Justification by Michael Horton, 2 Volumes

justificationIt’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here, but I had to break radio silence to write up a little notice about Michael Horton’s new, 2-volume work, Justification. It’s the fourth entry in the New Studies in Dogmatics series edited by Michael Allen and Scott Swain, and it does the series proud. I won’t mince words, it’s in the top three books of the year for me, if not the top spot. (I’d have to check the notes to remember what else I read). I have read a lot of Horton, but this might be his magnum opus.

Being two large volumes (375 pp and 493 pp) I won’t attempt to give you a comprehensive summary of the work. Nor will I adjudicate some of the intra-Reformed debates that do poke out in certain chapters. I’ll leave it other reviewers to take up some of those important, critical questions. Instead, I’d rather just highlight a few strengths and commend it to you in general.

First, Horton’s just a good writer. It’s always worth noting when an academic knows how to write clean sentences that do not strain a reader’s patience. The years of popular writing alongside dogmatic exploration come in handy here, helping you along when you might be tempted to turn to the wayside in some of the denser pieces of analysis.

Second, I like that Allen and Swain gave him space to play. Two volumes sort of blows the proportion of the series out of the water. But justification is such a hotly disputed matter, with several, important movements in 20th Century scholarship, numerous reinterpretations, many, related historical and exegetical desiderata in need of comment, it’s wonderful to have something of a one-stop shop like this coming from him, so that’s great. (Oh, also, in case you’re wondering, all of this space does give him room to stretch his legs and distinguish these two volumes from his earlier work, Covenant and Salvation, so it’s not just redundant for those who have read it.)

Third, turning to the volumes proper, I have trouble deciding which I liked better. I think I probably benefited personally from the first more, though, simply because I was less familiar with the material. It’s essentially a history of the doctrine, exploring it from the patristic period through the Reformation, paying close attention to figures like the earliest fathers, Chrysostom, Origen, and Augustine, on to Medieval figures (Aquinas, Ockham, Biel, etc.) to the Magisterial Reformers. One quick benefit here worth noting, is that while the Fathers were diverse on justification in many respects, Horton shows that the Reformation doctrine is far from a novum, having a great many theological taproots into the first centuries of the church. It is not, however, a comprehensive account going deep into the early modern and modern periods, distinguishing between the continental Reformed, the Puritans, later Lutherans, Pietists, developments, post-Schleiermacher, etc. So, historians looking for more, will still have to look elsewhere on that score.

All the same, a lot of what Horton does is put on his Big Story Deconstructor hat, and through careful attention to mostly primary texts,  recent disputes about the Scotus Story, the nature and supernature distinction in Aquinas and other Medievals, etc. dismantles components of some of the prominent academic and popular narratives told by folks like Milbank, Gregory, etc. about how the Reformation is the result (and facilitator) of the rise of nominalism, individualism, and sundry other ills of modernity. In fact, Horton goes so far as to argue that the Council of Trent’s teaching on justification more proper represents the “triumph of nominalism,” besides showing at length how far the council varies from even Augustine’s or Aquinas’s account of the grace of justification (neither of whom even held the Reformation doctrine).

I have to say, Horton taking a hammer to so much of the bad, anti-Protestant polemics is satisfying to watch. It’s an irenic hammer, not given to spleen or invective, but a hammer, nevertheless. (Don’t miss the footnotes!) He also just dispels a lot of mythology around the Magisterial Reformer’s approach to the doctrine, rejecting any number of modern, false dichotomies, and spurious charges repeated even by some modern Protestants.

With volume two, though, Horton turns the corner from history into actually articulating a positive, dogmatic and biblical account of the doctrine, driven by properly exegetical and theological argumentation. And I’ll just say, this is an example of constructive doctrine done well. Here he doesn’t just repeat the Reformers, but engages at length with recent New Testament scholarship (largely in Paul, but also the Gospels), delving into Old Testament roots of the doctrine, Biblical theology of the covenants, 2nd Temple texts (Qumran, the Rabbis, etc.), and lexical and semantic examinations of key terms in Paul. Alongside a retrieval of the Reformers, you’ve got exegetical dives into key texts touching on disputed issues like ‘works of the Law” in Paul, imputation, union with Christ, the pistis Christou debate, the role of works in justification, the place of resurrection, and a surprisingly comprehensive, multi-faceted, false-dichotomy-busting account of atonement that’s worth the price of the volume.

