Results tagged “sanctification” from Reformation21 Blog

Applying the Beatitudes


The Beatitudes, according to Matthew, mark the beginning of Jesus' public teaching ministry. They are the first things that Jesus emphasized as he proclaimed the Gospel of the Kingdom. Unlike Moses at Mount Sinai, Jesus began his Sermon on the Mount, not with commandments, but with promises of God's blessing on heart attitudes. He began focusing on the heart, doing heart surgery, wanting to reconstruct our hearts and bring our hearts in tune with his. The Beatitudes describe the foundational character qualities and family characteristics Jesus wanted to be at work in his people.

Sadly, it often seems that Christians today easily forget the foundational importance of the Beatitudes. Going by the evidence of public interactions between "Christians" on social media, blogs, public debates, publications, it's hard sometimes to see active evidence of the Beatitudes. But since these are the foundational teachings of our Savior, they are the heart attitudes that should govern, guide, and be evident in all our interactions. Christians then need to be regularly giving themselves to meditation and application of the Beatitudes as the foundation for Christian living.

Foundations for the Christian Life

Consider the following:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit"

- the foundation for a relationship with God

- losing hope in yourself and finding your only hope in God.

"Blessed are those who mourn"

- the foundation for repentance

- seeing the true grievousness of sin.

"Blessed are the meek"

- the foundation for faith

- quieting your soul to trust God in all circumstances.

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness"

- the foundation for Christian living and sanctification

- the pursuit of holiness in your life and in the world.

"Blessed are the merciful"

- the foundation for Christian relationships

- loving others as God has loved us.

"Blessed are the pure in heart"

- the foundation for Christian worship

- having a vision of God 'win out' over all other things.

"Blessed are the peacemakers"

- the foundation for Christian mission

- seeking to bring God's offer of peace to a hostile world.

"Blessed are the persecuted"

- the foundation for Christian perseverance

- knowing and following our Savior through many tribulations for the joy set before us.

A Guide to Prayer

The Beatitudes become a great guide to prayer - for ourselves, our children, our fellow church members, our neighbors. If you have children, you are probably aware of one of your children who needs to come to a poverty of spirit, or to a mourning over sin, or to a meekness of faith. You may know a husband and wife struggling in their marriage who need to grow in mercy and compassion towards one another, who need to apply the Gospel of peace in their home (James 4:13-18; 2 Tim.2:24-26; 2 Cor.13:11). You may know someone struggling in sin who has become defeated and complacent, who needs his hunger and thirst for righteousness aroused and who needs his heart purified in Spirit-filled worship to God again (James 4:7-10; Psalm 73:1-2, 25-28; 1 John 3:2-3; Deut.30:6). You may know someone being persecuted for their faith - in their workplace, by their family, on the mission field - who need prayer to be able to rejoice and grow in the steadfastness of hope (1 Pet.2:19-21, 4:1-14; Rom.5:3-4; James 1:2).

Questions for Self-Examination

The Beatitudes are a great source for self-examination, personal confession, and prayer. Here are a list of questions to ask yourself from the Beatitudes...


"Blessed are the poor in spirit."

  • Do I trust myself and my strength and my rightness too much? Am I often satisfied in myself?
  • Do I say, "I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing. But ... not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked" (Rev.3:17).
  • Or do I realize that I am poor and weak and desperate, and my only hope is in God?
  • Do my days begin on my knees, acknowledging my spiritual poverty before God?


"Blessed are those who mourn."

  • Do I only grieve over temporary things that inconvenience and affect me personally?
  • Or do I ever grieve more deeply, as Jesus himself did, over the ugliness and destructiveness of sin, over the dishonoring of the goodness of God, over the brokenness and hardness of the world?
  • Am I only 'sorry' for my sins, or am I grieved enough that I want to quit?


"Blessed are the meek."

  • Am I someone who is always defending myself, defending my rights, asserting myself, fearfully trying to control my circumstances?
  • Am I harsh and emotionally reactionary?
  • Or have I learned to submit to difficulties and trust God in all circumstances?
  • Have I learned to be humble about myself and confident in God so that I am able to respond to others with softness and gentleness and patience?


"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness."

  • Do I hunger and thirst for worldly pleasure and worldly recognition?
  • Am I complacent spiritually and act like I've arrived and I'm satisfied with where I am?
  • Or do I have new desires to be closer to God, to live rightly before him in the world, and to see his righteousness spread in the lives of others?


"Blessed are the merciful."

  • Am I too concerned about 'the letter of the law' and judgmental towards others?
  • Do I find it hard to forgive? Am I regularly impatient with those around me? Do I think that people deserve what they get?
  • Or am I more aware of my own sins against God, and the death Christ died for me to show me mercy, so that I am inclined towards mercy?
  • Am I a forgiving, patient, gracious, compassionate person because of Christ?


"Blessed are the pure in heart."

  • Am I complacent with impure thoughts and hypocrisy in my life?
  • Does love for myself and for the world often 'win out' over love for God?
  • Or am I actively seeking to 'clean my hands' and 'purify my heart' through repentance, worship, and devotion to Christ - making him first in all things?


"Blessed are the peacemakers."

  • Am I a fighter and thrive on conflict? Or do I passively avoid conflict at all costs?
  • Do I think I have to choose between truth and love? Do I think it's godly to fight, that I'm standing up for my convictions and am zealous for truth, but it's never motivated or presented with love? 2 Tim.2:24-26
  • Am I only a peace-faker or peace-keeper, but not a peace-maker?
  • Or do I actively and sacrificially seek to bring God's Gospel of peace, truth, justice, repentance, and reconciliation to the world with gentleness and love?


"Rejoicing in Persecution."

  • Am I a people-pleaser? Afraid to speak up, quick to back down, wanting everyone to speak well of me?
  • Do I 'seek' persecution by being obnoxious, not realizing that actual persecution only comes after the other Beatitudes - like humility, meekness, mercy, and peace-making?
  • Or am I willing to suffer to bring Christ and his Gospel to a dying world?
  • Does opposition and hardship overwhelm me? Or does it draw me nearer to fellowship and faith and hope and joy in Christ, with willingness to die to myself and show his incomparable worth, no matter the cost?

These are the heart attitudes of true Christianity and the life truly blessed by God, because they are the heart attitudes of God's own Son, in whom he is well-pleased. May we be transformed more and more into his image!

Matt Foreman is the pastor of Faith Reformed Baptist Church in Media, PA. Matt is a graduate of Furman University and Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He previously served as the Founding Chairman of the Reformed Baptist Network, is the secretary for the RBN Missions Committee, and is a lecturer in Practical Theology at Reformed Baptist Seminary. Matt also writes music for worship; some of which can be found at

Related Links

"Patience and Maturity" by Gabriel Williams

The Sermon on the Mount by James Boice

Sanctification: The Long Journey Home [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download ]

A Small Book about A BIG Problem by Ed Welch

Sanctification, ed. by Jeffrey Stivason  [ Print Booklet  |  PDF Download ]

Sobriety and the Gospel


In my previous post, I discussed how patience (along with the closely-related virtues of endurance and perseverance) is one of the most valuable Christian virtues in connection to Christian maturity. However, there is another virtue of the Christian life which, when duly exercised, will contribute substantially to our well-being as individual Christians and as a church body. If we are to pursue genuine Christian maturity, we must heed the exhortation towards sobriety.

I think that most Christians would think of sobriety primarily in terms of restraint from alcohol or other addictive substances. However, the scriptures give a fuller meaning of this virtue. 

Sobriety and Wisdom

Within the OT, sobriety is often depicted in terms of levelheadedness in judgment. For example, during Job's period of severe trial, Job sought to find and keep the proper balance between hope and despair, while his unwise friends gave exaggerated and lopsided explanations of Job's sorrows and of God's purposes. For this, the Lord chastises Job's friends (cf. Job 42:7), even as Job is commended for his level-headed judgment. In this sense, sobriety was a form of true wisdom. The book of Proverbs illustrates that OT saints were made well-aware of the importance and value of a mind and heart that maintained a sober and well-balanced view which was in harmony with the God's law and yet avoided extremes of judgment of action. This explains why impulsiveness, carelessness, and exaggeration in emotion are considered traits of folly (cf. Proverbs 14:5; 18:2; 29:11). 

The apostles build upon this OT background to define sobriety as freedom from every form of mental and spiritual drunkenness, which includes freedom from excess, inordinate passions, rashness, and confusion (cf. 1 Peter 1:13; 5:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:6). Therefore, the call to sobriety is a call to a well-balanced and self-controlled life and this call extends to all Christians and all stages of life. However, note that the apostles do not content themselves with the general call to sobriety, but address themselves in the matter to individuals and groups, listing Christians according to their calling with the specific application to their several needs. Consider the call of sobriety in our appraisal of gifts and character (cf. Romans 12:3), towards elders (cf. 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7-8), towards aged women (cf. Titus 2:4; 1 Timothy 2:9), towards young women (cf. Titus 2:5), towards aged men (cf. Titus 2:2), and towards young men (cf. Titus 2:2). Thus, sobriety is a necessary ingredient of every phase of our sanctified life and the very life of our church is conditioned by its influence. 

Fundamentally, the gospel itself makes sobriety an imperative (cf. Titus 2:12), which also explain why Christians are exhorted towards sobriety in light of the imminent return of the Lord Jesus (cf. 1 Peter 4:7). However, of what sort is this spirit of sobriety? Consider the excellent statement from renowned Greek classicist G. Murray in regards to the NT word commonly used to express sobriety:

"There is a way of thinking which destroys and a way that saves. The man or woman who is sophron walks among the beauties and perils of the world, feeling the love; joy, anger, and the rest; and through it all he has that in his mind which saves. Whom does it save; Not him, but as we should say, the whole situation. It saves the imminent evil from coming to be."

Christ: The Standard of Sobriety

How can we apply the above statement to Christian sobriety? We must first recognize that we are children of God by faith in Christ Jesus and thus, we are called to be imitators of Him. Our Savior's mind was a sober mind; a mind dedicated to and centered upon the one purpose of His life - namely to save His people from the dreadful course of their lives which must end in eternal death. Christ was truly man, and thus He was affected by hunger, thirst, pain, hostility, human emotion, and earthly needs. He stood against Satan and world, but He stood always for His people, whose substitute He had become in His Person. Because He was absolutely determined to saving us, every word and deed was intentional deliberate. He assessed every event, every act of others, every word and occasion from this posture. He did not swing wildly in His responsibilities, His feelings, and His expressions. 

Never did Christ compromise or ignore one jot or tittle of the Scriptures, yet consider how he varied His approach to men and situations. When a father implores Him in behalf of a demon-possessed son, Jesus meets the need immediately (cf. Matthew 17:14-23); however, when the Canaanite woman pleads for her daughter who is vexed by a devil, He deliberately delays (cf. Matthew 15:21-28). When the two sons of Zebedee approach Him with their strange request for seats of honor in His kingdom, the Savior chides them gently (cf. Matthew 20:20-24). However,  when Simon Peter attempts to dissuade Jesus from the cross, the Lord rebukes him (cf. Matthew 16:21-23). The Lord could attack the profaning of the Temple by money-changers with controlled indignation (cf. Mark 11:15-19) and admonish the Simon the Pharisee with measured patience (cf. Luke 7:36-49). In each and every case, we can readily see that the Lord's words and actions were carefully tailored to the saving approach which each circumstance dictated. 

Jesus is the pre-eminent example of sobriety, which has in itself the virtue of seeing in each case how Gospel truth, spirit and power will best be employed to promote a truly salutary result. Although we cannot hope to equal His performance, we can learn from it. For those of us who are Americans, we live in a society that is lives for the weekend and is oriented around entertainment and recreation. Our society is generally characterized by silliness, banality, and aimless hedonism, rather than the appropriate seriousness that comes from a saving understanding of the gospel. We must be especially careful not to allow this world to mold us into its likeness and to allow the lullaby of this world to cause us to fall asleep. As Christians, we are exhorted to take a sober stance at all times, in all our relationships with people, with events that confront us in our lives. This requires a circumspect, judicious mind which can properly evaluate the elements in a situation and respond to it in a sound and helpful manner. 

We must also be aware of the counterfeit of this virtue. The people of the world know of something similar to Christian sobriety, but the resemblance is no more than superficial. The world speaks of tact, of diplomacy, of being circumspect, of adapting oneself to situations, of the art of compromise. However, these traits are often done from a self-serving and self-seeking heart, which is the very opposite of Christian sobriety. True sobriety is intentionally directed towards love of God and love of man; it searches out and finds the point at which the converging lines of full and explicit obedience to the Gospel and of the true need of men meet, and there takes proper action in love. 

In light of the grace of God that has come to us, let us pursue maturity by living sober and godly lives in this present age as we wait for our blessed hope.

Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is Associate Professor of Atmospheric Physics at the College of Charleston, and writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.

Related Links

Sanctification: The Long Journey Home [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download ]

A Small Book about A BIG Problem by Ed Welch

Sanctification, ed. by Jeffrey Stivason  [ Print Booklet  |  PDF Download ]

Sanctification by James Boice  [ Print Booklet  |  PDF Download ]

Patience and Maturity


Over the past several months, I've taken a break from regular writing and blogging because I've been pondering the importance of Christian maturity. The apostle Paul himself stated that one of the central goals of his ministry was to "present every man complete in Christ" (cf. Colossians 1:28-29). This raises some basic questions: (1) What does it means to be "complete in Christ"? (2) Are we all aiming towards the same goal? (3) What is the role of the church and pastoral ministry in fostering maturity?

If we offered these questions to American evangelicals, I think that we would find that we often do not agree on these topics, and that many Reformed Christians would disagree with how those in our Reformed tradition have answered these questions.

A cursory glance of the New Testament shows that patience (along with the closely-related virtues of endurance and perseverance) is one of the most valuable Christian virtues in connection to Christian maturity. In the parable of the soils, we are told the seed in the good soil represents "... the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good hear, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with patience" (cf. Luke 8:15). The Apostle Paul tells us that God arranges the tribulations in our lives in order to produce patience (cf. Romans 5:3-4). Moreover, Christians are exhorted to be "imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises" (cf. Hebrews 6:12) with Jesus Christ being the pre-eminent example of patience (cf. James 5:7-10;

In contrast, our American society has been conditioned to expect immediate results. As Sinclair Ferguson writes,

"... we are encouraged to become replicas of the icons of our time, molded by the transient fashions they create. A pathetic sameness and unoriginality emerges as we are swept downstream in the flow of society's priorities."

In other words, we have a culture that is image-focused and impulsive, which is contrary to disciplines that are required to produce character. Consequently, we have a society that does not produce many men and women of character. There are few individuals whose moral integrity make them stand out from the crowd and are worthy of emulation.

However, If we were honest with ourselves, this criticism would apply to us as well. There are few Christians in our society whose integrity rises above mere societal norms. In what ways do we observe our lack of patience? First, we observe this in the lost disciplines of Christian piety, particularly of Christian meditation. Second, we observe this in the impulsiveness of Christian work and ministry.

Patience and Meditation

To put this bluntly, we fail to give enough time to prayer and Bible-reading, and we have largely abandoned the practice of meditation. The common feature of these three disciplines is that they require patience over an extended period of time in order to see their fruitfulness. For the Reformed tradition, meditation was a daily duty for every Christian that enhanced every other duty of the Christian life. Edmund Calamy describes daily, deliberate meditation as "a reflecting act of the soul, whereby the soul is carried back to itself, and considers all the things that it knows" and such deliberation dwells upon God, Christ, and truth like "the Bee that dwells upon the flower, to suck out all the sweetness."

The Puritans stressed the need for meditation because (1) it is a Biblical command, (2) the preached Word will fail to profit us without it, and (3) our prayers will be less effective without it. In reflecting of the practice of the Puritans, Joel Beeke writes, "As oil lubricates an engine, so meditation facilitates the diligent use of the means of grace, deeps the marks of grace (repentance, faith, humility), and strengthens one's relationship to others."

The consensus within the Reformed tradition is that it is impossible to become a stable, mature Christian without a diligent cultivation of piety through these disciplines. However, these disciplines are often treated as merely optional today. Some would say that this standard of piety is not practical for our busy world and is impractical due to shorter attention spans. While there may be an element of truth in this statement, we need to acknowledge two points. First, the truth is that we are frequently immersed and engrossed in our own personal interests for extended periods of time. Second, we should be honest to admit that the marked decline in these spiritual disciplines are tied to our expectations. In other words, we expect that spiritual growth and maturity should occur faster than it does, and we lose the motivation to continue when we don't see our desired results.

Patience and Impulsiveness

Impulsiveness among young Christians has always been a struggle; for this reason, God's purpose in the earliest part of our Christian life is to lay a foundation of humility and patience on which He will build in the future. Often, in God's providence, many young Christians to labor in relative obscurity as God uses trials and difficulties to build Christian character. If we examine the Scriptures, we will notice how often His preparation of individuals is slow (such as the lives of Joseph, Moses, and Paul). This is meant to train us to see that God's timetable is not our own and through this process, we will learn patience.

However, in our impulsiveness, we unwisely encourage new Christians--particularly gifted young men--to engage in public activities so early on in their lives that their spiritual growth becomes distorted and the quality of their long-term fruitfulness is diminished. This impulsiveness has only become amplified through the platform offered by social media. The learning of patience during times of obscurity has now been replaced by immediate public validation through social media and blogging. These dangers are not new to us; Paul counseled Timothy not to place young Christians at spiritual peril by exposing them to the temptations of public position and the attendant danger of pride (cf. 1 Timothy 3:6).

Our greatest need is to be patiently shaped by God's word and providence. If we are not patient here with the processes in which the Holy Spirit uses the word to transform us, then our development will be stunted and our fruit will be sub-standard. Is it any wonder that there are fewer Christians (and Christian ministers) whose life and doctrine are worthy of imitation? We cannot short-circuit God's purposes in producing godly character. Humble submission and patience are always required to see an abundant harvest.

These considerations also apply to Christian writing. Just like it takes time to produce godly character in our heart, Christian writing takes patience reflection, observation, and meditation to be useful. How much of our blogging and social media commentary is more of a reflection of our hastiness and impatience rather than a desire to honor God's word?

If maturity was the great goal of the apostles' ministry, then it ought to be a goal in our lives as well. Let us therefore pursue maturity, and become mature in Christ.

Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is Associate Professor of Atmospheric Physics at the College of Charleston, and writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.

Related Links

Sanctification: The Long Journey Home [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download ]

A Small Book about A BIG Problem by Ed Welch

Sanctification, ed. by Jeffrey Stivason  [ Print Booklet  |  PDF Download ]

Sanctification by James Boice  [ Print Booklet  |  PDF Download ]




This month, the Alliance is pleased to offer a free MP3 download of Discipleship from the Alliance Teaching Series. Curated from years of biblical teaching, Discipleship presents listeners with thirteen encouraging messages on sanctification, the Church, and the Christian life. Download your copy here! 

(Also available for purchase on MP3 disc)


Being Christian is more than a title; it's a total commitment, forsaking everything to follow Christ, acknowledging Him as Savior and as Lord. The Word of God preached and read is central to the life of a Christian. It is how He sustains us. It is the source of our spiritual life in Christ. As we study and are taught God's Word, we know Him more fully and we experience a growth in grace as we continue to persevere. This is being a disciple.

13 MP3 Messages:

  1. The Path of Discipleship, James Boice
  2. Regeneration: Beginning with God, Eric Alexander 
  3. The Marks of a Disciple, Donald Barnhouse 
  4. Ordinary Holiness, Michael Horton 
  5. Discipleship Tested by Doctrine, James Boice 
  6. The Cross of Discipleship, Philip Ryken 
  7. The Means of Growth, J.I. Packer 
  8. God's Word and Christian Discipleship, Jerry Bridges 
  9. Feeding on God's Word, R.C. Sproul 
  10. Know the Truth, D.A. Carson 
  11. The Obstacles: World, Flesh, and the Devil-Mortification, Derek Thomas 
  12. The Difference in the Church: Membership, Discipleship, and Discipline, Mark Dever 
  13. A Message For Our World, Sinclair Ferguson

Why Not All at Once?


Christ, by his perfect life, atoning death and resurrection from the dead, secures the believer's calling, regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification and glorification. Older Protestant theologians frequently referred to the order of the application of the benefits of redemption (i.e. the ordo salutis)--as set out in Romans 8:29-30-- as "the golden chain." Though it has been a matter of no small debate in recent decades, it is right for us to say that all the saving benefits of what Christ has accomplished for us by his death and resurrection become ours "distinctly, inseparably and simultaneously" when we are united to Jesus by faith. Nevertheless, there is still a logical order by which the benefits of redemption are applied to believers. 

