Feeling More Sinful

Brian J. Lee
Friday, February 28th 2014
Mar/Apr 2014

Do you ever feel like you’re more sinful today than you were yesterday or the day before? Me too. Perhaps you feel like your spiritual life never changes, that you’re stuck in neutral and not making any progress. For most Christians, staying still feels like you’re moving backwards. It’s like you’re treading water in a river, watching the shore glide by while you float downstream’or down the toilet. Isn’t that what we’ve been told? If you’re not growing in holiness, you’re dying? If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward? All of which raises an interesting question not asked often enough: What should sanctification feel like? Reformation Christianity offers a surprising answer to this question. As we grow in holiness’and all believers do’we also grow in the knowledge of our sin. In other words, the holier we get, the more sinful we feel.

America, Progress, and Sanctification

“Progress” is perhaps the most enduring myth of the modern world, and it is nowhere more deeply enshrined than in America. We assume progress as a fact of daily life’technological, cultural, economic. This myth of progress is ubiquitous, and it’s not surprising that it has slipped into the life of the church. Most of us are smart enough to debunk the extreme form of progress in the Prosperity Gospel’no, Jesus didn’t promise us a new Cadillac every two years.

But the Bible clearly promises new life, growth in grace, and in bearing fruit. Surely, the Christian has a reasonable expectation’even demand’for spiritual progress. And we have a pretty good mental picture of what this should look and feel like, fed by conversion stories that turn on the linchpin of transformed lives.

The sanctified saint, we imagine, has conquered most of his stubborn, indwelling sins. He’s filled with love for his neighbor and is always on the lookout for ways to help him. He delights in the things of God, loves to read his Bible, and loves to go to church. Temptation might flare up once in a while but is generally under control. That’s why he has such a big smile on his face.

Yeah, I’ve never felt that way either. Come to think of it, have you ever met any believer who spoke that way about sin, as something they had under control? At least, one you believed?

A Reformation Lesson on Sanctification

The Reformation has a radically different take on sanctification, grounded in a much more realistic view of the world and human nature. The myth of progress is just that’a myth. Through human history there have been vast centuries of little change, even decline, and the Reformation came at the end of such a long, dark period. Though itself born of great innovation’the printing press and new economic forces’the Reformation witnessed the war and plague that had decimated Europe for generations. It was not unusual, for instance, to have the population of a village cut by half. Laws were loosely and sporadically enforced, so human wickedness was on full display.

In the face of this dark reality, the medieval church offered, well, little. Though myriad pilgrimages beckoned, there was no guarantee of success. “Saints” were the select few spiritual superheroes who were guaranteed access to heaven. The rest were consigned to a lifetime of doubtful striving, with no sure confidence about their eternal prospects.

In contrast, the Reformation gospel offered true comfort through assurance. Every sinner was simultaneously a saint through faith in Christ. The deep reality and stubbornness of sin was affirmed, as perfectionism was sworn off. But the hope of glory’and the sinless perfection that awaited there’was universal.

Critics of Reformation spirituality have always warned that this gospel would weaken the motivation for holiness and result in license, but both history and the Reformed confessions tell a different story. After teaching the believer the shape of the Christian life by vigorously expounding the Ten Commandments, the Heidelberg Catechism(Q & A 114) provides the following cautious hope:

But can those converted to God obey these commandments perfectly?
No. In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience. Nevertheless, with all seriousness of purpose, they do begin to live according to all, not only some, of God’s commandments.

The strong preaching of the law is necessary, first, so that we may more and more come to know our sinful nature. The early Latin translation says, “So that we may more and more acknowledge how great is our natural propensity to sin.” This ever-deepening knowledge of our sin has two salutary effects. It inclines us to more eagerly look to Christ for forgiveness and righteousness’that is, to trust more in Christ and lean more heavily on him. In other words, it strengthens faith.

The catechism does not forget the lesson of its first part’the magnitude of our sin and misery’when teaching how we are to show our thankfulness to God. True sanctification begins with a deep grasp of our sin and God’s holiness. It recognizes that our righteousness remains filthy rags before his spotless glory. This answer comforts us in the face of persistent sin and cautions us against wild expectations of spiritual bliss in the Christian life. God has begun a work in us, and he will complete it.

But the following question and answer (Q & A 115) provide an even more profound insight into the law’s role in sanctification and a rejoinder to those who think the Reformation doctrine of justification undermines the need for sanctification. Why, the catechism asks, preach the law as rigorously to those who are unable to obey it perfectly? Why demand what can never be fulfilled?

First, so that the longer we live the more and more we may come to know our sinful nature and therefore the more eagerly look to Christ for forgiveness of sins and righteousness.
Second, so that we may never stop striving, and never stop praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, to be renewed more and more after God’s image, until after this life we reach our goal: perfection.

But this self-awareness is not merely passive. It contributes to the second fruit of strong law preaching’namely, continual striving and praying for the grace of the Holy Spirit and greater renewal. That is to say, it strengthens faith. For as the faithful man’s confidence in his own abilities declines, so his trust and reliance on his Father in heaven increases.