In doing all this, he’s able to draw on and engage with the heavy-hitters and critics of the “Old Perspective” in Pauline studies (Wright, Dunn, Sanders, Campbell, Bates, Hays, Barclay etc.) there is still exegetical life in the bones of a fairly classic, Reformed account, that can hold its own against both New Perspective and Apocalyptic perspectives. Additionally, I was pleased to see Horton put Barclay’s and Sander’s recent work on 2nd Temple Jewish accounts of grace, to show just how closely the Reformation disputes between Catholics and Protestants around grace mirrored some of the differing accounts of grace on offer at the time of Paul in the 2nd Temple period.

I’ll also add that one of the advantages of having worked his way through the history of volume 1 first, Horton is able to show the way so many of recent, New Testament scholarship’s criticisms of Reformation accounts of the doctrine simply fail to make contact with their object, by dint of caricature and misunderstanding. What’s more, it enables you to see the way some of the biggest moves in Pauline interpretation by Biblical scholars have, themselves, been funded by modern, theological programs (Barthianism, etc.) every bit as dogmatic as the Reformation accounts they were trying to replace. In which case, it’s another good example of the way historical theology serves as an aid (indeed, a necessary ingredient) in the exegetical and dogmatic task.

I’ve said this before, but my original dive into Pauline studies was through New Perspective scholars (Dunn, Wright, etc.), and it’s been a slow process of unlearning so much of what I “knew” to be true of Reformation perspectives and their viability today. Here, again, the polemic is irenic, but necessary (and don’t miss the footnotes!). For anybody looking for an up-to-date, go-to volume that does that in conversation with recent developments, Horton’s volume 2 is now the place to look.

I’ll add a couple of notes here on who to read it: if you a student interested in justification, a scholar working on the issue, etc. no-brainer.

If you’re a pastor, and you think you don’t have time, or you feel you’ve dealt with the doctrine before (back in seminary, all those years ago…), you might be surprised at how much you can still gain with the engagement with contemporary scholarship and close exegesis of several passages. I got to preach out of Galatians this last week at my church and Horton’s work was reverberating in the background of my sermon at several points. There’s a lot of academic, heavy-lifting, but this is theology that preaches.

Finally, I’ll say that if you’re a Protestant who is thinking of swimming the Tiber for any reason (theological, historical, aesthetic), you should strongly consider digging into Horton’s work first.  (Also, if you’re a Roman Catholic who is genuinely interested in reading a strong, Protestant account of this crucial doctrine, it’s worth it for you too–you can say you’ve read one of the strongest accounts out there.) The matter of justification is one of key doctrinal issues dividing the two branches of Christianity and it is not something that can be brushed aside quickly, but ought to be faced squarely and wrestled with at length. Yes, the book is long, but it’s worth the time to think these things through carefully before making such a weighty and momentous decision.

I add this only because I find that often (not always!), folks who are thinking of leaving, or who reject Protestantism, have not actually read the best (or classic) accounts of the doctrine, and so are “leaving” the theology of their Protestant youth group, or the popular accounts of salvation you pick up in a pietistic, revival night. And by comparison, yes, they’re weak–you wonder how such a thing account of salvation could have ever fired the minds of the Reformers. But, of course, they’re not the real thing. This is.

Alright, I’ve left out much that could be said, but I think I’ve said enough for now. The work is excellent, worth your time and money, and should make an excellent Christmas present to any theological student in your life.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

Calvin v. Sadoleto on Justification, Sanctification, and Union

CalvinCalvin’s theology of salvation is all about the double-gift of grace given to us in union with Christ. This is why he can so strongly insist that justification is by faith alone, not by works, and yet there is no danger of cutting the nerve of pursuing personal holiness. No matter what has been said in pop Reformed circles, there is no room for license or true antinomianism in Calvin’s thought. “Christ justifies no one he does not also sanctify.” Justification does not mean there is no room for works at all in the Christian life.

