By Christina Larsen, PhD
College of theology
April 26, 2018
These past couple of weeks students in my theology classes have been considering the trickiness of discussing God’s sanctification of His people without collapsing this work into either His work of justification or Christian ethics.
As many of you no doubt experience, the challenges in this endeavor are manifold. Justification, sanctification and Christian ethics each hold a central place in scriptural description of God’s holy people. However, these three are described in both more and less direct ways that, when taken together, can lead one to a puzzling set of conclusions that might not appear to articulate the precise nature of their relationship to one another. The attempt to proclaim the good news of sanctification in a prudent manner can feel downright hopeless.
Of course, many have rightfully undertaken this theological task with tremendous hope.
While hardly the only inspiring figure in this regard, the late John Webster’s beloved Holiness has vitalized many in this task—not least because of where he believes this task should begin. After introducing his desire to offer a “trinitarian dogmatics of holiness,” he explains himself:
“Put at its simplest, a Trinitarian account of holiness makes two related claims. The first concerns the doctrine of God proper, namely that God is holy as Father, Son and Spirit. Second, the triune God is the Holy One in our midst; his holiness is a mode of relation to the creatures whom he sanctifies and calls to holiness.”
Here, Webster is clear that he finds that any Christian discussion of holiness must begin with a discussion of the one who is holy in the way that He is holy (specifically, God as Trinity!), because it is in this holiness that God makes us holy. Of course, he then goes on to clarify how this trinitarian approach facilitates faithful discussion of sanctification. That is to say, by beginning with “the path taken by the holy three-in-one who, in the majestic fulfilment of his own freedom, elects, reconciles and perfects the creature for holy obedience,” this trinitarian dogmatics “does not think of divine holiness in abstraction from the sanctifying acts of God pro nobis, nor of human sanctity in isolation from election, salvation and the work of the sanctifying Spirit.”
While much might be said about the fruitfulness of Webster’s program for a faithful account of divine holiness, consider how helpfully it promotes a certain ordering for discussion of sanctification by insisting that this discussion is irreducibly tied to discussion of the Trinity’s work of election, reconciliation and perfection of creatures: it necessitates that any discussion of sanctification is always discussion of something 1) grounded in God’s free intention, 2) established in God’s decisive salvation of creatures in Christ and 3) brought to perfection by the Holy Spirit.
It is as one begins to discuss creaturely holiness in such a way that acknowledges its basis in this irreducibly triune work of love that an understanding of the distinct good of sanctification begins to emerge from the fullness of scripture’s witness (along with the distinct goods of justification and Christian ethics!). However, perhaps most crucially, these distinct goods begin to emerge from a rich picture of a creaturely holiness that is nothing less than doxological fellowship with the Holy Trinity in the triune freedom of his most holy love.
John Webster, Holiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 5.