In recent months, several key evangelical pastors have been involved in a public debate regarding the Christian doctrine of sanctification.
In the Protestant framework,1 sanctification is the progressive transformation of a converted sinner into a true disciple of Christ. Having been justified by God’s grace, sanctification is the “setting apart” or consecration of Christians as people of God.
For Orthodox Christians, distinctions between stages of an “order of salvation” is often blurred or even nonexistent, with many of these stages collapsing under a general heading of Christology. As a result, it can be difficult to engage in reasonable dialogue regarding these issues. Nevertheless, the topic of sanctification is central enough to the Orthodox phronema to do so.
Presbyterian pastor Rick Phillips offers a two-part summary of the Gospel Coalition controversy as follows:
- Is it possible, even expected, for Christians to lead increasingly holy lives by the power of God’s grace in Christ received through faith?
- Does the Bible, and thus should we, issue commands to obedience and personal godliness that are intended for the believer himself or herself to do, in the power of grace through faith in Christ?
The personal locus of this controversy is evangelist Billy Graham’s grandson, Tullian Tchividjian, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. For Tullian, the Gospel does not emphasize a necessary life of obedience once we become Christians. Our focus instead should be gratitude for the grace of God, and not what we must now do as Christians. On the other side, there are offered seemingly inescapable scriptural passages (in 1 John, for example) where a sharp dichotomy is drawn between those who live a new life of obedience, and those who do not. The difference is stark as night and day; life and death.
My main concern with this debate is that both sides apparently presuppose a legalistic Christianity—one based almost entirely on merit and moralistic perfection. In other words, either we must be perfect, or we must receive and rest upon Christ’s own perfection, by virtue of our covenantal union with him. This issue of merit and legalism, of course, lies at the heart of the Reformation itself. Instead of fully reforming the doctrinal edifice of the Latin church, the Reformers presupposed and repackaged a whole wealth of late-Medieval Scholasticism. What was championed as a reformed Catholic church was a religion still centered around merit. While merit has found its way into Orthodoxy (especially between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries) to a certain degree, I find it to be a largely deficient and even unhelpful way to explain both the Gospel and our salvation in Christ.
So how do both merit and legalism play into this debate?
For antinomians, Christ is the ultimate legalist—the ultimate law-keeper. Our salvation is not only the result of his death and resurrection, but also his perfect obedience to God’s law. This additional righteousness of Christ is “imputed” or counted to be our own, so that when God looks at us on the Day of Judgment, he sees not sinners, but rather the faithful and obedient Son. This doctrine of double-imputation has been called a “legal fiction” by its critics, and (I would say) rightly so.
For those imploring a life of obedience in response to God’s grace in salvation, a tight rope is delicately traversed. Christ is still the ultimate legalist on our behalf, but we are also expected to be transformed and improve—in some way, shape, or fashion—in this present, evil age. Through union with Christ, we are objectively sanctified by what he has done, and yet we must also be subjectively or actually sanctified by our own obedience. While our own good works do not merit either favor or salvation, they are still required. It’s a sort of paradox that must be kept in careful balance, allowing clergy to encourage the faithful to both “obedience and personal godliness,” as Phillips puts it.
Orthodox Christians—while disagreeing on issues like union with Christ and the centrality of forensic metaphors—would largely agree with the Gospel Coalition folks on the necessity of good works after baptism. And to be clear, this paradox is present in Orthodox spirituality, as well. We are justified and born anew in baptism, then called to live a life of faith, obedience, and repentance—through ascesis, prayer, and the mysteries or sacraments of the Church. Our cooperation with God in faithful obedience after baptism is not optional, as we are judged on the Last Day according to our own works.
And even if both sides could agree on whether or not obedience and personal godliness is required of all true Christians, an underlying issue remains: What is obedience and personal godliness for the Christian?
Back in May (2014), Mark Galli offered an article at Christianity Today titled Real Transformation Happens When? He writes in response to the Gospel Coalition controversy, suggesting that sanctification itself isn’t even possible in this life. In other words, whether Tullian or his critics are correct, the deeper problem is that none of us Christians are actually becoming better people. His solution is that sanctification be conflated with the Protestant doctrine of “glorification,” and entirely relegated to the afterlife:
I’ve come to believe that the promise of real transformation does not apply to this life, but to the next (see especially 1 Cor. 15). Thus my hope is not fixed on improvement in this life, but on transformation in the next.
