Sanctification By Grace Through Faith
by Pastor Robert Rhyne

“They are truly beautiful proclaimers of Easter, but shameful preachers of Pentecost. For they preach nothing about the sanctification of the Holy Spirit, only about salvation in Christ…. However, Christ has earned for us not only God’s mercy but also the gift of the Holy Spirit, that we should have not only forgiveness but also an end of sins.”
–Martin Luther

When I began writing this I was excited to share how I had been relieved of workaholism through biblical truths I had learned from Christians in the recovery movement. I had begun to see that today’s talk about “addiction” was a modern way of saying what Jesus said in John 8:34: “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” My scope was simply to offer hope to workaholics: that Jesus can free us from that sinful addiction, as he can free us from any addiction.
But as I wrote, the seed idea grew into a mustard tree casting shade into areas so broad that I could scarcely keep up with the implications. I became convinced that I would have to write a book, but then discovered that the book had already been written, dozens of times. So I contented myself with merely introducing what the interested reader could pursue on his own through some of the books listed in the attached bibliography.
My theme expanded to: Sanctification by Grace through Faith. In the pages that follow I share several ideas which were largely absent from my thinking, preaching and teaching for the first ten years of my ministry, but which I am now trusting and sharing, and which are enabling me to enjoy life and ministry to a truly amazing degree. I’m sharing the hope of Sanctification by Grace through Faith along with Justification by Grace through Faith every time I open my mouth. I look back with regret that gaps and mistakes in my understanding of sanctification have damaged my and my hearers’ grasp also of justification, to say nothing of hindering the daily experience of the new life which is our spiritual birthright. My hope is that, having messed up thoroughly, I can better appreciate the importance of getting it right.
“Sanctification” refers to the Holy Spirit’s “setting apart” of people for God. This setting apart involves first of all what we are, and then what we do. Sometimes sanctification is narrowed down immediately to the performance of good works, but I think it is important to emphasize first of all the believer’s new identity in Christ, and then discuss the new behavior which results. [“God created us as human beings, not human doings!”] The catechism expresses our new identity: “…That I should be his own, and live under him in his kingdom, and serve him….” So sanctification is first something to be enjoyed, and then something to be done.
We are first of all set apart to be his own: to enjoy a relationship with our Creator God. He has related himself to us as a loving Father who accepts us as his sons and daughters in Jesus Christ. He is a heavenly Bridegroom who rejoices over us, his Bride, with singing (Zephaniah 3:17). He has given us a new identity in Jesus (2Cor 5:17). Where we were once identified as poor, miserable sinners in Adam, the sinner; we now bear the identity of God’s children: holy, without blemish, and free from accusation in Christ, the righteous one–even while we still sin. We now live under him in his kingdom: As the sheep of his pasture we draw our life from him; we reign with him as kings and priests. Finally, also, we serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness. “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).
All of these things–including good works–happen by grace through faith. Good behavior in Christ is a product of trusting Christ’s work in us rather than trying to perform in our own strength. Here is good news: God has made provision for us to replace the sinful behavior we hate with the good works we desire. All of us have struggled with besetting sins against which we seem to be powerless. Call them addictions, call them compulsive behaviors, or call them bad habits–we promise God it won’t happen again, we make New Year’s resolutions, we assure our families, but we do it again. Our sin may have to do with alcohol, money, anger, sex, food, power, pride, or (list your own). The only advice humans have to give is, “Try harder.” That doesn’t work, as we all have found. The Apostle Paul was amazed that the Christians in Galatia hadn’t learned the lesson (Galatians 3:3): “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” God’s solution is, “Trust me–I will do it through you.” That does work. Just as in justification we had to trust the work of Jesus for us, so also in sanctification we must trust the work of Jesus in us. This is the doctrine of the “mystical union.” Whether our struggle is with martinis or pornography, this doctrine describes God’s effective, practical solution.
In the pages following I will offer illustration and explanation. If I may be allowed to use my own case as an example, Part One will be an account of what these ideas have done in my own life, and Part Two will describe some of the effects I’ve seen among those I serve. The Scripture which summarizes what I hope to say is Galatians 2:20, (which has become my favorite verse because it says it all): “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Luther comments on this verse (Luther’s Works, Vol. 26, American Edition):

Here Paul clearly shows how he is alive; and he states what Christian righteousness is, namely, that righteousness by which Christ lives in us, not the righteousness that is in our own person. Therefore when it is necessary to discuss Christian righteousness, the person must be completely rejected. For if I pay attention to the person or speak of the person, then, whether intentionally or unintentionally on my part, the person becomes a doer of works who is subject to the Law. But here Christ and my conscience must become one body, so that nothing remains in my sight but Christ, crucified and risen (p. 166).

There is a double life: my own, which is natural or animate; and an alien life, that of Christ in me. So far as my animate life is concerned, I am dead and am now living an alien life. I am not living as Paul now, for Paul is dead. “Who then is living?” “The Christian.” …Christ is speaking, acting, and performing all actions in him; these belong not to the Paul-life, but to the Christ-life. …There is a double life, my life and an alien life. By my own life I am not living; for if I were, the Law would have dominion over me and would hold me captive. To keep it from holding me, I am dead to it by another Law. And this death acquires an alien life for me, namely, the life of Christ, which is not inborn in me but is granted to me in faith through Christ (p. 169).

J.P. Koehler, in a comment on Galatians 2:19-20 (The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians, NPH, page 67), summarizes what I hope to say:

We are not to imagine that a holy life has not been provided for and that we must now lend a helping hand with the Law. The Gospel has abolished the Law, not in order that we might keep on sinning merrily, but in order that we may live to God. And this Christ does in us.

