Great Stuff — Paul and love – evidence for deepening and growth in sanctification

Another great post on Pastor Surburg’s blog:


In a recent post (“Mark’s thoughts: Some Lutherans love Romans 7 and don’t seem to realize that Paul wrote Romans8″; posted here) I considered the the issue of whether Paul expects progress in sanctification by examining Romans 5-8.  This has yielded a fruitful exchange of ideas and concerns.  The first thing I have taken away from the discussion is that “progressive sanctification” is probably  not the best term to be used.  The word “progress” implies leaving something behind, and yet we know full well on the basis of Scripture, the Lutheran Confessions, and our own experience that the struggle against sin continues until we die or Christ returns.

I believe there is need for a better term.  A friend has suggested the phrase “deepening sanctification.”  This expression avoids the implication of moving beyond sin.  It would mean first, that there is growth in holy living as the Holy Spirit works in the individual.  Second , it would indicate that sanctification is a deepening connection and grounding in Christ and his saving work.   Christ alone is the source of sanctification that allows us to stand before God on the Last Day (1 Corinthians 6:11) and also the source that enables the beginnings of sanctified life as we continue to struggle against the old Adam.

In the discussion, some have pressed for explicit textual support that Paul expects an increase or growth in sanctification.  The challenge has been raised that of course Paul believes the Christian is supposed to struggle against sin. But where is the explicit proof that he believes that during this life there will be some kind of increase or growth?  This is a reasonable question.

We find this explicit evidence in Paul’s discussion of love.  For Paul, love is the fulfillment of the law.  It is an axiomatic understanding that he employs twice (naturally this goes back to our Lord, Matthew 22:34-40).

First in Romans he writes:

“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law (ὁ γὰρ ἀγαπῶν τὸν ἕτερον νόμον πεπλήρωκεν). For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (πλήρωμα οὖν νόμου ἡ ἀγάπη) (Romans 13:8-10 ESV).

In the same way he writes in Galatians:

“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (ὁ γὰρ πᾶς νόμος ἐν ἑνὶ λόγῳ πεπλήρωται, ἐν τῷ Ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου ὡς σεαυτόν.) But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:13-15 ESV).

It is not surprising then that Paul focuses upon love in 1 Corinthians 13 where he writes, “ Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ESV).  Any Lutheran who reads these words recognizes that they are Law – they are saying what we must do.  We find that Paul understands “love” to be not merely an emotion but instead an activity – activity directed primarily toward others.

Yet because of what Paul believes about what it means to be “in Christ” and to have the Holy Spirit at work in the individual, he explicitly expresses the expectation and wish that Christianswill increase in love.  Based on what Paul says about love in Romans 13:8-10 and Galatians 5:13-14, this will therefore also be an increase in the fulfillment of the Law.

Paul writes in Philippians 1:9-10:

“And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more (ἵνα ἡ ἀγάπη ὑμῶν ἔτι μᾶλλον καὶ μᾶλλον περισσεύῃ), with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:9-11 ESV).

There are three things to note about this text.  First, this is explicit textual evidence for an increase in love.  Second, Paul’s prayer that that they increase in love is linked to the desire that they be filled with “the fruit of righteousness” (meaning either “righteous fruit” or “the fruit which is righteousness”; cf. Galatians 5:22-23 and the fruit of the Spirit). Third, this is described as occurring “through Jesus Christ” which grounds this increase in Jesus Christ and his saving work.

Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13:

“Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you (ὑμᾶς δὲ ὁ κύριος πλεονάσαι καὶ περισσεύσαι τῇ ἀγάπῃ εἰς ἀλλήλους καὶ εἰς πάντας, καθάπερ καὶ ἡμεῖς εἰς ὑμᾶς), so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13 ESV).

There are two things to note about this text.  First, this is explicit textual evidence for an increase in love (Paul’s desire for them expressed with an optative of wish).  Second, not only does Paul express the wish that this increase will happen for the Thessalonians, but he also states that it is true for him, Silvanus and Timothy.  It is not a hypothetical possibility or wishful thinking, but something that is true for Paul and his companions.

Finally, Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians 1:3-4:

“We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing (ὅτι ὑπεραυξάνει ἡ πίστις ὑμῶν καὶ πλεονάζει ἡ ἀγάπη ἑνὸς ἑκάστου πάντων ὑμῶν εἰς ἀλλήλους). Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring” (2 Thessalonians 1:3-4 ESV).

There are two things to note about this text.  First, it is again explicit textual evidence for an increase in love.  And second, in this case it is something that Paul asserts is true of the Thessalonians. This is occurring among them and it is something that Paul can even boast about in the Churches of God.

Paul’s discussions about love leaves no doubt that he believed the increasing fulfillment of the Law was both possible and a reality among Christians. This is not to deny that struggle and failure occurred (Galatians 5:16-17; Romans 7:13-25).  But it indicates that for those in Christ, the work of the Spirit produced results that he felt he was justified to describe as increase.

It is for good reason, then that he Lutheran Confessions speak this way as well.  Apology IV.136 states, “We openly confess, therefore, that the keeping of the law must begin in us and then increase more and more (quod necesse sit inchoari in nobis et subinde magis magisque fieri legem).  And we include both simultaneously, namely the inner spiritual impulse and the outward good works.”  Likewise the Large Catechism II.57 says, “Meanwhile, because holiness has begun and is growing daily (weil die Heiligkeit angefangen ist und täglich zunimmt), we await the time when our flesh will be put to death, will be buried with all its uncleanness, and will come forth gloriously and arise to complete and perfect holiness in a new, eternal life.”

Luther expresses the same idea negatively in IV.71 where he writes, “On the other hand, when we become Christians, the old creature daily decreases (nimmpt er täglich abe) until finally destroyed.  This is what it means truly to plunge into baptism and daily to come forth again.”  In IV.67 he expresses it both negatively and positively, “Now, when we enter Christ’s kingdom, this corruption must daily decrease (taglich abnehmen) so that the longer we live the more gentle, patient, and meek we become (wir je länger je milder, gedüldiger, sanftmütiger werdern), and the more we break away (mehr abbrechen) from greed, hatred, envy and pride.”

Along with the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation, I consider the relation between the old Adam and new man in the Christian to be one of the greatest mysteries of the faith.  We strain to describe how they interact and relate to one another, but we will never be able to explain it fully.  But on the basis of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions we must be ready to grant that there is some measure of growth or increase in sanctification during this life, even if it is hindered greatly by the old Adam.

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