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The Next Faithful Step


I’ve occasionally invited students and other friends to participate in day-long retreats at a near-by Benedictine monastery. As a part of the program I’ve always asked the Retreat Master if one of the community members might address our group on a subject of his choice, and the results have always been fascinating. Once, the monk chose to speak on the four Benedictine vows. The number four surprised me, since I considered myself pretty well familiar with the tradition, and while I had heard of chastity, poverty, and obedience, I had not heard of the fourth: stability. As he expounded it, the vow affirms the grace of remaining in one community on behalf of the spiritual growth that is a part of Christian life. A monk desiring to leave one monastery for another can never assume that it will represent a step forward spiritually. It brought home to me the deep and even fussy intentionality of the monastic determination to grow daily in the life of God.

The concern for the relation between place and progress touches an important element in the biblical idea of sanctification, the term most generally associated with Christian growth. Behind “sanctification” are the Hebrew and Greek words for “holy,” reaching English through the Latin sanctus. But both in the OT and the NT, sanctification at times expresses a position which the people of God inhabit (as being “set apart to holy purposes” or “consecrated” by God for protection and service, as was Jeremiah sanctified “before you were born,” Jer. 1:5), while at other times it describes a process of growth in holiness appropriate to God’s people (as, for example, the ethical command of Lev. 19:2, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord am holy,” echoed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 5:48). To be in the position of serving God implies, for sinners, a never-ending process of development within the holiness of God’s grace. 1 Ducking out from that holy positioning can bring no positive benefit.

It is easy for us to assume that the result of this developing consistency in holiness will be evidenced in consistent Christian practice: daily devotions, church attendance, involvement in community outreach, “not kicking the dog,” and so forth. But the Scriptures point instead to another the goal, namely, the development of fruit of the Spirit. Jesus frequently commended the importance of faith for his followers, and placed love in an even more central role: to love the Lord and to love one’s neighbor is “the greatest commandment” we can hear and obey (Mark 12:28-31). Likewise Paul, whose letters provide us with the most extensive reflections on Christian growth, and who is not at all averse to raise the question of behavior in his churches, sees the deeper key in inward transformation of attitude and intention: “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may ascertain what is the will of God—what is good, acceptable, and perfect” (Rom 12:2).

The fact that the aim has to do with these inner and somewhat elusive aspects of personality points to another basic biblical insight about sanctification: we cannot “make” ourselves holy, but depend utterly at this point upon the sanctifying work of God—“I am the Lord; I sanctify you” (Lev.22:32). This turns out to be very good news, especially as the NT places this demanding task in the very personal hands of the Spirit of God. If conservative Christians, in Christian diligence, tend to burn out in pursuit of principles and laws, and liberals burn out characteristically in pursuit of personal and social ideals, the promise of the Spirit’s personal presence with us in this necessary process distances us from the depersonalizing effects—depersonalizing both in success and in failure—of misguided rigor. Thus Paul refrains from publishing a Christian law, but does require that his congregations “ascertain what is the will of God” in any given circumstance.

Changed behavior is necessary, nevertheless, in the process of sanctification, as we are reminded even from the strictly Calvinistic side.2This prompts the question of what weekly and daily behavior is the most essential as we look to respond to the Spirit. Here there is a wide range of response. The historic position of Roman Catholicism pointed to participation in the seven sacraments, termed collectively “the means of grace;” the seven were understood to imply and enjoin a well-rounded Christian life. Luther reconfigured “the means of grace,” retaining the two “dominical” sacraments (that is, those commanded by the Lord), and adding the hearing of the preached Word of God. The theological thrust of Luther’s insight was to ask what “position” Christians ought to seek in order to make “progress” in the faith, and his answer was essentially that we ought to be found in the places and at the times that God has chosen for self-revelation. Calvin accepted Luther’s critique of the Roman tradition, but opened up further the particular activities that take can place “in” grace: God can use as a means of grace any Christian act of true obedience to Word and Spirit. Ironically this dramatic widening of the question of “what must we do” led to a neglect of the phrase “means of grace” and perhaps a tendency to create laundry lists of good works that Christians ought to pursue “for” grace rather than “in” grace.

There is a huge literature, of course, that addresses the question of Christian ethics and practice. For our purposes, however, as we consider the divine work that is sanctification together with the human response enjoined upon us, we can make a good beginning by asking about our own involvement, and the way we encourage the involvement of others, in the basics of Christian life in family and community, including personal and corporate responsibilities. These activities undertaken “in” grace: it is a fine exercise to jot out what we discern them to be, as an exercise in “ascertaining what is the will of God—that which is good, and acceptable, and perfect.”

A final word may go to Paul, who exhorts us to attend to these matters “with fear and trembling, since God is the one at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:1213).


1 Calvin and Wesley are the two strongest classical voices on sanctification as process. That Wesley saw an additional element of the gift to some of “entire sanctification” cannot be permitted to obscure his basic commitment to everyday progress. See Calvin’s Institutes III.6-10 (Institutes of the Christian Religion [LCC 20; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960] 2.684-725)—sometimes published separately as The Life of the Christian; and Wesley, “Christian Perfection” in Outler and Heitzenrater, ed., John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991) 69-84.

2 For instance, L. Berkhof affirms that “sanctification and good works are most intimately related;” Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941), p. 540.