[B31] The Apostles' Creed: Sanctification
There is a great difference… between justification and sanctification. Justification is an instantaneous act of God, the results of which, however, endure forever, unless one proves a traitor to God. Sanctification, on the contrary, is a life-long process.
Table of Contents
Put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; and be renewed in the spirit of your mind; And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness. — Eph. 4:22—24.
In all of God’s great work in the universe the three persons of the holy Trinity cooperate. Yet there are spheres of activity in which the one or the other of these persons takes the leadership. The very form of our Creed indicates this. The work of creation is ascribed specifically to the Father; redemption, to the Son; and the work of applying redemption, to the Holy Spirit.
As you know, the whole Third Article, which we are now considering, treats of sanctification. And rightly so, for every effort the Holy Spirit puts forth in dealing with men has as its aim the bringing of them back to that state of holiness without which no one shall see God. But the various steps in this process may be, and in the holy Scriptures themselves often are, differentiated. As we saw last time, at a certain stage in the holy Spirit’s work an an act of God take place which is called justification. This has to do, as we recall, with man’s relationship to God. The Holy Spirit’s work, however, does not end with the bringing about of a new relationship. He continues to work in and with the child of God to the end of his days. The aim of this endeavor is transformation of character. This process we call sanctification. This also is a very important subject, frequently and emphatically dwelt upon in the sacred Word. Let us today consider this the next logical step in man’s spiritual development —
We will treat of the beginning of sanctification in man’s life, the progress of the work, and its completion.
I. The beginning of sanctification, let us then at this point consider. Sanctification, in a broad, general sense, has begun in a human life when the operation of the Holy Spirit on that life has succeeded in making the first forward step in breaking down the barriers of opposition to God and divine things. Just as soon as a man has been taught by the Holy Spirit to know and hate sin, to desire a better life and destiny, and lays hold of Christ as the only cure for sin, as the only source of satisfaction for the soul’s desires, he is no longer his old self. New life-elements course through his being. Visions, at least dim, glimmering visions, of better things, beckon him on. New aspirations begin to pulsate within. Hope sits enthroned in his heart. For, by faith, he has laid hold of Christ; and it is written, “If any man be in Christ he is a new creature, old things are passed away, behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor. 5:17).
For our peace of mind and heart, however, let us remember, and to this end it is helpful oft to repeat it, that just here that blessed act of God takes place which we call justification. This act of God at once takes us out of the kingdom and power of darkness, and translates us into the Kingdom of God’s dear Son (Col. 1:13). This act is made possible by what Jesus has done for us. It consists in bestowing on us a full and free pardon, because Christ has paid the penalty of all our sins. The other half of this act consists in bestowing on us the perfect righteousness of Jesus our Saviour. But because this act of God, judicially and most effectually changing our relationship to Him, can take place in man only with the begetting, by the operation of the Holy Spirit, of an incipient spiritual life, we include this beginning also in the process of sanctification, broadly viewed.
There is a great difference, however, between justification and sanctification. Justification is an instantaneous act of God, the results of which, however, endure forever, unless one proves a traitor to God. Sanctification, on the contrary, is a life-long process. Justification is a declaration of God concerning man’s relationship to Him. Sanctification is a movement within man, prompted and furthered by the Holy Spirit, changing his character. Justification is based on what Christ has done for us. Sanctification is what Christ, through the Spirit, does in us. There are no degrees in justification. When a man believes in Christ he is justified, wholly justified. There is no such thing as a partial justification. But there are degrees in sanctification. In some it is but little more than begun. Some have made considerable progress. A few are struggling hard, many are resting on their oars. In the same person the degree of sanctification often fluctuates. In no person on earth is it ever perfected.
Sanctification, in its inception, as in its development, is wholly the work of the Holy Spirit. Therefore Christian sanctification must not be confounded with merely human reformation. Sometimes the drunkard and the rake, as well as other classes of sinners, change their course of life; not from religious considerations, not from love of God. They may do it because of the solicitations of friends or relatives, because they see that such a course is injuring their chances in life, or because they wish to appear respectable before men. Such a change is most praiseworthy, and highly beneficial, to the one making the change, and all associated with him. But as long as this change is the result merely of the man’s own resolution, and has in view present, temporal considerations, it is not sanctification. It is a change of habit, not of heart. It is not prompted by a desire to please God, it does not proceed from faith in Christ, it is not begotten by the Holy Spirit. There is no more vital relation between such a reformation and real sanctification than there is between a clean suit of clothes on one’s back, and a clean heart in one’s breast.
Santification, like every other step in man’s salvation, is the work of God. The Father has part in it, for it is the God of peace who sanctifieth us (1 Thess. 5:23). Jesus Christ has His full share in the work of making us holy. He loved the Church and gave Himself for it; that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word, that He might present it to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish (Eph. 5:25—27). But sanctification is peculiarly the work of the Holy Spirit. He it is who teaches us what sin is, who Christ is, and brings Christ to us and enables us to receive Him as the cure for sin, and our power unto holiness of life. “Ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His” (Rom. 8:9). And the Holy Spirit does His work, ordinarily at least, through the divinely ordained means, — the Word and the sacraments. As is declared in the passage above, He cleanses and sanctifies His Church with the washing of the water by the Word. And Jesus prays the Father, “Sanctify them through Thy truth, Thy Word is Truth” (St. John 17:17).
