Stuck In Our Ditches
When it comes to nitty-gritty theological discussions, sanctification usually doesn’t get much air-time, but in the pastor’s office it takes the lion share of what he deals with in shepherding his people. The Doctrine of Sanctification is what we should call the ethos of Christendom. It is where all other doctrines should become vibrantly practical. Threading theological needles in a seminary class must not remain eternally theoretical, and some salient fellow ought always to ask, “So what?”
We believe God is Three-in-One and One-in-Three, and that we are born in sin, and are justified by grace through faith alone; but how ought this to practically affect our lives and this world? An important principle must be made clear from the outset, biblical theology must result in biblical living. As the estimable Dr. Lloyd-Jones lucidly stated, “There is an indissoluble association between doctrine and life.”1Lloyd-Jones, Dr. Martyn. Romans: an exposition of chapter 7.1-8.4: the law, its functions and limits /cD. M. Lloyd-Jones. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1995. pg. 332 The Scriptures overwhelmingly teach that God’s aim in redeeming mankind is to sanctify him unto His purposes, and to conform man to His image, restoring what Adam lost in Eden. So, splitting the doctrinal atoms that many a theology student relishes, is not necessarily what will equip him to deal with the messes which land in his counseling calendar. Theology matters, but it matters to the end that it changes the man and more fully equips him to spur the Saints onward in faith, obedience and, our topic at hand, their sanctification.
Now, the reality is that in modern, Protestant Christianity there are two significant errors in emphasis that are prohibitive of God’s redemptive aim in his chosen people. On the one hand is the tendency, in some circles (e.g. pious charismatics, conservative Wesleyans, Nazarenes, etc.), to demand of people a sinless perfectionism as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, in more baptistic and Reformed camps the tendency is to bewail our depravity, and be morbidly obese with the notion that remaining sin defines the character of the saint. One error of emphasis leads to legalism, and burnout; the other tends towards licentiousness, and self-justification. But both camps end up in arrogance, impudence, despondency, and despair.
The Scriptures are full of the encouraging truth that those whom God justifies he also will glorify–i.e. sanctify & perfect–(Rom. 8:30 & Phi. 1:6); so, if we are to be faithful Christians, this must affect our view of sanctification. Both ditches are grievous hindrances to true holiness and bring about sinful attitudes which only encumber progress in Christ-likeness. We end up with folks all too eager to tout their holiness accomplishments, and then those all too willing to wallow in defeat.
The Westminster Confession lucidly states: “In which war, although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail; yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome; and so, the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”Hodge, Archibald Alexander. The Westminster Confession: A Commentary. Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002. pg. 194
Healthy Protestant doctrine ought not to result in the pseudo-humility of some strands of the Reformed circles, nor should we veer into Methodism’s error of Entire Sanctification. The latter rushes too hastily forward, the other lags too slowly behind. Both are in danger of forgetting the Gospel. Healthy Protestant doctrine ought not to result in the pseudo-humility of some strands of the Reformed circles, nor should we veer into Methodism’s error of Entire Sanctification. The latter rushes too hastily forward, the other lags too slowly behind. Both are in danger of forgetting the Gospel.Reformed Christians, fearful that works righteousness will compromise the vital doctrine of Justification by Faith, can sometimes fail to strive for real victory over sin, and as the Confession has it “grow in grace, perfecting holiness”. The Holiness movements in Protestantism, in contrast, eager to attain unto holiness, often fail to avoid falling under the yoke of the law. Regardless of which “camp” we are in, we must be on guard against these two errors in emphasis which have waylaid many a Christian.
