Ephesians 2:8-10; Luke 18:9-14
August 7, 2016
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
Lutheran theology is full of distinctions: Law & Gospel; the two kingdoms; two kinds of righteousness; two kinds of eating in the Lord’s Supper; eucharistic and propitiatory sacrifices. In fact, someone once said that theology is the art of making distinctions. It’s not just an academic exercise, but it’s an absolutely necessary real-life project for every Christian to do in order to be on guard against error and know God aright.
While many Christians of the Lutheran Confession are quite familiar with the proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel (although to become an expert at it takes an entire lifetime), there is another related distinction that doesn’t get as much air time among our tribe, and that’s the distinction between justification and sanctification. It’s a corollary to the distinction between Law & Gospel; in fact all of the good Lutheran distinctions are related, because they rise out of God’s Word.
First, a word on making distinctions. To distinguish between two things doesn’t mean to separate and divide them into two mutually exclusive categories. For example, you can’t label one bucket “Law” and another “Gospel” and then proceed to cut out every sentence of the Bible and place it into one of the two buckets. God doesn’t speak Law & Gospel. He speaks His word, which is both Law and Gospel. A sentence can be both Law and Gospel, such as, “Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world.” For someone who is secure in his own sins, or doesn’t believe that his sins have earned death, then this is very much a preaching of the Law. For someone who thinks that her sins are so much greater than anyone else’s, it’s the sweetest Gospel. We distinguish the Law and the Gospel, like looking a diamond from another direction. It’s the same gem, but the light diffuses and sparkles in a different way depending on how you look at it. Likewise, it’s one Word of God that sometimes preaches Law and at other times preaches Gospel. God’s Word is a two-edged sword.
And so justification and sanctification are one work of God. It’s not as if He justifies a sinner, takes a break, and then sanctifies sometime later. I suspect a reason for this way of thinking might come from the catechism. The three articles of the Creed are divided up: Father—Creation; Son—Justification (or redemption); Spirit—Sanctification. It’s a helpful way to distinguish the work of God, but it’s not as if the Son and the Spirit are absent from the work of creation (see Gen. 1:3 and John 1). Nor does it mean that creation and sanctification are mutually exclusive categories. David wrote in Psalm 51, and we sing every week, Create in me a clean heart, O God.
Justification is God’s work of making a person right. Think of your word processing program. You left-justify your paragraph and everything lines up on the left, nice and tidy. Well, God’s work of justification is like that. In our sin and rebellion, we are headed every which way but toward God. Our lives are skewed by our own sin. God does the work that lines us back up with Him. He sets us on the path the leads us back to God. That’s why the very earliest name for the Christian faith was The Way.
Sanctification always follows justification. We do not set ourselves on the right way by our good works. Even if we begin to do good works on our own, they will never end in God. It’s like deep space travel. Over such a large distance, even a miniscule error will magnify over the long haul and you’ll end up missing the mark by light-years. Instead, we need something more like a Star Wars tractor beam to draw us to our destination.
For by grace your are saved, through faith, writes St. Paul, and this is not from ourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not of works, in order that no one would boast. For we are God’s doing, created in Christ Jesus upon good works, which God prepared beforehand, in order that we would walk in them (Eph 2:8-10). Hear how God’s work of justification, sanctification, and creation are all caught up together. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, working together in a divine economy to set us on the path that points directly to the heart of God. Our good works, our sanctification, is not our own. They are God’s good works, prepared by Him, laid down by Him, before we were even born. He sets us down upon them, all we have to do is continue to walk.
Not only must the two works be rightly distinguished, but justification must always precede sanctification. Otherwise you lose both justification and sanctification.
Jesus illustrates this with a parable about a Pharisee and a publican. In the parable, we see not only a confusion of justification and sanctification, but also one of the most common causes. On the other hand, the unexpected hero of the story shows us the right understanding of God’s Work.
First, the Pharisee. Now when we hear a story about a Pharisee, we’re programmed by our Sunday School lessons to boo and hiss. But Pharisees aren’t necessarily the bad guys. Several of them followed Jesus, though secretly like Nicodemus. And at the time Jesus spoke, the Pharisees were some of the most highly respected people in the community. You would expect this Pharisee to be the hero. But there’s a twist.
Two men went up into the temple to pray—the one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, who was standing to himself, prayed this: God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men—swindlers, unrighteous, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I tithe all that I own.
First of all, the Pharisee gets the sanctification cart before the justification horse. He believes himself to be right with God because of his holy life. He thinks that sanctification drives justification. But as we sit in our pew and look down on this story from above as spectators, we can almost feel his arrogance, his hubris. God, I thank You that I am not like the rest of men. Those people are horrible! Sinners! How dare they show their faces in church? See this unwed teen mother? At least I’m not like her. I go to voters’ meetings. I give big offerings. I cut the grass at church. I tend the altar flowers. I set up communion. I preach Your Word from the pulpit every Sunday.
On the other hand is the tax collector. But the tax collector, who had been standing far off, did not wish even to lift his eyes to heaven, but beat his chest, saying, “God, be propitiated to me, a sinner.” Most people when they first heard this parable, would have thought that the tax collector was the villain. Maybe even the tax collectors themselves. There is no one who is more despicable than someone who shows up at your house or place of business with armed guards to take a slice of your hard earned money, with a little extra percentage for his own expenses—and he’s the guy living in the big house, driving a Lexus, eating at four-star restaurants—all while you’re trying to scrape together this month’s rent.
The tax collector has no works to present to God. He has no sanctification, in this sense. But he is struck with an intense feeling of unworthiness. He doesn’t even look to God; he beats His chest. And he simply confesses. God be propitiated to me, a sinner. God does this work. He propitiates, that is justifies, me. He does so by sending His Son Jesus to bear the sins of sinners and suffer their punishment. He makes me right with Him—or even better, declares me to be right with Him—for the sake of Jesus.
And He goes down to his house justified. But the justification horse always pulls behind it a sanctification cart. This cart isn’t filled with super-special extra-Christian works (theologians call these works of supererogation). Rather, the simple, everyday works that you continue to do in your vocation are now sanctified, that is, made holy.
Jesus identifies the root cause of the problem at the outset. It’s really a problem of faith. He also said this parable to some who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and were despising the rest. They trusted themselves for their own righteousness instead of trusting God. Faith, properly placed, is what justifies. This is what the tax collector had, despite all outward appearances. He trusted God to be Just and the Justifier. This faith is not something you produce by really, really believing hard. Then it would be just another work from yourself. Faith that justifies is a result of God’s gracious Word; faith is a gift of God. He draws you to Himself, sets you on the right path, a path paved with good works that He has prepared for you.
You Are Right with God Because Christ Has Declared You to Be By His Word of Forgiveness
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard