Monday, May 19, 2014

The activity of sanctification

But seeing that, in this earthly prison of the body, no man is supplied with strength sufficient to hasten in his course with due alacrity, while the greater number are so oppressed with weakness, that hesitating, and halting, and even crawling on the ground, they make little progress, let every one of us go as far as his humble ability enables him, and prosecute the journey once begun. No one will travel so badly as not daily to make some degree of progress. This, therefore, let us never cease to do, that we may daily advance in the way of the Lord, and let us not despair because of the slender measure of success. (Inst. III.6.5.)

Recently there has been an upsurge in discussion on the relation of justification to sanctification. If you are interested in the blog-chase and haven’t yet picked it up, you can do so here.

The problem?

The contentious point seems to be Tullian Tchividjian’s insistence that for the Christian to have or to feel an obligation to the law, the moral law, is foreign to the NT and is ‘legalistic’. Christians have no such obligation. TT is in turn accused of neglecting the ‘third use’ of the law, its function as a standard and guide for the conduct of the Christian life.

This looks a re-run of a familiar issue in antinomianism – Does God impute to his people not only their justification but also their sanctification? Is that why his commands are not ‘burdensome’ for the Christian, because Christ himself has fulfilled them for him? Has Christ ‘done it all’?

Both justification and sanctification, distinct but inseparable, have been discussed historically in terms of the moral law. In justification, our sin, our failure to keep the law and so incur guilt, is imputed to Christ whose forgiveness and righteousness we receive. In sanctification, the Christian’s character is renewed by his keeping of the law, motivated in various ways to do so.

Another strand of teaching

But there is another strand to the NT, not having to do with the obligation to do one's duty, but to live a new life.

Here I wish to look at a prominent strand of NT teaching that is not captured by the categories of law directly. Those places in which the apostles draw attention to the graces or fruits or virtues. (The Westminster Larger Catechism refers to sanctification in these terms, but it cannot be said to major on it. (Q.75 ‘having the seed of regeneration unto life, and all other saving graces, put into their hearts, and these graces so stirred up, increased and strengthened, as that they more and more die unto sin, and rise unto newness of life’. Thereafter sanctification is almost exclusively discussed in terms of the moral law and our duty to keep it. Not the NT balance, in my view. Here the role of the Divines as champions of a state church reveals itself.)


The apostle Paul says. For example –

But the fruit of the Spirit is joy, peace, patience, kindness goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

He contrasts these with ‘sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like that’.

There is a similar approach in his contrast of the new life with the old in Ephesians 4 and in Colossians 3.

In Romans  13 there is Paul’s translation of the ethical norms of the moral law into the language of intentional activity.

The commandments, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, Your shall not steal, You shall not covet, and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Here he carries out this translation of the keeping of the law into  certain kinds of activity – waking from sleep, casting off the works of darkness, putting on the armour of light,  walking properly as in the daytime, putting on the Lord Jesus Christ, making no provision for the flesh.


Similarly with Peter. In 1Peter, the same idea, the values of the law translated into the character of inner renewal - ‘love one another with a pure heart since you have been born again…(1.22f.)’Abstain from the passions of the flesh….living as the servants of God…. Honour everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor’. (ch.2) Husbands and wives. (ch. 3.) And in 2 Peter

Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness wit brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love….Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. (1.5f)

And James

In the letter to James, the law is certainly there, but the emphasis is on particular failings, and opportunities such as hearing and doing (ch.1), the tongue (1.26f. 3. 1-13), the possessing of wisdom (3.13 f.), humility (4. 1-14), submission to the will of God (4.13 f), the danger of riches (5.1-6), patience, (5.7f.) 

The law as a moral guide

Summarising, the idea that the law is no longer to be the moral guide, a point often insisted on by those dismissed as ‘antinomian’ (rather unjustly it seems to me) is clearly mistaken. The relevance of the moral law is a view endorsed by Christ and spelled out by the apostles. So in the most extended discussion of the nature of sanctification in the New Testament, Romans 12 and 13, the command to love one’s neighbour (12.9), and not to remain indebted (13.7), the laws forbidding adultery, stealing, covetousness are summed up, as Christ himself taught, as particular instances of ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’. (13. 8-10) But the law in not thought of primarily as obligations, duties, but as structural directions for the new life. 

And this may be thought of as providential given the varieties of circumstance that the New Testament international church of Christ may find itself in. Without being relativistic, there may be across the world and down the centuries very different ways in which the injunctions are to be taken to apply to one thing and another. We must never forget that New Testament church is an international jurisdiction, by comparison with the Old Testament theocracy.

The values of the Decalogue

As if to underline the difference in the situation of the New Testament church as over against the church in the Mosaic era, the New Testament has a variety of different ways of expressing the values of the Decalogue, and of inculcating its moral standards, and making certain applications of it as James, for example, stresses for his readers the incendiary effect of a wagging tongue.  No doubt this can be regarded as an application of the Decalogue's norm of truth telling.  The way in which Paul and the other apostles write of the application of the Decalogue suggests the such application consists of, or starts with, not obedience to commands but with the formation of dispositions of character, springing from regeneration, echoing the Sermon on the Mount, of course.

All these forms of language in themselves strongly imply that Christian moral character is formed from the inside out, by means of the renewal of the mind, by the development of those seed-graces planted in regeneration. Morality is considered not of a code of separate acts of obedience which then develop in the agent corresponding habits of mind, but as an inner renewal which brings about the practice of the appropriate actions in a properly motivated manner.

It is perhaps not surprising that those who have sought righteousness as it were by the works of the law, should find it perplexing to be told, as now a Christian person by faith in Christ, that the law has other positive uses still, and that the most significant of these is the law as a rule of life. How could that which was an agent of death become so suddenly an agent of life?  It is to dispel such perplexity that thinking of the Christian life – sanctification – as the bearing of fruit,  virtues and graces,  can be liberating.

Passivity in regeneration, and then?

In thinking of sanctification only in terms of performing duties to be followed, we change the emphasis of what is distinctively New Testament. Rather, virtues and graces are gifts that we ‘bring forth’ to God, the offspring of our new birth and of our marriage to Christ. In regeneration the soul is utterly passive. Regeneration is pure monergism.  We are acted upon in the depths of our selves, we do not act. But that new life - the 'new man' - which is a gracious consequence of union with Christ which energises us. So it would be a mistake to think of the life of sanctification in passive terms.

Nevertheless, as we have seen, the language of the NT is also clear that the values of this newly-energised life are the norms of the law. But whereas the legalism of the law  - do good and you will become good -  is (vainly) an operation of the law, the new life operates from the inside out. 'Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit'. (Matt.12.33) First make the tree good, and the fruit will be good.

Do we fail?

Viewing sanctification in this way, is human activity engaged in it? This seems an important issue in the current contretemps. And the answer is: Most certainly. Strenuous activity. And is there progress in the life of sanctification? Fitful progress, yes, hesitant and halting, as Calvin puts it. Do we fail?  Is the recognition of such failure a proper Christian response? Most certainly. We might say that it is the natural Christian reaction.

But 'Let us not despair because of the slender measure of success’.