Reformation 500: Calvin on sanctification

Let each one of us, then, proceed according to the measure of his puny capacity and set out upon the journey we have begun. No one shall set out so inauspiciously as not daily to make some headway, though it may be slight. Therefore, let us not cease so to act that we may make some unceasing progress in the way of the Lord. And let us not despair at the slightness of our success; for even though attainment may not correspond to desire, when today outstrips yesterday, the effort is not lost. Only let us look toward our mark with sincere simplicity and aspire to our goal; not fondly flattering ourselves, nor excusing our own evil deeds, but with continuous effort striving toward this end: that we may surpass ourselves in goodness until we attain to goodness itself.

-John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.6.5

Temperament is a poor test of sanctification

…for by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved. –2 Peter 2:19

The mortification of sin consists not in the improvement of a quiet, sedate nature. Some men have an advantage by their natural constitution so far as that they are not exposed to such violence of unruly passions and tumultuous affections as many others are. Let now these men cultivate and improve their natural frame and temper by discipline, consideration, and prudence, and they may seem to themselves and others very mortified men, when, perhaps, their hearts are a standing sink of all abominations. Some man is never so much troubled all his life, perhaps, with anger and passion, nor doth trouble others, as another is almost every day; and yet the latter hath done more to the mortification of the sin than the former. Let not such persons try their mortification by such things as their natural temper gives no life or vigor to. Let them bring themselves to self-denial, unbelief, envy, or some such spiritual sin, and they will have a better view of themselves.

–John Owen, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers

‘God gave them up’ is not a passive statement

Our plight is more hopeless than we dare to imagine. Judgment isn’t on the distant horizon; our judgment has already begun.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity… Rom 1:24 {ESV}

Before his grand unveiling of the gospel, Paul must set the stage for the presentation. The setting is bleak to say the least.

Mankind is characterized by truth suppression on a massive scale. He denies the undeniable–that he owes his existence to a Creator–and by self-delusion he worships creaturely things as if they are worthy of honor (Rom 1:18-24).

But suppression and delusion isn’t just done in sin, it’s done for sin. After all, if I make the god I also make the rules.

As a result, God “gave them up/hands them over” to the very impurity and passions they seek. But what does it mean for God to hand over?

For some time now I assumed a passive interpretation. That “hand over” implies “let go.” But as Doug Moo explains in his commentary on Romans, a passive interpretation isn’t the best interpretation for the following reasons:

  1. Paul’s use of “hand over” has its roots in the OT where God is said to “hand over” Israel’s enemies (or vice versa) to be defeated in battle (Exod 23:31; Deut 7:23).
  2. the Greek verb for “hand over” is used in an active sense in the NT in a variety of ways: handing over things to people (1Cor 13:3), handing over people into judicial custody (Mat 26:15), handing over Christian tradition (1Cor 15:3)

That said, when Paul says that God “handed them over” his language signifies an act of divine judgment not a mere withdrawal of divine influence (i.e. no longer preventing or restraining man’s sin). Illustratively, Moo concludes :

. . . the meaning of “hand over” demands that we give God a more active role as the initiator of the process. God does not simply let the boat go — he gives it a push downstream. Like a judge who hands over a prisoner to the punishment his crime has earned, God hands over the sinner to the terrible cycle of ever-increasing sin. [emphasis added]

All of this is in keeping with what we find on the lips of Jesus & John the Baptist:

“He who believes in [the Son] is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.” (Jn 3:18-19)

“He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”(Jn 3:36)

Our plight is more hopeless than we dare to imagine. Judgment isn’t on the distant horizon; our judgment has already begun. There’s no avoiding judgment because we’re already in it. But what if the same God who handed us over would hand over someone else in our place?

That would be good news.

Romans 8:32-33   He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?  Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.

 

When obedience is the opposite of obedience

I’m reading Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship with one of our church’s spiritual mothers (1Tim 5:2). We’re three chapters in and I’m sure this won’t be the last excerpt I post.

Here’s Bonhoeffer reflecting on Jesus’ command to the rich man to “go and sell your possessions”:

Obedience to the call of Jesus never lies within our own power. If, for instance, we give away all our possessions, that act is not in itself the obedience he demands. In fact such a step might be the precise opposite of obedience to Jesus, for we might then be choosing a way of life for ourselves, some Christian ideal, or some ideal of Franciscan poverty. Indeed in the very act of giving away his goods a man can give allegiance to himself and to an ideal and not to the command of Jesus. He is not set free from his own self but still more enslaved to himself. . .

