The Spirit Calls, Gathers, Enlightens and Sanctifies God’s People
Shifting the Starting Point for Thinking About Our Relationship With God
In Luther’s words, “Through the church the Spirit gathers us, using it to teach and preach the Word. By it he creates and increases sanctification, causing it daily to grow and come strong in the faith and in the fruits of the Spirit.” Sanctification is a process. Elsewhere he teaches that “Now we are only halfway pure and holy; the Holy Spirit must continue that work in us.”
Sanctification is also a condition. Paul addressed his readers as the saints, the sanctified ones. Through Christ’s redeeming work, they were already holy and set apart before God. In the final judgment, we will appear as fully sanctified in Christ.
Lutherans understand well sanctification as a condition. We have not done well in the process of being drawn closer to God and growing in the fruit of the Spirit. The fundamental issue in the Reformation was the role of good works in our relationship with God. The key discovery was that our works do not justify us before God. Sanctification is not justification, to use the key categories of that debate. But you can’t make progress with just negatives.
After I had preached a sermon on new life in Christ, the office received a complaint from a visitor that I had preached on sanctification, and “Lutherans don’t do that.” I understood where this stalwart was coming from. But what a strange view on ministry that we can’t emphasize how to live the Christian life. The purpose is not to win God’s favor to get into heaven; Christ already took care of that. Today a hunger for “getting into heaven” is no longer prevalent in our current society. But there is great hunger for the fuller, more abundant life that Jesus came to offer in this life we are living now.
Restructuring the Issue for Our Times
Sanctification is a hard term to grasp. It’s “churchy” and seems distant from everyday life. Paul gives us a better handle. In Ephesians 4: 13 he urges that the body of Christ may be built up until we “reach to the very heights of Christ’s full stature.” To the Corinthians he explained that we “are being transformed into Christ’s likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3: 18). To become more like Christ is the goal of sanctification. It conveys movement from far away to very close. Promoting such growth provides practical goals for ministry.
Gordon D. Fee offers a major restructuring of how to understand sanctification. He is one of the pre-eminent conservative New Testament scholars of our day. I was fascinated by his lengthy book God’s Empowering Presence, and his detailed study of the Holy Spirit in the letters of Paul. He identifies 169 such references and explores each. What gripped my attention was the final Part II Synthesis, which I had to re-read many times to absorb his reasoning. His categories are compelling because they are drawn directly from Paul.
Shifting the Starting Point
The Lutheran Reformers focused on the conditions of justification and sanctification, and, for all practical purposes, they left the Spirit off to the side. In Paul’s world, the Spirit is the starting point for theologizing about the Christian life. According to Fee, “The Spirit is not the center for Paul—Christ is, ever and always—but the Spirit stands very close to the center, as the crucial ingredient of genuinely Christian life and experience. For this reason, the Spirit arguably must play a much more vital role in our rethinking Paul’s theology than tends now to be the case.”
The primary reason Paul’s approach to the Christian life is different from that of the Reformers is that Paul addressed believers who had directly experienced the Spirit in their personal lives. The Spirit was a living presence for them. In subsequent generations and centuries, most Christians were born into the faith. That’s why infant baptism became so prevalent in Catholicism and persisted in Lutheranism. In those traditions, there is no previous experience of the Spirit to appeal to. Such experience does not justify us before God. But it does demonstrate God’s power to change our lives and give us a new zeal for living in Christ.
A common view is that God does not come to us directly but he does that through the church. This explains why the third volume of my Lutheran dogmatics text starts, not with a theology of the Holy Spirit, but with a description of sanctification by the Spirit, which is accomplished through the Christian church. There is no reference to personal experiences of the Spirit.
Fee explains, “Westerners are instinctively nervous about spirit activity, be it the Spirit of God or other spirits; it tends not to compute rationally and is therefore suspect. Hence our difficulties with regard to any genuine ‘restoration’ of the experiential life of the early church.”
