Misconceptions about Justification and Sanctification

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I have benefited from reading the comments on the wide variety of blogs that have picked up the discussion between Tullian Tchividjian and me on the subject of total depravity, the Christian, and the doctrine of sanctification.  In some respects, these conversations are most valuable in terms of the interplay that takes place in the comments.  I have been helped by reading what people are thinking and want to thank those who have commented, whether positively or negatively about me.  I have found, however, a number of misconceptions that it may help to have cleared up.  Here are five points that I hope will clarify this discussion:

      1. Total depravity is not proved by arguing for the on-going presence of sin in the believer.  The point of total depravity is the spiritual inability of the sinner so that he or she will not and cannot respond positively to God through faith (Rom. 8:7; 1 Cor. 2:14; Eph. 2:1-3).  To say that Christians cannot be totally depraved is not to argue that they do not continue to wrestle with sin, sometimes profoundly.  The point that I am making is that while Christians will continue to sin, it is not because we must do so.  We have been freed from the reign of sin (Rom. 6:6-12), though not from sin's presence (1 Jn. 1:8).  As Augustine put it, whereas before our conversion we were not able not to sin, in Christ we now are able not to sin.

2.  Luther's wonderful formula, simil justus et peccator (simultaneously just and a sinner), is the Reformation doctrine of justification, not sanctification.  To use this response to questions of sanctification is simply to change the subject.  With respect to sanctification, Christians are saints (1 Cor. 1:2).  To deny being a saint, as well as a justified sinner, is simply to deny being a Christian.

3.  A robust approach to sanctification will not cast formerly discouraged believers back into despair.  It was a blessing to read comments reporting spiritual liberty experienced by an emphasis on justification through faith alone, in many cases through Tullian's ministry.  To then preach a full biblical doctrine of sanctification, however, is not to undermine their justification and cast them back into spiritual despair.  Justified Christians are actively to engage in Christ's work of sanctification, including a zealous warfare against sin and pursuit of good works, while relying on our justification through faith alone.  In other words, to emphasize Christian activity in sanctification is not to "leave justification behind," but rather is to engage in the kind of Christian living expected of justified believers by the New Testament (Rom. 12:1; Eph. 4:1; etc.). 

4.  To express concern about a de-emphasis on sanctification is not to question justification.  I saw one comment that compared my concern over sanctification to the hypothetical complaint of Romans 6:1, which suggests that justification through faith alone may lead to increased sin.  Yet I was making no complaint against justification but only about the teaching that Christians are totally depraved like unbelievers.  I point this out because there is a tendency to reduce every concern to an assault on justification.  It may help to point out that I not only have no problem with the doctrine of justification taught by Tullian, which is the standard Reformed doctrine, but in fact I positively revel in it.  My concern is to argue that Holy Spirit regenerated, Christ-reliant Christians should expect to experience growth, strength, and increased spiritual competence (however imperfectly) as the result of God's grace at work in their lives.  To encourage Christians to think this way is in no way an assault on their reliance on Christ's finished work for their justification.

 5.  Many comments suggest that to pursue sanctification seriously will undermine their assurance of salvation, since they are relying on justification through faith alone.  Biblically, however, the way to pursue assurance of salvation is not only to rest on your justification but also to advance in your sanctification.  Consider Peter's approach to assurance in 2 Peter 1:5-11 and John's approach in 1 John 2:28-29; 3:6.  In light of these passages we see that to downplay sanctification is to undercut a large portion of the biblical basis of assurance.

I hope these remarks are helpful in clearing up what I think are misconceptions about justification and sanctification.   Let me also point out that here I am not necessarily addressing things Tullian has written or believes, but have moved to what I hope is an edifying discussion of the thoughts emerging from the blog comments.

Posted December 6, 2012 @ 12:27 AM by Rick Phillips

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