II. Sanctification, in the stricter, narrower sense of the word, is the term used to express the development into Christ-likeness of the individual who has been begotten into spiritual life by the operation of the Holy Spirit, and justified by the everlasting God. This growth in holiness is progressive. It continues through life. This process of sanctification let us now consider.
That the Christian is expected to make good his profession in his conduct, that the good tree is to bear good fruit, that as the children of God we are to glorify Him by following His precepts; these are some of the most frequently, and emphatically taught truths of God’s holy Word. Some, indeed, make the mistake of considering conduct the all of the Christian life, the basis of acceptance with God. On this ground no one ever can be accepted. Man can be accepted alone for Christ’s sake, pardoned and justified because of what He has done for us. But when holiness of life is viewed aright, as the expression of the new life within; when it is the result of the effort to please and glorify God out of love and gratitude for what He has done for us; when it proceeds from the laudable desire to manifest to the world, for their conviction, the new power for righteousness which God has given to his children; then there cannot be too much effort put forth to lead a holy life. With the exception of the teaching of false doctrine, no one thing has done the Church of God so much harm as the outstanding failure of so many of its professed members to live up in conduct to the standard which God’s Word requires, and the Holy Spirit makes possible.
Sanctification, on the one side, consists in more and more putting off the old man; the sinful nature. When under the warming, life begetting rays of the Holy Spirit the old fallow ground of man’s spiritually dead nature has yielded to the extent of ceasing resistance, and at least feebly accepts Christ, the life of the individual, as to the inclinations and habits of his corporeal nature, is much as it was before. But now begins the process of transformation. And it is a transformation, first of all, by elimination. As in every country, in early days, the land must be reclaimed largely from the forest, the cultivator begins by cutting down the trees; gradually he digs up the stumps and roots, and burns them; he gathers up the stones, and hauls them away; he drains the stagnant pools. Much after this fashion proceeds the course of Christian culture.
The Christian who is in earnest about the cultivation of his life seeks first of all to have the dark places of his mind lighted up by Divine truth. He wants to come to see all things as fully as possible in the pure white light of God’s revelation, without any of the refraction, and false perspectives, which unenlightened human reason gives. Sanctification is partly an educational process, an education in Divine things, under the tutorship of the Holy Spirit. “Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Rom. 12:2). “Put off the old man with his deeds, and put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of Him that created him” (Col. 3:9, 10).
The education of the intellect is an essential factor in the progress of sanctification, but it is not enough. Not infrequently people recognize, intellectually, that a certain thing ought to be done, or a certain course pursued, but the knowledge is inoperative. There is no dynamic back of the knowledge to put it into practice. We are all in this world still in the flesh. And in so far as our natural attributes and powers have not been subjucated by the Spirit they are out of harmony with God’s plans. “The carnal mind is emnity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Rom. 8:7). But it is the province of the Holy Spirit, aided by our renewed spirits, with such powers as have been acquired, to bring, more and more, into subjection our affections, our will, our whole being, to the holy will of God.
It is not enough, however, simply to root out the evil. God can never be satisfied with a life that is simply divested of sin, however complete it may be. From this it must go on to the positive. Virtues must grow in the places of vices uprooted. The chamber of the heart, swept and garnished of prevailing vices, is still a good lodging place for the worst of evils, till it is filled with living, thriving virtues. We must, indeed, see that sin does not reign in our lives; but the best security against this is to see that goodness reigns there, as the Apostle says: “Let not sin reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin; but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God” (Rom. 6:13). Our whole life, in thought, affection, word, and deed, is to be brought, increasingly, into harmony with the Divine will. “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” (Rom. 12:1).
This growth in holiness does not come easily to any one. Some seem to have fiercer conflicts than others; perhaps it is only because they have deeper natures, feel more strongly, and possibly fight harder. But for anyone to grow in holiness of life necessitates a conflict. This is the reason that Christians are called soldiers, and their life a battle. We are all called to fight the good fight of faith, and to endure hardness as good soldiers of Jesus Christ. And here is the place of all places where the Christian profession is proved sincere. It is easy to say, I believe; but when one is willing to crucify the flesh, and train in the exacting discipline of Christ’s camp, there is reason to believe the profession is sincere.
The real secret of growth in holiness of life is to walk closer to Christ, in fuller fellowship with Him. The Holy Spirit is the active agent, but what He does is to bring Christ to us, to make Him more effective in our lives. Jesus says, “I am the vine, ye are the branches; without me ye can do nothing.” But drawing our power from Christ we may learn to say with St. Paul, “I can do all things through Christ, who strengtheneth me.”
There is a wonderful, mysterious, but very real union existing between every true believer and Christ. A real indwelling of Christ in the believer. Jesus said, “If a man love me, he will keep my words; and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him” (St. John 14:23). In His high priestly prayer Jesus prays for the consummation of this union, “I in them, and Thou in me.” And St. Paul tells us that our bodies are members of Christ (1 Cor. 6:15). St. Peter tells us that we become partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4. And again St. Paul says, “We are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones” (Eph. 5:30). To human mind this, as to its nature, is an unfathomable doctrine. But it is a blessed reality. And this is the secret of our growth in holiness. It becomes possible only as Christ is formed in us. To lose ourselves in Christ is the surest and quickest way of developing such a life as is well pleasing to God.
