John F. Brug on Forde’s “Liberal Lutheran Sanctification”

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HT: Pr. Jordan Cooper

An excerpt from John F. Brug’s essay, “The Lutheran Doctrine Of Sanctification And Its Rivals”; all emphases original.


Unfortunately, the “Lutheran” section of Christian Spirituality is not Lutheran. It does, however, give us one sample of how the Lutheran teaching of sanctification is being distorted in contemporary Lutheranism. It is too bad that the editors did not get a more faithful representative of the Lutheran position, such as Harold Senkbeil. The spokesman they chose, Gerhard Forde, was a major contributor to the ill-named Christian Dogmatics, edited by Braaten and Jenson.

Forde’s doctrinal position provides a typical example of the ELCA doctrine of justification, which lacks an objective atonement for sin, and of the ELCA doctrine of sanctification, which effectively eliminates from sanctification both the third use of the law and the struggle against sin.

For Forde law and gospel are not distinct scriptural teachings which assert certain propositions. They are rather two different styles of communicating an existential religious encounter of the vaguest kind.

In his presentation of justification in the locus of Braaten and Jenson entitled “Christian Life” Forde’s downgrading of the biblical concept of the law was a major factor in his failure to present Christ’s work of atonement as a real payment for sin. Forde strongly emphasizes the unconditional nature of justification, but his version of justification is not founded on a real objective payment for sin, a meeting of the demands of God’s law.

Forde’s trashing of the biblical concept of law naturally also wreaks havoc on his presentation of sanctification in Christian Spirituality. He defines sanctification as the art of getting used to justification. This makes sanctification simply the enjoyment of our status as children of God. Forde dismisses from sanctification both the role of the law and the struggle of the believer. He classifies sanctification as the Holy Spirit’s work, not ours, in such a way as to virtually eliminate the struggle against sin which is prominent in the life of the believer according to the New Testament. Forde overstates God’s role as the acting subject of sanctification in such a way as to virtually eliminate the God “who works in you to will and do of his good pleasure.” In defining growth in sanctification as “coming to be captivated more and more by the unconditionality of the grace of God” he blends faith, the motivating power of the gospel, and growth in sanctification into a strange brew. His skillful use of clever words and false dilemmas produces a vague amorphous doctrine. Forde undercuts the believer’s effort in sanctification with his pet slogan, “We are not moving toward the goal, but the goal is moving toward us.” How does this square with Philippians 3:12-16?

Taken together Forde’s two contributions are an excellent illustration of the truth that a defective presentation of justification and a defective presentation of sanctification are natural, almost inevitable, companions. Antinomianism is the fraternal twin of antigospelism.

It is truly disappointing to see every respondent from the whole spectrum of Protestantism in a position to make valid and telling criticisms of the “Lutheran” view of sanctification as misrepresented by Forde in Christian Spirituality. At least the response of Ferguson, the Reformed spokesman, refers to “Dr. Forde’s edition of the Lutheran teaching.” Apparently Ferguson realized that he was not dealing with the real thing. The Wesleyan respondent was distressed by Forde’s “unwillingness to connect good works to sanctification.” The Pentecostal spokesman responds, “Instant prosperity and effortless sanctification both look wrong to me.” He classifies Forde’s effortless sanctification as a clear steer down the road to antinomianism. The Contemplative respondent notes that Forde’s inadequate view of justification is the core of his problem. How sad that many American Christians are getting their impression of Lutheranism through theologians like Forde.

Luther certainly emphasized the free grace of God as the source of forgiveness and the power of the Holy Spirit in us as the source of sanctification, but he never stopped preaching the struggle that remains in sanctification. In a sermon on Ephesians 4:22-28 he said:

It will do no good to think and say, ‘The doctrine has been presented. This certainly is enough, for where the Spirit and faith are found fruits and good works will follow of their own accord.’ For although the Spirit is present and, as Christ says, is willing and also at work in believers, still the flesh, weak and indolent is opposed to him. … Therefore we must not let people go on as if it were not necessary to admonish them and urge them through the Word of God to lead a good life. No, you dare not be negligent and remiss in this matter. (See Plass, II, 659-660)

Lutheran preachers would do better to listen to Luther than to Forde and the like.


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  1. Truly, the ELCA needs to remove the “L” from their name. They’re not Lutheran at all.

  2. So brilliantly written. Answered questions I’ve had for years.

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