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Whatever Happened to Sanctification? (2): Truncating the Gospel…and How to Fix That

We began our series on sanctification with a little personal testimony as to why I think this subject is important. In short, this is not your average theological discussion with ethereal, “pie-in-the-sky” approaches leading to issues of no real consequence. How we view the sanctifying work of God in us as believers is a subject of utmost importance to us for reasons which I trust to be apparent. It is with that in mind that of late, I have been (quite frankly) deeply concerned with a teaching that is flying around in the theological camp I would loosely consider myself a part of.

In Reformed circles, it has become ‘trendy’ (for lack of a better term) to fold our sanctification into our justification. The inadvertent result, dear friends, in that you end up with a lot of talk about justification and/or “the Gospel” and little to no talk of the work of the Gospel in and through us in sanctification.  Camden Bucey, part of the team at Reformed Forum, nails it in a video he did a while back:

(As an aside, much of this confusion stems from a hermeneutical grid that I find more and more alien to the Scriptures the more I read them – that of “law and Gospel”. While I accept the idea of a distinction between law and Gospel, I think the definitions of law and gospel presented are enforced on the text, rather than gleaned from the text. I will discuss this in a future part of the series so I will hold back on that topic for now.)

At this point, I wish to put forward a definition for sanctification that encapsulates both the realities that sanctification is grounded in God’s grace and God’s grace actually is at work in transforming our corrupt nature. It comes to us from the Westminster Shorter Catechism (it is also produced in the Baptist Catechism) in question 35 in the section dealing with the benefits of salvation. The Catechism writes:

Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace by which we are renewed throughout in the image of God and are enabled more and more to die to sin and live to righteousness.[1]

Now please note the following:

  1. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace – this is not a moralistic exercise on our part that seeks to “improve ourselves” or “become a better us”
  2. It is a work in which we are renewed in the image of God (Ephesians 4:24, Colossians 3:10)
  3. It is a work in which we are being enabled more and more to do two distinct things:
  • To die to sin – or to use the classic Puritan term, “mortification”. We’ll come to this in our series towards the end.
  • Live to righteousness – we are actually being brought to the place daily where we are being brought to life in righteousness, not just statically but dynamically in our everyday lives.

I’ll lay my cards on the table at the start – in my opinion,that does far more justice to the Bible’s teaching on sanctification than a view which simply considers folds justification and sanctification into a vague indistinguishable mass where one supersedes another with ease.

At this point, I wish to put to death (no pun intended) some rather annoying generalizations through a number of “this does not mean” statements:

  1. This does not mean we get to a place where we need Jesus less and less. Some systems of sanctification might lead you there but I am convinced that the Reformed and (more importantly) Biblical understanding of sanctification doesn’t.
  2. This does not mean that justification is unimportant in the Christian life. The NT is very much filled with the idea that we work out what God has worked in. I am arguing that the working out is as important as what God has worked in.
  3. This does not mean a “treadmill” mentality of constantly working to get and/or keep God on-side in the drudgery of the Christian life.

What it does mean is this – holiness is actually possible for the child of God. Not angelic perfection but a real living out of the divine nature every believer became a partaker of in regeneration! (cf. 2 Peter 1:3-4). Before we get there, there are a number of key theological concepts we need to nail and we’ll start that process next time.

To be continued…

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