Sanctification and Progress

Today in class we were discussing the issue of stewardship as an act of co-creation with God, and the issue of technological development to manipulate creation came up.  Technology is not evil, we are told, nor can we draw a neat line between what is good and what is bad technology; rather, all human endeavours are shot through with both the glory of God and fallen human sinfulness.  I get that, and it makes sense to me; I don’t believe that we will be perfect this side of the eschaton.  But what doesn’t sit well with me is the notion that we have not, and will not, and cannot make moral progress.

What is progress?  Getting better.  We make scientific and technological progress at extremely rapid rates, and our new science and technology, while not being morally neutral, is always morally ambiguous; there’s always some good and some bad.  Genetically modifying crops to produce more is good; wiping out heirloom varieties in the process, or making terminator genes, is bad.  Uses of technology can be morally good or bad, and some technology is more bad than good or more good than bad, but there’s no escape from our fallen human sinfulness.  Even the best technologies can be used for evil.  In this sense, there is no moral progress, just morality as evidenced in our scientific or technological progress.

What about cultural progress?  Is there even such a thing?  That would imply that there are some cultures that are better than others – and since many believe that morality is itself a cultural term and construct, any effort to say that one culture is more moral than another is like saying that an apple is more apple-y than an orange.  Yet, assuming for a moment that God really exists and has established some moral and ethical principles and norms that he has revealed to his culture-bound people, I think we can say that we’ve made cultural progress.  For example, we no longer accept slavery as a cultural practice, nor patriarchy (for the most part), which were immoral in that they denied the dignity that God has given to human beings.  But the question of whether or not we’ve progressed morally will hinge not on the evidence that we’ve made some moral improvements to our entire society, but whether or not we’ve just replaced slavery and patriarchy with some other evil.  Have we made any net gains?  I’ve been told that we have not, and part of me is inclined to believe that.  But.

Sanctification.  What is it, except God working in us as individuals and (hopefully) as Christian communities to make us into His image in a fuller sense – we are becoming human, in its fullest sense, as we become more like Christ.  While I agree that we should not identify progress (any of the above forms) as sanctification, surely we can see sanctification as a type of progress – either I am progressively becoming more like Christ, or I am not.  If I am not, then what is the purpose of the Holy Spirit in me?  Am I empowered to do good in this world for the glory of God, or not?  And if not, then why am I even here?  I might as well just give up.

Yes, I was told today, I should.  That would be a good Lutheran thing to do, because it would remove any notion of self-justification and I would have to rely on God.  But if nothing is going to change in this world, then I must ask, rely on God to do WHAT?  I don’t do good in the world, I don’t seek after moral progress in my life and my community, because I want to justify myself, but because Christ gave me an example to follow.  Because I actually desire to see and embody God’s goodness.  Because I want to embody Christ, as we are called to do together in unity as the Body of Christ.  It’s one thing to say that nothing will be perfect until the eschaton, but it’s quite another to say that nothing will get any better until then; that would imply that God isn’t working.  We always talk about the “already-not-yet”, and that we can see only glimpses of God’s glory in the world now and it will all be completed when Christ returns, but if none of us are really getting any better at all then there’s no already.  And if we only have the “not-yet”, then we might as well seek to escape this fallen world, because God isn’t working here – something that class today rightly concluded by saying that this is precisely what we should not do, because God IS working here.  If God is working here, then should see him at work; to say that we haven’t been changed for the better by the Holy Spirit, to say that we are just as sinful and wrong as we ever were, is a cop-out that ignores much of scripture.  I can only guess that it does so in order to emphasize a Lutheran notion of grace, or to try to reconcile the level of sin that still exists in the world.

My professor is a very smart man, and I respect him very much; I can only assume that we’ve miscommunicated somehow.  Marc, Joel, you were there; have I missed what he was saying completely?  It got awful quiet when I asked the question.  I apologize for the tone of this post; I’m somewhere between utter hopelessness and righteous indignation.


7 thoughts on “Sanctification and Progress

  1. I think the problem may be an understanding of what sanctification is. I certainly don’t have the answer to that, as I don’t know enough about either sanctification or justification as theological concepts. I suspect the tension may be between you as a Pentecostal and Tim as a Calvinist with an appreciation for Lutheranism (? I don’t know–just a guess), so you may have different understandings of sanctification from the get-go.

    I wonder if potentially what Tim might think of as sanctification has to do with our relation to God, not necessarily with our moral action in the world. Practically speaking, a person can be a tongues-speaking, Spirit-filled Christian from youth to old-age, but they nevertheless sin from start to finish.

    I think that Shannon made a point when she said that with every birth the process has to start all over again. Your position *may* suggest something like cumulative sanctification, almost as if it’s transferred through the genes or Christian culture–that successive generations under the power of the Spirit should be morally better than their predecessors. (I’m not saying you actually said this, but it could be implied by what you said.)

