A Word on Sanctification from the Apostolic Deposit and the Early Protestants in Response to The Revoice Conference 2018

Writing on themes of God’s holiness, repentance, sanctification, and living a mortified and vivified life before God is getting less and less popular; even among many ‘conservative’ Christians. This post will fit into that ‘unpopular’ category, as I want to at least broach an emergent issue that I think is just gaining steam. Before we get into the issue I want to spend a minute sketching what mortification or sanctification before God entails; at least the way I understand that. The issue we will apply this sketch to has to do with the ostensible in-roads that the LGBTQ community is gaining into what normally might be thought of as ‘conservative evangelicalism.’ Bear in mind, this is a blog post, so I will run out of space quickly, but hopefully I will be able to communicate something of my intention in the short space we do have.

Before we get ahead of ourselves let’s read along with the Apostle Paul with reference to a passage of Scripture that touches on our theme; i.e. the theme of mortificatio-sanctificatio-transformatio (just add an ‘n’):

Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. 10 For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. 11 Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, 13 and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. 14 For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. –Romans 6.8-14

This seems rather straightforward for someone who may have been a Christian for any amount of time. There is a call, by Paul, for the Christian to live a life of participation in the righteousness of God in Christ. We are to ‘present’ ourselves a certain way; we are to be present before God (coram Deo) as if our lives are as Christ’s. St. Peter in stride with Paul wrote the following in regard to the ground of our life in Christ:

Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries.In all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation, and they malign youbut they will give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God. –I Peter 4.1-6

These types of motifs on mortification and vivification—the life lived in an active submission and obedience to God in such a way that we are constantly living in a posture of repentance and worship with the dialectical result of being enlivened in and from the life of Christ over and over again in this process of participation—can be enumerated many times over as we read through the Apostolic Deposit (the New Testament). The point I want to drive home, a point that many of us want to run away from or soften, is that God takes his holiness, and his people’s holiness seriously; indeed, this is what he invaded our humanity to accomplish: ‘he became us that we might become him’ (paraphrase of Irenaeus), that we might participate in the kind of set-apart life that he experiences in himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I think from Scripture the case is easily made that sanctification in Christ by the Spirit is a reality that God places a premium on for his covenant people in his covenant man, Jesus Christ. Taking their cue from Scripture the early Protestants held that sanctification involved various aspects in the Christian’s life; Richard Muller defines that for them this way:

sanctificatio.: Sanctificatio, therefore, begins with conversion (q.v.), or conversion, and continues throughout the life of the believer. The mortification and vivification that belong to conversio also belong to sanctificatio as the basic form of Christian life, dying to the world and living the new life in Christ. Since it is the continuation of regeneration or conversion, sanctification is sometimes called conversio continuata (q.v.).

The Protestant scholastics further distinguish between sanctification broadly and strictly defined. (1) Sanctificatio late dicta, or sanctification loosely considered, indicates the entire gracious work of the Spirit in the believer; (2) sanctificatio stricte dicta, or sanctification strictly defined, refers directly to the problem of the corrupted imago Dei and the old Adam in believers and is defined as the negative renovation (renovatio negativa) according to which believers daily die to sin and set aside the old Adam; (3) sanctificatio strictissime dicta, or sanctification most strictly considered, is the actual renewal of the imago Dei or positive renovation (renovatio positiva) of the Christian according to which the believer is actually made holy and, by the grace of the Spirit, cooperates willingly in the renewal of life and willingly does good works (bona opera). The Protestant orthodox, Lutheran and Reformed, are unanimous in their teaching that perfect or total sanctification does not occur in this life.[1]

As Evangelical Calvinists we will want to place a concentrated emphasis upon all of these aspects being grounded in Jesus Christ for us; as would John Calvin in his duplex gratia (‘double grace’) understanding of justification and sanctification. What I want to highlight in particular is what falls under Muller’s second definition, with special emphasis upon the ‘negative renovation’. This aspect most closely aligns with daily mortification of the self before God; i.e. what the Apostle Paul refers to in the passage above. This has seemingly fallen out of favor with many Christians.

Application–Revoice Conference

The Revoice Conference is described on their website as this:

Supporting, encouraging, and empowering gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.

