Monday, April 22, 2013

Forde's Article "The Lutheran View of Sanctification"

Much of the contemporary debate on sanctification stems from Gerhard Forde's essay "the Lutheran View of Sanctification", published in the volume Five Views on Sanctification, and republished in The Preached God (these are the page numbers I will be referencing). This article has not only influenced the liberal to moderate circles of which Forde himself was involved, but conservative Lutheranism, and even certain Reformed writers.

Forde's main thesis is that sanctification is simply "the art of getting used to justification." (226) Forde's contention is that sanctification and justification are synonymous realities that need not be carefully distinguished. "In fact, the Scriptures rarely, if ever, treat sanctification as a movement distinct from justification." (229)Divorcing the discussion of sanctification from justification allows one to fall into moralism and lose the unconditional nature of the gospel. Forde equates the majority view of sanctification with moralism. He argues that we "make the mistake of equating sanctification with what we might call the moral life." (227) The two primary errors in this approach are that it makes sanctification about works, and it conflates civil righteousness with that which one needs to stand before God.

The problem with Forde's definition of sanctification is that it doesn't exhaust the Biblical and Confessional testimonies on the subject. There is a sense in which sanctification involves a greater understand of grace. As the knowledge of one's own sin increases, so does one's understanding of the forgiveness of sins. In this sense, our sanctification involves "getting used to justification." Yet, at the same time, there are ethical and moral implications to sanctification. On this point, Forde falls into a false dichotomy. Either justification and sanctification are synonymous, or God's unconditional grace is lost. Forde argues that "the distinction between justification and sanctification is a strictly dogmatic one made because people got nervous about what would happen when unconditional grace was preached, especially in Reformation times." (230) This sweeping statement contains no reference, and presumes a motivation on the part of those who utilize the distinction which isn't always there. The distinction between justification and sanctification is not a post-Reformation dogmatic tradition, but is inherent in Church teaching from the first centuries of the Church.

The early church distinguished between the forgiveness of sins that one receives through baptism, confession, and the Eucharist, from the inward work of God wherein the Christian's actions are changed. The terminology was often in terms of theosis rather than sanctification, but the same distinction between forgiveness of sins, and the destruction of the sin nature applies. This distinction applied throughout the middle ages and into the Reformation period itself. Unfortunately. Forde's essay has barely any footnotes or references, and so I am unsure where he sees this supposed shift in the dogmatic tradition between identifying sanctification as justification. I presume that Forde sees this error arising as early as the Formula of Concord which distinguishes between justification and sanctification precisely in the manner that Forde criticizes,

"Therefore, even if the converted and believers have the beginnings of renewal, sanctification, love, virtues, and good works, yet these cannot, should not, and must not be introduced or mixed with the article of justification before God." SD III.35

Though Forde seeks to divorce sanctification from morality, placing it solely in the civil sphere, the Formula connects sanctification with virtue and good works, which would certainly be considered "moral issues." In fact, Websters Dictionary cites "virtue" as a synonym for "morality." Unless Forde has an extremely unusual definition of morality, he disagrees with the Formula on this point. Paul himself equates sanctification with certain moral issues as well,

"Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you." (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8)

Forde sees a genuine problem within the contemporary church that he seeks to correct: moralism. However, Forde's solution is not tenable, as it ignores certain aspects of Scripture, the Confessions, and the catholic tradition. Rather than denying sanctification (or at least central parts of sanctification), the solution is to teach a more robust doctrine of justification. The problem with many evangelical churches is not that they don't equate sanctification and justification, but that they lack a proper understanding of justification. If justification is simply a one-time event, an entrance term at the beginning of one's life of faith, then sanctification takes the central position, and grace can be lost in the mix. We need to emphasize justification as the central reality of the Christian's life. Justification is not just an "entrance term" but defines our entire life in Christ. Justification is continual, not as a process, but as the continuous life giving declaration that our sins are forgiven. This occurs through the sacraments of Baptism, Holy Absolution, and the Eucharist. This solution to moralism, rather than Forde's, is consistent with Scripture, the catholic tradition, and the sacramental theology of the Lutheran Church.

One of the primary issues with Forde's article is that he doesn't do any real exegetical work, and doesn't explain how his position is consistent with various passages of Scripture. He even brings up the question, "Does the Bible not follow the declaration of grace with certain exhortations and imperatives?" (232). But rather than answering this valid question, Forde retorts, "So the protestations go, for the most part designed to reimpose at least a minimal conditionality on the promise." (232) These types of pithy and dismissive responses characterize Forde's work on this issue. Rather than dealing with the Biblical data, he dismisses any opposition as a denial of unconditional grace.