I.
Christians believe that they have been saved wholly and solely by the finished work of Christ. Unhappily, however, many believers think that the practical Christian life of obedient service to God, which follows as a fruit of justification, is a product of self-effort. This “try hard” approach to sanctification may not be embraced consciously, but it is assumed–perhaps by default due to our inherent legalism (opinio legis)–in practice. As Luther warned above, when we are focused on Christian behavior as something we perform in ourselves, we become doers of works subject to the law. The law, of course, arouses the sinful nature, and our obedience comes harder and harder. We then become discouraged by our failures and feel condemned by the law. We may then even begin to question whether we were ever justified.
May I illustrate from my own experience? From the time I transitioned to an adult faith at college in 1972 until the time I entered my first call in 1981, I lived “under grace,” enjoying the fact that I had been saved by the finished work of Christ. When I read the Bible for the first time in 1972 it was like having the light turned on in my life after the vague liberalism I had fallen into. I found out for sure that I was loved by God, that heaven was real, and that my Father had a purpose for my life. I had never known such joy. A cold, empty spot in my chest had been filled up with God’s love. I couldn’t get enough of Bible reading and study. My years in Seminary were wonderful because my responsibilities were so clear: learn the Bible and related subjects as thoroughly as possible so as to share the information in a parish–the very thing I was eager to do.
But when I began serving my first call in 1981 things changed. I became very self-conscious in my Christian life. This is perhaps a special danger for those in the public ministry, though certainly not limited to us. Somehow, sharing the gospel was not the natural, joyful occupation it had been during my “non-professional” days. The Great Commission fell on me like a ton of bricks and overwhelmed me. It became a law over me, coercing me, condemning me. I came to feel totally responsible for the faith, the behavior, the performance, and even the emotions of the thirty communicant members of my two congregations. I also felt vaguely responsible to add to that number every person within a hundred miles. To attack this impossible goal I used all the inadequate resources of my “self.” I became a performer, a fixer, a rescuer, a controller. As I became more and more self-conscious I found that for my happiness I was torturously dependent upon my members’ approval of me. Finally I became a workaholic, addicted to the institutions I was trying to build, and very much cut off from the “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” which are the matters of the kingdom of God (Romans 14:17). My main emotions for my first eight years in the ministry were anger and fear. Fear that I would not at all times and in every way please my congregations and God; anger because I was slaving away with little help and little result.
How was life for my wife at this time? She was extremely patient outwardly and extremely angry inwardly. She sat at home evenings acutely in need of my time while I was out counseling members who were not a fraction as troubled. From time to time she would try to tell me what my family needed, but she was speaking to an addict in denial. I don’t remember this, but she tells me I would walk away when she tried to speak to me of my neglect of my family. There were always plenty of good reasons why I had to do exactly whatever it was I was doing. And after all, I was doing it all “for God.” My work was out of control and my life was unmanageable.
Christmas of 1984 I took on another addiction which provided some escape from my workaholism: I bought a VCR. It’s difficult to describe the weird sense of well-being I experienced when I took some time out from the day’s schedule to peruse the video store, and had a movie on hand to watch at the end of the day. The entire process of planning to rent a movie, selecting it, and then watching it, acted as a drug for me. And like a drug addict, I would be irritable and miserable if I didn’t get my fix on schedule. The recreation of renting and watching a movie, innocent in itself, became for me a process addiction I could not control. (There are substance addictions and process addictions.) I even had recurring dreams, practically every night, of selecting movies to rent. In a check list for addictive behaviors, every single item was true of me and my videos. Along with watching the movies, it was a rare night that I didn’t have at least one Manhattan or a couple of beers. I would have felt uncomfortable if the refrigerator had been unstocked.
During all this time I was outwardly doing a creditable job of pastoring. My sermons and Bible classes were well liked by my congregations; membership grew at an average rate. Some people came to faith. But I was miserable in my work and daily wondered whether there might be some way out of it.
In January of 1991 a shift began which changed everything. I learned about “Christ-in-me,” the doctrine of the mystical union. I learned the truth expressed in Galatians 2:20, explained thoroughly in Romans 6-8, that I had been crucified with Christ and the resurrected Christ wanted to live through me. It was so simple: if only I would give up striving in my own energy and trust Jesus who indwelled me through the Holy Spirit, he would do it all.[1] Since then I have begun to experience in my personal life what Paul says: “Live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Galatians 5:16). In my ministry I have begun to experience what Paul describes as “serving in the new way of the Spirit” (Romans 7:6) and “struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me” (Colossians 1:29). Since January of ‘91 I have felt as though I was on vacation, retired, but have accomplished more than before. It’s because I quit; I gave up. My need for nightly videos evaporated, my need for the approval of those I serve was replaced (to a great degree) by the gracious assurance of Christ’s approval. I’ve developed an appreciation for Sharp’s Non-Alcoholic Brew. I’ve discovered countless other works of the flesh in my life which I never knew about and of which I can now repent (a life-long process). I discovered what it meant to live under grace and not under law.
I’ll never forget one night that January, lying beside one of the kids on the bed after reading them a bed-time story, and feeling perfectly at peace. I wasn’t in a rush to start a movie, I wasn’t looking forward to a beer, I didn’t feel guilty about not being at my desk. I was, for the first time in years, content to be where I was, what I was, when I was. I wasn’t straining into the future, I was focused in the present, silently praising God.
It wasn’t that I personally had changed or improved, nor had I arrived at some higher stage of Christianity. I had simply learned the implications of the fact that Jesus had been living in me from the time I was brought to faith. As I began to trust Jesus in me to live his life through me, I began to experience it. Conversely, whenever I fail to trust him, reverting to self-effort, I am quickly reminded that in myself I’m the same powerless sinner I ever was. A new life of obedience is not the result of an improved life, but rather of an exchanged life: “not I but Christ” (Gal 2:20). Boasting is therefore excluded as emphatically in the realm of sanctification as it is in justification (Romans 3:27).[2]
The key to enjoying Christ’s power in us is by rejecting our own fleshly efforts. Luther speaks of how it is through “surrendering entirely to Christ” that we experience all that is ours in Christ (What Luther Says, Vol. II, p. 657, par. 2028, Concordia, 1959):

If you desire to attain the true holiness which avails before God, you must utterly despair of yourself and rely on God alone; you must surrender[3] yourself entirely to Christ and must accept him in such a way that everything he has is yours and that what you have is his. For thus you begin to burn with love divine and become an entirely different person, born completely anew. Your inner being will then be entirely changed.

An illustration I find helpful is my first encounter with a self-driven power mower. I had been hired to do a man’s yard work. He provided the mower. I had used power mowers before, but never a self-driven one. After one circuit around the large lawn I was exhausted. I decided to go to the door and tell the man there was something wrong with his mower. But when I stopped pushing I found that the mower kept traveling, and actually began pulling me! The trouble, of course, was that I had been trying to go faster than the mower was geared to go. When I gave up forcing it, it took over and provided the progress. The same is true with our Christian lives. Christ is living in us with his power ready to provide the progress when we give up. Another illustration would be when I first learned to swim. I grew tired some distance from the side of the pool and began to panic that I wasn’t going to make it. I kicked and moved my arms with all the energy I had, but it wasn’t enough. Suddenly I struck my foot on the bottom of the pool. It wasn’t as deep as I had thought, and I could stand on the bottom with my head above water. In the same way, Jesus is there to keep our heads above water as soon as we quit our thrashing about.
The life of dependence on the indwelling Christ was introduced to me by two books: The Normal Christian Life, by Chinese pastor Watchman Nee;[4] and Handbook to Happiness, by Charles Solomon. It was afterward that I found the same ideas in Luther and the dogmaticians of Lutheran Orthodoxy. The humbling thing to me is that I never understood on my own from the clear word in Scripture this “Great Exchange” of sanctification. My slowness probably had something to do with Harold Senkbeil’s observation that “having been burned by the abuses of Pietism, Lutheranism has shown an understandable reluctance to deal with the scriptural themes of the new life in Christ” (Sanctification: Christ in Action, NPH, page 115). Understandable perhaps, but inexcusable and extremely destructive. I thank God for the insights of other Christians who were not limited by such blinders and who have opened the Scriptures for me.
Nee explains the exchanged life of the Christian like this:

The Apostle Paul gives us his own definition of the Christian life in Galatians 2:20. It is “no longer I, but Christ.” Here he is not stating something special or peculiar–a high level of Christianity. He is, we believe, presenting God’s normal for a Christian, which can be summarized in the words: I live no longer, but Christ lives his life in me. God makes it quite clear in his Word that he has only one answer to every human need–his Son, Jesus Christ. In all his dealings with us he works by taking us out of the way and substituting Christ in our place. The Son of God died instead of us for our forgiveness: he lives instead of us for our deliverance. So we can speak of two substitutions–a Substitute on the Cross who secures our forgiveness and a Substitute within who secures our victory (page 12).

God sets us free from the dominion of sin, not by strengthening our old man but by crucifying him; not by helping him to do anything but by removing him from the scene of action. For years, maybe, you have tried fruitlessly to exercise control over yourself, and perhaps this is still your experience; but when once you see the truth you will recognize that you are indeed powerless to do anything, but that in setting you aside altogether God has done it all. Such a discovery brings human striving and self-effort to an end (page 54).

We have spoken of trying and trusting, and the difference between the two. Believe me, it is the difference between heaven and hell. It is not something just to be talked over as a satisfying thought; it is stark reality. “Lord, I cannot do it, therefore I will no longer try to do it.” This is the point most of us fall short of. “Lord, I cannot; therefore I will take my hands off; from now on I trust thee for that.” We refuse to act; we depend on him to do so, and then we enter fully and joyfully into the action he initiates. It is not passivity; it is a most active life, trusting the Lord like that; drawing life from him, taking him to be our very life, letting him live his life in us as we go forth in his Name (page 183).

Charles Solomon covers the same ground, but with a more clinical approach:

Many Christians, even those in full-time Christian work, find that they are still doing it for him rather than his doing it through them. Hudson Taylor was an example of this. …Taylor was on the mission field between ten and fifteen years before he finally came to the end of Hudson Taylor and all his own resources and quit trying to work for God. Then Christ began to live and work through him. God does not want us to work for him, to witness for him, to live for him. He wants to get self out of the way so he can work through us (page 38).

