Sunday, February 24, 2002

SANCTIFICATION, the three tenses of the verb

The Epistle for the 2nd Sunday in Lent [in the classic BCP] is 1 Thessalonians 4:1ff. and within this reading we hear the words, “This is the will of God, even your sanctification.”

In thus speaking to the church members of Thessalonica the apostle Paul is emphasizing a present duty, the duty which our Lord stated as, “Be holy as God is holy” and “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” And, of course, Lent is a time of the Church Year when such exhortations fully come into their own.

To see the full weight of the call by Jesus and Paul for holiness unto God, it will be useful to recall that the New Testament presents to us the great themes of holiness (sanctification), righteousness (justification) and salvation (redemption) in three basic tenses – past, present and future.

1. The past tense is used to declare the relation of baptized believers
to the Death, Resurrection and Exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ. Being reckoned by the Father to be with and in Christ Jesus, in his Body, and thus in these Events in Him, believers are said to be justified (rightwised), saved and sanctified in him.

We are/have been justified
We are/have been sanctified
We are/have been saved.

This past tense does not point to what we are in ourselves – we are guilty sinners – but to what we are in the accounting and reckoning of God the Father for the sake of and by the merits of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the basis of Christian assurance.

2. The present tense is used to declare the duty of believers to the
Father in the light of their being accounted by the Father as being in Christ Jesus. It is used to speak of the solemn and joyous responsibility to God of those in whom the Spirit of the Father and of the Son dwells.

We are being made holy -- Be holy
We are being made righteous - Be righteous
We are being saved – Work our your salvation with fear and trembling

The present tense assumes the truth conveyed by the past tense and calls us unto consecration, dedication and attention to the will of God for his people.

3. The future tense is used to state the Christian Hope, to state what,
as disciples of Christ and children of the heavenly Father, we are to understand God has in store for us.

We shall be sanctified/made holy
We shall be made righteous
We shall be saved

Obviously the future tense here assumes both the past and the present tenses. Only as those who are in Christ and persevering in our relation to him can we truly participate in the Christian hope.

A few observations upon the three tenses:
First of all, it was the vocation of the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century to see with great clarity the full meaning and import of the present tense and thus they taught “we are justified by faith” through the merits of Christ Jesus by the Father with great clarity and power. And the fruit of this is clearly seen in the classic B.C.P.

However, a latent danger in Protestantism of succeeding centuries was so to emphasise this meaning as to neglect the meaning within the present tense. Thus salvation has often been reduced to the past tense only. Thus one is asked by the fervent person, “Are you saved?” and preachers speak of “the eternal security of believers.”

At the same time, there has been a tendency within much popular Roman Catholic teaching to emphasise the meanings in the present and future tenses and not to pay sufficient attention to the foundational meaning within the past tense.

In the second place, certain times of the Christian Year have within them the tendency to emphasise one or other of the tenses. Good Friday, for example, is certainly a day when we proclaim that by the one, unique, perfect, atoning sacrifice of Christ Jesus upon the Cross God the Father brought redemption and salvation to the whole world. Thus the past tense is most appropriate for through Christ there is forgiveness, justification, sanctification and salvation. We may add that Lent is a period of forty days when the present tense is prominent – be holy, be righteous, and be perfect.

Thirdly, within modern forms of experiential (e.g. charismatic) Christianity because there is little attention to specifics there is little sound or clear teaching on the truths and their relation to each other, contained in the three tenses of the New Testament. Thus people tend to place their assurance of salvation in their feelings and not on the objective and extrinsic work of Christ and word of the Lord.

Finally, while the three tenses have an ordered relation to each other in putting before us our right relation to God the Father through Jesus Christ by the Holy Ghost, each one of them has its proper place and in a right ordered church and right ordered Christian life none of them is neglected.

The Rev’d Dr. Peter Toon, Second Sunday in Lent 2002.

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