“You aren’t Christian!”
Confusing Sanctification with Justification
The Nashville Statement on human sexuality (https://cbmw.org/nashville-statement) issued last week by a “who’s who” of theologically conservative Christian personalities and spokespersons has now been predictably countered with statements soundly condemning it written by a “who’s who” of theologically progressive Christian personalities and spokespersons.
Closer to the ground, ordinary conservative Christians in their Facebook postings have privately concluded and publically announced that anyone who dares to take a position contrary to the conventionally traditional conclusions of the Nashville Statement could not possibly be Christian. As Jonathan Merritt pointed out in his own measured response to the Nashville statement last week (http://religionnews.com/2017/08/30/take-a-deep-breath-the-nashville-statement-wont-change-anything/) –
“You (could) hold to every doctrine in every Christian creed since Jesus’ resurrection but (if) you disagree with the signers on this issue, (then) you are no longer a faithful Christian.”
Not to be outdone, ordinary progressive Christians in their Facebook postings have privately concluded and publically announced that anyone who doesn’t join them in their outraged rejection of the Nashville Statement could not possibly be Christian either.
And in my mind, this all begs a question – “What does it mean to be a Christian?” It’s Jesus plus just exactly what that makes me Christian? Is it Jesus plus socially progressive values? Or, is it Jesus plus socially conservative convictions? Is it Jesus plus a traditional understanding of sexual morality? Or, is it Jesus plus an open and affirming stance on human sexuality? Is it Jesus plus the Republican political platform? Or, is it Jesus plus the Democrat political platform? Tell me again, it’s Jesus plus just exactly what that makes me Christian?
At the church I serve when someone comes forward to become a Christian, they are just asked one thing – “Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and your Lord and Savior?” I remember a time not so long ago when a person who came forward to make this good confession at church, had he been pressed, would have unhesitatingly signed on to the conclusions of the Nashville Statement, while another person who came forward to make this same good confession at roughly the same time, had he been pressed, would have unquailingly repudiated the conclusions of the Nashville Statement! So, tell me, which one of these two should I have sent away saying, “I’m sorry, but I just don’t believe what you’re telling me about your relationship with Jesus because of what you think about (fill in the blank)!”
My conservative Christian friends are pretty sure which one should have been shown to the door. And my progressive Christian friends are pretty sure which one should have been shown to the door. The problem is, depending on what gets added to the definition of who a Christian is, my conservative Christian friends and my progressive Christian friends would each have had me dismiss the one that they themselves would have kept! So, again I ask, what exactly is it that makes us Christian, or not?
Thomas Erskine (1788 – 1870), the Scottish lay theologian, famously observed that, “In the New Testament, religion is grace and ethics is gratitude.” And it’s this distinction between “religion” and “ethics,” and their differing sources in “grace” and “gratitude,” that reflects the careful distinction that was characteristically made in the theology of the Protestant Reformation between “justification” and “sanctification,” between “belief” and “behavior” that has helped me answer the question – What is it that makes us Christian?
It says that we become Christians through justification. Justification happens in an instant, with the decision of faith whereby God’s saving work in Jesus Christ moves from the category of being theoretically true as a general concept to becoming personally true for someone as an individual in their actual lived experience. Justification changes one’s standing or position. In justification the obstacles that have hindered one’s access to God get removed, and one is instantly restored to the status of a beloved child. Think of the father’s embrace of the prodigal, and of the immediate changes in his situation described in the word pictures of Luke 15:20-24. This is justification. One minute you’re totally estranged; the next minute you’re fully reconciled.
We start behaving like Christians through sanctification. Unlike justification that happens in an instant, sanctification is a process that unfolds gradually over time. In sanctification we start to live into the new status that we receive in our justification. We start becoming who we are. We start behaving in ways that are consonant with our new identity given to us through the saving work of Christ. We start loving others as we ourselves have been loved by God in Christ. We start forgiving others as we ourselves have been forgiven by God in Christ. We start giving more and more of ourselves away as God has given Himself to us in Jesus Christ.
Justification and sanctification are inseparable elements of the same work of redemption. Think of Jesus’ discussion of fruit and root in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:16-18). The “root” is justification. It’s who we are. The “fruit” is Sanctification. It’s what we do. Justification is an either/or matter. Either you are justified or you are not. But sanctification is a more or less matter. At any given moment we can be more or less sanctified. We can behave in ways that are more or less consistent with our identity in Christ. And – here’s the rub – what this means is that we can be justified and still not be very sanctified in our attitudes and actions. Think about the Corinthians!
It’s really hard for me to read I Corinthians and not come away from the experience every time without thinking that the Corinthian Christians are the most “unsanctified” folk in the entire New Testament. They were really bad at being Christians. But they were still Christians! Go back and read Paul’s description of the Corinthian Christians in the greeting of I Corinthians (1:2), and his thanksgiving for them in the opening prayer (1:4-9). As bad as the Corinthians were at being Christians, at no point did Paul ever stop thinking of them, or referring to them as Christians! Because of his confidence in the certainty of their new identity in Christ established by their justification, Paul trusted that the process of their sanctification, slow and spotty as it was when he wrote them, would eventually take hold and unfold in them. Paul believed that Jesus Christ would finish the sanctifying work of redemption that He began in them with their justification.
And what’s instructive for me in this is the spiritual truth that we can be Christians by justification, even while we are still struggling mightily with what it means to think and act like a Christian through sanctification. I find real encouragement in this because I know personally and painfully that I am not consistently or thoroughly Christian in my behavior, even though I have consciously and conscientiously been a Christian believer now for more than fifty years. The theological framework that helps explain how this works for me, and in me, is the Justification/Sanctification distinction.
Richard Lovelace writes that while justification and sanctification are “closely intertwined,” they are nevertheless “quite distinct” (Dynamics of Spiritual Life – IVP – 1979 –pp. 98-102). Being good and doing good, both personally in terms of my morality and socially in terms of my ethics, are the fruit of justification produced through the process of sanctification. But sanctification can’t be confused with justification, or collapsed into justification, without a dangerous legalism quickly ensuing that constantly pushes us to think that we must act as the judge of the genuineness of another Christian’s Christianity. I think that we can gauge the depth of someone’s commitment to Christ based on their observable actions and attitudes. Based on what we see, I think that we can reasonably conclude that somebody is, or is not, a very good Christian just as Paul did with the Corinthians. But in this, I think that we must be very careful, both as Christians with traditionalist answers to the pressing moral and ethical questions of the day, and as Christians with progressive answers to the pressing moral and ethical questions of the day, about showing to the door those with whom we disagree because they are not consistently Christian in their attitudes and actions according to the way that I – as either a traditionalist Christian or a progressive Christian – understand what those Christian attitudes and actions ought to be.
Let’s stop doubting that those Christians with whom we disagree are Christians, and let’s start risking respectful conversations with them instead, the sort of respectful conversations that begin with the good faith assumption that we are each securely justified, and that we all – traditionalist Christians and progressive Christians alike – still have lots and lots of room for growth in our own sanctification, and that that process would be well served by learning to listen to why another Christian thinks the way she thinks, and acts the way she acts, especially when she thinks and acts in ways that are very different from my own ways of thinking and acting as a Christian.
Rather than concluding that those Christians with whom I disagree are not really Christians, maybe by taking the time and making the effort to understand the ways that they are trying to live into the implications of their justification, my own sanctification, that is, the ways that I am trying to live into the implications of my own justification will be served. DBS +