Re-examining The Idea Of "Christian Progress" In Sanctification

Lately, I have been wrestling with my long held view of seeing Sanctification as Progress.  The problem that I am having is that the older I get and the more I study the Word, the more sin I see in myself and around me.  I don't really feel as if I have 'progressed' or moved on to more holiness.  A former parishioner once told me that I was too hard on myself, but I am not too sure about that, because the way I typically try to justify myself is... well, pretty pathetic.

I have taken some comfort in the Apostle Paul though.  After 30 years of being a Christian he identifies himself in 1 Timothy 1:15 as the worst of sinners.  But what about this idea of progress then?  What gives?

The late Gerhard Forde has been most helpful to me in understanding progress in the life of a Christian, not as movement of me towards a goal.  Rather he states that the goal moves in on me and you!  He states in his book "Justification By Faith--A Matter Of Death and Life,"
"The 'progress' of the Christian is the progress of one who has constantly to get used to the fact that we are justified totally by faith, constantly has somehow to 'recover,' so to speak from that death blow to pride and presumption--or better, is constantly being raised from the tomb of all pious ambition to something quite new.  The believer has to be renewed daily in that The Old Being is to be daily drowned in repentance and raised in faith.  The progress of the Christian life is not our movement toward the goal; it is the movement of the goal in upon us."
Forde goes on to say,
"The sin to be removed is precisely such understandings of progress.  The justification is not a mere beginning point which can somehow be allowed to recede into the background while the supposed 'real' business of sanctification takes front and center."
Finally he states, 
 "Only those who are so grasped that they stand still here and confess to sin and give God the glory, only they are 'sanctified.'  And there cannot be more sanctification than that!  Whoever knows this knows that there is an end to the old, there is a death involved, and that being a Christians means ever and anew to be blasted by that divine lightning and to begin again.  As Luther said, 'To achieve means always to begin again anew.'"
This view of sanctification does not see progress as movement.  For Martin Luther and Forde, this idea of progress involves death of the old sinful nature and resurrected life.  This is exactly what the Apostle Paul is presenting in Colossians 3 when he calls us to "put to death" whatever is earthly and to be "clothed" with the new self.  Death and Life, not moral reforming of the old flesh.  

You see the problem with seeing sanctification as a movement of progress is that we end up trying to "reform" the sinful nature when all along the scriptures do not call our sinful nature to be "reformed" but rather to be "crucified."  This idea of sanctification is much more radical than mere movement.  It calls for an event of death to the old sinful nature.  "For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.  I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.   And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God..." (Galatians 2:19-20)

"So, Pastor Matt what you are saying is that there is no progress in this life for us as Christians?"  Actually, no.  There is progress, but not as movement and not in the way that attempts to reform and/or modify the sinful nature.  The progress that Paul, Luther, and Forde are pointing out is a dying of the old and being raised in the new.  Listen to our Confession of Faith (The Small Catechism):
What does such baptizing with water signify?
Answer: It signifies that the old Adam in us, together with all sins and evil lusts, should be drowned by daily sorrow and repentance and be put to death, and that the new man should come forth daily and rise up, cleansed and righteous, to live forever in God's presences.
Baptism... is simply the slaying of the old Adam and the resurrection of the new man, both of which must continue in us our whole life long.  For we must keep at it incessantly, always purging out whatever pertains to the old Adam, so that whatever belongs to the new may come forth." 
Christian progress... a daily dying of the Old Adam and daily resurrecting in Jesus.  Progress for us my friends is to begin again daily in Jesus' death and resurrection for us. 

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Pastor Matt,
Great article! So are you saying that the dying and rising is actually something God does for us. That 'dying to oneself' isn't necessarily a life of asceticism. I have to let you know I am a former Southern Baptist looking into joining a Lutheran Church LCMS. I will look more at your site. Thanks.

Right on brother.

The problem with telling someone to die to self is that we can tell this in a manner where we can actually give the impression that they have the spiritual DNA to accomplish this if only they try hard enough. Furthermore, the old sinful nature doesn't enjoy dying but does everything possible to avoid dying. One of the former professors of our seminary once said that the "old sinful nature will convert as long as it doesn't have to die." So, yes we need to die daily, but this is to occur when we are acted upon by Holy Spirit through the Word, for left to ourselves this is an impossible task to fulfill. We will spend a life time of spiritual energy trying to accomplish this and never suceed.

We can keep in mind that repentance and faith are gifts; a working of God's law and gospel upon us. Daily we are killed by the Law as the Holy Spirit reveals our sin. This is a gift, yet a painful gift. Daily we get to hear the Gospel that for the sake of Christ our sins are forgiven and we are counted as righteous. This is a gift, a wonderful gift.

The problem in the Southern Baptist church among those that have been influenced by Fundamentalism, Finneyism and Pietism is their anthropology can be inflated. In other words, a "high view" of man gives one a "low view" of Christ, the Holy Spirit and the Word. A "high view" of man puts mankind into the 'active voice' where man has to 'do' all these things. A "high view" of man puts man into a position where he/she needs to act upon "X" in order to achieve certain results. A "low view" of man puts man into the 'passive voice' where man has to be 'acted upon.' A "low view" of man puts man into a position where he/she needs to be 'acted upon' by God in order for "X" to happen.

May I suggest the following as fun place to study:

Simply check out each statement "A" and "B" and then compare it to scripture. It is really a lot of fun.

Take care my friend.

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