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The Church and Sanctification

August 24, 2011

I have a new position at my church and a significant portion of my responsibilities are to evaluate how our church is forming people into the image of Christ (or not), and implement a process whereby we more effectively “teach them to obey everything that [Jesus] commands.” I have been given a span of about six weeks, which are rapidly coming to a close, in which I am to pull together my thoughts and hopefully together with the rest of the staff, chart a more clear and effective course of formation and care within our congregation. What has been so fulfilling and yet incredibly challenging about this time is to distill and orient much of what I have learned about the doctrine of sanctification and root it in a churchly process. What I have noticed in this time is that sanctification has a God-sided dynamic (what has God done/doing/will do in sanctification), a saint-sided dynamic (what is our individual responsibility in sanctification), but also a ecclesial-sided dynamic (what is the church’s responsibility in sanctification). The church is not responsible for doing what only God can do (e.g. the church cannot providentially guide a believers life through the use of trials/thorns, etc…); the church also is not responsible for doing what God has called and commanded individual believers to do (e.g. the church cannot love a husband’s wife as Christ loved the church). Never-the-less the church does have a Christ-commanded commission to teach His disciples to obey everything He commanded. What role then is the church to play in a believers sanctification?

All that being said, what this post is really about is pointing you to some resources that I have been working through that have been helping me think through this question:

1. Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way by J.I. Packer and Gary A. Parrett. This book has been incredibly insightful into the long tradition in the church of catechesis. What I have found most helpful is it, of all the books, is the most “churchly” in its orientation. It is not overly esoteric, nor is it a theological treatise on the doctrine of sanctification, but rather is a clarion call for the church to remember (in the ancient Hebrew sense) its longstanding practice of catechesis which has fallen into neglect.

2. Care of Souls: Revisioning Christian Nurture and Counsel by David G. Benner. I have always enjoyed reading Benner’s more devotional/spiritual writings, but it is here that I have found him most helpful especially in terms of understanding the care side of formation, particularly the pastoral care side. His chapter on dialogue I believe should be read by every pastor.

3. Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church by Michael Horton. This book came over me like a herd of stampeding elephants, I won’t ever be the same after reading it.  Horton’s incredibly lucid articulation of our contemporary situation and the remedy provided in the Gospel seized my heart with both trepidation and great joy. Sanctification doesn’t happen apart from clarity in regards to the Gospel, and Horton help make careful distinctions for me as well as concise and penetrating insights into the role of the church that I believe will continue to assist me as I consider the doctrine of sanctification and the church’s role in it.

4. Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: Growing in Christ Through Community by James C. Wilhoit. I am not all the way through this one yet, but it has been a very helpful resource in thinking through the church’s role in formation. What I especially appreciated was right off the bat Wilhoit insightfully noted his experience of church’s who had a “culture of transformation.” I really appreciated the thought experiment that came from that insight, what does this “culture” look like?

5. Transforming Spirituality: Integrating Theology and Psychology by F. LeRon Shults and Steven J. Sandage. I have appreciated the ecumenical and informed nature of this work as well as important insights into the nature of human development and its inter-connectedness to spiritual development.

6. Psychology in the Spirit: Contours of a Transformational Psychology by John H. Coe and Todd W. Hall.  John Coe was my professor and a huge influence on my understanding of the doctrine of sanctification. This work I would not recommend for everyone (it is written for academics and particularly, it seems, those in training to become or who are already clinical psychologists). Never-the-less the church, and pastors in particular need to be well-versed in the dynamics of the soul and this work is a watershed piece on an approach to soul work that is both generous and wise, allowing for all sources (guided and guarded by Scripture) to inform the soul curate as he engages in his task, but also encouraging those working with souls to never neglect the duty of doing “first hand” work, the work of the Old Testament sage who observed, reflected, and interpreted what was right there before his eyes (Proverbs 24:30-34).

7. The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction by Eugene Peterson. No one, in my mind, is better with contemporary religious prose than Peterson and this work thunders with righteous indignation at the state of pastoral care. As I have thought through the question of churchly sanctification a major piece of that question is the role of the pastor. As Ephesians 4 tells us pastors are a “spiritual gift” to the church, and Peterson does his level best to call pastors back to their true vocation.

8. Reveal: Where Are You? by Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson. This monumental study by the Willow Creek Association (of Bill Hybels fame) produce fascinating and heart-wrenching results. Hybels, and the Willow Creek clones had to come face to face with the fact that its churches were not helpful in sustaining long-term, meaningful discipleship. They were great a getting people in the door and connected but the most mature in their congregations were also the most prepared to leave (even though they were the most active in the congregation). The strength of the book is in what it reveals (ironically), its weakness is in what to do about it. It is a great resource especially in terms of finding an influential voice who is leveling much of the edifice of contemporary evangelical church practice, who is saying that what we are doing isn’t working. I don’t like Willow’s solutions, but I do like their courage to admit what’s broken and willingness to publish their findings.

If you’ve made it to this point I’d be surprised. Perhaps in coming posts I can put forward some of my own thoughts about the church’s role in sanctification, but I also may just post auto-tune video’s over on youtube.

Have you found any resources particularly helpful? Have you encountered a church culture of transformation, and if so what elements of that culture stood out to you as particularly helpful/formative?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 24, 2011 9:24 pm

    Excellent. I look forward to seeing what comes out of your preparation. And thanks for listing the resources. Several have made it on to my “books to buy” list.

  2. September 7, 2011 10:15 pm

    love you. it has been such an amazing experience to walk with you on this journey. one day, i’ll read these books. one day.

  3. Bryce Keating permalink
    September 22, 2011 6:22 pm

    i just started at ISF, but we’ve been reading a few really compelling articles on formation and the work of the spirit in sanctification. you’ve probably already read them all, but i’ll send any your way that i think will help, just in case.
    personally, i’ve been reflecting a lot on the power and vitality of prayer in the sanctification process, both on an individual and Spirit-level. i’ve always known prayer was important, but have never really equated it with spiritual growth, only with just church tradition or personal choice. it’s been viewed as a tool for me to use to talk to God but never as a tool for the Spirit to use to form Christ within me. That being said, Thomas Green’s devotion Opening to God has really helped expand my view of prayer and it’s power in sanctification.

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