We might want to say that Paul’s experience of the early church is irrelevant to churches in the Reformation tradition. But how dare we!! He is God’s apostle for God’s church. Our alternative to dismissal is to become more discerning in spotting that evidence of the Spirit’s work in our personal lives. In T. S. Eliot’s phrase, “We had the experience but missed its meaning.”
The Spirit Produces Fruit
What took me many re-readings of Fee’s Synthesis is how he bases the new life on the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5: 22-25. He cites the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are samples of what the Spirit produces in believers. Then comes the simple appeal, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” The sanctified life consists of walking with the Spirit.
It takes three shifts in thinking to appreciate Paul’s starting point. One is that he addresses what the Spirit does rather than who he is. Second, he is not describing the conventional virtuous life. Third, these fruits are essentially feelings or experiences imparted to us by the Spirit.
Lorenz Wunderlich, a Lutheran professor I personally knew, broke new ground when he wrote a book on the Holy Spirit. Lutherans don’t write on the Spirit; witness the missing chapter on the Holy Spirit in my dogmatics text. The title, The Half-Known God, is an acknowledgment of the blind spot in our heritage. Yet, significant to me was the discovery that in this 110-page book, there are only two paragraphs on the fruit of the Spirit. Also significant is that the ministry gifts of 1 Corinthians receive only one paragraph. Recognize that rediscovery of such gifts is truly revolutionary for Lutheran ministry today.
The subtitle of Wunderlich’s book is The Person of the Holy Spirit. He addressed who the Spirit is. In contrast, Luther wrote about what the Spirit does; he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies. That question of what, rather than who is more productive for guiding ministry today.
More Than Virtues
Wunderlich described these fruit as “God-pleasing virtues of the Christian life.” “They are the highest traits of Christian character.” In classical Roman culture, virtues are what good people pursue. These are human achievements. Such language hardly fits with Paul’s Spirit theology.
Love, joy, peace, and patience are fundamental emotions. We experience them. The Spirit produces them. It’s OK to look for emotions in the Christian life. If we want to have passionate Christians, we have to let the Spirit arouse such passions.
The Pauline Perspective Is Better Than the Reformer’s Categories
Here is Gordon Fee’s conclusion to his synthesis and application of Paul’s theology.
“In sum, I for one think the Pauline perspective has the better of it: and I also believe that perspective can become our own—dare I say, “must” become our own if we are going to make any difference at all in the so-called post-Christian, post-modern era. But this means that our theologizing must stop paying mere lip service to the Spirit and recognize his crucial role in Pauline theology, and it means that the church must risk freeing the Spirit from being boxed into the creed and getting him back into the experienced life of the believer and the believing community.”
Bob Kersten says
Pastor Luecke, I want to thank you for this blog. I can readily identify with the weaknesses that you’ve written about concerning the the LCMS’s lack of promoting a robust theology of the Holy Spirit. I was raised, educated in a LCMS parochial elementary school and confirmed there. For a quiet awhile in my early adult life, I believed that saving faith was believing the “pure doctrine” that I’d been taught. Spiritual Gifts, fruit of the Spirit or a personal relationship with Christ were never taught as best I can recall. I was unaware that all Lutherans fit this mold. Latter I discovered the liberal versions which latter merged to become the ELCA. Still latter my wife and I visited a charismatic LCMS congregation to check it out. We were impressed but it was an hour and a half away so that was not an option. While researching the Lutheran Charismatic renewal, I came across a Charismatic Lutheran pastor/author named Larry Christianson. He’d edited a book entitled Welcome Holy Spirit. That book was an apologetic written to show that the renewal and orthodox Lutheran theology were not in conflict. While browsing around a used book store I came across a book entitled Fire Upon The Earth (1941) authored by Bernhard Christensen. He was president of a seminary associated with the Lutheran Free Church. This book, written from a Lutheran pietistic perspective had a profound influence on spiritual life. After that I researched the original Lutheran Pietist movement with writings from Spener. After that, I attempted to locate a church with doctrines in line with this. The closest church that at least on paper was a local UMC. I had done enough research to know that John Wesley arrived at his doctrines via the Moravians via influence from the Lutheran Pietists. I served for nearly a decade as the facilitator for the adult SS class, but I never joined due to my understanding of the UMC hierarchy. This congregation recently disaffiliated from the UMC and chose to affiliate with the GMC, a newly established orthodox Wesleyan denomination. It would have been preferred to remain in the LCMS if they had been receptive to the Lutheran Renewal, but we know that they were successful in snuffing that out.
