Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Rethinking Sanctification

Paul Gauguin "Jacob Wrestling with the Angel" 1888


It is no secret that Lutherans are often perceived of as a church body rather heavy on justification and light on sanctification. There is no basis to this observation other than that its observers are likely withheld from the fullness of the Gospel, that God justifies the ungodly in Christ by faith alone. This justification, this holy Gospel completely breaks through, destroying the old, reigning in the new. The Christian ethos in one sense is completely annihilated and drowned out by the advent of Christ and this alien righteousness, yet in another sense is truly created and breathed into being by God’s final word, “I absolve you.” This reception of the gospel, the forgiveness of sins, is claimed solely by faith – faith itself being gifted by Holy Baptism and Christ’s continual lavishing of His preached Word and sacraments. This faith is only “our faith” if we rightly see that is has been freely given by God, apart from any interpretive or collaborative performance with the will of man. Faith advents in Christ, being gifted, experienced, and suffered. Man is declared justified and loves God in Christ’s binding of Himself to His church. In matters of faith God smites, hinders, and breaks the old Adam’s ascent toward self-justification that he may take refuge in the righteousness of God. That the Christian life is defined solely by God’s action is most superbly expressed by poet John Donne, “Take me to you, imprison me, for I, Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”[1]


A Lutheran ethic therefore must begin from the recognition of human bondage to God. Christ has baptized, justified, and sanctified His church by a “ravishing” of sin, death, and the devil. This bondage to Christ, by the passive righteousness of faith, is the starting point of human freedom, and therefore also the beginning of ethics. The bondage involves a drowning to death of the old man and a resurrection of the new. All Christian activity proceeds from this Gospel, “I forgive you all your sins…Go in peace.” God’s Word truly declares and therefore creates man as righteous before God. That God declares the final verdict in the present truly frees man to live before God - to live ethically in the world.


We ought to beware of the offensiveness of the Lord’s doctrine; its complete incompliance with every man’s striving religious ego. For it is foolishness to the philosopher (greek) and the moralist/legalist (Jew). Mary’s song tells us that the Lord scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts and therefore we should not be utterly surprised with the encounter of an unbeliever. The foolishness of Christ, however, ought also make us sympathetic and longsuffering in its preaching and teaching. That forgiveness comes extra hominem and enters in, is in turn met with resistance. Every sinner desires a greater stake in the matter, to add to God’s verdict, to modify or supplement it. The forensic nature of God’s justification is simply not palatable to the religious ego because it leaves no room in the court room for him to numerate his past work and future plans to make himself presentable before God or neighbor. It is Oswald Bayer’s observation that the cosmos is organized forensically and that personhood itself is a “forensic term.” (living by faith p. 4). Man intuitively knows that he is being judged and that judgment means something – that it constitutes his very ontological makeup and has eschatological consequences. In my personal experience, visitations with the sick and elderly often bring this forensic model to light. Though we often think of the elderly as people who are “at peace” with the world, I have found this rarely to be the case. The psychological states of fear and anxiety, though subtle as they may be, are often the pressing moods. Testimonials flow in abundance from those who sense that the end is near. The content of most personal narratives deal with assigning meaning to personal tragedies, assigning guilt and vindications. The painful fractures in human relationships are rationalized and justified so that the narrator may place himself in his own tribunal, “I tried…I did my very best.” In this way, not only individual narratives but also the great expanse of world history may be seen as a battle for mutual recognition with its various strands as “histories of vindications and of the assigning of guilt.”


It is fascinating that Luther’s first public disputation (Against Scholastic Theology) deals squarely with the problem of ethical thinking. Theology done ad modum Aritotelis posed a problem for Luther, which threatened the truth of Gospel, “Virtually the entire of Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace. This is in opposition to the scholastics.”[2] In the 44th thesis he writes “Indeed, no one can become a theologian unless he becomes one without aristotle.” Luther so early in his career found the fusion of philosophical ethics and theology destructive, which clouds the relationship of sin, grace, and the proclamation of the Gospel. The occupation with ethics drives toward the first temptation of discerning good from evil. This internal philosophizing is always grounded in serpent’s primal question, “Did God really say?” Ethics is always understood as a fulfillment, a right action and order, and devoid of defect. Therefore ethics, as understood in the classical sense, simply gets in the way of theology. It is occupied with man’s action first and foremost before and against God’s action in man and need of neighbor.


God’s great ego absolve te graciously cuts down man’s ethical flight whether it be piloted by the will (moralism), emotions (mysticism), or mind (speculation/rationalism). We naturally ascribe to the human ethic a performance whether it be a performance of “knowing,” “doing,” or “thinking” with an accompanying adherence to a set of moral precepts that will naturally make us acceptable before God in heaven. The human will is believed to be collaborative with God in its work and vision rather than deeply corrupted and blind by sin. Koberle observes, “The saint who has sought to gain salvation through self-sanctification must perceive that behind his desire is concealed the pride of self-esteem that Luther calls the ‘queen of sins.”[3]


