Shifting the Starting Point for Sanctification

The Spirit Calls, Gathers, Enlightens and Sanctifies God’s People

Shifting the Starting Point for Thinking About Our Relationship With God

In Luther’s words, “Through the church the Spirit gathers us, using it to teach and preach the Word.  By it he creates and increases sanctification, causing it daily to grow and come strong in the faith and in the fruits of the Spirit.”  Sanctification is a process.  Elsewhere he teaches that “Now we are only halfway pure and holy; the Holy Spirit must continue that work in us.”

Sanctification is also a condition.  Paul addressed his readers as the saints, the sanctified ones.  Through Christ’s redeeming work, they were already holy and set apart before God.  In the final judgment, we will appear as fully sanctified in Christ.

Lutherans understand well sanctification as a condition.  We have not done well in the process of being drawn closer to God and growing in the fruit of the Spirit.  The fundamental issue in the Reformation was the role of good works in our relationship with God.  The key discovery was that our works do not justify us before God.  Sanctification is not justification, to use the key categories of that debate.   But you can’t make progress with just negatives.

After I had preached a sermon on new life in Christ, the office received a complaint from a visitor that I had preached on sanctification, and “Lutherans don’t do that.”  I understood where this stalwart was coming from.  But what a strange view on ministry that we can’t emphasize how to live the Christian life.  The purpose is not to win God’s favor to get into heaven; Christ already took care of that.  Today a hunger for “getting into heaven” is no longer prevalent in our current society.  But there is great hunger for the fuller, more abundant life that Jesus came to offer in this life we are living now.

Restructuring the Issue for Our Times

Sanctification is a hard term to grasp.  It’s “churchy” and seems distant from everyday life.  Paul gives us a better handle.  In Ephesians 4: 13 he urges that the body of Christ may be built up until we “reach to the very heights of Christ’s full stature.”  To the Corinthians he explained that we “are being transformed into Christ’s likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3: 18).  To become more like Christ is the goal of sanctification.  It conveys movement from far away to very close.  Promoting such growth provides practical goals for ministry.

Gordon D. Fee offers a major restructuring of how to understand sanctification.  He is one of the pre-eminent conservative New Testament scholars of our day.  I was fascinated by his lengthy book God’s Empowering Presence, and his detailed study of the Holy Spirit in the letters of Paul.  He identifies 169 such references and explores each.  What gripped my attention was the final Part II Synthesis, which I had to re-read many times to absorb his reasoning.  His categories are compelling because they are drawn directly from Paul.

Shifting the Starting Point

The Lutheran Reformers focused on the conditions of justification and sanctification, and, for all practical purposes, they left the Spirit off to the side.  In Paul’s world, the Spirit is the starting point for theologizing about the Christian life.  According to Fee, “The Spirit is not the center for Paul—Christ is, ever and always—but the Spirit stands very close to the center, as the crucial ingredient of genuinely Christian life and experience.  For this reason, the Spirit arguably must play a much more vital role in our rethinking Paul’s theology than tends now to be the case.”

The primary reason Paul’s approach to the Christian life is different from that of the Reformers is that Paul addressed believers who had directly experienced the Spirit in their personal lives.  The Spirit was a living presence for them.  In subsequent generations and centuries, most Christians were born into the faith.  That’s why infant baptism became so prevalent in Catholicism and persisted in Lutheranism.  In those traditions, there is no previous experience of the Spirit to appeal to.  Such experience does not justify us before God. But it does demonstrate God’s power to change our lives and give us a new zeal for living in Christ.

A common view is that God does not come to us directly but he does that through the church.  This explains why the third volume of my Lutheran dogmatics text starts, not with a theology of the Holy Spirit, but with a description of sanctification by the Spirit, which is accomplished through the Christian church.  There is no reference to personal experiences of the Spirit.

Fee explains, “Westerners are instinctively nervous about spirit activity, be it the Spirit of God or other spirits; it tends not to compute rationally and is therefore suspect.  Hence our difficulties with regard to any genuine ‘restoration’ of the experiential life of the early church.”

We might want to say that Paul’s experience of the early church is irrelevant to churches in the Reformation tradition. But how dare we!!  He is God’s apostle for God’s church.  Our alternative to dismissal is to become more discerning in spotting that evidence of the Spirit’s work in our personal lives.  In T. S. Eliot’s phrase, “We had the experience but missed its meaning.”

The Spirit Produces Fruit

What took me many re-readings of Fee’s Synthesis is how he bases the new life on the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5: 22-25.  He cites the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  These are samples of what the Spirit produces in believers.  Then comes the simple appeal, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”  The sanctified life consists of walking with the Spirit.

It takes three shifts in thinking to appreciate Paul’s starting point.  One is that he addresses what the Spirit does rather than who he is.  Second, he is not describing the conventional virtuous life.  Third, these fruits are essentially feelings or experiences imparted to us by the Spirit.

Lorenz Wunderlich, a Lutheran professor I personally knew, broke new ground when he wrote a book on the Holy Spirit.  Lutherans don’t write on the Spirit; witness the missing chapter on the Holy Spirit in my dogmatics text.   The title, The Half-Known God, is an acknowledgment of the blind spot in our heritage.  Yet, significant to me was the discovery that in this 110-page book, there are only two paragraphs on the fruit of the Spirit.  Also significant is that the ministry gifts of 1 Corinthians receive only one paragraph.  Recognize that rediscovery of such gifts is truly revolutionary for Lutheran ministry today.

The subtitle of Wunderlich’s book is The Person of the Holy Spirit.  He addressed who the Spirit is.  In contrast, Luther wrote about what the Spirit does; he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies.  That question of what, rather than who is more productive for guiding ministry today.

More Than Virtues

Wunderlich described these fruit as “God-pleasing virtues of the Christian life.”  “They are the highest traits of Christian character.”  In classical Roman culture, virtues are what good people pursue.  These are human achievements.  Such language hardly fits with Paul’s  Spirit theology.

Love, joy, peace, and patience are fundamental emotions.  We experience them.  The Spirit produces them.  It’s OK to look for emotions in the Christian life.  If we want to have passionate Christians, we have to let the Spirit arouse such passions.

The Pauline Perspective Is Better Than the Reformer’s Categories

Here is Gordon Fee’s conclusion to his synthesis and application of Paul’s theology.

“In sum, I for one think the Pauline perspective has the better of it: and I also believe that perspective can become our own—dare I say, “must” become our own if we are going to make any difference at all in the so-called post-Christian, post-modern era.  But this means that our theologizing must stop paying mere lip service to the Spirit and recognize his crucial role in Pauline theology, and it means that the church must risk freeing the Spirit from being boxed into the creed and getting him back into the experienced life of the believer and the believing community.”

Scroll to Top