III. The Completed Sanctification is a subject demanding brief consideration, and for several reasons.
There are those who maintain that there is, here and now, such a thing as a perfect sanctification. Christ’s exhortation: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect,” seems to furnish some ground for the contention. The explanation of this passage is that it is the ideal after which we are to strive, and which we are ever increasingly to realize. That we never here attain the ideal is clearly taught in God’s Word. The words of the prophet are still true:
“There is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not”
(Eicl. 7:20). And the Apostle declares that “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Most people are fully conscious, from their own experience, of the truth of such statements of God’s Word. And those who have deceived themselves into believing that they are perfect, need only to be observed closely by those of discerning minds, and the folly of their claim will soon be in evidence.
The holiest and best of men have ever recognize their inperfections, their utter lack of perfect sanctification. David to the last lamented his faults. St. Paul, in his old age, when he had worn himself out by renunciations, and labors in God’s Kingdom, says: “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect; … but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12). These men, and others like them, had made great progress; much more than many others better satisfied with themselves; they had come better to understand sin, and hated it with a truer, deeper hatred; they had come, too, to have a livelier appreciation of God’s ideal man; and they were continually making progress toward it; but they knew there were not perfect. And, whether we are conscious of it or not, this latter is true of us all.
There is only one way in which men, while they are still in this world, are perfectly holy, and that is in Christ. “Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness my beauty are, my glorious dress, midst flaming world, in these arrayed, with joy shall I lift up my head.” When we are God’s children, when by faith we are clinging to Christ as our Saviour, we are daily, richly, continually forgiven, cleansed of all the guilt of sin. God looks at us as in Christ. And such people will be continually making progress in holiness of life. The silkworm grows to be similar in color to the leaves on which it feeds. The tree-frog takes on the hue of that to which it clings. So the human soul becomes Chistlike when Christ is to that soul the bread of life. If we walk with Him, commune with Him, feed on Him, and become satisfied with His likeness, the world will take note that we have been with Jesus.
Finally the absolutely perfect life will come, but only as we step over the borderland into the next world. Death is the purifying fire which purges away the dross. There the perfect image of God will be restored. There Christ tells us we shall be like Him.
“Love divine, all love excelling,
Joy of heaven, to earth come down!
Fix in us Thy humble dwelling,
All Thy faithful mercies crown.
Jesus Thou art all compassion,
Pure, unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart!
“Finish then Thy new creation,
Pure and spotless let it be;
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee!
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love and praise.”
Golladay, R. E. (1917). [I Believe in the Holy Ghost]. In Sermons on the Catechism: The Apostles’ Creed (Vol. II, pp.
316—373). Columbus, OH: Lutheran Book Concern.
32. Good Works
We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. — Eph. 2:10.
It will be helpful briefly to review the successive steps we have thus far taken in our study of the Third Article. The point from which we started was this, the Holy Ghost is one of the persons of the Godhead; of the same essence as the Father and the Son, possessing a distinct personality. His distinctive office in the plan of salvation is to apply and make effective the redemptive work of Christ Jesus. Wherever the Word of God is proclaimed, and the sacraments administered, the Holy Spirit makes it possible for men to accept the blessings offered. Where His gracious efforts are not willfully resisted hard hearts are melted, blind eyes are opened, and a new spiritual life implanted. Man experences a spiritual birth. At the moment this new spiritual life, under the gestating influence of the Holy Spirit, takes form, so that there is a reaching forth of the soul for the things of heaven, God steps in to perform His act of justification. By this act man’s sins are pardoned. The righteousness of Christ is given to him. He is lifted out of his condition of membership in the kingdom of darkness, he is transferred to the kingdom of grace; he is made a joint heir with Christ of all the blessings of the Father’s Kingdom. The work of the Holy Spirit which produces a condition which makes possible this change in relationship, marks also the beginning of a process of renewal within man’s own life. Jesus Christ, who did the work on the ground of which man is justified, or brought into a new relationship to God, from the very moment of His entrance into a man’s life, begins to work for the transformation of that man’s character. This process, which gives its distinctive name to the whole Third Article, we call sanctification, or growth in holiness.
There is yet another step in the unfolding life of the child of God. Every Christian has become, in some measure, a good tree, a tree of the Lord’s own planting, the recipient of His gracious care. On such a tree fruit must be borne. Every good tree beareth good fruit. The good fruit of the Christian life, which we are going to consider today, we call
I. The term good works is widely, and often, loosely used. It behooves us to give the subject a careful study. Let us, then, as our first step, consider what is to be understood by good works.
Sanctification, as we will recall, is a matter of the very life of an individual. It is internal and vital. A sanctified person is one who, in his deepest nature has learned to hate sin, and love righteousness. In his thoughts, will, affections he has turned his back on the loathesome things of darkness, and faces the sunlight of the things of God. God Himself is the warmth and light giving sun of the sanctified persons’s soul. Good works are to be distinguished from sanctification in this that they are the fruits of such a life. Just as we distinguish the fruit of a tree from the life of the tree, though it is the result of the existence and operation of that life.