There are some benefits that precede others in the order of the application of the redemption accomplished by Christ. For instance, Reformed theologians have commonly insisted that regeneration precedes faith and faith precedes justification, adoption and sanctification. An unregenerate man or woman cannot and therefore will not believe in Christ. John Murray explained the rationale for insisting on a priority of calling to faith and of faith to justification, when he wrote,

"God justifies the ungodly who believe in Jesus, in a word, believers. And that is simply to say that faith is presupposed in justification, is the precondition of justification, not because we are justified on the ground of faith or for the reason that we are justified because of faith but only for the reason that faith is God's appointed instrument through which he dispenses this grace...Calling is prior to justification. And faith is connected with calling. It does not constitute calling. But it is the inevitable response of our heart and mind and will to the divine call. In this matter call and response coincide. For that reason we should expect that since calling is prior to justification so is faith. This inference is confirmed by the express statement that we are justified by faith."1

As hotly debated as the ordo salutis has been over the past several decades in American Reformed Churches, we are still left with other important questions about the ordo salutis. While God confers all the benefits of Christ's redeeming work on us "distinctly, inseparably and simultaneously" the moment we are united to him by faith, they do not all come to us in the full experiential measure of those blessings. For instance, our sanctification is, in this life, an ongoing and progressive work of God; whereas, our justification is a once-for-all, declarative act of God. So, why doesn't God sanctify His people fully and immediately at the moment when he regenerates them or when he fully and immediately justifies them at the beginning of their Christian experience? Why doesn't God simply redeem and take an individual straight to glory upon his or her conversion? These are important questions to which we may supply important answers.

In his Reformed Dogmatics, Geerhardus Vos offered two profound answers to the question about why God does not confer the full realization of the benefits of redemption in our experience immediately upon our regeneration. First, he wrote,

"It would be possible for God to take hold of and relocate each one of the elect into the heaven of glory at a single point in time. He has His good reasons that He did not do this. There are a multiplicity of relationships and conditions to which all the operations of grace have a certain connection. If the change came about all at once, then not a single one of these would enter into the consciousness of the believer, but everything would be thrown together in a chaotic revolution. None of the acts or steps would throw light on the others; the base could not be distinguished from the top or the top from the base. The fullness of God's works of grace and the rich variety of His acts of salvation would not be prized and appreciated."2

In short, if God were to carry His people to glory immediately after redeeming them, the various benefits of redemption would be indistinguishable to us. We would not be able to appreciate our justification (i.e. the legal standing that Christ has merited for us by his perfect life and atoning death) from our sanctification (i.e. the transformation of the Spirit of Christ in the hearts of his people). We would not be able to see the contours of God's grace in adoption from his gracious work of justification. The application of the benefits of redemption in time allow us to appreciate more of the fullness of what Christ has accomplished for us by his life, death and resurrection.

Second, Vos explained that God chiefly applies the work of redemption slowly and progressively for His own glory rather than for the subjective desire of the creature for immediate satisfaction and blessedness. He explained,

"The opposite of all this is true. There is order and regularity in the application of salvation as well as in every other area of creation. The acts and operations each have their own fixed place, from which they cannot be uprooted. They are connected to each other from what follows and from what precedes; they have their basis and their result. Consequently, the Scripture gives us an ordered sequence (e.g., Rom 8:28-30). At the same time, this order shows us that even in what is most subjective the purpose of God may not be limited to the satisfaction of the creature's longing for blessedness. If this were so, then the order that is slow and in many respects tests the patience of the children of God would be lost. But here, too, God works first of all to glorify Himself according to the principles of an eternal order and an immanent propriety."3

As we come to understand more of God's divine wisdom behind the progressive nature of our sanctification and of the foregoing of the full application of the benefits of redemption until the consummation, we grow in our love for and dependance in the God who has redeemed us by His grace. And, we cry out, "Finish, then,

Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in Heav'n we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

1. John Murray Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1955) pp. 168-170

2. Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, trans. Annemie Godbehere et al., vol. 4 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012-2016), 1-2.

3. Ibid.


The Growing Christ


During the Christmas season, we rightly focus our attention on the marvel of the incarnation of the eternal Son of God; then, we lag into the final days of the year with regrets about the many ways we failed to be the kind of person we set out to be at the beginning of the year. We reformulate certain goals and desires that we will have for ourselves as we enter a new year, and we repeat this cycle that we have adopted for the better part of our adult lives. Perhaps this year, we could continue focusing our attention on the incarnate Son of God--especially with respect to what the Scriptures tell us about his growth from an infant to a boy to an adult in his work as the Redeemer. 

Of the four Gospel records, only Luke's tells us about the days between the birth and infancy of Jesus and the inauguration of his public ministry when he was 30 years old. In just 4 verse (Luke 2:39-42), 12 years have passed from the birth of the Savior. The only things that we know about Jesus in this 12 years span is that he "grew, became strong, was filled with wisdom; and, the favor of God was upon him" (Luke 2:40, 52) and that he went with his parents to the Temple every year at the time of the passover (Luke 2:41-42) and that he was submissive to his parents (Luke 2:51). That's it! We don't hear about any miracles that he did as a boy (almost certainly because he did none until he started his public ministry). We don't hear about his interaction with his brothers and sisters (though he would have had many interactions). The thing that Luke, by the Holy Spirit, teaches us is that the eternal Son of God experienced sinless growth and development as a real human being. 

In his excellent article "The Human Development of Jesus," B.B. Warfield explained:

"There are no human traits lacking to the picture that is drawn of him: he was open to temptation; he was conscious of dependence on God; he was a man of prayer; he knew a "will" within him that might conceivably be opposed to the will of God; he exercised faith; he learned obedience by the things that he suffered. It was not merely the mind of a man that was in him, but the heart of a man as well, and the spirit of a man. In a word, he was all that a man -- a man without error and sin -- is, and must be conceived to have grown, as it is proper for a man to grow, not only during his youth, but continuously through life, not alone in knowledge, but in wisdom, and not alone in wisdom, but "in reverence and charity" -- in moral strength and in beauty of holiness alike. Indeed, we find it insufficient to say, as the writer whom we have just quoted' says, St. Luke places no limit to the statement that he increased in wisdom; and it seems, therefore, to be allowable to believe "that it continued until the great 'It is finished' on the cross." Of course; and even beyond that "It is finished": and that not only with reference to his wisdom, but also with reference to all the traits of his blessed humanity. For Christ, just because he is the risen Christ, is man and true man -- all that man is, with all that is involved in being man -- through all the ages and into the eternity of the eternities."

Warfield was, of course, building on Irenaeus of Lyons' teaching on anakephalaiosis (i.e. recapitulation). Irenaeus explained this in the following way:

"Jesus came to save all by means of himself-all, I say, who through him are born again unto God -- infants, and children and boys and youths and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness and submission; a youth for youths, becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord." (Against Heresies book. 2.22.4)

Again Warfield explained that-with regard to His humanity-Jesus had sinless limitations. He wrote:

"Everywhere the man Christ Jesus is kept before our eyes, and every characteristic that belongs to a complete and perfect manhood is exhibited in his life as dramatized in the gospel story. All the limitations of humanity, therefore, remained his throughout. One fresh from reading the gospel narrative will certainly fail to understand the attitude of those, who we are told exist, who for example, "admit his growth in knowledge during childhood," "yet deny as intolerable the hypothesis of a limitation of his knowledge during his ministry." Surely Jesus himself has told us that he was ignorant of the time of the day of judgment (Mark xiii. 32); he repeatedly is represented as seeking knowledge through questions, which undoubtedly were not asked only to give the appearance of a dependence on information from without that was not real with him: he is made to express surprise; and to make trial of new circumstances; and the like."

This is, in no way, to deny that in His Divine nature, Jesus is omniscient. We must always keep in view that Jesus is  fully God and fully man. James Anderson explains the significance of both truths when he writes:

We're told that Jesus was omniscient (John 16:30) but also that he increased in wisdom (Luke 2:52). To be precise, however, we should say that Jesus was omniscient with respect to his divine nature and gained wisdom with respect to his human nature. On this basis, it seems natural to say that God the Son is timeless and unchangeable with respect to his divine nature but temporal and changeable with respect to his human nature. Since Jesus' death and resurrection pertained to his human nature, this standard Christological distinction suggests a way to reconcile the events of Jesus' life with the immutability of God. (see James Anderson, "Did God Change in the Incarnation".

It is also not to suggest that Jesus somehow lacked human consciousness that he was the eternal Son of God, Messiah and the Redeemer who would lay down His life a ransom for many. Geerhardus Vos rightly explained that Jesus' "destiny and conscious purpose were identical":

"Our Lord affirms that he came to give his life as a ransom. The verb 'came' belongs not merely to the first thing named--the ministering--but it belongs equally (as) much to the second thing named--the giving of the life by way of ransom: the Son of Man came to minister and to give. I beg you to notice this form of the statement sharply because many have tried to put upon it the weakening interpretation: Jesus came to serve and found, in the course of his life, that to serve to the full meant for him to die. But that merely makes the death the outcome of the service."

...Jesus did not live the greater part of his life in a naive ignorance and unconsciousness of the web of destiny that was being woven around him. In his case, as in no other case, destiny and conscious purpose were identical. Not only that he died, but that he meant to die for us, this constitutes the preciousness of the gospel story for everyone who reads it with the eye of faith." (Vos, "Sermon on Mark 10:45")

In order to be the Covenant-keeping, true Israelite and Redeemer of His people, Jesus had to learn more and more of His Father's revealed will in Scripture. He did so according to his human capacity at each age and stage of life in order to be equipped as a man to be the Redeemer of men. Jesus never studied in the Rabbinical schools like all the other religious leaders in Israel (John 7:15). But, we must conclude that Mary and Joseph faithfully taught Him the Scriptures from His earliest days. We know that He would have been in the synagogues often as a boy; and Luke tells us that He went with Mary and Joseph to the Temple every year. We find Him there as a 12 year old boy astonishing the teachers with His questions and answers about the Scriptures (Luke 2:41-52). Jesus almost certainly knew the Old Testament by heart. As I have explained elsewhere, Jesus read the Old Testament as the Covenant revelation of God written to Him and about Him. We have frequently rushed to this latter part and rightly rejoiced in the fact that Old Testament was written by and about Jesus, but have failed to see that, at the same time, it was written, first and foremost, to Jesus.

Foremost among those things that Jesus grew in his knowledge of through the Scriptures was that he had to suffer on behalf of his people. Jesus would have known that Isaiah 53 was speaking of him. When he met the two on the road to Emmaus, Jesus said, "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:25-27). In his post-resurrection appearances, Jesus appealed to what the Scriptures said about his sufferings and subsequent glories. He had, no doubt, learned of them as he read God's covenant revelation throughout his life. 

This leads to one final thought about the human growth and development of Jesus. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus "learned obedience by the things that he suffered" (Heb. 5:8). There was something in the experience of Jesus prior to his agony in the Garden and dereliction on the cross that he did not know prior to the experience of it. This does not intimate that there was any sinful imperfection in him. It merely means that he learned something by way of experience that he did not formerly know according to his human nature. John Owen captured the meaning of Hebrews 5:8-9 so well when he wrote:

"[Christ] can be said to learn obedience only on the account of having an experience of it in its exercise...This he could have no experience of, but by suffering the things he was to undergo, and the exercise of the graces mentioned therein. Thus learned he obedience, or experienced in himself what difficulty it is attended withal, especially in cases like his own. And this way of his learning obedience it is that is so useful unto us, and so full of consolation. For if he had only known obedience, though never so perfectly, in the notion of it, what relief could have accrued unto us thereby? how could it have been a spring of pity or compassion towards us?" 

Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men by becoming what Adam, Israel and we have failed to be. He did this by constantly taking the word of God into his mind and heart, thereby learning to conform his human will to the divine will. He also grew in his capacity to obey on account of the experience of the sufferings he endured. By doing so, Jesus lived the life that we haven't lived so that he could die the death that we deserve to die. Jesus was obedient in all things--not least of which was his obedience to his Father in laying down his life for his people on the cross.

Souls Always Need More Curing

David Powlison, in his excellent book Seeing With New Eyes, touches on the reality of indwelling sin--particularly with regard to what we believe and how it impacts our actions. Powlison rightly insists that all believers live in a tension between the flesh and the Spirit in this life. Employing the illustration of "competing voices" he writes,

"In each saint, the cravings and works of indwelling sin grapple against the Holy Spirit's desires and fruit (Gal. 5). It is no surprise, then, that in life stories you often notice competing voices jostling for the final say. A transcription of what takes place in a person's soul reads like a courtroom drama where different witnesses tell contradictory stories about what happened."

He then gives the following example:

"A man may repent of a criminal lifestyle and find genuine new life in Christ. But, at the same time, in the name of Christ he embraces a bizarre eschatological scheme and a political conspiracy theory. He may genuinely turn from violence and drug addiction--high hosannas! At the same time he may become newly self-righteous toward former partners-in-crime and adopt the abrasive manner of the person who led him to Christ--a Bronx cheer for such results. Souls are cured, but they also sicken in new ways. Souls always need more curing."

I was struck with the profound simplicity of the last two sentences. "Souls are cured, but they also sicken in new ways. Souls always need more curing." Who among us could be so blind to the fact that our souls are constantly in need of more curing? The reality is that most of us are not readily aware of our need for more curing--particularly when it regards a self-righteous attitude or posture toward others who are struggling with sins other than our own at present. This, in turn, reminded me of one of Jonathan Edwards' reflections on the reality of self-righteousness in the lives of believers. In his sermon, "Bringing the Ark to Zion a Second Time," Edwards wrote: 

"A man is brought, when converted, wholly to renounce all his sins as well as to renounce all his own righteousness. But that don't argue that he is wholly freed from all remains of sin. So no more is he wholly freed from remains of self-righteousness. There is a fountain of it left. There is an exceeding disposition in men, as long as they live, to make a righteousness of what is in themselves, and an exceeding disposition in men to make a righteousness of spiritual experiences, as well as other things...a convert is apt to be exalted with high thoughts of his own eminency in grace." 

This is, of course, squarely in keeping with the teaching of our Reformed Confessions about the nature of sanctification. For instance, Westminster Confession of Faith (Ch. 12.2) declares, "Sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part; whence arises a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh."

No matter how long we have been Christians, of this much we must be certain: Our souls always need more curing. The blood of Jesus never stops cleansing the consciences of believers. There is never a time in our Christian lives when we do not need the cleansing blood of Jesus and the purifying work of the Holy Spirit. There is never a time when we do not find "a continual and irreconcilable war" within. There is always more pride to be leveled. There is always more self-righteousness to be mortified. There is always more love, joy, peace, gentleness, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control to be nurtured in our lives. There is always more greed, lust, envy, laziness, sinful anger, bitterness, jealousy, gossip and slander that needs to be mortified within our hearts and lives. Our souls always need more curing. The good news? God has promised to cure the hearts of His people by the Gospel throughout the time of our sojourning here until He brings us to glory. Only then will we be able to say that our souls need no more curing.

Luther, Law and Love


Life is too short not to reap the spiritual benefit of reading Martin Luther's Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians. Archibald Alexander, the first professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, once said that this particular work was the most influential book he read during his formative years. While Luther was certainly a theologian in transition throughout much of his early years, his commentary on Galatians gives us the most robust and developed Reformational theology--the fruit of years of diligent theological study, wrestling with the text of Scripture in polemical dialogue with the medieval Catholicism from which Luther labored set the church free. 

Insisting that Martin Luther was antinomian (i.e. that he had no place for the moral Law of God in the Christian life) many have sadly misrepresented Luther's doctrine of sanctification. There are several rationales for such a mischaracterization. First, Luther made infelicitous statements about the Epistle of James, on account of the fact that he did not understand James' argument on faith and good works. Second--and in many respects related to the first--Luther spent a great deal of his time fighting against the Roman Catholic notion that love was co-instrumental with faith in our justification before God. Luther's relentless defense of justification by faith alone has often overshadowed all that he wrote on sanctification and the Christian life. Third, Luther tended to stress the role of the Holy Spirit as the agent and faith and love as the co-instruments of our sanctification more than he did the Law of God as a means of our sanctification. While Calvin often spoke of the law of God as a means of our sanctification, Luther tended to place his emphasis on the other elements of the process of sanctification. A brief perusal of Luther's treatment of the applicatory section of Galatians, however, shows how he developed his teaching on the place of love in the believer's sanctification with regard to the demands of the law of God. In short, Martin Luther did not believe that sanctification was produced in the life of a believer by a passive, inactive faith. He emphatically asserted otherwise, in his commentary on Galatians 5. 

When he came to exposit Galatians 5:6, Luther explained that there is a dual instrumentality of faith and love in our sanctification. He wrote:

"Faith must of course be sincere. It must be a faith that performs good works through love. If faith lacks love it is not true faith. Thus the Apostle bars the way of hypocrites to the kingdom of Christ on all sides. He declares on the one hand, "In Christ Jesus circumcision avails nothing," i.e., works avail nothing, but faith alone, and that without any merit whatever, avails before God. On the other hand, the Apostle declares that without fruits faith serves no purpose. To think, "If faith justifies without works, let us work nothing," is to despise the grace of God. Idle faith is not justifying faith. In this terse manner Paul presents the whole life of a Christian. Inwardly it consists in faith towards God, outwardly in love towards our fellow-men."

That being said, when he came to Galatians 5:16, Luther unequivocally denied that love plays any role in our justification:

"It is a great error to attribute justification to a love that does not exist or, if it does, is not great enough to placate God; for, as I have said, even the saints love in an imperfect and impure way in this present life, and nothing impure will enter the kingdom of God (Eph. 5:5). But meanwhile we are sustained by the trust that Christ, "who committed no sin and on whose lips no guile was found" (1 Peter 2:22), covers us with His righteousness. Shaded and protected by this covering, this heaven of the forgiveness of sins and this mercy seat, we begin to love and to keep the Law. As long as we live, we are not justified or accepted by God on account of this keeping of the Law. But "when Christ delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every authority" (1 Cor. 15:24), and when "God is everything to everyone" (1 Cor. 15:28), then faith and hope will pass away, and love will be perfect and eternal (1 Cor. 13:8)."1

And, while Luther took the strongest stand against the insistence that love plays any part in our justification, he came full circle back to defense the truth about love in the work of sanctification in his comments on the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:23. Luther explained his understanding of Paul's use of the phrase "against which there is no law," when he wrote, 

"One must beware of understanding him in a stupid way, as if the righteous man did not have to live a good life and do good deeds (for this is what the uninstructed understand not being under the Law to mean). But the righteous has no law, because he owes the Law nothing, since he has the love which performs and fulfills the Law."2

While this may not satisfy all the concerns one may have about a theological deficiency in Luther's doctrine of sanctification, a careful study of his commentary on Galatians is sure to put many of uniformed concerns at bay. 

1. Martin Luther, Luther's Works, vol. 27: Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 5-6; 1519, Chapters 1-6. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 27, p. 64). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

2. Ibid., p. 378.

The Statement on SJ&G Explained: Article 6, Gospel


[Editorial Note: This is the sixth post in a series of posts in which we have invited the authors of "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" to expound upon the statement's affirmations and denials. We encourage our readers to take the time to read through our prefatory editorial note at the beginning of the first post prior to reading through subsequent posts in the series.]

Article 6: Gospel

WE AFFIRM that the gospel is the divinely-revealed message concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ--especially his virgin birth, righteous life, substitutionary sacrifice, atoning death, and bodily resurrection--revealing who he is and what he has done with the promise that he will save anyone and everyone who turns from sin by trusting him as Lord.

WE DENY that anything else, whether works to be performed or opinions to be held, can be added to the gospel without perverting it into another gospel. This also means that implications and applications of the gospel, such as the obligation to live justly in the world, though legitimate and important in their own right, are not definitional components of the gospel.

Within the evangelical culture today marketing tactics often employ keywords as a means of increasing sales. There is no greater marketing term in our day than the word gospel. Many people believe that if they can somehow attach the word gospel to their product as a descriptor it will bring instant success. It's not uncommon to see people talking about gospel books, gospel marketing, gospel people, gospel diet, gospel music, and gospel issues. In the controversy on social justice, people are insisting that it's a gospel issue. In the same way that everything we disagree with isn't heresy, everything that we do agree with isn't a gospel issue.

The New Testament Greek word for gospel (εὐαγγέλιον) literally means "good news." While many have objected to "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" as being unaware of cultural evils and misinformed of how to approach the depravity of our culture, it really becomes a heated discussion when we insert the gospel. Some consider social justice a gospel issue while others would say that it's something that is acutely affected and influenced by the gospel. This is why implications, applications, and illustrations must be handled with precision and care. In most cases, both groups (woke and non-woke) evangelicals would agree on the gospel, but the real controversy comes in how the gospel is applied to a culture. In this case, the controversy is centered primarily in the denial of Article VI.

Defining our Terms

Paul made a definitive statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 as he penned his letter to the church in the city of Corinth. He provides a summary statement of the gospel by writing, "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures." In Romans 1:16, Paul stated that he was not ashamed of the gospel. Robert Haldane comments on Romans 1:16 by stating:

This Gospel, then, which Paul was ready to preach, and of which he was not ashamed, was the Gospel of God concerning His Son. The term Gospel, which signifies glad tidings, is taken from Isaiah 52:7, and 61:1, where the Messiah is introduced as saying, "The Lord hath anointed Me to preach good tidings."1

The glad tidings of God (gospel) involve the glorious mystery of God's mercy and saving grace that is granted to fallen sinners through the blood sacrifice of Jesus. What better message could we be identified by and what better message could stand at the heart of our ministry? God the Son took upon himself human flesh, lived a sinless life which the first Adam failed to do, and then was crushed by the Father on the cross in the place of ruined sinners. The message of the gospel points to the fact that Jesus proved his sovereign power by the resurrection and we cling to his work alone by faith for the remission of sin. His unconditional grace is granted to all who believe--regardless of the color of skin, economic status, sex, or intellectual capabilities of the repentant sinner.

