It started in college with a random story the professor of Pastoral Theology told to get us to think about the “benefits” of moving the church to a seeker-sensitive model. One of the elders in his church got up to read a psalm as part of the call to worship. He read the psalm clearly and with energy so as to invite the congregation to enter into worship. After the service the pastor, the one who was now teaching our class, took the elder aside and gently chastised him for his choice of reading. Perhaps next time he could choose a more appropriate psalm, the pastor counseled. The elder looked at him and finally asked why that psalm was inappropriate.
“The psalm talks about the blowing of the shofar,” the pastor explained, “and no one in the congregation knows what a shofar is. It would be better to choose a reading that the congregation would understand; one that was relevant to the current age and culture.”
The entire class stared at the professor in disbelief. Finally one student, a dear friend of mine who, in a later class would be criticized because his sermons relied to heavily on the Bible and did not have enough personal stories in them, spoke up. “You mean to say that it is better to not read a portion of Scripture because the congregation would not understand one small word in it?”
The professor nodded. “We have to make the service relevant, especially to those who are new to the church,” he explained.
“So, why not just explain what a shofar is right after the reading, or during the sermon, or why not put it in the bulletin? Would that not be better than excluding a portion of Scripture?” A chorus of “amens” arose from the class in support, and the professor was left speechless. It was obvious that that had never crossed his mind.
That incident, and the fact that the professor’s idea of a textbook was copying articles out of leadership magazines, cemented Pastoral Theology as my least favourite class. But, there was a positive outcome. It was because of that shofar story that I began my quest to solidify my personal philosophy of ministry.
Several years later, I was working in a church from the Wesleyan tradition and I began to notice that there was no preaching, teaching or discipling on the doctrine and practice of sanctification, which was extremely odd given that one of the doctrinal distinctives of the denomination was an affirmation of the doctrine of entire sanctification. Finally I asked the pastor. And his answer was eerily similar to the professor’s reaction years earlier. We have to make our services and our theology culturally relevant.
What is it about sanctification that has fallen out of favour? Not only is there the “culturally relevant” excuse, there seems to be two major trends: On the one hand you have neo-Reformed types who seem to have conflated salvation and sanctification and thus advocate for a monergistic doctrine of sanctification: it is something that God alone does. On the other hand you have Wesleyan (and Pentecostal) types who are carrying war wounds from the misuse of the doctrine of entire sanctification (and the baptism of the Holy Spirit) over the last 60 years as it was used as a weapon of “superiority”.
And yet I find myself drawn to the doctrine of sanctification. What does a sanctified life look like? How do we live in the tension of the “now and not yet” of sanctification? What is God’s role in sanctification? What role do we play in sanctification? And what does that role look like? What terms are associated with sanctification: Perfection? Virtue? Theosis? Is the doctrine of entire sanctification biblical? And most importantly what does the doctrine of sanctification look like in a Post-Modern, Post-Doctrine, Post-Everything Church?
This is my passion, and my the area of research that I hope to continue to pursue throughout my educational career. I’m currently writing a paper on Gregory of Nyssa’s doctrine of Perfection, and I am loving what he has to say. I’m hoping to do my thesis on sanctification in the theology of Karl Barth. One day I want to look at how Wesleyan and Reformed traditions approach the doctrine of sanctification and suggest that there is actually quite a bit of agreement between the two. And I want to write about how to redeem the doctrine of sanctification after years of abuse and misuse (and here I think Gregory of Nyssa is a great way to begin that process of redemption). My prayer is that the doctrine of sanctification doesn’t get thrown out on the trash heap of “uncool” and “irrelevant” Church traditions in this age of trying to chase what is hip and cool and faddish.