Law and Sanctification

This is an article about the relationship between Law and Sanctification.

Because I write frequently on the topic of Grace (that oft-misunderstood subject) I get quite a lot of e-mail from folks stressing the importance of law, obedience, good works etc.–accompanied by lists of familiar scripture. I reply back with some explanation and other lists of scripture. What I want to do here is build a framework to explain my understanding the role of law and how it relates to sanctification.

Sanctification is the process through which the believer becomes more holy, or more Godlike in his or her character. Sanctification is understood as a life-long process.

For this discussion, it is essential to note that sanctification is a process during which the self matters less and less, and God matters more and more. It should also be noted that the stages of sanctification I describe are not rigid classes and individuals operate at more than one stage depending on the situation.

In this discussion, I use “Law” to denote both a written set of rules (which for the Christian are found in the Bible) and also a mandate to “do good” where possible.

At the very beginning of sanctification, perhaps at the transition between non-Christian and Christian, the self is most important and God is least important. In this stage of primitive religious sense God is seen as administering immediate rewards and punishments based on behavior. Examples of this mind set include superstitions. A person may believe that a disaster happened as a result of something bad the person did. That person believes that they are, for want of a better word, “magical” in that their own behavior “makes things happen” around them. God is seen as the agent of these events, but the concern is completely selfish. Such primitive religious attitudes can be found in the Bible in stories where a person is struck dead for touching the Ark of the Covenant. TV fundraisers use such motivations all the time: send me $50 and God will work a miracle in your finances. In this stage of sanctification, law works through immediate reward and punishment. The actions of God are seen as automatic.

At a slightly more advanced stage, God is given greater regard and is seen as an independent actor. Instead of automatic reward or punishment, what we see is a barter relationship. The classic cliché is “God, if you will only get me out of this jam, I will go to church every Sunday for the rest of my life.” At this stage, law is seen as a contract where each party exchanges something of value with the other. God, however, has the option to take the contract or not (where as at the first stage God’s responses are automatic).

There is a third stage where punishment and reward diminish as motivation. At this stage God becomes more important and the person then strives to “please God”. God becomes like Santa Claus in the song, “He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.” Law, at this stage, is the formula by which one can be assured of pleasing God. God’s attention and love are thought to depend on the person’s acts, so the central role of the self is maintained. One acts because they need God’s love and approval.

As sanctification grows, one begins to incorporate God’s Laws as part of their own character. At this point, the self is somewhat less important because the self is not the actor trying to earn God’s love. However, the self is still important because one’s thoughts are about what I BELIEVE. At this stage, one understands, at least intellectually, what Grace is–here is a separation between one’s actions and God’s love. Nevertheless, “doing right” remains so important, that it is difficult to internalize the unconditional love of God. This stage is where a person is the most dogmatic about law and some variation of this stage represents the majority of talk.religion.misc posters (and articles I read cross-posted to this group). People in this stage can spend quite a bit of energy in detailed theological positions, and display quite a bit of passion about what they have decided is correct. Since they are certain of the correctness of this position, it is hard for them to imagine that God doesn’t agree.

Here I am reminded of a quotation from Canto 2 of Dante’s Paradiso:

O you who in your wish to hear these things
have followed thus far in your little skiffs
the wake of my great ship that sails and sings

Turn back and make your way to your own coast.
Do not commit yourself to the main deep
for, losing me, perhaps all may be lost.

That quotation is more apt than I realized when I sought it out. Persons at one stage may well see the transition to another stage as losing themselves (or worse, as selling their souls to the Devil). I should hasten to point out that it is not my ship which we are describing but the journey of sanctification which God has given.

The next stage is very hard to understand by those in the previous stages. In Romans (a book directed at persons of this stage) St. Paul mentions his personal experience with people not being able to understand him:

…some people slander us by saying that we say: “Let us do evil so that good may come.” [Romans 3:8]

But in this fifth stage, as the importance of the self decreases, so does the value one places in one’s own understanding. One acts no longer because of what I BELIEVE but rather because of what God wants. As the self diminishes, then the relative worth of other people increases. If each and every person is precious in the eyes of God, one must realize that God must value relationships with those other people, who have different sets of rules, different holy books and different theologies. Indeed one starts to realize that God cares for those who profess no religious sensibility at all.

It is at this point that the Christian is in a better position to actually live according to the love of God and neighbor. “I no longer act because I need to do good, or because I believe that it is the right thing to do; I do good for my neighbor simply because my neighbor needs it.” Here the written law is a source of ancient wisdom and tool to help decide difficult cases. It is a rudder and a compass. But in the main, a person at this stage acts beyond the requirements of the written code. Love is more effective than law [cf Hebrews 7:18-19].

I must admit that the final (?) stage is so far in front of me that I even hesitate to speak of it. But looking at the life of Jesus and the words of people who have approached closer than I, I will venture a few remarks.

As the progression goes from what I need to what you need, we may extend the process to the ultimate goal of minimizing the self. At this point, not only is the self less important, but the self is realized as nothing. If the self is nothing, then God is everything. I don’t say this in a pantheistic sense at all, but in the recognition that all persons have intrinsic value because they are the children of God. Every moment of life is sacramental. In this stage, the church as the “body of Christ” is not just a metaphor. St. Paul describes this stage best when he says (Gal. 2:20-21):

and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification came through the law, then Christ died for nothing. [NRSV]

If God lives, and not ourselves, law loses relevance.

He is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation…before all things, and him to all things hold together…and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven. [Col. 1:15-20]

It is the universal reconciliation of all things [Acts 3:21] or in other words, the Kingdom of Heaven, which is the concern of the final stage.


  1. One of the problems that often surfaces when studying scripture is the seeming conflict between law and grace (Paul vs. James). I think that what is really going on here is that James is writing to less mature Christians in his book than Paul does in Romans. Christians at different stages of sanctification think in different ways and need to be taught with appropriate material.
  2. Scriptures such as Galatians 2:20-21 are troublesome to the starting Christian because first it sounds like some sort of mind control (which it is not) and second it puts an expectation on the young believer which they might not reasonably attain in a lifetime and certainly not at the beginning. They may say “what is wrong with me?” when that question makes no more sense than a 3-foot tall child unable to reach a cookie jar high above asking the same question.
  3. An interesting exercise is to pick out examples from the life and teaching of Jesus which encourage the believer to move from one stage to the next. As an example, I would offer the parable of the landowner in Matthew 20 as an example of encouragement to move from stage 2 to stage 3.
  4. As sanctification advances, the area of one’s concern also grows thusly: me > mine > my crowd > people like me > all people > all creation.
  5. See John 12:32 as a further example of Christ as the archetype for the final stage.
  6. I do not mean to say that later stage Christians have no moral direction, no ethical code and no sense of integrity. Quite the opposite. It is just that the focus of concern and the motivation for good works has changed.
  7. Note that at the beginning, the prototypical Christian convert is concerned about “my salvation” which fits with the early stages described in this article.
  8. While this discussion has been couched in Christian terms, it should be clear that the process is not uniquely Christian.
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