A man wakes and sleeps, hungers and eats, works and rests because he is a living, sentient, intelligent being. The very nature of his being demands expression in these, and other, forms of activity. By the spiritually stimulating, revivifying touch of the Holy Spirit our dormant spiritual faculties have been revived. Divine energies have begun to pulsate through our being. Jesus Christ Himself lives in us. His is the molding, directing force of our new life. Being alive our life must find expression. And the expression of the life must, of necessity, be of the same nature as the life finding expression. As our new life is itself of God, it must find expression in doing the things God prompts, and in which He finds pleasure. To the expression of this inner, goldly life we give, the Scriptures give, the name — good works.
From the observations just made, it will be readily seen that good works can be done only by a regenerated, sanctified person. Two neighbors of exactly the same general intelligence, and station in life, may do identically the same work, so far as the character of the work itself is concerned; but the one may be a good work in the Scriptural sense, the other not. When Jones does a work which is the natural outgrowth of his faith in Christ, of his love for Him, and desire to glorify Him, it is a good work. When Smith does the same work, just as well executed, but only not to be outdone by Jones, with no higher motive than to be praised by men, or even out of a naturally generous disposition of heart, but with no faith in Christ, no love for Him, no desire to glorify God, it is not a Christian good work. The work done may be good in itself. It may accomplish good. But the doer of it is not good. And the doing of it is not a good work.
We do not undervalue the importance of correct living on the part of even the unregenerate. When a man lines in conformity to the laws of the land, when he keeps his word, pays his debts, lends a helping hand to his needy neighbor, and conforms his conduct generally to correct standards, we may say, speaking from the viewpoint of men, that such a man’s deeds are good. They are legally, civilly good. And due credit is accorded all such. Such living is beneficial to the one who practices it, and all around him; but such deeds cannot be called Christian good works. The Christian motive is lacking.
Another important point is the character of the works which deserve to be classed as good? This is a question with respect to which there is no little confusion, with consequent regret and alarm on the part of many earnest Christians. Not a few have the idea that only those works deserve to be called good which stand out signalized by their greatness, or the peculiarly trying circumstances under which they are performed. The one who goes as a foreign missionary, builds a church or orphanage, endows a school, or does some other equally conspicuous work, these things, it is readily seen, may be called good. When they are done out of Christian faith and love they are good works. And may the goodly company of those thus moved to render valiant service increase. But for the comfort and encouragement of those whose names never get into the papers as the doers of great deeds, whose lives are spent in the ranks of the humble toilers, and whose opportunities come only in the way of rather small things; let all such remember that the good works, the report of which comes up as the savor of sweet incense to the court of heaven, are not only the great things of life, but includes also the very least. It was the poor widow, who gave the least of all the givers in the Temple, who received Christ’s special commendation. Her little gift represented more faith, more love, and more sacrifice.
Indeed, the Word of God shows that when a man’s life has been truly surrendered to God, then all that he does is a good work. “Whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by Him” (Col. 3:17). “Whether therefore ye eat, drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Whatever is done in this spirit is a good work. The common duties of the house-wife and mother, sometimes misnamed drudgery, receives a new dignity when viewed in this light. Where there is true love, service for those loved is a pleasure. But when to the love of man there is added the love of God, the service rendered is not only for men, but unto God. It is work done in the King’s service. This is true of the toil of the father, and all those who labor under similar conditions. The fact that even the little things of life, if the heart is right, are good works is not an excuse for those who could do the greater things, but will not; it is for the comfort and encouragement of those who would do more, but cannot.
Good works are not only the outward acts of the true child of God, down to the very least; but also the inward exercises of the religious life. The pure affections of the heart, the fear and love of God, our trust in Him, the kindly disposition toward one’s neighbor; the movement of the will toward that which is right; the spirit of submissiveness, exhibited in humility and patience; these, and other, movements within the inner life itself, are rightly included in the term good works. Many of these things are, of course, known as such only to God.
Are we doing good works? Are our souls in tune with the things which are of God’s Spirit? Are we cultivating the virtues of life? Are we, by the blamelessness of our conduct, by the disinterested helpfulness of our service, putting to silence the cavils of the gainsayers, and winning the approval of God, and all those born of the Spirit? This should be the case. This is what God requies of us. This is what men have a right to expect of us. Our text tells us that we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” Think of the force of these words, we have received our new life to the end that it should be adorned with good works. Again, the Word tells us that God has provided for our spiritual needs to the end that we may be thoroughly equipped for the doing of good works (2 Tim. 3:17). And once more we are told that our Saviour gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto Himself a peculiar people zealous of good works (Tit. 2:14). And Jesus Himself says, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify our Father which is in heaven” (St. Matt. 5:16). Do not these, and many other similar passages, show very clearly that God requires his children to show forth in their daily lines, the praises of Him who has called them out of darkness into His marvelous light?
II. Remembering, as it is essential we should, certain statements of last Sunday, to the effect that there is absolutely no possibility of human perfection in this life, the question may suggest itself to your mind, — how can those, who are in their very nature still imperfect, do works which can pass muster before the searching eye of God as good, as well-pleasing in His sight?
