Crossing the Channel:John Locke and Sanctification

(Opinions expressed herein belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Fides Quaerens, its editors, or any associated organization.)


As the thought of the John Locke comes under renewed attack in our day, with many declaring the death of his liberal and theistic accounts of humanity, one is left to wonder whether the 17th century English philosopher has any hope of intellectual survival. There remains hope, however, of intellectual asylum for Locke in the same place where his physical respite was found over three centuries ago, the Netherlands.  Under suspicion of rebellious collusion, Locke fled England, spending five years in the safe political asylum of the Netherlands, composing and reworking his treatises on government while exploring the nature of human understanding. This strategic buffer  allowed him to then  return to the British Isles bearing gifts of classical liberalism and early empiricism, both of which would yield great fruit for the American Revolution and the thought of Jonathan Edwards.

But with today’s revolutionary overturning of all classical anthropology, one must wonder if a Lockean understanding of the will has crashed to pieces against the shores of postmodern accounts of freedom? It seems rather that Locke’s thought may find safe harbor in the late 19th century Dutch Reformed systematician Herman Bavinck.

Although Locke was theologically heterodox – indeed he seems to have been an Arian with an inconclusive view of original sin – his reflections on the will had remarkable influence on Jonathan Edwards’ theology of the will. It is these reflections that bear great theological fruit in conjunction with Bavinck’s account of the essence of religion. Together they prove mutually interpretive for how we think about sanctification.

In the first volume of his Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck writes, “...religion is not limited to one single human faculty but embraces the human being as a whole…” (Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1, pg. 268). His goal in the chapter is to refute both the likes of Friedrich Schleiermacher, who confined the essence of religion to emotional feeling; and the cold, lifeless formalists who elevate knowledge above the affections and the will. Though affirming that “knowledge is primary” Bavinck also recognizes that knowledge serves the affections and that those affections shape the will (pg. 268). For Bavinck, “the heart is the center of religion…” and because God is God, “he claims us totally, in soul and body, with all our capacities…” (pg. 266, 268). Because humans are heart and mind, body and soul, our religion is vain if God is not duly honored as such in all of our faculties.

True religion both acknowledges the objective content of God’s triune glory and is subjectively rooted in absolute dependence on that same God, thus seeking to serve him in total obedience. Right knowledge of God awakens right affections for Him and right actions flow in their wake.

Yet so often Christians, who have right knowledge of God, fail in their affections and choose lawlessness over God. How is it possible, considering Bavinck’s account of man’s religious life, to know rightly yet feel and live wrongly? It is here that John Locke sheds light on our dilemma in his discussion of the will.

In his treatise, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Locke discusses the relationship between happiness, the will, and desire. What controls the desires of man is “Happiness and that alone” (Book 2, xxi, 41). For Locke, desires are what determine the will’s choice. Therefore, anything that a man desires to do, he believes will make him happy. Desire “is an uneasiness of the mind for want of some absent good…” (Book 2, xxi, 31). This uneasiness of desire determines the will by driving the person to seek some absent good; whether it is the negative deliverance from pain, or the positive enjoyment of something pleasurable.

Yet it does not follow that the will chooses the greatest good all the time. Man is not a logical machine that objectively views pleasures and is thus always willing himself towards the beatific vision. For Locke, though a man may apprehend and acknowledge the greater good, the will is not determined to pursue it until his desire –uneasiness in its absence– is raised proportionally to the want of it. We act in accordance with what we think will make us the most happy, what can alleviate us in our present misery. In this way, Locke advocates a holistic understanding of man; one that, while retaining the importance of the intellect, does not view him as one of Descartes’ “thinking things”. Although Locke hasn’t explicitly mentioned religion in this passage, his understanding of the will proves illuminative to the oft-felt tension between what we know and how we live.

What is happening when a Christian sins? In light of Locke’s conversation on the will, a Christian sins when the supposed happiness –deliverance from misery or pursuit of pleasure– to be gained by sinful action leads him to act against the knowledge that greater happiness is obtained in obeying God. For instance, Bob yells at his kids when the perceived gain of happiness  –yelling in order to quiet their screaming– overpowers his knowledge of God’s command that fathers not provoke their children. For he knows the truth of the matter, it may even lie deep in his memory, yet the uneasiness of desire in his present state wins out over the more distant desire to please God.

In other words, the allure of sin creates a sort of double knowledge, a false reality. A man may know what is true, but indwelling sin, through the imagination, entices his heart by painting disobedience as the means to a greater happiness. So this false knowledge sets itself up against the knowledge of God (2 Cor 10), leaving the will to choose what the heart desires. The Christian, in one sense, knows that the greatest happiness belongs to those who delight in the law of the Lord, but the flesh and the devil assail his mind with the ultimately irrational promise of greater joy to be found outside of God.

According to Bavinck, the will acts when knowledge moves the affections, and per Locke, the affections and intellect work in tandem, as the mind seeks to be maximally happy, with the affections ready to cling to that promise of happiness. If sanctification then involves a war of desires, this explains why the Scriptures repeatedly speak of renewed minds and contemplation of divine things. Romans 12 implores us to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind” and Colossians 3 calls Christians to “set [their] minds on things that are above.” Regularly fix your mind on the heavenly, Paul teaches, so that your imagination might be filled with the reality of what is true, and your heart captivated by it. Returning to our Dutch host, Bavinck observes, “Jesus and his apostles derive the most compelling reasons for spurring them on to a holy life from what believers now are by grace through faith in Christ…” (Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 3, pg. 255). When Christians truly see with the “eyes of their heart” what  is stored up for them in Christ, sin will have lost its appeal in their lives.

More than just consuming raw data, followers of Christ must cultivate godly desire through godly imagination, in a battle to know the “riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Eph. 1:18). It’s the battle to walk “by the Spirit” so as to “not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). This walking can only be done with the “gospel of peace” as our shoes, and the Sword of the Spirit in our hands, fighting the allure of fleeting and false happiness with the truth that the greater happiness comes to those who “put on the Lord Jesus Christ”. As Bavinck writes, it is the “salvation granted and received in Christ” that is “the one mighty motive for a holy walk of life” (Vol. 3, pg. 256), our mystical union with Christ that enables us to “become what we are”, working with the strength God supplies. So, standing in Dutch company, let us take our cue from Locke, and raise our desires to the heavens. With godly imagination, armed against the principalities and powers, let us comprehend by faith that in Christ’s presence there is fullness of joy, and at His right hand are pleasures forevermore.


Jacob Rush is the Religion Editor of Fides Quaerens, he studies History of Ideas at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, MN.