Editor’s Introduction: Lutherans and Sanctification

[1] In this issue of the JLE we continue to explore the role of sanctification in the thought of Luther vis-à-vis that of John Wesley. The original setting of these papers was the January 2017 meeting of the Lutheran Ethicists Gathering which included an actual dialogue between Methodist and Lutheran ethicists.

[2] In the first article, Svend Andersen, professor at the Department of Theology in the University of Aarhus, Denmark, compares and contrasts Wesley’s explicit elaboration of sanctification as moral perfection with Luther’s more implicit understanding of sanctification especially as it finds expression in his discussions of the role of love in the life of the believer and the work of the Holy Spirit in the economy of salvation. Andersen proposes that in the same way there is a “happy exchange” (he prefers to call it a “role exchange”) at the forensic level, there also is a “role exchange” at the ethical level, which is the proper work of the Holy Spirit in and through the believer. He surmises that:

[T]he spirit ignites my heart in the sense that it creates a capacity to emotionally identify with other human beings, and not least of all identify with his or her suffering – and a power to work for the remedy of his or her need. Calling this sanctification means that even if the understanding, emotion and acting are my own, they are at the same time brought about by an external power, linked to being confronted with the Jesus story” (Andersen, ¶ 36).

[3] Thus, for Andersen, the decisive difference between Wesley’s and Luther’s understanding of sanctification does not seem to lie so much in its actual outward expression in the life of the believer but in the intention underlying it. For Luther, the intention is oriented outwardly; the point is not the holiness of the believer but the well being of the neighbor.

[4] In the second article on this issue, Mathew Riegel, bishop of the West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, offers an erudite exploration of the place of justification and sanctification in the thought of Luther. In a polemic against what he views as a serious misunderstandings of the role of justification in Luther’s theological corpus, he argues for justification as a penultimate vis-à-vis the ultimate work proper to God’s original intention for the human person, viz., eternal life. As Riegel puts it:

The proper end of humanity, the joy and blessedness of perfect sanctification in some future spiritual life, is secured by the promises of Christ in response to the Fall. Thus, these promises, for Luther, take on a thoroughly eschatological cast. As such, the promises of Christ point us, principally, to teleological sanctification and only subordinately to justification. (¶ 16)

[5] Justification was the divine response to the contingency of the Fall, argues Riegel. But the end goal of God’s purpose for the human creature shines through an eschatological understanding of sanctification, where we are promised the beatific vision of holiness and full communion with God in eternity. Could it be, then, that sanctification, read in eschatological key, and not justification, is the chief article of the faith? The reader will have to decide.

Carmelo Santos

Editor, Journal of Lutheran Ethics

September 18, 2017

Day of the commemoration of bishop Nelson Wesley Trout

Carmelo Santos

​Carmelo Santos, Ph.D., serves as associate pastor at St. Mark’s (San Marcos) Lutheran Church in Springfield, VA. He is also a lecturer at Georgetown University.