In some theological blogging circles of late a debate is being played out (again) between those who think that sanctification is wrought by obedience (and is thus a subsequent state to justification), and those who apparently conflate justification and sanctification by downplaying the role of post-justification obedience and by over-emphasising grace and the freedom that it brings.
Once again the debate is not that helpful because it inevitably leads to polarisation on both sides, leaving the reader with not much to choose from. We have those legalists who care nothing about grace, just pure obedience, and we have on the other hand all those grace movementists who care nothing about obedience, just pure grace. Take your pick.
Or we could be a little more careful and nuanced with the discussion. Novel, I know.
Another added complexity that seems to be making its way into the discussion is the introduction of the theological concepts of synergism and monergism. While it is an important discussion to have, I think we can deal with the conflation issue without venturing into this territory.
The question is this: How does living in a state of being justified work out in a believer’s life daily? It’s obvious right? Good fruit, good works, deeds, faith-filled living, spirit-filled living, holiness, righteousness, and so on.
But why should one be characterised by the above mentioned things? This is the pointy bit of the discussion. I have 3 possibilities:
- Because the Bibles says so?
- Because we are called to be obedient?
- Because we are justified?
I mentioned earlier that the greater debate often becomes polarised and you can see in the above three points why. If I was to agree with point two as the answer to the question, ‘Why should one be sanctified?’ then the protagonist can claim that if obedience is the sole reason, then we are still living under the law. If I was to subscribe to number 3 then it could be argued that I am disregarding the clear imperative to be obedient, and conflating justification and sanctification, minimising the call to be sanctified.
My answer is: 3 and 2, in that order.
Obedience was a hot topic in Jesus’ time. Those who were experts in what should be obeyed made full use of such knowledge by quizzing Jesus on the greatest commandment in the law. Interestingly, Jesus in response does not pull out a commandment per se; one that was pure action, like, say, keep the sabbath. The commandment that Jesus picks was one that targeted the heart, soul and mind, and that therefore (not coincidentally), had massive implications on one’s mouth, hands, eyes, feet, and every other part of the body.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment (Matt 22:36-38).
For this reason the first commandment is inextricably linked to the runner-up, which Jesus hastens to point out. You see, the body is the instrument that reflects an inner reality.
And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Matt 22:39).
Paul takes a similar approach. He continuously calls believers under his care to be transformed towards Christlikeness, but this call is not an isolated imperative – ‘Do this!’ Instead, his reasoning most commonly takes the form of, ‘Because you are in Christ, do this!’.
With regard to Jesus’ death and life Paul says, ‘In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires‘ (Rom 6:11-12). Paul’s imperative to not let sin reign is based upon the idea that for those who are found in Christ sin has been defeated.
He states this again, using other words, in the next verse. He applies the concept by identifying the body as an instrument. He says, ‘Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness (Rom 6:13). As those who have died and been raised with Christ (passive recipients), our bodies are now instruments not of wickedness but of righteousness. In-Christ-ness dictates the shape of the life of the believer.
Paul brings it all together in the last verse of this passage. He says, ‘For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace‘ (Rom 6:14).
God’s grace, the fruit of which is our justification, is the reason for living as one not under the law. This established, Paul addresses our tendency to misunderstand stuff and so he answers the question, ‘Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace?’ (Rom 6:15). There is no need for it if Paul’s previous argument is understood rightly – that is, he is not suggesting grace over obedience or obedience over grace, but rather a nuanced perspective that sees obedience as the fruit of God’s grace received.
Another example of this line of reasoning can be found in Romans 12. In verse 2, Paul calls believers to offer their bodies as living sacrifices and to not conform to the patterns of the world, but rather to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. This line of imperative, with the clear view of sanctifying the believer, expresses only half of Paul’s point. He qualifies this imperative! In verse 1 we read, ‘In view of God’s mercy…’ which is a striking reminder as to the reason why one should be obedient and not conform to the world. Having been justified by Jesus’ blood, a sure demonstration of God’s mercy, one demonstrates through obedience what it means to live as a slave to righteousness as one in Christ.
Michael Horton says it well:
The Christian life should not be seen as a struggle between nature and grace or cooperation between God’s grace and human striving, but as God’s justifying verdict that radiates outward into every nook and cranny of our existence, bearing the fruit of love.
So let’s make some distinctions.
Justification is brought about by God’s love and quenched wrath, manifested and achieved through Jesus’ wrath-absorbing and therefore justifying cross-work. In this, faith (God’s gift) stands opposed to one’s deeds.
Sanctification is the Christlike life that stems or blossoms from the state of being justified – of being alive in Christ. Sanctification is not subsequent or separate to justification, but is better thought of as a continual outpouring from the fount of grace.
If this is conflation, then I am happy to plead guilty.