Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Problem with Sanctification - A Personal Story

Conversing over doctrine with members of Protestant churches is like trying to engage with a constantly morphing shapeshifter.  Various doctrines are, of course, construed differently from denomination to denomination, and given various levels of significance.  But then even within the same denomination there often is a spectrum of belief about particular doctrines, usually measured in terms of more or less ‘conservative’ and more or less ‘liberal’.  So it is possible for Presbyterians, for example, to use a similar vocabulary about ‘predestination’ and yet for more ‘liberal’ Presbyterians to mean something very different than their more conservative brethren.  It is obviously impossible, therefore, to speak definitively about what Protestants believe about this or that doctrine, since there will almost always be exceptions.  What follows are some of my own reflections on my over 40 years of ‘sanctification’ in Protestant contexts.  I am attempting to describe my experience only, which may or may not have wider ramifications.  This is not an attempt to say something about all Protestants at all times.

Ring Around the Rosie
I became a Christian in a Presbyterian church.  I will always be grateful for the men and women there who loved this boy and teenager and taught me the Scriptures and helped me understand what it meant to become a follower of Jesus.  I was taught there that I was ‘saved by grace’, that if I believed in Jesus, trusted that his death on the cross was for the forgiveness of my sins, said the ‘sinner’s prayer’ and really believed it, then I would be reconciled with God, that my sins would be forgiven, that I would ‘go to heaven’ when I died.  I was taught that this salvation was Christ’s work, not mine, that I could do nothing to save myself, that none of my works would ever earn my way out of condemnation, that only Jesus could save me and that, once saved, I was saved and no one or nothing could snatch me from his hands.

At the same time I was taught that my behavior as a ‘born-again Christian’ was important, that as a Christian sin no longer had ‘dominion’ over me, that I could expect victory over  those temptations and the resulting sins that so vexed me.  And because I was at the time a teenager, the temptations and sins at the top of my list of concerns were, of course, of a sexual nature.  I observed both voids of silence and a significant amount of silent shame around me when it came to these temptations and sins.  Some of this shame was projected outward from my own afflicted conscience.  But there is no denying that I experienced puberty and adolescence thinking that I was the only one who struggled with these things.  Sure there were plenty of my peers who had no struggles at all.  It never seemed to cross their minds that there was anything wrong with trying to get as much sex as they possibly could.  Or at least that’s what their incessant boasting implied.  I, on the other hand, had been taught by people in my church that sex outside of marriage was wrong, and that pretty much anything having to do with sex should be avoided because it was almost certainly wrong as well.

But most of this perspective on sex was osmosed.  Because these things were simply never discussed.  Not at home.  Not in Sunday School.  Not in the Bible studies I took part in. Not in the church’s youth group.  Not at boy scouts.  Not at school.  Except for the one day when there was an all-school assembly at my junior high school.  I was in the 8th grade and the school had arranged to have a doctor come and speak to all of the students on venereal disease.  And the doctor invited to speak was my father.  I. Was. Mortified.

There was, of course, plenty of talk about sex going on, but it was of the junior high and high school boys’ variety.  And it was the sort of talk that I worked hard to avoid, seeing as I had been told that Christians don’t engage in such conversation, that Christians are to keep themselves ‘separate’ from the influences of the ‘world’, and that Christians should keep themselves pure from sexual sin.  People who engaged in this sort of behavior while claiming to be Christians were considered to be ‘hypocrites’ at best, or simply and hopelessly reprobate.  Christians who succumbed to ‘temptation’ and ‘fell into sin’ were considered to have ‘backslidden’ and under threat of God’s judgment unless they ‘repented’.  It seemed to this teenager that all such warnings against sin I ever heard were aimed at avoiding the sexual sort.  None of the adults I knew who were Christians, or my fellow Christian teenagers, seemed all that concerned about gossip or greed or envy, or self-centeredness or idolatry or drinking too much or any of a host of other matters that the Bible addressed in addition to sexual mores.  In true Augustinian fashion, sex was viewed as the problem, best dealt with by denial, prohibition or avoidance, not to mention heaping on the guilt should anything unspeakable actually happen.

It’s at this point that my theological inheritance began what would become a 40+ year conflict with my experience and observation.  First my experience.  As a healthy teenage guy, I experienced healthy sexual urges.  My theology taught me that acting on them was wrong.  So I was constantly in a state of spiritual crisis, trying to ‘live a life of purity’, experiencing sexual temptation and ‘falling’ into sex with self, feeling ‘convicted’ and praying prayers of repentance and swearing never to do this again.  Only to do so again.  Repeatedly.  To this young man with a tender conscience, it seemed that my sincerity as a repentant sinner was called into question because I kept struggling with the same cycle of sin.  And of course, I was getting no help in sorting this out from Christian friends or from church leaders because nobody was talking about it.  It seemed I was the only one who had this problem.

My silence was reinforced on a regular basis because the only times such things were talked about were those cases of spectacular moral failure when some poor person was revealed to be a fornicator (because he got someone pregnant or more usually because she got pregnant outside of marriage) or an adulterer (running off with another man/woman and breaking up a marriage or two) or a ‘pervert’ by getting arrested by the police for some unexplained crime of indecency.  Such people were gossiped against and shamed out of the church, held up as an anti-example of what happens when a person ‘backslides’. Of course lip service was given about the offender coming back if he or she ‘repented’, but I never witnessed such a miracle, probably because the offenders really didn’t want to be restored to a community that had treated them is way.  And who could blame them.

So the lessons I learned at this stage of my Christian life were that Christians don’t, won’t or can’t talk about their sins in general, and their sins of a sexual nature in particular.  I learned that if it did get out that I was a sinner in any of these areas, that I would likely be treated by my fellow Christians in a way that was best avoided at all costs.  I learned there was no safe place for the struggler.  I learned that I was ‘saved by grace’, but I also learned, to my confusion, that I wasn’t really saved by grace unless I subsequently lived a life free from sin.  So while the ‘gospel’ which was regularly preached all around me was ‘come to Jesus for salvation’, the ‘gospel’ that was lived all around me was ‘you better not sin’.  It should therefore be no surprise that every church I was ever involved with throughout my life as a young Christian, a Christian at university, a Christian in parachurch ministry, a Christian in seminary, a Christian in pastoral ministry, a Christian in missionary service, I was surrounded by for the most part wonderful people who, whatever else they might be, they weren’t sinners.  I remember as a pastor looking out on congregations of 40, 70, 300, 1600 people during my 20+ year career as a Protestant minister, and everybody I saw presented themselves as the model Christian, all dressed up on the outside and on the inside.  There were no sinners in the house.  Or in the ministry, or on the board, or in the mission.  Only godly, Jesus-loving men and women of the purest motives and lives.  And then there was me.

I did succeed in finding circles of accountability wherever I went.  Looking back, I now see that this is how I survived as a Christian engaged in Christian ministry for so long.  I worked hard at finding an individual or group of people with whom I could share at least in outline the nature of my struggles.  But all of us realized that what we were doing was risky.  Sure, no church leader was going to gainsay our being vulnerable with each other, our confessing our sins to each other, our holding each other accountable.  But all of us were aware of what happened if someone got ‘caught’ in sin.  In too many instances, such a person was dragged out in public shame, or bid a hasty exist out a side door so as to minimize any scandal.  And with no Jesus evidently around to write in the sand, there seemed no shortage of people willing to cast the first stone, figuratively speaking.

A Pocket Full of Posies
After receiving my MDiv from a reputable evangelical institution and pastoring for nearly a decade, and after going back to grad school in the UK and receiving my PhD, I found myself on the mission field teaching systematic theology in a succession of Protestant undergraduate and graduate schools of theology.  I mention this simply to say I knew my Bible.  And I knew my theology.  Especially my soteriology and my theology of sanctification.  And as a result I became increasingly vexed.  Mainly because what seemed so nicely expressed on paper was not at all reflected in what seemed to be preached and taught in the churches, nor was it what I experienced in my own life nor saw happening in the lives of those around me.  Sanctification was defined as that progressive process by which individual believers become increasingly like Jesus in character by the working of the Holy Spirit within them (or as Wayne Grudem puts it: ‘Sanctification is a progressive work of God and man that makes us more and more free from sin and like Christ in our actual lives.’ Systematic Theology, 717-718).  

Another nicely put explanation of the difference between justification and sanctification.  On paper, at least.

But as far as I could tell, there wasn’t anything progressive going on inside me at all.  I was still fighting the same temptations I had fought as a teenager with respect to lust, and with similar results.  Only the stakes had gotten higher with increased responsibility in Christian ministries combined with the advent of the internet and the availability of seemingly anonymous online sexual gratification.  Over the decades I had labored to put up barriers of accountability as well as block access to online pornography through filters.  But my problem was more profound than access to pornography; I had learned an entire way of coping with conflict and relational pain that made use of self-sex as a self-medicating drug.  And as long as I kept getting into conflict, say with my spouse, or with my elders at church, or experiencing relationship pain, I would fall into the same pattern of seeking the only relief I knew that worked.  And this, of course, was done in secret because the consequences of anyone finding out would be the end of my life in evangelical ministry.  Except I had brought people in on the inside of my struggles. In every new place we lived I found another guy or group and shared as much as I felt was safe to share.  Even my wife was on the inside of my struggles, as I shared with her from the beginning what I felt was safe to share.

Profound as these relational fears were, my theological struggles nearly undid my faith.  If I was saved, as my Calvinist faith declared, then my life should of a course be transformed by the power of the Spirit and the reality of gratitude for my salvation.  But it wasn’t.  So what was I to think about my so-called ‘salvation’?  Was I really saved after all?  Or did my cyclical struggles with lust betray the fact that I, pastor and missionary and teacher, was deluded and in reality living a lie?  Could someone be a Christian and a sinner at the same time?  The morality plays and ritual firings I saw put on by churches and evangelical institutions on a regular basis all around me did not allow for much encouragement and hope.  Why did the church so often present itself as a museum of saints? Why did churches and institutions insist on putting their ministers up on a moral pedestal and hold them to standards that the members themselves would be hard pressed to keep?  Why did the churches and schools and missions so often feel obligated to drag their wounded leaders out and shoot them?  Why did my churches, my schools, my mission, my institutions, even my marriage seem like such unsafe places?  Was it me or was it them?  And after trying so hard for so long, why was I still struggling after all these years?

Despite the rhetoric of salvation, church and parachurch attitudes towards actual sin and actual sinners seemed designed to make liars and hypocrites out of everyone.  Who in their right  mind would want to own up to this or that sin if it was going to result in public shaming and being thrown out of the church?  As I got older, I began to suspect that the vast ocean of evangelical silence was not because I was the only one who struggled; it was because everyone else like me was afraid of the consequences of being honest.

In many respects I have been fortunate.  In the 2000s I endured a series of depressive episodes that I now recognize as a series of mental rebellions over not being able to handle the cognitive dissonance from my struggle with sanctification and with worsening relational issues in my marriage, none of which I felt able to share with others because I was in a Christian ministry context where I was afraid of losing everything if it emerged that I had ‘issues’ or was less than Christ-like.  I am sure that every one of my colleagues at the time would protest that my fears had no basis in reality.  But when I was later pushed out as pastor because, in an effort to be vulnerable with my fellow elders I talked about my struggle with depression, and the board chairperson and several others said I needed to go because I was ‘mentally ill’, no one of the 1600 people who attended on Sundays came to my defense, with the exception of three friends, all of whom were shunned by the same board.  I learned from this that people perceived to be ‘damaged goods’ by fellow Christians are toxic in ministry situations and are best removed out of sight and thus out of mind.

This experience nearly undid me.  Further depression led to not caring any more led to attempts to self-medicate the pain led to despair and ultimately to planning my own suicide.  I then realized I was in serious trouble and I reached out to help and mercifully found it at a local counseling center.  I got help for my depression and also began to unpack what had brought me to this point.  Five years later, I am still unpacking.

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down
One of the casualties of my experience was the death of my marriage, which would take a book that has yet to be written to begin to describe.  Another casualty, just as profound, was my Protestant understanding of salvation and sanctification.  Previously I had thought that the Protestant understanding of salvation had corrected the defective Roman Catholic understanding of salvation, and that both positions reflected opposite ends of the spectrum of soteriology.  But as I became more aware of Eastern Orthodox theology, I realized I had been misled into thinking that Protestant soteriology was the only viable show in town.  From the Eastern standpoint, both Protestants and Catholics make salvation the resolution of our legal issues with God.  From this Western perspective, there is much emphasis on our breaking God’s laws and of God’s justice and wrath needing to be satisfied.  Setting up salvation as God’s dealing with our legal issues so that we can be declared righteous by Christ’s work on the cross and therefore saved is, of course, very tidy.  This tidiness is accomplished by decoupling sanctification and glorification from the train of salvation.  This may have seemed necessary by the Protestant Reformers to counter certain perceived Roman Catholic mistakes, but such a move doesn't happen in the New Testament.  This decoupling, moreover, has put Protestant soteriology in the ever awkward position of saying both that sanctification is not necessary for salvation, and that sanctification is totally necessary for salvation, with all the resulting confusion that one might expect.  And given that 99% of Protestant Christians are not as theologically sophisticated as the theologians who write so clearly and persuasively in their systematic theologies, the legalistic orientation of Protestant (and Catholic) salvation often gets translated into mere legalism, with sanctification relegated to mere moralism.  This is what I ran into again and again.  This is why churches are often such shame palaces when it comes to dealing with the sinners within and without their walls.  This is why hypocrisy is so prevalent – the constant threats against sinners and their sin results in double lives rather than progressive Christ-likeness.

