The biblical terms "sanctify" and "sanctification" are from the same word family as "holy" and "holiness." The rich tapestry of the biblical language of holiness contains but one single golden strand woven throughout: the absolute sinlessness and transcendent purity of God the Holy Trinity. God alone is holy in himself, and therefore from God himself all holiness must proceed; apart from him nothing is holy. Therefore God sends forth his Holy Spirit so that by his grace we believe his holy Word. That Word (also in its sacramental forms) is the means the Holy Spirit uses to sanctify us–to make us holy–within the fellowship of the Holy Christian Church, which is the communion of saints, or holy people.
As long as sanctification is seen as primarily in the arena of human morality, the heart of sanctification is lost. True, sanctification does effect a change in morality, but sanctification in itself is not a question of human morality, but divine purity. Once sinners are purified by God's divine grace, they live lives which reflect God's own holiness.
This is absolutely vital. If you and I as sinners are to spend eternity in the presence of a holy God, we must share in his holiness: "Strive for . . . the holiness without which no one will see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14). The truth is, since the fall of Adam every human being is excluded from the presence of God except one: God's own sinless and holy Son. We have no holiness in this world apart from Jesus Christ, the Holy One of God. Believers borrow their holiness from him by faith. Sanctification therefore comes as good news; it is gift language, for it means our cleansing and purification through the forgiveness of our sins for Jesus' sake. All who are baptized into Christ have put on Christ by faith, together with the holiness that belongs to him; "that we may share in his holiness" (Heb. 12:10). Sanctification is therefore just as much a gift as is justification.
There is a link between faith and life, between justification and sanctification, between salvation and holy living. And that link is Christ. He ". . . has become for us wisdom from God–that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption" (1 Cor. 1:30). We have no life to live as Christians that is not given by God the Father, earned by God the Son, and bestowed by God the Holy Spirit. Therefore our focus is always on Jesus Christ, God incarnate in human flesh. Because he is our redemption,or atoning sacrifice for sin, he is also our righteousness, or perfection before God. And because he is our righteousness/redemption, he is also our holiness, or sanctification. With St. Paul, we have one Christ-centered confession: "For me to live is Christ" (Phil. 1:21). In this way the bondage to our private emotions is broken, and we live holy lives in perfect freedom "outside of ourselves."
One of the most ancient and persistent Christian heresies (viz. Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism) is that human beings have a role to play in their own salvation. In its most blatant form this heresy claims that Christ's sacrifice is not sufficient to save, but that we must place our own good works into the balance to give us favorable standing before God. Its subtle form seems more attractive: God does all the work in justification, but we finish this work by our sanctification. We may be declared right by God's gracious judicial decree through faith in Christ alone, but then it is up to us to perform the works of love and obedience which true holiness requires. This error makes justification merely the first stage of sanctification. God gets us going on the path of holiness, and we continue. God starts and we finish. God has his part and we have ours, so the thinking goes.
But the life we live "in the body" we live by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us. We have no life to live apart from the life which he bestows by faith. And this faith itself is a gift from God, not of works, lest any man should boast (Eph. 2:9). We are therefore "God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (Eph. 2:10). Christian salvation (or justification) and Christian living (or sanctification) are but two aspects of one divine reality: the life bestowed in Jesus Christ. Such life is received by faith. And Holy Scripture declares that faith is God's work from beginning to end: "[I am] confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil. 1:6).
Of the Making of Many Books . .
This scriptural teaching is sadly missing in the popular Christian literature of our day. Religious best-sellers focus on the sanctified life, but precious little gospel is contained in these books. What gospel we do find is couched in command language, not motivation language. The books are essentially lists of "how to's" for the Christian life, what to do and not to do in order to make sense out of the complex world in which we live. The issues of modern life are not examined in light of the good news, but almost exclusively in light of the proscriptions and prescriptions of moral imperatives.
If the modern Christian's dilemma stems from living in an antagonistic culture, then we can profitably learn from the New Testament. Here the apostles were delineating a "life-style" for Christians who lived in a world completely at odds with everything they stood for. As we look to the letters of the New Testament, we find many statements describing what the new life in Christ means for everyday stresses and strains. Never, however, do these statements of law stand on their own. Always they are undergirded by the life-giving and empowering gospel of Jesus Christ.
Life for the apostles is not viewed merely as a complex chain of obstacles to overcome by practicing a long list of commands God has prescribed for every contingency. The hostility we encounter in this world cannot be chalked up to the quirks of the human mind. Rather, the New Testament recognizes one sinister enemy behind all of the sins and turmoil of life, both internal and external. He is Satan, the father of lies (John 8:44), the ruler of darkness (Eph. 6:12), the one who accuses God's people in his presence day and night (Rev. 12:10). God's perfect creation has been invaded by this evil adversary and he can now be called the prince of this world (John 14:30).
Entering this enemy-occupied world, Jesus Christ has assumed human flesh to deal with Satan on his own turf (Gal. 4:5). In the body of his flesh he has made satisfaction for the sins of the whole world and has defeated the devil by his death and resurrection (Col. 2:14-15). To all who believe in him he promises everlasting life (John 11:26). Those who trust in him are credited with his very holiness (2 Cor. 5:21). Drawing on this faith relationship, there is light and life in this world of darkness and death (John 1:4).
