Sanctification

Sanctification comes from the same Greek word as holiness: “hagios” meaning separation.

 

Old Testament Israelites believed they were the chosen people of Almighty God. They were commanded to maintain their holiness by keeping separate from neighbouring tribes, but they were also ordered to share the divine truths that had been entrusted to them. The chosen people of Israel were to be a blessing to their neighbours.

 

Joshua’s conquest of the Promised Land is a tale of shocking violence, even by the standards of Bronze Age despots. History is full of the slaughter of men and boys but women and infants were taken as captives; animals were added to the conquering wealth of the conquering tribe.

 

When Joshua led the armies of Israel across the Jordan to claim the Promised Land he was told to ‘drive out the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites.’(Joshua 3:10) When the tribes of Israel reached the Jordan River, God repeated the miracle he had performed at the Red Sea 40 years earlier. The waters parted so that men, women, children (more than 1 million of them) and beasts could cross over. When the Amorites and Canaanites heard of the miracle ‘their hearts melted.’ (Joshua 5:1) The first people to be driven out were found at the fortified city of Jericho. To prove that God was on their side, the Israelite armies were told to leave the victory to the Almighty.  For six days the Israelite armies marched around the walls of Jericho blowing trumpets. On the seventh day the people of Israel let out a mighty shout and, in the words of the old Spiritual, ‘the walls came a-tumblin’ down.’

 

Surely the hearts of the hearts of the citizens of Jericho melted as completely as the collapsed walls of their city? A child with a stick could have driven them out and beyond the borders of the Promised Land. But God gave Joshua a new command. ‘The city and all that is in it are to be devoted to the Lord...  So every man charged straight in and they took the city. They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it – men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.’ (Joshua 6:21)  The campaign of conquest continued throughout the entire Promised Land. The old inhabitants were not ‘driven out’ but put to the sword and utterly destroyed. 

 

What does it mean?  Was this act of genocide specific to these tribes and this moment in history, or was it a general principle about how the Chosen People are to be holy and keep separate from the world around them?  Modern proponents of the Gospel of Love consider the conquest of the Promised Land a troubling but isolated incident. 

 

The Gospel of Wrath sees a general principle in the story.  Because of Original Sin the entire world is depraved in the eyes of God. No compromise is possible with the fallen world. This separation principle has been used to legitimize campaigns of mass conversion and the slaughter of savages who refused to abandon their despicable practices.

 

This history of violence causes atheists like Richard Dawkins to accuse, ‘The great unmentionable evil at the centre of our culture is monotheism. From a barbaric Bronze Age text known as the Old Testament, three anti-human religions have evolved: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.’ (Statement to the Freedom from Religion Foundation, 2001)

 

The vast majority of Jews, Christians and Muslims dismiss Dawkins as a crank. But they are wrong to ignore what he is saying. All three monotheistic religions are houses divided unto themselves.  The Gospel of love, healing, virtue, self-sacrifice and compassion, which most believers know, is only part of the story. There is also a long, dark history of wrath perpetrated by people who have interpreted the conquest of the Promised Land as licence to attack their enemies by any and all available means.  The greatest error that religions have made is to defend religious terrorists in their midst as champions of truth. Suicide bombers are not champions. Apostles of wrath use all available force to fight people who might be their enemies, but are not my enemy or yours.

 

Jesus preached a Gospel of Love. He spent most of his ministry among criminals, sinners, outlaws and misfits. He healed their afflictions and taught them to love one another.  Jesus was patient with their ignorance and confusion. The only times Jesus became angry was with hypocritical religious authorities who taught falsehoods. The entire 23rd chapter of the Gospel of Matthew is a scathing indictment of self-proclaimed religious authorities. It resonates strongly in the 21st century of mass media evangelists who preach the same kind of self-serving, prophet-killing half-truths.

 

The Early Church taught a Gospel of compassion and transformation. Believers understood that sanctification occurs in three stages. The beginning of separation occurs when the believer chooses to seek the will of God to obtain salvation from suffering.  Whether Jew or Gentile, the old ways were insufficient to attain salvation; a new journey had begun. The second stage covers the entire period of transformation from unrighteous to righteous, from rebellion to the perfect image of Christ.  The final separation occurs on the Great Judgement Day when the human race will be divided into obedient and rebellious.

How is an insecure, rebellious, self-gratifying egoist to be transformed into the image of Christ: confident, self-controlled, compassionate and forgiving? How are people, who can barely maintain cordial relationships with their best friends, going to live in perfect peace and harmony for all eternity with strangers who hold different ideas and opinions? This is one of the great mysteries of faith.