One Calvin’s most concise articulations of that understanding comes in his celebrated reply to Cardinal Sadoleto in September of 1539. The Cardinal had been trying to win back Geneva into the fold of the Roman Catholic church and wrote a letter arguing the Reformers, their theology, and their efforts. After an invitation to respond by some worried Genevans, Calvin replied while in exile in Strasbourg. At the center of his reply was his parry against Sadoleto’s charges at a Reformed understanding of justification:

You, in the first place, touch upon justification by faith, the first and keenest subject of controversy between us. Is this a knotty and useless question? Wherever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown. That doctrine, then, though of the highest moment, we maintain that you have nefariously effaced from the memory of men. Our books are filled with convincing proofs of this fact, and the gross ignorance of this doctrine, which even still continues in all your churches, declares that our complaint is by no means ill founded. But you very maliciously stir up prejudice against us, alleging that, by attributing every thing to faith, we leave no room for works.

I will not now enter upon a full discussion, which would require a large volume; but if you would look into the Catechism which I myself drew up for the Genevans, when I held the office of Pastor among them, three words would silence you. Here, however, I will briefly explain to you how we speak on this subject.

First, We bid a man begin by examining himself, and this not in a superficial and perfunctory manner, but to sift his conscience before the tribunal of God, and when sufficiently convinced of his iniquity, to reflect on the strictness of the sentence pronounced upon all sinners. Thus confounded and amazed at his misery, he is prostrated and humbled before God; and, casting away all self-confidence, groans as if  given up to final perdition. Then we show that the only haven of safety is in the mercy of God, as manifested in Christ, in whom every part of our salvation is complete. As all mankind are, in the sight of God, lost sinners, we hold that Christ is their only righteousness, since, by his obedience, he has wiped off our transgressions; by his sacrifice, appeased the divine anger; by his blood, washed away our stains; by his cross, borne our curse; and by his death, made satisfaction for us. We maintain that in this way man is reconciled in Christ to God the Father, by no merit of his own, by no value of works, but by gratuitous mercy. When we embrace Christ by faith, and come, as it were, into communion with him, this we term, after the manner of Scripture, the righteousness of faith.

What have you here, Sadolet, to bite or carp at? Is it that we leave no room for works? Assuredly we do deny that, in justifying a man, they are worth one single straw. For Scripture everywhere cries aloud, that all are lost; and every mans’s own conscience bitterly accuses him. The same Scripture teaches, that no hope is left but in the mere goodness of God, by which sin is pardoned, and righteousness imputed to us. It declares both to be gratuitous, and finally concludes that a man is justified without works, (Rom. iv. 7.) But what notion, you ask, does the very term Righteousness suggest to us, if respect is not paid to good works? I answer, if you would attend to the true meaning of the term justifying in Scripture, you would have no difficulty. For it does not refer to a man’s own righteousness, but to the mercy of God, which, contrary to the sinner’s deserts, accepts of a righteousness for him, and that by not imputing his unrighteousness. Our righteousness, I say, is that which is described by Paul, (2 Cor. v. 19,) that God bath reconciled us to himself in Jesus Christ. The mode is afterwards subjoined — by not imputing sin. He demonstrates that it is by faith only we become partakers of that blessing, when he says that the ministry of reconciliation is contained in the gospel. But faith, you say, is a general term, and has a larger signification. I answer, that Paul, whenever  he attributes to it the power of justifying, at the same time restricts it to a gratuitous promise of the divine favor, and keeps it far removed from all respect to works. Hence his familiar inference — if by faith, then not by works. On the other hand — if by works, then not by faith.

But, it seems, injury is done to Christ, if, under the pretence of his grace, good works are repudiated; he having come to prepare a people acceptable to God, zealous of good works, while, to the same effect, are many similar passages which prove that Christ came in order that we, doing good works, might, through him, be accepted by God. This calumny, which our opponents have ever in their mouths, viz., that we take away the desire of well-doing from the Christian life by recommending gratuitous righteousness, is too frivolous to give us much concern. We deny that good works have any share in justification, but we claim full authority for them in the lives of the righteous. For, if he who has obtained justification possesses Christ, and, at the same time, Christ never is where his Spirit in not, it is obvious that gratuitous righteousness is necessarily connected with regeneration. Therefore, if you would duly understand how inseparable faith and works are, look to Christ, who, as the Apostle teaches, (1 Cor. i. 30,) has been given to us for justification and for sanctification. Wherever, therefore, that righteousness of faith, which we maintain to be gratuitous, is, there too Christ is, and where Christ is, there too is the Spirit of holiness, who regenerates the soul to newness of life. On the contrary, where zeal for integrity and holiness is not in vigour, there neither is the Spirit of Christ nor Christ himself; and wherever Christ is not, there in no righteousness, nay, there is no faith; for faith cannot apprehend Christ for righteousness without the Spirit of sanctification.

