Sanctification for Ordinary Life

There are many different ways to tell the story of the Protestant Reformation. A favorite centers on the heroic tale of Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk newly convicted by his discovery of Paul’s forensic

gospel, furiously hammering his ninety-five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. The Reformation is thus launched by a kind of medieval blog post about justification by faith that becomes the catalyst for a theological

action-adventure narrative filled with public battles, back-door intrigue, wily villains, and our lone Braveheart hero declaring “Here I stand!”

A different angle on the story of the Reformation—one that’s emphasized by scholars as diverse as Michael Walzer, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and, most recently, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor—sees the Reformation not just as a narrowly theological debate but more broadly as a Christian reform movement concerned with the shape of social life—with how we understand our life coram Deo, before the face of God.

The Sanctification of Ordinary Life

As Taylor tells the story, the Protestant Reformation was one of several “reform” movements in the late Middle Ages and early modern period that railed against the distorted social arrangements of medieval Christendom. In particular, the Reformation called into question the two-tiered religion that had emerged, with monks, nuns, and priests (the “renunciative vocations”) on the top tier and everybody else mired in domestic (“secular”) life consigned to the lower level as second-class spiritual citizens. The “religious” worshiped while everyone else just worked.

In this climate, the really revolutionary impact of the Reformation issued more from Geneva than Wittenberg; calling into question this two-tiered, sacred/secular arrangement, Reformers like John Calvin and his heirs refused such distinctions. All of life is to be lived before the face of God, they said. All vocations can be holy, for all of our cultural labors can be expressions of tending God’s world. There is no “secular” because there is not a square inch of creation that is not the Lord’s.

The result is what Taylor calls “the sanctification of ordinary life.” On the one hand, this has a leveling effect: the monk is no holier than the farmer, the nun no holier than the mother. “Religious” vocation is no longer seen as the shortcut to divine blessing; if anything, it is seen as perhaps spurning God’s good gifts. On the other hand, it’s not that the renunciative vocations are laid low; to the contrary, expectations for lay people are ratcheted up. Engagement in domestic life is no longer a free pass from pursuing holiness. Ordinary domestic life is taken up and sanctified, and renunciation is built into ordinary life.

So the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker are called to serve God, even as they are affirmed in their “worldly” stations. It is this interplay of worldly holiness and holy worldliness that Max Weber would later call the “Protestant work ethic.”

Worship isn't just something we do; it does something to us.

All of Life Is Worship

This “sanctification of ordinary life” is at the heart of the Reformation heritage. We are exhorted to do all to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). All of life can be worship. Whether we’re in the laboratory or the law office, whether homemaking or placekicking, tilling the earth or sculpting clay, all of our cultural labors can be expressions of praise to the King.

But this “all of life is worship” principle can be taken to an extreme, especially when conjoined with a sort of mutant Kuyperianism that is a tad vigorous in policing the boundaries between the “spheres”—a strain that is more Kuyperian than Kuyper himself! Since all of life is worship, the argument goes, then the gathered worship of the church seems, well, optional, perhaps even unnecessary. The library and laboratory are on par with the chapel, even preferred over the chapel. In this account, the “sanctification of ordinary life” becomes a directive to vacate the sanctuary.

Is that what the Reformers had in mind? Or is this a distortion of the Reformers’ impulse, like an extended version of the telephone game in which the Reformers first whisper, “All of life is sacred,” only to have the message garbled down the line until it finally comes out as “Who needs church?”

Expression and Formation

This overreaching of the “all-of-life-is-worship” principle is part of a bad habit we picked up after the Reformation: the tendency to reduce worship to expression. After the Reformation, and especially in the wake of modernity, wide swaths of contemporary Christianity tend to think of worship only as an “upward” act of the people of God who gather to offer up their sacrifice of praise, expressing their gratitude and devotion to the Father, with the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Obviously this is an entirely biblical impulse and understanding: if we don’t praise, even the rocks will cry out. In a sense, we are made to praise. The biblical vision of history culminates in the book of Revelation with a worshiping throng enacting the exhortation of Psalm 150: “Praise the Lord!” But one can also see how such expressivist understandings of worship feed into (and off of) some of the worst aspects of modernity. Worship-as-expression is easily hijacked by the swirling eddy of individualism. In that case, even gathered worship is more like a collection of individual, private encounters with God in which worshipers express an “interior” devotion. It is precisely this model that prizes “authenticity” so highly.

