Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sanctification - Let the Little Children Come

In meditating on the gospel reading for last Sunday [Luke 18:9-17], I have been wrestling with what sanctification looks like. Obviously, I'm still working through my thoughts which are still quite unrefined. :P

The tendency is to take away with one hand what you give with the other. We offer the gospel and then we take it away with works righteousness. We hold up the tax collector from this text as the ideal and cast a jondis eye at that mustache-twisting villain the Pharisee. But with the same breath, we subconsciously think that the Christian life is to be a Frankenstein's monster combination of these two people: humble and self-aware like the tax collector but independently ethical and practically minded like the Pharisee.

Obviously the Third Use of the Law is valid and necessary in the life of the Christian. We are not to be slaves to sin. The Law of God does show us what a God-pleasing good work is, but how do we apply this "guiding use" of the Law without falling into legalism and works righteous behavior like the Judaizers and the Pharisees before them? How do we keep the Law a guide without making it a whip, an idol, or a shackle? After all, isn't artificial humility really just a veiled version of pride? Isn't it all too easy to say, with words eerily similar to the Pharisee, "God, I am glad that you are helping me to become someone who is not like these other men..."?

To combat this, St. Paul always presents the concept of sanctification in its proper context: in light of the Gospel that won salvation and rebirth for us through Christ's work.

In the sermon for this last Sunday, my pastor wisely directed us to the often overlooked and misinterpreted last portion of this lectionary selection: the tale of the little children coming to Jesus. Here we see the heart of the Christian life. Here the desperation of the tax collector segways seamlessly into the complete dependency of the powerless children being brought to be blessed by Jesus.

I have heard many people bemoan that Lutherans are "weak on sanctification". As a recovering legalist and enthusiast, this comment makes me feel that the people who hold this opinion have no idea what sanctification really is. I think it is because they don't know what sanctification looks like so they construct what it must be like using their own reason... which takes them back to legalism and works righteousness every time.

So before we even start looking at sanctification, we need to ask "What does the Bible say Christian sanctification even looks like?" Is sanctification a system where we become holy? Or is sanctification a gift of God whereby we are made holy?

"For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, "The righteous shall live by faith."
-Romans 1:16-17

"Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure."
-Philipians 2:12-13

Why do people not see sanctification in Lutheranism? Because, to be frank, they don't know what they are looking for. They have a preconceived notion that sanctification should be some amazing system of works or punch-list when it is not. They think that sanctification should resemble some system of improvement or enlightenment because that is what makes sense to our fallen human reason. Rather than a guide, they think that the Third Use should take the shape of some kind of ruler to judge one's spiritual progress up the ladder. This is just not true.

Instead, sanctification is in the shape of the cross. The holy life is a life that is conformed to Christ crucified. It looks like the broken and miserable sinner who is drawn to temple of God to be covered in the blood of the sacrifice to forgive his many sins. It looks like the little children being brought to receive the blessing from Christ. Sanctification is a sacramental life where God gives His gifts to His people and cares for His sheep through water, word, absolution, bread, and wine. It looks like the blind, the lepers, the crippled, the dying, the dead, the harlot, and the desperate being healed by a Savior who did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. It is an external holiness given to the unrighteous that is revealed "from faith for faith" whereby the sinner is declared righteous and "lives by faith".

The daily dying to the old self and the fulfillment of one's vocation is not glamorous. It is not what man thinks of when he thinks of holiness, but this is what sanctification actually looks like. It is the life of humble service to which the saints are called. So away with the life of veiled pride dressed up with pious intent. Let the cruciform life of the sinner redeemed by grace always be our aim.

And in this cruciform life of faith in the Gospel, the Holy Spirit performs mighty works within the sinner which are His fruit that naturally flow from faith in Jesus. Good Works are--first and foremost--His works after all. The Christian life does not excuse or tolerate sin, it exposes and forgives sin. Sanctification doesn't look like anyone or anything we do which is constantly tainted by sin. Instead it looks like the cross. That's why well-intentioned Christians overlook it and misunderstand it. That's why we get tied up in systems and methods of self-improvement that distract us from Christ and His gifts to us.

Too often, we present the Gospel as what gets you in the door and then we turn people back to a system of works that they should be doing to grow in Christ. That's just not biblical. The good works always flow from faith and are presented in view of faith. The Christian never gets away from the cross and the empty tomb. The Christian never gets past Word and Sacrament. The Christian never moves beyond the Gospel. To do so would be to get away from the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, Himself. Sanctification is not a heavy burden but is pure gift in the freedom of the Gospel. It is a work of God that is ongoing and culminates in our Glorification on the Last Day at Christ's Return.

"And I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ."
-Philippians 1:6

And in this freedom of imputed righteousness, you are finally free to perform truly good works that are not self-motivated because of compulsion, terror, or duress. From this freedom, you can finally do good works with a glad and grateful heart by the power of the Holy Spirit. From this freedom, you can help your neighbor in His every need secure in the knowledge that God has provided (and will continue to provide) for your every need for Christ's sake. Do not make sanctification a cruel taskmaster in your own mind that compels you into legalistic and bitter obedience. Just like justification, sanctification is a pure gift of God. Let the Gospel reign in the life of the Christian.

"At that time Jesus declared, 'I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.'"
-Matthew 11:25-30

Faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone
And rests in Him unceasing;
And by its fruits true faith is known,
With love and hope increasing.
For faith alone can justify;
Works serve our neighbor and supply
The proof that faith is living.

-Salvation Unto Us Has Come
LSB Hymn 555


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Sometimes there is the complaint that our pastors aren't making people good enough. Live your life struggling against sin, repenting, and receiving forgiveness. It will go fine from there.

Mike Baker said...

Rev Brown,

Thanks for commenting. I love your blog.

Having come from a church tradition where all pastors do is try to make people good enough...

...people who advocate that methodology have no idea what bondage and terror it brings to simple Christians.

The Christian does not bring about holiness. The Church does not bring about holiness. The Pastor does not bring about holiness. Those who expect these entities to make people holy do not understand the depths of man's inability to be righteous before God.

On the contrary to these foolish opinions, it is the HOLY SPIRIT who brings about holiness by faith through Word and Sacrament.

And I am amazed that the things that I wrestled with night and day as a legalistic Pharisee I now do without even noticing because it is not I who does the work but the Holy Spirit who works through me.

The things that you have mentioned (struggling against sin, repenting, and receiving forgiveness) are a full time job in and of themselves! Who has the time to focus on anything else? :P

Mike Baker said...

To expand on a point I made in this post, I also think that part of the reason why many people do not notice sanctification in Lutheranism is because they go into the search with the preconceived notion that sanctification CANNOT look similar to justification, but must be drastically different.

The Old Adam just does not like the offense of the cross. He hates it so much that even after justification he refuses to allow it near him any longer.