A Question of Balance? Some Final Comments on Sanctification and the Role of the Law

Posted by

Again I want to express my thanks to my good friend Sean Lucas for his careful contributions to this important discussion.  Before audience fatigue sets in completely I do want to respond briefly to three issues he raises in his most recent post. 

 

First, I'm happy to see that Sean and I agree that the Reformed tradition has had difficulty achieving balance on these issues involving the relation of justification and sanctification, and I see little to disagree with in his characterization of the Puritan spectrum on this topic.  Also, my sense is that the explanations we offer for this are not mutually exclusive.  In my recent book I argued that when we seek to relate justification and sanctification directly, rather than through a third element (union with Christ), we will tend to accommodate one to the other and thus veer toward antinomianism or legalism.  Moreover, there are longstanding conflicts within the tradition over the conditionality or unconditionality of the covenant of grace--those who prioritize justification and the forensic emphasize unconditionality while those who stress sanctification and transformation emphasize conditionality.  And finally, those who stress justification and unconditionality are sometimes drawn to individualistic and immediatistic forms of piety.  Once one connects the dots these patterns of affinity are fairly clear.  In other words, this is not rocket science. 

 

Second, Sean says he is a "bit puzzled" by my comments about the dangers of trying to contextualize the doctrine of sanctification.  I suppose that we have been perplexing one another recently, and perhaps talking past each other as well, and so some further clarification may be in order.  When I wrote that I was by no means suggesting that pastors should not speak to specific needs of their congregations, nor was I recommending a one-size-fits-all style of ministry.  But I do get a bit worried when people say things regarding the proclamation of biblical imperatives such as "the law does not . . . have sanctifying power" (Tullian Tchividjian) or that my "prescription for pursuing holiness won't help these people" (Sean Lucas). 

 

As far as I can see, the Scriptural writers do not condition the proclamation of biblical imperatives on whether the audience is sufficiently grateful for justification. The biblical imperatives are to be proclaimed because they are important in their own right--they reflect the character of God and his will for his people.  For example, in 1 Corinthians 5 Paul does not stop to determine whether the fellow who is shacking up with his stepmother is suitably grateful for his justification before the Apostle lays down the law to the Corinthians.  The danger in what some of the contemporary "grace guys" are suggesting is that it can lead to what we might puckishly call a selective, "soup-Nazi" homiletic--i.e., "no imperatives for you today; you are ungrateful!" 

 

This, of course, raises a larger question of homiletic strategy.  Should we seek to be reactive or proactive in our preaching?   That is to say, are we as preachers and teachers called simply to react to the situation of our people (to the extent that we understand that situation) or do we seek to lead them toward balance and wholeness (note that in saying this I fully recognize that we have to start somewhere)? 

 

Here it is useful to contrast two great Reformers--Martin Luther and John Calvin.  A good friend and ministerial colleague in Greenville, South Carolina recently sent me a remarkable quote from Luther's Third Disputation against the Antinomians (thanks Matt!).  In it Luther speaks of how he had stressed the free promises of the gospel during the dangerous 1520s, but that in the 1530s the cultural situation had changed and he now found it necessary to proclaim the law.  A portion of it reads as follows: "But now, when times are entirely different . . . antinomists, as kindly theologians, hold fast our words, our doctrine, the joyous promises of Christ, and, what is worse, want to preach only them. And they do not observe that men have changed . . . that they are becoming and actually are secure and wicked, inconsiderate, thievish, yes Epicurean, and fear neither God nor man. And just these encourage and sustain them with their doctrine . . . Now our people want to take the sermons from a time of oppression and proclaim them in a time of security! That is not rightly dividing the Word (II Timothy 2) but to tear asunder and scatter God's Word and despoil souls" (quoted in James C. Spalding, "Discipline in its 16th Century Lutheran Context," ed. Carter Lindberg, Piety, Politics, and Ethics: Reformation Studies in Honor of George Wolfgang Forell  [Sixteenth Century Journal], p. 134).  

 

Now, Luther is clearly speaking of a reactive, contextual homiletic here, and I am inclined to give Luther a pass--after all, he was caught up in the Sturm und Drang of the first decades of the Reformation, and the polarities of his theological method (law vs. gospel, sinner vs. saint, the secular kingdom vs. the church, theology of glory vs. theology of the cross, etc.) did not lend themselves to balance, especially as Luther himself reveled in the apparent contradictions.  By contrast, John Calvin clearly sought to be more balanced in both his preaching and his theological method, and the much more consistent place of the law in his preaching over time reflects this concern for balance.

 

On this matter I must side with Calvin.  I firmly believe that balance in the Christian life is possible and that our people see the glory of God not only in the grace of justification but also in the demands of God's law and in the way that the whole of Scripture marvelously fits together--what WCF 1.5 calls "the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man's salvation, and the entire perfection thereof."  And to this end we must proclaim the whole counsel of God.  This means that we proclaim the imperatives of transformation as well as the gratuity of justification.  Furthermore, we must do this without separating them, for both are found in Christ.  Law without grace and mercy is just as unbalanced as grace and mercy without law. 

 

Third, Sean focuses on the question of motivation for sanctification as crucial here.  While, in my judgment, it is not the only issue in play in this discussion, it is indeed important.  Here I cannot but be reminded of that bit of nineteenth-century English wisdom, variously attributed to John Stuart Mill, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and F. D. Maurice, to the effect that "people are generally right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny."  As far as I can tell, nearly everybody affirms that gratitude for justification is a motivation for sanctification.  The question is whether it is the only motive and other motives are to be denied. 

 

Here I wonder whether Sean, in his contention that the "confession of faith makes it clear that the way the law moves us to obey is by showing us our sin and giving us a clearer sight of Jesus," has simply failed to read much of the WCF 19.6 paragraph that I quoted.  There we see that gratitude is indeed a motive but that there are other motives as well.  The law is a binding obligation (it "binds them to walk accordingly").  Furthermore, the law contains sanctions for disobedience that the Christian may incur in this life ("the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve, and what afflictions in this life they may expect for them, although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law").  Moreover, there are blessings promised for obedience ("The promises of it . . . show them God's approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof, although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works").  And finally, this section concludes with the very clear recognition that these additional motivations are fully consistent with the gospel ("so as a man's doing good, and refraining from evil because the law encourageth to the one, and deterreth from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law, and not under grace"). 

 

When we think carefully about this, the reason for these multiple levels of motivation is also quite understandable.  The problem of sin, despite Tullian Tchividjian's "indisputable" claims to the contrary (He writes, "What is indisputable is the fact that unbelief is the force that gives birth to all of our bad behavior and every moral failure."), is more than unbelief.  In Adam we are not only faithless; we are also lazy, undisciplined, mean-spirited, lustful, gluttonous, jealous, rebellious, and so on, and we need the law in its fullness to help us move forward in the sanctification process.  

 

In light of all this, I would humbly suggest that some recent efforts to depreciate these other functions of the biblical imperatives, even though this may be done with the good intention of magnifying the grace of God, are both sub-biblical and sub-confessional.  In short, let's preach the whole counsel of God, imperatives and all! 

 

Posted August 17, 2011 @ 5:59 PM by William B. Evans
End of year giving
reformation21 is the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting reformation21 and the mission of the Alliance. Please donate here.


Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Inc. © 2005-2016   |   alliance@alliancenet.org   |   800.956.2644   |   Frequently Asked Questions   |   Login