Compared with the ideal of life as set forth in the law of God, when spiritually interpreted, and as exhibited in the lives of the angels and saints made perfect, there is no human life but that has come far short. And none realize this so fully as those who have reached the highest rungs of the ladder of achievement in the life of saintliness. St. Paul, around whose head gathered the halo of achievements, over self and the world, almost superhuman, cried out: “The law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14). The ascetic James laments, “In many things we offend all” (3:2). And St. Augustine, speaking, not of the years of his youthful folly, but of his later, sedate years, says: “I being not full of Thee, am a burden to myself. Sorrowful joys contend with joyous sorrows; and which will conquer, I know not. Ah me! Lord, have mercy upon me.”
No Christian’s conduct is so perfect that improvement is impossible. Our flesh and blood as yet have not been wholly brought into subjection to the mind of the Spirit. And as our carnal body is the agent through which the Holy Spirit, and our renewed spirit, works, some of the imperfections of the agent clings to the results brought forth. It was in view of this condition that the prophet exclaims: “We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isa.
In spite of this sad, humbling truth it is possible for Christians to do good works, pleasing to God. It is said of Dorcas that she was full of good works and alms deeds which she did (Acts 9:36). And many others have received the stamp of God’s approval. And every child of God does such good works just in proportion as he holds fellowship with Christ, and draws his inspiration and strength from Him.
The works of the child of God are good because they have their genesis in the operation of the Holy Spirit. “Teach me to do Thy will, for Thou art my God; They Spirit is good, lead me into the land of uprightness”
(Ps. 143:10). The works of the Christian are good because his life is hid with Christ in God (Col. 3:3), and what he does bears Christ’s imprimatur. In other words, our heavenly Father looks on what his children do in the reflected light of Christ’s presence, and appropriated merit. Though none of our works are perfect, because there is a new life in us, and this new life loves, and with more or less success, begins to do that which is good, God is pleased. “A good man, out of the good treasure of his heart, bringeth forth good things” (St. Matt. 12:35). Any proper parent understands this situation. When children are cheerfully obedient, and desirous of helping father and mother, are they not pleased with their children’s efforts? pleased even though they are often slow in learning just how to take hold, and consequently rather awkward in execution? God is pleased with our efforts when, as we say, our hearts are truly in the right place; when there is really a will to do His will, even though, as St. Paul says, we find it next to impossible to do the good that we would.
Not only are good works possible to a Christian, they are necessary. They are necessary not to the securing of salvation, for we are saved by grace, though faith, and not by any works of righteousness we can do. We must forever give up the idea of meriting forgiveness by our works. When we have done our best we are still unprofitable servants (St. Luke
17:10). But it may still be insisted that good works are necessary. The all-sufficient necessity lies in this, God requires good works of us
(St. Matt. 5:16, 44). They are necessary because they are the Divinely ordered sequence of the new life of faith which results in justification. Can faith save a man? Not if it is a mere intellectual, theoretical, speculative faith; a faith which is a mere sentiment, a kind of spiritual luxury, a moral condition. And the faith which grips men’s souls, and binds them into indissoluble fellowship with Christ, not only brings justification, but is the beginning of a progressive sanctification. Every efficient cause, in proper adjustment, is going to have a commensurate effect. The efficient cause of good works is the appropriated, the indwelling Christ. If there is a faith to appropriate Him for justification, there will be the beginning of sanctification and good works. And, conversely, “faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone” (Jas. 2:17).
The worst enemies of the Church of God, more hurtful than all the infidels who have ever lived, are those members of the Church who prate loud and long about their orthodoxy, but live much like heathen. There is an orthodoxy of life as well as of creed. Jesus said, “The works which the Father hath given me to finish, the same works that I do, bear witness of me, that the Father hath sent me” (St. John 5:36). The same principle is applicable to us. Failure to live the orthodox life does not prove the inefficiency of the creed, but it does prove that it has taken no hold, or very little hold, on our lives. But let a Christian show that the love of Christ is the all-compelling power of his life; let this be shown in holiness of living, in patience under trials, in loving service willingly rendered, in willingness to sacrifice for every good, needy cause; and he gives a testimony to the efficacy of the indwelling Christ too strong to be successfully opposed, too holy to be rudely defied.
III. Let us now devote a moment to considering the rewards of good works. We have indirectly touched on this subject, but there are a few points worthy of further treatment.
Again and again do we emphasize the Scripture truth that all that we have, or can hope for, in the way of spiritual blessings are gifts of God’s grace. And yet more widely spread than many think, even on the part of evangelical Christians, is the idea that by what they do, by the evil from which they refrain, by the little good they do, they shall obtain eternal blessedness. How often do we hear, as we minister by sick beds, and from others, of whom we ask their hopes of salvation, and the ground on which it is based, — oh, I have always tried to be honest; I have never injured any one, at least no one but myself; I have given a helping hand wherever I could. On such flimsy foundation do many build. Evidently such people have never learned the real nature and extent of sin as taught in God’s Word, and revealed in human experience. Nor do they know the condemnation and punishment which is its due. Nor have they learned from the same Word the high demands God makes of those who stand approved before Him. If they knew these things they would never hope to stand there clothed only in the ragged and bedraggled garments of their own righteousness. Of ourselves we deserve nothing from God but His wrath and displeasure. The righteousness of Christ is the only garment which enables us to stand approved of God. But in the richness of His goodness God does reward the doer of good deeds. They are rewards of grace.