The Ditch of Sinless Perfectionism
This first error in emphasis is most clearly exemplified in some of the teachings of John Wesley, the Keswick MovementNaselli, Andrew. “KESWICK THEOLOGY: A SURVEY AND ANALYSIS OF THE DOCTRINE OF SANCTIFICATION IN THE EARLY KESWICK MOVEMENT.” Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary Archive. Accessed March 11, 2017. http://archive.dbts.edu/journals/2008/Naselli.pdf., the Salvation Army, Charles Finney, and others. More recent examples include some Prosperity-Gospel teachersPrince, Joseph. “Total And Complete Forgiveness | Grace Inspirations.” Joseph Prince Ministries. Accessed March 11, 2017. http://www.josephprince.org/daily-grace/grace-inspirations/single/total-and-complete-forgiveness/, and otherwise sound teachers in both Calvinist & Arminian camps. An otherwise healthy emphasis on true and practical holiness, is always in danger of finding itself accompanied by an unhealthy emphasis on Ordnung-like2”What is the Amish Ordnung?” Amish America. Accessed March 11, 2017. http://amishamerica.com/what-is-the-amish-ordnung/. standards & guidelines that, however good, bind the conscious and create a fracturing effect in which some believers fall to pride and others to despair. These standards are usually unspoken, but the general thrust is that to make progress in your sanctification you need to pray more, read the Bible more, fast more, go to church more, and overall just do more spiritual things.
Some, in their efforts to exhort Christians to pursue holiness and sanctification, have gone further than they ought in describing their own victories with sin. For instance, Samuel Brengle, a notable figure in the early days of the Salvation Army, gives a portion of his testimony this way: “During these ten years God has enabled me to keep a perfect, unbroken purpose to serve him with my whole heart. No temptation has swerved that steadfast purpose. No worldly or ecclesiastical ambition has had an atom of weight to allure me.”Brengle, Samuel Logan. Helps to Holiness. Atlanta, GA: The Salvation Army Supplies & Purchasing Dept., 1992. pg. xi
Now, “Good for him!” we might be inclined to say. However, the fine line which Brengle is walking here is that, regardless of how true his statements are, if that is not the experience of the reader, very soon their sanctification displaces their justification as the ground of their assurance, and thereby turns them into self-righteous legalists or woefully despairing despondents. The problem with this emphasis, is not that its standard for holiness is too high (i.e. never sinning), but that it subtly–and sometimes not so subtly–removes the eyes of the believer from faith in Christ, to faith in one’s own track record.
It is abysmally problematic, regardless of how godly a man may be, for him to set up–for himself or others–faultlessness as the standard of Christian holiness instead of blamelessness. Brengle, despite a certainly well-intentioned desire to spur believers onward in godliness, shares a recollection of something the Salvation Army founder, William Booth, once said: “Take time to pray God’s blessing down on your own soul every day. If you do not, you’ll lose God.”3Ibid. pg. 49 Obviously, no Christian would want to discourage Christians from seeking to be faithful in dedicated prayer. However, by connecting missing a time of daily prayer to losing God, Booth and Brengle have consequently created a hazardous culture of inevitable works based righteousness. This almost certainly will see some souls ensnared by ever-increasing arrogance because they are simply inclined to a disciplined lifestyle, and others who will quickly slide into dark, dark despondency and doubt because they fail to meet the standard; and either way, both are in a dangerously precarious place spiritually.
This is simple recklessness on the part of those who emphasize sanctification this way. Though they aim at exhorting Christians to overcome sin, and teach that Christians really can, should and do overcome sin in this life, all too often they end up encumbering their followers with ever growing demands for newly-minted standards for holiness. To be fair, John Wesley, the primary figurehead of this view of sanctification (usually termed “Entire Sanctification”), was generally careful to ensure that faith was not lost in his stressing the fact that those “born of God sinneth not (1 Jn. 5:18)”; he said, “Exactly as we are justified by faith, so are we sanctified by faith.”4”Entire Sanctification.” Wesleyan Heritage Series: Entire Sanctification. Accessed March 11, 2017. https://ucmpage.org/sgca/wesley01.htm. Nevertheless, both his adherents at the time, and those who have followed this tradition, must be ever wary of the dangers which this error in emphasis invariably bring about.