And:

New Community

Gather together with other gender and sexual minorities and those who love them and experience a new kind of gospel community.[2]

Without getting deep into the details the premise is: that to be an LGBTQ Christian can actually be a reality; that it is a viable expression of what it means to be human before God. Further, this position argues that such dispositions, and thus identities can be ‘morally neutral’ and thus not acted upon (except to act upon identifying as one of the identities that LGBTQ covers). So the premise of the whole movement is that Christians can be gay, transgendered, or any other one of the expressions that they are representing, and that this is a legitimate theological-anthropological category before God; so much so that they use the language of ‘sexual minority’ (which connects them to racial minorities in the cultural and activist lexicon as well). The Revoice conference is sponsored by the PCA (Presbyterian Church of America), and has contributors from The Gospel Coalition as speakers and presenters (Wesley Hill and Matthew Lee Anderson) at the conference. The idea promoted, based on the prior assumption that the identity of LGBTQ is viable before God, is that people with such proclivities can remain celibate in their sexual identities and not act out upon their various sexual orientations; thus keeping them in good stead and purity before God—which is where the morally neutral premise comes in. It goes so far, the “friendship” aspect, that they believe homosexual couples can covenant as ‘friends’ and remain celibate, thus honoring the biblical strictures.

But the question arises, based upon our sketch of Christian sanctification above: is being homosexual so on and so forth really a viable and categorical identity that should be legitimized and recognized before God? What makes homosexuality any different than any other sin? The Apostle Paul provides the following list, with an important qualification in regard to ‘sanctification’:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. –I Corinthians 6.9-11

This is a common passage referred to by folks like me voicing concerns in this area; and the response to this, or the ‘work-around’ is that the term translated ‘homosexual’ isn’t really referring to homosexuality, as we think of it, and has nothing to do with sexual orientation, since ‘sexual orientation’ is a modern societal construct that the Apostle Paul under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit could not have had in mind in his Second Temple Judaic context. On the one hand the Revoice folks might agree with the way I refer to this; as a reference to a reality, a sin forbidden by God. On the other hand I think they wouldn’t  agree with my appropriation of it in the sense that it is a passage that flattens out the idea that being LGBTQ, before God, represents a viable identity category; one that should be celebrated or accepted as a real designation for a purported “people group.” My point in appealing to this is indeed to recognize that for the Apostle Paul homosexuality is just one of many sins that a Christian is to resist and has been rescued from in and through the new humanity, the new creation and identity that Christ has won for us in his vicarious humanity.

Homosexuality is not an identity; there is no such thing as a ‘sexual minority’ before God. Homosexuality so on and so forth is a sin to be resisted not a people group to identify with, and yet this is what Revoice, and that mind is endorsing. They believe homosexuality, simply because of its “isness” in society is indeed a people group, a sexual minority that ought to be celebrated; albeit in chastened and celibate ways. But what makes this sin or this impulse any different than people who have impulses to be involved in pornography or adultery (etc.)? Should we identify new people groups, and establish a minority status for each of these sinful impulses as well? Do some Christian people have same-sex attractions? Yes. Do all Christian people have sinful impulses in all sorts of lurid directions? Yes. What’s the response to that? To resist by standing in the new creation and humanity of Jesus Christ; to stand in the power of the resurrection that the Holy Spirit brings us into union with in Christ (unio cum Christo); and to celebrate our identity in his identity for us before the Father.

Part of the Christian’s vocation in this life is to constantly be in the battle, constantly be militant against the principalities and powers that rule this evil age. This has personal, systemic/societal, and cosmic aspects; in each instance the marching orders are the same. We are to be “daily die[ing] to sin and set[ing] aside the old Adam,” which includes renouncing any other identity than the one we have in Jesus Christ and allowing that to be the witness to the world that a new age has invaded this world and made the crooked straight (the ‘crooked’ being all of us).

[1] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 270.

[2] Revoice Conference Website.

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7 thoughts on “A Word on Sanctification from the Apostolic Deposit and the Early Protestants in Response to The Revoice Conference 2018

  1. I like Wesley Hill and have appreciated his website Spiritual Friendship but your critic is a common one. I lean more to the orthodox teaching on sexuality and gender, particular gender because to me transgenderism undermines the whole idea of human expressing confirming to basic reality, one doesn’t have to be a Christian or theists to reject it. I guess I don’t fully understand the critism against all of Spiritual Friendships goals but from reading this they do fall into the category error you mentioned, unfortunately the “conservative” communities overall response to the LGBTQ movement hasn’t helped them either. This to me is the first real cultural movement that represents the challenge for us Western Christians of living in a society not ran on nominal Christian principles so it’s a important discusson.