Forde basically limits all talk of sanctification to one solitary passage in Scripture, Romans 6. On this text Forde states, "Actually, all evangelical treatment of sanctification should be little more than comment on this passage." (233) Rather than taking the Biblical data as a whole and consequently analyzing it, Forde takes one section of Scripture, isolates it, and then determines it to be the sole determinative text on sanctification. Ironically, the text doesn't even use the term "sanctification" as does the above quoted statement from 1 Thessalonians which would refute Forde's primary contention. While Paul does certainly point Christians back to the gospel in Romans 6 as the means of sanctification, that doesn't deny the fact that ethical exhortation is a necessary part of the Pastoral office. Romans 6 cannot be pitted against Romans 8, or Romans 12-15. These texts simply don't fit into Forde's system which equates morality purely with civil righteousness. If Paul were talking about civil righteousness, why would the discussion begin with the phrase, "in view of God's mercies" (Rom 12:1)?

One final issue I have with this essay is that Forde reverses the existential order of Law and Gospel. For Forde, the gospel, the message of God's unconditional grace, comes first, and consequently one understands sin. "We begin to see the truth of the situation when we realize that because God had to do that, we must have been at the same time sinners. God would be wasting his breath declaring people to be righteous if they were not actually and wholly sinners!" (238) Our understanding of sin, in Forde's view, arises from the unconditional nature of the gospel. If God's grace is unconditional, then I must be a sinner and have nothing to do with my own redemption. This reverses the traditional approach that the Law shows sin, and consequently the gospel shows God's grace. Ironically, Forde agrees here with Krister Stendahl's critique of the traditional Lutheran view, wherein he argues that "solution precedes plight."

It has to be said that Forde does allow for progress in sanctification in some sense. He says, "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 to speak, by the totality, the unconditionality, of the grace of God." (240) But this growth is really a growth, not in good works, but in understanding justification better, or, "getting used to the fact that if we are to be saved it will have to be by grace alone." (240) He describes this as a process wherein God is coming down to us. It is a downward movement, rather than upward moral progress. In this context, he is willing to say "it is not that sin is taken away from us, but rather that we are taken away from sin - heart, soul, and mind, as Luther put it." (242) In some sense then, Forde is willing to say that Christians begin to hate sin, and even stop "particular sins" (242) The good works of the Christian are real, and they show themselves through earthly things, through vocation, and love of neighbor. He rejects the idea of deification, or any "upward movement" of the soul toward God.

I am glad that Forde can speak of progress, yet the way that growth is explained is one dimensional. Growth demonstrates itself almost exclusively in having a greater understanding of justification. This simply does not comport with the Biblical data. It is certainly true, but not to the exclusion of other aspects of growth in faith. Forde is also right in his eschatological emphasis, and his focus on vocation. However, again, he is teaching truth to the exclusion of other realities. The Christian does move toward the goal, just as the goal moves toward him. Paul is willing to say that he presses on toward the goal. (Philippians 3:14) This is not a purely downward movement. Also, vocation is not all there is to say about the Christian life. It is certainly a central theme in Scripture, and Luther's writings, but there are other important themes as well. Involved in growth is communion with the Trinity - participation in God that works itself out through prayer, the sacraments, the divine liturgy, etc. While good works are performed "downward" there is also an upward movement of the soul toward God. This is even confessed in our liturgy. We are to "lift up our hearts" to the Lord.

Frankly, of all the work of Forde that I have read, this article is the weakest. Forde adopts certain important Biblical themes, but in doing that he denies others. He doesn't deal seriously with the Biblical text, the Confessional tradition, or even cite the theology he is critiquing. I am personally amazed that this article has had such a broad impact on the church.


Jim Wilson said...

Getting used to justification? Used to it? My what a robust anthropology Forde assumes.

God forfend I ever am 'used' to the daily astonishment which is His imposition of Grace on my sodden pile of wormfood.

"Used" HA! Guy must be one of those mystics the kids with their 78's and pegged cords are always on about.

Steve Martin said...

Getting used to the fact that He has done it all.

Nope. We just can't leave it alone. We want to have a dog in that fight. We want to 'DO' something.

'Doing something' is what got us into this mess to begin with.

Forde is spot on. "Sanctification is forgetting about yourself."

Anonymous said...