Affirming our Denial

Any statement containing affirmations and denials will bring heat in the area of what the document is intended to oppose. In the case of the gospel, while social justice is not a "gospel issue" in the sense that it's not a definitional component of the gospel--it's quite possible to insert social justice into the gospel and thereby create a specific brand of heresy (Gal. 1:6-9). In the denial, the Statement reads:

We deny that anything else, whether works to be performed or opinions to be held, can be added to the gospel without perverting it into another gospel.

Within this debate on social justice, some people are suggesting that if you're not performing works of social justice (admitting systemic racism, oppression, and other injustices while working toward a solution) that you are not a true follower of Jesus.

Thabiti Anyabwile, in his sermon, "Preach Justice as True Worship" made the following statement:

"We preach and we do justice because we wish to be like our Lord and we wish to see his righteousness fill the earth. The pursuit of justice and equity does not take us from the heart of our Savior. The pursuit of justice and equity takes us deeper into the heart of our Savior. If we know God in Jesus Christ whom he has sent, then we have been instructed by wisdom. And indeed if Christ has been made to be wisdom for us, then as the proverbs say we ought to understand justice completely. We ought to understand that doing justice is essential to that worship that pleases God our father."

When I hear a statement such as this, I find so much with which I can agree completely. In fact, if you look at the whole article which comes from his sermon that's linked on the same page, you see a reference to Romans 12:1-2 and the call to becoming a "living sacrifice." If by "doing justice" Thabiti Anyabwile means that we should stand in opposition to sinful behavior, live righteously, and love our neighbor--I can agree with such a statement. If, by chance, Thabiti Anyabwile intends that we become socially and politically engaged while embracing the ideologies of white privilege, systemic racism, and the systemic oppression of women within our culture and specifically evangelicalism--I would reject his understating of worship. We can't teach Christians to assume the gospel and to emphasize justice and expect a good outcome. 

Bishop Rudolph McKissick, Jr. recently posted a clip of a sermon where the following statement was made:

"Social justice is a biblical's not a black issue, it's a humanity issue. It's not a hood issue, it's a global issue. And until we understand that Jesus himself said, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach liberty to the captive, to set free those who are oppressed." If that ain't social justice, I don't know what is."

Not only is that a misguided approach to biblical hermeneutics--it misses the point of Luke 4:16-30. A clear contextual reading of that account of Jesus in Nazareth will demonstrate that God often does the unexpected. Furthermore, the emphasis is placed upon the spiritual poverty and slavery to sin and how Christ delivers people from spiritual poverty rather than the social needs of individuals.

It is critical that we are crystal clear about what we believe the gospel to be, the basis of biblical worship, and the mission of the Church. If a person is not careful, mission drift can lead the local church and the local pastor off into the world of cultural Marxism and fairly soon the pulpit which was once the focal point of Christian worship is transformed into a political stump where humanitarian "do-gooder" talks are delivered to socially motivated people in the name of Jesus.

We are slaves of righteousness as children of God and we must live justly in a fallen world. However, how we live (for good or evil) has nothing to do with the definition of the gospel. How we live will be shaped by the gospel as James rightly articulated the point that "faith apart from works is dead" (James 2:26). We must not celebrate sin nor tolerate injustice--especially within the ranks of evangelicalism. Such an acceptance of evil would be the height of hypocrisy.

Tim Keller has recently spoken out against "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel," stating the following:

"It's not so much what [the statement] says, but what it does. It's trying to marginalize people talking about race and justice, it's trying to say, 'You're really not biblical' and it's not fair in that sense...If somebody tried to go down [the statement] with me, 'Will you agree with this, will you agree with this,' I would say, 'You're looking at the level of what it says and not the level of what it's doing. I do think what it's trying to do is it's trying to say, 'Don't make this emphasis, don't worry about the poor, don't worry about the injustice, that's really what it's saying.' Even if I could agree with most of's what it's doing that I don't like."

What exactly is the Statement seeking to do with its words? Is the document really seeking to marginalize people who genuinely care for the poor and mobilize relief efforts to care for such individuals in the name of Christ? Is it really true that the Statement is seeking to marginalize people who oppose racism?

The Statement does have several goals and one is to separate the gospel from social justice. In fact, it would be really helpful to drop "social" as a descriptor of biblical justice altogether. It's the gospel that changes the heart of fallen depraved sinners (2 Cor. 5:17). Only through the power of the gospel can a dead sinner be given life. This is a work of God's saving grace and we must remember that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ (Rom. 10:17).

How Does the Gospel Produce the Fruit of Righteousness and Justice?

The mission of the gospel is to bring depraved sinners into reconciliation with God (2 Cor. 5:17-6:2). Reconciliation only happens through the power of the gospel (Rom. 1:16). Preaching justice will lead people to fear the sword in the hand of the government (Rom. 13:1-7). Preaching the gospel will lead people to fear God who is bigger than the government (Rom. 3:18; 2 Cor. 5:11).

When Amy Carmichael went to serve in India, she was no jewelry-laden prosperity preacher nor was she a low-beam humanitarian aid servant. She was a high-beam bright light in India who served children and broken women with the gospel of Jesus. Yet, as she witnessed the Hindu suttee and heard the cries of women being burned alive (Hindu people believed that women should want to die when their husbands died, so as they burned the body of the widow's husband, they would place her on the funeral pyre of her dead husband) she engaged in the pursuit of justice for these women and labored to stop this practice. Her engagement was motivated by her gospel mission in India.

John Paton was convinced that the gospel had the power to change the heart of even the hardest sinner. As he penned his autobiography, he wanted to prove his point to the sophisticated Europeans who had a low view of the power of the gospel. As he recounted what he had witnessed in his ministry, he penned the following account of the conversion of Kowia, a chief on Tanna. When he was dying he came to say farewell to Paton.

"Farewell, Missi, I am very near death now; we will meet again in Jesus and with Jesus!"...Abraham sustained him, tottering to the place of graves; there he lay down...and slept in Jesus; and there the faithful Abraham buried him beside his wife and children. Thus died a man who had been a cannibal chief, but by the grace of God and the love of Jesus changed, transfigured into a character of light and beauty. What think ye of this, ye skeptics as to the reality of conversion?...I knew that day, and I know now, that there is one soul at least from Tanna to sing the glories of Jesus in Heaven--and, oh, the rapture when I meet him there!2

When Jim Elliot and his missionary partners never called out on their radio after their encounter with the savage Auca Indians in the jungle of Ecuador, the wives of these men feared the worst. After a search team was sent into the jungle to locate the men, they found their bodies. They had been attacked and killed by the Indians as they sought to reach them with the gospel. Less than two years later Elisabeth Elliot (the wife of Jim Elliot) and her daughter Valerie along with Rachel Saint (Nate's sister) moved to the Auca village. The once savage people were transformed by the gospel and today they are a friendly tribe. It was a commitment to the gospel that radically changed the Auca tribe even resulting in the change of their name to the Huaorani tribe.

As the local church is committed to the gospel (from preaching to discipleship)--hearts are changed and it results in a more just and equitable society. The Church of Jesus is committed to doing justice, but justice can't change a person's heart and biblical justice cannot be disconnected from the gospel. While justice is not the gospel, true biblical justice is connected to our God and you can't have the gospel without God. Social justice leads people toward humanitarian work and social engagement while the gospel leads the Church to put their faith into action. When the gospel changes a person's heart it will lead them to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly for the glory of God (Micah 6:8; 1 Cor. 10:31).

1. Robert Haldane, An Exposition of Romans, electronic ed. (Simpsonville, SC: Christian Classics Foundation, 1996), 55.

2. John Paton, The Autobiography of the Pioneer Missionary to the New Hebrides (Vanuatu). (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2013), 160.

Dr. Josh Buice serves as the pastor of Pray's Mill Baptist Church in Douglasville, Georgia -- just west of Atlanta. He is the founding director of the G3 Conference, the author of the theology blog Dr. Buice studied at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he earned his M.Div. and D.Min. in expository preaching.

A Prayer for the Church (Galatians 5:16-26)


Our Father in heaven, we rejoice to remember that hidden in the holiness of your Son, you count us holy in your sight. Not only as we pray, but as we live each day, you see us as saints, set apart by our Savior, for our Savior.

And yet we live in the hope that what we see by faith, we will one day see by sight. Surely you will understand us, Father, if we ask today for a foretaste of what we will enjoy tomorrow. Surely you will overlook our impatience if we ask that you would continue to work out in our lives the righteousness and resurrection power that is already ours in Christ.

Father, we know that what we will be, is also what we should be. And yet in our conversations we find ourselves biting and devouring one another - we worry that in the carelessness of our words we'll consume each other. We dream of walking by the Spirit. We wake, and once again gratify the desires of the flesh.

And so we ask that you would be our guide. Lead us away from swamps of sexual immorality, sensuality and impurity. Painful as it might be, expose our inclinations to idolatry and our secret openness to empty superstitions. Fortify us against open and scandalous sins, against drunkenness, even orgies, and things like them. Protect us in our friendships and keep our families from the evils of enmity, strife and fits of anger. We covet your assistance as we struggle with envious spirits, hidden jealousy, and unhealthy rivalries. Restrain the evil one, we ask; restrain ourselves: check our rising doubts, our rebel sighs, our bitter thoughts.

What we pray for ourselves and for our loved ones, we pray for your church. Shield your bride, and shelter her from the onslaught of her enemies. Keep her from the ugliness of dissensions and the deformities that come from divisions. Make her as holy as people poised to inherit the kingdom of God can be.

Father, we ask all of this. Dare we ask for even more? Will you let us see a season in our lives when the fruit of the Spirit will be evident to all? Will you make your church a place where love informs action, where joy runs deep, where peaceful hearts produce patient people? Will you give us the pleasure of seeing kindness amongst Christian children? Will you let us see a day where a quest for true goodness typifies our young men and women, where faithfulness is the hallmark of our marriages, where gentleness and self-control are the prominent features of our parents, of our pastors?

If we belong to Christ Jesus, please crucify our flesh, with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, please keep us in step with your Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. Let us become contented, promoting one another, elevating one another.

We come to you with these requests, because there is no one else who can work the wonders that we long to witness. We come to you, because you have redeemed us so that we might bear the fruit of your Spirit. To deny these requests would be to deny your own holy purpose, even your own self! So hear us and answer us for your own name's sake, as we confess you our one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN.

*This is the seventh post in Chad VanDixhoorn's series on "Praying Through the Scriptures." 

Andy Stanley, the Ten Commandments and Jesus


I recently wrote about a sermon that Andy Stanley, pastor of one of the largest churches in America, North Point Community Church near Atlanta, GA, preached titled Aftermath, Part 3: Not Difficult (you can watch it here). In the sermon, Stanley argues that Christians should completely unhitch their faith from the Old Testament. You can read my broad critique here ( but in this article I want to zero in one Stanley assertion that his message to Christians is "Thou shall not obey the Ten Commandments."

Contrary to Stanley's admonition, Jesus does not diminish the Old Testament law or its summary found in the Ten Commandments one jot or title. Rather, Jesus declared that he fulfilled the law (Matt 5:17-20). Therefore, Christians must not reject the law that Jesus fulfilled, but rather embrace it, allowing it, through faith in Christ, to shape how we live. Christians are the only people who can truly live out the purpose of the law. The law was not, and is not, to be thought of as a ladder to climb for salvation. The Ten Commandments reveal the impossibility of our being justified by works of the law and point us toward the fulfillment of the law's demands for us by our Lord and Savior. The Christian does not abandon the law Christ fulfilled but rather abandons love of law as a Savior (Rom 10:4).

Prior to the coming of Christ, the law functioned as a kind of prophecy revealing our need of the true and only law keeper to come. Jesus kept the righteous law perfectly, including the Ten Commandments, and clarified the law's meaning and depth for us. Apart from Jesus we cannot have a right understanding of the law of God or its summary in the Ten Commandments. The ethics of the commandments are a reflection of the character of God. This triune God reveals himself most decisively in his son, Jesus Christ. The moral vision of the Ten Commandments plays a central role in both Old and New Testament ethics.

It is striking that when Peter, James, and John saw Jesus in his glory on the mount of Transfiguration that they also saw Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. Moses was the great law giver and Elijah was the representative of the prophets. Neither Moses or Elijah spoke but rather everyone gathered there heard the father's voice declare, "This is my son, whom I love. Listen to him!" Clearly, the point of this awe-inspiring event was not a rejection of the law and the prophets but rather a visual demonstration of fulfillment of them in Jesus. What was written by the very finger of God on tablets of stone would be perfectly fulfilled by the living Word of God, Jesus. As Sinclair Ferguson has beautifully written, "The law-maker became the law-keeper, but then took our place and condemnation as though he were the law-breaker."1

The law in the Old Testament was never meant to be understood as an abstract moral code. The Ten Commandments were given to a people who had already been chosen and redeemed by grace. They do not begin conditionally, "If you will keep the following commandments, I will be your God." Rather, they begin with a statement of saving grace, "I am the Lord your God" and then continue with a recollection of redemption from bondage in Egypt: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (Ex 20:1-2). God's love gave redemption and God's love gave the summary of the law in the Ten Commandments. Through faith in Christ, the Ten Commandments provide Christians a path for enjoying God and living in the freedom he provides.

Whereas the Ten Commandments were the unbeliever's accuser; they become the believer's exhorter toward blessing. Before salvation they threatened and after salvation they provide loving direction. Only the gospel motivates faithful obedience but the Ten Commandments help guide the way toward obedience. Andrew Fuller wrote, "First, to prove that the ten commandments are binding, let any person read them, one by one, and ask his own conscience as he reads whether it would be any sin to break them Is the believer at liberty to have other gods besides the true God? . . . Every conscience that is not seared as with a hot iron must answer these questions in the negative."2

Martin Luther asserted that the Ten Commandments cannot damn one who has faith in Christ, but he also added,

However, the Ten Commandments are still in force and do concern us Christians so far as obedience to them is concerned. For the righteousness demanded by the Law is fulfilled in the believers through the grace and the assistance of the Holy Spirit, whom they receive. Thus, all the admonitions of the prophets in the Old Testament, as well as of Christ and the apostles in the New Testament, concerning a godly life, are excellent sermons on, and expositions of, the Ten Commandments.3

What the Ten Commandments teach about how we should relate to the true and living God (commandments 1-4) and fellow image bearers (commandments 5-10) has no expiration date. The Ten Commandments focus on permanent obligations for God's redeemed people. All of the commandments reflect the character and righteousness of Jesus Christ. Jesus is not a reflection of the Ten Commandments; the Ten Commandments are a reflection of Jesus. Thus, Jesus alone perfectly kept the Ten Commandments in thought and deed. Christ's person and work were not a reaction to an unrelated law code but rather Jesus, the eternal word become flesh, fulfilling his own personal word as the King of the cosmos--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To honor Jesus as Lord, we must honor his word.

Let's be perfectly clear, detaching oneself from the Ten Commandments is detaching oneself from the words of Jesus. To know the God of the Ten Commandments is to know Christ. As Paul explained to those justified by faith alone in Christ alone, "Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully" (1 Tim 1:8). Luther sums 1 Timothy 1:8 up well, "To sum up all of this: Use the Law as you wish. Read it. Only keep this use away from it, that you credit it with the remission of sins and righteousness. ... Good works are necessary and the Law must be kept, but the Law does not justify."4


1. Sinclair Ferguson, Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2016), 178.

2. Andrew Fuller, (1988). "The Moral Law the Rule of Conduct to Believers: A Letter to a Friend," The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Expositions--Miscellaneous, J. Belcher, Ed., Vol. 3 (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1988) 585.


3. Martin Luther, Luther's Works, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1-4, vol. 22, J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, eds. (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 38-39.


4.  Martin Luther, Luther's works, vol. 28: 1 Corinthians 7, 1 Corinthians 15, Lectures on 1 Timothy, J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds., (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999) 231-232.


A Functional Imperfect Perfectionism


There is a functional perfectionism that can subtly creep into the minds and hearts of even those who adamantly reject any idea of instantaneous sanctification in a believer's life. On one hand, it is altogether possible for us to convince ourselves that we have out-sinned the grace of God or that God is no longer at work in our lives, based on misunderstandings about the progressive nature of sanctification. We love the extraordinary observable expressions of growth in grace, but are plagued by the less spectacular and less observable works of God. On the other hand, we can convince ourselves that we are not that sinful because we avoid particular sins that we deem vile, while allowing myriads of "respectable sins" to go unchecked. 

In his Studies in Perfectionism, B.B. Warfield observed that a gravitation toward various forms of perfectionism rests on the insatiable desire for the immediate:

"Men are unable to understand why time should be consumed in divine works...Men demand immediate, tangible results...They ask to be themselves made glorified saints in the twinkling of an eye. God's ways are not their ways, and it is a great trial to them that God will not walk in their ways. They love the storm and the earthquake and the fire. They cannot see the divine in 'a sound of gentle stillness,' and adjust themselves with difficulty to the lengthening perspective of God's gracious working. For the world they look every day for the cataclysm in which alone they can recognize God's salvation; and when it ever delays its coming they push it reluctantly forward but a little bit at a time. For themselves they cut the knot and boldly declare complete salvation to be within their reach at their option, or already grasped and enjoyed. It is true, observation scarcely justifies the assertion. But this difficulty is easily removed by adjusting the nature of complete salvation to fit their present attainments. These impatient souls tolerate more readily the idea of an imperfect perfection than the admission of lagging perfecting. They must at all costs have all that is coming to them at once."1

When we are heavy-handed with other believers when they stumble, it reveals strains of self-righteousness in our own hearts. When we speak ill of other believers because they struggle with some particular sins with which we are not beset, we reveal that we believe that we have attained "an imperfect perfection." Martyn Lloyd-Jones exposed the way in which a standard of "imperfect perfection"  functions when he wrote: 

"We insist on judging ourselves and one another by particular sins, good works, talk, etc. These are our categories. We speak of people as being respectable or not respectable, or we speak of them in terms of certain particular sins and their precise way of committing them, thereby confusing the whole issue and forming only a superficial judgment.

Geerhardus Vos explained the phenomenon of the dilemma of the functional perfectionist, when he wrote:

"The perfectionists...will acknowledge that they frequently perceive the same thing in themselves--things about ourselves with which we are displeased and are humbled before God--but for them that cannot become a source for self-accusation, since their conscience does not cause them to recognize it as sin. From this it is clear, then, how it is not a matter of perfectionism but of a great imperfection in tenderness of conscience...Precisely this belongs to ongoing sanctification as a prominent part--namely, that our conscience becomes more and more sensitive about the least lack of conformity to the law of God, thus that the object of our self-criticism gradually shifts from the outside to the inside.

Whatever the manifestation of functional perfectionism, it causes us to lose sight of the biblical teaching on the progressing nature of God's work of bringing us our lives into conformity to the image of His Son. 

The idea that "men demand immediate, tangible results" is also observable in our day by a consideration of the many efforts to rid society of particular injustices. Where there are noble calls to end gun violence, abuse, political corruption, sexual deviancy, racial inequality, abortion, etc., men can unconsciously convince themselves that a complete purgation of cultural injustices is attainable in this life. In these demands, there is--no less than in the demand for our own consummate sanctification--a quest for immediate and tangible results. Ironically, those who strive after perfectionism in cultural sanctification often reject any notion of the possibility of perfectionism in personal sanctification. Many of those who reject the notion of individual perfectionism will "tolerate more readily the idea of an imperfect perfection than the admission of lagging perfecting" in the social realm.

There are pertinent lessons for us to learn from the lives of the disciples. We should never get over the fact that Jesus committed the work of the Kingdom to men who sinfully argued about which of them was greatest (Luke 9:46; 22:44), acted with selfish ambition (Mark 10:35-37), feared men (John 18:17-18), acted impulsively (Matt. 26:35), were easily angered (Luke 9:54), fell asleep at the most pressing of occasions (Matt. 26:40-45), forsook Jesus in his moment of suffering (Mark 14:50) and denied Jesus while he suffered (Luke 22:54-62). They were men with natures like ours (James 5:17). Even after the three years of being personally taught by Christ--and after the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost--Peter twice denied the Gospel (Acts 10:9-16; Gal. 2:11-21) and the Apostle John twice succumbed to the idolatrous worship of an angel (Rev. 19:10; 22:9).

