Meditations on Sanctification As An Objective Act
The recent Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference provided me (and several of my compadres) with the opportunity to do some extended reflection upon the Christian doctrine of sanctification, and especially its relation to Christ’s work of justification and the rest of the ordo salutis. A number of papers (mine included) drew upon such figures as Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and T.F. Torrance as resources for thinking a bit outside the traditional Protestant box on this topic. What I’d like to do here is simply cap off my conference experience with a bit of extended reflection on this.
Christian Perfection As Performance
First, a bit of biographical context: I was reared not just in the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition but in a very particular stream of it, one in which the doctrine of sanctification is absolutely central. The Church of the Nazarene is one of the major denominational inheritors of the holiness movement, which originated in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century. Early holiness teachers like Phoebe Palmer drew upon Methodist resources in preaching a doctrine of “entire sanctification.” In brief: According to Arminian theology, God first works upon the heart to convert the sinner (viz. the gift of prevenient grace, enabling her to mortify the flesh and turn to Christ) and lead her to justification. As historic Protestantism teaches, this inaugurates the process of sanctification, or Christian perfection, through which the believer is continually purified and shaped into the likeness of Christ.
The original stamp of the holiness movement, however, was to suggest a “second work of divine grace,” subsequent to justification, by virtue of which the believer may be entirely sanctified. Rather than a lifetime of working out one’s salvation, entire sanctification can come in a moment as a result of earnest prayer and openness to the fullness of God’s desire to bless and empower His people. This should certainly be the goal of all believers.
Pair this with a child’s black-and-white worldview and sensibilities of doing good, and the shame of doing wrong, and you have a formula for legalism and sanctification portrayed in terms of human responsibility — and the guilt that inevitably comes from failure. Perfection in holiness (understood entirely in moral and performative terms) is the goal of living as a Christian man or woman, and every sin of commission and of omission, including every failure to maintain spiritual disciplines of Bible reading, prayer, church attendance, etc., is a profoundly deep failure to be a Christian.
Now I’m not suggesting that this is the normative or inevitable end of Wesleyan holiness teaching. But, in the absence of a well-balanced teaching ministry, it seems to me that children and young believers such as I was will likely end up with such an understanding of their own Christian life and their relationship with God. (Let’s teach our Wesleyan kids about the power of grace and forgiveness, the depravity of human nature, and the importance of eschatological consummation of their redemption, for example.)
As a result of my conversion to Reformed thinking in my mid-20s, I found it necessary to push to the topic of sanctification far from my eyes. I was basking in the freedom of divine grace — I had no patience to work out a more properly oriented and balanced doctrine of Christian perfection. I still find this subject difficult to reflect upon, and I confess that this is entirely because of my biography. And so I am seeking a doctrine of sanctification that is liberating (it ought to be a positive doctrine, right?!) and not condemning.
Sanctification Done For You
One theme that emerged from the conference, then, is a belief shared by many twentieth century thinkers that sanctification belongs with justification as a work that is already accomplished, objectively — without us and for our sake — by Jesus Christ. Rather than sanctification being anchored by the cross but effectively worked out on the subjective pole by the Holy Spirit (with the cooperation of the faithful believer), it is a part of the fuller work of redemption that Christ has already finished and made true of us. Just as we are justified in Christ, we are already sanctified in Christ.
At first blush this move has a lot to offer, but also some potential problems in how it might be worked out with respect to the Christian life. Does what we do matter at all to God? What of all the imperatives of Scripture — “be holy” and “be perfect”? I have some at least preliminary thoughts on this aspect of the discussion, if anyone wants to pick it up in the comments thread or thinks it is worth a second post.
To begin with, however, I’d like to focus on the benefits of this shift in thinking of sanctification as an objective, completed act of God in Christ. Certainly there is a subjective pole in the reconciliation of men and women with God — for as much as we live in community as the body of Christ (and not in and of and for ourselves), we are still individual men and women striving to life lives of faithful obedience to our Lord. And certainly there are biblical imperatives that direct us to this end. But the nagging sense I always had while in the Wesleyan tradition was that my reconciliation with God — my “salvation” itself, if you will — was contingent, if ever so slightly, upon my own contribution to it. Rather than saving me, Christ enabled me to be saved. Even where Christian perfection was pushed out of the sphere of salvation, the synergistic picture of my life in Christ remained.
Today, I don’t think this squares with the gospel. The work of Christ is not merely about opening the door of heaven to me; nor is it about merely getting me inside, leaving me to get my life transformed a little further on down the line. The work of Christ is reconciling, what Karl Barth described as the exaltation of human existence to fellowship with God. This is the sanctification of the Christian — returning her, as a prodigal, to the loving embrace of the Father. And not only returning her home, but putting on her the finest robes and a ring on her finger, making her fit for fellowship with God. She may still have a “part to play,” as it were: she must repent and live according to the new life she has been given, the favored state in which she has been placed by the Father’s grace. But the point of the gospel as I see it is that this is a work that has been done to her and for her. Her sanctification, in every theological sense of the word, comes to her from outside of herself and affects her transformation, and not vice versa.