26 July 2009

A Question

Can anyone find a single instance of 'progressive sanctification,' qualitatively increasing holiness, in 1, 2 or 3 John?


Gerald Hiestand said...

I've wondered this as well, and I don't think one can find a slam dunk passage. Makes John's epistles interesting to teach through in a local church context. John's soteriology seems pretty stark--either you're a sinner or you're not. Generally, though, I think that's reflective of New Testament soteriology as a whole. Even Paul with his transformation talk maintains a pretty stark contrast between the righteous and the wicked (particularly depending on where you land on Romans 7).

Frankly, I'd like to see a bit of progressive sanctification in John's epistles, so I too am interested to know what others might think.

Dane Ortlund said...

Interesting, exactly what I was thinking Gerald. Darkness, falsehood, sin on one side; light, truth, righteousness on the other, and no middle ground. I'm wondering if not only in John but in the NT as a whole, American evangelicalism has foregrounded a secondary theme (progr sanct) and backgrounded a primary theme: a believer is one who has been placed in the new aeon, the new age, born again, raised to new life. Rom 7 need not even come in - Rom 8 makes the starkest of contrasts b/n flesh and Spirit, with, again, no middle ground. After all, most NT uses of 'sanctify' speak of a past point in time.

Bottom line: I'm wondering if 'growth' in the NT, while certainly there, is mainly a growing in (1) awareness of our sin and (2) awareness of our need for Jesus (as my friend Brian Martin put it to me recently).


Gerald Hiestand said...

I'm wondering if not only in John but in the NT as a whole, American evangelicalism has foregrounded a secondary theme (progr sanct) and backgrounded a primary theme: a believer is one who has been placed in the new aeon, the new age, born again, raised to new life.

I think this is exactly right.

Eric said...

Dane, this is a fascinating comment . . . mostly because it describes my experience of "growing" as a Christian for many years now - not getting over sins, but increasingly realizing how despicable I am how much I need Jesus. I'm sure God is growing me as a Christian, but I've felt more sinful every year I've been alive for a long time now.

Now that I think about it, "growth" and "increase" language is relatively infrequent in Paul: he talks about increasing in knowledge (I believe in Colossians?) and that the church grows with a growth from God (2.19). But, as you say, making that primary - as I did as an early Christian - is foregrounding and imbalancing what is secondary in Paul. Paul does talk about putting to death what is earthly in us, and presumably God helps you get better at that over time. But there's so, so much on the other side of what God has done for us. Your thoughts?

Dane Ortlund said...

Thanks Eric. I agree.

You mention Col 3:5 which i think is a typical example of a text that is understood as a 'growth' text when it is not but rather a passage exhorting us to be who we are, to stamp out once and for all our sins since we have put off once and for all (not are putting off) the old self. A similar sounding text is Rom 8:13, which may be a growth text, and which Owen certainly took that way in Mortif. of Sin.

Other growth texts are Eph 4:15-16; Heb 5:12-14?; 1 Pet 2:2-3; 1 Cor 3:2-3?; Phil 1:25; 1 Tim 4:15. A key word here is *auxano*, 'increase.' But still, to take these last 2 texts - they speak of 'progress,' *prokope*. Yet it is precisely his prokope in Judaism that Paul considered rubbish in Phil 3 so that he might know nothing but Christ. There was a kind of 'development' he perceived himself to be experiencing in his religious dutifulness and education that became his functional god. And in one sense, conversion, for Paul, meant the end, no the beginning of prokope. (I realize his advancing in Judaism was not focused on Christ etc so it's largely comparing apples and oranges)

Still, what I'm wondering is, might it be that not only in ancient Judaism but contemporary Christianity we are so quick to latch on to this idea of progress because, to be frank, it makes us feel better; it gives us a concrete, felt measure of security that we are bettering ourselves; all the while, Christ becomes more distant and we wonder why our prayer life has withered. Could it be because we have built our spiritual identity not on Christ and him crucified but on our self-perceived prokope, becoming self-focused and therefore either proud or desparing, and all in the name of our zeal for 'progressive sanctification'?

Is it right to tell people: 'you're justified by faith and sanctified by faith, so now get busy, by faith, getting better'? Or is the main progress we make, as you say, in seeing our wretchedness and the glory of the gospel?

One reason I'm on this topic right now is the architectonic shift I'm currently undergoing in my eschatology, due largely to Beale and Gaffin and Vos, in which I am viewing esch. not as 'last things' so much as viewing all Christian theology as some facet of eschatology - the central point being that the new age has broken in decisively on us. I don't want to be overrealized, but I have been underrealized for some time! We simply have not felt the weight of the inbreaking new world and all-transforming reality of having been made, by grace, irreversibly, a part of it.

