How to be sanctified

“Let your mind be renewed” (Romans 12:1-2). Is that a command to pray for renewal (law, second commandment), a command to diligently hear and learn the word of God (law, third commandment), or an invitation to believe the promise of forgiveness (gospel)?

As Anders Nygren pointed out in his commentary, Paul had just proclaimed the good news that “he who through faith is righteous shall live” (Romans 1) in freedom from wrath (Romans 5), sin (Romans 6), the law (Romans 7), and death (Romans 8) in agreement with God’s promise to Abraham (Romans 9-11). Thus, Romans 12:1-2 invites the audience to be renewed by believing that good news.  The good works of the remainder of the book result from that renewal of the mind.

The new nature against the old nature

As a saint, the Christian keeps the law already and does not need to be told to do so. As a sinner, the Christian does not keep the law and needs to be told to do so.

Upon hearing the law, the Christian daily repents and turns to the promise of forgiveness in the means of grace. That is the only way the Christian is truly sanctified and renewed by the Spirit.

For that reason, the new nature has in itself no need of hearing the Decalogue from a pastor or of reading the Decalogue in the Scriptures. The Christian has such a need, still having the old, sinful nature. That is why Decalogue is to be preached to Christians and not only to unbelievers, not that the new nature needs it.

The response of the Christian to the Decalogue is to slay the old nature by returning to baptism in repentance and faith in the gospel since the Decalogue in itself can never sanctify. (While the Decalogue tells us what to do, it does not tell us how to do it.) Sanctification comes only with justification as the sinner-saint daily hears the Decalogue and dies and rises again in baptism to walk in newness of life.

The necessity of properly distinguishing the old nature from the new nature is clear in the writings of Luther. As Article VI of the Formula of Concord says, were it not for the fact that did the Christian has the sinful nature, there would be no need for hearing the Decalogue.

Luther’s stress on the distinction between the old nature and the new nature is striking in how much importance it gives to that teaching, as found in Paul’s letters, compared to the minor role it has in Calvinism and Reformed theology more generally. An error of Reformed theology is to inadequately make the distinction, leading to confusion of law and gospel.*

There should be no doubt that he who is born again cannot sin, that sin is lawlessness, and that anyone who sins has not been born of God according to St. John’s first epistle. At the same time, no good thing dwells in the Christian according to St. Paul. Whereas Calvinists and other Reformed Protestants harmonize the two scriptural teachings into a progressive view of sanctification in accordance with their reason, Lutherans embrace the paradox by recognizing that they speak of the new nature and the old nature, respectively.* In this, they follow the apostolic texts themselves. For example, Romans 7:18 clarifies that no good thing dwells in the flesh of the Christian.

The new nature already knows the law and has no need to hear it preached, but the Christian needs it to reprove him. In the words of the Formula of Concord,

“And, indeed, if the believing and elect children of God were completely renewed in this life by the indwelling Spirit, so that in their nature and all its powers they were entirely free from sin, they would need no law, and hence no one to drive them either, but they would do of themselves, and altogether voluntarily, without any instruction, admonition, urging or driving of the Law, what they are in duty bound to do according to God’s will; just as the sun, the moon, and all the constellations of heaven have their regular course of themselves, unobstructed, without admonition, urging, driving, force, or compulsion, according to the order of God which God once appointed for them, yea, just as the holy angels render an entirely voluntary obedience . . .

“For the old Adam, as an intractable, refractory ass, is still a part of them, which must be coerced to the obedience of Christ, not only by the teaching, admonition, force and threatening of the Law, but also oftentimes by the club of punishments and troubles, until the body of sin is entirely put off, and man is perfectly renewed in the resurrection, when he will need neither the preaching of the Law nor its threatenings and punishments, as also the Gospel any longer; for these belong to this [mortal and] imperfect life.”