The Eastern Churches make no such grandiose claims – no one in the Eastern Church says ‘I am saved’.  That’s because salvation in the Eastern Church is not about the resolution of legal difficulties.  Salvation is not a status gained.  Salvation instead has to do with being reconciled through the cross of Christ in our relationships (primarily with God the Holy Trinity, but with all those others made in God’s image around us as well), with forgiving and being forgiven, with the transformation of our characters, with our lives becoming increasingly what we were created to be and, ultimately, to be set free from the power of death and raised to live forever as part of God’s new creation.  All of this is a process.  This is because love has to do with relationships and relationships are always a process  None of this happens notionally; rather, it - salvation - happens in space and time and in real life.  And that is because love happens in space and time and real life.  And so Eastern Christians have learned to say that we are being saved.

Because salvation is a process that involves saving people from their sin and its consequences (all of them), Eastern Christians make the assumption that the church is not a museum of saints on display but a hospital for sinners.  We are all learning how to repent and how to pray and how to love.  The sacraments are given to help us repent and pray and love.  The Christian life is about repentance and prayer and love.  Twenty months ago I was afraid to tell my priest and spiritual father that I was separated from my wife.  I was ashamed and was afraid that I would be hauled before some tribunal and called to account and kicked out of whatever association I was in.  When I finally told him and said that I would be willing to step down from choir and the other things I was doing at the church because it wouldn’t do to have someone who struggles like me up in front of everyone.  My priest turned and looked at me, and then he said, ‘We Orthodox, we struggle together.’

For Orthodox Christians, sanctification is not something separate from our ‘salvation’, nor is sanctification necessary for our salvation, as if it were a kind of good work.  Instead, sanctification, or becoming like Christ, is salvation.  Just like our reconciliation with God and each other is salvation.  Just like our being forgiven and our forgiving each other is salvation.  Just like the resurrection of our death-destroyed bodies will be our salvation.

Despite the rhetoric to the contrary, there are too many Christian contexts that have no room for someone who is divorced, or struggling with substance abuse, or with pornography, or with same-sex attraction, or maybe have had an abortion.  And heaven forbid if someone is a murderer, or a rapist, or a thief, or a gang member, or a prostitute.  This is a serious problem.  Since all of these and more are the people Jesus came to save, churches and Christian organizations that have no room for people like this are sending mixed messages at best, and have more likely disqualified themselves from using the adjective ‘Christian’.

I have discovered that the Eastern Church is a safe place for sinners like me.  This is because the bishops and priests and deacons and laypeople that I know in the Church make the assumption that all of us are sinners.  All of us need a savior.  All of us are struggling out of the hole our rebellions dug for us.  All of us are learning to be what we were created to be, learning how to pray, learning how to repent, learning how to love.  And because all of us receive grace and forgiveness from Christ through our own confession and repentance, we are prone to meet other sinners like us with the same forgiveness that has touched our own lives.  It is in this communal context of safety that I can practice ascesis, that I can practice praying, that I can practice loving, I can practice using my spiritual gifts – in short, I can work on becoming like Christ.  These things can only happen when I am in relationship with fellow Christians who are themselves experiencing what it means to repent, pray and love.


I regret that I did not discover these things sooner, though I am grateful to have found this church as a late convert, even as one untimely born.  Is it the perfect church?  Due to the presence of all us sinners, we do have our issues.  But having been at this for nearly 2000 years, this Church has done a pretty good job at being faithful to the original emphases of the Apostles and their successors as we all learn how to deny ourselves and pick up our crosses and follow Christ down the road of his salvation.  It is where I have experienced the love of Christ, and been given the means to become more and more like him.