The Ditch of “Wretch-Like-Me-ism”
Now, in Reformed & Baptistic circles, the danger is to think that any language of overcoming sin, victory over sin, practical holiness, etc. is preaching works-righteousness, veering into Methodism’s ditch, the heresy of Christian perfectionism. However, our own confession makes it plain that “the regenerate part doth overcome” not just in a final after death sense, but as it regards individual skirmishes and battles with particular sins. A.A. Hodge very helpfully guards against perfectionism, while still asserting that the elect of God “gradually advance in holiness”:
“Perfectionism is in conflict with the universal experience and observation of God’s people. The personal profession of it is generally judged to be just ground first serious suspicions as to the claimant’s mental soundness or moral sincerity. Nevertheless, from a constant supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the gracious element in the believer’s nature, upon the whole, prevails, and he gradually advances in holiness until he is rendered perfect at death.”5Hodge, Archibald Alexander. The Westminster Confession: A Commentary. Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002. pg. 200
Reformed teaching errs if it fails to spur the saints onward in holiness. Kevin DeYoung wonderfully articulates this concern: “My fear is that as we rightly celebrate, and in some quarters rediscover, all that Christ has saved us from, we are giving little thought and making little effort concerning all that Christ has saved us to. Shouldn’t those most passionate about the gospel and God’s glory also be those most dedicated to the pursuit of godliness? I worry that there is an enthusiasm gap and no one seems to mind.”6Deyoung, Kevin. Hole in Our Holiness. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2014. pg. 11
Too many in the Reformed world have an air-tight understanding of justification intellectually, but practically-speaking have an “I’m the wretch the song refers to” mindset. Surely, championing the doctrines of grace does not mean abandoning them in our actual experience and enjoyment of them! For those redeemed by grace, the soul is ablaze with love for Christ and neighbor (1 Jn. 4:7), and this love urges the believer onward in seeking greater likeness unto “Him whom our soul loveth (Sng. 3:4)”. Henry Scougal beautifully describes the process whereby the believer’s love for Christ and redeeming grace brings about conformity with Christ: “The worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its love. He who loveth mean and sordid things doth thereby become base and vile, but a noble and well-placed affection doth advance and improve the spirit into a conformity with the perfections which it loves.”7Scougal, Henry. The Life of God in the Soul of Man. Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2010. pg. 49 We see here that those regenerated by the sovereign grace of God, are now able to love, and, in loving, become like the One loved. This is simply another way of saying “the regenerate part doth overcome”.
Neither Lagging Nor Reckless
So, it should be plain that a Christian should neither lag behind in his pursuit of godliness, nor should he recklessly plow mindlessly ahead. It is timely here to notice that the Westminster Confession, on this topic of Sanctification, employs the terms “war”, “prevail”, “strength”, and cites Galatians 5:17 to point out the struggle between the Spirit and the flesh. This is battle language. But it is a battle in which Christ leads His own to victory and overcoming. We are saved from our sin in justification, and saved to good works in sanctification. Yet, those good works are denying the flesh and overcoming sin. God hasn’t saved us from our sins so that we can then be apathetic towards them after being regenerated and justified. Our salvation and redemption sets us apart to be unto God a holy people; made holy in Christ alone, but born of and filled by His Spirit that we might overcome Satan, Sin and the World. Perhaps the best Scriptural text for this is 1 John 5:4-5 “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?” We must not be afraid to emphasize the fact that holiness and overcoming sin is not to be unexpected in the Christian experience; as DeYoung points out: “Not only is holiness the goal of your redemption, it is necessary for your redemption.”8Deyoung, Kevin. Hole in our holiness: filling the gap between gospel passion and the pursuit of godliness. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2014. pg. 26
We must, as the Apostle John remarks, “overcome the world”, but this is all of grace! And this is the aim of God’s saving grace towards us, as John Owen declares in his definition of holiness: “Holiness is nothing but the implanting, writing, and realizing of the gospel in our souls.”9Owen, John. “Pneumatologia.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Accessed March 11, 2017. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/owen/pneum.i.viii.viii.html. Henry Law puts it like this, “Holiness! To cause this lovely plant to thrive—its roots to deepen—and its branches to bear fruit, is the one grand purpose of the scheme of grace.”10Law, Henry. “Christ is All: The Gospel of the Pentateuch.” Internet Archive. Accessed March 11, 2017. https://archive.org/details/stereotypededch08lawgoog.