In psychotherapy, of whatever persuasion, self is strengthened to cope with those problems. Herein lies the basic problem with psychotherapy. With enough psychotherapy, some of the symptoms will respond so that the person may become better adjusted, with the symptoms either diminishing or leaving. But, in order to cope with them, better defense mechanisms are built and more acceptable behaviors are learned; and self becomes stronger. Thus, when symptoms improve as a result of pure psychotherapy, the real problem, self-centeredness, always gets worse. This result is diametrically opposed to what God does because God’s way of dealing with self is that it must become weaker and weaker until its control is finally phased out. Self is reduced to nothing so that Christ can be everything (page 46).

We are not referring to some experience where self or the flesh is permanently removed and we obtain sinless perfection; and we are not referring to what is sometimes termed a second work of grace. We are talking about entering into something experientially that is already ours positionally–the life of Christ (page 50).

At our counseling office, we sometimes admonish people after they receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior: “Don’t you ever try to live the Christian life! You have invited the Lord Jesus Christ into your life–let him live his life in you. That’s why he entered your life.” It is a life that is lived by faith. And, when we understand this, we see that there is no way we can live a Christian life. It is not a set of rules that we keep. That is legalism. It is the law that gives sin its power and spurs many believers on to overt or covert rebellion. Valiant attempts to restrain sin from without rather than allow the Spirit to constrain from within, often produce exactly the opposite results from those intended (page 53).

If we are to struggle to live for him, then he cannot live through us. Until self is dealt with, we continue to self-struggle, perhaps even asking him to help us (page 54).

When I think of how much I’ve studied Romans, I can’t believe that I missed the hope offered by chapters 6-8 for deliverance from besetting sins. The part I really understood and identified with was 7:15-25, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (v15). …What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death” (v24)? Because of focusing on that one section I was under the common, but mistaken, opinion that helpless continuation in sin was the inescapable experience of all Christians this side of heaven.
I now believe that Paul is describing in that section what happens when we needlessly and unnecessarily live out of our own resources “under [the control of] the law” instead of trusting Christ dwelling in us by his Spirit “under [the control of] grace.” When I came to see this, verses in chapters 6 and 8 which had been inscrutable suddenly made perfect sense and gave intoxicating hope for change. When I was experiencing slavery to work, approval, and video-renting, I was under the law and putting myself further under the law in an attempt to control my sin myself. The harder one tries in that fashion, the worse things get, as St. Paul describes, and as I found. It really is true that our “sinful passions” are “aroused by the law” (Romans 7:5). It really is true that “the power of sin is the law” (1 Corinthians 15:56). Therefore, the only hope we have of doing the good we want to do is to believe the Bible’s clear promise: “Sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14). “What the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did… in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:3-4).
I now see Romans 7:15-25 as a parenthesis in the overall discussion spanning Romans 6-8. Just as Romans 2:1 – 3:20 describes the impossibility of being justified by the law, Romans 7:15-25 describes the impossibility of being sanctified by the law.
The point of the larger section is clearly: “…Just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4)–literally, “we may walk around in newness of life.” The discussion spanning Romans 6 – 8 is to prove the point made in 6:1-2: We shall “by no means” go on sinning. Obviously, we’re not to believe we’re stuck for life in the frustrating disobedience of Romans 7:15-25. And it gets even clearer: “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin” (Romans 6:6). This “body of sin” is the same “body of death” we hear about in 7:24, which 7:25 says Christ rescues me from. Christ doesn’t wait until the Last Day to do that, he did it on the cross and it was applied to us as already in effect in Romans 6:6! (Also: Colossians 2:11, “In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ.”) This is why we can be told to count ourselves dead to sin.
Right now we can walk around in a different way of life, free of the slavery to sin described in 7:15-25. It’s really true: “Sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14). The times when we find ourselves mastered by sin is when we put ourselves back under the law instead of living under grace, or struggle in our own strength instead of relying on Jesus. Then, in our panic, we reach for the law (!) to control our sin, which is like pouring gasoline on the fire: “My brothers, you died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God. For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” (Romans 7:4-6). The law does not control sin or promote the new life. On the contrary, it arouses the sinful passions. “The power of sin is the law” (1 Corinthians 15:56).[5] The amazing truth of the Christian new life is that it is generated from within by the power of the gospel, not enforced from without by the law. It’s by grace that we “just say no” (Titus 2:11-14): “The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It [grace!] teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope–the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”
None of these promises leave room for a life stuck in slavery to sin as described in Romans 7:15-25. So how does that section fit? Paul tells us in 7:9: “Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.” Paul describes what happens in his personal life when he mistakenly takes hold of the law to control himself and puts himself back into the slavery which, as he describes in Romans 6, he has no need to be under. Notice how often the word “I” is used in Romans 7:15-25, with no mention of the Holy Spirit. But when the indwelling of the Spirit is introduced in chapter 8, obedience replaces frustration.
Paul could hardly have said, “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6:18) if he expected himself and us to live like Romans 7:19 describes: “What I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.” To deal with this I had always neglected Romans 6:18–which I didn’t understand–in favor of Romans 7:19 which I understood intimately. I lived with this misunderstanding and passed it along in sermons, Bible studies, and counseling sessions for years. For ten years I gave no one the explicit hope of living a new life, free from the slavery to sin. My sanctification message was: “Try hard, and ask God to help.” I was putting people under the law for sanctification, and they were trapped, with me, in the frustration of Romans 7:15-25, doing the evil we didn’t want to do.
What a joy for me personally and professionally to understand that section in the context of Romans 6 & 8! Romans 8:2: “…Through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” Romans 8:3-4: “What the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.” To live according to the sinful nature is nothing else than putting ourselves under law, arousing the sinful passions. To live according to the Spirit is nothing else that living under grace, and trusting Jesus–in me through his Spirit–to live his life through me.
A description of my human attempts to control my addiction to videos (which didn’t work) will perhaps provide a useful contrast to God’s way (which did work[6]):

1. Of course, I told myself what a sinful waste of time it was.
2. I reminded myself that my body was a temple of the Holy Spirit, and that the Holy Spirit was offended to have to sit and watch movies every night. I asked myself whether I wanted Jesus there watching what I was watching. I asked myself how I would feel if Jesus returned and found me living as a “couch potato.”
3. When I wasn’t pounding myself with the law, I shamed myself with the gospel: “How can you sit here wasting your time when Jesus lived a life of suffering and then died for you! Jesus loves you and you’re letting him down, you’re disappointing him, you’re slapping him in the face and hammering nails into his hands….” [This is the horrible practice of “shaming with the gospel,” which turns the gospel into law and brings guilt instead of release. The Hymn (TLH 405), “I gave my life for thee; what hast thou giv’n for Me?” was pointed out to me by one of our professors at seminary as an example of this.[7]
4. I used every “should” I could muster to control my habit. “My love for Christ should compel me, my gratitude should change my life…”
5. I appealed to my pride by telling myself this was not like me, that I was too talented to waste my time, that other pastors weren’t enslaved to self-indulgence the way I was, that lay people did a better job of the Christian life than I did.

