Sanctifying The Sanctification Debate
True confession: I am not that concerned with every detail of how a person formulates the doctrine of sanctification. Does doctrine matter? Yes. Do I think the Westminster standards contain an accurate summary of the Scripture's teaching on sanctification? Yes. However, let's be honest, there is a limit to how precise we can be in our systematic formulations and still claim Sola Scriptura.
There comes a point in doctrinal formulations (especially where we move past consensus statements like in the Westminster standards) where it stretches the limits of credulity to claim what we are teaching is directly taught or necessarily required by the Scriptures! The more fine-tuned we get, we frequently say nearly the same thing as our brothers, the basic doctrinal and practical content being the same, and yet we tend to accent the differences disproportionately to the similarities. Particularly troublesome to me is that we have within the Reformed world some narrow ways of formulating the ideas around sanctification that claim to be the only orthodox view and proponents spend a lot of time saying people who disagree with them are "dangerous", "have denied the gospel", "want to return us to Rome", “promote ungodliness”, etc. They say more than our Scriptures say, more than our confessions say, yet are quick to call those who differ with them “unbiblical” or “against *the* confession.”
The reality is we all have A) the same biblical data, B) the same human nature, C) different experiences and contexts, and D) different degrees of spiritual blessing. Sometimes our emphases are different than someone else because we are unbiblical, but sometimes it’s just that we are trying to be faithful with the Scriptures and souls from a different place than another person or tradition. Sometimes we disagree and the ramifications are more or less meaningless. Sometimes they are meaningful. Sometimes we have something to teach and sometimes something to learn. And knowing the difference is wisdom.
Our rhetoric can be a problem too. Imagine for example if we used the standard we often hear in our circles today on the biblical text itself. "The problem with Paul is that he's unclear." "Peter doesn't make the proper distinctions." "James isn't using the theological terms properly."
Can I say this without being accused of heresy — maybe the Bible's own organic approach, where everything isn't always tied up with a neat and tidy bow isn't so bad after all? And maybe our confessions aren’t useful if we use them as a way to truncate the Scriptures rather than let them speak?
Sectarianism has plagued American Christianity. There is always a new group with some distinct and better nuance making sure everyone else’s deficient Christianity is adequately refuted. Is this the way of Christ? Is this the apostolic method? Is it possible for us to be both doctrinally robust and ecumenical? Can we confess and live like we believe in the holy catholic church and have multi-volume systematic theology books or a big, well-attended conference? I think we can, but it requires us to have a sense of proportion about the doctrines we hold to. I know I don't do that perfectly, and in Reformed circles we could do it better than we often do.
Could working on our sanctification be more important than talking about it?