On this point, Lloyd-Jones noted the comfort we glean from the failures of the disciples, when he wrote:

"I never cease to be grateful to the disciples. I am grateful for the record of every mistake they ever made, and for every blunder they ever committed, because I see myself in them. How grateful we should be to God that we have these Scriptures, how grateful to Him that He has not merely given us the Gospel and left it at that. How wonderful it is that we can read accounts like this and see ourselves depicted in them, and how grateful we should be to God that it is a divinely inspired Word which speaks the truth, and shows and pictures every human frailty."2

This, of course, is not to say that we should embrace failure, revel in disobedience or wallow in complacency. The Lord has redeemed a people for Himself who will be diligent in pursuing godliness (2 Peter 1:10; 3:14), in putting sin to death (Rom. 8:13) and in walking in paths of righteousness (Titus 2:11-14). However, it is to say that in this life we will be far from what we long to be and that which Christ will ultimately and instantaneously make us in glory. In the here and now, the believer must learn to say with John Newton, "I am not what I ought to be, not what I might be, not what I wish or hope to be, and not what I once was, [but] I think I can truly say with the apostle, 'By the grace of God I am what I am.'"3

1. Warfield, B. B. (2008). The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield: Perfectionism, Part Two (Vol. 8, p. 561). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

2. An excerpt from Lloyd-Jones' sermon on Luke 8:22-25.

3. Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, trans. Annemie Godbehere et al., vol. 4 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012-2016), 206.

3. Josiah Bull John Newton: An Autobiography and Narrative (London: The Religious Tract Society) p. 334


Looming Debate Over SSA


These days, it seems that almost every week social media uncovers another eruption along the Presbyterian Church in America's (PCA) volcanic fault line between social accommodation/compassion and biblical obedience. This week, a conference promoting strategies to address same sex attraction (SSA) has raised heads and provoked comment. This particular event seems to be a laudable attempt to balance the tension: while calling for a compassionate acceptance of SSA Christians it also makes clear statements in support of biblical marriage and takes a position against homosexual behavior that most people in our society would consider fundamentalist. Conservatives should therefore refrain from drawing the worst possible implications from what seems to be a thoughtful and responsible attempt to address this major cultural touchstone.

While avoiding hysterical division, we can at the same time note that a major question mark hangs over the normalization of SSA as a Christian category. It seems that there is a growing consensus in the PCA that we can and must distinguish between one's sexual orientation and sinful desires. The alternative would seem to be that we tell men and women struggling with homosexuality that what they consider a part of who they are is sinful and (as some would have it) subject them to tortuous rehabilitation techniques that probably include electric shock. The bridge, therefore, between compassion and biblical fidelity is to embrace "gay in Christ" as a normal and wholesome category and then help our LGBTQ brothers and sisters live celibately with these desires.

One problem with this love-motivated strategy is that it collapses under the weight of Scripture. The biblical argument in favor of SSA acceptance goes like this: we always distinguish between desire and temptation. A heterosexual may sinlessly experience an attraction to a member of the opposite sex without giving in to lust. The same must therefore be the case for a homosexual. The orientation is not necessarily sinful, while the desire represents a temptation to be avoided. The key issue is behavior: does the person (heterosexual or homosexual) give in to temptation and commit the sin?

A first criticism of this approach will note that it fails to apply the Bible's vastly different approach to homosexuality versus heterosexuality, only one of which can ever be sinless. But the major problem is that the Bible does not distinguish between orientation and desire, while instead categorizing desire as temptation. Biblically, temptation is the outward circumstance that prompts desire into sin. But desire for sin itself is an expression of our sinful nature. Bible-believing churches take this approach to virtually every sin other than homosexuality (it is often pointed out that we would never take the pro-SSA approach to racism, for instance). A biblically accurate approach to homosexuality must therefore be congruent with our understanding of sin in general.

One key text is James 1:14-15: "each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.  Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death." Notice that James does not equate desire and temptation but distinguishes them. Desire is the inward disposition toward a given sin. As James sees it, the key issue is not temptation but desire: until desire is sanctified by the grace of Christ, temptation is going to produce sinful behavior. Epithumia, the Greek word translated as "desire" identifies an inward impulse and almost always has a sinful connotation (see Rom. 7:7-8, Gal. 5:17, Col. 3:5, and 1 Thess. 4:5). Therefore, to isolate orientation from sinful desire in simply contrary to Scripture.

Theologically, the key term is concupiscence, which comes to us from Roman Catholic theology. The Latin Vulgate translated epithumia with concupiscentia, viewing it as a pre-sin orientation or disposition. The Protestant Reformation found no biblical support for a sinless orientation to sin and equated concupiscence with original sin. So, as is usually the case, we are not left to ourselves to sort out the question of SSA. Both biblically and in Reformed theology, orientation and desire cannot be separated; together, they must be cleansed by Christ and mortified by the Christian. (For valuable articles on the topic of concupiscence, see R. Scott Clark and Derek Thomas). Herman Bavinck pointed out that the rooting of sin in the will, apart from the fallen nature, is the impulse of rationalism, not the Bible. He noted that under secular humanism, "the basic idea was always that sin is not rooted in a nature and is not a disposition or a state, but always an act of the will."1 As for any idea that God approvingly endorses any orientation to sin, Bavinck responded as follows:

"Not only does Scripture testify against this view, but the moral consciousness of all humans rises up in protest against it. Sin may be whatever it is, but one thing is certain: God is the Righteous and Holy One who prohibits it in his law, witnesses against it in the human conscience, and visits it with punishments and judgments."2

This leads to the second problem with the loving attempt to embrace SSA but deny homosexual behavior: it collides with reality. If the desire for sin is unmortified (Col. 3:5), then it will produce sinful behavior when presented with temptation. Here is the quandary well-meaning pro-SSA churches are going to have to face: can you really embrace the desire as unsinful and persist in condemning the behavior as sinful? For some churches today, the answer is No. Indeed, this is the testimony of those PCA churches who have left our denomination for LGBT-affirmning communions. They argue that it is unloving to consign people who for no fault of their own are same sex attraction to a life of sexless loneliness and they can no longer bring themselves to refuse church membership (and, with it, leadership) on this basis. Yet the biblical and practical reality is that desire and behavior cannot be separated. This is why Solomon urged us never to rest comfortably with corruptions in the heart, but urged: "Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life" (Prov. 4:23).

So what is the alternative? Must we choose between biblical fidelity and Christ-like compassion? The answer is No - a thousand times, No! For refusing this alternative, we should appreciate PCA churches who seek to minister to the homosexual community while still upholding biblical marriage and sexual behavior. Their problem is that affirming SSA as a Christian category - "gay in Christ" - is both biblically inaccurate and humanly unrealistic. What else, then? The what else for the homosexual question turns out to be the same as for every other sin. I know of no one who would affirm an orientation toward idol-worship, blasphemy, violence, laziness, stealing, lying, or covetousness (I'm perusing the Ten Commandments, you will observe). So why would we take a more positive position towards homosexual desire than any other sinful desire, especially when the Bible speaks with particular stridence when it comes to sexual sins against the created order? The answer is that for the love of God and man we should not.

Can we not affirm the person who struggles with homosexual desires? We absolutely can, just as we can affirm all persons who struggle with sin tendencies (and that is all persons!). But normalizing the desire is no help to anyone. We call them to repent of the desire, including the prayerful pursuit of biblical norms and the wise avoidance of tempting circumstances. We recognize that while God will bless this pursuit in his own timing, he is certain to do so (if not sooner, then in heaven). Then we love them with insight and compassionate action, requiring nothing more than faith in Christ, while acknowledging that repentance from sin is integrally joined to that faith for every Christian.

In short, true compassion will not be achieved in the affirmation of desires that the Bible forbids. True compassion embraces the biblical bridge between biblical compassion and truth, and does so by holding out a holy identity in union with Christ and in the experience of his cleansing grace. We find this very approach in the apostle Paul:

Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.  And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:9-11).

1. An excerpt from Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics: Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ.

2. Ibid.

Luther's Royal Marriage


Martin Luther was an outsized personality, with great faith and some great flaws. Living with this great person has a good effect on you. Let me commend his little book, The Freedom of a Christian. When he challenged the practice of indulgences in 1517, and when he debated Johann Eck a year later, Luther's concern was pastoral, what Robert Kolb calls the "consolation of sin ridden consciences."1 Luther was becoming convinced that Christ alone is the savior, he alone is the Lord of the Church and His authority is found in the Scripture alone. But between 1517 and 1520, the leadership of the Church was not buying it. What the Church heard was Luther undercutting the Pope's authority and upsetting church order.

In July 1520 Pope Leo warned Luther of 41 doctrinal errors, and threatened him with excommunication. He had 60 days to recant. In November Luther published his statement of the Christian life, The Freedom of a Christian. He dedicated it to the Pope with an open letter, asking for peace. This is his statement of justification by faith alone.

The book has two theses, or propositions. "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none." This is true in the inner man. "A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all."2 This is true in the outer man.

Perfect freedom is the definition of the believer's relationship to God. That freedom is his in his soul, and nothing can overcome it. Why not? [Because] nothing external can either produce righteousness and freedom, or bring unrighteousness and servitude. Luther defines freedom as being in a right relation to God. The only thing that can make a person free is trusting in the Word of the gracious God. If he has this faith, nothing can hurt him. If he lacks it, nothing can help him.

What did Luther have in mind by external good works? He was thinking of two popular religious lifestyles, the practice of penance, required for all Christians, and rigorous monastic practice. Penance kept up your relationship with God; it had three parts: contrition, confession, and works of satisfaction. Luther complained that contrition for sin had become a human effort that prepared the heart for approaching God, a human merit. "If you do your very best, God will not deny his grace."3 But this left the conscience in doubt. How could anyone be certain he had done his best? Confession of sins to priest had become the occasion for tyranny, rather than the pronouncement of free forgiveness for Christ's sake. And making satisfaction through good deeds assigned by the priest in confession turned people's faith toward human works, rather than to God's free promise.4 There was no freedom there.

How then can righteousness be found? It is found in the message of the Word of God, received by faith.

Luther said faith has three powers. Its first power is in receiving the treasures of grace that God freely offers in Christ.

...the moment you begin to have faith, you learn that all things in you are altogether blameworthy, sinful and damnable. When you have learned this, you will know that you need Christ, who suffered and rose again for you, so that if you believe in him, you may, through faith become a new man, in so far as your sins are forgiven, and you are justified by the merits of another, namely of Christ alone.5

No human work can accomplish this, neither can an outward work, but only unbelief of heart, make one guilty of sin.

Luther answers an objection: then why does Scripture command so many ceremonies and laws if faith alone "justifies, frees and saves"?  Martin's answer is to draw a line between the law and the gospel. The commandments show us what we ought to do, but give no power to fulfill. God intends them to teach us our inability to do good, and lead us to despair of it. But the second part of Scripture, the promises, are "holy, true, free, peaceful words, full of goodness." Luther is saying that when we entrust ourselves to the promises of God, the power and grace of the Word of God are communicated to the soul. No good work can rely upon God. Thus there is no need for good works to justify, and the Christian is free from the law. Good works are not necessary for righteousness and salvation.

Faith's second power is that it gives God his proper glory by trusting him as truthful, righteous and good. The highest honor we can pay anyone is to trust him. Conversely, if we do not trust him, we do him the greatest disservice. "Is not such a soul most obedient to God in all things by this faith? What greater wickedness, what greater contempt of God can there be, than not believing his promise? For what is this but to make God a liar?"6 If a person does not trust God's promise, he sets up himself as an idol in his heart. Then his unbelieving doing of good works is actually sinning.

Till now he had thought of God as a harsh judge who rewards individuals according to their merits. He does not deny God's wrath against sin. But now he says that God's basic disposition toward his sinful creatures is love and mercy, his personal favor, based on nothing but his own desire to show compassion.7 "What a kind, fine God he is, nothing but sweetness and goodness, that he feeds us, preserves us, nourishes us." He also has a new understanding of grace. He no longer defines grace as an internally located gift from God; it became instead his favor, his merciful disposition toward sinners.8

Faith's third power is that it unites us to Christ as our bridegroom. Here Luther becomes lyrical.

...Christ and the soul become one flesh [Eph. 5:31-32]. And if they are one flesh, and if between them there is a true marriage... it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil. Accordingly, the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has, Christ claims as his own. ... Let us compare these, and we shall see inestimable benefits. Christ is full of grace, life and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death and damnation. Now let faith come between them, and sins, death and damnation will be Christ's, while grace, life and salvation will be the soul's... By the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death and pains of hell, which are his bride's.... Her sins cannot now destroy her... and she has that righteousness of Christ, her husband, ... and [can] say, "If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and mine is his..."9

Luther calls this the glorious exchange, the royal marriage. By faith, then, the person can ascribe all glory to God and have no other gods. By faith he can keep all the commandments.

Finally, Luther says that by faith this perfect freedom means that we are kings and priests to God. Because Christ is king, so we are kings, (in the inner man) lords over all things. Nothing can hurt us. All things are made subject to the believer, to further his salvation. Nothing can subject him to harm, even if God ordains that he suffers and dies. The Christian is also a priest, because he can come before God, to pray to him acceptably.

How then is the Christian different from the church's priests, popes, bishops, and other "ecclesiastics"? There is no distinction, except that certain Christians are set apart to be public teachers and servants.10 But the church has turned these servants into lords.

The church should preach, not just facts about Christ, but what Christ is to be to us. "...that he might not only be Christ, but be Christ for you and me... faith is built up when we preach why Christ came, what he brought and bestowed, and what benefit it is to us to accept him."

What man is there whose heart, upon hearing these things, will not rejoice to its depth, and in receiving this comfort, will not grow tender, so that he will love Christ as he never could by means of laws or works?"11

Faith is trust in God, not a virtue. It is the rejection of all possible virtue. Faith is not an inward good work that takes the place of outward good works. Rather, it looks to Christ. It knows Christ and rests in him and his righteousness for us.

"A Christian is a totally responsible servant of all, subject to all." This defines the believer's relationship to other people. We must continue to do good works, because we are still subject to sin, and we are bound to others.

Good works are valuable to the believer, but not as an alternative righteousness. If that "Leviathan" burdens them, they are actually not good at all. This notion destroys faith.12 All teaching about good works must be grounded in faith.

Faith is active through love.

That is, it finds expression through works of freest service, cheerfully and lovingly done, with which a man willfully serves another without hope of reward; and for himself, he is satisfied with the fullness and wealth of his faith.13

His sum of the joyful service of the Christian:

Although I am an unworthy and condemned man, my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy, so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that this is true. Why should I not therefore, freely, joyfully, with my whole heart and with an eager will do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches? I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ'14

Luther concludes "By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbor."15

Luther brings us back to the Gospel. If we would follow Luther, our ministries must, above all things, seek to lead people to believe, to trust God's Word. We are to set forth Christ for us. God is good and trustworthy and he freely offers us all things, in Christ. Therefore the trustworthiness of the Word, and the necessity of faith is everything. What we want to do for everyone is to help them to believe in Christ as he is offered in the Word.

Second, Luther is not antinomian. He is clear that faith works through love (Gal. 5:3). But why do we need the moral law? Because we are still sinners, subject to temptation and to continuing unbelief. However, even as it instructs us as believers, the law has a largely negative function. Luther does not make a sound theological place for God's law as the believer's delight. But it is just the gospel that overcomes the problem of law. "If I am outside of Christ, the law is my enemy, because God is my enemy. But once I am in Christ, the law is my friend, because God is my friend."16 It is the deepest desire of my heart to obey God's law, and to do this in faith. Faith works through love.

Last, Luther's doctrine of sola fide in 1520 is closer to "union with Christ by faith alone," than to "justification by faith alone." His major metaphor is the union of the believer and the Bridegroom, the wonderful exchange between Christ and us. Luther clearly includes justification in this, an "alien righteousness," Christ's righteousness, by faith alone. But the more precise idea of his perfect, finished and final righteousness, counted ours once for all, is not here yet, because Luther speaks about our righteousness growing over our lifetime.

Later biblical reflection would clarify this, and Luther would be clearer about it too. God in free grace, reckons the righteousness of Christ to us, when we simply entrust ourselves to him. It is not faith, considered in itself, that grounds God's pronouncement. Christ's sacrifice for us, alone, is the basis of our being forgiven, fully and perfectly and once for all. In 1520 the brownies were still a little chewy. It took some time for this fully biblical idea of justification to bake completely. However, having said this, I think Luther's idea of the glorious exchange by union with Christ is sound and biblical. Union with Christ by faith alone truly is the "freedom of a Christian." When we receive Christ by faith alone, we receive both his righteousness as a completed gift, and are thus accounted righteous by God, once for all. And it is also true that our hearts are cleansed, what we term "sanctification," by this union. What Luther calls the good works of a good man, notice, a changed man, are the fruit of this union. John Calvin would later put it like this:

We do not contemplate him outside ourselves from afar, in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us, but because we put on Christ, and are engrafted into his body--in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him.17

I close with these beautiful words of Luther:

Who then, can appreciate what this royal marriage means? Who can understand the riches of the glory of this grace? Here this rich and divine bridegroom Christ marries this poor, wicked harlot, redeems her from all her evil, and adorns her with all his goodness. Her sins cannot now destroy her, since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up by the bride in the Song of Solomon says [2:16], "My beloved is mine, and I am his."18


1. Robert Kolb, Martin Luther, Confessor of the Faith (Oxford University Press, 2009), 72.

2. J. Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther, selections from his writings (New York: Anchor, 1962), 53.

3. See Heiko A. Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000).

4. Kolb, 86.

5. Dillenberger, 55f.

6. Dillenberger, 59.

7. Kolb, 60.

8. Kolb, 34.

9. Dillenberger, 60f.

10. Dillenberger, 65.

11. Dillenberger, 66.

12. Dillenberger, 72.

13. Dillenberger, 74.

14. Dillenberger, 75f.

15. Dillenberger, 80.

16. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.

17. Institutes 3.11.10. 18. Dillenberger, 80f.

*This lecture was part of RTS' "Luther's (Re)Formative Years: Engaging the Reformation at 500" Conference. The audio can be found here

In response to the cultural tidal wave of gay-rights advances in America, Christians and churches are seeking categories to make sense of our situation.  As the Supreme Court has legally normalized homosexuality, more and more people feel comfortable admitting to homosexual desires (i.e. "same-sex attraction").  A good number of them make this claim as church-going people who profess faith in Jesus Christ.  Therefore, one of the most heated topics for Christians today is how to relate same-sex attraction to the Christian life. 

This topic came to my mind today as I read an article titled Godliness Is Not Heterosexuality.  The author expresses concern that Christian parents are worried that their children might become same-sex attracted and thus be barred from a godly life.  His answer is that same-sex attraction is not contrary to godliness.  Having formerly thought that the "pursuit of holiness. . . equaled the pursuit of heterosexuality," he now understands that "godliness, not heterosexuality" should be our aim.  In reading the article, one sympathizes with the struggle that it reveals.  Nonetheless, its argument involves a confusion of biblical categories.  Can Christians, in light of the teaching of Moses and Paul, consider homosexual desire as compatible with godliness?  In dealing with this question, let me offer these four propositions on homosexuality and holiness and then work them out in more detail:

1.       All believers in Jesus are positionally holy (1 Cor. 1:2; 1 Cor. 6:11; Heb. 10:10).

2.       Personally, all believers in Jesus are imperfectly holy in this present life (Phil. 3:12; 1 Jn. 1:8; Eph. 4:22-24; Phil. 2:12-13; 1 Tim. 6:12-13).

3.       Homosexual behaviors and desires are contrary to holiness (Lev. 18:22; Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-11).

4.       Believers with homosexual desires must therefore strive for Christ-like sexual holiness, which is categorically heterosexual (Gen. 2:24; Rom. 1:27; Rom. 13:14; Phil. 4:13).

Let me explain these propositions and defend them from God's Word:

1.        All believers in Jesus are positionally holy.  We have been categorically set apart to God by God through the saving achievement of Jesus Christ.  Theologians refer to this idea as definitive sanctification: we have been made once-for-all holy as we are in Christ through saving faith (1 Cor. 1:2; 1 Cor. 6:11; Heb. 10:10).

2.       Personally, all believers are imperfectly holy in this present life.  This means that we are always striving to conform ourselves morally and spiritually to the holy position we have been granted in Jesus Christ (Eph. 4:22-24; Phil. 2:12-13; 1 Tim. 6:12-13).  This calling is defined as progressive sanctification.  Every believer, whether heterosexual or same-sex attracted, is struggling with sins of all kinds (Phil. 3:12; 1 Jn. 1:8).  We all are thus to be actively engaged in spiritual growth and moral change so as to walk in a manner that is more worthy of our calling in Jesus Christ (Eph. 4:1; Phil. 1:27) . 

3.       Homosexual behavior and desires are contrary to holiness.  It certainly is true that heterosexuality does not equal holiness.  But it is also true that the Bible uniformly describes homosexuality as a sinful deviation from godly wholeness.  And Scripture does so in the strongest negative language, so that any idea of same-sex attraction being compatible with holiness is widely at odds with God's Word (see Lev. 18:22 and Rom. 1:26-27).  The sinfulness of homosexuality extends not only to the behavior but also to the desires, i.e., to "same-sex attraction," just as is the case with other sins (Mt. 5:21-28).  Moreover, Paul explicitly  describes homosexual desires as "dishonorable passions" and "debased" (Rom. 1:26-28).  With this in mind, there is no biblical category for "Homosexual Christian" (1 Cor. 6:9-11; Eph. 5:5).  Christians may indeed struggle with same-sex attraction, just as we may struggle with anger, pride, or laziness.  But we are to struggle against all these sinful desires.  While there are many angry Christians, there is no normalized Angry Christian category.  Nothing that is inherently sinful can be a kind of Christian, but rather is the brokenness and sin from which we are being redeemed in Christ.