I think there is a sense in which you may be misrepresenting Paul when you say: " Paul is willing to say that he presses on toward the goal. (Philippians 3:14)" What goal is Paul pressing towards? He says he's pressing toward an upward call, rather than a return to the moralism that had plagued him in his pre Damascus Road days. How about "not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith?" In Paul's previous life his 'blamelessness according to the law' could survive a jihadist's understanding of sanctification, but was worth 'dung' in reality, so he was leaving it behind to press on toward not having that kind of blamelessness.

If we allow Hagar and Ishmael to push their noses into the tent flap to better instruct Isaac in his growth and sanctification, eventually, as Paul points out in Galatians 4, a certain persecution become inevitable. Paul writes from experience as a former persecutor.

Suppose Forde is trying to save us from this illusion of thinking we can improve morally to the point where we begin to also persecute the church of God. Rather let us be 'set apart' as Paul was when God calls us by his grace and likewise reveals his Son in us.

As I recall, Forde's article appeared in a book contrasting five Protestant views on sanctification. Should not the question be whether he has fairly represented a Lutheran view as opposed to Reformed views, etc?

Sorry that my comments are a bit rambling and inchoate.

Bruce Zittlow

Jordan Cooper said...

But Steve, that isn't an argument. That's the problem, Forde just says things like this without any real exegesis, and without answering all of the valid questions that people bring up.

Steve Martin said...


I gave you plenty of arguments from Scripture in your previous posts.

I don't they matter to you.

"Christ is the end of the law for all those who have faith."

"He sanctifies us and justifies us..." (notice the order in that one)

There are plenty more.

Some people just cannot let go of the sanctification project. Jesus is pleased when we act (for others) and have no self-consciousness about it. "When did we do those things?"

Forde had it right. And so do many, many more Lutherans and Christians.

Jordan Cooper said...

I'm not sure exactly how you are using that verse from Romans. Are you trying to say that the Law has no relevance to the Christian? This is one of the most hotly disputed verses in the book of Romans, because the term "telos" can just as well be translated as "goal." In other words, Christ is the goal of the Law. The Law pointed to Christ and was fulfilled in him. The goal of the Law for us is ultimately to point us to Christ.

The second thing you bring up is easily answered in that the term sanctification is used in two different ways throughout Scripture. I have pointed this out many times.

Steve Martin said...


The law has NO relevance for righteousness. None.

But, on this plane, it has plenty.

Anonymous said...

Professor John Brug of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary wrote a paper on the Lutheran doctrine of sanctification. At the end of the paper, he offers a critique of Forde's teaching of sanctification.

The paper can be found at:

Jordan Cooper said...

Thanks, someone else sent me that paper recently. I agree with his critiques.

SamWise said...

etai conversi et in Christum credentes habent inchoatam in se renovationem sanctificationem dilectionem virtutes et bona opera

SD III: 35 (Triglotta Latin)

"happens if they be converted and believed in Christ, the sanctification of the renewal of the love of our virtues and good works in themselves, they have begun"

BW said...

I may be a little late to the party here but I was reading Rev. Sonntag's translation of Luther's Antinomian Theses and Disputations, and I kept finding passages that really jumped out at me about this whole sanctification debate. Here's two:

"But still, as I said, we are free even from this law in a twofold way, and it ceases through Christ, since he fulfills that emptiness, and I do so in him. First imputatively, since sins against the law are not imputed to me and are pardoned on account of the most precious blood of the immaculate Lamb, Jesus Christ my Lord. Then, in a purging manner, because the Holy Spirit is given me. After receiving him, I begin to hate wholeheartedly everything that offends his name and I become a pursuer of good works. What is left in me of sin, this I purge until I become totally pure, and this in the same Spirit who is given on Christ's account."

A few pages later...

"Nor is also that righteousness of the law in us, as our proposition stated, simply poison by itself. But in the case when a man, whoever he might be, makes assumptions concerning himself, and his salvation because of that righteousness, there it becomes poison. In the saints, on the other hand, it is highly commended because they have the Holy Spirit who works in them such virtues according to his own way."

Philip said...

