Scripture and You

Martin Luther's Dunghills

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

Luther's illustration underscores the vital difference between justification and sanctification, and the Christian's assurance of the complete redemption of both soul and body because of Christ.

Martin Luther was a preacher who used earthy illustrations. To illustrate the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and the crucial distinction between justification and sanctification - which Roman Catholicism conflated, to the damnation of souls - Luther would point his listeners to the farmers' dunghills in the fields of Germany.

Look at them, he would say - foul, steaming, stinking piles of refuse. Yet in the wintertime, he said, the snow completely covers the dunghills, and they look like beautiful mounds in the fields. But underneath the beautiful white snow, they are still dunghills!

And so it is, he said, with each believer in Christ. We wear the robe of Christ's perfect righteousness, so that we are really, perfectly, forever righteous in the sight of God. Our sin problem has been dealt with, once for all. But underneath that garment, until we go to be with the Lord, we are still sinners in bodies of flesh. We are still living in a world that is under the curse, and we are still doing battle with sin. Because the Holy Spirit has taken up residence within us, there is an inevitable and irreconcilable warfare between our flesh and God's Spirit.

To put the illustration in 21st-century terms, we might compare that warfare to the body's trying to reject a heart transplant. The transplanted organ is beneficial and life-saving to the body, but the body's natural defenses go to work to try to reject it as a foreign body. In the same way, the Spirit is a "foreign body" to the flesh, and the flesh constantly tries to "reject" the Spirit, this "foreign body."

As the Apostle Paul writes in Galatians chapter five, "the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish." This association of sin with the flesh is so complete that Paul in Colossians calls the sins of "fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness" our "members which are upon the earth" (3:5). In Romans chapter seven, Paul tells us out of his own experience. I do the very things that I now hate, Paul says, because of the presence of the Spirit within me.

And yet the Word of God makes it clear that you can take great comfort in this irreconcilable warfare within you, because it is a sign of two things. First, it is a sign of the fact the Holy Spirit in fact does live within you as the guarantee or down payment against the day of your ultimate redemption from this body of sin (Ephesians chapter 2). Secondly, the presence of this warfare in our lives demonstrates that the Holy Spirit is indeed at work conforming us more and more to the image of Christ (Romans 12:1-2; 2 Corinthians 3:18).

The religions of the East, especially Buddhism and Hinduism, teach that sin is associated with the body but not the soul. And so, they say, in order to be saved from sin, you must escape your body. But the glorious truth of Christianity is that God has promised salvation not only for our souls, but also our bodies. This alone is complete and genuine salvation.

Through the grace of justification, God in Christ has given us absolutely certain redemption from sin. Through the grace of sanctification, the Holy Spirit is bringing about ultimate victory over the flesh. God has given us a "golden chain" of promises in Romans chapter eight, verses 29 and 30:

For whom [God] did foreknow, He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He did predestinate, them He also called: and whom He called, them He also justified: and whom He justified, them He also glorified.

These promises are so certain that the Apostle Paul speaks of them in the past tense. He speaks of them as an already accomplished fact. They are so in the mind and plan of God.

For our citizenship is in Heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body [literally, our body of humiliation] that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself. (Philippians 3:20-21)

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. (1 John 3:2-3)

Those whom God justifies, He inexorably sanctifies, and He ultimately glorifies. Our sanctification is not complete in this life, but we have the assurance that God will, as Paul tells us in Romans 7, "deliver us from the body of this death...through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 7:24-25).


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