Since, therefore, according to us, Christ regenerates to a blessed life those whom he justifies, and after rescuing them from the dominion of sin, hands them over to the dominion of righteousness, transforms them into the image of God, and so trains them by his Spirit into obedience to his will, there  is no ground to complain that, by our doctrine, lust is left with loosened reins. The passages which you adduce have not a meaning at variance with our doctrine. But if you will pervert them in assailing gratuitous justification, see how unskillfully you argue. Paul elsewhere says (Eph. i. 4) that we were chosen in Christ, before the creation of the world, to be holy and unblameable in the sight of God through love. Who will venture thence to infer, either that election is not gratuitous, or that our love is its cause? Nay, rather, as the end of gratuitous election, so also that of gratuitous justification is, that we may lead pure and unpolluted lives before God. For the saying of Paul is true, (1 Thess. iv. 7,) we have not been called to impurity, but to holiness. This, meanwhile, we constantly maintain, that man is not only justified freely once for all, without any merit of works, but that on this gratuitous justification the salvation of man perpetually depends. Nor is it possible that any work of man can he accepted by God unless it be gratuitously approved. Wherefore, I was amazed when I read your assertion, that love is the first and chief cause of our salvation. O, Sadolet, who could ever have expected such a saying from you? Undoubtedly the very blind, while in darkness, feel the mercy of God too surely to dare to claim for their love the first cause of their salvation, while those who have merely one spark of divine light feel that their salvation consists in nothing else than their being adopted by God. For eternal salvation is the inheritance of the heavenly Father, and has been prepared solely for his children. Moreover, who can assign any other cause of our adoption than that which is uniformly announced in Scripture, viz., that we did not first love him, but were spontaneously received by him into favor and affection?  —Calvin’s Reply to Sadoleto

I think Calvin’s said enough for himself. But, just in case, you may also want to consult this summary by Robert Letham of what the doctrine of union with Christ does to secure and link firmly our justification, sanctification, and glorification.

Soli Deo Gloria

“You Forgot Something” A Reformedish Commentary on an Orthodox Commentary on the Sanctification Debates

This is the photo Martini had. I give him credit. Also, I wanted to make sure people could link the two articles. Also, how many people actually read image captions? Show of hands?

This is the photo Martini had. I give him credit. Also, I wanted to make sure people could link the two articles. Also, how many people actually read image captions? Show of hands?

Some of you know there’s been a bit of a brouhaha over the issue of sanctification in online Reformed circles in the last couple of months. It’s what led to the departure of Tullian Tchividjian (henceforth TT, because who can spell that?) from TGC and other unfortunate online ugliness. Basically, the dispute was surrounding a number of issues like, what role the law continues to have in the life of the believer?, or how necessary is obedience after conversion?, should we focus on obeying  or getting used to our justification, and stuff on that order. Kevin DeYoung’s summary article “What We All Agree on, and What We (Probably) Don’t, In This Sanctification Debate” is probably the best orientation to the subject. Also, his follow-up piece “The Grace that Saves Is The Grace That Leads You Home.” Also, the Mere Fidelity boys and I chatted on the subject about a month ago as well.

Well, recently Gabe Martini gave what he called an “Orthodox Commentary“, as in Eastern Orthodox, on the whole debate. He opened up with a lengthy, decently fair-handed summary of the dispute between the two sides, and then offered up a sort of Orthodox alternative. Essentially, Westerners of all stripes, and especially Protestants, have their categories all goofed up because of their fixation on ‘legalistic’ concepts of merit, earning, judgment, and so forth. Because of that, there’s a tendency to swing back and forth between moralism/legalism to the tendency to question whether obedience is required at all. Instead, with the Orthodox, we should see that it is indeed required, but we need to think through the basic form that obedience takes: repentance.

