The Reformation succeeded to rescue justification from the grip of human merit and place it where it should be, in the hands of a gracious God who has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. However, sanctification, that is a Christian’s holiness, is in many ways still having the life choked out of it by the strong hands of man’s insistence to save himself.
Very few Protestants argue for man’s good works having anything to do with justification but many will argue vehemently for their involvement in a Christian’s holiness.
Here is my contention.
No where are we called to fix, improve, or even change the old man. We are given one directive when it comes to our old Adam…put him to death.
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20)
Of course this “death” is not final and complete…it is an ongoing process whereby we “reckon” (Rom. 6:11) our sin nature to be dead and we identify with our new nature in Christ. We are, as Luther said, simultaneously saint (holy, and justified) and sinner (in bondage to our sin nature). In Latin “simul justus et peccator” or simply known as the simul. The Christian has two distinct natures living within him; our new nature in Christ whereby we are made a saint, and our old nature in ourselves whereby we are a sinner desperately incapable of pleasing God. These natures are at war with one one another (Gal. 5:17) and our only hope for victory is in identifying with our new nature and putting our old nature to death.
It’s this reckoning where we find “holiness” or “sanctification” or “Christian growth”…it’s not in conforming the old man into the likeness of Christ by adherence to the law…this is an exhausting and futile effort for the law can never achieve what it sets forth. So if progressive sanctification does exist, it only exists when we die to self and identify with who we in Christ.
Attempting to improve the old man, or make the old man holy is like putting lipstick on a pig. You can dress it up all you want but it’s still a pig.
Let’s use another metaphor.
Sanctification is not about fixing up the junker in the garage, it’s about enjoying the brand new car that Jesus has gifted to us. Too often we view Christianity like partnering with God to fix up the old car in the garage. We wrongly believe that with God’s help we’re going to get the clunker going. With a little more elbow grease and the pennies I’ve been saving we’re going to get this thing on the road in no time. This, however, is not a project that God is interested in pursuing. He’s already provided a perfect new car for us to drive on a daily basis.
Therefore in the same way that believing we can justify ourselves by good works is an affront to justification by faith; so too is living as though we can sanctify ourselves with God’s help. Jesus is our sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30) so any Scriptural call to live a holy life (for which there are many) is a reminder to identify with who we are in Christ instead of who we are in ourselves.
“And 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. 6:11)