Since the world and its dog is writing about this just now…
Recently, I have been heartened to read several blog posts each on sanctification, by Pr. Mark Surburg and Pr. Jordan Cooper, respectively. You can read them here and here. That means, amongst other things, that Pr. Paul McCain is no longer alone beating this worthy drum.
All those worthy folks make the case entirely to my satisfaction, sources and all. That walking repository of quotations, Pr. William Weedon, adds some pretty useful quotations to the mix in some of the comments. You can read them here, along with some sturdy criticisms as well.
This is a topic that has troubled me for some time. Even before I began to train as a pastor, I had come across the view that seems to be pretty widespread in certain English-speaking confessional Lutheran circles: that the Law only kills, and only the Gospel has a positive application. Of course, no one ever says that—but an awful lot of preachers preach as if that were true. Which amounts to the same thing. Indeed, Prs. Surburg and Cooper both nail the issue on the head by discussing the role of preaching in sanctification. Because that is the question.
There are so many different factors at work here that I lack the space, the energy and, frankly, the competence to deal with it all here. Just a couple of observations must suffice:
(1) Sanctification as a process—by whatever name you call it—is a biblical teaching. You can’t get past that. “Be ye holy even as I am holy” means that something needs to happen. It also means that it has a behavioural aspect. If the will of God is my sanctification, and that means that I must renounce sexual immorality, then my behaviour must be marked by holiness.
That doesn’t mean that holiness is defined by behaviour. Of course not. But if my behaviour is unholy, then my life makes a lie out of that which God has declared me to be. Why else would I pray that God forgive me and by His Holy Spirit increase in me true knowledge of God and of God’s will and true obedience to His word?
(2) Sanctification as a process—by whatever name you call it—is embedded in the Lutheran confessions. Just read the first 8 articles of the Augsburg Confession, and the fourth section on Baptism in the Large and Small Catechisms. FC IV:40 is pretty clear, too.
(3) To teach good works is the duty of every preacher. And it’s not a coincidental or secondary duty, but part of the whole counsel of God. It’s a salutary exercise to read through Paul’s letter to Titus and to make a note of all the things that Paul instructs Titus to do. And, if you are a preacher, place yourself in Titus’ shoes and do what Paul instructs you to do.
(4) Not to teach God’s will concerning holiness of life and good works clearly and explicitly to the Christian congregation but somehow to expect the Holy Spirit to do His work is simply functional enthusiasm. If you are a Lutheran who says that the Holy Spirit works through means, and is never separated from those means, then that applies to faith and love alike. The Christian learns God’s will by hearing what God’s will is, through the preaching of God’s word. For the Christian, the Law doesn’t only accuse, because the Christian delights in the Law, which is good and holy, and because the Christian is free to obey the Law, in love and therefore without fear.
In short: if you don’t expect people to believe the Gospel without hearing the Gospel, you shouldn’t expect people to be conformed to God’s will without hearing God’s will. The Gospel alone empowers fallen people to do God’s will. But what that will is must be taught and proclaimed.
(5) It’s never a good idea to define yourself reactively. It’s OK not to use red wine if that becomes a sine qua non amongst the Reformed. It’s OK not to wear a Geneva gown if that’s required by the local Presbyterian board of elders as the true mark of a Christian minister.
It’s not OK to deny the works of the Holy Spirit because the charismatic movement happened and went crazy. And it’s not OK to deny sanctification as a real-life fact just because Wesley preached and people believe what he said, or because the Pope is Roman Catholic and espouses Roman Catholic teaching.
It’s not OK not to teach good works because there are lots of evangelical, liberal and every other kind of legalists out there burdening Christian consciences.
The truth is true, and if someone twists the truth into something else, the Christian response is to trumpet the truth with ever-greater purity, rather than pretend that it isn’t true.
(6) The Law is not merely the foil for the Gospel. It’s part of the whole counsel of God. We are not saved from the Law: we are saved from the accusation of the Law. We are not freed from God’s will: we are freed to do God’s will.
(7) The Law-Gospel distinction is not a tool for select which bits of God’s word we proclaim. It’s not an exegetical hermeneutic, but a pastoral one.
Finally, don’t take it from me. Just this last Sunday, Luther proclaimed in the House Postil that the two great subjects of Christian preaching are faith and love. The apostles knew that, the fathers of the church knew that, the Reformers knew that, as did the great preachers of the 17th century, and all great preachers. How do I know they knew that? Because that’s how they preached. And that’s how I ought to preach, too.