Our battle with sin, contrary to the stance of Entire Sanctification, is indeed a striving and a battle (Col. 1:29). Dr. Lloyd-Jones said it well on this point, “There is no shortcut to holiness. Holiness is developed in us chiefly as the result of our understanding of these great truths.”11Lloyd-Jones, Dr. Martyn. Romans: an exposition of chapter 7.1-8.4: the law, its functions and limits /cD. M. Lloyd-Jones. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1995. pg. 332 So, healthy understanding of the redeeming work of Christ which justifies us should not cause us to be careless and aloof in our pursuit of holiness; and in our pursuit of holiness we must not neglect “these great truths”.
A Biblically balanced view of sanctification is wonderfully exhibited in the life of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, a man of imminent holiness; in his letters, he oft expressed his desire for greater godliness as, what he termed, “breathings after holiness” and once intimated to his friend and mentor, Horatius Bonar, “I have a great desire for personal growth in faith and holiness. I love the word of God, and find it sweetest nourishment to my soul. Can you help me to study it more successfully? The righteousness of God is all my way to the Father, for I am the chief of sinners; and were it not for the promise of the Comforter, my soul would sink in the hour of temptation.”12M’Cheyne, Robert Murray. Memoirs of McCheyne: Including His Letters and Messages. Edited by Andrew A. Bonar. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1948. pg. 133
Notice his longing to be holy, not a complacency about it. This is no “wretch-like-me-ism”. But it also is not man-defined, holiness-crazed legalism. He desires the Word of God, the Gospel, the righteousness of God the solid ground upon which to tread the way of holiness. Calvin, in his usual zeal for making it plain that works cannot save, shows that a believer might “confirm and support his faith” by understanding his good works to be gifts of God’s divine favor to him:
“When the point considered is the constitution and foundation of salvation, believers, without paying any respect to works, direct their eyes to the goodness of God alone. Nor do they turn to it only in the first instance, as to the commencement of blessedness, but rest in it as the completion. Conscience being thus founded, built up, and established is farther established by the consideration of works, inasmuch as they are proofs of God dwelling and reigning in us. Since, then, this confidence in works has no place unless you have previously fixed your whole confidence on the mercy of God, it should not seem contrary to that on which it depends. Wherefore, when we exclude confidence in works, we merely mean, that the Christian mind must not turn back to the merit of works as an aid to salvation, but must dwell entirely on the free promise of justification. But we forbid no believer to confirm and support this faith by the signs of the divine favor towards him. For if when we call to mind the gifts which God has bestowed upon us, they are like rays of the divine countenance, by which we are enabled to behold the highest light of his goodness; much more is this the case with the gift of good works, which shows that we have received the Spirit of adoption.”13Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008. Book 3, Chapter 14, Section 18.
A healthy understanding of sanctification, then, rests on the fact that we believe we are saved by Christ through no works of our own. This means that only a regenerate man can be sanctified, grow in holiness, and in the end be made perfect.This means that only a regenerate man can be sanctified, grow in holiness, and in the end be made perfect. Once the Holy Spirit has regenerated a man, the same Spirit proceeds to conform this new creature in Christ to be like Christ. Again the Westminster Confesssion rightfully acknowledges the reality of the battle with remaining sin in the believer in the phrase: “although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail.”14Hodge, Archibald Alexander. The Westminster Confession: A Commentary. Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002. pg. 194 Of course a born again Christian can fall into dark and grievous sin, but we must not miss the many texts found in the New Testament which describe victory, triumph, and increasing godliness as the fruit of the Spirit’s sanctifying work in the believer.