4.       Believers with same-sex attraction must therefore strive for Christ-like sexual wholeness, which is categorically heterosexual.  Heterosexuality does not equal holiness.  But with respect to our sexual natures, heterosexuality is manifestly the design and calling of God for the human race (Gen. 2:24; Rom. 1:27).  Christians must strive against sinful desires of every kind.  Often it will be a bitter, long, and discouraging struggle.  But strive we must!  This includes avoiding temptation and "starving the sin" (Rom. 13:14).  It includes practical actions to use our bodies as "instruments of righteousness" (Rom. 6:13).  It always means responding to the grace of Christ and relying on the power of Christ in order to be conformed more perfectly to the sinless character of Christ (Rom. 8:29).  All Christians are to "put to death" sinful desires (Col. 3:5; Rom. 8:13).  Does this mean that people struggling with same-sex attraction must undergo reparative therapy?  This depends, of course, on what one means. Many struggling believers speak of being harmed by "quick-fix" Christian "cures" for homosexuality, and some have wrongly concluded from their failure that they should give up on Christianity.  Yet the Bible does plainly teach that our sinful desires can be changed in the power and grace of the Holy Spirit (see Paul's attitude towards greed, for instance, in Eph. 4:28).  Therefore, Christians should struggle with hope against same-sex attraction, and they will need the encouragement and loving help of Christians and the church.  To be sure, sexual desires and identity run deeper than other desires and struggles, so that we should sympathetically realize how challenging this struggle can be.  But Paul's statement about the pursuit of contentment (another great challenge) remains true for every category of Christian struggle: "I can do all things through him who strengthens me" (Phil. 4:13).  It is in this respect that we should endorse the statement in the article I cited that "some of the most godly people that I've ever known have also experienced same-sex attraction."  There is nothing controversial about that statement.  But if it is true, these godly people are striving against homosexual desires in pursuit of biblical sexual wholeness, just as godly people will strive against every form of sin.  

Tender-hearted Christians can only sympathize with our brothers and sisters who have and do struggle with homosexual desires.  Yet we do no actual good in offering false comfort to weary strugglers.  Yes, we must not make heterosexuality the be-all and end-all of godliness, as if heterosexuality = holiness.  Yet we cannot be true to Scripture and yet deny that godliness must include holy heterosexuality, so that the pursuit of holiness will include for many a bitter struggle against homosexual desires.  We may give our whole-hearted Amen to the statement that "being like Jesus is the true biblical definition of godliness."  This will lead us, among other things, to sexual wholeness.  It will exhort us, in the words of the apostle Paul: "Let us walk properly in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarrelling and jealousy.  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires" (Rom. 13:13-14).

In Defense of Piper

I've been told that some folk are taking issue with John Piper's Foreword to Thomas Schreiner's book on justification. According to Piper, who agrees with Schreiner, we are "right with God by faith alone" but we do not "attain heaven by faith alone." He adds that "there are other conditions for attaining heaven." 

Based on what I believe is a charitable and straight-forward reading of Piper, there is not a single word in his Foreword that seems out of place in terms of the basic Reformed approach to justification, salvation, and conditionality.  

Piper affirms strongly and clearly that works do not contribute to the acquisition of salvation. But Piper also wants to affirm that good works should be considered necessary for the obtaining of salvation. I fail to understand how this idea isn't present in literally dozens of Reformed luminaries from the Early Modern period. As Francis Turretin says:

"This very thing is no less expressly delivered concerning future glory. For since good works have the relation of the means to the end (Jn. 3:5, 16; Mt. 5:8); of the 'way' to the goal (Eph. 2:10; Phil 3:14); of the 'sowing' to the harvest (Gal. 6:7,8)...of labor to the reward (Mt. 20:1); of the 'contest' to the crown (2 Tim. 2:5; 4:8), everyone sees that there is the highest and an indispensable necessity of good works for obtaining glory. It is so great that it cannot be reached without them (Heb. 12:14; Rev. 21:27)."

Again, Piper says we do "not attain heaven by faith alone" and Turretin speaks of the "indispensable necessity of good works for obtaining glory". I don't see why we can't agree that they are saying essentially the same thing; and, indeed, if they are, what is the problem?

For those who have trouble grasping how Piper can affirm that justification is by faith alone, but that entering glory is not by faith alone, we must keep in mind the well-known distinction between the right to life versus the possession of life

Herman Witsius makes a distinction between the right to life (i.e., acquisition) and the possession of life. The former is "assigned to the obedience of Christ, that all the value of our holiness may be entirely excluded." However, regarding the latter, "our works...which the Spirit of Christ works in us, and by us, contribute something to the latter."

Similarly, Petrus van Mastricht once wrote: "in so far as God, whose law we attain just now through the merit alone of Christ, does not want to grant possession of eternal life, unless [it is] beyond faith with good works previously performed. We received once before the right unto eternal life through the merit of Christ alone. But God does not want to grant the possession of eternal life, unless there are, next to faith, also good works which precede this possession, Heb. 12:14; Matt. 7:21; 25:34-36; Rom. 2:7, 10."

Is there anything in Piper's Foreword that could not have come from the pen of Witsius or Turretin or Boston or Ball (see Patrick Ramsey's post here) or Owen or Rutherford or Mastricht? I'm having trouble understanding what the problem is both biblically and historically. In fact, I can point to works by authors in the Reformed tradition who have stated the matter perhaps a little more strongly than Piper does (e.g., Mastricht, Davenant). 

It seems one would have to have a built-in bias against Piper - perhaps because of his relationship to Daniel Fuller or perhaps for some other reason - to raise questions about the orthodoxy of his Foreword. And, let's be honest, it is a serious thing to raise questions about the orthodoxy of someone on this point. It isn't like we're talking about complementarianism. 

Piper speaks of good works as necessary for attaining heaven. Reformed theologians have spoken of good works as necessary for possessing heaven. In my mind, that's the same thing. And, quite frankly, I think that's the better approach rather than causing unnecessary division where there really doesn't need to be any. 

In sum, as Piper says, "there are other conditions for attaining heaven". Or, by someone else:

"The New Testament lays before us a vast array of conditions for final salvation. Not only initial repentance and faith, but perseverance in both, demonstrated in love toward God and neighbor...Holiness, which is defined by love of God and the indispensable condition of our glorification: no one will be seated at the heavenly banquet who has not begun, however imperfectly, in new obedience." 

And if you don't like that last quote, you can take it up with Michael Horton. But I happen to agree with it completely. 

Which is better: Justification or Sanctification?


Why do we love justification and sanctification? And do we love one more than the other?

If you've ever been in a position where you think you might die, your theology really begins to matter, and you learn a great deal about yourself and what you believe.  

A legalistic type of Christian probably needs to be confronted with the reality that he or she will die. When that reality hits, Christ's righteousness and God's mercy are no longer just doctrines to live by, but truths to die by. That is why justification by faith alone is a doctrine worth dying for: people need to die believing that truth.

The Puritan (ahem), Anthony Burgess, while vigorously opposing antinomianism, nevertheless suggested that the doctrine of justification, unlike any other, inclines God's people to increased humility and self-emptiness, "for by this we are taught even in the highest degree of our sanctification, to look out of ourselves for a better righteousness." 

We are never so holy as to think that there isn't a better righteousness than our own. If we did not possess an "alien" righteousness, that perfectly answers to the demands of God's law, the Christian life would be pure misery.

Nonetheless, Robert Murray M'Cheyne - a particularly godly person - made the comment that sanctification is "the better half of salvation."

He is echoing a point made by another Scot, Samuel Rutherford.

Rutherford asks the question, whether Christ should be more loved for justification or sanctification? Rutherford claimed to love Christ more for the latter, because "it is greater love in him to sanctify than to justify." For in sanctification we are made like Jesus, i.e., conformed to his image (Rom. 8:29).

In his provocative way of writing, Rutherford asserts:

Let a sinner, if possible, lie in hell for ever. If God makes him truly holy, and lets him stay there burning in love to God, rejoicing in the Holy Spirit, hanging on to Christ by faith and hope, then that is Heaven to that saint in the bottom of hell.

Such is the blessing of Christ-likeness, according to Rutherford. But I'm not quite with M'Cheyne and Rutherford. Perhaps their godliness - and the fact they were Scots - explains their view.

Personally, I am so thankful for my right standing with God because, after all, my sanctification is more imagined than real. But my justification is more real than imagined.

And if you ask me which blessing I love most right now, the answer is easy: union with Christ. For, in him, I have everything, so that I don't really need to decide whether I love justification or sanctification more than another. I'm comforted, primarily, by the fact that I belong to Christ and his work for me and in me will not fail.  

When it comes to Christ himself, we may ask, which is more present in him? The truth is, he is both - and always has been - perfectly justified and sanctified, even now in Heaven. The Father declares him righteous (Matt. 3:17; 1 Tim. 3:16; Rom. 1:4), the Spirit makes him righteous (Gal. 5:22). And that is my hope: that one day I will be like him: perfect in every way (i.e., glorified).

Pastor Mark Jones believes Canada is better than America.

As I was leaving Wal-mart earlier today, I noticed a woman, in a red and white checkered dress, holding a sign that said, "Success is only mentioned in the KJV once. Check Joshua 1:8." Is that the only time the word 'success' is used in the KJV? Is it even in Joshua 1:8? I have yet to check the King James Version of the Bible to verify her thoughts, but that is not what concerns me. The notion of success is what concerns me, especially in light of how consumed I have been with it lately. In my moments of confusion, the idea of success, particularly as it relates to the church plant, overcomes me and I begin to fear failure and yearn for success even more.

For example, if I do not raise enough financial support, whose fault is it? Will the church be able to continue? If people in the church plant are dissatisfied, who is blamed? If I do not find an appropriate Sunday meeting facility, upon whose shoulders does it fall? If the people are not motivated evangelistically, why not? Is it my failure to lead appropriately? If church attendance does not increase in a 12-month period, what did I do wrong? Is it my preaching? Is it my leadership style? Is it my hospitality or perhaps lack thereof? If the church population does not adequately represent the demographics in the community, have I been talking a big game all this time only to fail? If the doors close, how will I feed my family?

To this, some of you will reply, "Leave the results up to God." Many more of you might empathize with my fear of failure and remark, "Rest in Christ, for apart from him you can do nothing" (John 15:5). I know these things; nevertheless, that does not always make the fear of failure cease. It does always not make my hunger for success subside. 

Is this a normal, however we define that, part of church planting? I know I should be concerned about many of the things mentioned previously, but I wonder if I should be this concerned. I admit my faith is weak. Despite the letters behind my name and the hands that were laid upon me in ordination long ago, I am weak, and I need help.

What should I do? One thing that has helped me, though I still struggle a great deal with fear of failure, is to remain on my knees in prayer. It seems that when I spend less time in prayer, my fear of failure, and correspondingly desire to succeed, increases. Secondly, I need to continually immerse myself in the gospel. More particularly, I need to ensure I sit under the preached word. As a church planter, that can be difficult. How can one remain under the preached word, a word under which we insist God's people must sit, if he is preaching most Sundays? Thankfully, I found an 8AM church service in the area I can attend. That ensures I am being saturated in the gospel. Thirdly, I must remain accountable to other pastors. It is necessary to share one's thoughts and receive prayerful feedback or simply a listening ear. Having brothers in your corner helps a great deal.

What can the congregation do to help pastors who wrestle with unhealthy ideas of church planting success? One thing laypersons can do is express their commitment to the church plant. In other words, assure the pastor you are committed to the work of the ministry with your time and financial resources. Secondly, memorize Hebrews 13:17 and consider that passage as you interact with your pastor. Are you submitting to his leadership? Are you submitting to the other elders? Are you enabling the elder's duties to be a joy? Do you realize that if you burden the pastor and/or elders, it is of no benefit to you? Thirdly, pray for your pastor and your elders. God acts in ways that you cannot.

I only shared a few words with the woman standing on the corner with her sign. She was extremely cordial. I wonder why she was standing there. Was her point to help those driving by cease striving for success? I do not know, but her sign definitely helped me work through some things temporarily. This is just one of many church planting burdens--success.

Holding the centre

Having been away on holiday for a week (yes, delightful, thank you for asking), I return to find that things continue much as they were, except that Mark Jones has joined Team Reformation21, and Paul has allowed him to write a long post using long words and referring to past centuries without hammering him for it but rather wittering on about lunchtime lectures. I smell a Presbyterian stitch-up.

However, I am glad to see that Rick Phillips has drawn attention to the work being done by the Gospel Reformation Network, whose affirmations and denials I read with genuine interest. As Rick has highlighted and explained some of those statements, Mark has chipped back in with explanations and clarifications of his own language at certain points. Scriptures are being expounded and applied, history is being ransacked, and language is being sharpened to hone concepts that need sharply defined edges.

But why does such to-ing and fro-ing give joy? Because whenever debates like the one about the relationship between justification and sanctification, law and grace, and other related matters, have come up in the past, there is a fearful tendency that rapidly becomes apparent. Contention risks pushing men to extremes detached from the anchor of revelation: actions provoke reactions and counteractions that can all end up drifting and departing from the truth. It is quite clearly happening today. To be fair, in some instances it has been imputed, but in others it is stated fairly baldly. I remember my wry smile on reading in the introduction to one fairly well-known little book a statement by the authors that amounted to this, in almost as many words: "We used to be legalists, but we got better." In this instance, while acknowledging that they might have had some issues before, I would query the definition of legalism, and would certainly question whether the stance in which they ended up was any better, being simply different and equally dangerous. This is because, as I hope we would all affirm, the antidote to legalism is never a few drops of antinomianism, and the response to antinomianism is never a decent dose of legalism.

Our definitions and explanations, our actions, reactions, and counteractions, must not be forced upon us by circumstance or other external pressures, but forged of scriptural metal in the white heat of humble prayer, hammered fine by the tools of righteous exchange and measured against the standards of the history of orthodox Christianity. Any other substance or process will not serve us as we need.

We must hold the centre. We must not depart from the Word of God. We must allow the Scriptures to say all that they say, in the way that they say it, drawing out the truths that the Bible contains, and ensuring that each and all are maintained and declared in their proper place and proportion. So, for example, we must maintain the righteousness of Christ alone as the grounds of our justification, and faith as the God-imparted instrument by which that righteousness of Christ is obtained. We must maintain also that there is a real personal holiness which is to be ardently cultivated by us, the fruit of our union with Christ: "Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord" (Heb 12:14). I tried to do some of this in a simple way in a recent book called Life in Christ (RHB/, for those who might want a plain and pastoral introduction to what it means obediently to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for his good pleasure (Phil 2:12-13).

We must understand this not as a matter of mere semantics or theoretical theology (no real theology is simply a theory). If you are a pastor, salvation and the assurance of it hang upon these things. The men and women to whom we preach need to know the right answers to the questions of how we can stand before the Lord of heaven and earth considered not just as blameless but as positively righteous, what will be our confidence in the day of judgement, what are the present evidences of our interest in Christ Jesus, and how we may live so as to enjoy the smile of our heavenly Father. We must be ready, like Robert Traill in his Justification Vindicated, to counsel those who ask, "What must I do to be saved?"
Why should not the right answer be given, 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved'? Tell him what Christ is, what he has done and suffered to obtain eternal redemption for sinners, and that according to the will of God and his Father. Give him a plain downright narrative of the gospel salvation wrought out by the Son of God; tell him the history and mystery of the gospel plainly. It may be the Holy Ghost will work faith thereby, as he did in those firstfruits of the Gentiles in Acts 10.44. If he asks what warrant he has to believe on Jesus Christ, tell him that he has an utter indispensable necessity for it, for without believing on him he must perish eternally; that he has God's gracious offer of Christ and all his redemption, with a promise that, upon accepting the offer by faith, Christ and salvation with him are his: that he has God's express commandment (1Jn 3:23) to believe on Christ's name, and that he should make conscience of obeying it, as much as any command in the moral law. Tell him of Christ's ability and goodwill to save; that no man was every rejected by him who cast himself upon him; that desperate cases are the glorious triumphs of his art of saving. (27-28)
But we must also answer the question, "What does it look like to be saved?" And there we must answer, "gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, 'Be holy, for I am holy'" (1Pt 1:13-16).

We must pore again over those works like The Marrow of Modern Divinity or Andrew Fuller's Antinomianism Contrasted with the Religion Taught and Exemplified in the Holy Scriptures to sharpen our spiritual senses and stock our souls with truth to be proclaimed and defended, always with that Berean spirit which heeds the words of proven men highly esteemed and stills searches the Scriptures to see whether these things are so. We must let all our thinking and feeling be governed by the whole counsel of God, illuminated by the Spirit of Christ, and tested against the understanding of those men who have gone before us in the right way.

It is horrible, and will be again, to see men driven away from the truth by their professed zeal for the same. I am far from suggesting that this is true of Rick or Mark. Rather, their determination to phrase the truth accurately and carefully, accounting for all the bold emphases and subtle nuances of revelation is just what is needed. We must hold the centre, for the sake of our own souls and the souls of others.

Let me leave you with one of Ralph Erskine's Gospel Sonnets, which I read just the other day and which seemed to me to express something of the sweetness of a right understanding of some of these things:

When by the Law to grace I'm schooled,
Grace by the Law will have me ruled;
Hence, if I don't the Law obey,
I cannot keep the Gospel way.

When I the Gospel news believe,
Obedience to the Law I give;
And that both in its fed'ral dress,
And as a rule of holiness.

The Law is holy, just, and good,
All this the Gospel seals with Blood;
And clears the Royal Law's just dues
With dearly purchased revenues.

Here join the Law and Gospel hands,
What this me teaches, that commands;
What virtuous forms the Gospel please,
The same the Law doth authorize.

A rigid master was the Law,
Demanding bricks, denying straw;
But when the Gospel-tongue it sings,
It bids me fly, and gives me wings.

The rebel and the king

(I first posted this about two years ago, but it seems germane, so I am going over the ground again.)

Consider the man born into a family of terrorists. The man's father had rebelled against the King of the kingdom in which he lived, and - having so rebelled - all his posterity were brought up to hate and fight the King who ruled in this kingdom. It is to this family that the man belongs. Having been falsely taught all his life that the sovereign is cruel, vindictive, proud and unjust, and hating him as a tyrant accordingly, he has racked up a long list of foul crimes and misdemeanours against the King, all of which bring him under sentence of death. This life of rebellion takes its toll on the terrorist, cut off as he is from all that makes life worth living in the kingdom. His misery and wretchedness increase day by day as he slowly loses his foolish fight. Finally, he receives an overture of peace from the King. The King knows of the rebel's appalling condition, and has had compassion on the man. Together with his son, the Prince, and his Lord Chancellor, the King has devised a way by means of which, without any detriment to the King's justice and glory, the rebel might be entirely forgiven, and - even more - brought into the King's royal family. He publishes this offer by means of his ambassadors. At first, the terrorist cannot believe that such an offer can be true. After all has heard and believed of this king and his character, after all he has done to merit death, can the alleged tyrant really be ready to forgive all his sins and actually adopt him as his own?  Then the Lord Chancellor himself comes to press upon him the reality of the king's free and gracious offer: the Prince himself will take the entire punishment that the law demands and which the rebel deserves. The rebel, finally persuaded, gratefully accepts his merciful terms and embraces all that is bound up in leaving his life of crime. The Lord Chancellor conducts him back to the King's palace, where he is inducted into the life of a true son of the King, dearly beloved of the sovereign, and heir to all that the Prince himself is entitled to receive. Overwhelmed, scarcely believing his mercies, he yet knows that to him now belongs all the freedom of the kingdom. However, it is worth noting that while his relationship to the King has altered radically in some respects, there are some underpinning realities which have not altered. The King has become his father, with all the blessings involved in his adoption. The weight of the law as an instrument of condemnation has ceased to hang over him. But has the father now ceased to be a King? By no means! And is the ex-rebel any less obliged to obedience to the law of the kingdom because he has been delivered from its condemnation? By no means! His obligations to obedience have been by no means reduced, but only heightened. He is all the more obliged - love and gratitude and position all oblige him - to embrace and obey the law of his King and his father. He has all the obligations that belong to him as one under the royal authority, as well as all the obligations that belong to him as an adopted son, overwhelmed by gratitude for the undeserved privileges bestowed upon him. It is the same law that was in place while he was a terrorist, the very same law as condemned him to death for treason. The law has not changed, and he now cheerfully obeys that law both as a subject under its royal authority and as a son in his father's household. The royal law is still in effect, is as potent and extensive as it ever was, except that now it is profoundly, readily, willingly embraced by one who has come to have that law truly impressed upon him as the continuing standard of life in the kingdom of his father, which his father the King, his natural son, the Prince, and the Lord Chancellor have all seen fit to honour in bringing him from the condemnation of death to life and to liberty.

