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a. The Indicative and Imperative Nature of Sanctification: A Resolution?

If a good tree brings forth good fruit automatically and does not need to be
exhorted to bear good fruit, then why not preach only accusing Law and
forgiveness and let the rest take care of itself? Why exhort a good tree?156

Even a cursory glance at the New Testament will make clear that large portions

are dedicated to admonishing followers to flee from unrighteousness and to strive

towards righteousness. It would seem that if we uphold that God is the sole source of

sanctification along with the claim that there is nothing innate in the nature of man that is

capable of righteousness, we would then need to assert that the imperatives found in

Scripture could not possibly be intended for us actually to do them (at least as they are

meant to be fulfilled), but for some other reason. It seems that indicative and imperative

brings us back to root of the issue. As Helmut Thielicke writes: “These problems [posed

by indicative and imperative] are identical with those of the new obedience generally, and

thus include the key question of evangelical ethics as a whole.”157 These are problems

that have not been addressed sufficiently in the Lutheran Church, especially within the

LCMS. We are comfortable with talking about vocation, civil righteousness, and even

with claiming that the gospel motivates good works, and that the sacraments strengthen

and enliven one’s faith. The problem with this is that the gospel, the indicative, merely

becomes a helper in an existence that is ultimately defined by the law. As Gustaf

Wingren writes: “The Christian is crucified by the law in his vocation, under the earthly

government; and he arises through the gospel, in the church under the spiritual

Paul R. Raabe and James W. Voelz, “Why Exhort a Good Tree?: Anthropology and Paraenesis in
Romans,” Concordia Journal 22, no. 2 (1996), 154.
Thielicke, Theological Ethics, 83.

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government.”158 Against this, is there a way in which the indicative and the imperative

can be resolved, where the gospel is not merely a “helper” in sanctification but rather

where the gospel is our sanctification, and can the imperative, far from being re-

subjection to the law, be incorporated into this understanding?

No resolution between indicative and imperative can be formed without a correct

understanding of Christian anthropology, and an understanding of man’s creational and

relational status as ordained in God’s original will for creation. When we see that man’s

justification and sanctification is not a destruction of creation but an affirmation of, and a

restoration of that creation, we will start to look at the matter appropriately. As Oswald

Bayer notes: “The work of Jesus is to restore creation, to validate again its original

purpose, the will of God in creation…In this, Jesus Christ is the ‘mediator of creation,’

through whom all that now is was made.”159 What we will find is that indicative and

imperative, far from being contradictory or two ways of looking at and distinguishing

between our states of life, are rather an affirmation of God’s original creational-relational

will. Helmut Thielicke writes:

The connection [between indicative and imperative] can be demonstrated

only within the sphere of biblical anthropology, where the concept of the
person is such that man can be described only in terms of his relationship
to…God present in Christ.160

Isolating either indicative or imperative as the “true” nature of sanctification is a

repudiation of God’s ordained ordering of creation. We read:

Whenever the imperative is isolated from the indicative or the indicative

from the imperative, the absolutizing in either case leads to autonomy of

Gustaf Wingren, Luther on Vocation, trans. Carl C. Rasmussen (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957),
Oswald Bayer, Living by Faith: Justification and Sanctification, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand
Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003), 62.
Thielicke, Theological Ethics, 82-83.

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the ego, to its separation from the fellowship between God and man, to its
release from all connection with the alienum.161

When the indicative nature of sanctification is isolated from the imperative this destroys

the entire nature of our createdness, our being set in a situation in which we are called to

relate ourselves to, and within, God’s will. It destroys our freed will, and thus our

responsibility. Piotr Malysz writes:

Thus with its origin in the divine love, human existence is one of freedom.
God did not create automatons but beings that were beautiful, interesting
and worthwhile for their own sake—individuals with the capacity, of their
own free will, to reflect the love received. A loving relationship by nature
implies an option for un-love. Love as self-giving implies the possibility of
rejection. It is in this context of what love is that the presence in the
garden of the tree of knowledge of good and evil finds its purpose.162