Article V of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession also explains putting off the body of sin and rising to new life in terms of repentance and faith:

“. . . there is first terror and anxiety in the conscience. Thus contrition and faith go side by side. One is putting off the body of sins; the other is the rising again through faith. Neither ought these words, mortification, quickening, putting off the body of sins, rising again, to be understood in a Platonic way, concerning a feigned change; but mortification signifies true terrors, such as those of the dying, which nature could not sustain unless it were supported by faith. So he names that as the putting off of the body of sins which we ordinarily call contrition, because in these griefs the natural concupiscence is purged away. And quickening ought not to be understood as a Platonic fancy, but as consolation which truly sustains life that is escaping in contrition. Here, therefore, are two parts: contrition and faith. For as conscience cannot be pacified except by faith, therefore faith alone quickens, according to the declaration, Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17: The just shall live by faith.”

Thereby raised, the new nature delights in the law, meditating on God’s word day and night (Psalm 1; 119).

* On the remarks about the Calvinistic branch of Reformed theology, see David Scaer’s article (note 20 of page 243); the top of page 238 is relevant to the continual complaint that Lutherans would be more sanctified if their pastors better understood the third use of the law. David Scaer exhibits a penetrating grasp of Reformed theology. He calls the Lutheran position by contrast “Nestorian” in its teaching on the old Adam and the new Adam striving against each other in the same Christian.

Sanctification by the gospel

Luther’s Large Catechism clearly places sanctification under the second and third articles of the Creed, which it presents as a statement of the gospel, not the law. (It instead presents the law in terms of the Ten Commandments.) In excluding the law from sanctification, Luther faithfully followed St. Paul (Galatians 3). 

To put it another way, the Spirit sanctifies and renews us through the gospel, not through any third use of the law. That does not deny the importance of the law in informing (third use), condemning, and compelling Christians who would otherwise sinfully follow man-made works as if they were good, as Article VI of the Formula of Concord says. 

Does a lack of sanctification directly result from a denial of the third use of the law or from a lack of exhortations in sermons to obey the law? No, sanctification comes only by the gospel, not also by the law.

That said, the law in its second use does work sanctification indirectly by bringing about repentance, that is, by preparing the Christian to return to baptism (gospel). That is the entire Christian life, as Luther said: “a truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism” (Large Catechism). In other words,

For what is our prayer but a confession that we neither have nor do what we ought and a plea for grace and a happy conscience? This kind of confession should and must take place incessantly as long as we live. For this is the essence of a genuinely Christian life, to acknowledge that we are sinners and to pray for grace. [Martin Luther, Preface to the Large Catechism, 1529 revised edition. Tappert, T. G. (2000, c1959). The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.]

The third use of the law

The Decalogue, God’s law encapsulated in the Ten Commandments, has three uses: it restrains sin, accuses sinners, and instructs Christians.

Article VI of the Formula of Concord explains the third use of the Decalogue like this:

“. . . the Holy Ghost employs the Law so as to teach the regenerate from it, and to point out and show them in the Ten Commandments what is the [good and] acceptable will of God, Rom. 12:2, in what good works God hath before ordained that they should walk, Eph. 2:10. He exhorts them thereto, and when they are idle, negligent, and rebellious in this matter because of the flesh, He reproves them on that account through the Law, so that He carries on both offices together: He slays and makes alive; He leads into hell and brings up again.”

Thus, the Decalogue is to be preached not only to unbelievers but also to believers because they also have the sinful nature that must be daily crucified so that they can daily rise to new life, a new creation (Romans 6, etc.). Apart from that struggle against the flesh, the new man needs no Decalogue:

“But when man is born anew by the Spirit of God, and liberated from the Law, that is, freed from this driver, and is led by the Spirit of Christ, he lives according to the immutable will of God comprised in the Law, and so far as he is born anew, does everything from a free, cheerful spirit; and these are called not properly works of the Law, but works and fruits of the Spirit, or as St. Paul names it, the law of the mind and the Law of Christ. For such men are no more under the Law, but under grace, as St. Paul says, Rom. 8:2.”

The Christian needs to hear the preaching of the Decalogue only because of the continued presence of the old man, as argued in the beginning of the Formula of Concord’s article on the third use of the law. The law not only restrains and accuses the saint-sinner but also instructs him since the law is not yet completely in his heart. The Holy Spirit writes it there not by the preaching of the law and pastoral pleas to obey it but rather by the preaching of the gospel.

