Christian Doctrine (17)

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“… let us not cease so to act that we may make some unceasing progress in the way of the Lord.”
Institutes III.6.v

Here are my summary notes on Chapter 17 of Christian Doctrine, “Are You a Christian? The Doctrine of Sanctification.”

Guthrie starts by quoting Albert Camus, calling on Christians to back up their convictions with action, finishing up with “… if Christians made up their mind to it, millions of voices – millions, I say – throughout the world would be added to the appeal of a handful of isolated individuals who, without any sort of affiliation, today intercede almost everywhere and ceaselessly for children and for men.”1 The idea is that Christian faith ought to be visible in a Christian life as commitment and action consistent with … well, love, and compassion, and justice, it seems Camus implies.

Guthrie agrees, and that brings him to the doctrine of sanctification. If justification – from a Reformed perspective, by grace alone – is about acceptance and forgiveness and God’s unconditional love, sanctification – also, from a Reformed perspective, by grace alone – is about what all that justification is for. Namely, it is the growing fruit of a redeemed life, the Christian’s response of service to God and neighbor in complete confidence that God will make/is making possible a different kind of life.

So while it’s common for Reformed theologians and regular Protestants to stress that there is a distinction between “faith” and “works,” and to stress that people don’t “earn their salvation” (justification) by going out and doing as many “good things” as they can manage to do, “Justification-faith and sanctification-action … can never be separated. They are two different aspects of the one gracious work of the same God” (332).

In saying “there can be no Christian faith without Christian action” (332), Guthrie is saying – although not as harshly as I’m about to – that Christian faith without Christian action is more like “Christian faith.” It’s some kind of set of ideas and practices that goes by the name “Christian,” but it’s not the faith-and-corresponding-way-of-life offered and called for in Scripture and demonstrated by Jesus and lived by the early church etc. “Christian faith” may be a kind of reliance on what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” the idea that an indulgent God who doesn’t care about who we are or how we live says “that’s OK, whatever” to us, instead of keeping on calling and pushing and prodding us to get moving and live like Christians, and keeping on working on our minds and hearts to have a deeper and clearer idea of what that looks like in practice in our specific time and place. It might be a bland equation of Christianity with middle-class respectability, to which Sunday morning church adds a welcome and undemanding dose of good feelings and “inspiration” and “uplift” followed by tasty treats at fellowship time – where we’re surrounded by people just like us, who wear nice clothes and use good manners and don’t have any needs. But this is a theological mistake. “God does not forgive, accept, and love us on condition that we become righteous, but God does forgive, accept, and love us in order that we may become righteous” (334).

Importantly, “God’s action makes possible our action” (334) – it’s not like justification is “God’s part” and then sanctification is “our part.” Both are God’s part; both are manifestations of God’s grace. “We cannot make the world a better place to live in, but God can – working in and through us” (335).

Guthrie uses the metaphor “Being a Christian is growing up” (336). People don’t grow from infancy to maturity in an instant. Similarly, people don’t suddenly switch over from being sinners to being fully formed saints in an instant. It’s a process. The key question is whether we are growing, or whether we are stuck; but growth doesn’t bring an end to our need for God’s love, forgiveness, and acceptance. “A Christian is one who every day, all through his or her life, lives both from God’s sanctifying and justifying grace” (337).

One way to think of a “sanctified” life is as a “holy” life – which immediately brings to mind images of “holier than thou,” self-righteous and judgmental people living as much away from other people as possible. Another mistake, according to Guthrie. Christian holiness is properly “in but not of the world,” “separate” and “different” – the root meaning of “holy,” but at the same time engaged with and related to the world around it; Christians are in a way “resident aliens” in the world (338).

Note that “The Holiness of God” (339) is intimately related to and involved with the physical world of God’s creation, and the historical world of human society. God meets and relates to God’s people in and through the world. Jesus is holy “not despite but because of his entry into and life and ministry in the world, up to and including his death. This is the model for Christian holiness.

This takes the form of “Holiness that is against the World” (339) – because the reign of God “invades, confronts, opposes and contradicts” the power structures of the world. However, Christian opposition to the norms of the world takes place visibly in the world – because otherwise it couldn’t be noticed or make a difference to the world. At the same time, it is also “Holiness that is for the World” (340). That is, this form of holiness is not self-serving, seeking its own power and glory, or even purity, but seeking what is best for the world and its people; its goal is the ultimate well-being of the world, and it is willing to go to great lengths of self-sacrifice for that goal.

Guthrie discusses specific holiness commands issued by Jesus – with the caveat that these commands are issued to specific individuals at specific places in specific times, so that interpreting their specific import for people at different places in different times calls for some care. On the other hand, it would be too easy just to assume that we can “spiritualize” away Jesus’ radical commands in these areas. Specifically, Guthrie mentions: Jesus’ clear command to his followers to give up attachment to possessions and wealth (342) – since “individuals (and churches!) cannot place their faith and hope in God and in financial security at the same time” (342); Jesus’ rejection of the use of force, even in self-defense (343) – “They are pacifists because they do not hate, maim, and slaughter but love their enemies; because the kingdom of God’s justice and compassion comes not through violence but through self-giving sacrificial love; Jesus’ making family responsibilities relative, not absolute – not because families aren’t good, but because we so often make family a kind of escape, from responsibilities to others and even to ourselves; and Jesus’ rejection of forms of piety and “righteousness” that (a) are content with “good behavior” and leave the “heart” untransformed – like not murdering people, but still hating them, calling them names, and not caring whether they live or die, and that (b) use piety and purity as self-advertisements, and also as grounds to avoid other people, especially people who are challenging or demanding.

All that leads to several insights: (1) that we need to think hard about whether we mean it when we say “Lord, I want to be a Christian;” (2) that we need to be grateful that sanctification is never far from justification – namely, that at the end of the day every day we find ourselves praying God to “forgive us our debts”; and (3) the holiness that is the aim of sanctification is not an achievement but rather a gift of God’s. Significantly, the Bible never really talks about it as an individual gift, either, but rather as a gift that “is given and received in the body of Christ, the church” (346).

[Admission: I find all of this uncomfortable to write about, really, because I feel I’m still pretty infantile (using that growth metaphor) when it comes to sanctification, and considering my age, that is an especially damning admission. “Forgive us our debts” indeed, and thank God for that.]

1 Albert Camus, Resistance, Rebellion and Death (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961) 71-74, in Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine Revised Edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994) 330-1.

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