There are rewards which God gives for every service, however small they may be. Jesus tells us that he who gives but a cup of water in the name of a disciple, shall in no wise lose his reward (St. Matt. 10:42). The one who helps any real need, who lovingly helps some tottering wayfarer over the rough places of life’s highway, who helps a puzzled child to unravel some of the knotty problems of life, who dries the tear driven to the eye by a bleeding heart; no such deed, prompted by pure motives, will ever go unrewarded. The action itself has reflexively put something into the doer’s life which can never be lost.
Good deeds are largely their own reward. There are compensations in being good, and doing good. How comforting, how strengthening, is the approval of a good conscience, a truly enlightened good conscience. How splendid the feeling of the man who knows that God, and godly men, approve his conduct. He may be poor in this world’s goods. The piercing winds may bite through thin garments; the pinch of hunger may often follow the meager repast; but when he knows that God smiles approvingly his soul is clothed in more than purple and fine linen, and feeds on ambrosial viands.
There are honors and distinctions appropriately given to those who distinguish themselves in the service of their fellowmen, in both church and state, and this by Divine command. And those whose distinction comes from service in spiritual things, turning many to righteousness, shall shine as the stars for ever and ever. (Dan. 12:3). But after all, the highest honor and reward is in the possession of a pure, good character.
“Howe’er it be; it seems to me,
‘Tis only noble to be good.
Kind hearts are more than coronets,
And simple faith than Norman blood.”
Let us be deeply in love with goodness, that which is inherent, a part of the life, and that which expresses itself in word and deed. But on account of this there can never be any self-glorification. All that is good is from God, the absolute good. And only as the old self is surrendered to Christ, and replaced by the Christ formed in us, does our life begin to unfold in beauty of being and action. Scan the pages of sacred history as we may, we will find that those who bring forth richly of good works to the glory of God are only those to whom Christ has become all and in all.
33. The Holy Christian Church
Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona; for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. — St. Matt. 16:16—18.
Christ also loved the Church, and gave Himself for it; that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that He might present it to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. Eph. 5:25—27.
The Third Article treats of four leading subjects. The person of the Holy Ghost; His work of gathering a people of God; the Church, which is the result of His gathering, enlightening, sanctifying process; and the eternal life into which God’s children pass through death and resurrection. The first and second of these subdivisions having been considered, we now pass on to the third, — the Holy Spirit’s workmanship, the Christian Church.
The Christian Church! What a subject! what a history! what a task! what a future! is presented for consideration in this Word. All the great souls in the Kingdom of God have even been absorbed in reverent contemplation of this glorious institution. They have been thrilled to the very depth of their being by the vision of the Church’s mission, former extent, and final goal. They were inspired by its claims to put forth the greatest exertions, to make the supreme sacrifices. David and Isaiah were lifted into transports of holy joy when they were given prophetic visions of that nobler, still loftier Kingdom, of which the one in which they were privileged to live and labor was but the type and shadow. “The Lord loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob. Glorious things are spoken of these, O city of God.” “In that day shall the branch of the Lord be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the earth shall be excellent and comely. “The Kingdom of God,” the Christian Church, was the keynote of Jesus’ message. For the establishment of this Kingdom He came into the world, for it He labored, for it He gave His life. He beheld it as an impregnable fortress against which all the assaults of the powers of darkness should wear themselves out in vain. St. Paul is entranced by his contemplation of this people of God, this marvelous creation of the Lord; and develops, with ever increasing evidences of rapture, his various representations of the Church. He pictures it as the body, and again as the bride, of Christ. At another time he sees it as the most wonderful building the earth has ever borne, the foundation laid by God Himself, the structure ever rising heavenward, attaining ever greater height, breadth, and beauty. Luther also caught the Pauline vision. To him the Church was an object of deep, burning, joyous affection. To the Church he fled for comfort in hours of danger and distress; for it he lived and wrought, for it he, too, was willing to die.
Few have been the times when there was more need of calm, serious study of the church, its nature, mission, and equipment, than there is now. But if it is to be really profitable, this study must be made in the light of God’s own revelations on the subject. To many the word church is but little more than a name. By others it is fiercely arraigned. The Church is said to have lost its grip, to stand for little that is worth while, and to be doing even less. As a matter of confession we still repeat the words, “I believe in the holy Christian Church.” But what content do these words consciously present to us? What hold have these words on our life? What emotions do they enkindle in our souls? What hopes are based on them? To what deeds do they inspire us? For our morning study let us make a new examination of these words of our creed, — I believe in the holy Christian Church.
1. Established And Preserved By God
We believe in the Christian Church as an institution established and preserved by God.
The family and the state were also divinely established. God decreed their existence, and gave laws for their regulation. He blesses with many temporal blessings those who obey them, and judges and punishes those who disobey. But in a sense beyond that which can be affirmed of the family or the state, the Church is a divine institution. It stands by the side of, it towers above, family and state, as a guiding, molding, governing institution. The highest, the only really enduring functions of family and state are what they, directly or indirectly, contribute to the Kingdom of God. As institutions the family and the state shall pass away. The Kingdom of God endures forever. The family and the state serve the purposes of the present life, the Church contributes the elements of blessedness to this life, and fits men for eternal blessedness.
