And, as Robert Jenson, whom Stanley Hauerwas says is America’s best theologian, writes in Story and Promise, what makes the God of the Old and New Testaments holy, in distinction from us, is God’s ability to make and keep unconditional promises; therefore, what constitutes God’s People as holy is not decency, cleanliness, propriety, temperance, or sobriety. What makes us holy is certainly not our obdience to a lifestyle deemed sufficiently “Christian” or “biblical.” The God who comes to us in Jesus Christ, eating and drinking and befriending sinners, was in no wise ‘holy’ and had not a few harsh words for those begrudgers who were so ‘holy.’
No, what constitutes God’s People as holy is how they relate to God’s unconditional promise.
Holiness isn’t about behavior but belief.
Holiness is trust in the promise of God.
Saints are sinners without a trust problem.
Ground zero for sanctification, in other words, is not prayer, spiritual disciplines, social justice, or abstinence from fill-in-the-blank. Holiness comes through learning to trust an unmerited, unconditional promise offered to you from another.
The reason I insist that the couples over whose nuptials I preside are Christian— baptized, believing Christians— is because they need to believe that the call and response of repentance and forgiveness that comes with every couple’s life is the only way they will be changed.
I use the passive voice on purpose.
The call and response of ‘I’m sorry/You’re forgiven’ is the liturgy of married life by which God sanctifies us.
We are made holy, we become more nearly the creatures God originally intended, not by ascending up to God in glory by way of our spiritual progress or pious practices. We do not grow closer to God or grow more like God through improvement. Once Jesus becomes your Teacher or your Example, Christ is no longer you’re Savior. The language of spiritual progress implies a gradual lessening of our need for grace the nearer and nearer we journey to God, yet the God who condescends to us in the flesh of Christ is not ever a God waiting for us to make our way up to him.
The God who came down to meet us in crèche and cross continues to forsake his lofty throne and comes down still, hiding behind ordinary, unimpressive words like “I forgive you.”
The words which justify us are the selfsame words that sanctify us.
God does not change us by means of us religion. God changes us— makes us holy, sanctifies and perfects us— through repentance and forgiveness.
We never advance beyond being sinners who are declared by God to be forgiven, gratuitously so. As Gehard Forde puts it, our sanctification is our getting accustomed to our justification. By returning daily in myriad ways to this news of our abiding sinfulness and God’s free forgiveness, we become holy, or, as St. Paul puts it, the holiness we already possess in Christ’s gift of perfect righteousness is unveiled to us one degree at a time.
Marriage is a primary means of sanctification because it is the crucible in which we most often are forced, through a life lived with another, for better and worse, to revist our justification. No one knows better than our spouse that we do not deserve the forgiveness extended to us. The wedding liturgy makes plain that marriage is an outworking of our baptismal vocation and what Luther said of the baptized life is nowhere more true than in marriage. It’s a daily dying.
What marriage does to a person— kills them, like the Law, to make them alive again, in Grace— is seldom we talk about in the Church when we talk about who can get married.
My very first theology teacher, mentor, and advisor at UVA, Eugene Rogers, who happens to be a gay Barthian, observes in his game-changing book Sexuality and the Christian Body, that at different times in its history the Christian tradition has focused upon different aspects of its understanding of marriage. The Orthodox Christian tradition, Rogers notes, following St. Gregory of Nyssa’s understanding, has understood marriage and sexual intimacy primariliy as a means of sanctification.
It’s possible then, Rogers argues, that there’s a greater risk surrounding the question of gay marriage in the Church than even traditionalists countenance. By denying LGBQT Christians access to the daily, embodied return to their justification (“I’m sorry/I forgive you”) the Church closes off to them not only the married life but the path to holiness. By forbidding them their daily dying, the Church just may foreclose for them an opportunity for them to be made alive again by the Great Physician.