I am that rebel. I have been condemned by God's law. And yet, by grace, I have been redeemed from my sins through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, atoning for my ungodliness, being called by the Father and regenerated by the Holy Spirit. God having justified me through faith, I have been set apart to him, called to a life of holiness, and adopted into his family. I am no longer condemned by the law, but the law still exposes sin in me. I am no longer condemned by the law, but the law still expresses my Father's will for what is right and holy and just. I am no longer condemned by the law, but that law no longer presses upon me from without, rather springs up from within, having been written on my heart. I am no longer condemned by the law, but have come to recognise it as good and just, and embrace it with a willingness and readiness to obey it in all its parts. It is that law that is now written not on tablets of stone, but on the fleshy tablet of my heart. It is as a son, as a redeemed man, that the law becomes my delight as well as my duty.

An Apologie

Thanks to Carl (sort of) for the Introduction. But the man he speaks about is not me, I promise. I have lots of friends on Facebook, but do plan to purge some of the less trustworthy ones.

I hope to alleviate the concerns of Rick Phillips, which mainly seems to be over one word in particular. But first, I must say that I appreciated his kind, irenic tone, even if I have a few queries about his post.

The word "salvation" has a broad semantic range in the New Testament, and does not always refer to how we are justified. It can encompass all of our saving benefits, from regeneration to justification to glorification (e.g., 1 Tim. 4:16; 1 Pet. 1:9; Heb. 2:3). I believe Reformed theologians have tried to do justice to this New Testament concern, though we should be sensitive to the fact that many American evangelicals have a truncated understanding of the word.

According to the seventeenth-century Reformed theologian, Francis Turretin, good works are required "as the means and way for possessing salvation." Works do not contribute to the acquisition of salvation - a point I made clearly in my original post -, but "still they should be considered necessary to the obtainment of it, so that no one can be saved without them." He then goes on to argue:

"This very thing is no less expressly delivered concerning future glory. For since good works have the relation of the means to the end (Jn. 3:5, 16; Mt. 5:8); of the 'way' to the goal (Eph. 2:10; Phil 3:14); of the 'sowing' to the harvest (Gal. 6:7,8)...of labor to the reward (Mt. 20:1); of the 'contest' to the crown (2 Tim. 2:5; 4:8), everyone sees that there is the highest and an indispensable necessity of good works for obtaining glory. It is so great that it cannot be reached without them (Heb. 12:14; Rev. 21:27)" (emphasis mine).

John Owen's position was made sufficiently clear in the original piece, so I will not venture to discuss his view in detail, except to say that Owen makes it quite obvious that holiness is the way of our "attaining and coming to blessedness." Like Turretin, Owen affirms that good works are the necessary path believers must walk to final salvation. This is in keeping with Westminster Larger Catechism, Q & A 32, which speaks of good works as "the way which [God] hath appointed them to salvation." WCF 16.2 speaks of "their fruit unto holiness" leading to the end, which likewise reflects the relationship between means and end.

Finally, Herman Witsius, a so-called "middle-man" in antinomian/neonomian debates in the latter part of the 17th century, affirms that the "practice of Christian piety is the way to life, because thereby we go to the possession of the right obtained by Christ." But as I noted in my book on Antinomianism (p. 67), Witsius makes a distinction between the right to life (i.e., acquisition) and the possession of life. The former is "assigned to the obedience of Christ, that all the value of our holiness may be entirely excluded." However, regarding the latter, "our works...which the Spirit of Christ works in us, and by us, contribute something to the latter."

Enter Petrus van Mastricht, the Reformed theologian that caused Rick so much consternation. (By the way, Mastricht was not a Puritan, so the "Puritan gravitas" that Rick speaks about should be understood as a "Reformed gravitas." I tend to dislike the idea that the Puritans were somehow radical or different on soteriological issues compared to the broader Reformed tradition).

Rick raised the following concern:
"But when we suggest that works enter into the instrumentality of salvation, so that in the consummation of our salvation eternal life is granted on the basis of good works, then I find myself expressing both objections and concerns."

I must confess to being a little bit confused as to how and why Rick would make this particular point, since I nowhere referred to works as an "instrumental cause" of salvation. I also do not know what to make of Rick's choice of words. Neither Owen, Mastricht, or any other reformed writer has ever suggested that the consummation of our salvation and eternal life is granted on the basis of good works. If one did put good works into the instrumentality of our salvation, then that would make works the basis of eternal life. The language of "basis" suggests ground; but a ground is different from an instrument. So Rick's concern, if he still has one, might need some fine-tuning.

As Bishop Downame said, "Sanctification, and the duties thereof are not causes of salvation." Good works are not the cause of salvation (in serie causarum), but the way to salvation. Because Rick read Mastricht (and myself) in a particular way - though Rick granted that we could technically speak about the "efficacy of good works" if understood properly!! -, he was led into all sorts of objections that were, in my view, quite unnecessary. After all, the majority of the post was about Owen, with whom Rick seemed to agree.

Causes: Regarding "causes," an instrumental cause is not the same as a material cause, an efficient cause, or a formal cause. Faith is the instrumental cause of justification, a point hardly in dispute (I hope). These distinctions were important among Post-Reformation Reformed orthodox theologians because they enabled our divines to remain clear on matters where the gospel was at stake.

So in debates with Remonstrant (i.e., Arminian) theologians, the Reformed and the Remonstrants seemed to agree on the formal cause of justification, i.e., imputation. But they differed on the material cause. What is imputed to the believer, our act of faith or Christ's righteousness apprehended by faith? The Reformed held to the latter, whereas the Arminians typically held to the former. But even on the so-called "formal cause" there was an important difference between the two camps: for the Arminians, imputation is an aestimatio - God considers our righteousness (i.e., faith) as something that it is not (i.e., perfect). The Reformed, however, view imputation as secundum veritatem - God considers Christ's righteousness as our righteousness, precisely because it is, through union with Christ. The verdict that God passes on his Son is precisely the same verdict he passes on those who belong to Christ - but only through imputation.

The thorny issue of neonomianism also relates to "causes." Simply put, neonomianism is the idea that Christ, by fulfilling the requirements of the old covenant, makes it possible for man to be justified according to the more lenient terms of the "new law" (hence, "neonomianism") of the gospel. Christ's righteous obedience becomes the meritorious cause of justification, which allows the faith of the believer to be the formal cause of justification. As noted, most Reformed theologians believed that the imputation of Christ's righteousness was the formal cause of justification.

Returning, then, to Mastricht: his point about good works having "in a certain sense" an "efficacy" is immediately explained: "in so far as God, whose law we attain just now through the merit alone of Christ, does not want to grant possession of eternal life, unless [it is] beyond faith with good works previously performed. We received once before the right unto eternal life through the merit of Christ alone. But God does not want to grant the possession of eternal life, unless there are, next to faith, also good works which precede this possession, Heb. 12:14; Matt. 7:21; 25:34-36; Rom. 2:7, 10 (emphasis mine)."

While I personally would not chose to use the word "efficacy" (even in the way Rick thinks is acceptable), I believe Mastricht is saying precisely the same thing as Witsius, Turretin, and others, since in the quote he affirms the well-known distinction between "right" and "possession." In all probability, Witsius's words, "contribute something to the latter" (regarding "possession" not "right"), equals Mastricht's "sort of efficacy". There are a lot of other Reformed theologians - not just the Puritans!! - who were of this mind (e.g., Martin Bucer, John Calvin, Robert Rollock, Gisbertus Voetius, John Davenant). Surely Rick does not want raise concerns about the Reformed tradition (not just a few "Puritans") to which he belongs?

Rick, I think, is concerned that the "right" to eternal life remains the imputation of Christ's righteousness. I agree. But the Reformed often speak of "possessing" eternal life, and good works are the necessary path that believers must walk if they are to enter eternal life. In this context, "efficacy" simply has to do with the way in which we attain the end. Again, I understand how that word could confuse some - and I apologize for not explaining that initially - but there is a perfectly legitimate way of reading Mastricht that does not require us to impute to him - pardon the pun - the view that causes Rick so much concern. It never occurred to me that there was an incipient "neonomianism" in Mastricht for the reasons asserted above, and the fact that he was something of a legend among Reformed theologians who came after him! And he will be again soon once his massive systematic theology is translated.

"Right" versus "Possession": The "right" versus "possession" distinction has several advantages. First, it helps us to safeguard the fact that when we trust in Christ we are united to him and possess all blessings in him. That is the "right" aspect (based on Christ's meritorious work). We are as justified as we will ever be when we first believe. Second, it helps us to make sense of the "conditional" language of Scripture (see, for example, Philippians 3:7-14 "...[12] Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. [13] Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, [14] I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."

Entering into the possession of glory comes through a path that God has marked out for his people, and that path necessarily involves good works (See Rom. 8:13, which his obviously about sanctification). Here, I think, we see one of the many benefits of Reformed scholasticism for present-day debates that have often missed important distinctions and qualifications.

I understand this may be a little bit technical for some, and I'd be happy to speak on two of the other issues Rick raised, such as "stages in justification" or "judgment according to works", but the above seems sufficient for now.

Pastoral Summary
: As a pastor I do not like to use big words in the pulpit. I don't even think we should use the word "eschatological" when preaching. And I'll be wearing skinny jeans in the pulpit before I preach from the Westminster Confession or Catechisms. So how would I explain all of this to average laypeople?

Our right to eternal life is based on the imputed righteousness of Christ. Nothing can be added to that, not even a single good work. Justification is an act that can never be revoked. That is why we are justified by faith alone in this life, because through faith alone we receive this inestimable gift. But the final goal of our salvation is glorification and the vision of Christ (beatific vision). When we stand before God our justification, whereby we stand clothed in Christ's perfect righteousness (i.e., his active and passive obedience), enables us to withstand the demands of God's righteous, holy law. But we nonetheless have to walk to this destination in order to possess the vision of Christ (eternal life), and the only path we walk is the path of good works - works that have, of course, been prepared in advance for us (Eph. 2:10). Not only must we (i.e., necessity) walk this way, but we will (i.e., God's promise) walk this way. Sanctification, as much as justification, is a gift from Christ, and we can be confident that both will play their appropriate and necessary part in our so great a salvation.

Let me again take the chance to thank Rick for being gracious when he was concerned. Not always an easy thing to do. While I do think he got a little ahead of himself in this instance, I can appreciate his desire for clarity and, most of all, his desire to protect the article by which the church stands or falls.

Pastor Mark Jones likes long walks on the beach with his "smokin' hot wife," singing "You'll Never Walk Alone."
According to this 1995 commercial, "American Online is making it easier for people to live, work, and play." In part, this is true. Ordering roses for our spouse, checking the weather, arranging family vacations, and watching the news is much easier with the internet. Of course the internet can also be a stumbling block. According to one website, "61% of teens feel confident that they know how to hide what they do online from parents and 71% of teens have actually done something to hide their online behavior." Perhaps that is expected. Teens are sinners; they need to grow in maturity; they will do things online that we, as adults, know should not be done.

I wish I could say this misuse of the internet was limited to teenagers. Unfortunately, it is not. We, as adults, can inappropriately use it as well. While the alive and violent issue revolving around the internet currently is pornography (it is a billion dollar industry), that is not the misuse about which I am writing. It is something much simpler - email. 

Email is a great resource. It saves us time and energy. We can quickly get our point across to our recipients and move on to the next issue. You can send YouTube videos, sermons, prayer requests, blogs, and a host of other information. However, I believe there are certain things that should be allergic to email -- disagreements and conflict resolution. Don't believe the lie - email is not the best option to discuss your disagreements and conflict, no matter how clearly you think you convey your thoughts. Someone is bound to be offended. Facial expressions and tone are absent from email. We can come across too pointed and angry, and any time we simply feel the need to "get something off our chest," I guarantee we are not in the mindset to send email. 

I have seen countless relationships ruined because people attempted to "voice their concerns" via email. (You can just as easily expand this to Facebook). In my opinion, when dealing with disagreements and conflict, it is always best to have a face-to-face conversation. If face-to-face interaction seems unlikely (e.g., the person lives in another state), a phone conversation is the next best option.

We know this, right? Then why do we keep making the same mistakes?

Please take it from me. Sometimes email does not make it easier to "live, work, and play." I have participated on both the receiving and sending end of emails that have partially ruined relationships. All it took was a phone call to set up a time to meet in order to discuss our differences. That would have resulted in a much better interaction that could have saved a relationship.

Take the long road. Meet together or pick up the phone when you need to discuss a disagreement or pursue conflict resolution.
On numerous occasions I have been told that the church is like a hospital for the sick. The illness is sin; the remedy is Christ. We, therefore, attend church to receive our diagnosis and to gladly hear and embrace its remedy. "For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly" (Rom. 5:6). Over the years, however, through numerous conversations and limited pastoral experience, I have come to realize that the church - the gathered assembly on the Lord's Day - sometimes appears like a place for those in perfect health. Illness (i.e., sin) is not allowed.

Theologically we know that is inaccurate. That is why in many Presbyterian and Reformed churches we corporately confess our sins. We acknowledge our offense against a holy and righteous God. We know that our lives do not reflect the perfection that God demands. We, therefore, readily admit our brokenness, or do we really?

As a pastor, I have the privilege to interact with people, both inside my church and outside, about some of the harsh realities of how sin affects us. Lust, coveting, broken marriages, hatred, and dishonesty are all the result of acting on the desires of our sinful hearts. To some degree we all suffer from some of these things, but you can hardly tell that on Sunday mornings. Between 10:30am and noon, some people manage to put on the Christian veneer. The outside looks pearly white while the inside is suffering from a cancerous illness - sin.

Is that acceptable? Asked differently, should we put a smile on our faces for a hour and a half on Sunday mornings when things are truly chaotic in the home? No sooner than we depart the church building, we are met by disobedient children and dueling spouses. Our pornography addiction resurfaces; our anger meets us again; we are back in reality. 

I wonder if in some of our churches there is no place for grieving, mourning, lamenting, suffering, and acknowledging sin in more places than the corporate confession? While I have not conducted an analysis of every Reformed and Presbyterian Church in the US, I know this to be true from my personal experience and in my conversations with other pastors. Sunday mornings are the time to be on your best behavior. You cannot show weakness; you cannot fail. Lest the corporate confession of sin, there is no place for brokenness. There is an imaginary sign above the entrance of the church that says, "This is the place for those in perfect health."

It troubles me to know this reality exists. This observation caused me to ask a question: "Why?" Why are things like this? I began to pursue my inquiry. Overwhelmingly, and this is not limited to my congregation, when I asked people why their actions depict their lives are in perfect order when I know things are a bit chaotic, the response I received was, "I don't want to be judged." They believed there was no room for reasonable transparency in the church. It was expected that one's children be in perfect order, spouses on the same page, and singles portrayed as if they struggle very little with contentment.

Though I do not believe this is the cause, I wonder how much Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites contribute to this sad reality (i.e., in all things we must be relatively perfect). Most Facebook posts and Twitter feeds that I have read are largely positive. People gladly boast of their witnessing opportunities, the books they are reading, vacations taken, and family reunions. Most people confess very little of the difficulties through which they are going. I see the same thing in many churches.

This is not to suggest that we must air our dirty laundry to everyone in the church, and the world for that matter on Facebook and Twitter, but a certain level of transparency seems healthy. Rosaria Butterfield, in her book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor's Journey into Christian Faith, put it this way,

"I think that churches would be places of greater intimacy and growth in Christ if people stopped lying about what we need, what we fear, where we fail, and how we sin" (25).

I could not agree more. I often tell my congregation that is okay to hurt; it is okay to fail; and while it is not okay to sin, it is okay to be transparent about where you sin because there is forgiveness in Jesus Christ. 

If there is any merit in my observations, I also wonder how this affects the church's witness. One of the constant accusations I hear from unbelievers is that the church is full of hypocrites. However we handle that accusation, I wonder if the point behind it is that sometimes people in the church present themselves as perfect. As soon as the Christian veneer is shattered, unbelievers' image of how Christianity affects one's life is ruined. They were under the impression that Christianity makes one perfect (not positionally perfect (i.e., righteous) but presently perfect in thought, word, and deed). Therefore, once they realize the untruth to that manifestation of Christianity and that Christians, too, often face the same problems they do, Christians are labeled as hypocrites. In unbelievers' minds, the mask was removed.

Is there a solution? I am a rookie pastor. I do not have all the answers. I do not think I will have all the answers in the future either. However, I wonder if we need to more fully embrace the doctrine of sanctification? Unlike our justification - a once for all completed act - our sanctification is a process. Sometimes our sanctification may seem to be moving more slowly in our lives, or the lives of others, than we would like; nevertheless, God is at work. He guaranteed it! If we more fully embrace this, perhaps we will more readily understand that the church is like a hospital for the sick. Our illness is sin; Christ is our remedy. We, therefore, do not need to put on the Christian veneer.

We all suffer from the effects of sin. I pray that we, as the body of Christ, can more openly acknowledge our sins, mistakes, and express our sorrow without fear of judgment, without fear of a ruined reputation, without fear of our perfect family image being shattered. It will take time, prayer, a better understanding of grace, forgiveness, and sanctification, and the Spirit's work. It is possible. I will pray to that end. Will you join me?

All that Grace Does!

This coming Monday evening, June 17, we begin our pre- PCA General Assembly conference, hosted at Second Presbyterian Church of Greenville by the Gospel Reformation Network.  The conference is titled, "What Grace Does."  Too often today, salvation is preached as if it consists only of justification through faith alone.  Thank God for the good news of justification!  But we must also proclaim and enter into all of  the good news of what grace does.  Our conference will celebrate how grace regenerates, liberates, recreates, and consummates those who are brought into union with Christ through faith.  If you are in Greenville for the PCA General Assembly, I hope you will join us for worship and God's Word, Monday evening at 7 pm.

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:

I was glad to see some some constructive dialogue in the comments section of Tullian Tchividjian's reply to my critique of his article on total depravity and Christians.  Let me say at this point (even though I look forward to the day when such statements are not necessary) that: 1) I bear no ill will to Tullian nor was I launching a personal attack against him; 2) I wrote an article expressing concern about something he had written, not heresy charges in a court of the church; and 3) it has been my impression that the whole point of blogging is to stimulate useful thinking among Christians.  This is why I engaged in a public response to a public article rather than private dialogue.  

Being something of an internet veteran, I was not surprised, however,  to see that it took only three comments to Tullian's reply for one of his supporters to accuse me of sin.  I hope in this response to allay such concerns and hopefully to advance constructive dialogue further.

Surface repairs

The home which God has given to me and my family is one for which I am deeply grateful. However, as with cars, computers and bodies, home-owning is one of the great demonstrators of entropy. In my case, though, it also happens to demonstrate something a little more.

The chap who owned the house before us was a bit of a DIY (for Americans, read "home improvement") freak. I don't know that you could touch the chap for zeal, but the evidence suggests that his attitude stank. Indeed, he could easily have been a partner in the home decorating firm Bodgitt & Runne (sister company to the esteemed landscapers, Hackett & Scarper).

So, for example, we recently had a very capable gentleman in to do some fixing that was beyond my time, capacity and competence. One of the problems was a bathroom ceiling which - despite my repeated attempts to repaint it - kept peeling. It turned out that the fan in the bathroom, designed to keep the moisture from the shower from wrecking the joint, was (a) not set to run long enough to clear the air in the room, (b) not sufficiently powerful for a room of that size anyway, and (c) not attached to anything at the other end, thus merely re-circulating the moist air into the roof space and increasing rather than decreasing the dampness of the ceiling. Sadly, I was not surprised, for this was precisely the approach taken to the extractor fan over the oven, well-fitted and fully-operating . . . oh, except for that extraction bit, the fumes being merely drawn through the fan and expelled at the top, there being no conduit from the fan to the outside world - all sucked up and nowhere to go.

It was shortly after moving into the house that we recognised this principle at work. Floors tiled to the point at which they disappeared under the washing machine, but not beyond; tiles grouted to the point at which they disappeared under the oven, but not beyond; bathroom walls tiled down to the rim of the bath, the floor veneered as far as the eye could see, but stoop down and there is bare plaster and board underneath the otherwise very attractive bath; built-in cabinets built in over existing carpets and other fittings; leaks addressed by simply daubing silicon paste over the problem, thus redirecting the water into unseen and therefore far less unsightly channels.

In short, the gent in question - and anyone who worked in cahoots with him - was concerned for what could be seen, and he made significant efforts to ensure that things appeared to be well and properly cared for. Unfortunately, he was significantly less concerned for what could not be readily seen, or would take some discovering. He was happy with the mere appearance of things, entirely satisfied with surface repairs.

All of which seems to echo far too readily the way too many of us go about the process of sanctification. Walk into the rooms of many lives, and a great deal of effort has been made to render them attractive. As far as the casual eye can see, there is order, beauty, completeness. We have managed to massage our behaviour into the appearance of holiness.

The problem is that a more deliberate investigation reveals that behind much of the apparent beauty there is ugliness, beneath and under some of the seeming completeness there is significant unfinished business. Perhaps the work seemed too hard. Or perhaps the conclusion was reached that no-one would look that closely, and so there was no need to be too extreme. Enough to appear attractive would be sufficient, but structural soundness, thorough labour, and toil to completeness were unnecessary evils.

Or it may be that there is a deep rottenness in certain areas, the inheritance of sins committed by us or against us. We have managed to get a coat of paint over the mould, but the material is compromised. We have managed to get some paper over the cracks, but the wall is falling apart. We have stopped the rodents or the roaches coming out, but they are still living in the fabric of the building.

