Practical Problems in Pastoral Ministry – Reflections on “Justification” and “Sanctification” in the Reformation

Editor’s note: As the Chinese house church engages the question, “What is the church?” it recognizes the all-important preceding question, “What is the gospel?” The result is that the house church finds itself contemplating what can be gleaned from the depths of church history. The following is Part 3 of a lengthy paper written by a Chinese pastor on the topic of reformed soteriology and its pastoral implications. The paper hopes to train and encourage other urban Chinese house church pastors, and as such is an interesting insight to the theology shaping portions of the house church. It was originally published in Kosmos, an online and print magazine focusing on theological and cultural issues in mainland China. If you missed them, make sure to catch up with Part 1 and Part 2 from last week and come back to read Part 4 next week.

If the fathers of the Reformation strove so vigorously to construct a comprehensive soteriology, why do we often find unhealthy imbalances in our lives and pastoral ministries? Either we base justification on sanctification and turn into practical legalists, living with a saved-by-Jesus-yet-sanctified-by-me mentality in which we use our sanctification to measures God’s pleasure in us and even our justification, or, in order to avoid practical legalism, we exalt grace and emphasize the sufficiency of justification by faith while dismissing all human action and effort, eventually becoming fearful of mentioning sanctification or demanding works of the saints – even becoming antinomian and completely disregarding sanctification. 

There are many reasons for this, but I think the most basic reason is our vague understanding of the gospel (or of salvation). And this is due to a number of factors. 

As finite creatures, our epistemological categories determine the limits of our field of vision and shape the patterns of our lives. The pre-Fall Adam, by relying on God’s revelation, knew God, knew himself, and knew the world. All of his epistemological categories were personal and tied to worship and to the God who reveals. But in a post-Fall world, men are waiting for salvation in darkness. In matters of salvation, God’s own revelation (the revelation which we now have is the Bible) is the source and cause of the breakthrough in our limitations. The entire revelation of the Bibleitself is God’s salvation.What kind of cognitive framework, therefore, must we use to understand the salvation revealed in the Bible? Only by the illumination of the Holy Spirit, by interpreting spiritual truths through his spiritual words and continually overcoming the defects and limitations of our categories, perspectives, and frameworks, can we understand salvation more clearly.

In this sense, the development of theology and its related practices throughout church history is the history of the development of categories, perspectives, and frameworks – and we, too, are continuing down this path. Our categories, perspectives, and frameworks determine the questions that we ask, and the questions that we ask will limit the answers and practical applications that we derive from them. Therefore, elevating simple questions and viewing them as questions proceeding from biblical revelation is a sign of maturity and growth

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Regardless of how diligently the Reformers strove in constructing a comprehensive soteriology, regardless of what kind of comprehensive soteriology a person was taught in his formal theological education, and regardless of how complete the teaching is in a person’s church, everyone will directly or indirectly, consciously or subconsciously have his own instinctive, general understanding of the question “What is the salvation of God?” (or “What is the core issue in soteriology?”). This simple, intuitive understanding is internally present in our lives and is commonly at odds with what we learned in our formal education, but it exerts a greater influence on our reactions, behaviors, and lives. And behind this simple, intuitive knowledge are categories, perspectives, and frameworks. It is often not our formal theological education and doctrinal systems that dictate how we deal with justification and sanctification in our pastoring but rather our categories, perspectives, and frameworks. They also influence how each of us lives his life. Thus, our simple, instinctive answer to the question “What is the salvation of God?” (or “What is the core issue in soteriology?”) can help us to understand our true selves even better than deep theological reflections, even though the latter can greatly help us to grow. 

I will now attempt to analyze an example in hopes of exploring the root problems of justification and sanctification in the context of pastoral ministry. 

A very common and simple question that attempts to encompass the entirety of soteriology is “How is man saved?” This small question is actually a very large and complicated one because it involves theology proper, anthropology, and the sovereign acts of God throughout all of history. 

