Tuesday, April 24, 2007


Last week I posted a selection from Gerhard Forde about sanctification, and some good discussion followed. I'm still unsettled on the topic. There was a time when I took everything I read from Dr. Forde as truth. I still admire his work, but I'm not so sure I can fully get on board with him anymore.

The Forde passage I quoted spoke of the dangers of "talk of progress." Brian commented that "progress is exactly the WRONG question." I agree, I think, but as Brian also observed it's hard to get the human mind away from viewing life this way.

Anything I work at, I get better at. If I play a game frequently, I get better at it. Through years of experience, my skill as a software engineer has steadily increased. With discipline, I've been able to improve my eating habits. If I'm not becoming a better Christian, why not?

Now at this point Lutherans are biting their tongues to not shout something about what it means to be a "better" Christian. I once heard it said that the utensils in the Temple weren't holy because they were better utensils that any other utensils but were holy simply because they were in the Temple. And so we turn again, as always, to the question of justification.

But wait a minute. The gift is a call, right? When Christ calls us, he calls us to mission. To be a Christian is to be a disciple of Christ, and surely that is something that we can get better at, isn't it?

Jesus told a parable, "What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' He answered, 'I will not'; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered,'I go, sir'; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?" (Mt. 21:28-31)

Now perhaps this has nothing to do with salvation. Maybe it doesn't even have anything to do with sanctification. But what does it matter? Shouldn't we be getting better at this?


D.W. Congdon said...


The problems with the notion of progress are manifold, but here are a few off the top of my head: (1) Christian sanctification is not something that occurs primarily in us, but rather something that was accomplished first and foremost in Jesus Christ; (2) sanctification is on a wholly different order than our other human affairs (like playing a game) -- i.e., sanctification is not just some "thing" among other "things" in this world that we seek to "get better at," but rather it is a divine gift and reality which does not operate on the level of worldly standards of measurability; (3) to reemphasize the previous point, sanctification is not something that we accomplish but rather something God alone accomplishes, and if this is true, then we must divest ourselves of the temptation to measure and evaluate the work of God in our lives as if it were comparable (by analogy or whatever) to things that we perfect over time in our own existence.

That said, I think the best thing one can do and should do is read Karl Barth's The Epistle to the Romans. It's a good dose of medicine that will help remove our worries over progress in Christian living.

Pastor Eric said...

I agree! Sanctification is up to God through Jesus Christ. There is nothing we can do to become a better Christian. But I believe we can become better at being a disciple of Jesus Christ. Spiritual disciplines help us in this regard. But spiritual disciplines don't make God love us more. Our growth comes in learning to show God's love in all we do as a response to the gift we have been given in Jesus Christ. We ARE sanctified but we still can grow.

Thanks for the continued discussion.

Andy said...

Eric, are you saying you argee with me or D.W.? Or maybe both?

Theologically, I agree with all the D.W. is saying, and I feel like maybe I'm muddying the discussion by continuing to talk about sanctification, because I don't mean to dispute long held theological traditions. Or maybe I do, because...

D.W., I'm no so much worried about whether I am making progress, and I'm not looking at myself to see how I'm doing, or for that matter looking at anyone else to see how they're doing, but I am interested in how our dogma affects our mission.

If santification is not something that occurs primarily in us, then it's not what I'm talking about, because what I'm talking about is precisely what happens in human affairs. It may still be something God does, but it's something God does in, with and through us.

Pastor Eric said...

I agree with both you and d.w. Sanctification is God's job through Jesus Christ. D.W. laid that out quite well.

But you ask about becoming a better Christian -- or put in a better way -- a better disciple. I believe we do become better at following Jesus; listening to His voice; and sharing the Good News about Him in all we do. In that respect we do grow.

Sorry for the confusion before. I hope this clears things up. Take care.

Pastor Eric said...

Oops...sorry Andy, I put the wrong name in my last comment. I meant you, not Brian. I guess I need another cup of coffee.

Tom in Ontario said...

Now we are only halfway pure and holy. The Holy Spirit must continue to work in us through the Word, daily granting forgiveness until we attain that life where there will be no more forgiveness. (LC II, 58)

The Holy Spirit, mediated through word and sacrament, "sanctifies" and "makes holy." The Holy Spirit "first leads us into his holy community, placing us upon the bosom of the church, where he preaches to us and brings us to Christ" (LC II, 37).

The Holy Spirit "sanctifies"—that is, "makes holy"—by forgiving sins and granting eternal life to the members of Christ's body, the church (SC II, 6). There is no "justification" without "sanctification." Faith creates a new and clean heart, and good works follow faith.

I don't know about "progress" but I think a Christian can see a change. Perhaps it's a recognition of the tranformation in one's life, through the Holy Spirit.

"If you were to pick out a word to describe yourself, it probably wouldn't be holy. You probably wouldn't call yourself a "saint," either. Whether out of fear of seeming too proud or out of knowledge of our own shortcomings, we usually don't use these words to speak of ourselves or others.