No wonder, then, that the apostles were always framing their description of the new life in Christ in the context of Christ's death and resurrection on their behalf. In everything they had to tell the faithful about living the Christian life, they had one focus and one focus only: "I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2). The entire life of Christian service should be viewed as Christ's action being carried out in the life of the believer: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20).
The difference is striking. Most of the evangelical world puts the spotlight on the Christian's action; the New Testament focuses on Christ's action.
Contact with God
The central attraction of the evangelical movement is not its doctrine of the renewed life in itself, but rather how that renewed life provides demonstrable proof of the reality of God and his action in the world. Carter Lindberg has described the current American scene very well:
The credibility of the church rests on the changed lives of its people, thus only the praise-filled experience of God's presence and power is the answer to today's experience of insecurity and uncertainty. The depersonalization of contemporary life in the midst of materialism and secularism disposes persons to search for a personal experience of reality. (1)
There is another alternative. Rather than seeking the reality of God in our own experience, the Bible directs us to find assurance in the historic events of God's intervention in this world in the person and life of his Son. The basis of our knowledge about God and his living, vibrant reality is not in our experience, but in the experience of Jesus on the cross. There he faced the wrath of the Father and made satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. In his triumphant resurrection, there is validation of his entire saving work. In the word of his gospel, we have no mere static facts about events of history, but the actual means by which people of every age may be brought into genuine contact with the saving work of Christ. "It [the gospel] is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes" (Rom. 1:16).
The Power for Sanctification
Current evangelical literature, with its myriad of principles, warm folksy illustrations, and down-to-earth advice presents the power for the new life as a combination of man's work and God's work: Sure, God saves me by grace, but then he expects me to save myself with his help! With his Spirit he gives me the power I need to get started, but then it's up to me. By following his principles and continuing in close fellowship with him and my fellow believers, I will be inspired to produce the kind of life that is pleasing to him. Spectacular power is available; all I have to do is reach out and grab it!
Thus we see that self-assertion raises its ugly head. Pride is deeply ingrained in the human nature. No one likes to be told he can't do something; in fact, each of us enjoys taking credit for his or her accomplishments. So also when it comes to the Christian faith. There is something deep within us that rebels when Scripture reminds us that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast. (Eph. 2:8-9)
Similarly, we do not like to hear that God himself is the driving power in our life of sanctification: "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (Eph. 2:10).
True, Scripture does speak of the activity of the Christian in performing works of love: ". . . continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling . . . ." At the same time however, we are reminded that the power for the sanctified life is not our own: ". . . for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Phil. 2:12-13).
A Package Deal
Justification (receiving God's righteousness) and sanctification (sharing in God's holiness) are to be clearly separated theologically, but not essentially. Like the proverbial horse and cart, they can neither be unhitched nor re-hitched. Putting sanctification before justification is an affront to God's grace and a stumbling block to faith. Holding to justification without sanctification leads nowhere, for "faith without works is dead" (James 2:26). No one setting out on a journey in a horse-drawn cart hitches the cart in front of the horse, nor does he shoot the horse. Together they make a unit. Yet clearly the horse has to come first and provide the power if there is to be any forward movement!
As one Lutheran theologian observes:
Sanctification describes the same reality as does justification but describes the justified Christian's relationship to the world and society. Justification and sanctification are not two separate realities, but the same reality viewed from the different perspectives of God and man. From the perspective of God the reality of the Christian is totally passive and non-contributory as it receives Christ only. From the perspective of the world, the same reality never ceases in its activity and tirelessly performs all good works. (2)
Thus when speaking about the power for the sanctified life, we dare never stop speaking about Christ. St. Paul put it this way: "For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2). The person and work of the crucified Lord is the sum total of our message. He is all in all–"our righteousness, our sanctification, and our redemption" (1 Cor. 1:30). No wonder, then, that Luther could write, "Having been justified by grace, we then do good works, yes, Christ himself does all in us." (3)
The Sign of Jonah
In the sixteenth chapter of Matthew, we have a remarkable sequence of events that helps us understand how God operates through the cross of his Son in direct opposition to every human expectation.
The Pharisees and Sadducees speak for all of us, asking Jesus to prove his identity (v. 1). We all would like to know where in the world God is, and we would like him to make himself perfectly and unmistakably evident.
Jesus, however, makes it clear that there will be no miraculous evidence given. The only evidence will be the "sign of Jonah" (v. 4). The strange three-day sea journey of the Old Testament prophet in the fish's stomach was really a picture of the three-day burial of Jesus.
You cannot be any more hidden than Jonah was in a fish belly under the water. Jesus makes the extraordinary claim that he would be no less hidden: people would be able to see who he was when his lifeless body would be placed into a tomb for three days. To ask for any more proof than his death is foolhardy and dangerous; it is following the teachings ("yeast") of the Pharisees and Sadducees (v. 5-12).