Jordan, I think Jesus' "High Priestly Prayer" is a good exegetical text for Forde's understanding of sanctification:

13 νῦν δὲ πρὸς σὲ ἔρχομαι, καὶ ταῦτα λαλῶ ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ ἵνα ἔχωσιν τὴν χαρὰν τὴν ἐμὴν πεπληρωμένην ἐν ⸀ἑαυτοῖς. 14 ἐγὼ δέδωκα αὐτοῖς τὸν λόγον σου, καὶ ὁ κόσμος ἐμίσησεν αὐτούς, ὅτι οὐκ εἰσὶν ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου καθὼς ἐγὼ οὐκ εἰμὶ ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου. 15 οὐκ ἐρωτῶ ἵνα ἄρῃς αὐτοὺς ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου ἀλλ’ ἵνα τηρήσῃς αὐτοὺς ἐκ τοῦ πονηροῦ. 16 ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου οὐκ εἰσὶν καθὼς ἐγὼ ⸂οὐκ εἰμὶ ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου⸃. 17 ἁγίασον αὐτοὺς ἐν τῇ ⸀ἀληθείᾳ· ὁ λόγος ὁ σὸς ἀλήθειά ἐστιν. 18 καθὼς ἐμὲ ἀπέστειλας εἰς τὸν κόσμον, κἀγὼ ἀπέστειλα αὐτοὺς εἰς τὸν κόσμον· 19 καὶ ὑπὲρ αὐτῶν ἐγὼ ἁγιάζω ἐμαυτόν, ἵνα ⸂ὦσιν καὶ αὐτοὶ⸃ ἡγιασμένοι ἐν ἀληθείᾳ. 20 Οὐ περὶ τούτων δὲ ἐρωτῶ μόνον, ἀλλὰ καὶ περὶ τῶν πιστευόντων διὰ τοῦ λόγου αὐτῶν εἰς ἐμέ, 21 ἵνα πάντες ἓν ὦσιν, καθὼς σύ, ⸀πάτερ, ἐν ἐμοὶ κἀγὼ ἐν σοί, ἵνα καὶ αὐτοὶ ἐν ⸀ἡμῖν ὦσιν, ἵνα ὁ κόσμος ⸀πιστεύῃ ὅτι σύ με ἀπέστειλας.

13 But now I come to You; and these things I speak in the world so that they may have My joy made full in themselves. 14 I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 15 I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them [d]from [e]the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. 18 As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. 19 For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.

20 “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; 21 that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.

John 17:13 - 21. (NASB is the English Translation)

Just looking at 17:17 we see this notion of sanctification as alien righteousness. Now when I say alien righteousness I am not using the Barthian paradigm. (Pannenberg and Bonhoeffer sorted that out very nicely in their own ways.) What I refer to is the fact that the sensus divinitatis must propel people to understanding and makes sense of the world.

Philip said...

This gets back to another problem in your posting. This is primarily because of different definitions of what the law is and does. I need not point out that in the three uses of the law, there is not one mention of sanctifying sinners. Perhaps that is a reductio ad absurdum use of your argument. Yet, that is how it sounds.

I honestly do not see your thrust here and most children of the Reformation probably wouldn't either. Forde doesn't destroy sanctification, he places it within its proper paradigm. Not just Paul, but Christ himself, spoke of good works being inseparable from a heart turned upon God.

Perhaps I am reading your posting wrong, but I find it to waffle between aquiesence to Forde's statements, ("As the knowledge of one's own sin increases, so does one's understanding of the forgiveness of sins. In this sense, our sanctification involves "getting used to justification."" or "It has to be said that Forde does allow for progress in sanctification in some sense."), but then you turn around and make an argument against a very contrived reading of Forde.

Here is the main reason for challenging you. I admire your work. I may disagree with you, but I really do admire what you do. (I enjoyed the piece where you countered the contemporary re-baptizers.) I also admire how many people in the Missouri Synod and like-minded Lutheran bodies are at the forefront of reengaging the Church Fathers. However, such a reengagement is usually too much reliant on the Catholic notions of justification by faith and works. I believe you have honest questions about Forde, but you ascribe to him certain motivations that would be alien to him. Forde was an ALC Lutheran (where some of the most stalwart orthodox Lutherans left of the Missouri Synod and far to the right of the fruitcakes originated). I believe there is an error of paranoia in insinuating that Forde was secretly of their ilk or at least could cause people to stray into their fold.

This leads to my real reason for the comment, I worry that the conservative Lutherans sometimes are reactionary for the sake of being reactionary. I am a member of the LCMC and NALC. I have fought back against the excesses of the ELCA. I have the battle scars. But lets not fight battles that do not need to be fought. Let us not let works' righteousness sneak in the back door when we are fighting antinomian disestablishment legalism at the front door. That is my concern.