Sanctification as Responsive Becoming

One of the core beliefs of Reformed theology is that the effects of sin are all-encompassing. The creation, the divine-human relationship, human-human relationships, the human-self relationship—all of these have been impacted by sin in significant ways. In terms of sin’s effect on the human person, Reformed theology articulates sin not simply as a disease or distortion, but as death. Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones looms large in the Reformed imagination: apart from the work of the Spirit, we are dead, dry bones. 

The implication, then, is that salvation means a dramatic resurrection. In Christ, we are made alive, and enabled to walk in newness of life. Reformed theology understands this to be both an instantaneous event and a gradual process: being saved means receiving the righteousness of Christ and thus being vicariously holy. And yet, until we die or Christ comes again, being made holy is also a process, as we do not once-and-for-all cease to sin. 

While Reformed theologians tend to focus on the moral implications of this process—what it looks like for our ethical activity, what righteousness is and how we grow in it—I’m interested in what this means aesthetically. What does it mean to become more beautiful in the image of the Son? What implications do sin’s effects on us and our world have on our aesthetic formation?

This question, combined with my interest in Calvin, took me to Responsive Becoming by Angela Carpenter. Carpenter engages with three Reformed theologians in her book: Calvin, John Owen, and Howard Bushnell (an order which reflects my familiarity with them, in declining order). Although some of Carpenter’s focus is outside of my interest area—she focuses on the connections of these Reformed theologians with child development/psychology, as well as evolutionary anthropology—I found her theological explorations fascinating. Her claim is that sanctification, while fading as a category of focus in recent scholarship (in favor of discipleship and virtue), “makes sense in terms of the kind of creatures we understand ourselves to be. Far from violating our humanity or mysteriously operating apart from our life stories, sanctification…is in several important respects profoundly consistent with our humanity.”

She attempts to hold together what Reformed theologians have struggled to: a robust account of the sanctification as the divine action and grace of God, together with the significance of human relationships and the ordinary ways in which people are formed and changed. In Reformed theology, affirming sanctification as the work of God AND the activity of the believer can be tricky to parse in everyday experience. What is the role of habits, disciplines, etc., particularly with Reformed theology’s significant anxiety about legalism and works-righteousness? Is sanctification the result of God waving a “magic wand” (Carpenter’s frequent phrase) to make us more like Christ? If we are recipients of the grace of God in the sanctifying work of the Spirit, are we passive? Does sanctification violate in some way our own agency? What difference does God’s work make, then, in our everyday lives? 

To answer these questions, Carpenter focuses on the analogy of the parent-child relationship to the divine-human relationship. In this, she follows Calvin, who understands adoption to be one of the most significant blessings of salvation. This relationship, Carpenter shows, is not only social but also affective: as a child responds to a loving parent, so the believer responds to God. She argues, “Once a person has been adopted as God’s child, through being engrafted into Christ, the divine Son, his basic posture to God is transformed and this transformation enables a new kind of human action. In the first place, the benevolence and generosity manifest in God’s loving action on behalf of humans inspire a corresponding gratitude and love for God.”

Of the new action that salvation makes possible, she says, “the most important of these actions is this repeated two-pronged moment, by which the person recognises a part of her life as of ‘the flesh’—of sinful humanity—and rejects it in order to embrace a new desire to live a life of holiness and piety. Only the person who believes that God has been merciful to her in Christ has the psychological resources to admit her own inadequacy. All others must resort to some form of self-deception…it is only the child, who has experienced the unconditional love of the parent, who has the resources to attempt the lifelong process of death and rebirth.”

And adding to much theological work that has articulated what it means to be developed or formed as a Christian, Carpenter, following Calvin, emphasises the importance of repentance for moral change: “Because of human sin, moral change for the Christian is not simply about either development or formation; rather, it involves conversation or transformation.”

Carpenter’s work covers a lot of ground, and addresses many fascinating issues within Reformed theology that I won’t go into here. Her conclusion, though, is primarily what interests me, as I think about its potential connection to aesthetics. She concludes: “We are fundamentally becoming creatures and we become in fellowship with others—in affective social relationship. Reformed sanctification, with its attentiveness to the heart and to the transformative power of divine love, also insists that we are becoming in relationship…The spiritual life, both communal and persona, instills an understanding of God’s love in Christ. But this fellowship with God does not thereby displace what we typically consider practices of moral formation (self-examination, confession, habituation, and so forth). It is instead their proper context, in which they are a means of sanctification.”

I love how she has articulated the process of becoming that is affective and social, and also fundamentally the gracious work of God. And while her focus is on moral formation, I’m so interested to explore what this might mean for aesthetic formation. In what way does our adoption as sons and daughters of God influence not only our own beauty (making us more holy/beautiful after the Son), but also how we perceive beauty? And what practices, situated in the context of our fellowship with God, are a means of this aesthetic formation?

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