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  2. Hi Abby,

    Thanks for your comment. I think for me this is less of a “position” scenario (i.e. not open for debate), and more of an issue of crooked or straight; black or white. Scripture is clear on how God created things, and certain prohibitions, in light of that creation that are not to be violated. The moment those prohibitions are violated we extend further into chaos that he seeks to sanctify us from in the reversing work of the cross of Christ and the resurrection etc.

    Do I think Christians of the “conservative” sort need to engage with homosexuals with the love of Christ, the very love extended to them in light of their chosen sins? Yes. Do I think this is happening in tone and mood among conservative evangelicals? Probably more than it is being portrayed in the media. I think this is where the complexity arises; i.e. in the way that things get presented in the media. The homosexual community is often presented as the open community whereas the conservative evangelical as the closed; when the reality, I think!, might well be vice versa, or not even vice versa but more situational and less absolute than this binary would have us think. In other words, there are many many militant homosexuals and there are of course many many militant evangelicals. But then in between all of that there is a whole range of other moods. I don’t think we have to be accepting or affirming of a lifestyle in order to be accepting and affirming of the person. The lifestyle is an accident and not an essential to what makes a person a person; I don’t think that distinction is honored in this complex; i.e. the theological anthropological. Our humanity, from a Christian perspective, is grounded in Christ’s humanity which actually transcends sexual orientation and human sexuality, but at the same time reaffirms the ordered way of being that God has imbued into his creation by his fiat (or spoken word). But to think this way Christians need to think Christianly. Can we do it? Doesn’t seem to be the dominate trajectory. And of course there are many Christian theologians out there who affirm Christian homosexuality as a viable reality as the Revoice conference help illustrate; as a viable identity. But again, I think the identity of Christ, as the Creator and Recreator contradicts that and simply says its another sin among others that needs to be repented of. This is the love of Christ, to speak the truth based upon the reality of God’s Word (the Logos).

    I also think people often uncritically conflate compassion for people being oppressed with the ostensible requirement of being affirming of the source that is causing the oppression for some. In other words, we can be compassionate to people without confusing that compassion with the identity someone is claiming for themselves in contradiction to the identity that God has said is the identity in Jesus Christ.

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  3. Bobby, I love the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism.

    Question: What is your only comfort in life and in death.
    Answer: That I, body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ…

    Surely this is true of every Christian. We belong to Jesus Christ…not to ourselves. Claiming to have our own identity apart from Christ is merely a symptom of our sinful self-centered being “curved in upon ourself ” identified by Luther. Practising Homosexs are no different than the practising Heterosex adulterers Clinton and Trump. The cheap grace which dominates many churches requires neither repentance or obedience. We have a lot to answer for!

    Thanks for your persistently challenging articles!

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  4. Don,

    When I think of cheap grace I think of theologies that place a greater emphasis on what we do, and less on what God has done and does do for us in the vicarious humanity of Christ. I want to emphasize a lifestyle of gratitude for the gift we are participants in in Christ rather than one of performance where we do as a badge to prove who we are. If you get what I’m saying.

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  5. Bobby,
    When I think of cheap grace/costly grace of course I am thinking of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was profoundly correct when he said “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.” I like what he wrote to the young men he had trained at Finkenwalde but who were now conscripted and dying on the Eastern Front…
    “Only in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ has death been drawn into God’s power, and it must now serve God’s own aims. It is not some fatalistic surrender but rather a living faith in Jesus Christ, who died and rose for us, that is able to cope profoundly with death.
    In life with Jesus Christ, death as a general fate approaching us from without is confronted by death from within, one’s own death, the free death of daily dying with Jesus Christ. Those who live with Christ die daily to their own will. Christ in us gives us over to death so that he can live within us. Thus our inner dying grows to meet that death from without. Christians receive their own death in this way, and in this way our physical death very truly becomes not the end but rather the fulfillment of our life with Jesus Christ. Here we enter into community with the One who at his own death was able to say, ” It is finished”. (See,Metaxas, Bonhoeffer,pp.383-384)
    It is life WITH Christ…Christ IN us…the Christ of Scripture who died and rose for us, who IS grace and fills us with courage, gratitude and joy.
    Bobby,I think of you as one who has died to yourself…only to have Christ live in you! You are certainly correct…It is not a performance.. it is Christ living in us!

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