Way too much! Sorry.

Gerald said...

This is an interesting discussion. I wonder if I'm seeing it from a different perspective. Eric's (and Dane's?) concern with focusing too much on growth seems driven by a fear that the Christian will loose sight of his dependence on God's justifying grace. This seems Lutheran in many respects, where growth in holiness means more deeply realizing how sinful I am, not actually becoming more Christ-like (a false alternative, and not a reflection of Luther, to be sure).

But my concern with focusing too much on the growth language in Scripture is that it can end up being a cop out. Kind of a "yeah, well, I may still look at porn, be a materialist, and scream at my kids, but after all, Christians aren't perfect. We're all growing." OK, that's a bit overstated, but you get my point.

From what I can tell, the NT expects a radical life transformation at the moment of conversion. Something decisive occurs whereby the old me is crucified and the new me is raised with Christ. And this extends beyond forensic categories; John and Peter's "born again language" and Paul's "risen with Christ" language seems pointed directly at ontological renewal. Thus while the NT does speak of growth/progress in holiness, there should nonetheless remain a marked difference between one who has been born again, risen with Christ, etc., and one who has not. Of course, none of this negates the fact that the more we mature in Christ the more we will see with clarity the many ways we still fall short. But I think we're better viewing Christ-likeness as the chief mark of spiritual maturity, rather than being aware of how sinful we are.

So I guess the point I'm trying to make (perhaps poorly), is that I suspect the NT doesn't speak much about growth in holiness largely because its eschatology is more realized than we've given it credit for. We live under-realized, anemic lives, and then read that back into the New Testament.

Like Dane, my eschatology was under-realized for too long. I'm probably still needing to correct my over-correction. But as a pastor, I've grown particularly weary of the "just forgiven" gospel.

Dane Ortlund said...

Thanks Gerald, good stuff. I largely agree. But yes, I may be more 'Lutheran' as you put it.

Here's a text I'm wrestling with - I wonder what you think of it. In 2 Pet 1, at the end of a litany of descriptors of spiritual growth ('add to your virtue, knowledge, and to this godliness, etc), which is introduced by a call to effort (!), the climax is: 'whoever lacks these things/qualities is blind, having forgotten he was cleansed from his former sins.' Not: 'having forgotten that he is called to Christlike maturity.' Certainly v. 10 calls us to self-examine. But the meaning of v 9 seems to be: sanctification takes place as you remember, and reflect more deeply upon, justification.

Gerald said...

Hmmm... Good text. I've not given it a ton of thought before, so this is a bit of shooting from the hip.

The Greek katharismos could be pointing back to justification (i.e., forensic righteousness), as you say. But it could also be pointing back to the initial ontological renewal that occurs at conversion. The term is used frequently to speak of cultic/levitcal purification (Heb 1.3, Luke 5.14, 2.22, etc.), and I'm inclined to think the Levitical purification system typified more than legal cleansing, but ontological renewal as well. The whole point of the New Covenant (to which the old covenant pointed typologically) is not simply that we get our sins forgiven for good this time, but rather through the circumcision of the heart we become the kind of people who will (ultimately) no longer need forgiveness.

So I think I'd rather take Peter to mean, "When we loose sight of our past ontological renewal we compromise our ability to live out the reality of all that God has made us to be in Christ." To me, this makes more sense of Peter's point. Forgetting that I've been renewed seems more likely to compromise my present growth in holiness, than forgetting that I've been forgiven.

Gerald said...

And you mention Gaffin...Have you read his "Centrality of the Resurrection"? If you haven't read it yet, I strongly recommend it. I think he talks about justification there in a away that ties together judicial cleansing and ontological renewal in a way that not even Calvin was able to achieve. When it comes to soteriology, Gaffin is my favorite Reformed theologian.

Dane Ortlund said...

Thanks Gerald, helpful. I am learning.

I'm not using 'justif' in its technical, Pauline, forensic sense, so much as trying to point out that Peter holds out the reality of cleansing from former sins as the engine that fuels progress in holiness, which is not how we normally think of progr. sanct. Seems counterintuitive. I see your point about cleansing and that it is more than, or other than, 'legal.' Still, 'Legal' and 'ontological' is not quite the polarity I want to set up. But I see your point about cleansing and receive it.

Love Gaffin (not in an episcopalian way). Read his bk on the res and was helped. He drove home for me that union with Christ is the fundamental soteriological category under which all else, even justif (now in a more technical sense!), is subsumed.

Gerald said...

Good stuff, Dane. Keep pressing on!