“‘Sanctification’ … is often misunderstood as a progress, kicked off, as it were, by baptism. This has obviously to be false. Baptism initiates into the life which God’s three persons, Father, Son and Spirit, live among themselves; what would we progress to from that? Rather, sanctification is the continual return to baptism…. Baptism is always there as a fact in my past; I can always, as Luther said, ‘creep’ back to it and begin anew.”
~ Robert Jenson, A Larger Catechism
Would that this understanding of sanctification ‘creep’ its way into those regions of the Church that have devised a two-tiered ecclesiology, the poor in spirit begging at the bottom, the ‘perfect’ in spirit standing tall and entitled at the top.
There is one way of sanctification, and it is the same way of salvation: the way of a down-low descent that comes eye-to-eye with the highest holiness only when it finds the God-at-rock-bottom. There he commands us, in effect, “Take up your guilt and come down here with me. If I, God, take the form of a slave and wash your feet to cleanse your soul with my humility, then you, sinners, follow suit, lest you continue to soil your souls with pride” (cf. Mt. 23:12; Mk. 10:43-35; Lk. 14:11; Jn. 13; Eph. 4:2; Phil. 2:6-8; 1 Pet. 5:6; Ja. 4:10; Ps. 51; Prov. 29:23; the rest of the Bible). If the One who knew no sin revealed his righteousness by identifying with sinners without becoming one, then I suppose that I, knows sin quite well, can best reflect his righteousness by identifying with sinners and not acting like I’m not one (2 Cor. 5:21).
This is the most basic precondition for perfect love, the omega point of sanctification, since the greatest obstacle of all love is pride. Love’s purest form is communal, indeed Trinitarian, that is: mutual self-donation and trusting open reception (perichoresis); but this perfect form of love in a fallen world is never exactly mutual because the degree of self-donation and trusting open reception is hindered by self-preserving pride and other-fearing mistrust. We are afraid that if we open ourselves up to give we will be poured out; we are afraid that if we open ourselves up to receive we will receive nails. We are afraid that if we become Christians we will have to become followers of Christ. But we need not fear, for his infinite love fills up what is lacking in us and overflows into an offering out from us. He is God’s gift to us and our gift to God, and as such, but only as such, can we become a gift from God to the world, sanctified, set apart for self-giving love, a people sent to exist for the sake of their nonmembers. If we achieve the love of God in this world, it is only because God has achieved his love in us. It is only because we are “buried with [Christ] by baptism into death” and something Alien was born.
But that Alien invasion is always engaged in some kind of revolutionary war, where the love of God’s will meets its most formidable enemy in the pride of mine. And hence love in a fallen world will never reach perfection until the world no longer can be given that description, until creation is made wholly new, until all persons are free from all fear and pride which are ever born anew in the womb of our awareness of death (Heb. 2:15). And so perfect love from here till Christ’s return must assume the form of descent (kenosis!), following the One whose eternal holiness as the God above us is demonstrated by way of his mortal identification with those below (Phil. 2:6-11), whose perfect love is revealed to be a love that crosses enemy lines (Mt. 5:43-48; Rom. 5:8-11; Col. 1:21) in order to adopt the mortal enemies of his bitter end as the immortal children of his new beginning (Rom. 8:12-17).
And so our Lord has taught us to pray a remarkably simple prayer that is staked there naked and uncomplicated, establishing the essential grammar of Christian confession, the delineation of love in a lost world, which we offer each morning as the daily bread for our souls and our sins: (A) the need to receive forgiveness (“forgive us our debts”), (B) the need to extend forgiveness (“as we forgive our debtors”), and (C) the need to be transformed (“lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil”) so as to not continue the destructive cycle of wronging and keeping records of wrongs (1 Cor. 13:5).
Sanctification presumes daily reception of forgiveness–even if its not needed, the humble posture of asking can never be neglected–daily extension of forgiveness, and daily deliverance of our own capacity for evil. It is, indeed, the daily return to our baptism, graduation by way of demotion, the humble descent from the perfect righteousness of hypocrisy to the perfect love of the Father, displayed by the humble Lord of the cosmos (Mt. 5:20-6:4), the crossward way of the Kingdom of the forgiven, who are “called saints” (or “hagios” or “holy ones”, 1 Cor. 1:2). Yes, saints, because the one who calls us so makes us so in the way he makes all things: out of nothing. The Word that called forth light out of the void, life out of the tomb, is the same who calls forth sanctification out of the waters of our baptism–new Life still pouring forth from that Ancient Death–Jesus Christ, “who became for us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Cor. 1:30).