And for Orthodox Christians, that life of obedience is a life of true repentance. One where even the holiest saints end their lives with sorrow: the apostle Paul as the “chief” of sinners, and St. Sisoes the Great who desired yet another day to repent.

Through repentance we cooperate with God in our transforming sanctification leading unto the deification of looking like Christ. I won’t summarize it all. Again, you can go read it here.

I have to say, all in all, I appreciated the article. Martini was remarkably fair, which is not something I see a lot from Eastern criticisms of Protestants/Western theology. What’s more, for reasons that will become clear shortly, his call to repentance was, mostly, something I could get behind. Still, I had a couple of Reformed caveats and clarifications I’d like to offer up, for the sake of mutual up-building and understanding.

Union with Christ and Reformed Salvation

unionThe first comment I’ll make, and it’s really the biggest, is to note the surprising absence of any discussion of the doctrine of ‘union with Christ’ in Martini’s article. Actually, it’s both surprising and not surprising. On the one hand, it’s not surprising because in many popular discussions of Evangelical and Protestant understandings of salvation, it’s been ignored for the last 50+ years. To some degree, when I see a non-Protestant ignore it, well, so many Protestants have that it’s hard to blame them.

That said, the doctrine of union with Christ is arguably the heart of a Reformed doctrine of salvation (including both justification and sanctification) dating back to Calvin himself, through Berkhof (whom Martini quotes), all the way through modern treatments like those of J. Todd Billings, Marcus Johnson, Robert Letham, or Michael Horton (all of whom have released titles on the subject in the last 7 years). You can’t, therefore, talk about the problem with Protestant approaches to salvation without dealing with it. It’d be like talking about omelettes without mentioning eggs. Beyond that, it was explicitly at the heart of so many of the TGC/TT debates, so that if you’re going to comment on them, it seems like a big absence.

Now, for those of you still confused as to what the doctrine of union with Christ actually is, and what it looks like in a Reformed theology of salvation, I’ll quote Robert Letham at length as he discusses Paul’s understanding of the issue:

Union and Justification

According to Paul in Romans 5:12-21, just as Adam plunged the whole race into sin and death because of their relationship of solidarity with him, so the second Adam brings life and righteousness to all who sustain a relationship of solidarity with him

If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of gracee and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. (Rom. 5:17 ESV)

Here Paul reflects on his previous statement of the one way of salvation from sin by the propitiatory death of Christ, which avails for all who believe (Rom. 3:21ff). Justification is received only by faith and is grounded in what Christ did once for all in his death and resurrection (4:25).  Paul’s point is that we are not addressed merely as discrete individuals; instead, we are a team of which we all were members. His sin plunged the whole team into sin, ruin, death, and condemnation. What Christ did for us was also done as the head of a team of which we are a part. He did it on our behalf, for us–and God reckons it to our account as a result of our being united, through faith, with him as the head of the team. Our justification is therefore grounded on union with Christ.

Union and Sanctification

In Romans 6:1ff, in answer to charges that his gospel encourages moral indifference, Paul insists that believers, the justified, live to Christ and do not give themselves over to sin.  This is because they died with Christ to sin and rose again to new life in his resurrection. Not only did Christ die and rise again for them, but they died and rose with him. Union with Christ is the foundational basis for sanctification and the dynamic force that empowers it. As Paul says, “Do you not know that as many were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death; we were buried with him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father so we too should live in newness of life” (6:3-4).

Union and Resurrection

Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15 that the resurrection of Christ and the future resurrection of his church is one reality (vv. 12-19). Paul argues back and forth from one to the other. If Christ is not raised, there can be no resurrection of believers. If there is no general resurrection, Christ cannot have been raised himself. The two stand together. In fact, Christ has been raised–and so, therefore, will we be. Christ is the firstfruits of the resurrection of believers at his return (vv. 19-23). Not only is his resurrection first in time, but as firstfruits, it is of the same kind as the full harvest. Hence, it is the guarantee not only that the full harvest will be gathered but that both his resurrection and ours are identical. From this it is clear that the resurrection of believers at the parousia is a resurrection in Christ. The resurrections are effectively the same…Christ resurrection and the resurrection of the righteous, separated by indefinite time, are identical because the later occurs in union with the former.

Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology, pg. 5-7

Union with Christ, then, does a lot of work in the Reformed (and Pauline) view of salvation, and it’s the answer to a number of Martini’s critiques. For one thing, Martini talks about the place that double-imputation plays in the Protestant system (Christ is reckoned as sinner in our place and we are reckoned as righteous because of him), but, because he doesn’t note that union with Christ is the structure underlying traditional formulations of double-imputation, he resorts to the old charge of calling it a ‘legal fiction.’ What he misses is that in Reformed thought Christ takes responsibility for our sin on the cross as our covenant head and representative, and can really do so, because through faith we are united to him in that kind of relationship. What’s more, we can be included in his righteous status because, through union, we really are part of his body, his people. As N.T. Wright says, in biblical thought, what is true of a king is true of his people–therefore, what is true of Messiah (Christ) is true of the people united to him.

There’s more to say there, but I’ll leave it at that.

Also, you can see now how this plays into the sanctification debates. Union with Christ means that I’m organically connected to Christ and have been given the vivifying, sanctifying Spirit. I have been set apart definitively, and now, through the power of the Holy Spirit, I am empowered to chase holiness in obedience to God’s commands so that I might be continually conformed to the Image of the Son. Actually, this is the sort of dynamic that has caused theologians like Billings, Letham, etc. to note possible overlap with Eastern Orthodox conceptions of deification (as long as the proper Creator/creature distinction is maintained.)

So, ya, union with Christ is massively necessary to the discussion.

Repentance

The second point is much shorter. Martini calls for a refocus on the shape of sanctification in this life, which is repentance. Now, aside from the little discussion we could have about the words ‘synergism’ and ‘cooperation’, which have their place in Reformed systems when properly understood, I don’t see a lot there that classic Protestants would disagree with. I mean, he quotes St. Isaac of Syria as saying, “This life was given to you for repentance; do not waste it on vain pursuits.”

Funny enough, St. Martin of Beeria (Martin Luther) opened up his famous 95 Theses with this line: “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent”, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Though Reformed types look mostly to Calvin, Knox, Bucer, & Co. I don’t think any of them would object that statement. In fact, Calvin himself says,

“This renewal, indeed, is not accomplished in a moment, a day, or a year, but by uninterrupted, sometimes even by slow progress God abolishes the remains of carnal corruption in his elect, cleanses them from pollution, and consecrates them as his temples, restoring all their inclinations to real purity, so that during their whole lives they may practice repentance, and know that death is the only termination to this warfare.” (Institutes, III.3.ix)

Passages like that could be multiplied ad nauseum in Calvin. I mean, he was the theologian of the Holy Spirit. That some of his heirs may have forgotten this emphasis, doesn’t change the fact that this sort of thing is deeply-rooted at the heart of Reformed spirituality.

In conclusion, I know I haven’t addressed the ‘legalistic’ charge. I may some time in the future because I think it largely without merit (Eh? See what I did there?). Still, I guess what I’d like to say is, Gabe, while we probably have some major disputes about merit, grace, atonement, and so forth (and that’s okay, I forgive you), when it comes to repentance and sanctification, we’re actually not as far off as you seem to think we are.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. For a few more resources on union with Christ, I’d suggest Todd Billings’ book ‘Union With Christ‘, Robert Letham‘s by the same name, and Marcus Johnson’s new work One with Christ.

Also, I attribute my inspiration for this to Joel Borofsky.

Letham on Union with Christ and Salvation

unionRobert Letham briefly summarizes the connection between union with Christ and our justification, sanctification, and resurrection:

Union and Justification

According to Paul in Romans 5:12-21, just as Adam plunged the whole race into sin and death because of their relationship of solidarity with him, so the second Adam brings life and righteousness to all who sustain a relationship of solidarity with him

If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of gracee and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. (Rom. 5:17 ESV)

Here Paul reflects on his previous statement of the one way of salvation from sin by the propitiatory death of Christ, which avails for all who believe (Rom. 3:21ff). Justification is received only by faith and is grounded in what Christ did once for all in his death and resurrection (4:25).  Paul’s point is that we are not addressed merely as discrete individuals; instead, we are a team of which we all were members. His sin plunged the whole team into sin, ruin, death, and condemnation. What Christ did for us was also done as the head of a team of which we are a part. He did it on our behalf, for us–and God reckons it to our account as a result of our being united, through faith, with him as the head of the team. Our justification is therefore grounded on union with Christ.

