This is my third installment of a blog series on the notion of a Trinitarian and Christologically determined doctrine of the church (or, ecclesiology). The topic which I will be discussing here is sanctification. The Westminster Shorter Catechism provides a good, brief definition of sanctification. It reads, “Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” (WSC Q/A 35).
I will not unpack this definition because our purposes are not narrowly concerned with sanctification but rather with sanctification as understood in relation to the church—more specifically, a Trinitarian and Christologically-determined church. So, I will ask the reader to refer back to the definition supplied if it is unclear what I mean by sanctification in what I write below.
Jesus, throughout the gospels, calls his disciples, and by proxy us, to follow him; to follow him no matter the cost—whether the loss of life, limb or family. Furthermore, by following him he meant dying to this world. In Luke 17:33, Jesus says, “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.” This is a paradigmatic statement; a revolutionary statement. Everything and around us is calling us to preserve ourselves, to protect ourselves. Everything in us is calling us to attempt to “keep” our own lives; to preserve our lives. Notice the emphasis on effort. We are summoned by the Devil, the World and, yes, even Ourselves, to, by our own self-sufficiency, strength, understanding, et al, make every effort to keep our own lives. Yes, Jesus says that whoever follows this path—of self-protection, self-aggrandizement, self-worship—will lose the very thing that they are seeking to preserve.
If you strive for such a thing, we are told, you do not understand anything. We have lost sight of reality; we have lost sight of that in which life consists. We must ask ourselves: is life some arbitrary thing determined by my own efforts or understanding? Or, to go at it a different way: is life something that can even be preserved, kept, by sheer effort? Or is life something else?
John Webster, a recently deceased English theologian, reminds us that God’s role as creator is essential to Christianity. The locus of creation permeates many if not all different areas of theology, so he argues, and as such, we cannot have a truly rich theological outlook apart from creation. Why? The reason is that creation is a sheer gift from God. The Triune Lord ad intra created everything ad extra. Thus, creation signals something about God. God did not create out of necessity, nor did he create out of obligation; rather, he created as a free act of his creative (fecund) love. The prospect of us somehow meriting or earning our existence is impossible, never mind meriting anything else. So, we are faced then, if we accept this, something of weighty import. If we cannot earn or deserve our very existence, our very lives, than any efforts to “keep” such a thing are the height of absurdity, or, dare I say, insanity. One barely has to step outside one’s house to recognize how frail and unpredictable life is; that is, how precarious any such notion of protecting something that is already given as a gift and so easily slips out of our want of a grasp. To fall into this extreme error of protecting and striving to keep what was never yours to keep in the first place is the height of delusion. Moreover, this kind of mindset (or, perhaps better, psychosomatic, spiritual bent) collapses into the very earthly and godless mindset that Christ is implicitly condemning. To climb to the heights of such folly is to move into a functional if not real atheism; it is, in a word, to reject the living God. Let’s put it more positively: if we only take stock of what it even means to be alive, i.e., that this is a gift given by the Triune Creator, then it follows that it is only to him that we ought to (must!) entrust our lives.
This brings us to the second clause of Jesus’ statement: “…whoever loses their life will preserve it.” Jesus is neither promoting suicide nor utter self-abnegation on the lines of merit-based asceticism. Jesus is not offering a natural law of the universe. He is not saying, “despise yourself and you will live.” Rather, he is saying something more radical. If we give up our striving to “keep” ourselves, we will, as paradoxical as it may seem, gain life. If we lose ourselves and willing relinquish our self-protectionism, if we embrace the death of our self-constructed kingdoms, lives, what-have-you, we will gain something far more precious, we will gain the author of life found in the face of Jesus Christ.
You see, Jesus is not saying this as some proverb, maxim, or law, he is speaking to the matter of discipleship, of being conformed to his image, of walking with him who is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14). He is telling his audience that if you want to have the kind of life that lasts, you have to embrace the death of yourself and trust Jesus, knowing that you will live with him eternally.
Numerous biblical passages tell us that we who believe in Christ are no longer our own but our hidden in and owned by Christ. Can you imagine being such a one and yet holding on to the idea that you have to “keep” yourself? In lieu of a detailed summary of the Bible’s teaching on this matter, for my purposes I am going to wax poetic for a minute.