The shocked question of the disciples “Who then can be saved?” seems to indicate that they regarded the case of the rich young man not as in any way exceptional, but as typical. For they do not ask: “Which rich man?” but quite generally, “Who then can be saved?” For every man, even the disciples themselves, belongs to those rich ones for whom it is so difficult to enter the kingdom of heaven. The answer Jesus gives showed the disciples that they had understood him well. Salvation through following Jesus is not something we men can achieve for ourselves–but with God all things are possible.

Throwing out the (dirty) baby with the bath water [pt 4]

{What follows are key statements from Galli’s review (in bold italics) followed by my thoughts in response}

I think two teachings of Jesus need to play a much larger role in any discussion of holiness…The first is the parable of the Pharisee and the sinner (Luke 18). In that parable we see that the person who has pursued holiness, and has done so with reasonable success, is condemned. The person who is unholy as unholy can be is praised. Luke 18:9-14 is the first of two passages that Galli cites to support his claim that pursuing holiness will inevitably lead to self-righteousness. This is just poor biblical interpretation. The parable isn’t a statement on pursuing holiness (i.e. sanctification) as anyone can see if they read to the end of the parable where Jesus declares that the self-acknowledged sinner “went down to his house justified” (Lk 18:14). Consequently, the central issue in the parable isn’t about how one walks before God (in sanctification) but how one stands before God (by justification). The Pharisee thinks that his right standing with God is due to his work (Lk 18:11-12) but Jesus makes clear that right standing with God is due to undeserved grace (Lk 18:13-14). How one walks after being made right isn’t discussed at all. The claim that the Luke 18 parable proves that pursuing holiness inevitably leads to self-righteousness can only be maintained by ignoring Jesus’ own interpretive conclusion or by conflating justification with sanctification. Either way Galli’s interpretive approach just doesn’t work.

The second teaching is Jesus’ admonition that our left hand should not know what our right hand is doing (Matt 6:3). On this verse at least, Galli does a better job at paying attention to the context by noting that the teaching concerns “almsgiving” before extending the application to “all our good deeds.” Unfortunately, although he sees one contextual road sign he still ends up driving off the road. Two observations should suffice. First, the teaching in Matt 6:2-4 isn’t about self-examination (as Galli suggests) but self-promotion: practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them (Matt 6:1). Second, Jesus’ warning/exhortation invites self-examination (contra Galli) in order to determine why we do our good deeds (man’s praise or God’s praise?) and whether or not our actions (public or private?) line up with our motives. There is simply no way for us to live the Christian life as the metaphorically oblivious left hand (unless you subscribe to Thing theology).

Better than examining ourselves and trying to be holy is to stop looking at yourself in the first place, and to start looking for the neighbor, moving toward him with the rhythm of grace. Isn’t moving toward your neighbor in grace a step of holiness, too? Galli seems to assume that the Christian who looks to himself will not (cannot?) also look to his neighbor but, while that may be true in certain cases, it’s by no means a biblical truism. Grace and holiness aren’t mutually exclusive and the pursuit of one doesn’t mean the abandonment of the other. Jesus ties the two together in passages like Mat 5:43-48 when He commands us to love our enemies (i.e. move in grace) and to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (i.e. pursue holiness). In fact, if we discern the relationship between grace & holiness in Matthew 5 we would have to admit that we move in grace precisely because we want to be holy!

To a certain extent I understand why Galli would balk at the notion of pursuing personal holiness. Christians will always run the risk of misinterpreting and/or misapplying Scripture’s holiness commands. However, the risk of failure doesn’t negate the command and the requisite response. The best way to carry the aroma of grace is to self-consciously shed the rotting remains of our old man.

Evil turned back on itself

Evil is conquered as evil because God turns it back upon itself. He makes the supreme crime, the murder of the only righteous person, the very operation that abolishes sin.

–Henri Blocher, Evil and the Cross: An Analytical Look at the Problem of Pain

When the ‘excellence’ of a holy man is not peaceful

I do not say for a moment that holiness shuts out the presence of indwelling sin. No: far from it. It is the greatest misery of a holy man that he carries about with him a “body of death;”–that often when he would do good “evil is present with him”; that the old man is clogging all his movements, and, as it were, trying to draw him back at every step he takes. (Rom. vii. 21.). But it is the excellence of a holy man that he is not at peace with indwelling sin, as others are. He hates it, mourns over it, and longs to be free from its company. The work of sanctification within him is like the wall of Jerusalem–the building goes forward “even in troublous times.” (Dan. ix. 25.)

–J.C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and  Roots