When Peter made his glowing confession that Jesus was "the Christ, the Son of the living God" (v. 16), Jesus explained that Peter had not arrived at this conviction by human ingenuity. God the Father had revealed it to him.
Whenever people come to faith, it is always on God's initiative. Jesus makes it clear that this is the permanent pattern for the growth of his church; he himself will build it as the Father brings people to confess that he is Christ and God (v. 18-19).
The Satanic Pitfall
Immediately after Peter's confession of faith, Jesus begins to explain what his saving work includes: first torture at the hands of the power structure in Jerusalem, then execution and, only after that, resurrection (v. 21). Peter is horrified. "This shall never happen to you!" he exclaims (v. 22).
What Jesus has to say to Peter at this point stands for all time as a clear condemnation of every effort to find God through human reason and speculation: "Out of my sight, Satan! . . . You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men" (v. 23). The "things of men" always run directly opposite to the "things of God." The things of men focus on glory and power; the things of God center in weakness and the cross. Human eyes are always on the heights; God's eyes are always on the depths.
God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him (1 Cor. 1:27-28).
Where in the world is God? We want to know. We all want to know. The yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees is still with us, prodding us to look for God in the experiences of our mind and heart. But we have to let God be God. We have to let him speak where he has promised to speak to us: from the cross of Jesus, his Son!
The Real Problem
Most people think that the human dilemma is that our lives are out of adjustment; we don't meet God's expectations. Salvation then becomes a matter of rearranging our priorities and adjusting our life-style to correspond with God's will. In its crassest form, this error leads people to think they earn their own salvation. More often in today's evangelical world, the error has a more subtle disguise: armed with forgiveness through Jesus, people are urged to practice the techniques and principles Christ gave to bring their life-style back into line.
It is certainly true that sinful lives are out of adjustment. We are all in need of the Spirit's sanctifying power. But that comes only after our real problem is solved. Sins are just the symptom; our real dilemma is death.
God's Final Solution
God warned Adam and Eve that the knowledge of evil came with a high price tag: ". . . when you eat of (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) you will surely die" (Gen. 2:17). Our first parents wanted to be like God and were willing to pay the price. And we are still paying the price: "the wages of sin is death . . ." (Rom. 6:23); ". . . in Adam all die" (1 Cor. 15:22); ". . . You were dead in your transgressions and sins" (Eph. 2:1).
The real problem we all face is death. Physical death, to be sure. But ultimately and most horribly, spiritual death–being cut off from God forever. And everyone must die. You can either die alone or die in Jesus. (4)
In his death Jesus Christ swallowed up our death, and rose again triumphantly to take all of the teeth out of the grave. In the promise of the resurrection, death loses its power. When we die with Jesus, we really live!
Wanted: Dead and Alive!
There is no sidestepping death. Everyone must die. It is the basic human dilemma; but the cross is God's great answer to our predicament. We need not die alone. Jesus long ago died in our place, and that means that every baptized Christian dies in Jesus. "Don't you know," St. Paul wrote, "that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?" (Rom. 6:3). Far from being some mere symbol of our dedication to Jesus, holy baptism is the God-appointed means of planting the cross of Jesus Christ squarely in the midst of our lives.
In our baptism Christ takes us in his arms, sins and all, and carries us into his own tomb to die with him. Death is always frightening. But this death is different, for when you die with Jesus, you also live with him. "If we have been united with him in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection" (Rom. 6:5).
That means that if we die in Jesus through our baptism, we also live in Jesus; a resurrection takes place. The difference is that we have died and risen along with Christ: "We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life" (Rom. 6:4).
After our burial with Christ in our baptism we are no longer the same person in God's sight. Our sins have been left behind in his tomb–the one place in all the universe that the Father will not look. And we have a new life through faith in him; it is the risen life of Jesus Christ!
For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless, that we should no longer be slaves to sin–because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him (Rom. 6:6-8).
Through Death to Life
So we see that the cross of Jesus is far more than a nice decoration or a theological concept. In fact, it is the central hinge around which all of faith revolves. At the cross the hidden God has opened up his very heart for all to see. In the death of Jesus, the God-Man, with eyes of faith we see most clearly the Father's love. Baptized into that death, the cross takes on a whole new dimension. Now we can see that the only route to life is through death. And death is not to be feared, if it is the death of Jesus–for his death brings life!
That is the hardest thing to learn. We are always trying to avoid hardship, pain, and death. Yet the cross of Jesus reveals to us that the only life worth living is a life which is given through death–the death of Jesus. There is no getting around the cross of Christ; the Christian life is always a life under the cross. But the way of the cross is the way to life. Rather than fleeing from suffering and pain, Jesus invites us to take up our cross and follow him. The only life we have to lose is counterfeit; the life we gain is the real thing–it is the life he lives through us!
2 [ Back ] David Scaer, "Sanctification in Lutheran Theology," Concordia Theological Quarterly, 49:2, 3, 188.
3 [ Back ] Martin Luther, AE 34, 111.
4 [ Back ] I am indebted to Robert Kolb (Concordia Seminary, St. Louis) for his summary of this and many other aspects of Luther's "Theology of the Cross."