Union and Sanctification

In Romans 6:1ff, in answer to charges that his gospel encourages moral indifference, Paul insists that believers, the justified, live to Christ and do not give themselves over to sin.  This is because they died with Christ to sin and rose again to new life in his resurrection. Not only did Christ die and rise again for them, but they died and rose with him. Union with Christ is the foundational basis for sanctification and the dynamic force that empowers it. As Paul says, “Do you not know that as many were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death; we were buried with him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father so we too should live in newness of life” (6:3-4).

Union and Resurrection

Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15 that the resurrection of Christ and the future resurrection of his church is one reality (vv. 12-19). Paul argues back and forth from one to the other. If Christ is not raised, there can be no resurrection of believers. If there is no general resurrection, Christ cannot have been raised himself. The two stand together. In fact, Christ has been raised–and so, therefore, will we be. Christ is the firstfruits of the resurrection of believers at his return (vv. 19-23). Not only is his resurrection first in time, but as firstfruits, it is of the same kind as the full harvest. Hence, it is the guarantee not only that the full harvest will be gathered but that both his resurrection and ours are identical. From this it is clear that the resurrection of believers at the parousia is a resurrection in Christ. The resurrections are effectively the same…Christ resurrection and the resurrection of the righteous, separated by indefinite time, are identical because the later occurs in union with the former.

Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology, pg. 5-7

Each of those points could be expanded upon at length, but this brief summary gives us a glimpse into the way the biblical record places our union with Christ at the blazing center of our salvation through Christ. There is no Gospel without union.

Soli Delo Gloria

You’re a Holy Mess (Or, Surprised by Sanctification)

I was teaching through 1 Corinthians last year around this time when I was first struck by something very odd in that letter. It’s something that can sneak past you unless you go through the thing a few times. Right at the outset of Paul’s letters he usually broadcasts what he’s going to be writing about in a kind of intro-prayer or in the greeting.

Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes,
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
(1 Cor 1:1-3)

Did you catch those words in verse 2 that I helpfully bolded for you to notice? Good. In the space of a few words, Paul calls the believers at Corinth “sanctified” and “saints”; he calls them holy.

Surprised by Sanctification

For those of us who have read the letter through, this is surprising to say the least.  This is easily the most jacked-up church we know of in the New Testament. Scholars think that Paul probably wrote more letters to the church than 1 and 2 Corinthians because of the issues with it. To give you a picture, the problems include: factions being formed dividing the church due to people buying into cultural notions of wisdom and power (chapters 1-4), Christians suing each other (5), one dude sleeping with his step-mom and everybody just acting like nothing was going on as well as people visiting prostitutes (5-6), screwy views about sex and marriage (7),  people eating food offered up to idols and demons at pagan temples (8-10), groups treating the poor like crud at church (11), getting drunk at communion (11), freaky pride connected to spiritual gifts (12-14), and, to top it off, false teaching about the resurrection (15).

Now, how in the world is Paul go and call this church “holy”? If you look up the word “saints” in a thesaurus, the antonym would probably be “Corinthians”. There is nothing that you could term righteous, moral, or upright about their character. In fact, in some ways Paul says they’re worse than the surrounding pagan culture. And yet, time and again Paul does call them just that. What’s more, in chapter six after listing off a number of practices they were supposed to avoid, he says “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor 6:11 )

Did you see that? “You were sanctified” is talking about a past tense action that makes the believer holy starting at a particular point resulting in a continuous state of holiness in much the same way that in the text he speaks of justification as occurring at a specific point in time resulting in you now being “justified.”

For those of us raised in general evangelicalism this is not typically the way we think or speak. Generally we think of justification as the once and for all legal declaration by God that we are vindicated, pardoned, no longer held as guilty against the covenant because of Jesus’ death and resurrection and now part of the people of the Messiah. It’s what happens at the beginning of our experience that we look back at. Sanctification is then the process that begins afterwards and is the increasing growth in holiness that makes us look more and more like Jesus. It’s the life-long process of becoming righteous in our character.