    In your view, are Christians better now than they were 2000 years ago? I wouldn’t be able to say that.

    (Caveat: I’m not saying I agree with what was said in class, because not much was really said about sanctification and it wasn’t fleshed out.)

  2. I think Tim’s concern was to take the emphasis (as any good Lutheran would) off of ourselves and onto Christ. The idea of sanctification as a cumulative event, I think, inevitably points us back to what we are doing for God, or what we are doing to be good, or even what we are doing to become holy. I don’t think—and correct me if I’m wrong—that holiness and morality are synonymous. Maybe this warrants a more serious discussion on the precise nature of sanctification. (And, Jeff, maybe you have a better grasp on this and could illuminate me some.)

    I think there’s a difference between throwing your hands up and saying, “Why bother trying to be good?” and doing the same to say, “What’s the point of the Holy Spirit?” I wonder if “moral progress” is really the point of the gospel. I guess that leaves the question open, Should moral progress be an unavoidable effect of the gospel? I don’t really know.

    Another thought: I think moral progress has occurred, as you mentioned, with the abolition of slavery and the gradual dissolution of patriarchy, but I think all that really does is redefine the terms. Are we more prone to “be good” as we understand it? Probably not. Will our badness be as harmful as it used to be? Maybe not. I doubt that all people who, say, owned slaves were evil sadists who owned slaves in order to be evil. We judge them retrospectively by our standards and say, Yes, we’ve made progress. (And insofar as a new respect for human dignity has been built into our current social norms and cultural morality, I would agree that “progress” has been made.) But what about those who are still rejected from society? I really doubt that the impulse to treat them well has increased. Progress will probably continue to occur — the scope of the abject will hopefully narrow. But the desire to love those who are genuinely perceived as unlovable? I think that’s the work of the Holy Spirit, and I can’t imagine that we’re any better at that than we used to be.

    To summarize: Culture may progress in a direction that leaves fewer and fewer people on the margins, but human beings will not be more predisposed to love the marginal—this will always be the work of the Spirit.

  3. I think you guys have it right, in that we don’t make moral progress as a society, we merely replace old evils with new ones that have the same root cause. I think that’s what I was trying to say, but I might not have explained it very well.

    What I DO mean, is that I should not be as evil as I was five years ago. I don’t think that I am, and I give all credit for that to God. And as God changes me, I should make better choices that affect my community. There’s a reason that we are called the Body of Christ – because we, collectively as the Church, are used by God to continue His work in the world. We cannot put a stop to all sin in the world, but we can make SOME difference.

  4. Moral progress is less like a dimmer switch and more like a spider graph. Sometimes a culture is better at one thing and worse than another. 18th and early 19th C America was great in regards to public duty and diligent in progressing this notion of “building up a new country instead of inheriting an old one” but were really bad in personal freedoms (slavery being a good example.) Now for example it’s almost reversed: we emphasize the individual and have forgot the idea of doing things for others or for our home.

    Culturally there is progress and regress and the spider graph changes. But hanging over that movement of cultural progress/regress is sin. Right now in this inbetween time the consequences of sin has been lifted. But we have been promised a time when even our desire to sin is gone. Then the spider graph will hit all the edges and the big bubble of morality will be full.

    So what is a Christian to do in the meantime? Keep on sinning? Wait for heaven? Well, the king invaded his fallen land a long time ago, so like Nehemiah we work with a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other. Fight and build.

    I miss seminary 😦

    • You miss seminary, and I miss you. What say we meet in the middle and do our PhD’s in UK?

      As I understand sanctification, our actual sinning AND our desire to sin should be decreasing as we become more like Christ and our desires and conformed to His. Without that, I have a hard time with the ethical demands of the NT (and so should we all, I think). While Paul is plain that he keeps on doing what he doesn’t want to do, Peter implies that we who have died with Christ have ceased to sin – one example of many possibles.

      What about this theory: human beings are very good at “inventing new ways to sin.” So whenever we make a moral breakthrough and tackle one particular evil on a grand scale, the same sin pops up somewhere else in a different guise. Like how AA meetings are full of people smoking and drinking coffee. We deal with disrespecting human dignity in the form of racism, but we still need to deal with the same issue under the guise of patriarchy, etc. We stop producing cfcs, which harm the ozone layer, but we do nothing about the root cause of pollution, which is a lifestyle of gluttony. Sin doesn’t take defeat sitting down, and rears its ugly head over and over again like a whack-a-mole, forcing us, as individuals and, more slowly, as a society, to deal with it one issue at a time.

      But we do deal with it, and continue to deal with it, even though it doesn’t go away. It’s not like we’ve made no progress, but only that we’re not the entire equation, and for every step of progress there’s another issue to deal with.

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