Concerning what may be a Christian ethic we should first consider the primacy of God’s Word, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3), and that “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (Jn. 1:3). Confessing the Creed opens the lips that they may first confess God the creator as “Lord and giver of life” and themselves as creatures, wholly dependent upon the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the dead. Sin has made the cities desolate and dry. In the old aeon, the descendants of the Old Adam lie about in the valley of dry bones (Ez. 37). We cannot resurrect our own corpses scattered in the dead trench of sin. We have no control in the death of trespasses and cannot handle our sin. This is ever so important as we consider justification, that it is not a reworking of the sinner, but always death and rebirth, anticipating the resurrection of the dead. Koberle observes that the Word forgiveness “produces faith and a new life. It does not simply aid, support, or strengthen the old will but creates a new will.”[4] The church lives by the performative Word of God which justifies sinners, and rescues them from sin, death, and the law. The law is now precious and good. It is no longer a devastating death sentence for the law now becomes a set of holy commands that we may gladly do. Whereas in the Old Testament the law functions to crush the self-justifying the sinner and lead to Christ, now the New Testament “parenetic statements are ethical exhortations addressed to believers who already possess what is required of them.”[5] Faith now daringly opens up the human heart to creation which becomes an arena for ethical action.


Sanctification means nothing apart from God’s final word of absolution and the new life that springs from it. The late Gerhard Forde expresses the relationship best when he argues that sanctification is “the art of getting used to unconditional justification wrought by the grace of God for Jesus’ sake.”[6] That the fullness of God incarnates into the world, into human flesh, in order to receive sinners might indeed take some time getting used to. That God desires to teach, eat and drink with us, indeed to suffer unto death for us is not immediately apprehensible. What’s more is that he loves to forgive, kill and make new, and continues the same address and fellowship through His holy ministry today. That God acts and that man is acted upon is central for justification and therefore also sanctification. All that a Christian is and does presupposes that he is justified. The relation to God is not in his works but in faith which has seized this gift of God. He departs in peace and now freely acts with the certainty that God is pleased with him. The fear and anxiety of self justification are no longer present and the human heart does not need to go questing for holiness, feverishly seeking out a sanctified work or spiritual imagination. The simplest commands of God are sufficient and indeed joyful. Luther in an unforgettable way describes the mundane task of a changing a child’s diapers when justification by faith is wrought in the heart of a father:


“O God, because I am certain that thou hast created me as a man and hast from my body begotten this child, I also know for a certainty that it meets with thy perfect pleasure. I confess to thee that I am not worthy to rock the little babe or wash its diapers, or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother. How is it that I, without any merit, have come to this distinction of being certain that I am serving thy creature and thy most precious will? 0 how gladly will I do so, though the duties should be even more insignificant and despised. Neither frost nor heat, neither drudgery nor labor, will distress or dissuade me, for I am certain that it is thus pleasing in thy sight.[7]


Oswald Bayer makes the significant observation that “ethics,” as understood by modern man, is occupied first with the question, “What should we do?” Yet, for him this is the wrong question. The religio-philosophical starting point of ethics must be “What has been given to us.”[8] The priority of gift over task is a decisive distinction that centers the Christian ethic in the creative work of the Gospel rather than deadness of the law or self-assigned task. Therefore the act of creation both in Genesis and in God’s redemptive work in the sinner erupts ex nihilo, apart from human performance. This pure and unconditional gifting of creation, redemption, and sanctification, when rightly understood, rips open the natural human delusion of autonomy.


Receiving daily bread, life, and salvation from God is relationally understood in the Trinitarian drama of God’s work in Christ and the giving of His spirit in the believer. That this gift is received passively in faith marks the true genesis of action – of a Christian ethic. Justification, the handing over and receiving of Christ through preaching breathes life into the valley of dry bones and reconstructs sinew and bone in the act of resurrection.


The answer for sanctification and for what may be considered a Christian ethic must always be more justification, in its true and radical nature. That God created the heavens and the earth in six days and rested on the Sabbath points to Christ and Christ alone. God invites us to rest in our self-justifying thinking and let Christ work in us through His rest in the tomb and bodily resurrection. The incarnation puts the human creature into spontaneous joy and action so that he may no longer say, “Did God really say this” or “What must I do?” He acts because there is no acting left to do. He performs and speaks because he has been acted upon and has been spoken to.


A Christian ethic therefore does not exist as a portal to heavenly piety but an earthbound receiving of Christ and His divinely orchestrated outward movement into the darkness, through human interfacing. Therefore the occupation of ethics must first be dashed to pieces so that we may speak of the spontaneous joy of the forgiveness of sins and what this does to the human creature. His boasting of action in the world has to do with the action of another which he may in faith claim as his own. His justification, sanctification, and ethic comes from another. The otherness in which the Christian lives is in Christ’s justification, which is the first and last determinant of ethics.


[1] Donne, John. Poems of John Donne. vol I. E. K. Chambers, ed.London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1896. 165.
[2] Luther, Martin, and Timothy F. Lull. Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989, 16.
[3] Köberle, Adolf, and John Caspar Mattes. The Quest for Holiness: A Biblical, Historical and Systematic Investigation. Minneapolis, Minn: Augsburg Pub. House, 1938, 27-28.
[4] 148.
[5] 151.
[6] Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification edited by Donald Alexander (InterVarsityPress), 13.
[7] Martin Luther. The Estate of Marriage, 1522. (Translated by Walther I. Brandt).
[8] Presented at the systematic-theological symposium, “Gift a Fundamental Term for Theology?” (“Die Gabe – ein ‘Urhort’ der Theologie?”) on April 5, 2008 held at the Katholisch sozialen Akademie (Akademie Franz-Hitze-Haus), Munster, Westfali.

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