Understanding Sanctification

03.06.2012 by Reed Dunn


This post is part of the the lutheran captivity of the church series (click to view the other posts in this series).

Lutheran Captivity of the Church: Part 3 of 7 - Understanding Sanctification

Much of the Bible describes and teaches sanctification, yet sanctification is a concept that Lutheran theology* fails to fully grasp.  This makes it confusing to hear Lutherans talk about large chunks of Scripture.  This theology, as mentioned before, is so focused on justification by faith that it doesn’t have much room for anything else.

Here are some quick definitions to help you understand this post.  If you already understand this, feel free to skip it. 

  1. JUSTIFICATION: Our sin requires a sentence from God - a death sentence.  Justification describes the act where God pardons us from that sentence - he declares us not guilty and declares us righteous.  It is the works of Jesus that God sees and, based upon Jesus' merit, we are justified.  But this declaration of God does not actually make us a good person - judges don’t make people “good,” they simply acquit them of the crime.
  2. SANCTIFICATION: This is where we are made righteous.  Our sin corrupts our ability to know, worship and obey God.  Sanctification is the act of God where he renews us so that we can be conformed to his image - we can know him, worship him, and obey him.  He basically gives us the tools to grow and assists us through his Spirit.
  3. DISTINCTION: Our salvation depends on us being completely justified.  Sanctification, on the other hand, is a life-long process that happens under the umbrella of justification.  Sanctification is not necessary for salvation the way justification is: there will be plenty of partially mature Christians in heaven, but there will be no partially pardoned ones!  All of this happens through our union with Christ but that would require a whole different post - suffice it to say that justification and sanctification are connected, but not the same thing.

What do Lutherans say sanctification is?
Lutheran teachings sometime define sanctification as “delighting in God” (Gospel Centered Life, pg 8).  According to Lutheran theology we do grow, but that growth comes from joy over our justification.  As we understand more of our sin and the holiness of God, we rejoice all the more in the grace of Jesus.  The more grateful we become the more obedient we become, and it is only this joy/fruit that is “approved” by them.  One Lutheran study actually defines legalism as, “obeying even though you don’t feel like it” (GCL, pg 52).  By this definition, Jesus was a legalist in his commitment to the Father’s will despite his own desire (Luke 22:42).

Secondly, Lutheranism teaches that joy only comes from justification; joy found anywhere else is misplaced.  One of the most striking errors of Lutheran theology is how it overlooks simply being a good Christian.  There is no category for it.  You can see it in the following quote from the Sonship Mentor Guide...

“If you stopped doing that bad thing, would you feel more righteous?  If you did that good thing (like regular, effective witnessing, etc...) would you feel more righteous?  If your answer is ‘yes,’ to either question it means you are turning from the ‘spring of living water,’ and substituting your own ‘success’ to attain a righteousness of your own.  You have trashed the gospel.”

This teaches that if you feel a growing sense of satisfaction over being an obedient child of God then you are trashing the gospel.  That quote is correct if it is about justification, but it isn’t correct if it’s about sanctification.  But for the Lutheran, there is little difference. 

Here is another example...

“If you imagine God as anything but overjoyed with you, you have fallen into a performance mindset.  Because the gospel truth is that in Christ God is deeply satisfied with you.” (GCL pg. 19)

Again, this is absolutely true... of justication.  But once God has adopted you into his family, he reserves the right to be grieved by your actions (Eph 4:30), discipline you (Heb 12:7-8), and even judge you (James 5:9).  The problem isn’t that those quotes are untrue, it is that Lutheran theology reduces all of sanctification to this.  Part of our sanctification entails meditating on our justification, but it includes a lot more than that too.

Sanctification is a different kind of work than justification, but Lutheran theology can’t see that.  It struggles to understand how Paul can expect the Christian to take off the old self and put on the new (Col 3:9-10).  Paul, unlike the Lutheran, doesn’t tell his followers to believe in their justification, he tells them to simply do it; at another point even telling them to imitate him (Phil 3:17, 2Thes 3:7)!

So, what gets lost in Lutheranism?

  1. Lutheran theology doesn’t always make a clear distinction between believers and non-believers.  It assumes all those who want to please God with obedience are trying to win salvation by it.  Yes, all Christians fall into manipulating God with our works, but neither Paul nor we should consider that to be the default Christian experience.
  2. Lutheran theology has almost no sense of Christian duty.  A joy-filled-heart would be great, but sometimes the best way to get that joy is to stay committed and obey.  We walk by faith, not by sight.  That means there is a war between what we sometimes think is true and what actually is true.  And we must act based on what is true... that will require commitment and, yes, “obeying even though we don’t feel like it.”
  3. Lutheran teaching can produce a shallow sense of Christian growth.  I grew up in a revivalist church where all they wanted you to do was pray “the prayer.”  My growth was stunted because all they talked about was conversion.  Lutheranism is just a more sophisticated version of this, trading conversion for justification.  Lutheran preaching can starve you after a few years.  Not everyone feels it, but those who do often have a sense of guilt that justification isn’t sweet enough to them.  But, take heart, richer food is out there - the whole Bible is out there!

When teaching our kids, none of us always include the relationship we have with them.  Of course, I never leave the father/daughter relationship, but I don’t make every conversation about it.  (But Lutherans, when describing God, do.)  Not only that, I expect my children to want to obey me and find joy in it; even if it is out of obligation.  Similarly, I see my children’s faults and help them improve.  Because of our relationship they know they can come to me with anything and will never be cast out no matter what they do.  But they also know that life as my child comes with at least a little bit of law and if they obey it their life will be better than if they don’t.  In short, none of us parent like a Lutheran... not even God.

This has been a long post but this is pretty weighty stuff.  This is probably the fundamental problem within Lutheranism so all the other topics will seem simple compared to this one.  I want to reiterate my own love of justification by faith and how indebted I am to Sonship for God’s work in my life.  We are even teaching the Gospel Centered Life in our adult Sunday School right now, but we provide the nuance it requires.  And nuance, firm though it may be, is what I have tried to provide here.

* DISCLAIMER - I am not critiquing the Lutheran Church or even formal/historical Lutheran theology.  These posts address a form of Lutheran theology that is active in the Presbyterian Church in America.  Whether the critiques hold true outside the PCA, I could not be the judge.

This post is part of the the lutheran captivity of the church series (click to view the other posts in this series).