We need to say more about this transformation, which in classic theology is usually called sanctification. We differ from this tradition on terminology but not as to content. In fact, by using “transformation,” we hope to inject the concept with new meaning.
As we further reflect on the nature of this transformation, we must start at its source: our participation in Christ. In our justification we are delivered from any pressure to do things—from all efforts to free ourselves from the burden and melancholy of our existence. We relinquish the endless, tiring attempts to prove ourselves so as to deserve our true identity in submission to Christ (see Matt 11:28). Christ appreciated and still appreciates our value; we therefore embody that value, even if that does not correspond with how we feel. He was even prepared to become a corpse for us, as we read literally in Rev 1:18. For his love was a love without end (John 3:16).
Therefore, when we believe what is unbelievable—namely, that this love is also for us; indeed, that there is no one who loves us more deeply than Jesus Christ (Belgic Confession, art. 26)—it will lead to a fundamental transformation in how we lead our lives. We become free from ourselves and from the need to ensure our own existential certainty, and we are able to develop, in the spirit/Spirit of Jesus, a new orientation outside of ourselves. By this Spirit we are transformed from within into his image. The energies we used to invest in satisfying our interminable efforts at self-assertion are now available to serve God and our neighbors. Since we now have peace with God (Rom 5:1), we are also at peace with ourselves and no longer feel the need to constantly prove ourselves. This orientation enables us to be there—for God and the other and for all that is good. The paradox of the gospel becomes operational: “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Luke 17:33). In other words, those who doggedly continue with their efforts toward self-realization will never find the inner rest and existential certainty they are searching for. But anyone who gives up such attempts will find his or her true destiny and become the kind of person God intended that one to be. We cannot speak too highly about this transformation, and the New Testament therefore uses some big words for it. It is a transition from death to life (John 5:25). Or to quote Paul, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17).
The term “transformation” indicates a process that is rooted in what the Bible calls the human heart: our inmost part, the center of our feelings, convictions, and decisions (Prov 4:23; cf. 23:26a). This process goes far beyond any external modification of conduct. If we want to chase the devil away from the home of our life by just polishing its facade, it will not be long before we find him back with several friends in tow—unless the key has been given to its new occupant (Matt. 12:43–45). Reform begins when another spirit—the Holy Spirit—rules the home of our life, and when another wind begins to inflate our sails. When this change of ownership happens, our concrete words and acts will somehow become oriented toward what is good. In practice, however, we have little control over this wind. It might consist of many diverse and confusing experiences that make sense to us only at a later time. The Spirit who connects us with Christ is free to do as she sees fit.
Does this transformation occur more or less spontaneously, as a kind of automatic reflex that follows the gift of acquittal and new identity in Christ? It is tempting to answer this question affirmatively, not least to prevent any relapse into “sanctification by works,” a desperate attempt to yet again ensure our own salvation. However, that answer would be incorrect. There is good reason why the New Testament epistles constantly exhort us to make sure that this new state of affairs indeed comes to pass, that our life is concretely transformed by a fundamental reorientation toward Christ. Apparently, we need such exhortations. Although there is no doubt that justification changes us into a new creation, an ongoing struggle will ensue to realize that indeed we are justified and accepted by God so that we live on the basis of the inner peace that it offers.
Emphasizing the reality of our transformation, as we do here, of course may have some drawbacks. On the one hand, the “old man” can fight back so stubbornly that it may seem doubtful that we are making any real progress; if we are then told that we should make such progress, we can easily become desperate. On the other hand, if we do observe spiritual progress in our Christian life, would it not tempt us to become proud, to feel morally superior to others, and to think that we can live from now on without the grace of Christ? Moreover, do we not often see that the hunter becomes the prey? When a person ostentatiously chases sin away from the front door, it may come back in through the garage. Think of the televangelists and megachurch pastors who are discovered in financial scandals or extramarital affairs.
Thus we can understand why Christian dogmatics often has little enthusiasm about trying to describe our progress in becoming transformed into the image of Christ. All our “glittering images” (a la Susan Howatch) can easily blow up in our faces. We must indeed be very circumspect in translating this transformation directly into moral categories. For instance, it is wrong to suppose that believers gradually acquire a nobler character so as to need less and less forgiveness, justification, and communion with Christ. For the transformation they experience is primarily a matter of growing “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 3:18). His grace will never be a phase that we have left behind but will remain the source to which we constantly return and draw upon ever more purposefully. For growing in Christ also implies at least some increase in self-knowledge. When we become aware that we see but little improvement in the passions and imaginations at the bottom of our heart, that nasty tendencies such as jealousy, hedonism, and superficiality seem to be more resilient than we thought, we can become more modest and realistic. If we acknowledge these things in ourselves rather than denying them, we will more consciously deal with them—for instance, by making a greater effort, based on our participation in Christ, to focus on what pleases God and is good for others. This pattern is what the gospel refers to as denying oneself: not disparaging feelings of always having to be submissive to others, but the conscious choice, at different moments in life, to go the way of Christ and to be there for others (Matt 16:24 and pars.).
