Friday, February 24, 2012

Magical-Mystical sanctification tour...

Sanctification by works can take all manner of forms.  I think most Christians get sidetracked into some type of it, mainly due to the fact that we are by nature law-creatures.  Being sinners born under the covenant of works, we are wired to work for a wage, even when the very thing we are working for has already been freely given through faith.  Tell me what to do to grow in Christ and how to do it!

Early in my Christian life (1970's) I was with a church in southern California that taught salvation was accomplished by Christ alone and received by faith alone.  Jesus' words, "It is finished" summed up our understanding.  Not too bad, eh?  We were adamant that there was no law or works we had to do to gain or keep God's favor... until we got to the practical "how to" grow/live the Christian life, i.e. our template of sanctification.  We knew enough to eschew any works of outward law-keeping, Mosaic or otherwise, as a means of spiritual transformation.  After all, the Christian life is a spirit-life.  Yes, we had a better way!

Sanctification for the enlightened was to follow certain spiritual disciplines in order to "mystically experience" Christ (which was really measured by nothing more than one's inward feelings).  And, of course, in our thinking this had nothing to do with works.  Little did we know...  Around that system of a mystical experience of Christ we built our theological means of growth and grace with our own particular "confessional" terms and phrases:

  • experience life
  • to know the Lord
  • experience reality
  • touch the Lord
  • pray the Scriptures
  • come into His presence
  • practicing His presence
  • "get out of" your soul and into your spirit
  • set your mind on the Lord
  • live in your spirit, not in your mind.
  • the highest authority is your spirit

We had certain verses that pointed the way and supported the above.  To advance in the Christian life meant to encounter daily, hourly, even moment by moment, an inward Christ through a subjective experience.  Faith need not apply, at least not in the same way that faith, as a God-given grace, receives the gift of salvation from him.  This wasn't about receiving, but climbing and attaining.

The way it worked was, more or less, as you set your mind on the Lord and spent time "in God's presence," you were gradually being transformed into the image of Christ (assuming your "sense" or feeling bore witness to His presence)... [What that means is a whole other topic]  You knew you were in his presence when you obtained that certain "peaceful, easy feeling."  This mystical sanctification model hung, in a large part, on proof-texts like 2 Cor. 3:18 - But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.  On paper it sounded pretty good, especially to those who weren't into that outward works-righteousness thing.  But it was really nothing more than a subjective, feelings-based, attain-to-the-glory-now, climb-the-ladder-scheme that inevitably led to the same three outcomes of any other method of works-sanctification:  hypocrisy, self-deception, lack of assurance, and even despair.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Ordo Salutis

At the Valiant For Truth blog at the Westminster Seminary California web site, Kim Riddlebarger has an excellent article titled Basics of the Reformed Faith: The Order of Salvation.  He writes in part:

"This is not an abstract concept because Scripture itself speaks of our salvation as being accomplished for us according to a divinely-ordained progression. The first of these passages is the so-called “golden chain” of salvation found in Romans 8:28-30. In that passage Paul writes, “and we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those 
whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

"The passage has been described as the “golden chain” of salvation because Paul not only speaks of an unbreakable order to the plan by which God saves us (the chain), but the apostle is clear that our salvation from beginning to end is the work of a gracious and sovereign God, who having begun the process of our salvation, sees it through the end (the “gold”)....

"In yet another passage, Paul lays out a similar “order” of salvation (1 Corinthians 6:11), when the apostle writes, “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”...

"Washing refers to regeneration, that divine act whereby we are given new life and are cleansed from the guilt of sin, and when sin’s power over us is broken. All those “washed” are also said to be sanctified. That is, those regenerated by God’s Spirit are now set apart for God’s holy purposes and begin the life-long process of dying to sin and rising to newness of life (sanctification). Those set part by God for his own holy purposes are also said to be justified–that is when we are regenerated, we come to life and place our trust in Jesus Christ. When we place our trust (faith) in Christ, Christ’s merits are reckoned or credited to us, so we are declared righteous before God. Paul ends this particular list of benefits by informing us that all of this was accomplished by the Holy Spirit, who applies to us the saving work of Jesus Christ."