None of this worked. Now I understand why: I was trying to control or improve my sinful flesh. The sinful nature is only evil all the time and doesn’t improve, and cannot be coaxed, forced, or motivated into pleasing God–not by law or by gospel. It can’t be changed, it must be exchanged.
It isn’t trying which brings about the new life of freedom, but dying to self through identification with the death of Jesus. All of my attempts listed above are legalistic, even when they involve the words of the gospel. I believe we must be careful with the whole idea of motivation since it can become a humanistic, legalistic substitute for God’s answer of Christ-in-me. Motivation very easily becomes fleshly manipulation. If we are not continually conscious that obedience must be performed by Christ in us, we will find ourselves trying to motivate the sinful nature to do good, which has no place whatsoever in Christian thinking. The Bible doesn’t speak that way. The Lutheran Confessions warn us against such “law works”.[8]
In my confusion I had developed and substituted an unbiblical plan for producing a sanctified life: by trying to motivate people (whether by law or by gospel) to try harder, instead of by explaining the difference between living under law and living under grace. I was unqualified to teach my congregation anything about walking according to the Spirit because I knew nothing about it. All that time God was offering in the Bible his way which worked, and I was tip-toeing around his promises devising my way which didn’t. I had sanctification whittled down to this: Believing Jesus died for you should make you grateful, and your gratitude should motivate you to improve your behavior (somewhat). Ugh.
While it is true that the new life of obedience is motivated by the gospel, we must remember that one can be motivated to do something but be unaware of how to accomplish it. Motivation alone isn’t enough. 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 deals with motivation: “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” It also contains a clue as to how the motivated behavior gets accomplished through the exchanged life. Don’t miss the words: “All died.” The “we who live” is the same as the “I live” of Galatians 2:20. In both cases it is not “we” or “I” who love or serve, but Christ in us. The reason this is so important to me is that while I was motivated to serve Christ, I tried for ten years to do it by my own strength. But all of my love and gratitude were not able actually to produce what I was motivated to do in my life or ministry. Because it wasn’t working I was burdened with the weight of shame and unmet obligation. I feared I might have lost my faith. Then, when I gave up trying to fulfill the obedience I was motivated for, Jesus performed his exchange. Then I began to see the fruit of his love which compelled me. Not even the love of Christ can wring God-pleasing service from my “self.” I must be counted dead. Then he lives in me and loves through me. I believe we must be very careful in our use of words like “motivate,” “should,”[9] and “try”. They lend themselves readily to fleshly, humanistic and legalistic attempts to “act” like Christians. As the Formula of Concord reminds us, the law can produce only actors.[10]
Here is what I have now discovered in the Scriptures and experienced in my own life: I cannot live the Christian life. Love for Christ can move me to desire but cannot enable me to live a Christian life. Gratitude for salvation can move me to desire but cannot enable me to live a Christian life. Only Christ can live the Christian life, and he is living his life through me as I surrender myself to him and stay out of the way, under grace. Today, when I find myself tempted to gratify the flesh and “behave addictively,” I know what to do. I remind myself of the radical gospel of grace and of my freedom from the law. I tell myself things like this: “Had a hard day? Poor Bob. Someone rude with you? Want to comfort yourself with some beer and videos? Go ahead! Rent everything in the store, pick up a quarter-barrel on the way home! Jesus loves you no matter what you do. You can’t make him stop. You can’t make him love you one little bit less. You are holy, without blemish, and free from accusation” (Colossians 1:22). With that reminder my craving disappears. God promised it would, and it does (Romans 6:14): “Sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.” God wants all of his children to know that their new-birthright includes being able to say with Paul: “I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). The ironic result of my self-talk, “Go ahead!” is that I do not do the evil I do not want to do.[11]
Of course, there is a part of me that very much does want to indulge the flesh. The deceitfulness of sin suggests to me the lie that I can enjoy the pleasure of sin and at the same time enjoy the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. On those occasions I disobey. Then, when I lose my joy in the Lord, I run back into his waiting arms. I remember with relief that although I disobeyed him, his love is unconditional. His Holy Spirit in me will never let me be comfortable while straying outside of his will. He brings me back to dependence upon him, back to surrendering to his will, back to the joy of obedience. The same scenario plays out when my flesh usurps Christ’s throne in my heart and I proudly insist: “I can do it myself!” My wise Father lets me make my mistakes, then draws me back to ever more complete dependence on him. The ongoing struggle against sin in the Christian life does not consist in our self-effort to avoid sinning by virtue of our own moral strength or will power. The struggle is the struggle of faith to maintain its total dependence upon the power of the Holy Spirit and the presence of Christ in me.[12] Galatians 3:3, “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?”
The person struggling with a pet sin needs to be assured that his salvation is not contingent whatsoever on his behavior, either before or after coming to faith. The sin and guilt question is settled once and for all by the finished work of Christ on the cross. Once the person is certain of his eternal life in Christ he can be counseled concerning Christ’s ability to set him free from his pet sin. Galatians 5:16, “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” Romans 8:9, “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.” The struggle must consist not in trying to overcome the sin by will-power and self effort but in surrendering the effort to God and trusting his work in us.
To live under grace rather than under the law is the secret to living by the Spirit, so that we’re not carrying out the desires of the sinful nature (Galatians 5:16). C.F.W. Walther speaks beautifully on this at the end of Law and Gospel. If I had ever gotten to the end of the book as I was urged to at seminary, I would have spared myself and my hearers a lot of frustration. Walther writes:

The attempt to…induce…believers in Christ to do good by holding up the Law and issuing commands to them, is a very gross confounding of Law and Gospel (p. 381). …At the present time the Law has no other purpose than to reveal men’s sins, not to remove them. Instead of removing them, it rather increases them…. Thus the Law increases sin: it does not slay sin, but rather makes it alive (p. 383). Ps. 119,32: I will run the way of Thy commandments when Thou shalt enlarge my heart. The psalmist does not say: “When Thou smitest me with the thunder of Thy Law, I shall run the way of Thy commandments. No; in that case I do not run. But when Thou comfortest me so that my cramped heart is made large, I become cheerful and willing to walk the strait, the narrow, way to heaven.”

That is an experience which you may have made personally. After a long season of sluggishness and lukewarmness, during which you began to hate yourself because you saw no way to change your condition, you happen to hear a real Gospel sermon, and you leave the church a changed man and rejoice in the fact that you may believe and are a child of God. You suddenly become aware of the fact that it is not difficult to walk in the way of God’s commandments; you seem to walk in it of your own accord. How foolish, then, is a preacher who thinks that conditions in his congregation will improve if he thunders at his people with the Law and paints hell and damnation for them. That will not at all improve the people. Indeed, there is a time for such preaching of the Law in order to alarm secure sinners and make them contrite, but a change of heart and love of God and one’s fellow-men is not produced by the Law. If any one is prompted by the Law to do certain good works, he does them only because he is coerced…(pp. 384-385).

The ways available for falling into legalism are more numerous and more subtle than I had ever imagined. I used to think that legalism referred only to justification–making our works part of the cause of our salvation. Certainly we are all very careful never to do that. But I have come to believe that also any talk about sanctification which is not based on Christ-in-me must necessarily result in legalism. Luther himself says as much in his comments on Galatians 2:20:

When it is necessary to discuss Christian righteousness, the person must be completely rejected. For if I pay attention to the person or speak of the person, then, whether intentionally or unintentionally on my part, the person becomes a doer of works who is subject to the Law (page 166, emphasis mine). …There is a double life: my own, which is natural or animate; and an alien life, that of Christ in me.[13] So far as my animate life is concerned, I am dead and am now living an alien life. I am not living as Paul now, for Paul is dead. “Who then is living?” “The Christian.” …Christ is speaking, acting, and performing all actions in him; these belong not to the Paul-life, but to the Christ-life. …There is a double life, my life and an alien life. By my own life I am not living; for if I were, the Law would have dominion over me and would hold me captive. To keep it from holding me, I am dead to it by another Law. And this death acquires an alien life for me, namely, the life of Christ, which is not inborn in me but is granted to me in faith through Christ” (p. 169).

Thank God, I have now been taught to live under grace and not under law, and that has changed my life. Now I have courage not only for the future hour of death, but also for the present hour of life. Just as Justification by Grace through Faith made me confident of going to heaven, now Sanctification by Grace through Faith has made me confident of getting through the day.

II.
The wake-up call for applying this to my ministry came in January of 1992, one year after I learned about the exchanged life. A young woman of my congregation had received a letter from a friend who had moved away some years ago. The woman was troubled because her friend had written: “I’ve never felt so free as when I stopped going to church.” It hit me as though God himself had screamed at me from heaven: “I came to set people free! Why isn’t it happening? There’s something desperately wrong with ‘church!’“ From that moment it became my constant goal to open my mouth at church always to set people free. It was Jesus’ mission to proclaim freedom to the captives. Certainly the captives in our society include those who are trapped to some degree in addictive and codependent behavior. Therapists place the size of that group at 96% of the population. Lutheran theologians must conclude that it is 100% of the population. That’s the percentage which sins, and therefore is enslaved to sin until set free by the Son.
Why was the young woman in bondage while attending church and relatively free while not? Because her church had put her under the law instead of setting her free from the law by the gospel. Her church was doing her more harm than good.
Experiences like hers have been discussed in a book that has been tremendously enlightening for me, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen. It describes a parallel situation to illustrate what is meant by spiritual abuse:

In the context of her Christian home and her evangelical church, this woman had been shamed, manipulated and weighed down by a distortion of the gospel. Though Jesus came with “good news” to set us all free, she had been pressed by other Christians to work harder at being a “good Christian.” When she had failed in her honest attempts, she was judged as undisciplined and unwilling–perhaps even unsaved. She tried harder and harder to do all that was prescribed: more Bible reading, more prayer, more financial sacrifice. …The result, for her, was that the concept of grace was lost completely, and church in general was no longer a safe place (pages 11-12).