When we belong to a community of believers, a church, we belong to something more than a voluntary society, than a social club, than even a family in the most normal sense of the term. We belong to a heavenly people, a Spirit-shaped, Spirit-transformed and Spirit-indwelt people. The heavenly, eschatological Spirit of God lives in our midst, giving spiritual gifts and producing spiritual fruit. Yet, there is an end, a goal to this. The Spirit is in and among us for the purpose of conforming us to the image of the Son, to the image of the once-humbled-now-risen-and-ascended-Christ (Phil 2). Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s statement is helpful. He writes:
… the world, both inside and outside the Church is always resisting being transformed into the Body of Christ … this means that crucifixion and the piercing of the heart are always going on, and God is ceaselessly wooing man in the Person of the Crucified who, for his part, can do nothing but take ‘all who receive him’ with him unto his Cross (Theo-Drama, vol. 5).
There is something painful about belonging to the body of Christ; it is not somewhere you rest content with yourself, at least not in this life. We resist being transformed to the Son for to be transformed, to be shaped by, to image Jesus is to be taken with him “unto his Cross.” The Spirit of God cuts us; he pierces our hearts. But, he does so not maliciously but rather for our good. The Spirit does so to point us to Christ, driving us to cling to him, and, if we accept that call, as we accept it, we begin to take our place on the dreaded, blood-stained execution instrument: the Cross. We must ask at this point what we are dying to. We are dying to a sin-riddled world; to the just judgment of God’s wrath against us; we are dying to the many crimes that stand against us, indicting us. This is true because the Crucified one did not decay in the grave but defeated death and is risen! And we who are united will rise as well.
Paul writes in 2 Cor 3:3:
And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
Earlier in v. 2, he says, “[y]ou yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts.” There is a mutual exchange here. The ministry of Paul among the Corinthians is a letter of recommendation of his ministry, “written … with the Spirit of the living God,” and this letter is “written on” Paul’s heart as well (and that of his fellow co-laborers). That is to say, Paul was used by the Spirit to transform the Corinthians, and, at the same time, Paul was shaped by them.
This is important for how we understanding the necessity of the church of our sanctification. The Spirit of God calls us to give up ourselves and trustingly cling to Christ by piercing our hearts with those in the church. Every time we are faced with those who part of the visible people of God gathered together, we are called to die to ourselves and live to Christ. There are two basic reasons for this. When we are confronted by someone other than ourselves, we are either encountering someone who is a “letter from Christ,” that is, who speaks of Christ, or, we are encountering someone who is “of the world.” So, in the former, we should see Christ; in the latter, we are called to love in a self-giving manner.
If we are honest with ourselves, we fail to do this. We fail to really receive a brother or sister in Christ as if we are receiving Christ; we fail to love those outside of Christ as Christ loves them. We fail to see beyond our own fears, anxieties, sorrow, or even joy. We are self-absorbed, and, it is only by the Spirit of God that we are able to ascend to the brutality that is the Cross since our thoughts, emotions, and bodies are so far beneath the sublime dignity of this rugged instrument of shame-filled death. We fail to give up our lives and walk with him, trusting that he will truly give us a life that is imperishable. The Spirit, gently yet persistently, convicts us of our lack, of our ever-persistent failure to truly heed the words of Christ, but, as he does so, he is also wooing us to embrace, to cling to Christ. It is as we see, by the Spirit, our lack of faith and love toward God and, as a direct consequence, our lack of love toward those other than ourselves, that the beauty, the glory of the Cross and, for some, the horror of it, is displayed and Christ Crucified is commended to us, and we, in turn, are invited to draw near to him. It is beauty to those who smell the sweet savor of the gospel of God’s unmerited love displayed on the Cross; it is a horror to those who discern that the Crucified Christ is calling them to die, yes, even to themselves.
Yet, let not the horror that we sometimes feel when we hear Christ’s call by his Spirit deter us from coming, from responding. Remember, despite everything that is screaming at you to turn inward, to turn against the Other, if you walk with Jesus, take up your cross, and trust him with your life, loving others as he loved you, though it may feel like death, it can only bring life for the one who you are entrusting yourself to holds “the keys of Death and Hades” and is “alive forevermore” (Rev 1:18).
 God without Measure (Bloomsbury T&T Clark), vol. 1.