By Caleb Keith
Sanctification in its most simple definition means “to be made holy.” One of the standard descriptions of holiness that we hear in church and receive from Scripture is that holiness means to be “set-apart.” Holiness is a distinction that marks certain people, things, days, and places, not simply as special but as useful. When God calls something holy, He is making use of it. So now more specifically we can say that sanctification is becoming useful to God.
A common understanding of sanctification among Christians is that initial holiness is granted at conversion or justification, but that initial holiness is not enough. In order to maintain that holiness granted at justification you must keep trying to do the Law. In short, Christ’s life atoning and justifying work are not complete until you grasp Christ’s life and ministry as the prime example of how to live in holiness. If you take this approach to sanctification, the parables of Jesus become nothing more than short moral lessons that teach you how to sanctify your life and preserve your usefulness to God according to the Law.
FABLES OR PARABLES?
This understanding of parables is consistent with another kind of short moral story called a fable. In the ancient world, these short stories with moral lessons were the building blocks of learning. A well-crafted fable takes complex moral problems and creatively breaks them down and presents them in a manner that even the smallest child can understand. The goal of the fable is to preserve morality. The Lutheran Reformer Philipp Melanchthon praises fables for this ability, “For what speech expresses morals, studies, and the intellects of men more accurately than fables? And this is done with such charm that the minds of men cannot be enchanted more quickly by any lyrics than they are grasped by fables.” Melanchthon attributes simple moral clarity to fables, a simple moral clarity which, perhaps to our dismay, is not a quality found in the parables of Jesus.
THE MORAL OF THE STORY IS?
Scripture tells us that when Jesus spoke in parables people were more often confused or dismayed than they were morally enlightened. (Matthew 13:11-13, John 10:6, Mark 4:10-13). Take, for instance, the Parables of the Prodigal Son or the Lost Sheep. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son a father welcomes into his arms a disobedient, and useless–or in other words–unsanctified son. This son who bucked against the warnings of every ancient fable is forgiven and re-established as an authoritative and useful member of the family. Likewise, the Parable of the Lost Sheep describes in conventional terms the folly of a shepherd who for the sake of one lost sheep would leave a whole flock defenseless. If this were a lesson in well executed self-preservation, it would end with the whole flock being consumed by wolves and the unwise shepherd being left with his one lonely sheep.
THE PURPOSE OF A PARABLE
We see that the parables of Jesus are not lessons in sanctifying self-preservation. Instead, parables are a stumbling block and foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:23) to the ideas that sanctification is self-preservation and morally directed progress. The parables confuse us because they demonstrate that God does not act according to the “morals, studies, and the intellects of men” (Melanchthon again) but that by His grace in Christ He not only justifies and sanctifies us, but preserves, strengthens, and renews that justification and sanctification.
LUTHER’S TAKE ON SANCTIFICATION
Luther masterfully describes how God alone sanctifies and preserves sanctification in his Small and Large Catechisms under the Third Article of the Creed: “But God’s Spirit alone is called a Holy Spirit, that is the one who has made us holy and still makes us Holy.” God puts His holy–useful–people to work, not preserving themselves, but proclaiming his Word that is handing over his sanctifying Spirit to others. Luther clarifies what sanctification means even more: “How does such sanctifying take place? Answer: Just as the Son obtains dominion by purchasing us through his birth, death, resurrection, etc., so the Holy Spirit effects our being made holy through the following: the community of saints or Christian church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”
In other words, God uses other redeemed and sanctified people to persevere you in holiness and righteousness by the proclamation of His Word. This means that the demand to be useful is not satisfied by our internal ability to be holy but only by receiving God’s promises.
SO THE MORAL OF THIS ARTICLE IS…
In this way, the parables do not merely give you the sanctifying steps by which to make yourself useful. They go beyond the realm of fable because they do not simply teach you self-preservation, rather they contain the declaration of God that “you are useful.” God, having made clear His demand for holiness, puts the “holy-making” Word of the Gospel first in your ears. But then He also puts this sanctifying Word on your lips. By the proclamation of His Word, God opens His arms to fallen sons and fervently seeks out His lost sheep. He puts us to work–not as self-improving sons or sheep progressively getting closer to the flock–but rather He gives us His powerful Word, thereby putting His holy people, the Church, to work forgiving His sons and looking after His sheep.
Caleb Keith is the director of podcasting at 1517 and producer of the Thinking Fellows Podcast.