 

Eastern religions understood that sanctification is a lengthy process. They expect many reincarnations before the sinful soul breaks the cycles and achieves Nirvana. Reincarnation presupposes freewill and personal engagement in the process of sanctification. The problem with reincarnation is that, for most people, memories of past lives are unavailable, as are the lessons that need to be learned.

 

The first Christians also understood that sanctification is a lengthy process. It requires many years of prayerful self-discipline for a wilful egoist to conform to the will of Christ. The truth of the matter was that most Christians went to their grave in a state that was far from Christ-like.

 

If an adult believer who had lived a long life of faith died imperfect, what of ‘converted’ Pagans who had chosen to indulge their carnal desires until the last minute when they began the process of salvation on their death bed? How could a life of unrighteous behaviour and bad habits be so quickly erased? The first converts to Christianity were also fearful about the fate of their loved ones who had died before ever hearing of Christianity. How would ancestors be prepared to spend eternity in the presence of Holy God? What of deceased infants?

 

John’s Book of Revelation provided a solution to this ancient problem. The dead – old, young, Christian, Jewish and Pagan – will be resurrected for 1,000 years under conditions that will allow them to obtain knowledge about the will of God and enjoy an extended opportunity to be transformed into the perfect image of Christ. The process provides an opportunity for freewill to be assisted by divine grace. At the end of the 1000 years, the resurrected are given a choice – this is an exact parallel with Eden – between placing their faith in God or joining in a rebellion that will determine the eternal separation of the righteous and the unrighteous. The Early Church’s theology of sanctification was clear, just and solidly biblical.

 

Augustine invented a different Christianity as weapon of mass conversion in his war with the Pagans of the Roman Empire. Augustine’s Gospel of Wrath was based on Original Sin which was grounded in the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Original Sin made all Pagans guilty, no matter how moral or ethical they may have been as individuals. Original Sin also made their new born children guilty. A few drops of baptismal water secured salvation and, very importantly, membership in the Christian religion.  

 

But what of sanctification?  ‘True’ Christians who had been educated under the old regime continued to seek the renewing of their minds with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. ‘Pagan’ Christians continued to live as they had in the past: some were moral beings; many devoted their lives to enjoying the pleasures of the flesh and bickering with their neighbours. Augustine devised a brilliant solution for the complete of sanctification; purgatory. ‘True’ Christians would pass through it quickly.  ‘Pagan’ Christians would be purged of their sins for as long as it took to sanctify them. The success of Purgatory was not conditional upon human cooperation.  Augustine’s ideas about predestination for the elect ensured that everyone permitted to enter purgatory would exit the process a perfect model of Christ.

 

Augustine’s new doctrine’s had a major effect on non-Christians.  The idea of a good and righteous Pagan was completely alien to Augustine’s system. Because of original sin they were believed to be wholly depraved and wholly deserving of eternal damnation.  Pagan’s were accused of not seeking sanctification and of dying in their depravity for all eternity.  Augustine resolved the injustice of this belief by forcing all Pagans within the Roman Empire to convert to Christianity.  Pagans outside the Empire were too remote to matter.

 

The Catholic Church retained most of Augustine’s new theology. Salvation was dependent upon baptism. Augustine had excluded unbaptized babies from the Kingdom of heaven and eternal life.  A small modification after his death was made so that babies could be transferred to grey and joyless realm of Limbo.

 

How does Catholic sanctification operate?  The Catholic Church rarely uses the term sanctification in its theology. Catholicism speaks of various form of grace, including sanctifying grace. The first step of sanctification - choosing to seek the will of God and be saved from the suffering of sin - occurs at baptism.   Salvation does not remove sin once and for all.  Because human nature is sinful, sins are committed every day.

 

The second stage of sanctification, the transformation of carnal sinners to Christ-like perfection, is achieved by grace. How does a newly baptised Catholic obtain sanctifying grace? Part of increased grace comes as an answer to personal prayer. The most efficacious means of increasing grace is via the sacraments. ‘The sacraments are not merely touching ceremonies, beautiful in their prayers, their old associations, and their symbolism, but they are actually causes of grace. God uses them as his instruments for the production, or the increase, of supernatural life, and they are meant to play an important part in our spiritual life.’  (The Teaching of the Catholic Church, Canon Smith, 1952) The sacramental system is the operating mechanism for sanctification.

 

Catholic theology also provides increased grace through a system of merit. Theologians have gone to great lengths to differentiate between works that require God to make a payment (which would place man in control of his own sanctification) and good deeds that merit a reward (which entirely depends upon the grace of God). This system of merit was a major stumbling block for Reformers (denounced as salvation by works), particularly when a corrupt system of Indulgences had permitted wilful sinners to buy forgiveness.

 

How is the final stage of sanctification achieved?  It is still Purgatory for baptized Catholics.  What of unbaptized infants?  They are sent to Limbo where they are never perfectly sanctified or blessed. (Although the new Pope Benoit XVI has suggested that it might be time to evacuate the infants and board up limbo.)