Indeed, the preaching of the gospel, not the preaching of the law, directly renews the Christian, raising him to walk in newness of life and writing the law on his heart. While the preaching of the law does not directly renew the Christian, it does so indirectly by providing instruction that leads to repentance and faith in the gospel.

There is another way in which the preaching of the law indirectly renews the Christian. In obedience to the Sabbath commandment, the Christian hears the gospel and receives the sacraments. By those means, the Holy Spirit sustains and strengthens faith in the gospel and therein renews the Christian for good works.

Oswald Bayer observed that the Formula of Concord echoed the theology of Luther on the third use of the law (Chapter 5 of Living by Faith):

“Luther himself continually stressed the fact that the law should not be preached to Christians insofar as they are justified by the gospel. But it should be preached to them insofar as they are sinners and still belong to the old world. This truth finds the same emphasis in Article VI of the Formula of Concord, which emphatically seeks to clarify ‘what the gospel does, effects, and creates for the new obedience of the believers and what the law does in relationship to the good works of believers.'”

In short, because Christians in this life still have the sinful nature, they need the law to inform them about how what is right in their eyes differs from what is right in God’s eyes, to condemn them, and to restrain them.

Greater righteousness

"For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:20).

Jesus did not mean a greater righteousness of the law, but rather the righteousness of God rather than the righteousness of the law (Anders Nygren. Commentary on Romans. New edition. Augsburg Fortress Pub, 1978. On Romans 1:16-17).


The gospel written in good works

What did Melanchthon mean when he said a conscience terrified by the law can find comfort in a promise connected to good works (Ap. 3:151-155)? The answer is not immediately obvious. Following David Scaer in seeing a third use of the law that is distinct from its first two uses can help here. Since the same word “law” can mean different things even within the sixth article of the Formula of Concord, let me clarify. By “law,” I here mean the unchanging will of God. I will use the same word in a more narrow sense shortly.

Melanchthon said Christ often attaches promises to good works not only to destroy Epicurean delusions, but also to offer a variety of signs and testimonies for the terrified conscience. A key to seeing how Melanchthon could find comfort for terrified consciences in those promises lies in properly distinguishing the second and third uses of the law, that is, between the law in the narrow sense and the fruit of faith, “against which there is no law.”

The terrified conscience of Luther turned not only to the promise that those who believe and are baptized will be saved, but also to the promise that those who forgive are forgiven:

But there is here attached a necessary, yet consolatory addition: As we forgive. He has promised that we shall be sure that everything is forgiven and pardoned, yet in the manner that we also forgive our neighbor. For just as we daily sin much against God, and yet He forgives everything through grace, so we, too, must ever forgive our neighbor who does us injury, violence, and wrong, shows malice toward us, etc. If, therefore, you do not forgive, then do not think that God forgives you; but if you forgive, you have this consolation and assurance, that you are forgiven in heaven, not on account of your forgiving, for God forgives freely and without condition, out of pure grace, because He has so promised, as the Gospel teaches, but in order that He may set this up for our confirmation and assurance for a sign alongside of the promise which accords with this prayer, Luke 6:37: Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven. Therefore Christ also repeats it soon after the Lord’s Prayer, and says, Matt. 6:14: For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, etc. This sign is therefore attached to this petition, that, when we pray, we remember the promise and reflect thus: Dear Father, for this reason I come and pray Thee to forgive me, not that I can make satisfaction, or can merit anything by my works, but because Thou hast promised and attached the seal thereto that I should be as sure as though I had absolution pronounced by Thyself. For as much as Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, appointed as external signs, effect, so much also this sign can effect to confirm our consciences and cause them to rejoice. And it is especially given for this purpose, that we might use and practise it every hour, as a thing that we have with us at all times.

This is not Presbyterianism’s uncertain “inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made”, but the very certainty of the gospel: “…if you forgive, you have this consolation and assurance, that you are forgiven in heaven, not on account of your forgiving, … Thou hast promised and attached the seal thereto that I should be as sure as though I had absolution pronounced by Thyself.”