This understanding of man’s primal state is pivotal for understanding Christian

anthropology. None of this can be understood if we completely reject the possibility of

the Christian having a arbitrium liberatum—a freed will.163 Many would deny such a

possibility claiming, “free will…exists before God only as evil.”164 They would claim

that while we have free will as to our horizontal relationships, these actions in the civil

sphere don’t count as righteousness in the true sense. This is popularly cited as the

Confessional position. From this reasoning we would see only two options before us: 1)

there is no such thing as sanctification, as properly understood, this side of heaven, or 2)

Ibid., 82.
Malysz, “Third Use of the Law in Light of Creation and the Fall,” 13.
The term “free will,” as Luther notes, is a dangerous and often misleading term. Luther states that there
is a tendency to consider free will as “a power of freely turning in any direction, yielding to none and
subject to none.” Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, trans. J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston (London:
James Clarke, 1957), 105. The Christian’s liberated will (See: Kolb and Wengert, 557, par. 67.) does not
mean that there is some capacity “in” man himself which is able to do good, rather all this needs to be
attributed to the gracious work of God, from whom we receive this “capacity” to will only insofar, and as
long as, God remains to give (See: Kolb and Wengert, 556-557, par 66; 560-561, par. 87.).
Wingren, Luther on Vocation, 16.

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we only “suffer” sanctification and our wills are completely uninvolved in this process.165

The Confessions, though, strongly reject both these positions. That they truly do believe

in sanctification in righteousness this side of heaven needs little argumentation.166 The

Confessions likewise deny that the “spontaneous” automatic nature of sanctification does

not involve with it our will, which “is not idle in the daily practice of repentance but

cooperates in all the works of the Holy Spirit that he accomplishes through us.”167 We do

not suffer sanctification. We read:

It is indeed true that both the Enthusiasts and the Epicureans misuse in
unchristian fashion the teaching regarding the impotence and wickedness
of our natural free will and the teaching that our conversion and rebirth are
the work of God alone and not of our powers. Because of such talk, many
people became dissolute and disorderly as well as indolent and sluggish in
all Christian activities, such as prayer, reading, and Christian meditation.
They say that because they cannot possibly convert to God on the basis of

While Luther makes clear that our wills are not uninvolved in sanctification and are disposed to
everything good, his words need to be clarified when he says that it is impossible for them not to be. He
writes: “Here, too, there is no freedom, no ‘free will’, to turn elsewhere, or to desire anything else” Martin
Luther, The Bondage of the Will, trans. J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston (London: James Clarke, 1957), 103.
What this does is destroy God’s creational ordering in which our freedom—our ability to decide against
God—, and thus our responsibility—the ever-present question of whether we will remain in relationship
with God—, defines our very humanness as socially and vocationally responsible beings. If Luther means
that the “impossibility” of our wills to turn away is because God’s imposition then he is mistaken; even in
heaven God will allow man to fall away—man is “free” in this respect. That in heaven we will not fall
again will not be due to “inability” but rather will be due to a will that would never want to—it is not that it
will be “impossible” but rather that it will simply never happen.
The Formulators write, much more beautifully than I ever will be able to, of the gracious work of God in
sanctification: “For, on the one hand, it is true that in conversion there must be a change—new impulses
and movements in mind, will, and heart. As a result, the heart acknowledges sin, fears God’s wrath, turns
away from sin, acknowledges and accepts the promise of grace, has good, spiritual thoughts, Christian
intention, and diligence, battles against the flesh, etc. For where none of these things takes place or exists,
there is no true conversion. However, on the other hand, because the crucial question concerns de causa
efficiente (that is, who accomplishes these things in us, and from where the human being acquires these
things and comes by them), so this teaching states the following: Because the natural powers of the human
being cannot do anything or help in any way (1 Cor. 2[:4-12]; 2 Cor. 3[:4-12]), God comes first to us, out
of his immeasurable goodness and mercy. He causes his holy gospel to be preached, through which the
Holy Spirit desires to effect and accomplish this conversion and renewal in us. Through the proclamation of
his Word and meditation upon it he ignites faith and other God-pleasing virtues in us so that they are the
gifts and the activities of the Holy Spirit alone. Moreover, this doctrine points us to the means through
which the Holy Spirit wills to begin this conversion and effect it. It also reminds us how these same gifts
are retained, strengthened, and increased, and it admonishes us not to let God’s grace have no effect in us,
but to exercise ourselves diligently in considering what a grievous sin it is to impede and resist the working
of the Holy Spirit.” Kolb and Wengert, 557-558, par. 70-72.
Kolb and Wengert, 561.