The focal point of this question is the means of salvation, and it also assumes that the inquirer has a sufficient understanding of the one who saves, God, and of the one who is saved, man. But perhaps it should be precisely the other way around. Perhaps our focus should be on the God who saves and on man, who needs saving. Our knowledge of God and man, as well as of their relationship with each other, will determine the categories and scope of our soteriology. Not properly knowing God and man will often lead to two problems. 

The first is that we may have a comprehensive understanding of orthodox theology proper (even this is a rarity), but because of our indwelling sin and immaturity, we will inadvertently depersonalize God and make him a means and a tool of salvation. The focus of salvation will become man’s escaping hell and obtaining heaven and eternal life, and we will lose that which is most important, a personal salvation – a salvation where God gives himself to us; where salvation exists within a covenant; where salvation consists of a personal relationship marked by union with Christ and communion with God; and where God’s gory is the goal of all of this. If this is our cognitive framework, regardless of how comprehensive our churches’ teachings are, it will be difficult for us not to consider salvation from only a moral, legal, or doctrinal perspective (the inevitable result not of moralism or legalism but of depersonalizing the gracious God). 

Within this framework, people often oscillate between legalism and antinomianism based on the degree to which grace is emphasized. The reason why grace and law do not “kiss” is not because we cannot balance them, but because we have lost the personal Savior and his cross. Another form this takes is when we try to avoid both legalism and antinomianism and stray down the path of doctrinalism, where the focus of salvation becomes grasping orthodox soteriological doctrines (even though this is very important, it is not justification by faith itself). We think this is gospel-centeredness, and we work very hard at pursuing this (this is also important, but it is not sanctification). And yet there is a lack of intimate worship, desire, rest, and joy within a personal communion with Christ and God (the true nature of salvation). In essence, this is a kind of legalism disguised with correct doctrine.  

The second problem is that men have a misperception about how well they know themselves and others. In reality, they do not have an orthodox anthropology based on biblical revelation, and therefore they do not have a correct, comprehensive understanding of man. They are sure of themselves, and they have many assumptions they believe to be self-evident. 

Anthropology is deeply connected to soteriology because it determines the structure, depth, and breadth of soteriology. From the goal of salvation, we can ask these questions: 

1.    What kind of person does one who is saved become? What kind of transformation will this saved person undergo in himself, in his ethics, and in personal relationships? 

2.    What is man? What is the relationship between an individual man and his nature? Is human nature static or does it have the potential to become more perfect and more like the triune God according to his plan? Between Adam and Jesus (the second Adam), who is more perfect (or most perfect)? Should a biblical anthropology include Christ? If this is so, does soteriology imply the theory of re-creation (or continual creation)?  

3.    What exactly is the image of God? Does this image only include attributes or does it include personhood? Does this image include the mutual relationships between the three persons of the Godhead? To what degree does anthropology presuppose the Trinity?

4.    Is man essentially an individual or a corporate being? Is the triune existence of the Trinity part of the image? Is the perfect man both many and one, with Christ as the head? If this is so, what is the relationship of this “man” with the invisible and eternal church? Is the church that has Christ as her head the perfect man whom God envisions? Should anthropology include ecclesiology? 

In an emaciated anthropology, emphasizing justification by faith, or even attempting to construct an entire identity on the doctrine of justification by faith, can very easily reduce soteriology to “justification by faith” while losing the motivation for sanctification. Sanctification becomes merely an adornment or addition to justification, no more than a proof that man has been justified. [1]


English translation provided by Moses, Brent, and the China Partnership translation team. Please refer to our reposting guidelines for permission to share on your blog or website.

[1] This is similar to treatment of the resurrection of Christ as merely a proof or addition to the substitutionary work of Christ on the cross. Even though the cross is indeed important, the resurrection is not merely an adornment. In the work of Christ, the cross points to the resurrection, and in the resurrection of this second Adam, God accomplishes the new creation. 

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Witness in Persecution: I Am Grateful
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