Once again, if only I had read to the end of Law and Gospel! Walther writes:

Law and Gospel are confounded and perverted for the hearers of the Word, not only when the Law predominates in the preaching, but also when Law and Gospel, as a rule, are equally balanced and the Gospel is not predominant in the preaching. In view of the precious character of this subject I am seized with fear lest I spoil it by my manner of presentation. The longer I have meditated this subject, the more inadequate does the expression seem that I can give it; so precious is this matter (p. 403).

Walther takes the words from my own heart when he says he’s seized with fear lest he fail adequately to express this precious subject matter. He does a terrific job, as you can see from the excerpts I’ve included.
If I can contribute anything original to the subject so thoroughly covered by the books in my bibliography, it would be by giving a name to the perversion which Walther describes so well. I suggest the names: “passive legalism” or “legalism by default.” Legalism does its enslaving not only when we misapply the law, but also when we fail to actively set people free from the law. It isn’t enough to avoid legalism, we must preach against being under the law. We must preach grace in all its radical, unconditional truth to the point that it amazes our congregations and makes ourselves wonder if we haven’t gone too far. Until someone speaks to us in concern that we are condoning sin (as Jesus, Paul, and Luther were accused of doing), we probably haven’t done our job.
How can we teach the gospel so that no one will abuse grace and think that the gospel gives him permission to sin? There’s no way you can preach grace so that no one will abuse it. People accused Paul of setting people free to sin, they accused Martin Luther of setting people free to sin, they even accused Jesus of condoning sin. And if you explain the gospel correctly, somebody is going to take it as license to sin. But what you dare not do is limit God’s grace to prevent people from abusing it. A conditional gospel is no gospel at all.
Walther tells us what kind of preaching it is that allows Christ to live his life through us:

If you want to revive your future congregations and cause the Spirit of peace, joy, faith, and confidence, the childlike spirit, the Spirit of soul-rest, to take up His abode among the members of your congregation, you must, for God’s sake, not employ the Law to bring that about (p. 385).

Make a vow to God that you will adopt the apostle’s method, that you will not stand in your pulpits sad-faced, as if you were bidding men to come to a funeral, but like men that go wooing a bride or announcing a wedding. If you do not mingle Law with the Gospel you will always mount your pulpit with joy. People will notice that you are filled with joy because you are bringing the blessed message of joy to your congregation. They will furthermore notice that wonderful things are happening among them. Alas! Many ministers do not meet with these wonderful experiences; their hearers remain sleepy; their misers stay stingy. What is the reason? Not sufficient Gospel has been preached to them. …It is not sufficient for you to be conscious of your orthodoxy and your ability to present the pure doctrine correctly. These are, indeed, important matters; however, no one will be benefited by them if you confound Law and Gospel. The very finest form of confounding both occurs when the Gospel is preached along with the Law, but is not the predominating element in the sermon. The preacher may think that he has proclaimed the evangelical truth quite often. His hearers, however, remember only that on some occasions he preached quite comfortingly and told them to believe in Jesus Christ without telling them how to attain to faith in Christ. Your hearers will be spiritually starved to death if you do not allow the Gospel to predominate in your preaching. They will be spiritually underfed because the bread of life is not the Law, but the Gospel (p. 407).

2 Cor. 1,24 we read: Not for that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy; for by faith ye stand. This is a fine text for your initial sermon. Remember this word of the apostle well: when you become ministers, you become helpers of the Christians’ joy. Do not become ministers who vex and torture the people, filling them with uncertainty and causing them to go home from church heavy-hearted. …Do not worry when you hear fanatics say that you are not truly converted, otherwise you would come down on your people with the Law much more forcefully and that you are preaching you people into hell, etc. Let fanatics say about you what they please. You may rest assured that your method is the correct one because you are to be helpers of joy to Christians; you are not to put them on the rack of the Law. The longer you preach to your people after this method, the more they will praise God for having given them such a pastor (p. 407).

I work diligently to become a pastor such as Walther describes. I had always thought I taught the gospel quite clearly, but when I consciously made it my goal to set people free from legalism, I received some surprising reactions. Here are some of the comments I heard:

“…I have been really refreshed in my Christian life by your sermons [on Galatians and Colossians] this summer. I’m reading my Bible and praying more.”

“I’ve been a member here for 63 years, why haven’t I heard this before?” (“This” referring to the Christian’s freedom from the threats and coercion of the law. I’m sure I had preached that message before, but apparently not emphatically enough to be heard.)

“I tried what you said about giving up and turning it all over to God, and it works!” [said by at least five people] “I can’t believe that something I’ve struggled with for fifty years just went away!”

“Pastor, I just want to tell you that I and my whole family are enjoying this new grace thing. Keep it up.”

“I think you need more law in your sermons.”

“Until about a year ago I thought I should just give up [the Christian life]. I didn’t feel qualified for the kingdom. But your teaching on grace…” [said by a member of the church council through a smile and tears].

[letter] “Dear Pastor and Melissa, I got the book. …It was really hard, but I gave up. What a relief!! It was like a burden was lifted. …I gave it to God, knowing only he could make the difference, and it didn’t matter how ‘good’ I was, what I did, how many Bible verses I read: unless I let him steer I’d never get through the storm.”

