A Reformed take on sanctification

I was over recently at the Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference run by Rutherford House, this year’s theme being sanctification.

Apart from Edinburgh being effortlessly the best city in the UK and Ireland, if not in much of Europe, it was an enjoyable, educational and stretching couple of days in the splendid surroundings of New College.

New College

IMHO the conference has improved significantly in structure, with plenty of shorter papers over a wide variety of related topics complementing the plenary speakers who included Oliver O’Donovan, Michael Horton, Richard Lints, Henri Blocher and others (very american feel in input and attendees). It was also nice to meet up with my ex-PhD supervisor Derek Tidball who opened the conference by preaching and who’s also our current external examiner at IBI.

The ethos tends to be Reformed, systematic, heavily academic – and while not a way of doing theology that I naturally feel at home with (I much prefer a biblical theology that unfolds the narrative(s) of Scripture as this is what the Bible itself is doing all the time; and I get lost in the sometimes labyrinthine detail of what this and that Reformed theologian thought), I’m glad to learn a huge amount from scholars in this tradition.

I thought I’d give a flavour of a couple of the papers in a couple of posts.

Michael Horton is one of the pre-eminent Reformed theologians around today. Here’s a little bit of what he had to say (in a long and very engaging paper) on divine and human agency in sanctification

Christ died for us, but he does not repent and believe for us. He is the life-giving vine, but we are truly fruit-bearing branches. Our good works arise from our union with Christ, but they really are our good works. It is not the Spirit who is believing and obeying in our place. The Spirit works within us, not for us, so that we are the ones who are “..bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1.10).

Now that sounds at first blush that we ‘co-operate’ with God in our sanctification. In other words, synergism, where some of our spiritual progress is due to God and some to us.

But Horton rejects any form of synergism.

What he wants to hold together here is that sanctification as well as justification is an act of God, appropriated through faith. How do this without making sanctification synergistic between man and God?

(These are my words not his incase I misrepresent things). The key is union with Christ. God’s grace is so poured out into the life of the believer that he/she is liberated from the old nature to be freed to live, through the power of the Spirit, a new life pleasing to God. Our response to God’s grace is ours, but even that assent does not derive from us, but is a work of the Spirit.

And Horton used Herman Bavinck to reinforce this point. The ‘covenant of grace’ is unilateral – it all derives from God. But it is ‘destined to become bilateral, to be consciously and voluntarily kept by humans in the power of God’.

How convincing is this distinction between ‘bilateral’ and ‘synergistic’ to you? Is Horton (and Calvinism) seeking to have his cake and eat it? Or is it a vital distinction to maintain?

How you view Horton’s insistence on monergism (sanctification as well as justification is all a saving work of God’s grace alone) versus synergism (where God and man in some way co-operate, I’m skipping over important details here) – will map out an answer of whether you are of an Arminian or a Calvinist disposition …..

Comments, as ever, welcome.

4 thoughts on “A Reformed take on sanctification

  1. Hi Patrick. Catching up on some reading and found this interesting…

    My opinion? Not convincing. It’s hard to see this as anything but word games – however sincere they may be. Even if the distinction had any real significance (which I have a hard time seeing), it relegates much of what God reveals about himself (real partnership and cooperation with man in regards to sanctification and otherwise) in the Biblical narrative to the realm of anthropomorphism (best case) for our sakes, nonsense, or deceit (worst case). In the end, both Calvinist and Arminian systems have to accept and do their best to explain away self-contradiction and inconsistencies.

    However, I guess no matter where we fall in the spectrum, we all have to live (in one sense or another) like God is in control and like what we do matters! 🙂

  2. Hi Crystal, lovely to hear from you, wise words as usual.

    I know these are important questions but does the problem come back to imposing (?) systematic categories on narratives that are not structured to answer those systematic questions. Hence Horton’s discussion very quickly is into abstract theories of monergism / synergism yet the biblical texts) simply does not speak that way.

    I agree that in the C vs A debate there is much in common – more than often recognised. And how discipleship plays out in the Christian life should look the same! Both believe human faith and repentance are necessary, both believe the gospel is of God’s initiative and grace. Calvinists like Horton will stress what’s said above – God’s elective grace, through the Spirit in those who believe. Arminians will also stress (prevenient) grace available to all who believe …

    [There are a couple of books coming out around now on this old debate. Roger Olson Against Calvinism and Michael Horton Against Arminianism …I plan to read them, may blog on the debate there ..]

  3. Yes, I hear you on that. However useful and important systematic theology may be, we run into problems when we try to force the Scripture to answers tensions that were created by our own systems.

    As for discipleship, the pitfalls of inconsistency are definitely no match for what God can do with a heart that is fully his.

    Still, the C/A debate is a place where every believer who longs to know God will tread, whether or not they are familiar with those terms. Much is implied about human spirituality and the character of God by the conclusions of either perspective. It may be one of these systems or neither, but something is true here – and given the weight of the implications, damage is certainly done when whatever is not true is promoted as the only Biblical option.

    Shocking confession: I have sympathies with the epistemological critiques offered by proponents of open theism. Though, some of their conclusions seem reactionary and Biblically unqualified, I see plenty of merit in the call to reconsider some of the Greek/Eastern philosophical assumptions informing the thoughts of “early” and influential theologians–assumptions that have undeniably shaped Christian theology to varying degrees ever since (the nature of time being a big one in the discussion at hand).

    Were the Greeks right? Maybe, but I’m not willing to stake my understanding of God and his interaction with mankind on a philosophical supposition that I’m not sure the Bible assumes.

    I know Olson has had some sympathies here as well. Be interesting to see if they come up…

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