In Sanctification We Do Not Move From 57% Holy To 58% Holy

Excerpt from:
Robert Kolb and Charles P. Arand, The Genius of Luther's Theology: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 124-128.

We must not deem any talk of sanctification to mean a progressive emancipation from divine imputation.[1]  In that case the passive righteousness of faith would be merely the starting point and then gradually recede into the background.  To speak of growth in the way of Aristotle (ad modum Aristotelis) calls passive righteousness into question and undermines its reality.  We dare not consider sanctification one-dimensionally in terms of an ascent from unrighteousness to righteousness.  Luther refuses to view the Christian life in terms of partialities, quantities, or percentages.  In such a schema we can keep something of a balance sheet or ledger.  Thus one can keep score by balancing the number of good works over against the number of sins committed.  A person then thinks in terms or partialities, being partially sinful and partially sanctified.  As I grow in works and decrease in sins, I can slowly stand on my own two feet, seemingly, with less need for forgiveness (I have fewer sins that need to be forgiven).  For Luther, sanctification cannot be seen in the sense that our passive righteousness is "more and more replaced and limited by an active righteousness; the alien righteousness is not more and more replaced by man's own."[2] The Christian remains a sinner his whole life long and cannot possibly live and have worth before God except through this alien righteousness. And so the Christian does not need Aristotle's model of increasing holiness, the use of which implies that we need increasingly less of Christ's righteousness because we can stand more and more on our own two feet.

Luther speaks of sanctification in a different way. ... The Christian possess the complete righteousness of Christ - possessing it as one's own - and reenters creation in order to serve.  This view of growth affirms that we never leave behind the need for the total righteousness of Christ because the righteousness of Christ is the very power of sanctification.  The gospel of Christ's righteousness strengthens faith and its fruits.  The passive righteousness of faith is complete.  Faith itself may be weak or strong, but in both cases faith makes the Christian completely righteous.  Within the world, faith may grow and produce more and more fruit.  But faith (like a cell with DNA) is whole and entire... 

...Using Luther's analogy of a tree, one could say that whether it is small or large, it is an entire tree.  So also with faith.  Whether it is weak or strong, faith possess the complete righteousness of Christ and so the person is completely righteous in God's sight.  As faith grows, one could say that the Christian grasps more firmly the righteousness of Christ.  As faith grows, just like a tree, it does not become more righteous, but it does produce more fruit.  And so in the sense justification becomes the power of sanctification.  But in every case, it is a whole tree.  Sin tries to restrict it and constrain it.  But sanctification is not a process whereby we move from 57 percent holy to 58 percent holy.  The Christian is 100 percent holy and now tries to manifest that righteousness, to make it known in daily life, in spite of the resistance of sin.  Faith grows as it breaks free from its bonds of encumbering sin.  For Luther; one can speak of more works or fruit, but this does not imply growth in sanctification.  The growth is simply the new creature evermore breaking out of (or rising up from) the shackles of sin in this world.  The new creature expresses itself in new and more works.  But these works are not making the Christian into a new creature.  The Christian is already a completely new creature in Christ.  And yet, the Christian is hindered and resisted by the old Adam, which constricts works.  As the Old Adam is drowned, the new creature comes forth.  Forgiveness removes the sin.  Daily forgiveness is a daily attacking and pounding away at the old Adam...


This battle between the old creature of sin and the new creature of faith is related to the already and not-yet dimension of Christian existence.  The battle between the old Adam and the new Adam resembles the Battle of the Bulge during World War II.  Just as the Allies might push forward a few miles and hold their position for a time, the Germans would then push back and reclaim the ground plus gain a little bit.  And so it went back and forth for six weeks.  In an analogous way, so it is for the Christian.  One may make progress in controlling one's temper, but then something happens and it gets away from the person.  Immediately the Spirit rushes in, producing repentance so that one says, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that," and resolves to work hard er in controlling the temper.  The Christian seeks absolution through the means of grace.  As long as the struggle is evident, a person can take assurance that the Spirit is still present and active.  The time to worry is when the struggle ceases, when a person no longer cares whether one is sinning or not.  In the meantime we "await the time when our flesh will be put to death, will be buried with all its uncleanness, and will come forth gloriously and arise to complete and perfect holiness in a new eternal life."[3]  Then we will arise to a complete and perfect holiness in a new, eternal life, completely freed from sin, death, and all evil.  Here and now we cannot see the righteousness with which the gospel has clothed us.  We believe it on account of faith.

1] Gerhard O. Forde, "Forensic Justification and the Christian Life: Triumph or Tragedy?" in A More Radical Gospel: Essays on Eschatology, Authority, Atonement, and Ecumenism, ed.Mark C. Mattes and Steven D. Paulson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 126.
2]  Paul Althaus, Theology of Luther, trans. Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), 229
3]  Large Catechism, Creed, 57, Book of Concord, 438; BSLK, 659.

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