The same expressivism is behind those versions of the “all-of-life-is-worship” principle that sees gathered Sunday worship as basically optional. It is a “Reformed” version of the “spiritual but not religious” canard that waxes eloquent about the “church” of nature and the sacred experience of a mountain sunrise.

But throughout the course of its history (including the Reformation), the church has always understood worship as more than expression. Christian worship is also a formative practice precisely because worship is also a “downward” encounter in which God is the primary actor. Worship isn’t just something we do; it does something to us. Worship is a space where we are nourished by Word and sacrament—we eat the Word and eat the bread that is the Word of life. This understanding of worship is equally central to the Reformation heritage, and it is at the heart of John Calvin’s legacy.

If we fail to appreciate that Word and sacrament are specially charged conduits of the Spirit’s formative power, it would be easy to imagine that worship can happen just anywhere. On the other hand, if we appreciate that Christian worship around Word and table is a unique “hot spot” of the Spirit’s wonder-working power, then we will also appreciate that the sanctuary can’t be replaced by just any other space in God’s good world, for it is in the sanctuary that we are made into a people of praise. In communal worship we receive the unique promise of the Spirit that is tethered to Word and sacrament.

(In case any Kuyperian border patrols are getting worried, a reminder that Kuyper himself emphasized this same point might be helpful. The church as “organism”—engaged in cultural labor—works “in necessary connection” with the church as “institute”—gathered in Christian worship. Our immersion in the formative practices of gathered Christian worship around Word and sacrament form us and equip us to be agents of cultural renewal. The church as organism is no replacement for the church as institute; to the contrary, the organism needs to be nourished by the institute.)

Abraham Kuyper

Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) was an influential pastor, professor, and politician in the Netherlands who became Premier of the country in 1901. He is known for promoting a Christian worldview, stating that one’s beliefs ought to intersect with one’s personal and public life and God is active and sovereign in all spheres of life. Kuyper also gave some thought to worship, writing a book Onze Eredienst (Our Worship), which was translated into English by Harry Boonstra (Eerdmans 2009).

Sanctification for Ordinary Life

Christian worship gathered around Word and table is not just a platform for our expression; it is the space for the Spirit’s (trans)formation of us. The practices of gathered Christian worship have a specific shape about them—precisely because this is how the Spirit recruits us into the story of God reconciling the world to himself in Christ. There is a logic to the shape of intentional, historic Christian worship that performs the gospel over and over again as a way to form and reform our habits. If we fail to immerse ourselves in sacramental, transformative worship, we will not be adequately formed to be ambassadors of Christ’s redemption in and for the world. In short, while the Reformers rightly emphasized the sanctification of ordinary life, they never for a moment thought this would be possible without being sanctified by Word and sacrament.

Embedded in this intuition is a helpful, even prophetic, corrective to our triumphalist tendencies. The Reformed vision of cultural renewal can breed its own sort of “activism,” a confidence in our work of cultural transformation. In fact, we can sometimes become so consumed with “transforming culture” and pursuing shalom that our well-intentioned activity becomes an end in itself. We spend so much time being the church-as-organism that we end up abandoning the church-as-institute. Not only do we emphasize that all of life is worship, we come up with self-congratulatory quips that look down on worship as “pietistic,” as a retreat from the hard, messy work of culture-making.

But as Kuyper himself emphasized, there is no way we are going to persist in the monumental task of kingdom-oriented culture making if we are not being habituated as citizens of the King. As N.T. Wright once counseled in these pages,

God’s work in the world is never merely pragmatic. It isn’t simply “We can organize a program to go and do this.” If you think we can do God’s work like that, read the lives of people like William Wilberforce and think again. You can’t. You need prayer, you need the sacraments, you need that patient faithfulness—because we are not wrestling against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers and the world rulers of this present darkness (Reformed Worship, March 2009).

If we are going to be caught up in God’s mission of remaking the world, thereby sanctifying ordinary life, we need to be sanctified by the Spirit through Word and sacrament. If all of life is going to be worship, the sanctuary is the place where we learn how.

James K.A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he also teaches in the department of congregational and ministry studies.

Reformed Worship 103 © March 2012, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.