Read the whole thing!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Sanctimonious sanctification...

OK then... I kinda like that title.  Maybe it'll fit.

When a friend or spouse accuses you of being thoughtless in some word or deed, how do you initially respond?  If you're like me, your first reaction is to think (and probably say), "Oh, you've got it all wrong!  You don't understand.  No, that's not what I meant.  You're being much too sensitive..."  In other words, my gut reaction is, "Not Guilty!"  When accused, my first inclination is to desperately rush to establish my "rightness."

I've written a bit on the topic of sanctification at this blog.  Why?  Sanctification is not only where the rubber meets the road in the Christian's day to day life, it's also, unfortunately, where the camel of  merit-based works can slip its nose under the tent of God's free mercy given to sinners.

How do we grow in grace as Christians (and what does that mean)?  How do our works factor into our salvation?  Am I gradually becoming more holy?  Is salvation, at least in part, dependent on my subjective, progressive sanctification?  In considering these questions one may ask, can the blessing of saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone become marginalized and relegated to that of a first blessing only, i.e. a first step in the Christian life? Is the template supposed to be - once in the door of salvation, i.e. justified in Christ through faith, I then move on from there to the next step of good works empowered by the Spirit for sanctification?  Some seem to think of it this way.

Important questions that need addressing.  To begin, The Westminster Confession of Faith points us in the right direction.  Here's a gleaning:
  • The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience, and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, has fully satisfied the justice of His Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for those whom the Father has given unto Him. (WCF 8.5)
  • This effectual call is of God's free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it. (WCF 10.2)
  • Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justifies; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God. (WCF 11.1)
  • All those that are justified, God vouchsafes, in and for His only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption... (WCF 12)
  • They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them... (WCF 13.1)
  • The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened. (WCF 14.1)
  • These good works, done in obedience to God's commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the Gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life. (WCF 16.2)
  • We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin, or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come; and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom, by them, we can neither profit, nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins, but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants: and because, as they are good, they proceed from His Spirit, and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God's judgment. (WCF 16.5)
One can put to memory these biblical truths.  And yet, like the man who forgets his image upon walking away from a mirror, we can too easily fall back into a false assumption that our works are somehow in the mix as necessary for a right standing before God.  Why is it that that is our bent?  Simply said, by nature we are sinners, self-justifying sinners.  We not only fall short of God's moral law, we have woven into our nature the depraved hutzpah to self-justify our sinful persons before God, others, and especially ourselves. It's as natural as breathing.  That is what sinners do.  Fish swim.  Dogs bark.  Sinners self-justify.  We, who are made in God's image, created to be holy, though redeemed are yet still fallen.  And in and of ourselves - holy we are not!  The tension between that which we are and what we know we should be still bewitches us.  So by nature we still tend towards minimizing our sin and working to sell ourselves as good enough.

This being our condition, it's not hard to see, as Christians, how we instinctively assign self-merit to our works (I'm getting better/more holy, really I am!) while at the same time minimizing our faults.  Biblically, we know that self-merit offers no help for man before God and yet it sneaks into our calculus again and again.  We are self-justifying creatures at the core.  We insistently insist that our best intentions and curve-based efforts be graded as a passing in the court of justice.  We just don't give up all that easily on the project of renovating ourselves despite the futility of it!  Yet, when we attempt to balance on the fulcrum between our works and God's grace for sanctification, we inevitably slide down to the works side of that see-saw.  And depending on our makeup, we either land as self-assured hypocrites or bruised reeds despairing of God's favor wondering, "What in the world is wrong with me that I can't be more faithful?'  More of a saint and less of a sinner!