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their own natural powers, they want to continue to rebel against God or to
wait until God converts them against their will with his brute power. Or
they say that because they can do nothing in these spiritual matters but
everything is solely the work of the Holy Spirit, they do not want to pay
attention to Word and sacrament nor hear or read the Word. Instead, they
want to wait until God pours his gifts into them from heaven without
means, so that they can really feel and perceive in themselves that God has
converted them.168

We see therefore how this “absolutizing” of sanctification under the indicative, automatic

work of God leads to the “autonomy of the ego.” We see that, as in the case of the

Enthusiasts and Epicureans, when we ignore the imperative—that we are called to

respond to God’s words— man, in the best case, goes about his civil business with little

thought of God’s desire to work through him and his will, or in the worst case, man does

not “hunger and thirst after righteousness” (Matt. 5.6) because of the claimed

impossibility of its accomplishment through conscious attempts. When we ignore the

imperative, we, at the same time, reject the life God ultimately is calling us to which will

be fulfilled in heaven where we will live in his creation and in communion with him and

our neighbor.

Just as the absolutizing of the indicative alienates us from the relational character

ordained in creation between God and man, so too does the absolutizing of the imperative

lead to an independence that alienates us from the alienum. Under this error it is held that,

because Scripture continually calls us to righteousness, it makes perfect sense therefore

that, at least to a certain extent, we are capable of at least cooperating with the Holy Spirit

in sanctification. This is the: “I’ll do the best I can, and the Spirit will do the best he can.”

It is asked:

Does not the mere fact of the command involve a vote of “no confidence”
in the perfect tense of the gift? Is the gift not sufficiently powerful and
Ibid., 552-553.

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effective to assert itself in the new existence? Does it need the help of
subsequent co-operation?169

As Gerhard Forde notes, this reasoning will always lead to the autonomy of the ego. He

writes: “When one attempts to combine freely given grace with an empirical legal

scheme…everything will come to depend on me in the end, no matter how much one

talks about grace.”170 What this error fails to realize is that there is nothing “in” man from

which one can act in righteousness. This is what Adam and Eve failed to realize; that

there was nothing “outside” of God’s divine creational and sustaining order on which

they could define themselves. They knew that everything “they were and all that they had

came from him.”171 And yet, in spite of this, Adam and Eve proceeded to look outside

(and coincidently “inside”: homo incurvatus in se ipsum) the God ordained relational

bounds of creation in order to establish themselves under self-definition. “By attempting

to be like God, man separates himself from God. He forgoes the gift of freedom in favor

of self-establishment and self-centered independence.”172 So too, whenever we look to

ourselves for sanctification, this automatically involves an exertion of ourselves against

God. The Christian’s creational and re-creational status should sufficiently make clear

that we can attribute nothing that is “of ourselves” outside of God; we certainly did not

give birth to ourselves. Paul emphasizes this by “locating” everything in our rebirth and

renewal outside ourselves and solely upon God their sole origin. Paul writes: “Or do you

not know that your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit in you, which you have from

God, and you are not of yourselves? You were bought with a price; then glorify God in

your body, and in your spirit, which are of God” (6:19-20; cf. Rom. 14:8-9). The given-

Thielicke, Theological Ethics, 70.
Forde, Justification by Faith, 27.
Malysz, “Third Use of the Law in Light of Creation and the Fall,” 13.
Ibid., 14.