Galli notes that even the apostle Paul laments for his own sinfulness late in life.2 He complains that this sort of attitude is not exactly the “victorious Christian life” promised in contemporary preaching and teaching. Since even the apostle Paul was unable to progress in sanctification, we shouldn’t expect any better. In the end, Galli sees sanctification as a doctrine of hope, much like the whole of our salvation. It is something to look forward to in the afterlife, but not anything we should expect in the here-and-now.
What Mark has actually done is underline how the Gospel obedience of popular Protestant (and even Western) Christianity has largely been reduced to moralism. Holiness and true repentance are both supplanted and confused with a judgmental, legalistic, and “I can’t believe they did that” mode of being. The judge of whether or not a person has been transformed by God’s grace is if they live up to a certain moral code of conduct, not penitence or true holiness. Those who persist in sin after conversion are “backsliders,” and those who apostatize were never really Christians anyway.
But the Gospel is not merely a legal transaction—and certainly not a legal fiction—nor is it a matter of moralism and good behavior as judged conventionally by the pious.
At the dawn of God’s immanent, yet transcendent Kingdom, the prophet and fore-runner John had but one message: repent (Matt. 3:2). And this message was taken up and continued by Jesus in his own earthly ministry. Repentance as a way of life is at the heart of the Gospel—even a Gospel of God’s limitless grace. Repentance is not something we do once, forever to be left behind, but is instead our modus operandi as Christians being continually converted to the image and likeness of Christ (Rom. 8:29). It is an active imperative from God himself: “Be repenting, for the Kingdom of heaven has drawn near” (Matt. 4:17). And this is something emphasized by most of the magisterial Reformers themselves, although many of their heirs have long forgotten it.
Looking at the Gospel Coalition debate from an Orthodox perspective, what’s missing (for me) is not whether a life of obedience is required once we are baptized or converted, but rather what that obedience looks like. And for Orthodox Christians—as well as for Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin—that life of obedience is a life of true repentance. One where even the holiest saints end their lives with godly sorrow: the apostle Paul as the “chief” of sinners, and St. Sisoes the Great who desired yet another day to repent.
These two men were not lacking in true sanctification, but were in truth exhibiting sanctification in its purest form: an awareness of sin. When a pilgrim petitioned one of the holy Elders on Mount Athos on what they should ask of God in their daily prayers, he replied: “for repentance.” St. Isaac of Syria is also famously known as teaching:
This life was given to you for repentance; do not waste it on vain pursuits.
These are only a few examples, but the point is plain: Sanctification—true, transformative, and deifying sanctification, by which we cooperate with the grace of God unto our ultimate salvation in Christ—is more than possible. It is more than possible because it is our essential calling as Christians. To be a Christian is to be a “little Christ,” a Spiritual continuation of Christ after his apostles. And this imaging of the Son of God is not done through smoke and mirrors or legal loopholes, but through real transformation and transfiguration. Yet even as we might end our lives wishing for one more day to repent, there is still a great victory in Christ. He has trampled down death by death, bestowing life on those even in tombs.
The way of God’s Kingdom was shown to the apostles on Mount Tabor (Luke 9:27ff), and this was not a promise reserved solely for the afterlife. We too can shine like the sun in his glorious light (Matt. 13:43). Incidentally, Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof suggests3 that it’s possible the Hebrew word for sanctification (קָדַשׁ) is related to חָדָשׁ or “to shine.” As the beloved John makes clear in his letters, there is a path we can actually follow in this life—a path that leads us to a deeper union and communion both with God and one another, and one in which we truly partake of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4).
The heart of the Gospel is not merit and judgement, but rather a life marked by love, sacrifice, and true repentance. An increased awareness of our great sinfulness is not a sign we have failed in our calling as Christians—or worse, that this calling is altogether impossible—but is instead a sign that we are not far from the Kingdom. Struggle is not a weakness; it is the journey laid out before us. And even with Christ’s victory and our union in him, there can only be glorification by following a path of both suffering and struggle (Rom. 8:17ff).
This life was given to us for repentance.