I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had in my life as I “proclaim freedom to the captives.”
Along with reading some excellent books on grace and the exchanged life, it has helped my ministry to familiarize myself with the literature on addictive behavior and systems. The patterns of sinful behavior are so obvious that even non-Christian observers can describe them so as to benefit the Christian pastor. I find that I have spent too little time studying people and their problems (also my own!). As a result, the answers to human need–all contained in Jesus Christ–I have not understood or delivered effectively. I have made some terrific blunders with hurting people due to my ignorance of addictive behavior and the havoc it causes in families and society. As a result of reading the recovery literature, both secular and Christian, I have profited immeasurably, and many people are being helped.
I first became interested in this subject as I took recovering alcoholics through adult instruction. I noted time and again a spiritual depth to these people which “normal” people didn’t seem to have, including a tremendous appreciation for and understanding of God’s grace. At the same time I was struggling with the amazing lack of grasp on grace on the part of life-long Lutherans. I now know that recovering alcoholics, to begin recovery, have acknowledged their powerlessness over their addiction and surrendered control over their lives to God–Steps 1-3 of the Twelve Steps of AA. Meanwhile our pews are occupied with people, many of whom haven’t realized that they are addicted to alcohol, work, TV, food, smoking, gambling, shopping, running, approval, or to solving the problems of a significant other. These people are trying hard, as I was, to keep their sinning to a moderate and acceptable level. They are anxious not to cross that invisible line between being a standard “poor, miserable sinner” who can’t help it; and being one of “those who live like this” who “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21).
I believe spiritual renewal will come as we saturate our sanctification teaching with grace and certainty just as we do our justification teaching. We must make it our goal to set people free with grace, explaining that Christ desires to live his life through us, and teaching that he has replaced our former identity as “poor, miserable sinners” with our present identity as new creatures “holy, blameless, and free from accusation” (Colossians 1:21-22). “If anyone is in Christ, He is a new creation! The old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).[14]
The big enemy of surrendering to Christ and experiencing spiritual renewal is the desire to be in control. This, of course, is close to the essence of what sin is. “You will be like God,” Satan said (Genesis 3:5), and we still believe the lie. We are born under the delusion that we are lords of our lives and that we should be in control of everything and everyone that concerns us. As long as we try to control our sin, we’re defeated. As soon as we give up control and surrender to Christ, trusting his provision of new, resurrection life in us, we have victory by grace and through faith. As long as we try to control other people’s sin, we resort to legalism and maintain a performance-based religion. As soon as we let go of control, setting them free under grace and turning them over to the Holy Spirit, they will mature spiritually and produce the fruit of the gospel in their transformed lives.
“No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord [and I’m not]’ but by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). We have had the Holy Spirit from the moment we came to faith. My prayer is that he will reveal to us, in all of its manifestations, our defeating, destructive desire to be in control of our selves and our fellow Christians. And by his grace may we be set free “to serve in the new way of the Spirit” (Romans 7:6). “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17). I heard it said once that “Religion is something women invented to control their husbands.” Husbands also use it to control their wives and clergy to control their people. God, save us from religion! Save us by grace and through faith. Give us instead a life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus came to proclaim freedom to the captives (Luke 4:18). May God use us in helping with that mission of grace, that we never hinder it.
When I was about six years old I had a dream one night which I have never forgotten; it’s as vivid as if I dreamed it last night. Please understand, I don’t spend any time at all trying to interpret my dreams, but this one seems to illustrate very well the things I’m seeing now, over thirty years later. It went like this: I dreamed I was at the house of my playmates, up the street from my house. A huge, white bird had alighted in the yard at the side of the house. It was large enough for five or six of us to sit on its back between its wings, and it would give us rides. I still remember the bird’s white head against the blue sky as it took us high above the trees. I remember its friendly, black eyes. I can still recall the exhilaration as we flew through the air in the bright sun. Always the bird decided when to fly, where to fly, and when to land. We could sense that the bird loved us and cared for us–there was nothing frightening about the rides it gave us, but they were very thrilling. As so often happens when six-year-olds are having fun, I heard the voice of my mother calling me home for lunch. After eating, I dashed out of the house and ran back up the street to resume our marvelous play with the bird. But everything had changed. I found in my friends’ yard a crude, wooden contraption, nailed together, vaguely in the shape of an airplane. My friends were sitting on it, between the wings. It didn’t fly, of course, or even move. I asked, “Where is the bird?” They looked sheepish and explained, “Don’t worry about the bird. We couldn’t make it go where we wanted, or when we wanted, so we built this. This is better,” they said, but I could tell they weren’t convinced. And then the dream turned horrible. I looked down at two wooden boards nailed together for a wing, and protruding from between them were the ends of feathers, once white and beautiful, now brown and dead. They had apparently nailed the boards to the bird. There was no longer a friend who could fly us to the sky, just a pile of junk. Its only advantage over the bird was that it was our junk, and we were its masters. The last scene I remember was three kids sitting on the junk, pretending that we were happy and that it was as good as it used to be.
As I learn about the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit for today, and learn how to enjoy Jesus alive in me, it’s as though the friendly bird has come back. He isn’t dead or gone after all. He can’t be killed, and he can’t be chased away! He’s always there, waiting for us to get tired of our pile of junk, to surrender our insistence on being in control, and to climb on his back. The feathers protruding from the boards were only unneeded feathers left behind, the huge bird wasn’t destroyed. He hasn’t deserted the children. The exhilaration is back; life is thrilling. My purpose in life now is to call to all the children, “Forget your junk! Climb on this beautiful white bird! He’s safe! He’ll take us to the sky!” I don’t know by what route the friendly bird is taking me to his Home, and I don’t care. I plan just to enjoy the ride.

Recommended Reading

Anything by Andrew Murray (Absolute Surrender, The Full Blessings of Pentecost…)

A Hunger for Healing–The Twelve Steps as a Classic Model for Christian Spiritual Growth,by J. Keith Miller, Harper, San Francisco.

Birthright –Christian, Do You Know Who You Are? by David C. Needham, Multnomah, Portland, Oregon.

Classic Christianity, by Bob George, Harvest House Publishers, Inc., Eugene, Oregon.

Grace Plus Nothing, by Jeff Harkin, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Wheaton, Illinois.

Growing in Grace, by Bob George, Harvest House Publishers, Inc., Eugene, Oregon.

Handbook to Happiness–A Guide to Victorious Living and Effective Counseling, by Charles R. Solomon, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois.

Hope in the Fast Lane–A New Look at Faith in a Compulsive World, by J. Keith Miller, Harper Paperbacks (Originally published in a cloth edition as Sin: Overcoming the Ultimate Deadly Addiction)

Let Go, Let God, by John E. Keller, Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis.

Luther’s Works, American Edition, Volume 26, “Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1-4,” Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis.

My Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers (various publishers)

Romans: The Law: Its Functions and Limits–Exposition of Chapters 7:1 – 8:4, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids.

Romans: The New Man–Exposition of Chapter 6:1-23, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids.

The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians, J.P. Koehler, Northwestern Publishing House, Milwaukee.

The Grace Awakening, by Charles R. Swindoll, Word Publishing.

The Knowledge of the Holy, by A.W. Tozer, Harper, San Francisco.

The Normal Christian Life, by Watchman Nee, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Wheaton, Illinois.

The Person & Work of the Holy Spirit, by R.A. Torrey, Zondervan, Grand Rapids.

The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence, Whitaker House, Springdale, Pennsylvania.

The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, by C.F.W. Walther, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis.

The Ragamuffin Gospel –Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out, by Brennan Manning, Multnomah, Portland, Oregon.

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Romans, F.F. Bruce, Inter-Varsity Press, Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids.

 

End Notes

(For those who are interested in how historic Lutheran theology presents these truths)

 

[1] The doctrine of Christ-in-me appears in The Formula of Concord, Thorough Declaration, III, Righteousness of Faith (Trig. 937,64 ): “Therefore we unanimously reject and condemn…as contrary to God’s Word… 6. That not God dwells in the believers, but only the gifts of God.”
The doctrine is described by Francis Pieper in his Christian Dogmatics, Vol. II, pp. 406-413. I supply some quotes for your convenience, but please see his entire article in context:

Justification effects the mysterious indwelling of the Holy Ghost and of the entire holy Trinity in the believers (unio mystica).
a. The unio mystica is distinct from the general presence of God with all creatures….
b. The unio mystica must not be reduced to a mere influence of God or to the indwelling of divine gifts….
c. It is not a pantheistic transformation of the substance of the Christians into the substance of God….
d. The doctrine of the mystic union is highly important both as a doctrine and for the Christian life. There are such as regard it lightly, but Scripture makes much use of it both to warn and to comfort us.
The unio mystica is the result of justification. To make it the basis of justification means to mix sanctification into justification….
[from footnote] Luther: “After Paul had been converted, he had the same flesh, the same voice and tongue which he had before. However, his voice and tongue uttered no blasphemies, but spiritual and heavenly words, to wit, thanksgiving and praise of God, which came of faith and the Holy Ghost. So, then, I live in the flesh, but not after, or according to the flesh, but in the faith of the Son of God. Hereby we may plainly see whence this spiritual life comes, which the natural man can in no wise perceive. This life is in the heart by faith, where after the flesh has been killed, Christ reigns with His Holy Spirit, who now sees, hears, speaks, works, suffers, and does all things in him, although the flesh does resist.” (St. L. IX:232)
Scripture, furthermore, explicitly states that the manifestations of the new life, the performance of good deeds, and the avoidance of sin are the result of faith in the remission of sins earned by Christ.
….By rejecting justification sola fide [by faith alone], a man remains under the Law, and the Law cannot break the dominion of sin. In fact, it increases sin. …Since the Law is thus utterly unable to bring about sanctification, God has replaced the old covenant of the Law with the new covenant of the forgiveness of sins by faith without the deeds of the Law (Jer. 31:31 ff.) Faith in the Gospel produces sanctification. Lex praescribit, evangelium inscribit [the Law prescribes, the Gospel inscribes].
Let us repeat it: The Law lacks the power to bring about its fulfillment, “in that it was weak through the flesh” (Rom. 8:3). The Gospel, however, effects not only its own acceptance, but also the keeping of the Law.

