This article will investigate the biblical teaching of the sanctification of the believer in light of current spiritual formation teaching. Research will be presented showing that the historic Christian theistic understanding and teaching concerning sanctification has been obfuscated today by the so-called spirituality of spiritual formation teaching. Part one will offer an analysis of the importance of the biblical teaching on sanctification. Part two will present the ways that sanctification has been understood in the church historically. Part three will detail the recent re-interpretations of sanctification from within the spiritual formation perspective. Part four will suggest a corrective to the current path of teaching on spirituality and suggest a return to biblical sanctification. Part five will present a summation of what is at stake for the church if it does not heed this call.
This effort will rely primarily on an article written by Steven L. Porter that appeared in the September 2002 issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. In his article Porter suggests that what is needed today is a more robust systematic theology related to the doctrine of sanctification. It is the position of this writer that what is needed today is much more than a systematic treatment of spiritual formation. Instead of seeking a bigger tent to encompass all the expressions of evangelical spiritual formation and disciplines today, an evaluation of the practices themselves will reveal a need to return to the biblical teaching on sanctification.
The Importance of Teaching Biblical Sanctification
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians to exhort readers to continue their Christian life and thereby their sanctification by faith. His question to the Galatians then and to readers of this article today is equally appropriate: “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the Law, or by hearing with faith.” In other words did you gain life in Christ by your efforts or by the Holy Spirit? Clearly, we are saved by grace and the Scriptures teach that we are sanctified in the same manner.
Addressing an age-old issue is at the heart of this question by the apostle to the Galatians. Mankind has a demonstrated tendency to stray from the path of divine instruction and end up on a path of its own making and choosing. Paul’s letter to the Colossians provides a ready example of this truth. The apostle asked the Colossians a question similar to the one he asked of the Galatians: “If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, ‘do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’” The point the apostle makes here is that the types of activities the Colossians were submitting themselves to could not secure the grace of sanctification being touted by the false teachers of the day and was in fact without warrant based on the teachings of Jesus Christ.
It is important to understand the biblical teaching on sanctification precisely because there has developed a plethora of methods suggesting that sanctification is predominantly the responsibility of the individual believer to achieve by whatever means the individual deems experientially satisfying. While it is true that sanctification has an experiential aspect, i.e., we are called to “work out our salvation,” it cannot be maintained that individuals are free to subscribe to any method of their choosing. That does not stop many professing Christians from attempting self-sanctification through extra-biblical means though. Witness for instance the variety of Purpose Driven emphases, the myriad spiritual, marriage, and youth retreats, self-help study groups, recovery groups, care groups, healing and dealing with specific issues of life groups, and the thousands of books on the so-called spiritual formation techniques of contemplative prayer, mystical silence and solitude of the soul, labyrinth walking, chanting, and visualization. The sincerity of the creators and authors of these techniques and the eagerness of practitioners to indulge themselves in these techniques is not being questioned in this paper. The validity of what they are practicing and urging others to engage in under the guise of spiritual growth, formation, and discipline is being questioned however. This concern underscores the urgent need to speak directly to the evangelical Church of its need to understand and teach as a core doctrine the subject of the biblical method for the sanctification of the believer.
We are instructed in Scripture to discipline ourselves as a means to godliness. Therefore being holy is a goal of every Christian. Does it follow that whatever technique or process deemed useful by a Christian is acceptable to God? Following that practice has surely led Christians outside the boundaries of how God has determined He will be approached and how His people will grow in sanctification. Mystical experiences and pragmatic techniques are nowhere called for in the Scriptures as a means to godliness. One of the reasons the Reformers advocated Sola Scriptura was to evaluate and eliminate those teachings outside the warrant of Scripture. It appears the modern Protestant evangelical Church has forgotten this principle.
IN THE NEXT POST I WILL EXAMINE SANCTIFICATION FROM AN HISTORICAL AND EVANGELICAL PERSPECTIVE
Galatians 3:2. Unless otherwise stated all Scripture references are from The New American Standard Bible, Updated 1995, The Lockman Foundation (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995).
Dallas Willard for example states that spirituality/sanctification is achieved by emulating the lifestyle of Jesus. He refers to this as the “easy yoke” of Christ and asserts that in “this truth lies the secret of the easy yoke: the secret involves living as He lived in the entirety of His life – adopting His overall lifestyle . . . We have to discover how to enter into his disciplines from where we stand today – and no doubt, how to extend and amplify them to suit our needy cases.” The Spirit of the Disciplines, (HarperCollins: New York, NY: 1991), 5, 9.
1 Timothy 4:7.