David Luecke says
There is a long history of tension between the charismatic movement in the LCMS and the hierarchy. The movement finally petered out, as did the whole charismatic movement of the 60s and 70s. I am trying to make the case for a charismatic theology based on 1 Cor 12. It is so biblical. In an upcoming Reflection (39) I present my Pietist leanings. A healthy church body needs this tension.
Bob Kersten says
One of my favorite sections of scriptures is Ephesians 4:1-16. I would call this God’s prescription for a healthy and unified body of Christ. The sections on Spiritual Gifting’s found in 1Corinthians 12, Romans 12, and 1Peter 4:10 would seem to me to be works that “the five or four fold ministers “ would help the people of God learn to utilize, for the building up of the body.
David Luecke says
That’s my favorite section, too. I wrote a whole book about it: Builder Ministry by CPH
Kristine McAfee says
My personal understanding is that sanctification is a process that begins when a person becomes a follower of Jesus and continues throughout their lifetime. However, our sinful nature is still present so the process of sanctification is ongoing and necessary.
I would say that sanctification is both a process and a condition. It refers to the ongoing process of becoming more like Christ and being conformed to His image. This is a lifelong journey of growing in holiness. At the same time, it is also a state of being made holy by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
Seeing sanctification as a process is important because it helps us to understand that becoming more like Christ and growing in holiness is an ongoing journey that requires effort and commitment. It also helps to keep us humble, reminding us that we are still sinners and that salvation is not based on our own efforts, but only on God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
David Luecke says
Kristine, you’ve got it. I hope these blogs have helped you along in understanding your personal journey. It is a pleasure working with you.
Ralph Hough says
Thank you, Dave, for the article. A process and a condition in which the fruits of the Spirit in increasing measure are a witness to the world even as it is a testimony to us that God continues to work to fallible, yet Spirit filled children of His. I believe that is why Peter writes about applying ourselves to the Spirits call and work so that we are effective in our witness as God’s children even as we are being sanctified (set apart and empowered) for God’s holy work in the world. (2 Peter 1: 5-8) As Lutherans we know the 1st theses of the 95 was the Christian life is a one of repentance. Repentance doesn’t always mean sorrow and sackcloth and ashes, but sometimes a simple change of mind and resounding actions that make sense and leaves no regret! As we are in the Word we certainly are being “taught, rebuked, corrected, and trained… so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 2 Tim. 3: 16-17 More and more do I desire to do good, right, salutary for the good of others…this is the work of the Spirit, and it is definitely the Spirit’s work when I do! Thanks for being a blessing!
David Luecke says
You summarize the dynamics well.
Lee Larsen says
As I read through the following Scripture verses I realize that without the Holy Spirit I would have nothing. He is the sole method of God communicating to me. I am not a firsthand witness, I did not hear the words of Jesus or see the miracles that He performed. I would have no reason to believe nor would I be able to comprehend God’s own words that He provided for me. This is so evident in our world today. We deny God until a crisis that overwhelms us hits and then all of as sudden we find ourselves calling out to Him.
John 14:26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.
Romans 8:26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.
Galatians 5:22-23 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
Acts 2:38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
John 14:15-17 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
Romans 8:9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
Romans 5:5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
David Luecke says
That crisis does seem to be basic to spiritual growth. It’s not something we can plan and organize.
Kerry 'Mac' McLaughlin says
Knowing we are saved through grace we live in the Spirit, a condition we regard as sanctification and as stated in Ephesians 5:25, “If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” Thus we are to exhibit the fruits of the Spirit which are defined in verse 22 and Ephesians 6:10, let us do good to all. We are exhorted to take action, not just relax and enjoy our state of grace.
