Completed by the Spirit Part 4: The ‘Poverty of our Sanctification?’

This is the fourth part of a series of posts adapted from a paper I pre­sented at a New Covenant The­ol­ogy think tank in upstate New York in July 2010.

Ed Trefzger

Ed Trefzger

Despite Paul’s warn­ings that the law arouses sin, many will point to the law as a prime mover in sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion, essen­tial to con­vict­ing us about our remain­ing sin and mea­sur­ing our growth in holi­ness. In doing so, they will attempt to draw a dis­tinc­tion between being “under the law” and fol­low­ing the law. For example:

This con­vict­ing use of the law is also crit­i­cal for the believer’s sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion, for it serves to pre­vent the res­ur­rec­tion of self-righteousness — that ungodly self-righteousness which is always prone to reassert itself even in the holi­est of saints. The believer con­tin­ues to live under the law as a life­long penitent.

This chas­ten­ing work of the law does not imply that the believer’s jus­ti­fi­ca­tion is ever dimin­ished or annulled. From the moment of regen­er­a­tion, his state before God is fixed and irrev­o­ca­ble. He is a new cre­ation in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 5:17). He can never revert to a state of con­dem­na­tion nor lose his son­ship. Nev­er­the­less, the law exposes the ongo­ing poverty of his sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion on a daily basis. He learns that there is a law in his mem­bers such that when he would do good, evil is present with him (Rom. 7:21). He must repeat­edly con­demn him­self, deplore his wretched­ness, and cry daily for fresh appli­ca­tions of the blood of Jesus Christ that cleanses from all sin (Rom. 7:24; 1John 1:7, 9).[1]

Is that really what the Chris­t­ian walk should be, one of  repeated per­sonal con­dem­na­tion? If there is “now no con­dem­na­tion for those in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), does that now mean the believer must sup­ply his own self-condemnation? What a dis­mal, rot­ten and piti­ful exis­tence that author describes! What a hor­rid depic­tion of a Chris­t­ian life!

Indeed, that descrip­tion does reflect a law that “doth bind the believer”[2] (as the West­min­ster Con­fes­sion of Faith states) and not a free­dom in which believ­ers have been set free (Gal 5:1).[3] And the author (per­haps unwit­tingly) makes an excel­lent argu­ment for the man of Romans 7 being a believer by advo­cat­ing that Chris­tians should be mis­er­able about their sin as they per­form their daily “Protes­tant penance.”

It is the Spirit that sanc­ti­fies, not the law in a fleshly exer­cise of behav­ior mod­i­fi­ca­tion. Des­per­a­tion and more sin­ful­ness are the results of a focus on law for sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion instead of avail­ing one’s self of the Holy Spirit and behold­ing with awe the per­son and work of Jesus Christ.

There’s yet another dan­ger that comes from a sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion the­ol­ogy that focuses on law. A heavy dose of moral­is­tic preach­ing from the pul­pit at the expense of the gospel can and does lead to the pro­duc­tion of a gen­er­a­tion of non-evangelized Phar­isees. Pas­tors and par­ents, we can­not pre­sume that there is a sav­ing knowl­edge of the gospel among young peo­ple, no mat­ter whether they were born to Chris­t­ian par­ents or not.

A law-focused pul­pit and a gospel-presuming pul­pit are a toxic mix.

We might also ask about the phrase “poverty of our sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion.” By what means do we mea­sure our sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion and how poor we have pro­gressed? Those who advo­cate the third use of the law would use the law to mea­sure our progress. Yet that is the very same law that Paul tells us arouses sin.

There­fore, Paul does not tell us to use the law as the mea­sur­ing stick of our sanctification.

Next: Com­pleted by the Spirit Part 5: We Serve In The Spirit

[1] Joel R. Beeke, “The Place of the Third Use of the Law in Reformed The­ol­ogy” (Con­cor­dia The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary, 2005), 5–6.
[2] West­min­ster Con­fes­sion of Faith, XIX/v.
[3] Beeke con­cludes his paper with the argu­ment that bind­ing users under the law actu­ally pro­duces free­dom. Per­haps an anal­ogy would be that keep­ing train­ing wheels on bicy­cles actu­ally pro­duces Lance Armstrong.

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