Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sanctification and Moralism

Sanctification is too often only thought of in terms of that process whereby a converted sinner is gradually transformed in mind and affections  according to the preceptive-will of God and consequently into the image of Christ.  At best, too often sanctification is merely seen in terms of becoming truly Christ-like, and if truly Christ-like then truly human (since Christ is the perfect image of God in man). Yet when speaking of sanctification the New Testament speaks more in terms of a one-time break with sin, a definitive act of sanctification.  In this light, sanctification is more akin to effectual calling, justification and adoption - a one-time act never to be repeated or undone.  Indeed, that God will complete a progressive sanctifying work in all his children should be  a source of confidence and joy for every believer.  Notwithstanding, we should expect that the degree of understanding of God’s finished work of definitive sanctification in the life of the believer will, to some extent, influence the attainment of progressive sanctification in the experience of the believer.  After all, to think Christ’s thoughts after him, as we walk in him, includes thinking true thoughts about God’s work of definitive sanctification. Moreover, to think wrongly about sanctification is to “obey” in our sanctification not according to the truth of our sanctification.
At the very heart of sanctification is life from the dead. The believer is delivered once and for all from the bondage of sin and raised to walk in newness of life. In that great familiar hymn, Charles Wesley put it this way: Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature's night; thine eye diffused a quickening ray; I woke, the dungeon flamed with light; my chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee...”  

Is it not true that he that is dead is freed from sin? Hasn’t the believer truly died with Christ? Accordingly, as dead and raised in union with Christ, isn’t the believer freed from sin and, therefore, no longer under its bondage and dominion? Isn’t it true that the believer has been crucified with Christ and it is no longer the believer who lives but Christ who lives in and through the believer?  Isn’t the very imperative not to let sin reign in our mortal bodies premised upon the incongruity of what the contrary contemplates, sin having reign over the believer’s body? Doesn’t the incongruity presuppose the reality of resurrected life in union with Christ?  Sure, sin indwells every believer, but the truth of the matter is the believer is no longer in the flesh but in the Spirit; so it is as the Westminster Divines rightly wrote, “…the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord.” Indwelling sin is not enslaving sin, for the Christian is a slave to Christ.

Falling into the error of perfectionism is hardly a danger in Reformed circles, but what is at risk is building a doctrine of sanctification upon personal experience, observation and Christian testimony. I fear that sentimental fundamentalism along with moralism has made its way into Reformed churches.  “Being saved” is understood primarily in terms of justification, which is all that God does; and we must do the rest. After being justified, the believer must respond by living a moral life in gratitude for God’s saving work in Christ, or so it is often told without remainder.  To whip up devotion to God and his ways by exciting gratitude for Christ’s atoning work on the cross, (even pity for the Savior in Romanist and many Fundamentalist circles), is often what is preached as the impetus for living the Christian life. Obligation to obey because of the Savior's sin bearing, life giving death upon the cross is all we have to move us. The very fact that every believer is a new creation in Christ and as such actually desires to run in the ways of the Lord is not a reality that is preached - if it is not also denied, at least implicitly. Devotion ends up becoming a work of the flesh, a dead moralism as it were. It even can become that which ultimately must cause one to differ from another, as there is little expectation that the Spirit will cause every believer both to will and to do of God’s good pleasure as he so determines.  God actually inclining the wills of his subjects so that they desire to participate in his foreordination of good works in the orbit of family, work, community and church is no longer in view. Sadly, it's exchanged for man, in the flesh, determining the good works that God has somehow mysteriously foreordained man to walk in through obligation, not sovereign transformation. In the end, it is we who determine our sanctification, and lip-service is given to biblical Calvinism as it relates to the divine initiative and subduing grace.

When sheep are taught over and over again that they are slaves to sin and under its bondage, as little children they lose the joy of salvation and begin to believe there is no hope other than through the arm of the flesh. Moralism and legalism begin to set in, and eventually the weary are tempted to give up. This is not good news. The self-effort and "good works" that once plagued the new convert, having been a source of robbing him of the joy, wonder, awe and sheer profundity of his justification through faith alone, becomes an hindrance to enjoying and participating in God’s saving work in sanctification. Justification and sanctification have been rent asunder as God is portrayed as being operative in the former, leaving the latter a matter of self-effort alone - a kind of saved by grace, kept by works - a despairing thought indeed. Have I gone too far? Well, note well that if God does not take the divine initiative of causing the believer both to will and do of his good pleasure and, also, fulfill his promise of completing a work of grace until the day of Jesus Christ, then the Christian is as alone in his sanctification as he possibly can be. What must be grasped is that anything short of pure Reformed theology in this regard is not the teaching of biblical sanctification. The message of grace should be so abundant - appear so one sided, that onlookers will mistake the truth for license to sin! "Shall we continue in sin so that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?"

So, where do we go from here? Well, I think these are some starting points that the Christian church might begin to regain in emphasis as opposed to what is widely found in the evangelical church today…
1. More preaching and teaching on union with Christ in election, incarnation, atonement, resurrection, and ascension must take center stage.
2. A realized eschatology – (e.g. God made us alive with Christ; God raised us with Christ; God seated us in heavenly places with Christ -> i.e. “we have been saved”)
3. The divine intention to sum up all things (in heaven and earth) in Christ (i.e. the eschatological and cosmic dimensions of God’s plan for the ages…)
4. Salvation, not merely justification and conversion
5. Ministers must preach to the church, those in union with in Christ, not the supposed lost that might be members or attending.
6. Inauguration & consummation (i.e. already not yet paradigm)
7. The relationship of the imperative to the indicative must be regained, with the indicative taking priority and laying the foundation for the imperative. (e.g. Behave this way, because you are this person in Christ; the unity of the Spirit exists, therefore, maintain it… as opposed to: create peace because Jesus died for you…)

Free Website Counter


Hugh McCann said...

Murray is invaluable here:

Reformed Apologist said...

I agree, Hugh.