Luther indeed found comfort in the promise of Mark 16. He also found comfort in the promise of Luke 6:37 and Matt. 6:14. He needed manifold consolation. After all, he subscribed to Melanchthon’s statement that “we have need of external signs of so great a promise, because a conscience full of fear has need of manifold consolation. As, therefore, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are signs that continually admonish, cheer, and encourage desponding minds to believe the more firmly that their sins are forgiven, so the same promise is written and portrayed in good works, in order that these works may admonish us to believe the more firmly.”

heure [hour]

What is the gospel of the kingdom?

According to the Synoptic Gospels, the apostles had announced the good news of the kingdom of God even before they understood that Jesus must die and rise again. By word and miraculous sign, they had proclaimed the truly glad tidings that Jesus had come to free Israel from death and from her demonic enemies and to preach good news to the poor, thereby fulfilling Messianic prophecy. Jesus’ work to destroy Satan’s kingdom continued as he died, rose, and ascended to heaven. The Son of the Virgin Mary now reigns with all power on heaven and earth.

St. Luke is particularly clear about the content of “the gospel of the kingdom.” Jesus and the apostles heralded the gospel, the good news of the kingdom (Luke 4:43; 8:1; 16:16; Acts 8:12). Jesus was anointed as Messiah to announce to the poor the good news of liberty and healing (Luke 4:18-19, 43):

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Jesus proclaimed to the poor this good news of freedom from the curse (Luke 4:20):

Blessed are you poor,
For yours is the kingdom of God.

Jesus and the disciples not only proclaimed the good news of the kingdom, but actually brought the glad tidings of the kingdom as he healed the sick and cast out demons (Luke 7:22; 8:1-3; 10:9-11). By attending to that message rather than the things of this age, Mary of Bethany received the one thing needed, which would not be taken away from her (Luke 10:38-42). The very Consolation of Israel, One greater than Solomon, long foretold by the law and prophets, had come! His reign means the deliverance from all of the enemies of God’s people!

The message of Jesus to be heralded to the nations in the power of the Spirit was the message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47-49). The fact that the main way the Spirit works in Luke-Acts is by empowering bold proclamation of that message means he brings the kingdom through the forgiveness of sins. That is as hard as making a lame man whole (Luke 5:23 = Mark 2:9 = Matthew 9:5): Jesus announced that message by the power of the Spirit (Luke 3:22; 4:1, 14, 18), just as he brought the kingdom through exorcism in the power of the Spirit (Luke 11:20 with Matthew 12:28). Indeed, he was rejected at Nazareth because he claimed to be the one who was empowered by the Spirit to heal the sick and to proclaim the gospel to the poor (Luke 4:18-21); doing those things showed John’s disciples that Jesus was the Messiah (Luke 7:22 = Matthew 11:4-5). The coming of the Spirit to Gentiles showed that they, too, should receive the baptism of forgiveness (Acts 10:47-48). Baptism in Luke-Acts is cleansing for repentance and forgiveness (Acts 2:38; 22:16) and thus is included in the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins to be proclaimed to the nations (Luke 24:47); those who believed the good news of the kingdom were baptized (Acts 8:12).

Just as healing was performed in Jesus’ name, forgiveness through faith in his name was proclaimed (Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:6; 3:16; 4:10-12; 10:43; 16:18). For through his disciples acting in his name, Jesus himself continues to heal and to proclaim the good news (Acts 9:34; 26:22-23). Jesus called sinners to repentance from the beginning of his ministry (Luke 5:31-32; 19:10), and the risen Lord still blesses sinners by turning them from their iniquities (Acts 3:26)—repentance as well as forgiveness is a gift from the now-exalted Prince (Acts 5:31).

The good news of salvation from sin and its curse is encapsulated in forgiveness through faith in Jesus’ name. This is “the good news of peace” (Acts 10:36-43; cf. 17:30-31):

God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

Paul, according to Luke, gives examples of how “all the prophets” bear witness of that (Acts 13:32-39):

And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, “‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’ And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way, “‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’ Therefore he says also in another psalm, “‘You will not let your Holy One see corruption.’ For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, but he whom God raised up did not see corruption. Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.

Rejoice, believing the forgiveness of sins that has been proclaimed to you!