 

What of unbaptized adults? Augustine assigned them to hell. Subsequent Catholic theologians have conceded that righteous individuals from all nations - nature religionists, pagan polytheists, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims etc – can receive sufficient grace to enter heaven. ‘Thus we are forced to conclude that God gives grace to all men, even to Pagans. To explain just how God’s grace reaches those who live in a pagan world may be a difficult matter, but we can rest assured that in one way or another it does reach them.’ (The Teaching of the Catholic Church, Canon Smith, 1952)  Because it is impossible be sure who is saved, Catholics are rarely guilty of threatening non-Christians with eternal damnation.

 

The Reformed Protestant Church rejected the power of priests, popes and human works. There would be no more transmission of grace via sacraments. There would be no more grace received for meritorious acts.  Salvation would be determined by grace alone, which would be allocated for faith alone by God alone.

 

Both the main Reformers – Luther and Calvin – based their religious revolution on the writings of Augustine rather than the theology and traditions of the Early Church. The cornerstone of the Reformation was predestination.  Augustine as a young man believed in freewill and personal responsibility in matters of salvation and sanctification. During his struggles to impose mass conversion upon Pagans, he moved further away from freedom of choice but never fully accepted the consequences of the universe being controlled by divine will alone. Luther and Calvin had no such qualms about eradication freewill totally in place of divinely appointed predestination.

 

The loss of freewill was attributed to Original Sin which caused all descendants of Adam and Eve to be born evil and enemies of God. What child of original sin desired salvation? Nobody.  Who could be saved?  Only the elect few, chosen by God.   God alone would chose who would be saved without any merit on their part. Degenerate sinners would be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the Kingdom of God. The saved would then be sanctified by an irresistible infusion of grace. The completion of sanctification was entirely in the hands of God.

 

As Luther and Calvin never tired of repeating, salvation and sanctification are decided by God alone.  Human will is nonexistent and irrelevant.  Because it is impossible be sure who is saved, Calvinists are rarely guilty of threatening non-Christians with eternal damnation.  But they are very quick to warn backsliding Calvinists that their salvation is not guaranteed.

 

Modern Charismatics have rejected Purgatory, Limbo and Predestination. They have restored freewill, personal responsibility and belief in a literal 1,000 year resurrection.  Most Charismatics preach a gospel of love.   However it is also true that most street corner preachers and mass media evangelists emerge from this culture.  The Gospel of Wrath is alive and dangerous.

When wrathful Charismatics ask, ‘Are you saved?’ they make the deadly assumption that sin, whether personal or original, causes God to hate the sinner.  Wrathful Charismatics agree with Augustine, Luther and Calvin that all non-Christians are depraved objects of wrath who hate the things of God and are fully deserving of eternal salvation if they refuse Jesus as their personal Saviour.

 

Wrathful Charismatics do not distinguish original sin from personal sin. Even young children have stolen a cookie (Franklin Graham’s example) which justifies God to punish them with eternal wrath. Wrathful Charismatics pay little or no attention to sanctification because the only problem they recognize is original sin. It is common among Wrathful Charismatic preachers to state that salvation brings the purpose of life to an end.  The only reason that God leases the saved on earth is to save other lost sinners. Devoting time to personal sanctitfication is judged as futile as retiring to a monastery to pray for the world.  They need to be warned face to face! 

 

Sanctification is not important because Charismatics have inherited the Calvinist assurance that dead believers go directly to heaven where God will make all necessary changes to the heart, mind, will and character.  This assumption was logical for Calvin who did not believe in freewill. It is absolutely meaningless for Charismatics who continue to believe in freewill. The process of sanctification is occasionally discussed and holiness is valued, but all Charismatics are assured that whatever residual sin remains at death will be taken care of by God alone.  

 

The Early Church required new believers to study for months and years before receiving baptism so that they understood that salvation is an eternal commitment and a lifelong process.  Catholics, via the priesthood and the sacrament of confession, monitored the behaviour of their flock very closely, constantly urging repentance and moral improvement. Catholics could excommunicate reprobates. Calvinists required new believers to learn the entire Catechism by heart and church membership was dependent upon practicing the faith in a righteous manner.  Calvinists could disfellowship reprobates.

 

Modern Charismatic Churches have little concern with monitoring or enforcing high moral standards for their members. Charismatic Churches want to be big and popular. In fact many Charismatics flit from church to church and never become members.  They are not mentored or educated in any systematic manner. Their only official duty is to ask lost sinners ‘Are you saved?’ This warning of eternal damnation for non-Christians is shouted from street corners and bellowed on radio and TV programs. 

 

 

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