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ness of our new identity as the adopted children of God makes it impossible for us to

define ourselves outside of this “relational” status with God. Likewise, just as our

adoption makes it impossible to look to ourselves for self-definition, so too does every

gift of God make it impossible for us to view these things in isolation from the giver;

when we do, we cut off God’s ability to give in the first place. Therefore we see that,

though we may “will and do,”173 these things “are” only because they are given us, and if

they are given us how can we boast as though they were ours all along (1 Cor. 4:7)? As

John the baptizer clarifies: “A man is able to receive nothing unless it has been given to

him from Heaven” (John 3:27). So why do we look to ourselves, to whom the gift is

given (as if it comes “from” us), and not upon the giver, without whom we have nothing?

Paul is especially careful in this, that he does not point his congregations back to

themselves but rather keeps clear the “external-ness” of everything that is given, which

thus ultimately directs us to the giver himself.174 In all this we begin to see the

interrelation between the indicative and the imperative. The imperative (in its positive

sense) does not throw man back onto himself and his own agency, but rather points us to

Christ our sole agency—the indicative. This then affirms and restores God’s will to create

us as relational beings.175 There is no “positive” role in the imperative for us to look to

See section III.c.1.
Though we have been crucified with Christ and our lives are hidden with him, we are called to put him
on (Rom. 13:14). Though the new man “was created,” we are called to put him on (Eph. 4:24); i.e. he is not
a “part of us.” Though, along with the flesh, we have the Spirit who dwells in us, he never becomes part of
us (Rom. 8:9). We are not the armor of God from whom we receive power, might, and strength, rather we
are given the armor of God, from God, in whom we receive these things (Eph. 6:10-11). In this way Paul
directs our attention onto the giver and not onto the self, who is completely incapable of anything without
God (John 15:5).
Piotr Malysz writes: “Humans are created to love God, their fellow man, and God’s gift of creation. By
definition, they are social and vocational beings, relating to others in such a way as to further their good
through God appointed means. In so doing, they surrender their being in all its individualism only to gain it
back, in, with and through the being of another. Only by receiving and giving can they realize their
humanity. Only thus can they be human beings.” Piotr Malysz, “Third Use of the Law in Light of Creation
and the Fall,” 13.

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ourselves for its achievement. When we do see the sanctified life in this manner, solely as

an imperative that needs to be fulfilled, far from improving matters it actually accentuates

man’s autonomy of ego—his “out-of-relation-ness.” Helmut Thielicke writes:

Works can only intensify but never dissolve the incurvitas, as may be seen
again in Pharisaism. To this degree the imperative has no place here [in
man’s works]. For the imperative is a call for action. But action is quite
incapable of effecting the transition to the new man. Action simply throws
me back upon the old man: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver
me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24).176

This “throwing back” onto ourselves is the very sin of Adam and Eve, that is, trying to

establish ourselves outside of God’s relationally sustaining self-giving.

It becomes clear that, when it comes down to it, all of this, all of my

argumentation, is dependent on whether we acknowledge God as the sole effector of

sanctification, our causa efficiens, or whether we hold that man contributes, even in the

slightest bit, towards this end.177 There is admittedly good Scriptural evidence that would

support both sides of the issue. But if we are to hold to, as I believe, the Confessional and

Scriptural witness of God’s sole efficiency in sanctification, then we will need to further

analyze the intent of the imperative description of sanctification found in Scripture. Adolf

Koberle writes:

The paradox of God’s sole activity and man’s responsibility which is

found in sanctification as well as justification, brings with it an entirely
new conception of the New Testament imperatives whose importance and
frequent occurrence cannot be emphasized strongly enough.178

Thielicke, Theological Ethics, 86.
The Formulators write: “However, on the other hand, because the crucial question concerns de causa
efficiente (that is, who accomplishes these things in us, and from where the human being acquires these
things and comes by them), so this teaching states the following: Because the natural powers of the human
being cannot do anything or help in any way (1 Cor. 2[:4-12]; 2 Cor. 3[:4-12]), God comes first to us, out
of his immeasurable goodness and mercy. He causes his holy gospel to be preached, through which the
Holy Spirit desires to effect and accomplish this conversion and renewal in us. Through the proclamation of
his Word and meditation upon it he ignites faith and other God-pleasing virtues in us so that they are the
gifts and the activities of the Holy Spirit alone.” Kolb and Wengert, 557-558.
Koberle, The Quest for Holiness, 150.