This doctrine as it appears in the dogmaticians is informatively sketched in The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, by Heinrich Schmid, Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, 1961, pages 480-486, The Mystical Union. Especially to the point are these quotes:

The passages John 14:23; 1 Cor. 6:15,17; Eph. 5:30; 2 Pet. 1:4; Gal 3:27; 2:19,20, prove, moreover, that this union is not merely figurative, but literal and actual, so that it cannot be described otherwise than as the union of the substance of God with the substance of man, in consequence of which God pours out the fullness of His gracious gifts upon the regenerate (page 480).
This union is characterized further as a “mystical union (because it is a great mystery (Eph. 5:32), the specific mode of which is unsearchable)…” (pages 480-481).
[2] QUENSTEDT (III, 623): “The mystical union does not consist merely in the harmony and tempering of the affections…but in a true, real, literal, and most intimate union; for Christ, John 17:21, uses the phrase, ‘to be in some one,’ which implies the real presence of the thing which is said to be in, not figuratively, as a lover in the beloved. The mystical union does not consist alone in the gracious operation of the Holy Spirit in believers. For when Christ says, John 14:23, ‘I and my Father,’ etc., and 5:16, ‘the Holy Spirit,’ etc., these are not names of operations but persons. And it is entirely wanton to convert such emphatic words, expressing a reality, by which this mystical union is described, into mere energetic expressions; for example, to come, to be sent into hearts, to dwell, to remain, to live in any one. For these are personal properties, and not attributes of operations.”
[3] HOLLAZ (932) defines: “The mystical union is the spiritual conjunction of the triune God with justified man, by which He dwells in him as in a consecrated temple by His special presence, and that, too, substantial, and operates in the same by His gracious influence.” QUEN. (III, 622): “The mystical union is the real and most intimate conjunction of the substance of the Holy Trinity and the God-man Christ with the substance of believers, effected by God Himself through the Gospel, the Sacraments, and faith, by which, through a special approximation of His essence, and by a gracious operation, He is in them, just as also believers are in Him; that, by a mutual and reciprocal immanence they may partake of His vivifying power and all His mercies, become assured of the grace of God and eternal salvation, and preserve unity in the faith and love with the other members of His mystical body.” (page 482) (Emphasis mine)
CALOV (X, 526) “The mystical union of Christ with the believer is a true and real and most intimate conjunction of the divine and human nature of the theanthropic Christ with a regenerated man…so that Christ constitutes a spiritual unit with the regenerated person, and operates in and through him, and those things which the believer does or suffers He appropriates to Himself, so that the man does not live, as to his spiritual and divine life, of himself, but by the faith of the Son of God, until he is taken to heaven.” And he specifies, as the accompaniments and consequences of the mystical union of believers with Christ, “A spiritual anointing; the designation of Christians [the anointed] taken from this; the mystical espousal with Christ. The mystical anointing is that by which the regenerate, having been consecrated to the Holy Spirit by virtue of Christ’s anointing, have been furnished with His gifts as spiritual prophets, priests, and kings. The espousal of Christ with believers is that by which He eternally marries Himself to believers through faith, so that they become one spirit, and by His power communicates to them, as to His spiritual bride, intimate and enduring love, all His blessings and all His glory, so as finally to lead them to His home, and dwell with them in His celestial and eternal kingdom.” (pages 482-483) (Emphasis mine)
“The essence of the subjects to be united are, on the one part, the divine substance of the whole Trinity, 2 Pet. 1:4, and the substance of the human nature of Christ, John 15:1,2,4; 1 Cor. 6:15-17; Eph. 5:30; Gal. 2:19-20; on the other part, the substance of believers, as to body and soul, 1 Cor. 6:15,19; Eph. 5:30″ (page 483).
QUENSTEDT (III, 619) proves the Mystical Union …”(2) From the indwelling in believers, Eph. 3:17; Rom. 8:9; 2 Cor. 6:16. (3) From the unity of believers with God, John 17:21. …(4) From the partaking of the divine nature, 2 Pet. 1:4” (pages 483-484).

[2] “It is completely self-evident that in this case [of the fruit of the Spirit], too, no vainglory can result; for the life of the Christian is the life of the Holy Ghost or of Christ (Gal. 2:20).” (The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians, J.P. Koehler, Northwestern Publishing House, Milwaukee, page 145.)

[3] For some reason, many Lutherans seem uncomfortable with the concept of surrender. Although the word “surrender” doesn’t appear in our English versions of the Bible that I know of, I believe the concept is inherent in Romans 6:15-19 when Paul speaks of “offering ourselves… offer the parts of your body….” Also Romans 12:1, “…Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship.” I see these verses as describing the Christian way of life as one surrendered to God. And isn’t the making of that basic confession of the Christian: “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9, 1 Corinthians 12:3), the surrendering of the lordship of our lives to him? Also, I see the command to “deny (disown) yourself” and “take up your cross daily” as surrendering. “Submit” would be equivalent. James 4:7 says, “Submit yourselves to God;” as also Hebrews 12:9, “How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!” While there are many ways to express the idea, I find that particular word, surrender, to be especially meaningful for my life. In Luther’s Morning Prayer we are taught to begin the day by surrendering: “I pray Thee that Thou wouldst keep me this day also from sin and every evil…for into Thy hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things.”

[4] I hope we can make use of helpful teachings from various writers without implying endorsement of everything they taught. Some have expressed caution of Watchman Nee because he had a disciple, Witness Lee, who founded some sort of cult. But remember, Luther had Carlstadt. Please limit my approval of Watchman Nee, and all the other writers I quote who are not apostles, to the quotes I include. In his book Christ Esteem, Don Matzat, a pastor of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, acknowledges his debt to Nee and refers to The Normal Christian Life as a “classic” (page 51).

[5] Concerning the uses of the law: The law is the holy, immutable will of God for what we humans are to be and do. In the realm of sanctification, it serves as a mirror and a guide. As a mirror it reveals the works of the flesh to us so that we may acknowledge them to God in repentance. As a guide it pictures for us what the new life of obedient service to God involves. Outside of the law’s uses in sanctification, it also has a usus politicus by which its threats curb to some degree the coarse outbreak of sin in society. The use of the law as curb has nothing whatever to do with Christian sanctification. Actually, inclusion of the uses of the law are not integral in a discussion of the mystical union or renovation. To recognize this fact does not constitute antinomianism. The Antinomians “or assailants of the Law are justly condemned, who abolish the preaching of the Law from the Church, and wish sins to be reproved, and repentance and sorrow to be taught, not from the Law, but from the Gospel” (Trig. 957,15). The practice of “shaming with the gospel” (which I discuss later) is a way of using the gospel as law, which is antinomianism, and which we must oppose.
In the entire discussion of the Mystical Union and Renovation in Schmid the dogmaticians find no occasion to refer to the law or its uses (Schmid, pages 480-491). In Pieper’s discussion of the Mystical Union (Christian Dogmatics, Vol. II, pp. 406-413) he mentions the law only to say:

“The Law cannot break the dominion of sin. In fact, it increases sin. …The Law is thus utterly unable to bring about sanctification.”

I find that many Christians are (in my estimation) overly afraid of slighting the law. I believe it has something to do with thinking of Jesus more as a solution to the problem of sin and death, to the neglect of knowing him also as a person with whom to have a relationship (as Friend, Brother, Bridegroom, Shepherd…). We need to offer people Jesus not only as the way to life, but as life. Heaven is not just a nice place to escape sin and death and hell, it’s where Jesus is. Jesus is not just a utility. The gospel is not the message of how to get to heaven only, but how to have a relationship with our Creator–what we were created for.
When Jesus is thus relegated to a rescuer only, we feel the need to use the law’s threats to keep reminding people of the problem for which Jesus is the solution. If Jesus is a utility, we dare not let people forget his usefulness. However, if the goal of salvation is a restored relationship with our Lord, then we find that we love him for who he is, not just for what he can do for us.

[6] Please note: we do not accept the truth of a doctrine because it “works.” But the fact is that when God makes a promise, it does work!

[7] I’m glad to see that it has been changed in Christian Worship, A Lutheran Hymnal, #454, to “I gave my life for thee; Come give thyself to me.”

