Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Sanctification Lecture (not)

And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. Romans 4:5

Well, it seems apathy for a blog can't contain the need to write, so here goes again.  'Sbeen a while.  And I'd like to try serving a bit of the stew that's been simmering lately, actually for a number of years, but I don't feel I've communicated it real well yet in any form.

It seems that the wider discussion on the way of Jesus, on the life of faith, the Christian's life, is peppered with urgent statements from concerned onlookers about "living the life," or however you want to put it.  Incarnating the character of Christ might be a pretty inoffensive way of saying it.  Some of the more crass, ridiculous and sub-scriptural ways of putting this involve elaborate methodologies, legalistic programs and guarantees of results if steps 1-5 are followed just so.  Even so far as to introduce pathetically false goals like getting richer or being more well-thought of.  Snake oil.  Horse-vomit.

It's a bit of a hard message to hear, really, that we shouldn't be bothering with these kinds of nonsense.  But we did this at church last Sunday, and have been doing it for a long time. And what I'd like to put on the table here is that, in at least one way, there is no legitimate discussion about 'sanctification,' as we call it.  It's all idolatry.

Now wait a second, the discussion about sanctification doesn't have to be idolatry. Ok, ok, maybe. But I'm tempted to say it's idolatry if the the subject of the lecture/discussion is sanctification.  The worthwhile discussion about sanctification is actually a discussion about Jesus. And I'm nearly convinced that spiritual discussions about living the Christian life are games of Russian roulette, ones in which you may not blow your own head off with expectations for results and pragmatic attention to your own work, or the "part you play" in the process, but there's a pretty good chance that you're practicing a me-centered form of spirituality, even if undetectably, and therefore, doing your best on some level to commit suicide by relating to God under the law.  This issue is a perpetual source of conflict throughout the history of the church I realize, and I'm not going to reintroduce it as if it's something new, or as if we haven't heard all the arguments yet, but I am going to put my cards on the table here.  What I'm trying say is....

There's a difference between acknowledging that sacntification(or whatever you wanna call it) happens, and having lengthy discussion about its nature, delving into the psychology of it, formulating plans for it, and giving it your commitment.  The first is Scripture. The second is, most likely, idolatry.  And one of the most pandemic forms of Christian idolatry I can think of, no less.

Let me give one more qualification, and then give you the rub on sanctification, and I'll try not to commit idolatry.  We all practice a form of learning, of growth in our understanding of "how to." But the playing field is real life, not church meetings or spiritual discussions.  If I don't water the garden, the plants will die.  I better change the oil in the car.  Who's going to do the laundry?--  I'm busy cooking dinner.  How much flour do I put in this cake?

That, as far as I can see, is sanctification.  Or it's the way we should be talking about it if we're going to bother talking about it at all.  And what's more, if we're attending to our growth, especially the "deeply spiritual" kind, during the church meeting, the Bible study, etc, then we can probably pack it in.  There's no real reason to believe that worship is taking place.  If, that is, sanctification or any of its parts, packages, or practices, are preoccupying our attention.  (how's that for alliteration?)

What we do anywhere from 40-80 hours a week is to try and make life happen. The way we want it to.  Even laziness has this as its goal.  These goals, and how to make them happen, preoccupy our minds, and much more deeply our existential outlook, subconsciously conditioning the manner in which we go about everything in our day.  They are constantly giving me a reason to do(or not do) what I'm doing (or not doing) and act on these convictions, mostly without thinking.  The goals are seeds that produce fruit containing their own DNA.  The taste of the fruit testifies to the good or evil of what we've sown.  We reap what we sow.

No one really denies this.  But here's where the moralist gets separated from the Christian, or the mature from the immature. The new creation from the flesh.  The immature moralist (flesh) takes this condition and says "So we should change our outlook! Have a positive attitude! Set your mind! Reform your goals! Give generously!  Be upright in your thoughts! We reap what we sow, so we'd better sow good seed!"

