But is there not such a thing as growth in sanctification, progress in the Christian life? No doubt there is a sense in which we can and even should speak in such fashion. But when we do, we must take care, if everything we have been saying up to this point is true. If justification by faith alone rejects all ordinary schemes of progress and renders us simultaneously just and sinners, we have to look at growth and progress in quite a different light.
That brings us back to our thesis: sanctification is the art of getting used to justification. There is a kind of growth and progress, it is to be hoped, but it is growth in grace- a growth in coming to be captivated more and more, if we can so speak, by the totality, the unconditionality, of the grace of God. It is a matter of getting used to the fact that if we are to be saved it will have to be by grace alone. We should make no mistake about: sin is to be conquered and expelled. But if we see that sin is the total state of standing against the unconditional grace and goodness of God, if sin is our very incredulity, unbelief, mistrust, our insistence on falling back on our self and maintaining control, then it is only through the total grace of God that sin comes under attack, and only through faith in that total grace that sin is defeated. To repeat: sin is not defeated by a repair job, but by dying and being raised new.
So it is always as a totality that unconditional grace attacks sin, That is why total sanctification and justification are in essence the same thing. The total sinner comes under the attack of the total gift. That is how the battle begins. How then can we talk about the progress of the battle- the transition, let us call it- from sin to righteousness, old to new?
There are, I believe, two aspects of this transition we need to talk about. The first is that since we always are confronted and given grace as a totality, we find ourselves always starting fresh. As Luther put it, “To progress is always to begin again.” In this life, we never quite get over grace, we never entirely grasp it, we never really learn it. It always takes us by surprise. Again and again we have to be conquered and captivated by its totality. The transition will never be completed this side of the grave. The Christian can never presume to be on the glory road, nor to reach a stage that now forms the basis for the next stage, which can be left behind. The Christian who is grasped by the totality of grace always discovers the miracle anew. One is always at a new beginning. Grace is new every day. Like the manna in the wilderness, it can never be bottled or stored. Yesterday’s grace turns to poison. By the same token, however, the Christian never has an endless process of sanctification to traverse. Since the totality is given, one knows that one has arrived. Christ carries the Christian totally.
Looked at from Luther’s point of view of “always beginning again”, the transition is therefore not a continuous or steady progress of the sort we could recognize. It is rather more like an oscillation between beginning and end in which both are always equally near. The end, the total gift, is constantly and steadily given. But to grasp that we have constantly to begin again- we can never get over it! It is like lovers who just cannot get over the miracle of the gift of love and so are constantly saying it over and over again as though it were completely new and previously unheard of! And so it constantly begins again.
The second aspect of the transition of the Christian from old to new, death to life, is that all our ordinary views of progress and growth are turned upside down. It is not that we are somehow moving toward the goal, but rather that the goal is moving closer and closer to us. This corresponds to the eschatological nature of the New Testament message. It is the coming of the Kingdom upon us, not our coming closer to or building up the Kingdom. That is why it is a growth in grace, not a growth in our own virtue or morality. The progress, if one can call it that, is that we are being shaped more and more by the totality of the grace coming to us. The progress is due to the steady invasion of the new. That means that we are being taken more and more off our own hands, more and more away from self, and getting used to the idea of being saved by the grace of God alone. Our sanctification consists merely in being shaped by, or getting used to, justification.
Getting used to justification means that the old Adam or Eve is being put to death, and this, as Paul put it, “being freed from sin.” How might we conceive of this? Here we must be careful lest in our attempts to describe the matter we once again get seduced into inflating the magnificent hot-air balloon. Being freed from sin by the unconditional promise means that the totality of it begins to overwhelm and destroy our fundamental skepticism and incredulity, our unbelief. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) becomes our prayer. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We begin to trust God rather than ourselves. When Martin Luther talked about these things, he began to talk more about our actual affections than lists of pious things to do.
Under the pressure of the total gift, we might actually begin to love God as God, our God, and to hate sin. Think of it: We might actually begin to dislike sin and to hope for its eventual removal. Ordinarily we feel guilty about our sins and fear their consequences, but we are far from hating them. I expect we do them, in spite of all fears and anxieties, because we like them. Sanctification under the invasion of the new, however, holds out the possibility of actually coming to hate sin, and to love God and his creation, or at least to make that little beginning. It is not that sin is taken away from us, but rather that we are to be taken away from sin- heart, soul, and mind, as Luther put it. In that manner, the law of God is to be fulfilled in us precisely by the uncompromising totality and unconditionality of the grace given.
Sanctification always comes from the whole, the totality. Whether it takes place in little steps, in isolated actions against particular sins, in those tender beginnings, it is always because of the invasion of the new. Always the totality is intensively there- the total crisis, the entire transition, the dying and becoming new.
What is the result of this? It should lead, I expect, to something of a reversal in our view of the Christian life. Instead of viewing ourselves on some kind of journey upward toward heaven, virtue, and morality, our sanctification would be viewed more in terms of our journey back down to earth, the business of becoming human, the kind of creature God made. Our problem is that we have succumbed to the serpent’s temptation, “You shall not die, you shall be as gods.” Creation is not good enough for us; we are always on our way somewhere else. So we even look on sanctification in that light- our “progress” toward being “gods” of some sort. If what we have been saying is true, however, our salvation, our sanctification, consists in turning about and going the other way, getting back down to earth. The trouble we have is that is a long way back for us. To get there we must learn to trust God, to be grasped by the totality of his grace, to become a creature, to become human…
The talk of progress and growth we usually indulge in leads us all too often to do just that. But if we are saved and sanctified only by the unconditional grace of God, we ought to be able to become more truthful and lucid about the way things really are with us. Am I making progress? If I am really honest, it seems to me that the question is odd, even a little ridiculous. As I get older and death draws nearer, it does not seem to get any easier. I get a little more impatient, a little more anxious about having perhaps missed what this life has to offer, a little slower, harder to move, a little more sedentary and set in my ways. It seems more and more unjust to me that now that I have spent a good part of my life “getting to the top”, and I seem just about to have made it, I am already slowing down, already on the way out. A skiing injury from when I was sixteen years old acts up if I overexert myself. I am too heavy, the doctors tells me, but it is so hard to lose weight! Am I making progress? Well, maybe it seems as though I sin less, but that may only be because I’m getting tired! It’s just too hard to keep indulging the lusts of youth. Is that sanctification? I would not think so! One should not, I expect, mistake encroaching senility for sanctification!
But can it be, perhaps, that it is precisely the unconditional gift of grace that helps me to see and admit all that? I hope so. The grace of God should lead us to see the truth about ourselves, and to gain a certain lucidity, a certain sense of humor, a certain down-to-earthness. When we come to realize that if we are going to be saved, it shall have to be absolutely by grace alone, then we shall be sanctified. God will have his way with us at last.
-Gerhard O. Forde, The Preached God: Proclamation in Word and Sacrament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), pp. 240-244