David Luecke says
Not only are we to live by the Spirit, but the Spirit moves us to want to reflect his fruit.
Rev Ray Cummings says
I thought this was interesting.Luther’s defense of Infant Baptism is not what is usually taught among Lutherans.He says that the fruit and gifts of the Holy Spirit are very visible in those who have been.baptized as children.
The Large Catechism,Baptism
47 “Here a question occurs by which the devil, through his sects, confuses the world, namely, Of Infant Baptism, whether children also believe, and are justly baptized. Concerning this we say briefly: 48 Let the simple dismiss this question from their minds, and refer it to the learned. But if you wish to answer, 49 then answer thus:-
“That the Baptism of infants is pleasing to Christ is sufficiently proved from His own work, namely, that God sanctifies many of them who have been thus baptized, and has given them the Holy Ghost; and that there are yet many even to-day in whom we perceive that they have the Holy Ghost both because of their doctrine and life; as it is also given to us by the grace of God that we can explain the Scriptures and come to the knowledge of Christ, which is impossible without the Holy Ghost. But if God did not accept the baptism of infants, He would not give the Holy Ghost nor any of His gifts to any of them…”
David Luecke says
I think this is only reference Luther made to infant baptism. It was so prevalent, few questioned it. I would not want to defend that baptized infants behave better than unbaptized. The Spirit brings changed emotions, but how would you test that with infants.
Mark Schulz says
My “amen” to your post by way a sermon last week on our church’s “Navigating True North” vision.
I believe one such new approach looks something like Navigating True North. This vision is actually ancient but is arguably new and different in terms of its focus and passion from what the American church has majored in over the last century. Jesus gave us the Great Commission to make disciples. It’s ancient. However, a strong case can be made that the church across denominations and movements has not made it their priority. Author Dallas Willard calls it in his book, “The Great Omission.” Within the Lutheran culture, it’s largely played out this way. We’ve done a pretty good job through about age 14. But after confirmation, we’ve assumed (or hoped) that there was enough of a faith foundation that if people showed up in weekend worship with some regularity that they would then be fruitful disciples of Jesus. But comparing it to athletics, if young people are good athletes in middle school, will that mean that if they practice a couple times a month that they’ll still be good athletes at age 30 or 40? Of course not. Along the same line, one physical meal a week won’t allow a body to flourish. One exercise session per week will not lead to aerobic fitness. One hour with God per week does not result in the ongoing transformation of a disciple of Jesus. I think faith can survive on one spiritual meal a week. I don’t believe it can thrive.
Willard explains what has happened: “But in place of Christ’s plan (to make disciples), historical drift has substituted “Make converts (to a particular ‘faith and practice’) and baptize them into church membership.” This causes two great omissions from the Great Commission to stand out. “We don’t intend that people become disciples and therefore we don’t train them to do what Jesus directed.” [Willard, Dallas. The Great Omission (pp. 5-6). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.]
I think there is much truth that pastors and other church leaders like me have settled in different ways for something less than discipleship. Depending on the church tradition, we’ve thought it enough for someone to be baptized (whether as infant or adult), to get confirmed, to have had a conversion experience and received Christ by faith, to join the church as a member, or to attend worship services. I never said this out loud, but my operating assumption seemed to be that if people would just listen to enough of my sermons that they would be healthy spiritually. I don’t believe that anymore. I do believe there is great value in gathering with other Christians around God’s Word and Jesus’ Supper, but the greater shaper of your life is what does or doesn’t take place between you and your Lord the other six days of the week. You are being formed mentally, emotionally, and spiritually every day, and the question is whether that formation is by the Holy Spirit or primarily by the spirits of this age.
David Luecke says
Well said. I am glad you are reading Willard. It is a huge undertaking to shift LCMS culture, especially when leaders don’t see any need. I hope my few drips here and there are helping. Blessings on your “Navigating True North” vision in your congregation. By the way, which Mark Schulz are you? I am acquainted with five in LCMS ministry.