This is the vicious cycle and trap that results from seeing sanctification as something beyond and separate from our justification in Christ.  But to look in the mirror of Jesus we see not only ourselves... sinners in motive, thought, word, and deed, we see Jesus and his shed blood.  There we give up on our efforts as futile, and find not rejection but acceptance.  Through faith, the sinner looking to Christ alone receives freely the "rightness" he so desperately needs.  Therein is pardon for sin and cleansing for the fallen soul.  By that blood the sinner is forgiven and the judgment against him fully paid. Therein the sinner is accounted righteous and obedient with the righteousness and perfect obedience of Jesus.  The believing sinner has been made right with God, Christ-justified!  It is to that cross alone that his faith initially and continually must look.  Sanctification, then, is not the process of adding to or rebuilding that which Christ has already accomplished.  The faith of one's sanctification is the faith that rests in one's justification, the faith that daily and increasingly looks to Christ's merit alone.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Nature of Good Works

What is it that causes a believer's works to be acceptable before God, i.e. as good and righteous?  Does the believer become progressively more and more righteous in sanctification so that some thoughts, words, and deeds have been so "transformed" that they are acceptable because they are without any corruption or sin - inherently righteous?  How are we to think about the good works of believers?  Is salvation dependent, in some measure, on the righteous quality of those works or solely on justifying faith upon which good works stand?

Some thoughts:
There be no true lively faith except good works do follow.
There be no good and acceptable works except those that do follow from faith.
There is no righteousness that flows from our good works or resides inherently in them.

As Scripture affirms:
Whatsoever is not of faith is sin. (Rom. 14:23)
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (Gal. 3:10)
...the law is not of faith. (Gal. 3:12)

John Calvin, in Book 3.17.10 in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, wrote on this very question.  It is crucial as to how we understand the nature of the believer's good works, in order to not elevate them as to "to impair or destroy the doctrine of justification."

  • 10. In this way we can admit not only that there is a partial righteousness in works (as our adversaries maintain), but that they are approved by God as if they were absolutely perfect. If we remember on what foundation this is rested, every difficulty will be solved.  The first time when a work begins to be acceptable is when it is received with pardon. And whence pardon, but just because God looks upon us and all that belongs to us as in Christ? Therefore, as we ourselves when ingrafted into Christ appear righteous before God, because our iniquities are covered with his innocence; so our works are, and are deemed righteous, because every thing otherwise defective in them being buried by the purity of Christ is not imputed.  Thus we may justly say, that not only ourselves, but our works also, are justified by faith alone. Now, if that righteousness of works, whatever it be, depends on faith and free justification, and is produced by it, it ought to be included under it and, so to speak, made subordinate to it, as the effect to its cause; so far is it from being entitled to be set up to impair or destroy the doctrine of justification. Thus Paul, to prove that our blessedness depends not on our works, but on the mercy of God, makes special use of the words of David, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered;” “Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity.” Should any one here obtrude the numberless passages in which blessedness seems to be attributed to works, as, “Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord;” “He that has mercy on the poor, happy is he;” “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,” and “that endureth temptation;” “Blessed are they that keep judgment,” that are “pure in heart,” “meek,” “merciful,”, they cannot make out that Paul’s doctrine is not true. For seeing that the qualities thus extolled never all so exist in man as to obtain for him the approbation of God, it follows, that man is always miserable until he is exempted from misery by the pardon of his sins. Since, then, all the kinds of blessedness extolled in the Scripture are vain so that man derives no benefit from them until he obtains blessedness by the forgiveness of sins, a forgiveness which makes way for them, it follows that this is not only the chief and highest, but the only blessedness, unless you are prepared to maintain that it is impaired by things which owe their entire existence to it. There is much less to trouble us in the name of righteous which is usually given to believers. I admit that they are so called from the holiness of their lives, but as they rather exert themselves in the study of righteousness than fulfill righteousness itself, any degree of it which they possess must yield to justification by faith, to which it is owing that it is what it is.

Grant, Almighty God, that as thou dost train us up with so much diligence and assiduous care, and regard us as dear and precious like an hereditary vine, - O grant, that we may not bring forth wild grapes, and that our fruit may not be bitter and unpleasant to thee, but that we may strive so to form our whole life in obedience to thy law, that all our actions and thoughts may be pleasant and sweet fruits to thee. And as there is ever some sin mixed up with our works, even when we desire to serve thee sincerely and from the heart, grant that all stains in our works may be so cleansed and washed away by the sacrifice of thy Son, that they may be to thee sacrifices of sweet odour, through the same, even Christ Jesus, who has so reconciled us to thee, as to obtain pardon even for our works. Amen. (Prayers of John Calvin from his Commentary on Hosea)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Ode of sinful man...