If we study the Church carefully we find that in all its relations it came forth from God. The love of God for sinful man was the root source out of which the Church grew. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” In these words we trace the origin of the Church of God to its fountain head. The foundation of the Church, in fact, was laid by Jesus Christ, when He came, putting Himself, the holy One of God, who knew no sin, in the sinner’s place, bore away the sinner’s burden, and prepared for Him a perfect righteousness. And, as we have seen in a former address, all this can become our own only by the quickening power of the Holy Spirit. Each of the three persons of the Holy Trinity has been, and is still, active in the establishment of the Church of God.
We see, then, that God has done such work for the establishment of the Christian Church as He never did for any other institution. The family and state are perpetuated largely by the operation of the so-called laws of nature, though by no means independently of God’s presence and operation. In the Church, as to its original establishment, and its continued propagation, God is present, and operates, as in no other sphere. He works in the Church through means, the Word and the sacraments in which are recognizable, to men, no natural laws, or forces, capable of producing the results everywhere discernible. The Church of God is a perpetual miracle.
Truly, no one who implicitly follows the teaching of God’s Word can doubt that the Church is God’s own direct workmanship. “We are God’s husbandry, we are God’s building.” And Jesus is the great Master-Builder. To St. Peter He says, “Upon this rock I will build my Church.” And He builds His Church as a corporate part of Himself. “Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” “In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto a holy temple in the Lord.”
The continued growth, the preservation, of the Church is just as truly God’s work. The history of the Church alone, the superhuman trials it has endured, the triumphs it has won, should be the sufficient proof of this. But the Lord tells us in plain words, that we may be confident of this very thing, that He which hath begun a good work in us will perform it unto the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6). We are kept by the power of God, through faith, unto salvation, ready to be revealed in the last day (1 Pet. 1:5).
But what in reality is this Church of which there is so much spoken? To some the word church calls up only visions of a building erected by men’s hands for the accommodation of a local company of those who entertain the same ideals of truth and life. To others the word church, in connection with a qualifier, is the designation which distinguishes a certain body of Christians from others who entertain somewhat different views of truth, are governed by a different ecclesiastical system, or worship God by the use of a different ritual; such, for instance, as the Lutheran, the Episcopal, or the Presbyterian Church. But the word church as used in our text, and most other places in the Scriptures, and in our Creed, has a higher, wider, richer meaning than these we have mentioned. The Christian Church is that great, all-inclusive body of God’s children, of all times and places, which is united with Christ by a living faith. It matters not of what religious organization, whether a churchman or dissenter, if one is truly a believer in Christ he is a member of His Church. And no human bans or proscriptions can exclude from the Church the one who, by faith, is united to Christ. And, on the other hand, no rites or proclamations of men can make one a real member of the Church who is not so united to Christ.
This explains why we speak of the Church as essentially invisible. Only in a very wide sense is it permissible to speak of it as visible. Every decade a religious census is taken of our land. When the results are tabulated they can tell how many of our people are, by profession, members of the various denominations; the value of all Church property; and many other things concerning the government and activities of the Church. But on this basis, no man can decide how many of the professors are actually members of God’s Kingdom. There are tares among the grain, there is chaff mixed with the wheat; and God alone knows, with certainty, which is which. We should be constantly so living that men, judging by our conduct, will be forced to conclude that we are Christians; but let us not forget that that which decides is what God sees and says. And this is the reason we say, I believe in the Church. In its deepest reality it is not a matter of sight, but of faith. We are sure there is a Church simply because Jesus said He was going to build it, and that all the powers of darkness could not tear it down.
When we grasp the all-important truth that it is living relationship with Christ Jesus, and this alone, that decides church membership, the presumptuousness and falsity of the claims of Rome that theirs is the only saving church becomes apparent. In the first place, there is no such thing as a saving church. It is Christ, and He alone, who saves. And no church has a monopoly of the merits of Christ. As soon as a person has been brought into living relation with Christ he is in the Church, whether he has ever formally united with some branch of the visible church or not; though ordinarily he will do this. Because of the fact that no man can be saved apart from Christ, and that every believer in Him is in virtue thereof a member of His Church, we subscribe to the statement, for it is thoroughly biblical, that outside of the Church of Christ there is no salvation. But no denomination has the right to say, ours is the Church of Christ, outside of it there is no salvation.
2. Unity and Perpetuity
We believe in the unity and perpetuity of the Christian Church.
The Church of God is essentially one in all times, and in all places. God’s Word does, at times, speak of local organizations as churches. The understanding, of course, being that they are integral parts of the one large, all-comprehensive body of believers. But in all of the great definitive passages of Scripture the Church is always spoken of as one. Jesus said to Peter, “Upon this rock I will build my Church.” Not my churches, but my Church. To the Ephesians St. Paul says, “Christ loved the Church, and gave Himself for it. Christ died for but one Church. On this foundation the Apostles built but one Church.
The Church on earth and in heaven is one. Of the divisions of a large army, in long drawn out battle line, one division may dash into the conflict, overwhelm the enemy, and be waving the flag of victory, while another division, deployed over a longer route and rougher ground, may be but swinging into battle array. But they both belong to the same army. They have the same commander-in-chief. And the victory of one part is the victory of all. Much like this is it with the soldiers of the cross. Ours is not a seven year, nor yet a thirty year conflict. It is perpetual while time lasts. One generation succeeds another, but it is the same conflict. The part above, sooner on the battle-ground, have won their victory; they are perfected, triumphant, glorified. The part below is still militant, war-worn, and oft tear-stained. But we are part of the same army still. We have the same Leader, and fight for the same cause. And every one who follows the great Captain of God’s host shall, bye and bye, stand with the laurel crowned host above. “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life.”
