered the Lutheran position.

His central thesis is that sanctification is nothing more and nothing less than "the art of getting used to unconditional justification." He concludes the essay as follows:
In many ways, this essay has been an appeal for more truthfulness in our talk about the Christian life and sanctification. I think that should be the mark of sanctification as well. As Paul put it, we are not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought (Rom. 12:3).

The talk of progress and growth we usually indulge in leads us all too often to do just that. But if we are saved and sanctified only by the unconditional grace of God, we ought to be able to become more truthful and lucid about the way things really are with us. Amd I making progress? If I am really honest, it seems to me that the question is odd, even a little ridiculous. As I get older and death draws nearer, it doesn't seem to get any easier. I get a little more impatient, a little more anxious about having perhaps missed what this life has to offer, a litter slower, harder to move, a little more sedentary and set in my ways. ... Well, maybe it seems as though I sin less, but that may only be because I'm getting tired! It's just too hard to keep indulging the lusts of youth. Is that sanctification? I wouldn't think so! One should not, I expect, mistake encroaching senility for sanctification!

But can it be, perhaps, that it is precisely the unconditional gift of grace that helps me to see and admit all that? I hope so. The grace of God should lead us to see the truth about ourselves, and to gain a certain lucidity, a certain sense of humor, a certain down-to-earthness. When we come to realize that if are going to be saved, it shall have to be absolutely by grace alone, then we shall be sanctified. God will have his way with us at last.
Comments anyone?


Pastor Eric said...

"Am I making progress? If I am really honest, it seems to me that the question is odd, even a little ridiculous."

I really like that statement. I look at some of the "senior" members of the congregation I serve and there are some that think they HAVE made progress...even to a point where they think they can sit back and watch others try to catch up to them. I wish they could see that it is God that makes us holy through Jesus Christ. It is important to keep learning and growing and improving, but never think that you have made it. As Paul says, "Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me" (Phil. 3:12). Paul knew he had work to do and so do we. We are not perfect...yet.

Thank you for your post. Forde is definitely fun to read and really makes you think.

Brian said...

But progress is exactly the WRONG question... if we are being truthful. Progress implies the notion that we are getting better and better, every day in every way. Frankly, the Christian life is not about getting better.

The Christian life is about dying so that we might live an entirely NEW life. We are sanctified, in part to be sure, when the Kingdom is made known in and through us. The new life of righteousness is made known, and the old life of sin is put to death. This life is far more complex than just "getting used to being justified." I will admit that when I started reading that essay I quit reading after that sentence... which of course is the opening sentence. But that's what I expect from someone who denies the third use of the law.

I don't think that pastor eric's parishioners vision of progress is true sanctification. The way he describes it sounds more like the sin of pride.


Pastor Eric said...

A couple comments:
(1) I never said that my parishoners' view of progress is "true sanctification". They may think it is but it is not. The sin of pride? some cases it is, but not all. You really have to know these people before you make a comment like that. Some of them are not used to the fact that they are sanctified and some are too use to the fact. There needs to be "growth" in their faith and understanding of what God has done for them.
(2) You are absolutely right, Brian, that we are sanctified when the Kingdom is made known to us. There is nothing more we can do. God does it all in Jesus Christ. What I believe Forde is saying is that we have to get used to that fact. Sometimes it is hard to believe that God forgives ALL my sins. It is then that I need a preacher to assure me that I AM forgiven and sancified.

I believe there is "progress" and "growth" in the Christian life, but not in the way that it earns us favor with God. Our groth is the greater and greater understanding of what God has done for us and learning to live in that reality.

God bless,

Andy said...


Forde would definitely have agreed that "progress is exactly the WRONG question". In fact, that's one of the main points of the essay.

But where Forde has been really challenging to me is in how far he was willing to push things. For instance, when you speak about how "the old life of sin is put to death" his ears would prick up, looking for the possibility that you might be replacing "getting better" with "the old life of sin being put to death more completely" which would amount to the same thing. Not that I think you are saying that, but once we've named and eliminated that interpretation, I'm left with a fuzzy picture of what the words do mean.

Brian said...

I think the waters are muddied any time we talk about the transformative power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Our human minds are generally constrained to create a temporal element (i.e. seeing cause and effect, a flowing of time, etc.) so that we can make sense out of it. We are limited in that way.

Even Luther begins talking about the Christian life as a process. In speaking about the new leaven in Matthew 13, Luther writes,
The second parable is written in Matt. 13[:33]. It tells of the leaven which the woman mixes in three measures of meal until it is thoroughly leavened. The new leaven is the faith and grace of the Spirit. It does not leaven the whole lump at once but gently, and gradually, we become like this new leaven and eventually, a bread of God. This life, therefore, is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed. (LW vol. 32, p. 24)

And yet... I would avoid the language of progress.


Lee said...

One of the reasons that I kind of shy away from sanctification talk is that it can seem ironically self-centered. I remember reading John Wesley's A Plain Account of Christian Perfection and thinking how much self-monitoring it involved. It sounded exhausting! Not that Wesley wasn't concerned about others, but I wonder how sound a preoccupation with my "spiritual growth" really is? This seems not entirely unrelated to Jesus' criticism of the Pharisees' concern for their own ritual/religious purity.

One of the things I really like about the Lutheran emphasis on justification is that it leads to (or at least ought to lead to - that's the trick) a certain self-forgetfulness. We don't love others in order to be "sanctified" but because we believe that we are loved by God and that our being and worth are secured in him, not in anything we do. This frees us to love others without worrying so much about whether we're "progressing."

Andy said...


Thanks for the Luther quote. As I recall Althaus goes so far as to say that Luther retains a two-stage idea of justification, although that sounds a bit like a product of trying to systematize Luther's thought to me.

Anyway, I think I have a grasp of what you're getting at.

Andy said...


I think your on to something. Maybe any theology of sanctification is bound to be unedifying.