Henry Law, once the Dean of Gloucester, poignantly reminds us of the need for growth in holiness and Gospel-centered faith to be inextricably united:
“Would you be holy? There is only one way. All other roads lead down to deeper mire. Christ must come in. All is dark death, except where Jesus lives. All is pure life and loveliness, where Jesus reigns. Draw near and nearer to the Gospel-page. There gaze on Christ, until the soul’s features melt into His likeness. The Gospel heard, and read, and loved, are the bright wings on which the Spirit flies. The Spirit’s presence brings the Savior near. The Savior welcomed, is all Holiness begun. The Savior cherished, is all Holiness advancing. The Savior never absent, is Holiness complete. Holiness complete, is heaven’s full blaze.”15Law, Henry. “Christ is All: The Gospel of the Pentateuch.” Internet Archive. Accessed March 11, 2017. https://archive.org/details/stereotypededch08lawgoog
The Doctrine of Sanctification truly is where doctrinal rubber meets the road of our human experience. We do ourselves and our churches great harm by remaining in the ditches of error, and failing to spur each other on in real godliness, or by failing to rest on Christ’s grace for our Salvation from beginning to end, from justification to glorification, from regeneration to eternity.
Sanctification is an expectation which we see in Christ’s great commission to disciple the nations by teaching them to observe and obey His commands (Mt. 28:18-20). Our Lord surely expects his disciples to be successful, or we might better say victorious, in obeying Him. This is no futile platitude, after all. He who purchased us to be unto Him holy people, he will assuredly sustain, keep and preserve them a holy people. Which is why we can sing with John Stocker’s wonderful hymn, “Thy free grace alone, from the first to the last, hath won my affection and bound my soul fast”.16Stocker, John. Gadsby’s Hymns. Compiled by William GADSBY. London, 1876. From top to bottom a believer in Christ’s Gospel knows that Jesus saved them, and that by this saving faith, Christ’s Spirit shall lead His Saints in triumph over their sin, by degrees in this world, but in fullness at our death and in eternity. It is not impudent to affirm what the Scriptures and the Confession teach us, namely that the Saints shall indeed, by faith, overcome in their battle with Sin and with sins; all because of the saving Gospel of Christ and the Spirit with which He has given us.
|↑1, ↑11||Lloyd-Jones, Dr. Martyn. Romans: an exposition of chapter 7.1-8.4: the law, its functions and limits /cD. M. Lloyd-Jones. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1995. pg. 332|
|↑2||”What is the Amish Ordnung?” Amish America. Accessed March 11, 2017. http://amishamerica.com/what-is-the-amish-ordnung/.|
|↑3||Ibid. pg. 49|
|↑4||”Entire Sanctification.” Wesleyan Heritage Series: Entire Sanctification. Accessed March 11, 2017. https://ucmpage.org/sgca/wesley01.htm.|
|↑5||Hodge, Archibald Alexander. The Westminster Confession: A Commentary. Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002. pg. 200|
|↑6||Deyoung, Kevin. Hole in Our Holiness. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2014. pg. 11|
|↑7||Scougal, Henry. The Life of God in the Soul of Man. Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing, 2010. pg. 49|
|↑8||Deyoung, Kevin. Hole in our holiness: filling the gap between gospel passion and the pursuit of godliness. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2014. pg. 26|
|↑9||Owen, John. “Pneumatologia.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Accessed March 11, 2017. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/owen/pneum.i.viii.viii.html.|
|↑10||Law, Henry. “Christ is All: The Gospel of the Pentateuch.” Internet Archive. Accessed March 11, 2017. https://archive.org/details/stereotypededch08lawgoog.|
|↑12||M’Cheyne, Robert Murray. Memoirs of McCheyne: Including His Letters and Messages. Edited by Andrew A. Bonar. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1948. pg. 133|
|↑13||Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008. Book 3, Chapter 14, Section 18.|
|↑14||Hodge, Archibald Alexander. The Westminster Confession: A Commentary. Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002. pg. 194|
|↑15||Law, Henry. “Christ is All: The Gospel of the Pentateuch.” Internet Archive. Accessed March 11, 2017. https://archive.org/details/stereotypededch08lawgoog|
|↑16||Stocker, John. Gadsby’s Hymns. Compiled by William GADSBY. London, 1876.|