We do it ourselves and we do it with regard to others. Pastors can be satisfied with church members who manage to be in the right places at the right times and behave the right way in public, but who neglect the putting to death of sin and the putting on of righteousness in the secret place. Parents are relieved when we secure the outward compliance of the child, the well-mannered brood who give the appearance of order and control, forgetting the cry of the true father, "My son, give me your heart" (Prv 23.26). Friends are content for us to keep up appearances, and are satisfied to let the deep waters of the heart go unstirred (Prv 20.5).

All our experience of sanctification, in one sense, is a work in progress. However, the problem is when what ought to have been done or what needs to be done is left undone, when either we are more concerned with what can be seen than with the hard labour of completed work, well done, in the nooks and crannies beyond the eyes of men, or when we try to cover over - or allow to be covered over - what needs to be addressed. We slap on the make-up to hide the ravages of disease, rather than taking the medicine to cure it - and too many of us then commend one another on how beautiful we are looking. We are too readily satisfied with a merely cosmetic Christianity.

Let us not excuse ourselves on the basis that no-one will see and no-one will know. Let us not imagine that a veneer of behaviour will remove the rottenness beneath. Let us not hope that no one will look too closely and see what is really there. We must delve deep to expose and address what is rotten, for our own sake and the sake of one another. We need not a change of appearance but a change of nature. True godliness within is what secures true righteousness without. We must not rest until we have faced our frailties, considered our iniquities, assessed our tendencies, addressed our temptations, and are labouring daily to put to death our sins. Surface repairs are not enough.

Walter Marshall's Directions 4-9 from Gospel Mystery of Sanctification emphasize that in the pursuit of holiness the order is Gospel then godliness, not godliness then Gospel.

Direction Four

The means or instruments by which the Spirit of God accomplishes our union with Christ, and our fellowship with Him in all holiness, are the gospel, by which Christ enters into our hearts to work faith in us, and faith, by which we actually receive Christ Himself, with all His fullness, into our hearts. And this faith is a grace of the Spirit, by which we heartily believe the gospel and also believe on Christ as He is revealed and freely promised to us in this, for all His salvation.

Direction Five

We cannot attain to the practice of true holiness by any of our endeavours while we continue in our natural state and are not partakers of a new state by union and fellowship with Christ through faith.

Direction Six

Those that endeavour to perform sincere obedience to all the commands of Christ, as the condition by which they are to procure for themselves a right and title to salvation, and a good ground to trust on Him for the same, do seek their salvation by the works of the law, and not by the faith of Christ, as He is revealed in the gospel and they shall never be able to perform sincere and true holy obedience by all such endeavours.

Direction Seven

We are not to imagine that our hearts and lives must be changed from sin to holiness in any measure, before we may safely venture to trust on Christ for the sure enjoyment of Himself and His salvation.

Direction Eight

Be sure to seek for holiness of heart and life only in its due order, where God has placed it, after union with Christ, justification and the gift of the Holy Ghost and, in that order, seek it earnestly by faith as a very necessary part of your salvation

Direction Nine

We must first receive the comforts of the gospel, that we may be able to sincerely perform the duties of the law.

So far, as we have pointed to some highlights of Walter Marshall's justly lauded book, "Gospel Mystery of Sanctification," we have learned the following from him about growth in grace in the Christian life:

1. Those who have been saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone properly and by virture of regeneration and their new nature aspire to increase in holiness, in faithfulness to Christian duty and in obedience to God's law.

(In other words, this aspiration is not a sign that the believer "doesn't understand the Gospel," "doesn't understand grace," or is a "legalist," "moralist," or "Pharisee.")

2. The first step in this lifelong process is to learn from the Scriptures what are the powerful and effective means that God has appointed and provided in order that we may grow in holiness and obedience.

(Because, though we may rightly aspire to a growth in holiness, we may also wrongly assume that this increase in holiness can be gained simply through the exertion of our own wills, by our own efforts and via our own personal resources and resolutions.)

Then Marshall explains that the believer needs three things to go forward in grace-growth: propensity, persuasion and power. To expand on this, we'll put it in the form of a third point.

3. If we are to grow in holiness, we need a Spirit-wrought, grace-enabled (1) inclination to do so; (2) a firm persuasion of our reconcilation with and acceptance by God, and of our future heavenly hope; and (3) the strength both to want to do our Christian duty, and to do it.

This brings us to Marshall's "third direction" for sanctification, which has to do with the empowering source of our motivation and ability to grow in grace: Union with Christ. He says: "The way to get holy endowments and qualifications necessary to frame and enable us for the immediate practice of the law, is to receive them out of the fullness of Christ, by fellowship with Him; and that we may have this fellowship, we must be in Christ, and have Christ Himself in us, by a mystical union with Him."

So, where do we get the inclination to grow in holiness and obedience? Where do we get a strong persuasion of God's love, acceptance, and reconciliation, and a sure and certain sense of our future hope? Where do we get the power to want to be holy? And the power to actually live in a more godly way? Marshall says: in fellowship with Christ. And that fellowship is experienced only in union with Christ. So, our union with Christ is the fountainhead of our sanctification.

In our first highlight from Walter Marshall's "Gospel Mystery" we saw no antipathy to the ideas of the believer's duty or to the believer's aspiration to holiness or to the believer's endeavor to obey the moral law. Marshall says, to repeat, in his "first direction: "That we may acceptably perform the duties of holiness and righteousness required by the law, our first work is to learn the powerful and effectual means by which we may attain to so great an end."

Marshall importantly addresses the issue of how we must pursue holiness, that is, by "what powerful and effectual means" that we are to grow in godliness. But he does so without pitting the means against the end, as one often hears today, and without labeling the aspiration to spiritual growth as legalism or moralism.

In Marshall's "second direction," he goes on to say: "Several endowments and qualifications are necessary to enable us for the immediate practice of the law. Particularly we must have an inclination and propensity of our hearts thereunto; and therefore we must be well persuaded of our reconciliation with God, and of our future enjoyment of the everlasting heavenly happenings, and of sufficient strength both to will and perform all duties acceptably, until we come to the enjoyment of that happiness."

In other words, long before Edwards, this Puritan emphasized the importance of the desires and affections in the Christian life. If we want to grow in godliness "we must have an inclination and propensity of our hearts thereunto." He also asserts the necessity of Holy Spirit-supplied power for progress in holiness (see Ephesians 3:14-19) -"sufficient strength both to will and perform all duties acceptably."

In fact, the second direction may sound a little like Jonathan Edwards "Religious Affections" and John Piper "Future Grace" all rolled upon into one.

John Murray famously commended Walter Marshall's "Gospel Mystery of Sanctification" as the best book ever written on the subject. Recently, however, some sound divines have become suspcious of the work, in part because of who is citing it and because of dubious appeals to its authority.

However, the book ought to be read and digested. If you are Reformed and want to know how to preach a robust biblical doctrine of growth in grace in the Christian life, that is Gospel-shaped, Spirit-empowered and Christ-centered and that does not denigrate the "third use of the Law," - then Marshall is your man and "Gospel Mystery" is your book.

Here is the first sentence of the book, Marshall's "first direction" - "That we may acceptably perform the duties of holiness and righteousness required by the law, our first work is to learn the powerful and effectual means by which we may attain to so great an end."


What Goes Up Must Have Come Down

Recent online debates over the proper pastoral use of biblical commands in the lives of believers have left me a bit bewildered. Apparently, some would see these commands merely as descriptions of the Christian's deficiencies, the spiritual equivalent of a photographic negative, whose sole purpose is to direct us to the living portrait of Christ. Consequently, the "gospel" is the announcement that Jesus has performed all that we have failed to do and that, by faith in Him, we can receive His righteousness and find forgiveness in His blood. Read the commands and flee to Christ, it is said, read and flee. Just ease back into your justification and chill out, for this is the sum total of the Christian life.

Right or wrong, my guess is that this group is fairly small. Even people who are still gagging on the residual fumes of their former legalism, if they are truly converted, will admit that the Bible's instructions about loving one's spouse should eventually impact the home and not just crush the heart.

But here is where things get a bit tricky. If I take out the trash on a frigid night for my wife, am I to do so merely in response to what Christ has done for me? That is, is that (sin-infected) good work merely an expression of gratitude for my newfound status before God, an expression of gratitude that lies outside of the domain of the "gospel"? In short, is the "gospel" merely what Christ has done for me, while what is done in me or by me is my own doing--a doing that is somehow generated by Jesus' work but does not properly belong to it?

Rather than tease out what I see as a back-handed moralism lurking in this line of thinking, perhaps a better approach is to reorient ourselves to a biblical description of good works. G. C. Berkhouwer put it well when he said that "The path of good works runs not from man to God . . . but from God to man." His point, in part, is that good works (and the Spirit-given power to do them), are part and parcel of our being created in Christ Jesus (Eph 2:10). They are not some man-made appendix to Jesus' work, but the "fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith" (WCF 16.2) that continually receives the resurrection power of Christ from on high.

The Lord Jesus, whose death and resurrection is the gospel (!), has not only accomplished the obedience that has secured our justification received by faith alone, but daily descends by His Spirit to work within us that which is pleasing in His sight (Heb 13:21; cf. Phil 2:12-13). Like "our" daily bread for which we pray in the Lord's Prayer, "our" works are not ours, but God's, worked out in our lives in the quiet strength of the Spirit. This means that we do them in gratitude, yes, but we also do them in love, in joy, in peace, in patience, in kindness, and in the full range of the Spirit's blessing.

To be sure, the Bible's commands are a portrait of the righteousness of Christ counting for me. But they are also the molds to which divinely accepted Christians increasingly conform as the Lord Jesus ever renews their resurrected hearts. It may seem like a subtle change in how we think pastorally about scriptural commands, but I believe making it will mean the difference between our people's bewilderment and their faithfulness.

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! 


Sanctification and the Gospel: A Surrejoinder to Sean Lucas


I want to thank my good friend Sean Lucas for his Reformation21 rejoinder to my previous post.  We have corresponded privately on this issue, but given the prominence of this internet discussion, I also think that a public response is warranted.


First, let me say that I appreciate both Sean's scholarship and his careful attention to and passion for the pastoral dimension of this issue.  I too live in the American South, and there is something to his argument about "experiential moralism."  However, I am mystified by his contention that "Bill's prescription for pursuing holiness won't help these people."  What I suggested at the end of my post was a multi-faceted, and I think biblical, approach involving "gratitude for one's justification . . . the warnings of the law, regular dependence upon the means of grace, and mutual accountability within the context of the body of Christ."  And knowing Sean as well as I do, I suspect that that is precisely the pattern of his own ministry in Hattiesburg.


There is, however, a danger lurking in attempts to contextualize one's preaching on sanctification to a particular audience.  Any congregation will inevitably contain a range of believers and non-believers with different backgrounds and at different stages in their spiritual journey.  Moreover, we preachers and teachers likely will not fully grasp the complexity of the cultural and spiritual issues involved, and our efforts to target what we deem to be "the problem" may well result in an attenuated or distorted message.   It is best, in my estimation, simply to preach the whole counsel of God, the scriptural witness in its fullness, and trust the Holy Spirit to apply that word to individual needs.


Second, Sean and I agree on the importance of grounding the biblical imperatives in the indicative of the believer's death to sin through union with Christ. That is precisely the Pauline pattern I referenced at some length in my post.  But, as Tullian Tchividjian's exchanges with Kevin DeYoung indicate, that is not quite the issue here.  Tullian's discomfort with biblical imperatives qua imperatives (i.e., as genuine obligations of the Christian) is apparent, and he repeatedly retreats to the theme of gratitude for one's justification and acceptance.  But the indicative of Romans 6:7-11 must not be reduced to gratitude for one's justification.  Rather, it involves a genuine experiential and spiritual dying with Christ in which the power of sin is decisively broken and (although Paul does not pursue the theme in Romans 6; cf. Ephesians 2:1-10) also an experiential spiritual resurrection with Christ to new life in the Spirit, and so the believer is empowered to respond to the imperatives of the law.  Thus Calvin helpfully describes progressive sanctification as a process of "mortification" (dying to the old sinful patterns) and "vivification" (coming alive to new life in the Spirit).  This is the classic Reformed doctrine of sanctification.


Third, while Sean advances no compelling arguments against my suggestion that the appeal of Sonship is often connected with personal exposure to the legalism that at least used to be endemic in conservative evangelical and fundamentalist circles, he apparently thinks it is bad form for me to point this out.  He also claims that I "try to resolve all of this in personal biography," while noting later in the same paragraph that I recognize a "larger historical angle." Well, Sean can't have it both ways, and I think it is fair to note relevant patterns of affinity where they exist.  After all, we are not disembodied brains devoid of historical context.


Fourth, Sean is, in my judgment, correct to refer us to the Antinomian Controversy of the 1630s as relevant to this discussion, but my read on those issues is different from Sean's.  He cites Janice Knight's argument in her Orthodoxies in Massachusetts that the New England pastors with their emphasis on means and obedience and John Cotton's emphasis on spiritual immediacy were within "the mainstream" of the Reformed tradition.  A rather different appraisal of the situation, however, is found in William K. B. Stoever's splendid volume, A Faire and Easie Way to Heaven: Covenant Theology and Antinomianism in Early Massachusetts (Wesleyan UP, 1978), a book of subtle and exceedingly well-informed scholarship that I wish all Reformed pastors would read.  A key issue in the Antinomian controversy, which Stoever explores at length, was the conflict between mediate and immediate views of divine grace.  The New England elders recognized and affirmed the use of means, such as the preaching of the law, while Cotton and Hutchinson viewed grace in more immediate terms and tended to regard reliance on such means as opening the door to legalism.  And despite Sean's attempt to distance Cotton from Hutchinson, as I read the texts there is not much daylight between them on these matters, and her condemnation (as Sean notes) resulted from her pushing this emphasis on immediacy even further by claiming direct revelation.  Significantly, Stoever attributes this emphasis on immediacy in Hutchinson and Cotton, not to the mainstream Reformed tradition, but to a subcurrent of English radicalism that had nothing to do with Reformed theology. 


The relevance of all this for the current discussion should be apparent by now.  The Reformed confessional mainstream has historically understood grace in mediate rather than immediate terms.  Confessionally, we affirm a theology of the Word, and we emphasize the means of grace in our ministries.  We are not "paleo-charismatics" (to use Sean's term) like Anne Hutchinson, and we hold that God ordinarily works through his appointed means, including the preaching of biblical imperatives.  Pietism, however, historically has tended to slide over into more immediate views of grace that stand in tension with this Reformed tradition, and when that pietistic concern for immediacy is combined with a suspicion of biblical imperatives the pastoral results are sometimes disastrous.  One can even say that a crucial part of the story of Reformed theology in America has been the uneasy dialectical relationship between the churchly, confessional tradition and the individualistic experiential pietism often found in churches.  I should add, however, that this uneasy relationship has produced benefits for both.  The former has helped to keep the latter from schwärmerisch excesses, and the latter has challenged the tradition to spiritual vitality. 


During Sean's academic and pastoral career he has sought to combine warm piety with Reformed confessionalism.  In my estimation he has done so successfully and with great integrity.  I am certainly sympathetic to this agenda, but requisite here is a chastened pietism that is willing to work within the parameters of the Reformed tradition.  And the tradition is very clear on the issues that prompted this discussion.  Witness this salient section from Westminster Confession of Faith 19.6: "Although true believers be not under the law as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life, informing them of the will of God and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their nature, hearts, and lives; so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin; together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of His obedience. It is likewise of use to regenerate, to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin; and 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. The promises of it, in like manner, 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: 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."­ 

I am so thankful that my friend Bill Evans has waded into the important historical and theological conversation on sanctification. There is so much good and right with his piece on "Sanctification and the Nature of the Gospel" that I hesitate to offer a rejoinder to it. After thinking about it over the weekend, however, I decided to offer a few thoughts. Consider these not so much as corrections or even opposition; rather, think of this rejoinder as random thoughts, questions, and observations generated by Bill's piece.

First, Bill raised an important question whether legalism and self-justificaiton are the most pressing issues faced by the church today. He called it "dubious" that they are and suggested that "cheap grace" is actually the real issue, noting Ron Sider's suggestion that there is little difference between the behavior of Christians and non-Christians. 

From my own observation as a pastor of a largish steeple church in the Deep South, I would characterize the pressing problem a little differently than "legalism" or "cheap grace." I believe that the predominant form of Christianity in my neck of the woods is "experiential moralism": people go to church to have an experience that will help them fly right and do better. The problems come when a) they don't have such experiences and b) they realize that it is not possible for them to fly right and do better. They pretend that their performance is adequate, but their performance isn't holiness per se, but conformity to particular social norms. And when their marriages fall apart or their children run off, their profession of Christianity unravels as well.

Now, I'm not sure whether the experiential moralism that I face is closer to cheap grace or legalism. I tend to think that it is closer to the latter; but here's the deal: Bill's prescription for pursuing holiness won't help these people. Giving these kinds of people more imperatives and more law actually feeds their own sense that Christianity is about flying right and doing better. What these people desperately need is to understand they are loved anyways and always by Jesus; that they don't have to perform to gain the Father's love; and that holiness comes out of daily communion with this living God, with Jesus to whom we are united by the Spirit, who then enables us to say no to worldliness and ungodly passions.

A second observation: I haven't heard Tullian Tchividjian nor any of the other "grace" or "Sonship" people deny the importance of imperatives. Anyone who has read Unfashionable or Surprised by Grace will find the law and imperatives aplenty. Anyone who has used World Harvest Mission material will remember the "tongue exercise." If I were to lump myself in this group, I would say that this past Sunday's sermon was full of "law" (since I preached on Matthew 5:21-26). Of course, we have to preach the imperatives because the Bible is full of them.

The issue isn't so much whether we preach the imperatives or not; the question is how do we preach the imperatives. Do we preach them as the "killer be's" (as Bryan Chapell puts it) or do we anchor them in the grand realities of the indicatives? What I hear Tullian and other "grace" people saying is that the indicatives ground the imperatives. And while I'd be more comfortable speaking with Bill about union with Christ from which justification and sanctification flow like light and heat (to use Calvin's image), I think that Tullian's relation of justification and sanctification is similar to the classic Reformed relating of indicative and imperative.

A third note. I think it is unhelpful to try to resolve all of this in personal biography as though this emphasis upon grace is rooted in the psychosis of growing up fundamentalist. While that would actually fit me--both the psychosis and the fundamentalist parts--I would think that the fact these debates have gone on for five hundred years at least, long before the founding of Bob Jones University (my alma mater), would suggest that there are inherent tensions in the Reformed tradition. Bill noted this historical angle earlier in his piece; I think it would have been better to have stuck to that angle instead of moving into personal motivation or positing post-fundamentalism.

Moreover (for a fourth observation), I think that the historical argument could help us a bit here. Janice Knight, in her extremely helpful Orthodoxies in Massachusetts, suggested that one way of understanding the tensions in Puritan England and New England is viewing these men in two main groups: the Intellectual Fathers and the Spiritual Brothers. As these groups came to New England, they had a major conflict known as "the Antinomian Controversy" that lasted from 1636 to 1638. 

As this disagreement developed, the key players--Thomas Shepard, John Cotton, and Anne Hutchinson--represented three distinct positions: Shepard, the Intellectual Fathers' emphasis upon obedient practice as evidence of holiness; Cotton, the Spiritual Brothers' emphasis upon union with Christ as the basis of holiness; and Hutchinson's antinomian position, emphasizing the witness of the Spirit as the confidence for assurance. As it played out, Shepard and Cotton's positions remained in the mainstream of the tradition, while Hutchinson's was viewed to be outside the tradition, more because of the way she spoke about it (in paleo-charismatic tones) than for the substance of what she said.

I mention all of this to simply say: this is a historical disagreement. It is not recent, not the result of misbegotten, misspent fundamentalist childhoods, not the offshoot of strange Lutheran strains in a pure Reformed stock. I tend to think that the differences are simply matters of emphasis: some lead with imperatives and others lead with indicatives; but both sides hold the indicative-imperative relationship together. 

If we can recognize that the other "side" holds a legitimate perspective in the Reformed tradition that is largely a matter of emphasis, then we can approach each other with love, respect, and gratitude. We can avoid lumping them into pejorative groups (legalist, neo-nomian, antinomian, cheap grace, moralist), and we can recognize the temptation in our own approach that might lead us to become "imbalanced"--either by overemphasizing indicative to such a point that we fail to say what the Bible says in Colossians 3:5-17; or by overemphasizing the imperative to such a point that we fail to say what the Bible says in Colossians 3:1-4.

Above all, remembering that all of this is about helping people come to love Jesus more can help us treat each other with civility and charity. I'm so grateful that my friend Bill has done just that. It is a mark of Christianity to love God and to love our brothers and sisters--because we are united to one another in Christ and because we see the value in each other. As we do this, we live out one of the great indicative-imperative verses in all of Scripture: "we love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19).