This is a sanctification lecture.  It's the content of most Christian books on the bestseller list and, I daresay, most sermons. What's ironic, I find, is that in almost any case you want to look at, such-and-such a teacher and their respective movements are crowing about the failure of Christians everywhere to "live consistently with their beliefs," or "put feet to their faith" or some such.  Even as all the other ones are saying the exact same thing and presenting their case for how it's done. It's downright comical.  It's crowd of people shouting at an empty room to quiet down. It's a chorus of harmonies with no melody, and therefore an unrecognizable song.

If I'm going to worship God- through word, sacrament, music, liturgy, or anything-- it's going to be a God who commands and compels my attention, and the attention that we give to our sanctification is quite noticably not on this God.  Christ, while he certainly does sanctify his people, is designed to be the object of attention.  What he gives is not given to be an object of attention.  Just a signature- something that draws attention back to him.  In other words, why are we talking about your pornography problem?  Or the fact that you overcame your pornography problem?  These may be slightly interesting, but...

...not as interesting as Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection.  I will say this categorically about everything you can possibly experience in life. Tongues, prophecies, healings, helpings, victories, defeats, epiphanies, blindnesses, baptisms, and burns.  The life more abundant is his life, not yours.  And you think far too highly of yourself.

I really don't care what version of the sanctification lecture your giving, or whether you use the hard edge or the soft, easy-going one, this is always the case.  And even given the prospect of a perfectly correct paradigm, a thoroughly exciting discussion, and quality results, I'm still not interested. Not, at least, during the church meeting, in the Bible study, in the time of worship.  Certainly not during communion.  And while we're at it, how bout we cancel it in the form of "spiritual talk" altogether, and just talk about how to operate the lawnmower? That would be sanctification, as I see it, moreso than devising a psychology/spirituality of repentance for behavior correction.  And this is coming from someone who has read a rather tall stack of books on the matter.  Including some good ones.

Here's the rub, people, here's why this is hard to hear:

If the best you can do when Jesus is displayed as crucified and risen is to wonder what's in this for you, or "how do I 'take hold' of this so that I'll bear fruit?" then you are operating squarely in the category of enemy of God.

As I've said before "yeah-but"-ing the Gospel is always idolatry.  Because it's effectively like being in the position of John the Disciple - before the cross, watching his friend and teacher and savior die - and in that moment of blinding tragedy, demanding things of him.  Utterly ludicrous.  But it's flabbergasting how frequently I hear talk that amounts to this, whitewashed as spirituality, holiness, and sanctification.  Maturity.  Growth.  Mark my words, the one who places value on sanctification in any form, but is able to change the subject when presented with the Gospel is categorically a liar.  If we are ever presented with Christ crucified, and manage to ask something like "yeah, but how can I really believe this, so I can see the fruit?" then the case, for that moment, is closed.  We have chosen to despise the God who showed up.  Can there be any sanctification in such a person?

This condition of hardness towards the Gospel is, of course, all of us at some point in time, and many of us most of the time.  Thankfully, mercies are new every morning, and the next moment(the next sin?) is another opportunity to see Christ crucified, and to be crucified with him.  I believe, Lord help my unbelief!

Another irony of all this is that ignoring sanctification in favor of the grace of God in Christ is often considered an easy way out, whereas trying to figure out holiness is thought to be a more serious Christianity. The reverse is actually the case- the sanctification lecture is nearly always a watering down of the faith. Why?  Quite simply, because it's far more difficult to watch a man die and realize that you're responsible, that his blood is on your hands, than it is to change an addictive behavior.  That is why it's not the easy way out. This is the choice we're presented with.  Over and over.

I believe Dietrich Bonhoeffer has it here.  If you'd like to see a proper treatment to the problem of wishy-washy grace, let me refer you to chapter 1 of The Cost of Discipleship.  The issue in these situations is nearly always a "de-Christ-ified" version of grace.  A cross-less savior.  Not, as people will throw around, this notion of "license."

And that's why sanctification is, basically, irrelevant.

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 1 Cor 6:9-11