There is a saying in our success-oriented culture: “Dress for success: you are what you wear.” In other words, the clothes make the person. Imagine what this could mean if it were literally true. You take an uneducated and inexperienced man and dress him in a fine Brooks Brothers suit, a nice white button-down shirt, a power tie, and voila! He is dressed for success. Now, tell him he has just become a qualified business executive, indeed, vice president of the company. Moreover, as he goes to work each day so dressed, he actually matures into a competent and successful executive. Pure foolishness?
The more we grow in Christ, the more daily living can take on a reflection of His righteousness and the fruit of faithfulness increasingly accent our life. This is what is called sanctification.
Regardless of what we may think of this saying in the business world or in general, there is much about this that we can liken to our life in Christ. We incompetent and disqualified sinners are clothed with the righteousness of Christ, a constantly worn garment that gives us saintly status and life as God’s children. With His righteousness, we are outfitted—made totally fit—for sainthood and citizenship in His Kingdom. And then miraculously, the robe of righteousness also creates and develops us on the inside into a mature image of the righteous Son of Man.
Through the Gospel, God dresses the sinner in the righteousness of Christ which is worn and lived in through faith. Justification brought us what Luther called an alien righteousness.(1) To put on the righteousness of Christ is to put on Christ. This holy clothing has a powerful renewing effect on us. We are regenerated into a righteous reflection of what we wear by faith in our baptism. As faith grows and matures, Christ’s righteousness develops a new creation into a mature likeness of His human nature. As Jesus according to His human nature grew in wisdom and stature, so also does the new creation that has come forth in Baptism. The more we grow in Christ, the more daily living can take on a reflection of His righteousness and the fruit of faithfulness increasingly accent our life. This is what is called sanctification. It is a lifelong growing and maturing process of the Christian’s new life in Christ that Baptism has created.
Power or Pardon?
To rightly understand God’s work of sanctification, several important questions need to be considered for clarity about our life in Christ. These would include the following: How does God’s work of sanctification relate to justification? Are these two separate works of God or are they simply two aspects of the same work? If God’s grace is involved in sanctification (and it is!), is it the same grace by which we are justified or is it of a different sort? Does God sanctify by some power in addition to His pardon in the justifying Word of the Gospel or does the power that produces sanctification come simply from the impact of the Word of pardon? Where do the efforts of the Christian and good works fit in the sanctified life? Do they contribute anything to the work of sanctification?
As we discuss these questions, we would do well to take to heart Gerhard Forde’s warning: Talk about sanctification can be dangerous. If we separate sanctification from justification, we may end up making sanctification a project whereby we contribute to God’s plan of salvationing us.(2) His point is well-taken. It has happened frequently in the Church throughout the ages.
Much of western Christian thought from post-Apostolic times to Luther was absorbed by a quest for personal holiness. This was certainly true for St. Augustine. Even though Augustine championed salvation by grace apart from works, he understood the grace of God primarily as a divine power that progressively transforms the sinner.(3) In other words, God requires a holy and righteous life, and by grace He gradually produces what He demands. He infuses divine grace into the baptized Christian which gradually reforms the sinful character of the believer, eventually making him righteous and fit for the coming Kingdom. Augustine worked with a moral model of sin and grace. The dominant element of God’s salvationing the sinner was understood to progressively reform the sinner’s character and produce an increasingly virtuous life.
Augustine’s moral model of grace as an infused, reforming power dominated the thinking of the western Church for the next 1200 years. Significant changes were made however. Gradually, the believer’s moral striving and meritorious works were understood to contribute to making one fit for the eternal Kingdom. God’s empowering grace enables the virtues and works of the believer. And the works of the believer in turn were seen to merit additional infused grace. Grace understood as God’s transforming power virtually eclipsed grace as Christ’s pardon. Jesus our Savior from sin became Jesus our role model for how we ought to behave. Character reform swallowed up the forgiveness of sins and meritorious works became a requirement for acceptance into God’s Kingdom.
