The doctrine of justification is the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls.
We often attribute that saying to Martin Luther, historicity be darned. That isn’t to say that Luther didn’t say that — in all likelihood he did, at some point. But even still, if you were scour Luther’s works, you’d be hard-pressed to find that exact quote anywhere. And, to be sure, your delineation of justification will surely determine your theological outlook to a large degree. But I would contend that the doctrine which has even more severe ramifications for your faith is the doctrine of sanctification, the way in which you are made holy.
Very many evangelicals will agree on the cosmic and forensic work of Jesus in the article of justification. However, those same evangelicals might have very divergent views on how that declaration of righteousness is brought to bear in the life of a sinner. Such is where the division over sanctification is born.
You don’t have to search too far or too hard in church history to find debates over this crucial article of faith. From Augustine and Pelagius, to Luther and Rome, debates revolving around the part man plays in his sanctification have existed for centuries. Indeed, how you define sanctification, and your role in it, is likely indicative of your entire faith. Such is why this recent article by Chad Bird over on 1517 is so important. In “What is Sanctification? Revisiting the Old Testament for the Answer,” Chad examines the Hebraic roots of individual holiness — specifically how God’s people were made holy. “In the OT,” Chad writes, “holiness was spatially anchored to the presence of God in the sanctuary.” He goes on to say:
The closer something or someone was to the direct presence of Yahweh, the holier it was. That’s why the inner sanctum is the Holy of Holies (or Most Holy Place) and the outer sanctum (only) the Holy Place. Likewise, even the metals used in the tabernacle and temple signified this: gold then silver then bronze, like concentric circles, were used in proportion to their nearness to the inner sanctum. The Holy of Holies was covered in gold, and, farther out, the altar of burnt offerings was made from bronze.
So, basically, the nearer to God something was, the holier it was: whether people, metals, fabrics, bread, oils, etc. Sanctity was all about spatial proximity to Yahweh.
You might already know where Chad’s going with this as he makes the transition from the Old to the New Testament. Which is to say, that “spatially anchored holiness” isn’t suddenly jettisoned for listicle holiness. To quote St. Paul, “By no means!” “Are ye so foolish?” writes the apostle, “having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” (Gal 3:3) From even Paul’s day, perplexities over person holiness have existed and divided otherwise likeminded saints. But back to Chad:
The transition from the Old into the New Testament with regard to sanctification is a relatively smooth one. The big change is this: the location of holiness has changed. It is no longer the temple in Jerusalem but the flesh-and-blood temple and tabernacle, Jesus Christ (Jn 1:14; 2:21). He is “the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:69); the “holy servant” (Acts 4:30). John sees that the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are the temple now (Rv 21:22).
The inner sanctum is the body of Jesus Christ. He is the source of all holiness and the agent of sanctification. From head to toe, heart to mind, skin to bones, Jesus is the Holy of Holies.
Nearness to the Holy of Holies is perpetually possible, always accessible. (Rom 5:1) Hopefully you’re able to see how significant this is in the matter of your sanctification. You can’t make yourself holy. God does that through presence and ministry of his Spirit which indwells his children by grace through faith in his Son. “I trust to Christ for sanctification, and not to sanctification for Christ,” declares Thomas Adam.1 From beginning to end, holiness is dependent on Jesus’s work for us. “From the first to the last,” writes Episcopal minister Stephen Tyng, “the work of your sanctification is all divine, and the glory belongs entirely to God.”2 Chad continues:
God is the holy-maker. He is the sanctifier . . . He draws things and people into his presence to share his holiness with them.
Such is the astoundingly good news of God’s gospel: it announces that holiness has been gifted to us.
There is, perhaps, more I could say in this regard. In fact, I know there is. Perhaps worthy of mentioning is Rev. Abraham Booth’s The Reign of Grace, specifically the eighth chapter, on “Grace, as it reigns in our Sanctification.” And, if you’ll permit the boldness, I might also recommend a piece I wrote for the folks at 1517 too, “Growing Downward: Thoughts on Sanctification & Spiritual Maturity,” where some of these thoughts are more fleshed out (though not as eloquently as Chad).
I’ll leave it at that for now. I am always thankful for Chad Bird’s writing, but this piece was especially prescient. Please read it and let it marinate and enrich your faith.
Thomas Adam, Private Thoughts on Religion and Other Subjects Connected With It (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1843), 189.