The Sanctification Debate image

The Sanctification Debate

Many readers will be aware that the last couple of months have seen some fairly heated debates, especially in the US, on the topic of sanctification, a fair bit of which has focused in on the ministry of Tullian Tchividjian. I'd been following it for a while out of interest, as you do, and then saw one of Tullian's odder articles - the one in which he says the parable of the good Samaritan isn't calling Christians to neighbour-love, but is rather pointing out that only Jesus can do it - doing the rounds in my church via social media, and realised that it wasn't just an American intra-Reformed discussion. Anyway: while that debate was at its peak, Kevin DeYoung (whose position has been pretty clear throughout) wrote an outstanding piece clarifying what the areas of probable disagreement were. He framed it by asking fifteen questions, the answers to which would probably separate Tullian from Kevin, and to which I've added my current answers (in italics). I'd be interested to hear yours.

1. Can we exhort one another to work hard at growing in godliness? Yes, and we should. Is striving in the Christian life bound to become an exercise in self-righteousness? No. It often does, though. What place is there for moral exertion and calling others to make a gospel-driven effort to be holy? Plenty. Read Hebrews: you’ve been made holy, so be holy. Or Colossians: you’re in Christ, so put on Christ.

2. Is there more than one motivation for holiness? Is preaching our acceptance in Christ and God’s free grace for sinners the only way to produce change in the Christian? Or are there many medicines for our motivation in godliness and many precious remedies against Satan’s devices? Many.

3. Is it right that we try to please God as Christians? Is the language of “pleasing God” legalistic and to be avoided or does it capture a profound New Testament motivation for godliness? It’s not just right, it’s vital. How could “we make it our aim to please him” (2 Cor 5:9) mean anything else?

4. Is God displeased with Christians when they sin? Is God ever angry with justified, adopted, born again Christians? Yes. Deliberately keeping on sinning seems to make God pretty angry in Hebrews 10:26-31, doesn’t it? Does he see our sin? Yes. If a Christian kills someone, it’s hard to see how someone could say God doesn’t see that, isn’t it? That doesn’t mean we aren’t righteous as well, though. Simul iustus et peccator, an’ all that. What is God’s attitude toward sin in the believer? God hates our sin, but still loves us.

5. Does God love all justified believers identically? Yes. Is it true that Christians can never do anything to make God love them more or less? Yes. How are we to understand our acceptance in Christ—static, dynamic, both? Both.

6. Is sanctification by faith alone? True faith is never alone, is it? We know that work has no place in justification, but what about in sanctification? Should we say that sanctification is monergistic or synergistic, or are these the wrong categories altogether? I think they’re the wrong categories: “energistic” would be a better word for it (Phil 2:12-13 etc). How are justification and sanctification different? Well, in Paul’s terms, they’re different ways of describing the same reality; in Reformed theology, they refer to different things altogether. That’s not always very helpful ...

7. Can we be obedient to God in this life? Is everything we do no more than a filthy rag in God’s sight? Is there a place for imperfect, yet sincere, pleasing obedience in the Christian life? Yes, obviously.

8. Are good works necessary for salvation? Yes. Necessary, and naturally produced as we abide in Christ. Do people go to heaven without holiness? No. What are good works and how do they relate to justification and glorification? We’re judged, and receive eternal glory, not on the basis of our works, but in accordance with them.

9. Is growth in godliness a legitimate ground for being assured of our right standing before God? Yes, but by no means the only (or even most reliable) one. The world is full of righteousness-pursuing earnest believers with very little assurance, sadly. Does God want us to examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith? Yes, because Paul says so. Should we look for evidences of grace in our life for confidence that we are saved, or is that tantamount to self-defeating, gospel-denying moralism? It should be the former, but it can often turn into the latter.

10. Is it moralistic to seek to improve in holiness of conduct and character? No. Is sanctification about getting used to our justification, seeing our faults more and more, or learning to own up to our weakness? Does the pursuit of holiness involve trusting and trying? Both, yes.

11. What is the relationship between law and gospel? Should all of the Christian life and the whole of Christian theology be understood through this antithesis? And is it always antithesis, or can we say that law and gospel, in the final analysis, “sweetly comply”? I’m not a Presbyterian, so I’m probably missing some layers of background to these questions, and I’m not sure I quite understand them. Rather than blunder on regardless, I’ll pass on this one.

12. Does gospel preaching include exhortations and warnings as well as promises and assurances? Yes. Can gospel preaching be reduced to “acceptance” preaching, or is there are a place for other kinds of indicatives in our proclamation of the good news? The latter.

13. Is the good work in sanctification produced in us by God also done by us in the execution of our willing and acting? Yes (again, see Phil 2:12-13; also 1 Cor 15:10). Is Christ the only active agent in our pursuit of godliness? No. How does God work in us and we work out our salvation with fear and trembling? I’m not sure anyone could ever answer this properly in one sentence, but 1 Corinthians 15:10 is a pretty good attempt.

14. What is the place of union with Christ in the order of salvation? How does an understanding of the duplex gratia (the twofold blessing of justification and sanctification) affect our approach to sanctification? How might the doctrine of union with Christ protect us from legalism and antinomianism? Union with Christ stops our righteous status from being divorced from our righteous identity in Christ, and the righteous living that this gradually produces. It keeps justification, sanctification, baptism, growth in godliness, perseverance and identity all together. Which is good.

15. Can we preach the law pointedly, not only for conviction of sin, but so that we might keep striving for greater obedience to God’s revealed will? Assuming “the law” means “what God wills” rather than “the Torah”, then yes - but always mindful of the danger of legalism. We know that law establishes the perfect rule for righteousness and that God wants us to walk in obedience to his commands, but is the only way to produce this obedience by the preaching of justification? No. Is the only way to accomplish the imperatives by preaching the indicatives, or can we also insist on the imperatives without apology? Yes. Without apology, but with care, since we know how quickly people will default to sliding back into legalism.


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