And now for something completely different...

And when the rains came falling down
it was too late for me.
Ten thousand shadows on a wall
but I could not see.
Heeding not the voices
I would not hear.
Lost in my illusion
of pleasure and fear.
And when the rains came down
it was too late for me.
And when the rains came falling down
it was too late for me.

Building an edifice 
to last for all time.
All the while, in changing sands,
etching mortal lines.
And the stabs of my conscience,
the white noise of my mind,
Stir only the shallows
of my distracted insides.
And when the rains came down
it was too late for me.
And when the rains came falling down
it was too late for me.

© Jack Miller 2009

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Gospel, Sanctification, and faith...

I want to use a partial comment of mine from a thread at another blog to highlight a concern.  Addressing another commenter, I wrote:

"You ended your comments with, “To be quite honest, I’m happy and relieved that His Spirit is working within me to put sin to death. Though I’m acquitted through my justification and accepted as a son through my adoption, I’d still like the Lord to continue to work in my life.  I consider all of it the good news of the gospel.”  In these words you seem to be saying, in effect, that ‘my loving my neighbor’ (His Spirit working within me) is part of the gospel. Are you including our good works, i.e. progressive sanctification, as part of the gospel?"

In short my question is, does the gospel include - not only the objective finished work of Jesus Christ in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension - but also the subjective work of sanctification, i.e. my good works and the work of the Spirit in mortifying sin?  The answer should be no.  It seems that the gospel is understood by some to be less and less about the proclamation of the unique work of complete salvation won for sinners by Jesus alone and more and more about God's work in us and how we live. Once the gospel begins to include the subjective work of God within believers as shown by good works, it is a short distance to advocating that one can "live the gospel!"... "One's Spirit-wrought works of love are Jesus' gospel to others!"  The gospel then becomes, at least in part, dependent on the evidence and display of a one's holy and loving acts, which in every saint will always be lacking and always less than perfect, given that he is simultaneously a sinner.

This broad understanding of the gospel is a potential recipe for weakening faith and increasing works-righteousness as one seeks to measure up in thought, word, and deed to "the good news" he is supposed to be exhibiting.  It inserts progressive sanctification into the “gospel proper” by considering everything in the Word (promises, laws, threats, admonitions, works) as the good news of the gospel. Certainly we agree it is “good news” that the Spirit is working in us, conforming us to Christ as God predestined.  But that is not part of the good news that the New Testament writers proclaimed.

The way I understand it is that the subjective (yet real) part of God’s work in the believer is distinct from the free promise of God which was kept and accomplished entirely by Jesus Christ through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension and as proclaimed in the gospel. And yet that subjective work in us is indeed connected to it as a sure and holy effect.  That accomplishment of God’s free promise in Christ is the glad tidings – the gospel – and it is that to which a believer's faith looks and finds salvation (Rom. 1:16). The term “gospel”, too often, is simply used in too loose a fashion.  By including everything of God’s Word in it, that glorious gospel word loses meaning and focus, thereby confusing faith as to where to look for nourishment and strength.

From Calvin’s Inst. 3:2.29 -
Free promise we make the foundation of faith, because in it faith properly consists. For though it holds that God is always true, whether in ordering or forbidding, promising or threatening; though it obediently receive his commands, observe his prohibitions, and give heed to his threatening; yet it properly begins with promise, continues with it, and ends with it. It seeks life in God, life which is not found in commands or the denunciations of punishment, but in the promise of mercy. And this promise must be gratuitous; for a conditional promise, which throws us back upon our works, promises life only in so far as we find it existing in ourselves. Therefore, if we would not have faith to waver and tremble, we must support it with the promise of salvation, which is offered by the Lord spontaneously and freely, from a regard to our misery rather than our worth. Hence the Apostle bears this testimony to the Gospel, that it is the word of faith, (Rom. 10: 8.) This he concedes not either to the precepts or the promises of the Law, since there is nothing which can establish our faith, but that free embassy by which God reconciles the world to himself.