The Church of the old dispensation and that of the new is essentially one. There are differences, some distinctions it would be unwise to overlook, — but in the great fundamentals they are two phases of one Church. The Church of the Old Testament was made possible only by Jesus Christ, His person and His work. Those people were given the prophetic vision, and laid hold of Jesus by a forward-looking faith. What those people were privileged to see prophetically we see in the light of history, and appropriate by a faith which looks back to promises fulfilled.
The Kingdom of God, as to its earthly manifestation, took on its final form with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Then is when the application of the completed work of Christ began with earnestness and power. It was of this time in particular that Jesus spoke when He said, “I will build my Church.
We are living in a privileged period, but let us not forget our essential unity with the people of God in all ages and climes, in this world and the next.
The Christian Church of today, in spite of its divided state, and oft time partisan spirit, and antagonism, is essentially one. Behind the strongly marked denominational barriers there is an invisible bond of unity. The faith in Christ, and love for Him, which binds men to Christ binds them also to one another. This thought ought to be very effective in banishing the ugly spirit which is often exhibited by the different branches of the Church toward others. Jesus made the unity of his people a subject of earnest prayer. We ought, with all earnestness, to pray and work to the same end. These thoughts about the unity of the Church, the fact that God wants it, and bids us work for it, should especially inspire the different branches of our own beloved Church to work toward this blessed end. And especially in view of the splendid anniversary we are this year observing.
In speaking as we have of the possibility of being saved in any church where Christ is known, confessed, and served, and only such are Christian churches; and in advocating the desirability of a better understanding of each other by the various churches, and a closer cooperation in the work of God’s Kingdom, we are far from teaching that it is a matter of indifference as to which branch of the church one belongs. These branches have had their origin in different conceptions of God’s revelation of Himself and His plans. In the church, as elsewhere, we should be truth seekers. In the most important relation of life we should not proceed blindly, or on man’s say-so. Where we find the truth, or the largest measure of truth, there we should abide. God’s truth for our salvation is fully and finally revealed in His Word. We have this Word in its fulness. Here let us abide by it with loyal devotion.
Assured that the Christian Church was Divinely instituted, and is Divinely protected, we believe that it is qualified and equipped to make conquest of the earth.
The Church of God has won many great victories. To deny this is to betray one’s ignorance or prejudice. These victories have been won in every sphere of human life. In the great fields of education, government, and social betterment the leaven, the impetus, which leads to amelioration and abatement of abuses, and the inauguration of improvements has always come from those who caught their visions in the Kingdom of God.
The churches great victories are won, first of all, in the lives of individuals. No victories in the world and of the world, however great in extent, or rich in benefit to the present lives of men, is to be compared to that which the Holy Spirit wins when one soul is brought from darkness to light, from death to life. All else passes away, this abides. And each person thus won is obligated to show in his life the victory God has won in him; show this by the change in his conception of things, and in his mode of life. And each person thus won is obligated to put his life in the conflict for winning other victories for the Church of God. The standing orders of the great Head of the Church, given to the Church as a whole, and to each member of it, is to move forward to ever new conquests of this kind.
The means with which God has equipped His Church for winning these victories is the same that was given to the prophets and Apostles, the Word of God and His divinely instituted sacraments. In the sphere of carnal warfare great improvements have been mad in the weapons of offense and defense. Here no improvements have been made. None can be made, they are perfect, God-given. One of the great weaknesses of the Church in her work has been that too often she has tried to improve the equipment God gave her. Too frequently the idea has prevailed that culture and a certain refinement of manner is the only aim of the Church. What God wants, that which alone admits a man to the Kingdom of God, to membership in His, the true, Church, is conversion, a change of heart and life. The Holy Spirit alone can bring this about. And God’s Word, including the sacramental forms, is the only means for accomplishing this. This alone is the sharp two-edged sword which can reach the spirit of man. This is the only instrument which is the power of God unto salvation.
The Church has not yet won her final victories; but she is winning victories, she is going to keep on winning them. We have little patience with those, often professedly in the Church, who are whining about the churches’ inefficiency. The only failures are in the things substituted for the Church, and in the things substituted for God’s means of doing His work. Let us guide our course by the star and the compass. Let us preach the Word, let us convince men of sin, assure them of the grace of God, bring to them the redemption in Christ Jesus; let us fit men for citizenship in heaven. And, with the right kind of guidance, there will be produced the best of citizens for the duties of earth.
There is no promise that the Church is going to win all the world for Christ. To the very end there is going to be decided opposition. But in spite of the cataclysmal outbreaks of devilish violence, the Church is winning victories. Even now she is a glorious Church. She is the bride, the very body of Christ. And soon she will triumph. All opposition will be swept aside. As to her individual members, and, of course, collectively, she will be without spot or wrinkle. Haste, O Thou great Head of the Church, the day of our triumph.
- Author: “Golladay, Robert Emory”
- Title: “The Apostles’ Creed”
- Originally Published: 1917 by Lutheran Book Concern, Columbus, Ohio.
- Lutheran Library Edition: 2020
- Copyright: CC BY 4.0