Over the last three or four years, the Church has conversed intramurally on the doctrine of sanctification. Here are some of the questions and discussions I’m hearing:
Is it only by fixing our eyes on the cross of Christ one is sanctified?
Does our effort play any part in our sanctification?
Do we move past the gospel in sanctification?
Are justification and sanctification accomplished differently?
The solution isn’t either/or. It’s Yes and Amen. Let me explain. One central truth draws these sides close together. Prior to conversation we are alienated from God. We can do good (the common grace kind), but we cannot do righteousness before God (the saving grace kind), not the kind that pleases God. We need someone to step in and fundamentally transform our constitution. We were dead unto righteousness. We were dead unto God. Jesus steps in baptizing us from death unto life. We are inseparably united together in Christ.
Once we are in Christ everything changes. God looks upon us and says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). We change positionally, forensically. We were enemies of God, but the covenant of peace has been sealed with the blood of Christ through justification by faith. In the eyes of the Highest Court’s Judge, we are not guilty, but also completely righteous.
In Christ, we can please God. God delights in our obedience because he sees Christ when he sees us. God delights in our striving after him because he sees Christ when he sees us. God delights in our meager efforts in living a life of faith because he sees Christ when he sees us. That doesn’t negate what Luther describes as living a life of repentance. Our cry is always and often, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”
So are we sanctified by fixing our gaze on the cross of Christ? Emphatically yes! We are Christians living beneath the cross.
Does our effort play any part in our sanctification? Yes in Christ we live, breathe, and love by the power of the Holy Spirit. We strive, work, and believe in Christ. Synergism is the wrong word here. There’s not two parties working alongside of each other. There’s one united body in Christ working in the power of the Spirit.
Do we move past the gospel in sanctification? Absolutely not. The gospel raised us from death to life and unites us with Christ forever. We no more move past the gospel than a child moves beyond breathing once they are grown. The gospel is the very air we breath.
Are justification and sanctification accomplished differently? They are accomplished by the work of God through the person of Jesus in the power of the Spirit. Both are intrinsically trinitarian. We do not subtract in sanctification. We are added into Christ. He is our Head and we are his Body. Sanctification draws us into communion and union with God.
You see? It’s not either/or. We act obediently and submissively as the Body of our beloved Head. You could no more separate what my head does from what my body does than you could separate me from Christ. Jesus Christ is our Yes and Amen as we strive, make every effort, and obey God. All of this is in Christ. We are fully sanctified in Him.
Paul sums up perfectly the life we now live in Christ:
But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. (Galatians 2:17-21 italics mine)