Sanctification and the Nature of the Gospel


As one who has been studying the peculiar history of Reformed soteriology (i.e., the doctrine of salvation) for a number of decades now, I have followed some recent blog exchanges with considerable interest.  In a stimulating piece available on the Christianity Today online site, Jason B. Hood took to task some "younger preachers who self-identify as Reformed" for an unbalanced emphasis on the grace of justification that, according to Hood, undercuts legitimate biblical imperatives.  With astonishment Hood noted that some of these regard accusations of antinomianism against their ministries as confirmation of their fidelity to the gospel.  After citing a variety of New Testament texts that present clarion calls to obedience and transformation of life, Hood went on to note the oddness of using the accusation of heresy as a validation of one's ministry. 


Responding to Hood here, Tullian Tchividjian contended that the Apostle Paul does not use the law as motivation for obedience.  In fact, he claims, laying down the law in the form of biblical imperatives does not elicit obedience at all.  Rather, the only real motive and engine for obedience is a heartfelt grasp of the doctrine of justification, to "get a taste of God's radical, unconditional acceptance of sinners."  In short, gratitude for justification leads to sanctification.


Then Kevin DeYoung and Tchividjian engaged in a back-and-forth on the issue of sanctification in the on-line Christian Post (helpfully compiled by Don Clements for the Aquilareport here).  DeYoung began by noting that "effort is not a four-letter word" and contending that "the gospel-powered pattern requires effort."  In other words, there is a place in the sanctification process for biblical imperatives.  Tchividjian replied by reiterating his earlier contentions sanctification flows from a proper understanding of one's justification and contending that bad behavior "happens when we fail to believe in the rich provisional resources that are already ours in the gospel." 


DeYoung then expressed further concerns that "we are in danger of giving short shrift to the necessity of obeying biblical imperatives.  My worry is that we are afraid to exhort each other, as Scripture does, to strive, fight, mortify, vivify, and make every effort for godliness."  He went on to argue that sanctification is more than just a matter of believing the gospel and trusting in the finished work of Christ for us.  And while it is ultimately due to God's grace and mercy, sanctification involves sustained effort to which Scripture calls us.  In this context DeYoung the pastor speaks of those in the church "who are confused, wondering why sanctification isn't automatically flowing from their heartfelt commitment to gospel-drenched justification." 


Tchividjian then reiterated his earlier contentions that sanctification flows from justification and that "the only way licentious people start to obey is when they get a taste of God's radical, unconditional acceptance of sinners."  Furthermore, the connection between justification and sanctification is a necessary one.  "Beholding," he contends, "necessarily leads to becoming."  Tchividjian is also clear on what he thinks the key problem is: "the greatest danger facing the church is not that we take the commands of God lightly," but that we don't take the gospel seriously. Tchividjian then argues in Lutheran fashion that we must vigorously distinguish law and gospel--the law condemns while the gospel gives life. 


Of course, such discussions are nothing novel or new.  I have argued elsewhere that the Reformed tradition has had considerable difficulty achieving balance and consensus on these matters, and that the tradition has tended to swing back and forth between legalism and antinomianism.  Moreover, as I pointed out in a recent WTJ article ("Déjà Vu All Over Again?: The Contemporary Reformed Soteriological Controversy in Historical Perspective," Westminster Theological Journal 72/1 (2010): 135-151.), these issues are still very much with us.  In other words, the questions raised in these blog exchanges are important; the contrast in views is rather stark, and the time is ripe for further discussion. 


Because (as will be evident below) I for the most part agree with the concerns expressed by Hood and DeYoung, I am going to focus on the arguments of Tchividjian.  Of course, Tchividjian is by no means alone in these sentiments.  He is part of a significant group of ministers, centered especially in the "missional wing" of the Presbyterian Church in America, that has been profoundly influenced by the so-called "Sonship" theology of the late Jack Miller and to a lesser extent by a Lutheranized version of Reformed theology emanating from people such as Michael Horton at Westminster Seminary in California. For these reasons the arguments need to be taken seriously and the issues engaged. 


Four issues stand out here to me as particularly important as we seek to understand what is at stake.  First, there is the "missional" character of this impulse.  Here we see a laudable desire to see people come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.   And to this end, Tchividjian and his ilk are convinced that a "gospel-drenched" message of "radical grace" is essential to the church's mission.  Not surprisingly, the position has been particularly attractive to those in Reformed circles who are passionate about gospel proclamation and who are perhaps a bit tired of doctrinal controversy, which they view as a distraction from the real task of ministry.  In other words, it has tended to appeal more to ministry practitioners (pastors and professors of practical theology) rather than to professional theologians and biblical scholars.  Nevertheless, issues of exegetical and theological coherence must be addressed sooner or later. 


Second, there is a particular understanding of the key problem facing the church.  Tchividjian and others are convinced that the great threat to the church and its mission is legalism, a reliance on one's own righteousness rather than the work of Christ.  Elsewhere he has argued that those who contrast legalism and antinomianism, as if these are two equally threatening errors to be avoided, are posing a false dichotomy.  In fact, he more or less defines "antinomianism" out of existence--if "antinomianism" is viewed as an excessive emphasis upon grace then there can be no such thing as antinomianism since grace cannot be overemphasized.  This concern about legalism also accounts for the obvious discomfort that Tchividjian and others have with the proclamation of biblical imperatives.  After all, as the law is proclaimed there is always the cardinal danger that people will use it to seek to justify themselves. 


But questions must be asked.  Is it really the case that legalism and self-justification are the great problems facing the church and its mission?  From the standpoint of both the internal ministry of the church (as it seeks to deal with the behavior and attitudes of parishioners) and the external witness of the church (as it proclaims the gospel to others) this contention is dubious, and we may legitimately ask whether the more pressing problem is legalism or what Bonhoeffer aptly called "cheap grace."  Regarding behavior, evidence compiled by Ron Sider (in his The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience) and others suggests that there is distressingly little difference between the behavior of professed evangelical Christians and non-Christians.  Regarding inward attitude, my own ministry experience leads me to believe that DeYoung is correct in his contention that "there are lots of professing Christians (and non-Christians!) who feel perfectly justified but are not growing in godliness and may not even be God's children.  They do not doubt that God' loves them.  They do not worry that they might not be accepted.  They have no problem with grace.  They do not come to church with crushed consciences.  They do not need to rediscover God's forgiveness.  They need to work hard to live like they have died to sin and been raised with Christ." 


And along these lines, we may also question whether this sort of ministry emphasis addresses the real needs of an emerging post-modern culture that is both indifferent to and largely ignorant of the law of God, and for which any proclamation of biblical imperative is likely to be deemed "judgmental."  How can people embrace the "radical grace" of God in justification when they see no need for it in the first place?  In other words, biblical imperatives are needful, and that's why the Bible is full of them!


But if this is the case, why is this sort of thing so appealing to some.  The answer may lie less in theology or exegesis and more in personal autobiography and social location.  My impression that many of these conservative Reformed grace champions have come out of very conservative Evangelical and fundamentalist backgrounds, and that they found the negative morality and legalism common in those contexts unsatisfying.  In short, we may be dealing here with yet another species of post-fundamentalism.  Nevertheless, reaction against one's past can only take one so far, and it is always a bit risky to generalize from the limited perspective of one's own personal experience to the task and message of the broader church.  Or, to phrase it a bit differently, this particular construal of grace may well speak to the individualistic therapeutic felt needs of conservative baby-boomer Evangelicals, but its applicability to the broader context is questionable.


Third, there is the obvious causal priority here placed upon the doctrine of justification.  Justification is seen as the cause of sanctification, and a proper grasp of justification or one's acceptance by God leads necessarily to sanctification.  Here, of course, the ordo salutis ("order of salvation") schema of later Protestant orthodoxy in which the benefits of salvation are arranged in a sequential order beginning with the forensic or legal benefits before moving to transformation of life, is assumed (readers should be aware, however, that this construct has been challenged by a good number of Reformed theologians, including Anthony Hoekema, Richard Gaffin, Sinclair Ferguson, and yours truly).  The nature of the connection between justification as cause and sanctification as effect also needs to be noted--it is basically a psychological one of gratitude.  The problem of sanctification is a failure to believe and to remember our acceptance by God.  Here again the basically Lutheran tenor of the position is evident. 


It is one thing to say that the doctrine of justification is important and even foundational for one's relationship with God.  But it is quite another to try to extract a doctrine of sanctification from justification.  In fact, if we look closely at passages such as Romans 6, that is precisely what Paul does not do.  There the Apostle reasons from the believer's spiritual union with Christ in his death (Romans 6:1-5) to the indicative of the believer's freedom from the dominion of sin (Romans 6:7-11) to the imperative of the believer's progressive sanctification (Romans 6:12-14).  If this passage is any indication, the Apostle funds his doctrine of sanctification, not from justification or adoption, but from the believer's spiritual union with Christ.   


Furthermore, it is unconvincing to suggest that Paul does not use the expectations and sanctions of the law as a motive for sanctification.  More than once the Apostle provides extensive vice lists of behavior forbidden by the law of God, adding that those who behave thus "will not inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:3-5).  That sounds like motivation to me!  Furthermore, even in that most "gospelish" of epistles, the letter to the Galatians, Paul underscores the obligation of the believer to fulfill the "law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2), and later in the same chapter he speaks of God punishing the wicked and rewarding those who walk according to the Spirit (Galatians 6:6-10).  Again, this sounds like motivation to me!  And even though Tchividjian affirms the "third use of the law" (the law of God as a guide for the life of the Christian), we may legitimately ask whether there is any real room in his thinking for it. 


Finally, there is a particular understanding of the gospel at work here.  According to Tchividjian and others, the heart of the gospel is the message of justification by grace through faith, and everything else is extracted from this center.  But many Reformed theologians, from Calvin onward, have detected something even more basic--the believer's union by faith and the Holy Spirit with the incarnate Christ, from whom all the blessings of salvation (both forensic and transformatory) flow.  To be sure, Tchividjian is not alone among Reformed pastors and theologians in his prioritizing of justification and the forensic, but it is fair to ask whether he is engaging, as it were, in a bit of theological synecdoche by substituting a part for the whole.  The fact of the matter is that the heart of the gospel is not justification.  Nor is it sanctification.  It is Jesus Christ himself, who is "our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption" (1 Corinthians 1:30).  The Apostle Paul came preaching "Christ crucified" (1 Corinthians 1:23) and more often than not he directed Christians, not to their own justification, but to the crucified and risen Christ in whom they are both justified and sanctified.  The gospel involves freedom from both the penalty and the power of sin, and the latter is not simply to be collapsed into the former.  Only when we begin with Christ and our spiritual union with him will we give both justification and sanctification their proper due.


The great tragedy here is that in dismissing legitimate biblical imperatives as "legalism" this attenuated gospel robs believers of the very resources they need for progress in sanctification.  Over the years we have seen a number of Protestant quests for the "silver bullet" of sanctification.  The holiness writers told us that if we can somehow attain to that second work of grace all will be well.  The Keswick authors argued that if we just "let go and let God have his wonderful way, our doubts will all vanish, our night turn to day."  The problem here was twofold--these proposals were unbiblical and they didn't work--and Reformed theologians of an earlier generation were right to cry foul.  Now some would have us believe that if we just really get the doctrine of justification then sanctification will inevitably ensue. 


The biblical picture of sanctification, however, is much more comprehensive, and it is adequate to the task.  To be sure, gratitude for one's justification plays a role, but even more prominent in Scripture are the warnings of the law, regular dependence upon the means of grace, and mutual accountability within the context of the body of Christ.  This biblical model of sanctification is not novel.  It may not be particularly exciting.  It is also unlikely to be the next big thing on the Christian seminar circuit or at the Christian bookseller's convention.  But it is biblical, and it does work.

Results tagged “sanctification” from Through the Westminster Confession

Chapter 13.3

iii. In which war, although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail; yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome; and so, the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. 

The Confession has more to say about our struggle for sanctification, the war within our soul.  By telling us that we were in for the fight of our lives, the previous section warned against triumphalism. We will never be perfectly holy in the present life; the Spirit will have to battle against sin for every square inch of our souls.

In this section we are warned against defeatism. We struggle so hard with particular sins that it is tempting to give up. When we will ever be holy?

With their typical pastoral wisdom, the Westminster Divines assure us that these feelings are normal. Sometimes we seem to be losing, not winning, the fight against sin. There are seasons when "the remaining corruption may much prevail." As a result, we may not feel as if we are making very much progress in sanctification.   

But these setbacks are only temporary. Even if we lose some skirmishes, we are actually winning the war. Because of the Spirit's work within us, what the Confession calls "the regenerate part" of us eventually will overcome sin. The word "overcome" echoes the early chapters of Revelation, where we are called to victory in our lifelong struggle against the world's evil.  

Ultimate victory is promised by God, and therefore guaranteed. This is not because of anything in us, of course, but only "through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ." Sanctification is a work of God's Spirit, who never fails to win the fight. 

Dr. Philip Ryken is the president of Wheaton College.

Chapter 13.2

ii. This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part; whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh. 

The first section of Chapter 13 makes strong claims about the efficacy of the Spirit's sanctifying work. Believers "are sanctified," the Confession says, "really and personally." The dominion of sin "is destroyed;" the lusts of the flesh "are more and more weakened and mortified;" and so on.  Thus we can have absolute confidence that God will do his sanctifying work in our lives.  

Similarly, the second section begins with the bold assertion that the Holy Spirit sanctifies the whole person. When God's indwelling Spirit makes us more and more holy, this affects every aspect of life: body and soul, heart and mind. Because the Spirit is holy, the believer's whole life is transformed and purified. 

Left by themselves, without any further qualification, these confident claims might give the wrong impression that believers always make constant progress in holiness, or that we never experience any spiritual setbacks. Few things could be farther from the truth. Ever realistic about the real struggles of the Christian life--and careful to provide sound pastoral guidance--the Westminster Divines are honest about the life and death struggle that sanctification requires.

Sanctification is never perfect in this life, but always imperfect. Here the Confession takes a clear and obvious stand against the perfectionism of some evangelical traditions. We cannot completely escape the corruption of sin. Not even one single area of life will ever be totally free from sin.

As a result, we are engaged in constant spiritual warfare. As Paul explains in Romans 8, the flesh is always fighting against the Spirit, and the Spirit is perpetually waging war against the flesh.  

All of this helps us to have the right expectations for our spiritual experience. God has promised that over time we will make progress in holiness. But sin will be a struggle for us right to the end of our lives. 

Chapter 13.1,part three

i. They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them: the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. 

Sanctification is grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ - his death and resurrection. It is produced by the Holy Spirit, who uses the Word of God to make us holy. But what effect does this have in the believer's life?  Simply put, sanctification kills and brings back to life.

The Westminster Divines believed that the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit produces two effects in the Christian life. One is to put sin to death--what the Puritans and Presbyterians called the mortification of sin.

In order for us to make real, personal progress in holiness, the dominion of sin must be destroyed within us. The lusts which tempt us to sin must shrivel up and die. Thus sanctification involves the long slow death of sin in the life of the believer.  

At the same time, in our sanctification the Holy Spirit brings us to spiritual life--what theologians call vivification. The word "quickened" simply means to come to life. In sanctification, the Holy Spirit gradually makes us more and more alive to the grace of God.  He strengthens our commitment to personal holiness.

This is not merely a theory, but something that makes a real difference in daily life. This section of the Confession ends by speaking of the "practice of true holiness." This means keeping all of God's commandments. It means serving other people, putting them first. It means loving our family, our friends, and even our enemies. It means making a strong commitment to sexual and other forms of purity. These are the things that come to life as sin dies a long slow death over the course of a believer's life.

Chapter 13.1, part two

i. They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them: the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. 

In telling us how sanctification happens--really and personally--the Confession identifies a double agency: God's Word and God's Spirit.

The Spirit's role in sanctification should be evident from what has been said already about regeneration. In regeneration, the Holy Spirit penetrates a sinner's life and creates a new heart--a heart for holiness. 

This new heart is a dwelling place for God's Spirit, who enables the process of sanctification to continue. The Spirit constantly exudes holiness, sanctifying whatever he touches. In this case, because the heart is the control center of a person's life, the indwelling Spirit is able to spread holiness out from the heart into every dimension of a believer's life. 

The main thing the Holy Spirit uses to produce holiness is the Word of God. In fact, the Bible has such a central role in this process that the Confession virtually treats it as a second agent of sanctification.

The vital connection between God's Word and our holiness is something that experience readily confirms. Believers who neglect God's Word in their daily or weekly routine quickly lose ground in their struggle with sin. By contrast, Christians who prioritize reading the Bible and listening to sermons always make progress in holiness.  

Knowing this helps us to take proper responsibility for our personal sanctification. Holiness can only come from the Holy Spirit. But God has told us what the Spirit uses to help us make progress in holiness. The Spirit uses the Word, which God invites us to take and read.

Dr. Philip G. Ryken is the president of Wheaton College.

Chapter 13.1, part one

i. They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them: the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. 

It is characteristic of the Westminster Confession to present biblical doctrines in proper relationship to one another. So here the doctrine of sanctification is introduced with reference to calling and regeneration, as another link in the "golden chain" that stretches from election to glorification.

The phrase "further sanctified" indicates that holiness is intrinsic to regeneration. God's Spirit is a Holy Spirit, after all. So sanctification begins the very moment the Spirit enters a person's life. We are set apart for holiness already in our conversion, when we are given a new heart by the Holy Spirit.

But this is only the beginning. Further sanctification must and does take place, as a progressive work of God the Holy Spirit. The whole Christian life is marked therefore by growth in holiness. Unlike justification and adoption, which as legal declarations take place in a single moment, sanctification gradually unfolds over the course of a believer's pilgrimage. 

The Confession is careful to ground our progressive sanctification in the gospel. On what basis is the believer sanctified? On the basis of the cross and the empty tomb. Progress in holiness is a consequence of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ (which is simply the gospel). 

This reality serves to remind us of our ongoing need for the gospel. Our sanctification--no less than our justification--is one result of our Savior's death and resurrection. So hearing the gospel every day does something more than give us the assurance of our faith; it also helps us grow in personal godliness.

Chapter 11.2, Part Two

ii. Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.

One of the familiar complaints against justification through faith alone is that it makes no allowance for the necessity of works. In one sense this is true, since the Confession teaches that justification is by faith apart from works, the sinner relying on Christ's works instead of his or her own. In another, sense, however, the Confession is keen to join faith and works. As the divines taught it, it is true that justification does not involve our works. But it is also true that faith is inseparable from works. We are justified through faith alone, yet that faith "is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces." Roman Catholicism teaches that faith + works = justification. The Confession teaches instead, with the Bible, that faith = justification + works. Through faith alone the sinner is justified, so that our works are not a condition of justification. Yet that very faith involves the sinner in a life of increasing godliness and good works, so that works are very much a consequence of justification. In this proper sense, works are quite necessary to salvation: as the Confession states, justifying faith "is no dead faith, but worketh by love."

This approach is the key to understanding how Paul's teaching on faith and justification agrees with James's teaching on the same subject. Many Christians want to pit Paul and James against one another, as Martin Luther was purported to have done. But this is mistaken.  Whereas Paul was providing doctrinal teaching on justification in passages like Galatians 2:16-17 and Romans 3:23-25; 4:4-5, James was writing to correct the error of claiming faith while having no works. "Someone will say, 'You have faith and I have works,'" James says, complaining against the idea of fundamentally separating the two. "Show me your faith apart from works," he counters, "and I will show you my faith by my works" (Ja. 2:18). Notice James's point: he is not giving a doctrinal definition of justification but rather showing how faith is proved.  Whereas Paul says that sinners are justified by faith alone, James asserts that justifying faith is justified by works. This is the very point made by the Confession in saying that faith "is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied" by works.   

Roman Catholic apologists make much of James' statement in 2:24: "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." They point out that whereas the Bible never says that justification is by faith alone, it states explicitly that justification is "not by faith alone." The Bible says the exact opposite of the Westminster Confession, they exclaim! Our answer to this is two-fold. First, while the words "justification by faith alone" are not in the Bible, Paul clearly makes this very point in Galatians 2:16, "a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ." Second, we point out that what James means is that justifying faith must be proved by good works. In this we heartily agree, with the Westminster Confession.  Using the example of Abraham, James pointed out that Abraham's justification was justified by his good works. This is precisely in keeping with the Confession's teaching (or rather, the Confession is in keeping with James, along with Paul). James agrees that the Scripture says that Abraham was justified by faith: "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness" (Ja. 2:23).  But how do we know that Abraham believed and thus was justified?  We know this, we prove his faith, only by works.

This emphasis on the works that accompany justifying faith is important today. Many Christians grew up in legalistic settings and feel set free from a life of works when they encounter the Reformed doctrine of justification. In one vital sense, they are right! They are freed from the vanity of our works in justification. They are delivered from a "performance religion" that is filled with pride and crippled by fear. God justifies the ungodly through faith in Christ alone! Yet these brothers and sisters need to remember that faith joins us to a Christ who is holy. True faith, by its very nature, leads to good works and all other Christian graces. The claim of faith without corresponding works is a dead claim. To be sure, works are no longer a condition of our justification - praise God for that! But works remain a consequence of our justification. Thus Jesus says to those whose claim to faith is devoid of good works: "I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness" (Mt. 7:23).