This is not a bad way of looking at things. Still, it’s also not the most accurate way of thinking about sanctification biblically. Historically Reformed theologians have talked about the difference between “progressive sanctification” and “definitive sanctification.” The first process is the one we’ve been describing that a lot of us understand. Definitive sanctification is that “once and for all act of claiming us as saints.” (Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, pg. 650)

Rethinking Holiness

See, the original idea of holiness or sanctification in the Old Testament was to “separate” something away from their ordinary or common use to a special use for God. The Temple, the sabbath, the tithe, the utensils and furniture for the temple were all normal things, taken and set aside, consecrated for use by God. God even does this with a people, Israel, (Exod. 19) He takes one people and sets them apart to be a light to the nations and show the world what life with God is like. They were to be “holy, for I the LORD am holy.” (Lev. 20:26) Paul and the rest of the New Testament picks up on this by seeing God’s act of saving us in Christ as a setting apart, a making holy totally independent of our own righteous acts. Jesus tells us that we are clean because of the word that he has spoken to us. (John 15:3) Indeed, Jesus says that he will be the one who sanctifies us by sanctifying himself, setting us apart through setting himself apart in his death. (John 17:19) The author of Hebrews follows Jesus by telling us that “by God’s will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (10:29)

In Christ, by the Spirit, God definitively sanctifies us, sets us apart to be his own in a once and for all way. When we place our faith in Christ, we’re united with him so that what is true of him, becomes true of us. We are holy because Christ is holy. “All that is found in Christ is holy, because it is in Christ.” (Horton, pg. 651) This is why before we’ve done anything good, righteous, holy, cleaned up our act, made good on our promises or done anything but trust Jesus’ work for us, we are declared saints. Before we clean up, God declares us clean in Christ. This is the holiness, the saintliness that Paul is often speaking of in his letters.

Motivating his instructions to the Corinthian congregation is the reality that, in Christ, they are clean. In essence, “You’re holy! Now act like it. Become what you already are in Christ.” Over and over again in the New Testament we are told that we have been made righteous in Christ or holy in Christ and so now we should live like that’s true.

But I’m Still A Mess

“So, I’m already holy, so now I should live like it? Is that what you’re saying? Okay, here’s my problem: I don’t feel holy. In fact, most of the time I feel angry, lustful, annoyed, proud, downcast and anything but holy. Where does that leave me? It’s fine that God legally sets me apart as holy, declares me righteous, etc., but I still feel like me. What does God saying something out there have anything to do with me in here?” Everything, for at least two reasons.

First, as Michael Horton points out, for an orphan to enjoy the love and care of a new family, they must first by legally adopted. Or, for two nations who have been at war with each other to begin peaceful relations, they must first declare a legal peace. (Pg. 652-653) The definitive declaration of God “out there” is the legal basis of that secures our relationship to the sanctifier. God’s declaration is your hope of sanctification.

Second, God’s declaration isn’t really something that happens “out there.” When God sets us apart, he sets us apart in Christ, in the power of the Spirit. This act actually connects us to Christ like branches being inserted into a vine from which it then begins to draw strength. (John 15) We are connected to Christ like members of a body to the head. (1 Cor 6; 12; Eph. 4) We are given the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, who is a new power at work in us to progressively conform us to reflect the image of Christ. We receive strength and righteousness from the source of all goodness, Christ. God’s definitive sanctification of us is the source of God’s progressive sanctification in us.

You don’t feel holy, but honestly, your feelings are not the ultimate reality you need to be focusing on. Instead, you should be focusing on who you are in Christ. You’re a mess, but in Christ you’re a holy mess who’s getting cleaned up because you’re in the one who is clean. In fact, forget even focusing on who you are at all. Focus on Christ. “Abide in my and I will abide in you.” (John 15:4) When you do that, that’s when things start coming together.

Maybe this is why what Paul writes to his wayward saints the way he does. In the first 9 verses of 1 Corinthians he mentions “Jesus”, or “Jesus Christ”, or “our Lord Jesus Christ” 9 times. Apparently he believes that if his people are going to become holy, start living into the holiness that they’ve been brought into, they need to focus their eyes on Christ, the Holy One.

May we do the same.

Soli Deo Gloria