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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.






11 May 2006

Sanctification: God’s Work or Man’s?


Q: What is the Lutheran view of Sanctification? I understand it to be wholly God’s work and that human merit is not necessary. A Catholic show claimed most Protestants believe sanctification is by human merit and necessary to retain salvation. I believe they are wrong in asserting this claim. However, I came to realize I did not have a clear or thorough understanding of the issue. Thank you for your time.

TrinityA: Let’s make sure we understand our terms before continuing. “Sanctify” and “sanctification” stem from the same Scriptural root words often translated as “holy” and “holiness.” Ultimately, this state of being only applies to God. Only He is completely without sin, incapable of sinning, and absolutely hating sin. Regarding Christians, it comes to us extra nos (from outside ourselves) as both a forensic declaration and as a Spirit-worked changing of our hearts. However, we need more than just a dictionary definition; we need to know what God considers holy as much as knowing what makes us holy and how we act in a holy manner.

The central tenet of Biblical Lutheran theology is justification by grace for Christ’s sake through faith in Him. We teach that Jesus’ death on the cross paid for all sins of all people for all time, whether they believe or not. We sometimes call this “objective justification.” We then speak of “subjective justification” — this is when the individual appropriates this forgiveness through Holy Spirit-created faith in Christ. Both the objective (Christ’s sacrifice) and the subjective (conversion, faith, new life) are completely God’s actions. One was done for us, the other is done to us.

Lutheran dogma on justification differs from both Roman Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism in certain areas. Most other churches inject some degree of human works, at least in the subjective realm. If nothing else, they consider belief itself to be a human choice or action rather than a divine creation.

To be free from sin is to be holy, therefore, to be justified (declared sinless by God) is to be sanctified. So in one manner of understanding, sanctification is an immediate result of justification. However, our sinful natures persist. Even as faith moves us to cling tightly to Christ, trusting in His merits, our Old Adam desires its own way, corrupts our relationship with God, and leads us back to active sins of thought, word, and deed.

Pharisee and PublicanThose seeking to increase their own righteousness make themselves into modern Pharisees, moving away from a right relationship with God even as they attempt to approach Him on their own merits. Believing holiness to be primarily a human endeavor, they prescribe various self-disciplines. They focus on self-denial, self-sacrifice, and self-mortification.

They urge the Christian to move himself into less sinning, more active love, more fervent faith, more joyous praise. They will challenge you to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12)” but forget that “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (v. 13)”

“Most Protestants” (to quote your source) — and most Catholics — see sanctification mainly as what the Christian does. Human morality becomes the standard of measurement: Act morally; become more sanctified. Lutherans, of course, don’t oppose morality. However, we profess Scripture’s testimony that the Holy Spirit makes us holy by justifying us: He creates, sustains, and grows faith through Gospel and Sacraments.

God declares us holy from without, cloaking us in Christ’s righteousness. He also cleanses us within, changing our hearts and minds to reflect the heart and mind of Christ Jesus. Purified through God’s grace, the believer’s God-given “clean heart” and “right spirit” (Psalm 51:10) live a life reflecting God’s holiness. When holiness is emphasized either in Protestant or Catholic theology, it usually becomes some form of holy actions leading to a holy state of being. Lutherans say that true sanctification involves one who is already holy acting that way.

We only “work out” our salvation because Jesus worked it out for us through His life, suffering, death, and resurrection. Justification puts to death our Old Adam and creates the Christ-like new creature who gladly and willingly does the things of Christ. Sanctification isn’t you working toward God, but “God who works in you.” As Paul told the Philippians, the Christian desires and does that which pleases God.

Moral CharmsYou cannot desire to do that which is not part of who you are. James asked, “Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? (3:12)” Only a holy person thinks holy thoughts or does holy deeds. Bearing “fruit in keeping with repentance (Luke 3:8)” is thinking, saying, and doing what you believe about the One who forgives you. It reveals the indwelling presence of His Holy Spirit.

Sanctification expresses itself as “faith working through love (Galatians 5:6)” This only comes as “the God of peace” equips us to do His will, “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight. (Hebrews 13:20-21)” Human merit is not “necessary” for salvation or sanctification. However, meritorious behavior is a “necessary” result of being justified and sanctified.

True good works — Christ working good in and through us — evidence a living faith. That’s why James said that “as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (2:26)” Similarly, Paul wrote that while it is “by grace you have been saved through faith, (Ephesians 2:8)” you are God’s “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (2:10)”

Mantegna: LamentationTouching on the final bit of your question, what is “necessary to retain salvation” isn’t doing more and better works. You “retain salvation” as God continually forgives and renews you through Word and Sacrament by the power of His Holy Spirit. You show that you are saved as Christ honors the Father and loves your neighbor through your words and deeds.

The divine irony is that it took the death of our Savior to gain us this new life we live now in time and there in eternity. As He died for our sins, He leads us to did to our sins, repenting and receiving absolution that we might arise to live the new life of loving service He gives us.

For related posts, please see the following:

  §  On Being Christ-Like
  §  Athanasian Creed: Trinity, Good Works, and Salvation

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

Send email to Ask the Pastor.

Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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