"But even if holy and saint aren't words you'd choose, they describe what the Holy Spirit is making of you and what the church is. The Spirit is making you holy. And the Spirit is doing it through the Word it speaks in "the holy catholic Church," which is "the communion of saints.

"The Spirit sanctifies. That word sums up, in a word, everything the Spirit does, its whole purpose for us. The Spirit is making us holy, making us what God made us to be, a new people.

"The old self likes to think that you can make a believer out of yourself, that you're the one who has to make yourself what God wants you to be. It can't be done. Having created us and come to us in Christ, God sends his Spirit to grace us. So the Spirit calls us, gathers us, enlightens and sanctifies us."

David said...

I believe that we can, and some of us do, become better disciples for Christ. There are people in the Church who work at spiritual practices such as prayer, spiritual reading, and teaching who have developed their skills to become more effective theologians, evangelists, and stewards.

Not all of these people were born with the skill sets required for such ministry. These skills and abilities are gifts of the Spirit. Through practices of various disciplines, they have become better at it.

Yet even the ability to adhere to spiritual practices is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit that works within us in order that people may become such disciples.

In this sense, we do grow and make progress toward becoming better disciples. Look at how far the apostles had to travel before they became effective evangelists, teachers and stewards, and they had Jesus with them.

P.S. an after-thought said...

I'd like to comment/ask about this from a different angle. I'm away from home, with a relative who listens to lots of "Christian radio" station talks, has books, DVDs etc. A lot of this uses language, accents, theology, etc. that is foreign to a Lutheran, if you get my drift.

Some of it seems very good. Some of the speakers seem to be humbly seeking God's will and preaching God's word.

But some of them seem, to me, to have a tone of "Our way or the Hell way." Nose in the air. Some of this, I know, is cultural, in the sense that it is just the way some groups speak. It tends to make my skin crawl.

And lots and lots of the talks on the radio are about improving oneself in a Biblical Way. And the books here and the DVDs mostly have titles about better prayer lives, better this or that. Well, Ok. I can't help but think that some of this can't really be Biblical because preachers would have had a different interpretation in a different century.

While I can, of course, be a better person by anyone's measure, as a Lutheran, I react negatively to all of this because when I go to church, I usually first encounter the confession and forgiveness. There, I am now declared clean and sinless. And that is enough. That is all I need.

The rest, the life style, the works, the attitude, etc. can always follow, with a step forward, two steps backward, etc. But I can REST in grace and not get so uptight as these people on the radio sound.

I don't think that there is "progress" as in an upward line on a chart. Just boldly trying, with God's help, day by day.

I hope someone reacts to what I wrote, from a feet on the ground stance. Thanks.

LutherPunk said...

Sorry to jump in late on this great topic...

There are some Lutheran writers - primarily the Pietists - who would suggest that this passive approach to sanctification causes us to become anti-nomian, and susceptible to revel in simul iustus et peccator rather than to see it as merely a statement of reality. We've all heard one too many times folks who willingly run headlong into sin and then respond by saying, "well, that is what grace is for."

The works of Arndt and Gerhard would suggest that our sanctification would resemble something like "progress", but I have to question if "progress" is the right term to use. Perhaps growth is a better term (or maybe not).

Luther himself speaks of righteousness as consisting in two parts: first is the righteousness of Christ granted to us freely. The second is "proper righteousness," which "is generated in part by us and consists in self-discipline, love of neighbor, and reverence toward God. (Gassmann/Hendrix pp 164-165)This prevents us from sleeping into the this idea that sanctification is something that "just happens," and forces us to take responsibility for our own actions.

Andy said...


I know what you're saying, and I think that's the kind of thing DW is responding too in refering me to Barth's commentary on Romans. One of my favorite responses to this perspective is an essay that Rod Rosenbladt wrote called Christ Died for the Sins of Christians Too. (With any luck, I've successfully linked to an online copy of it.)

But one of the things my wife (who isn't Lutheran) has taught me is that we Lutherans tend to be way too quick to throw up our heresy flags and stop listening. While I may never "speak the language" of some other Christians, I'm trying to listen to what they're saying and see if there isn't something I can learn from it.

And so the thing I get here is that they're really trying to do the will of God. I think they're often misguided, but they're trying. My father-in-law talks about trying to be "squeaky clean." As a Lutheran, my first reaction is to ask, "Why in the world would you try to be squeaky clean?" But I'm afraid he would answer, "Why wouldn't you?"

I'm reminded what William Law says in A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life: "And if you will here stop, and ask yourselves, why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you, that it is neither through ignorance, nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it."

JohnW said...

This is a great discussion, and one I think many lutherans stumble on (me included). But, right or wrong, I think it's quite simple: If we put our faith in Christ then we open our heart up to an infinite source of love. Naturally this love overspills into every action we perform, every thought we have. That's the holy spirit working in us, as a natural consequence. Then when we touch God's creation we do so with the love of its creator. It is this love, this new respect for our loving God's creation, that might well be called good works. But it doesn't originate as our own intent, it originates only from God's love through Christ that we invite only through faith.