Since Luther’s rediscovery of the Gospel of Christ’s free pardon, many thinkers within the Protestant world (and even some that bear the name Lutheran) returned to Augustine’s understanding of grace, but now under the banner of sanctification. They have depicted sanctification as a program that gradually reforms the inner character of the sinner—an additional work of grace that follows after the justification. This second grace involves a special working of the Holy Spirit that enables the Christian to experience a progressive victory over sinful habits and achieve a growing holiness in life and works. Jesus saves the sinner in conversion by bestowing his free pardon. Then, the Spirit and the committed Christian join forces to put away sinful living and bring forth a growing Christ-like life of obedience.
Is it any wonder that many of our unbelieving neighbors are convinced (erroneously!) that Christianity is about odd folks who somehow have an inordinate, all-fired preoccupation with becoming morally superior people?
The former work is understood as justification, the latter as sanctification. Two different works of grace are involved. We are justified by the grace of Christ’s pardon, and then we are sanctified by the grace of the Spirit’s power that progressively reforms the Christian’s sinful character, and energizes a holy obedience to the precepts of the Law. The focus of justification is conversion, and the focus of sanctification is the Christian life that follows. As reflected in the Wesleyan take on the old revivalist hymn, Rock of Ages: “Be of sin the double cure, save from wrath and make me pure.” The Son saves us from the wrath of God in conversion (justification), and then the Spirit progressively makes us pure (sanctification).
With this understanding, justification becomes simply a prelude to the dominate focus of Christian life, sanctification. The believer’s quest for holiness and obedience in daily living takes center stage after conversion. The astonishing reality that Christ pardons wretched sinners like me fades into the background of daily Christian concern. The attention is now on greater obedience to the Law and acquiring the Holy Spirit’s resources to energize the task. The Savior from sin and death vanishes, and the Holy Spirit takes over to help us in the service of holiness through the works of Moses.
When the sanctifying work of the Spirit is believed to be progressing appropriately, according to this model, a significant victory over sinful behavior takes place. Moreover, greater levels of obedience to the Law are being achieved, and the blessings of God are increasing in one’s life. If these results are not unfolding successfully, the problem is understood to lie with the believer. The Christian is somehow failing to do his part. The problem may be a lack of trust in the Holy Spirit, a failure to yield to the Spirit, insincere repentance, or a weak commitment to a life of obedience—any or all of the above. In any event, the Christian has failed to do his part. Here sanctification is depicted as a cooperative affair where the believer’s role is critical for success. Often the believer is told that his role is important to appreciate for a true God-honoring faith, lest one become lackadaisical and lapse into a dangerous attitude of cheap grace.
Is it any wonder that many of our unbelieving neighbors are convinced (erroneously!) that Christianity is about odd folks who somehow have an inordinate, all-fired preoccupation with becoming morally superior people? Moreover, they are puzzled about why Christians seem convinced that belief in God and going to church are somehow pivotal to the success of the project. This is not the foolishness of the Gospel (I Cor 1:23) that some of our unbelieving neighbors are stumbling over, is it? Tragically missing is the perspective of the apostle Paul who saw himself as chief of sinners and would know nothing among the Corinthians except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (I Tim 1:15, I Cor 2:2).
If works are interjected into our thinking about how sanctification occurs, we erroneously end up with a role of contributing to our own salvation and the unconditional gift of God’s grace is overturned.
Talk about sanctification becomes dangerous when we fail to rightly understand its nature and cause and distinguish these from the consequences of sanctification in the life of the believer. What often becomes confused is the matter of good works and how they are fit into the discussion. If works are interjected into our thinking about how sanctification occurs, we erroneously end up with a role of contributing to our own salvation and the unconditional gift of God’s grace is overturned. The New Testament always speaks of good works as a consequence of God’s saving activity. This is what Paul emphasized in Philippians 2:13: “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” God’s plan of recreating us in the image of the Second Adam for good works of faith was a part of His saving intention from the beginning as Paul explained in Ephesians 2:10: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”