Faith is central. Reformation sanctification is the deepening and strengthening of faith. Is this surprising for a tradition that says we are both justified and sanctified by grace through faith? For a tradition that defines good works first and foremost as works done in faith, works done looking to Christ with grateful hearts?

The catechism tells us that while the mature believer day by day grows objectively more like Christ, he feels more sinful than when he began. His confidence in his flesh has decreased, and his awareness of the pervasiveness, insidiousness, deceitfulness, and ugliness of sin has increased. This is radical stuff. It is, I suspect, the opposite of what most of us assume about sanctification.

Is Reformation Sanctification Biblical?

But is this biblical? Christ, of course, could not grow in the knowledge of his sin. But we might say he grew in his knowledge of our sin, in his experience of it and its bitter fruits. Hebrews 5:8-9 tells us that he learned obedience through suffering and was made perfect.

The psalms often recount the psalmists’ suffering because of sin and speak of it in vivid detail. The catechism cites Psalm 32:5 in particular at this juncture:

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.

The acknowledgement of sin deepens our faith, and since good works are works done in faith, it energizes our sanctification.

More relevant, perhaps, is the example of the apostle Paul, who speaks in Romans 7 about how he came to know sin through the law. Thus “sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.” The spiritual law teaches Paul that he is flesh and sold under sin, in bondage to it. Paul doesn’t understand his own actions’his own sin’but he agrees with the law and hates what he does. Thus he comes to a mature view: “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh…but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

Paul’s despair over sin is not evidence of a troubled conscience nor is his claim to be “chief of all sinners” mere hyperbole. It is the healthy fruit of mature faith and of a sanctified sinner. It is the considered reflection of a saint who, under both the law and God’s grace in the gospel, is coming to a deeper appreciation of the nature and depth of his own sin.

Note here an important corollary: We don’t truly come to know the darkness of our sins until we see them by the light of the gospel. Paul illustrates this in his Epistle to the Ephesians. Only those who are alive in Christ can look back and see how they were dead in their trespasses and sins (2:1). Only those who have put on the new man can put off the old man, and in so doing recognize his futile mind, darkened understanding, and hardness of heart. It takes a new way of living’after Christ’to recognize the former manner of living as full of corrupt and deceitful desires.

Grace opens our eyes to sin. Since the sinner is self-deceived, we might even say that the new birth is the beginning of the awareness of our corruption, and that sanctification forces us to suffer the humiliation of coming to truly know our sin for the first time. Yet progress in the Christian life requires that this awareness continue to grow.

Martin Luther (the troubled soul) and John Calvin (the gloomy pessimist) both understood this. Calvin concluded each of his sermons with a prayer, and they followed the remarkably consistent pattern of asking God to reveal our sin:

Now let us fall down before the majesty of our good God, with acknowledgment of our sins, praying him to make us perceive them more and more. And may he enlighten us with the doctrine of the gospel that we may see our own sins and shamefulness and be ashamed of ourselves, and also behold the righteousness which has been shown us in our Lord Jesus Christ, and lean upon it with endeavor to be fashioned thereafter, so that we may daily come nearer and nearer to it, until we cleave thoroughly to it. (John Calvin’s Sermons on Ephesians, 446)

The Fruit of Sanctification: Comfort

It sure doesn’t seem very joyous to contemplate the Christian life as a progression in the knowledge of our sin, even if it is accompanied by gradual progress in holiness. But we do well to recall the introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism, which tells us that there are three things we must know to live and die in the joy of Christian comfort: how great our sin and misery are; how I am set free from this sin and misery; and how I am to thank God for this deliverance.

This means that properly understanding sanctification is an integral aspect of true gospel comfort. Primarily, this entails understanding that it is a form of gratitude and that our good works don’t contribute a thing to our salvation. But it also entails understanding what this sanctification looks like and how it occurs.

True Christian comfort requires us to use the law properly in our sanctification, which means proclaiming it as a bar we must always fail to attain, a standard that heightens, not ameliorates, our sense of sin. If ever the law is made light and bearable’a technique for happy living, a checklist for success, or a mere morality code’we are no longer preaching the law of God. We are using a man-made law, the law of Pharisees, to claim that we are without sin. That we must grow in the knowledge of our sin is not license to sin more. Both the gospel and the law forbid that, and a means of sanctification with the rigorous preaching of the law at its center can hardly be called antinomian.

But sanctification as gratitude frees us from the myth of Christian progress. It frees the tender conscience from doubt and fear. We can offer to God good works that are inherently sinful’and we discover new aspects of that sinfulness day by day. But we grow in our trust that God accepts them as the perfect works of his Son, and the sin that clings to them condemns us no longer. That is how growing in the knowledge of our sin’and our shame for it’allows us to behold more clearly the righteousness of Christ, bringing with it the peace that surpasses all understanding.

Friday, February 28th 2014

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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