Last week we looked at a Lutheran perspective on sanctification by Gerhard Forde in Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification. We (this would be the imperial we if no one reads this) also noted some of the responses, particularly the one by Sinclair Ferguson. Dr. Ferguson is the next to present his view of sanctification, a Reformed perspective on this doctrine.
It should not surprise anyone familiar with Sinclair Ferguson to know that his presentation is not polemical, but well-reasoned (polemics can be well-reasoned, but often aren’t) and interacts quite a bit with Scripture (not just tossing out a reference proof text). As a Reformed pastor, I have a strong affinity with this presentation. Since it pretty much represents my view (recognizing that in 20 pages you can’t say all there is to say about sanctification) I can see no weaknesses or faults to discredit this view. The other authors obviously pointed out some they perceived (and in some cases imagined).
“A necessary connection between biblical doctrine and holy living is fundamental to the biblical and apostolic way of thinking. That is why Scripture is so full of moral imperatives logically derived from doctrinal indicatives…”
Instead of starting with justification like Forde did, Ferguson starts with the profound and oft-neglected doctrine of union with Christ. As Christ is our justification, so He is our sanctification: thru our union with Him. United to Him in His death, burial and resurrection (though I could add more) we are justified and sanctified (the double blessing of union that Calvin notes).
“Christ himself is the only adequate resource we have for the development of sanctification in our own lives.”
He shares His resources with us. So, Ferguson notes that sanctification is neither accomplished by divine fiat or self-exertion. Christ has provided all we need, and by virtue of our gracious union with Christ we are able to draw on these resources. It is not like a Matrix download where Neo instantaneously gains skills. By faith we drawn His resources and trust His Spirit to work in us. We participate but are utterly dependent.
“Faith involves trusting in and resting on the resources of Christ as though they were our own.”
At this point Ferguson walks through Romans 6 to understand how our union with Christ effects our sanctification. In Christ we have died to sin (via His atoning death) and live to God (via the resurrection) which is the essence of our sanctification. Death to sin does not mean we don’t sin (see Romans 7) but our sin no longer condemns us (Romans 8:1). We are no longer under its authority. Our life is no longer determined by our past, but Christ’s past. The verdict has been passed and Christ’s vindication means we are alive to God, and live for God. Because we are united to Christ we are a new creation. We are no longer the old man in Adam but the new man in Christ. Sanctification can be understood not as getting used to our justification, but as growing into our new identity in Christ.
This new man encounters oppositions from the world, the flesh and the devil. Spiritual warfare, in Scripture, is about the struggle between them and the Spirit. They seek to undermine our new life in Christ like old drinking buddies. They use guilt, shame, temptation and more. This is the context of Paul’s statements on the subject in Ephesians 6. Our sanctification is not an easy thing but one met with great resistance: internal and external.
“All that is true for me in Christ has not yet been accomplished in me by the Spirit.”
This is close to Frame’s perspectivalism. Christ’s work for us has already taken place and I already benefit from it. I have imputed righteousness, for example. Christ’s work in my by the Spirit (and His work thru me by the Spirit) is not been fully applied. Some of it is not yet, or not completely. Imparted righteousness has begin but is not complete. It won’t be until glorification. Romans 7 and Galatians 5 are two places that introduces us to this painful tension we must live with and in.
One aspect of sanctification is called mortification, the putting to death of sin aka the practices of the old man in Adam (Ephesians 4; Colossians 3). This imperative follows the great indicative of our union with Christ. We begin to live in accordance with our new identity in Christ (called vivification which Ferguson does not explicitly mention). We do not work to earn a new status or identity in Christ. Christ is restoring His image in us by His sanctifying grace.
Ferguson then moves to discuss the means of grace essential to our sanctification. These do not merit grace, but are the ordinary means by which God gives us grace as we seek Him by faith. He mentions the Word, God’s providences (often affliction or prosperity which reveals our weaknesses and vulnerabilities as well as sins that need to be confessed), fellowship and the sacraments. You will notice much of this is found in the Church. The Church is one of Christ’s essential means of grace for our sanctification. There we hear the Word, receive the sacraments and enjoy fellowship (including rebuke and encouragement).
The controversial aspect to this is the Law and the Christian’s relationship to the Law as part of the Word. It should not be controversial in light of 2 Timothy 3’s view of Scripture. The third use of the law, as a guide for Christian living, is often accused of being legalistic. But we are not trying to establish or maintain our status through obedience. We have these by grace. The Law shows us what it looks like to live as the new man in love. We don’t say, as we are often accused of saying, that the Law has the power to sanctify us. The power comes through our union with Christ in the power of the Spirit through faith and love.
Ferguson said very little about the Law (just about 1 page), but Forde sees this as overplaying the role of the law in our sanctification. He puts words in Ferguson’s mouth about the law “producing holiness.” He is allergic to the law and misinterprets Ferguson as a result. In some sense Forde underestimates the “already” aspects of our salvation such that we still interact with the law as if non-Christians. I can read the Law and say “this is who Christ is and who He wants me to be- help me to be like You.” Forde agrees with Ferguson’s description of sanctification (though it differs greatly from his own chapter) but faults him on implementation. Perhaps because there is so little implementation in Forde’s scheme (to borrow his phrase).
Wood, the Wesleyan perspective, agrees with much of what Ferguson says but claims that the intention of the heart is what is decisive. That is rather subjective in practice. He takes this to briefly introduce Wesleyan perfeectionism. It is not sinless perfectionism but we’ll get there next time.
Spittler calls himself a “Reformed Pentecostal” and sees much to affirm in Ferguson’s presentation. He would not share Ferguson’s high view of the sacraments. He also thinks there is too much focus on controlling behavior.
The Contemplative response, by Hinson notes that Ferguson makes too little of prayer in his discussion of the means. I suspect Ferguson would agree with this oversight. He then lapses into a great misunderstanding of the Puritans which seems to imply that Ferguson wants to coerce obedience from people, even non-Christians. I really didn’t follow this line of reasoning because it was quite irrational as well as historically inaccurate.