Another plug for our publication, Grace In Addiction: What The Church Can Learn From Alcoholics Anonymous. For those of you who have yet to pick it up, do so now! Here’s a truncated version of a section that deals with matters of sanctification:
In Christianity, the term “sanctification” refers to the way in which God’s grace transforms an individual life. It is a topic which has divided Christians for centuries. AA has become a kind of contemporary think tank on the question, and has some valuable contributions and considerations to offer Christians.
First and foremost, recovering addicts would suggest that, in spite of newfound sobriety, the sober alcoholic still struggles with the same powerlessness (or bound will) that afflicted him in the midst of his drinking. Many Christians would instead suggest that, once a person establishes a relationship with a saving God, they become empowered, to one degree or another, to fend off temptation and self-centeredness through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. AA would look upon this claim with skepticism: “Once a pickle, you can’t go back to being a cucumber, even if you’re not sitting in the jar of pickle juice.” In other words, once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.
One gentleman put it like this: “I thought when I got sober that I was no longer going to be Bob, but guess what? I’m still Bob, even though I’m sober.” God’s transformative work in the life of a sober alcoholic has more to do with perspective and faith, than with ontological alteration. Or in more strictly religious terms, sinners remain sinful, even after they find salvation. The empirical evidence in support of this claim is overwhelming, though its implication is somewhat disappointing for the struggler who hopes all will be well once a life is placed in God’s care.
…Bob’s simple statement reflects an incredibly important insight that emerged in the 16th century during the Protestant Reformation. Simul iustus et peccator is Latin for: “Simultaneously Justified and Fallen.” Though this can sound obscure, the idea carries great weight and relevance in matters having to do with spirituality.
Martin Luther believed that the Christian stands before God completely exonerated of all guilt, treated by God as though his or her life is as righteous as Christ’s own. At the same time, Luther claimed that the person, in and of themselves, still struggles with themselves in exactly the way they did before they found faith. In other words, a spiritual person is simultaneously Saint (from God’s vantage point) and Sinner (from a human vantage point). Rather than being either good or bad, the Christian is viewed as both good and bad in the same moment. In contrast to so much modern Christian self-understanding, the sanctification of a believer is understood in classical Protestantism to be imputed, rather than infused or imparted. This is a fancy way of saying that God operates outside of and upon a human agent, rather than primarily from within.
A wise man in recovery once told the following story about himself:
Last week I got a resentment at my wife because she decided to file for divorce on the one year anniversary of my mother’s death. So I was angry at her, to say the least. In order to deal with that anger, I did what I’ve always been told to do in AA whenever I’m angry: I went to a meeting, and you know what? It didn’t help, …although it did. Then I helped out a new guy in the group who was having a rough time, and you know what? It didn’t help, …although it did. Then I called my sponsor and told him about the resentment, and he asked me what my part was in all of it, and you know what? That didn’t help either, …although it did.
In this way, the simul iustus et peccator train of thought finds an implied expression in the rooms of AA. When an alcoholic turns their life over to God in Step 3, they have made a permanent, life-altering covenant with God that will have inexorable pull on their lives from that moment until their death. This implies that once God begins a work in the life of the person He has chosen, they are incapable of resisting his overarching sovereignty, even if they kick and scream and do terrible things. Another priceless AA adage puts it this way: “If you give your lunch to a gorilla, you don’t get it back.” One’s ability to impact the world in a way that is negative is subsumed and superceded by the work God intends for that life.
It is as though each member of AA has two separate lives: one that they are aware of, which is a complete illusion, and another that they are predominantly unaware of, which is far more true in every sense than the one they perceive…
There is immense freedom in this picture of life: God is actively at work in your life for His greater good, even if/when it cannot be clearly seen or understood how or where He is at work. The things of life that seem trivial, meaningless, or even terrible, can in fact to be a direct channel through which God is bringing about his own glory. The protagonist still feels the same, and yet knows by faith that all has changed…
The ability to control God is completely written out of this equation. As one AA said to another: “Son, your life ain’t none of your damn business!” Faith and total abandonment to God’s will go hand in hand in AA. A life must be lost if it is ever to be found (Matthew 16:25).