Gospel-Centered Sanctification

Excerpt from: 
Rod Rosenbladt, "Christ Died for the Sins of Christians Too," Modern Reformation Vol 12 (May/June 2003): 20-25.

Did the reformers, then, have any doctrine of sanctification? Of course they did. We are all familiar with the biblical announcements as to what is involved in sanctification: the Word, the Sacraments, prayer, fellowship, sharing the gospel, serving God and neighbor. And the Reformation tradition acknowledges that there are biblical texts that speak of sanctification as complete already. This is not a perfection that is empirical or observable (as Wesley and others would have insisted upon), but a definitive declaration that because we are “in Christ,” we are set apart and reckoned holy by his sacrifice (1 Cor. 1:30; Heb. 10, and so on). Anybody who is in Christ is sanctified, because Christ’s holiness is imputed to the Christian believer, just as Jesus says in John 17:19, “For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.” God sees the believer as holy. That means that Wesley should not have terrified Christian brethren with texts such as “Without holiness, no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14 [niv]). The Christian is holy, it is all imputed. What would the reformers have done with texts such as 1 Peter 1:16, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” ([nas], cf. Lev. 11:44f; 19:2; 20:7)? They would say we are called to be holy. But, some may ask, why should we be called to holiness if we are already perfect in Christ? That question has been asked before, and Paul’s answer in Romans 6 is because we are saved unto good works, not unto licentiousness. Good works are done out of thankfulness of heart by the believer who has been saved, not by one who is trying to be saved by following the law.

How did the law function in the reformers’ doctrine of sanctification? They believed that the law in the Bible has three uses. First, it is a civil ordinance to keep us from stealing each other’s wives, husbands, and speedboats. The civil use of the law applies to the whole culture. Second, the theological use of the law is to reveal our sin and drive us to despair and terror so that we will seek a savior. Luther believed that is a primary use of the law in all of Scripture. But the reformers also believed in a third use of the law, and that is a didactic use, to teach the Christian God’s will for holy living. 

What should the Christian do if he is reading the law and says, “This is not yet true of me: I don’t love God with all my heart, and I certainly don’t love my neighbor as I love myself. In fact, just today I failed to help a poor man on the side of the road who was having car trouble. I must not yet be a Christian.” The answer of the Higher Life movement to the struggling Christian is, “Surrender more!” or, “What are you holding back from the Lord?” The Reformation answer is different: “You hurry back to the second use of the law and flee to Christ where sanctification is truly, completely, and perfectly located.” After this experience, the believer will feel a greater sense of freedom to obey (thus fulfilling the third use of the law), and this is the only way that one will ever feel free to obey. The most important thing to remember is that the death of Christ was in fact a death even for Christian failure. Christ’s death saves even Christians from sin. There is always room at the cross for unbelievers, it seems. But we ought also to be telling people that there is room at the cross for Christians, too.

Too often in evangelical circles, the law only condemns. It comes back to undermine the confidence of the gospel. It can still make threats; it can still condemn. There is wonderful grace for the sinner, and the evangelical is at his best in evangelism. But the question as to whether there is enough grace for the sinful Christian is an open one in many gatherings. I have had people come up to me after I had spoken and tell me, “This is about the last shot I’ve got. My own Christian training is killing me. I can understand how, before I was a Christian, Christ’s death was for me, but I am not at all sure that his death is for me now because I have surrendered so little to him and hold so much back.” That perversion is the result of a faulty understanding of the gospel and of a faulty application of the law.

Instead, there must be a clear and unqualified pronouncement of the assurance of salvation on the basis of the fullness of the atonement of Christ. In other words, even a Christian can be saved. The other “gospel,” in its various forms (Higher Life, legalism, the “carnal Christian” teaching, and so on) is tearing us to pieces. I must warn you that the answer to this devastating problem is not available on every street corner. It is available only in the Reformation tradition. This is not because that particular tradition has access to information other traditions do not possess. Rather, it is because the same debate that climaxed in that sixteenth-century movement has erupted again and again since in less precise form. In fact, since Christ’s debates with the Pharisees and Paul’s arguments with the legalists, this has been the debate of Christian history. At no time since the apostolic era were these issues so thoroughly discussed and debated as they were in the sixteenth century. To ignore the biblical wisdom, scholarship, and brilliant insights of such giants as the reformers is simply to add to our ignorance the vice of pride and self-sufficiency. The Reformation position is the real evangelical position.

The only way out is an exposition of the Scriptures that has to do with law and gospel-an exposition of the Scriptures that places Christ at the center of the text for everybody, including the Christian. All of the Bible is about him. All of the Bible is even about him for the Christian!

I used to tell my students at an evangelical Christian college that they had never heard real preaching, with the exception of a few sound evangelistic appeals. Their weekly diet in the congregation was often a moral exhortation to be like Jesus, or Paul, or Daniel, or some other super saint in the Bible. They were constantly peppered with the question, “What are you doing for Jesus?” The preaching was not, as it should have been, a proclamation of God’s grace to them because of the finished and atoning death of Christ-God’s grace for them as Christians. That emphasis is desperately needed. But the only way we can recover this message is by ceasing to read the Scriptures as a recipe book for Christian living, and instead find within the Scriptures Christ who died for us and who is the answer to our unchristian living. We must have that kind of renewal (a renewal, which not surprisingly, was important to the reformers, as well), and it can only come if we realize that the gospel is for Christians, too.

A friend of mine was walking down a street in Minneapolis one day and was confronted by an evangelical brother who asked, “Brother, are you saved?” Hal rolled his eyes back and said, “Yes.” That didn’t satisfy this brother, so he said, “Well, when were you saved?” Hal said, “About two thousand years ago, about a twenty minutes’ walk from downtown Jerusalem.” This is the gospel message. It’s just as important for Christians to believe for their sanctification as it is for pagans to believe for their justification; for it is the same message, the same salvation, the same work of God. It’s just as important for the evangelical church today as it was for the reformers in the sixteenth century. Without this simple, but mind-boggling message, there is no hope, not for the sinner nor for the saint.

CLICK HERE to join in the conversation on Facebook.
CLICK HERE to follow on Twitter.