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Both Helmut Thielicke and Adolf Koberle very perceptively divide the imperative

description of sanctification under a twofold significance.

The first significance of the imperative is that it is a call for us to consider

ourselves in a particular relationship with God. As Thielicke characterizes it: it is a

question of whether or not we will “drink from the right source,” that is, we are asked

whether we will relate ourselves to the Spirit or to the flesh.179 Our answer to this

question determines where we “receive the orientation” of our existence, whether from

the one or from the other.180 Thielicke quickly makes it clear that this idea of a “decision”

taking place must be “protected against the misunderstanding that what is involved in it is

simply a form of human co-operation or even autonomy.”181 Likewise Koberle writes:

“Our surrender to God does not come out of ourselves but from God’s promise to us and

from the renewing power of His Spirit, Who bears His own witness within us.”182 When

we consider the imperative in this way we can begin to see through Paul’s seeming

contradictions between his indicative and imperative statements.183 For example, we read:

It is only in these terms that one can understand the demand of Paul: “You
also must consider yourself dead to sin, and alive to God in Jesus Christ”
(Rom. 6:11). The imperative does not refer to the dying. Over this we have
no control, since Jesus Christ has died for us and we only receive the gift
of his dying and are drawn into it. The object of the imperative is that we
should take this death into account, take it seriously, and thus make the
gift become a gift in which we participate.184

Indeed all of Paul’s “indicative and imperative” statements, to use Herman Ridderbos’

terminology, can be explained when this significance of the imperative is taken into

Thielicke, Theological Ethics, 84-86.
Ibid., 57.
Koberle, The Quest for Holiness, 144.
See section IV.b.
Thielicke, Theological Ethics, 85.

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account.185 The command (imperative) becomes an invitation to partake in what is given

(indicative). Koberle writes:

Because Christ has taken hold upon us we are already partakers of His
resurrection, and for that reason the call [imperative] comes to us to
awaken the gift of God that is in us [indicative]. Because Christ died once
unto sin and we have died to sin in Him, sin needs no longer reign in our

Consequently, Koberle argues, “the commandments of the new covenant become

proclamations of the Gospel and witnesses to the sanctifying, regenerative power of the


The second significance of the imperative is for the Christian is to renounce

whatever hinders the work of the Spirit. While there is nothing in us that can contribute

towards our sanctification, we certainly are capable of preventing the gracious work of

the Spirit through the means of word and sacrament. Koberle writes: “In view of this

terrible dualism of flesh and Spirit the imperatives of the New Testament receive a

second significance.”188 Koberle notes that when Paul addresses himself to the natural

man, his commands take on a completely different meaning and emphases from their first

significance. He writes:

It is not by accident that they are mostly negative: to flee, not to be

deceived, not to despise the riches of His grace, not to harden the heart,
not to cast aside our confidence, not to turn aside from the living God. All
these prohibitions are intended to tell us that the flesh can never by itself
renew and quicken our will or understanding, but it can defy, reject,
destroy, and for that reason needs continued warnings, threats,
exhortations and coercion just as well as the man who is still under the

c.f. Rom. 6:4; 7:4; 12:1; 2 Cor. 5:14; 5:15; 7:1; Gal. 5:24-25; Eph. 5:2; Col. 2:6; 3:1; Tit. 2:11-12.
Koberle, The Quest for Holiness, 151.
Ibid., 152.
Ibid., 153.

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This second significance of the imperative is the total ministry of the law under their first

two uses—to reveal sin and keep us from its gross expression in which the Holy Spirit

cannot work. For obvious reasons this must keep a completely negative function. The

reason for this is that the law can only tear down and not build up; it strips man of all his

pretensions of his ability of establishing himself outside of God’s will and self-giving.

Werner Elert notes that the law “serves not in the construction of the new man but in the

destruction of the old.”190 This mortification of the flesh can never be characterized as a

progression and certainly never as growth in sanctification.191 Thielicke writes:

The result of a successful conflict here [against the flesh] cannot be that
actual cause is given for the emergence of the new man, but only that the
indispensable precondition for that emergence is not sabotaged, the
condition without which the new man remains embryonic.192

It should be noted that this function of the imperative also speaks against man’s

own attempts at self-sanctification in all its forms. Koberle writes that every attempt of

man to attain a moral goal is “always accompanied by an all-defiling, all-destroying pride

that whispers to itself, ‘My name be hallowed.’”193 It is always an act of idolatry:

“Countless are the altars at which humanity has brought its offerings to the ‘unknown’

God in the hope of reconciling Him and earning a claim to fellowship with Him.”194

Idolatry prevents the work of the Spirit because it sets something up in place of him; it

completely denies the Spirit his proper place. Paul writes: “you cannot drink the cup of

the Lord and a cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord, and a table of

demons. Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than He?” (1 Cor.

Elert, Law and Gospel, 36.
See section III.b.
Thielicke, Theological Ethics, 93.
Koberle, The Quest for Holiness, 22.
Ibid., 17-18.

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10:21-22; cf. 2 Cor. 6:16). Paul sets forth idolatry as a fruit of the flesh thus negating the

possibility of the “fruit of the Spirit,” because, “the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the

Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another” (Gal. 5:17-24). Because of

this, all of man’s idolatrous attempts at self-sanctification need to be torn down in order

for the ministry of the Spirit’s sanctifying work to proceed.

Thielicke illustratively summarizes the twofold significance of the imperative in

this way, he writes: “First, the imperative requires us to drink from the right source, and

second, it commands us not to keep our mouth shut.”195 If someone says that, since God

is the sole effector of my sanctification, I therefore do not need to exert any effort or

respond to his imperatives, this person, both, whether consciously or subconsciously,

rejects the life we are ultimately being called to, and does not understand that God did not

create us to be robots but to be relational beings who both hear and respond. On the

reverse side, likewise, the person who does not recognize that our ability to respond

comes from God alone, declares, whether consciously or subconsciously, that he does not

wish to live through the means that God has given him in his self-giving, but rather from

his own will and abilities. Sanctification is not either indicative, or imperative; it is not

somewhat indicative, somewhat imperative; rather, sanctification is both fully indicative

and fully imperative—you cannot have the one without the other. God desires us to

receive the life he is giving us—the indicative—and to live it—the imperative; the power

to respond to the imperative is not reflective of a life that has its sufficiency in itself, but

rather, of a life that receives its sufficiency, fully and completely, from God—our

indicative. From what we have seen, the response to the imperative is not some

“rededication” of ones self and efforts to the divine will; it is not: “Ok Lord, I’ll do it this
Thielicke, Theological Ethics, 93.

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time.” Rather the response to the imperative goes something like this: “Lord I can’t…but

you can, and you will.” Koberle adopts Augustine’s reasoning, writing:

Man has to “learn the greatest and most difficult art known on earth,”
namely, to gain the consciousness of being a sinner; he must learn to
regard his riches, his dependence on the results of his own efforts as his
poverty, and the poverty of a humble contrite heart as his true riches. Torn
from the heights of dominion and growth and life, and cast down into the
lowliness of decline and submission and mortality, man can only stammer,
“Forgive us our trespasses.”196

And from this knowledge of our complete inability to contribute anything towards our

justification and sanctification, Paul would likely continue by saying: “Look! See! Do

you see the cross? It’s Jesus! It’s Jesus who is our ‘righteousness and sanctification and

redemption’ (1 Cor. 1:30).” This is the perfect description of the Lutheran understanding

of law and gospel. A correct understanding of sanctification shows us that we are taken

away from ourselves, away from our old selves under the wrath and judgment of the law,

and places us with Christ within his redeeming work of the gospel. Sanctification takes us

away from the old Adam’s attempts of self-definition and autonomy and places us back

into God’s original creational-relational order where we live as the social and vocational

beings God created us to be.

Koberle, The Quest for Holiness, 28.

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