Monday, January 13, 2014

Because God began it, and he will perform it

It seems to me that in far too many churches the understanding of sanctification is monergistic, but not in the way that you may be thinking: it is we that work.  The triune God is a bystander.  Well, he might do something once we've completed our part.

In any evangelical church where the Gospel is preached at all, the pastor and leaders should be expected to understand that we are saved by grace.  "Grace alone," the Protestant reformers proclaimed about justification, and those committed to the gospel, both before and since, from the apostles to the present day, have understood that the Gospel of Christ is received as God's free gift.

And yet, why is it that for so many this message of grace disappears (if it in fact appeared in proclamation in the first place) when they move from justification to sanctification? 

The question should not be misunderstood as implying that there are not distinctions between justification and sanctification.  Justification is a once and for all forensic declaration by God; sanctification is an ongoing process that continues throughout this life.  Justification is a matter of the imputed righteousness of Christ; sanctification adds growth in actual righteousness as we more and more die unto sin and live unto righteousness. Justification is received by faith alone; sanctification is in at least some sense participatory, though it is important to realize that we don't make ourselves holy.  That is the work of the Spirit using God's appointed means.

Certainly, even in reformed circles there are controversies about the issue of sanctification these days.  While those differences are real, they are sometimes exaggerated by those who argue against straw man positions supposedly held by those who either emphasize justification and gratitude as the primary keys to understanding growth in the Christian life or those who give greater attention to strenuous moral effort.    In fact, at the very least there are some general thoughts about sanctification on which all Christians, reformed and otherwise, ought to agree.  Our sanctification is rooted in the finished work of Christ and in our having been brought into union with Christ, occurs as the result of the work of the Holy Spirit in us, and relies upon the promise and power of God, who gives us confidence "that he who began a good work in us will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ" (Ph. 1:6). There is, of course, much more, but that is a good start.

All of those things emphasize the work of the triune God in our Christian growth.

These thoughts were brought to mind as the result of a church service at a large evangelical church I attended yesterday as part of an ongoing research project that I am engaged in.  The minister devoted his sermon to his goal that his parishioners be "fully developing followers of Christ," and to that end, it was sadly astounding to note how little Christ had to do with the development of his followers.

All of the things he said we should commit to do this year had a biblical basis.  I had no quarrel with being urged to worship, read the Bible and pray, commit my time and money to God's work, and so forth.

Yet, no Gospel was preached. The saving acts of Christ were given no mention whatsoever, even in places where one might expect it to creep in. Thus, the minister's call for us to commit to evangelism was described as saying "a positive word about Jesus" and inviting people to church. No further definition was given.

Worship was defined as our response to God's revealed greatness.  A reading of Isaiah 6 reminds us of how utterly disturbing God's greatness can be before we experience God's grace. Yet, there was no mention of God's grace.

No work of the Spirit. No union with Christ. It was just a bunch of stuff for us to do.  There was some mention of preparing ourselves for when God decides to work, but that was vague and lacked the sound of God working consistently through ordinary means. One might even suggest it was semi-pelagian, if he was suggesting that God would meet our initiative half-way.  However, perhaps that would be uncharitable.

Yet, all of this left me very sad for the large congregation.

No doubt, if the pastor of that church reads this blog, I would expect that he would protest the characterization and assure us that he preaches Christ and the grace of God.  This was, after all, about building believers, not about sharing our faith, and I should come back another Sunday to hear about the Gospel.  Perhaps all of that is true.  But, I am still left struck wondering at how it can be possible to speak of fully developing Christian growth while making so much of our work and so little of God's.  And, I am reminded that Christians should ever remember that we continuously stand in need of the message of the Gospel.

According to an old and faithful saying, all of Christian doctrine is grace, and all of Christian conduct is gratitude.  That message needs to permeate our understanding of discipleship.

No comments: