Weak on Sanctification

SanctificationAn accusation often levelled at Lutherans in general is that we are “Strong on justification and weak on sanctification.” What that seems to mean when you engage the people making that accusation is that Lutherans tend to constantly talk about Christ, and how He saved us, how that salvation is given to us, and then they perceive a lack. At that stage they will typically ask for “guidance,” want to focus on “discipleship,” or flat out ask, “Yeah, but now what?”

I get that, as a recovering Fundagelical Baptiscostal myself I remember saying and being taught that “Salvation is completely free through the work of Jesus, but afterwards, you have to get to work!” It was a poisoned view of the Christian life that is completely focused and based on the Law. And let me be perfectly clear: If your focus is ever, ever, on you and what you are doing, it isn’t on Christ.

This led me down the path that so many tread when it comes to North American Evangelicalism, I converted, got fired up to a lot of folk-y easy listening version of rock songs with Jesus kind of in the lyrics that were advocated in the congregation by grey haired baby boomers who honestly believed that music that sounded like it was written for a 70s folk fest was what the kids of the Millennium would really be into, and set out with all of my enthusiasm to be the very best Christian I could be. I set to work. I worked hard, and I watched all of those around me work hard. We accomplished a tonne, our congregation grew and grew, we built a huge new building, added extra worship bands, had amazing youth group with tonnes of “unchurched” kids, and I personally invited dozens of people to come to church with me, and was so successful in my personal evangelism efforts, that we built a Young Adult group that was led by me and basically only had people that had become Christians through my work. It was a heady time, a veritable bacchanal of “modern,” contemporary Christianity and nothing could stop us.

Except, it did stop. Our Law driven existence started to show cracks, even as we smiled and refused to believe them. Bad stuff started to happen. People started to hit the wall. The congregation started to split into factions, then camps, then open warfare. People started to stay home, and so many of them renounced Christianity completely, seeing it as the completely works ridden exercise we had taught them in word and example that it was. And once they had had this watered down version of Christianity, they seemed inoculated from any further outreach.

I fell into despair. At some stage, no matter how hard I worked at being an awesome Christian, I knew that I wasn’t measuring up, no matter how many “Life Principles” or “Tips for Daily Living” I heard or how many conferences that I went to that promised to teach me to unlock the “Spirit” in our congregations towards a great revival.

Then the church finally split.

As I looked around at the wreckage and division and human destruction we had wrought, all in the name of Jesus, I found solace in Scripture, and a few mentors that pointed me in the direction of the Gospel.

I recovered, slowly. And as I did, I spent thousands upon thousands of hours poring through the Scriptures and theological texts of all stripes searching for the answer. I found it, it was there all along. I had always believed that salvation was a free gift, but had never thought about it that deeply, or mused the implications of what a truly free salvation would have for my life.

I studied sanctification…a lot.

This is what I found: Lutherans aren’t weak on sanctification. We are as strong on it as on justification. We echo what the Bible teaches us, if our focus is truly on Christ, we won’t even be aware of the work that we are doing. The work will flow naturally a freely from us. We see this in Scripture over and over again. In the Gospel According to St. Matthew, for example, our Lord addressed this specific question. When speaking of the End of Days, He speaks about when He will separate the sheep from the goats. But the fascinating portion of this pericope (Matt 25:31-46) is that neither the sheep nor the goats; those that worked nor those that did not, realised what they had done.

The Scriptures teach us that God reveals Himself where we least expect it. It is a Theology of Glory, focused inward at our sinful selves, that looks at the work we are doing, or even have left to do and exclaim, “If this gets done, God will be pleased!” A Theology of the Cross simply looks to Christ and sees what is done already.

So what is the “practical application” of this? What does Lutheran sanctification look like?

On the ground it looks like two things: vocation and worship. The Holy Spirit acts in and through us always, as we “Pray without ceasing.” (1 Thess 5:16-18). You see, praying without ceasing is not something we are yet to do, Christians always do that. We are in constant communication with God. We couldn’t help it if we wanted to. As St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans, “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26-27) We are called via the Holy Spirit to our vocations. And how do I know I have the vocation for something, is it whether I have the spiritual gift or am feeling led to that thing? No! If you are doing it already.

How do you know you are meant to be a Pastor? You are serving as a Pastor. How do you know you are meant to be a father? You are a father. A doctor? You are one. Up to the moment you are acting in that vocation, it is idle speculation that has little or nothing to do with the work of the Holy Spirit, God is happy to allow you to use the freedom of your will, such as it is, to exercise such decisions. But this work is the work of the Holy Spirit in your lives. This is sanctification. God has given you multiple vocations, do them well, take care with them, and by so doing, you are serving and pleasing God. Seeking after more “spiritual” works is a complete misunderstanding of the action of the Holy Spirit in vocation.

Further, and probably most importantly, sanctification looks like worship. It looks like the Divine Service. Remember why we call it the Divine Service, it is because it is where God through the Holy Spirit calls and gathers His people together so that He can serve them through Word and Sacrament. So sanctification looks like people gathering to hear the Word read publicly and proclaimed from the pulpit, it looks like the Pastor proclaiming that your sins are forgiven in Confession and Absolution, it looks like His children being Baptised, and also those same children receiving His Body and His Blood in Holy Communion.

If you look for sanctification apart from these things, remember that you are seeking Him apart from where He has promised to be. Remember that that is not only “unLutheran.” It is unChristian.

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