The Dangers of Shallow Sanctification

 
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Most of us know the satisfaction of crossing something off the to-do list. We look back on a neatly mown lawn, freshly folded laundry, finally filed paperwork, or some other completed task and contentedly sigh. It’s done. We’ve done it. Now we can rest or move on to the next thing.

It’s easy to turn law, even God’s Law, into a to-do list. It’s rather tempting to look back on it like that neatly mown lawn after we’ve had a particularly productive day, our work done, and see it as something from which we can move on to the next thing. This is why the most attractive laws are the ones we feel pretty confident we can keep, and the least attractive are those that seem too cumbersome. This is also why we naturally come down hardest on the sins to which we are not tempted and are wont to explain away those that give us hell. We like to get things done and so the deeds we can do bring the most satisfaction. The problem is that God’s Law, this side of heaven, is never behind us, so long as we remain sinner-saints.

The problem is that God’s Law, this side of heaven, is never behind us, so long as we remain sinner-saints.
— Wade Johnston

Recently I was in a study group with area pastors, and we were discussing the first novella in Bo Giertz’s tremendous book, The Hammer of God. One passage provoked particularly interesting conversation. I relished the insight my brothers were able to offer in response to it. An older, down-to-earth, tested and sifted pastor is speaking to a younger, naïve, newly pious, sincere and yet self-righteous pastor about the Christian life and the Law. He warns him against what we might call shallow sanctification, or opposition to the Law in the name of the Law. He had this to say:

That you begin your day with the Bible instead of Moliere, that you deny yourself a nip of brandy on Saturday nights, that you no longer write coquettish verses with double meanings—that is only picking burrs from your coat, something you can get rid of yourself. But the corruption of sin is something that you cannot put away yourself. For this you need a Redeemer, one who suffers in your place; for otherwise you might as well give up every thought of heaven right now (The Hammer of God, 100).

It’s hard not to want to pick at burrs when it comes to the Law. We want something we can measure up to, with and by. We like thinking we can fix ourselves. We like to think we’re not that bad, that God’s grace is a springboard, a shot in the arm, a nudge in the right direction. But God’s grace is a lot more than that, and His law is much more serious.

We sing in the hymn, “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted”:

“You who think of sin but lightly
Nor suppose the evil great
Here may view its nature rightly,
Here its guilt may estimate.”

When we look to the cross, we are confronted by more than burrs at which to pick. We see God Himself crowned with thorns. We see the Law at work—cursed is He who is hung on a tree (Gal. 3:13). We see a situation much more grave than we imagined, one that puts God in another man’s tomb.

God’s Law is good. It is salutary. It is just. And yet we aren’t, not apart from Christ. The very same Law that condemns the things we think we can manage condemns us. Those burrs are but symptoms. We are children of fallen parents born into a fallen world. We can’t control our thoughts, let alone all our deeds. We are enslaved to sin, and, even worse, we desire it—we sin, according to, not contrary to, our will. What we need isn’t a to-do list. What we need is a Savior.

That same pastor from Giertz’s novella, Linder, who gave the young pastor, Savonius, counsel about the picking burrs from his coat later described the Christian life with these words: “Justus Johan Linder is now condemned to death and lives as a lost and condemned sinner day by day by the grace of his Lord. He sits like a bird and eats from his Redeemer’s hand. And in between, he sits happily in the sunshine” (103).

There is a real danger in filing down the teeth of the law. It is meant to bite, for our good. Even when it serves as a guide for Christians, it still serves to mortify the flesh, the old Adam, and to warn against self-chosen, work-righteous piety. To forget this is to be against the Law, to forget that the Law must stand against you and me for our good, to remind us of our need, and to accuse and condemn. Only then are we ready to listen to the intercession and pardon of our Advocate and Substitute, Jesus Christ, so that we will hunger and thirst for good news, for that righteousness we can’t earn—all gift, all grace.

Opposition to the Law in the name of the Law produces a selfish and shallow “sanctification,” where my spiritual growth is paramount and where my works are the focus. It, therefore, misses the mark, slices right or hooks left (whichever end of the spectrum fuels our desire to be right, salutary, and just in any way but through the Savior).

Rather than calling me to pick burrs off my coat, God’s love strips me of my delusions and cuts to the heart of my disease.
— Wade Johnston

My sanctification is for my neighbor. I need not when I have Christ. My cup overflows. God’s works are the focus, for they are what animate and save. When God’s Law has done its work, God gets busy. He raises the dead, grants rest to the weary, opens the lips of the mute, makes wayward feet beautiful with glad tidings, and puts us on as masks in our vocations to bless those He puts in our place and paths. Rather than calling me to pick burrs off my coat, God’s love strips me of my delusions and cuts to the heart of my disease. This is not meant to leave me naked and in despair, but so the Gospel then clothes me with His righteousness and grants me healing. He has not taken my sin lightly, but has taken it upon Himself and has given Himself for me, for you.

Fellow birds, eat from your Redeemer’s hand, pierced for your transgressions. Eat with joy and sing.

Dr. Wade Johnston has degrees from Martin Luther College, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Central Michigan University, and Erasmus University Rotterdam. He serves as assistant professor of theology at Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and served for ten years in parish ministry in Saginaw, Michigan.




 

 

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