We must recognize that all these cautions are integral to the Christian message. Yet, at this point we must push back and sound a critical note toward the kind of theology that refers only to what Christ did and refuses to reflect on the question of how he reaches and transforms us. Such “objectivism” runs the risk of trivializing or rendering suspect the question of how God’s Spirit touches us to change us and our environment. Especially in much middle-of-the road Protestantism, the work of the Spirit has been subjected to all kinds of qualifiers. One reason was the fear of putting too much pressure for spiritual achievements, as often found in Roman Catholic, Anabaptist, and evangelical circles. Was there also the concern that, given a radical doctrine of sin, the Spirit would not be able to do much with the human material in its deplorable state?
Theological reflection about the relationship between justification and transformation remains challenging. Must we really choose between putting all our money on the former or encouraging the latter? The first option carries the danger of what Bonhoeffer called cheap grace, which, in the opening sentence of his book The Cost of Discipleship (1937), he called the deadliest enemy of the church. The second option risks dissolving the unconditional character of God’s gracious turn toward us into a new kind of moralism. Berkhof (CF 456–57) wanted to use both models: he compares justification to both a tree and a springboard and suggests that the two must interact with, and correct, each other. Given such dissimilar images, however, it is hard to see how this interaction could happen. We prefer to use the metaphor of a skater who continuously shifts his or her weight from one leg to the other and, by doing so, moves forward. This duality can be found in Paul. The same apostle to whom Western theology owes its doctrine of justification exhorts us to “put on the new man,” doing so without any relativizing or reticence (Eph 4:24). We strongly suggest letting this call for inner and outer transformation stand forth in all its clarity, and not qualifying beforehand that in actual practice it is unrealistic. Those who no longer try will also have little need for constantly returning to the message of justification. Moreover, the New Testament gives much practical advice about the goals of our Christian life. It is remarkable how often we find exhortations in the New Testament that are borrowed from the Torah, especially from the Ten Commandments. Such wording has often caused people to wonder about the precise role the law should have in the life of the Christian. It is instructive to see that Melanchthon and Calvin referred to the law having a third use (tertius usus legis), namely, to serve as a guide for the process of transformation. Christ fulfilled the law, which means that its deadly sting has been removed, that it can no longer result in our demise. But this fulfillment does not imply that it is no longer valid as an expression of God’s will, for that would mean that God’s will is subject to change.
By locating the law in “the life of gratitude,” Reformed Protestantism has sometimes fallen into a tendency toward legalism and moralism. This turn has been a breaking point for many—if in doubt, read the novels of nineteenth-century American authors who were fed up with the Calvinism of their forebears: Emerson, Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., or erstwhile Methodist Harold Frederic. A finely meshed suffocating network of dos and don’ts covered all aspects of life. In response to this complaint we can simply commend reading Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians from beginning to end. It delivers a passionate protest against a kind of Christian life that surrenders its freedom and once again accepts the yoke of law.
But this possibility does not mean that the law has no proper function in establishing some criteria for the transformation process of believer and church. One might argue that it is all about love, and that this love can be demonstrated only in a situation of freedom. However, the New Testament clearly engages in a delicate interplay between love (sometimes referred to as the law of Christ, Gal 6:2) and the concrete commandments. Just as love is expressed by doing what we know will please the other person (and by expecting the one to clearly indicate what does not), and just as lovers are properly sensitive on this point, we will express our love for God by taking the law seriously as a tool for fashioning our life in a way that will please him. As soon as love leaves this equation, however, everything becomes stifled and the law becomes a collection of dry regulations for our conduct. Once again a narrow middle road must be found between legalism and libertinism.
In the context of the relationship between faith and transformation, we need to discuss a special figure of speech found in the history of Reformed Protestantism: the syllogismus practicus, the capstone of daily praxis. We find this thought in a preliminary form in the Heidelberg Catechism when, in reply to the question of why we should perform good works, it lists as a second reason “that every one may be assured in himself of his faith, by the fruits thereof” (Q/A 86). The underlying idea is that believers may conclude that their faith is genuine when they spontaneously begin to perform good deeds. To put it positively, it means that our small beginning” (Q/A 114) is not so small that it cannot be empirically established! However, what here is a secondary motif (as it is with Calvin), a side note drawn in passing, came to occupy an ever more important place in later Reformed Protestantism. Under the scholastic approach to theology, a taut syllogism took shape; somewhat simplified, it runs:
Premise 1 (major): Those who do good works have faith.
Premise 2 (minor): I do good works.
Conclusion: I have faith.
Whereas with the Reformation of Luther and Calvin, faith found certainty in trusting the promises of the gospel, people were now enjoined to reflect on their own actions for an added, indirect confirmation—which gradually demanded more and more attention. This move risks a regression ad infinitum, however, for how can I know that what I do is truly good and whether I do enough of it? The risk was indeed realized, so that over the seventeenth century the syllogismus practicus was overtaken by the syllogismus mysticus, where the certainty of faith depends on our own feelings. In a climate in which feelings demanded their rights, it was easy to drown in the quicksand of subjectivism and endless introspection, with the loss of almost any assurance of salvation and joy. In the background of all this uncertainty loomed the big issue of election or predestination. The $64,000 question was, am I among the elect?
Adapted from Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction by Cornelis van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink ©2017 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) Reprinted by permission of the publisher. To listen to an interview with Cornelis van der Kooi you can do so here, and to read an interview with John Bolt (translator) you can read here.