[8] Formula of Concord Art. VI, par. 5: “…the Law cannot burden with its curse those who have been reconciled to God through Christ; nor must it vex the regenerate with its coercion, because they have pleasure in God’s Law after the inner man.” Paragraphs 9 and 24 of the Formula must be interpreted in the light of paragraphs 3, 5, and 16 so that they do not seem to justify misusing the law and abusing Christians. The statement in par. 9 as translated by Tappert: “the punishment of the law” is needed “to egg them on so that they follow the Spirit of God,” is translated more adequately in the Triglot: “…the truly believing…need…also frequently punishments, that they may be roused [the old man is driven out of them] and follow the Spirit of God.” The bracketed explanatory note from the Latin version is very helpful. The way the law promotes the following of the Spirit is by each day demonstrating the inability of the flesh to obey. Galatians 2:19: “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.” This is further borne out by the parallel comment in par. 24: “…coerced to the obedience of Christ…also oftentimes by the club of punishments and troubles, until the body of sin is entirely put off, and man is perfectly renewed in the resurrection…” Am I correct in thinking that the only obedience the Old Adam can render to Christ is to die? I’m sure, in the light of par. 16, that the law cannot extort from the flesh (of believer or unbeliever) God-pleasing obedience to Christ: “For as long as man is not regenerate and [therefore] conducts himself according to the Law and does the works because they are commanded thus, from fear of punishment or desire for reward, he is still under the Law, and his works are called by St. Paul properly works of the Law, for they are extorted by the Law, as those of slaves; and these are saints after the order of Cain [that is, hypocrites].” Am I right in thinking that the “punishments” referred to in paragraphs 9 and 24 have in view not so much the preaching of the law but primarily the kind of divinely imposed discipline described in Hebrews 12:10-11?: “Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”
I find the Epitome, Art. VI, par. 3-5, very helpful in understanding the thought behind FC VI: “…It is needful that the Law of the Lord always shine before them… that the Old Adam also may not employ his own will, but may be subdued against his will, not only by the admonition and threatening of the Law, but also by punishments and blows, so that he may follow and surrender himself captive to the Spirit….” (4) “Now, as regards the distinction between the works of the Law and the fruits of the Spirit, we believe, teach, and confess that the works which are done according to the Law are and are called works of the Law as long as they are only extorted from man by urging the punishment and threatening of God’s wrath. (5) Fruits of the Spirit, however, are the works which the Spirit of God who dwells in believers works through the regenerate, and which are done by believers so far as they are regenerate [spontaneously and freely], as though they knew of no command, threat, or reward; for in this manner the children of God live in the Law of God, which [mode of living] St. Paul in his epistles calls the Law of Christ and the Law of the mind, Rom. 7,25; 8,7; Rom. 8,2; Gal. 6,2.
I believe the Formula of Concord agrees that the way to short-circuit the frustrating activity of the flesh is to stop functioning under the law. Par. 11ff: “But we must also explain distinctively what the Gospel does, produces, and works towards the new obedience of believers, and what is the office of the Law in this matter, as regards the good works of believers. (12) For the Law says indeed that it is God’s will and command that we should walk in a new life, but it does not give the power and ability to begin and do it; but the Holy Ghost, who is given and received, not through the Law, but through the preaching of the Gospel, Gal. 3:14, renews the heart…” “…(17) But when man is born anew by the Spirit of God, and liberated from the Law, that is, freed from this driver, and is led by the Spirit of Christ, he lives according to the immutable will of God comprised in the Law, and so far as he is born anew [Question: are there degrees of regeneration or are we either regenerate or not? -RR], does everything from a free, cheerful spirit; and these are called not properly works of the Law, but works and fruits of the Spirit, or as St. Paul names it, the law of the mind and the Law of Christ. For such men are no more under the Law, but under grace, as St. Paul says, Rom. 8,2 [Rom. 7:23; 1 Cor. 9,21].”

[9] I have a strong distaste for the word “should,” the subjunctive of shall. I think that in the ears of contemporary Americans it waters down the law and sounds like God is laying vague obligations upon us, not absolute demands. I always expect to hear a “but” after “should.” It was “through the law” that Paul “died to the law” (Galatians 2:19). If we water down the law, it won’t kill us, and we won’t surrender to the completely alien righteousness of Christ either for justification or for sanctification (Galatians 2:20). In my opinion, the word “should” would better be translated “shall” in the Explanations to the Ten Commandments. Luther says “wir sollen” just as the Commandments themselves say “du sollst” (“You should not kill!?”). “We shall fear and love God that we do not hurt….” Isn’t that better than should? Also, to me, the word “should” is misleading almost every time it’s used in the NIV. Although it is a grammatically proper use of the English subjunctive in a purpose or result clause, Americans don’t hear it as purpose or result, but as an obligation. When 2 Corinthians says, “that those who live should no longer live for themselves…” it sounds like obligation (law) whereas in Greek it is at least purpose and possibly result (gospel fact). When I quote the NIV in a sermon, I normally leave out the “should” for my American audience: “that those who live no longer live for themselves….” It’s good news about what Jesus does in us, not another burden of performance laid upon our backs. The same is true with the KJV translation of Romans 6:4 where should is used. That verse is not saying, “You have to live a new life.” It’s saying: “You have a new life to live.” To me, “should” confuses that. The NIV improves the sense by replacing “should” with “may.”

[10] Formula of Concord Art. VI, par. 16, “For as long as man is not regenerate and [therefore] conducts himself according to the Law and does the works because they are commanded thus, from fear of punishment or desire for reward, he is still under the Law, and his works are called by St. Paul properly works of the Law, for they are extorted by the Law, as those of slaves; and these are saints after the order of Cain [that is, hypocrites].”

[11] By way of illustration: It isn’t okay for my children to disobey me, but I love them even when they do. Knowing this makes my children secure, happy and obedient. If they felt my love was conditional they would become insecure, unhappy, and rebellious.

[12] Hollaz says, “…The regenerate man co-operates with God in the work of sanctification, not by an equal action, but in subordination and dependence on the Holy Spirit, because he works, not with native but with granted powers. This is inferred from the words of the apostle, Phil. 2:12,13” (Schmid, page 491). Philippians 2:12-13: Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed–not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence–continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

[13] The Christian’s individual personality is not lost. Professor Koehler says (Gesetzlich Wesen, p. 19): “The spirit has not perchance evolved out of the flesh, rather it is the new life God-created. It is the life of the Holy Ghost, yea, the Holy Ghost himself in us; and yet again not as though man’s personality were thereby destroyed. That would lead us into pantheism.
Koehler says concerning Galatians 5:16-24 (Galatians, page 147):

What is meant here by “Spirit?” Some here understand the Holy Spirit, the Third Person in the Godhead; others understand the human spirit which is filled with the Holy Ghost. Understand it as you will, you will in no case be able to think the thought through completely, and therefore our clumsy reason will always be able to raise some objection against either explanation. The interpretation of other Bible passages where the same question arises, suffers likewise. So much is plain: now Paul is speaking of the new life in the Christian. That is his life in so far as he is the person in whom this life takes place. It is he who thinks and wills and acts. But at the same time Scripture says just as plainly that it is the Holy Spirit, indeed, that it is Christ who lives in the Christian and lives the life. If we now read that the Christian is to walk in the Spirit, we also see how the Christian’s personality is distinguished from the Spirit. Therefore we need not bristle when a commentator says that the Spirit here is the Holy Spirit, the Third Person in the Godhead. Just as little is it objectionable when in Gal. 6:8 this Holy Ghost is looked upon as the field from which the harvest of eternal life is gathered. At the same time it is also clear that in these matters Scripture does not involve itself in subtle differentiations because reason, which would like to see them made, could not grasp them anyway. [emphasis mine]

[14] I’ve found it helpful in my own thinking to distinguish between our identity (old man in Adam / new man in Christ) and our natures (sinful/spiritual). The Christian still has two natures, flesh and spirit, but we have only one identity: new creature in Christ. I think it is very important for our growth in sanctification that we be clear about our identity as Christians. Even though we still sin, “sinners” are not who we are, we are “saints,” we are “the righteous.”