A Concluding Contribution on Sanctification and the Gospel

Sean Lucas
I had actually thought about writing a further contribution to this entire conversation on sanctification and the Gospel prior to reading Bill Evans' thoughtful surrejoinder. I decided to plunge ahead with a concluding note in part because of something that I noticed repeatedly in my emails and in both Kevin DeYoung's post this morning at The Gospel Coalition and in Bill's reply: namely, the thought that I was attempting to resolve this entire argument as "mere differences" or "merely a matter of emphasis." 

I suppose that my difficulty is with the little word "mere." I do not believe that the differences are "mere"; they are consequential indeed. Nor do I believe matters of emphasis to be slight matters; rather, they can set the stage for long-lasting pastoral effects.

But I was suggesting that there is a continuum within the Reformed tradition: from neonomian (all imperatives-no indicatives) to those who lead with imperatives and insist on obedience while stressing indicatives to those who lead with indicatives and move to imperatives to those who are antinomian (all indicatives-no imperatives). In the 17th and 18th century Puritan tradition(s), the continuum would have been represented (from neonomian to antinomian) by Richard Baxter, Thomas Shepard, John Cotton, Tobias Crisp. The neonomian and antinomian positions are not biblical; the middle two positions are and represent different theological commitments and contextualized realities. Let me explain that.

The theological differences between Thomas Shepard and John Cotton were not only about mediate and immediate views of divine grace, but also about how one understood covenant theology--the mutuality of the covenant; requirements in the covenant; unilateral/bilateral aspects of the covenant; etc.--and how such theological commitments related to issues of justification and sanctification, the use of the law and the role of the Spirit, and the nature of Christian assurance. 

My only point in bringing up this early 17th century controversy is that both Shepard and Cotton represented legitimate emphases in the Reformed tradition based on decisions made about how the covenant works within our theological system. And I suspect that lurking behind our contemporary conversations are legitimate differences over how we emphasize aspects of covenant theology. Charity comes from recognizing that the Reformed tradition is a broad tradition that includes a range of options and differences and that has had a number of historical tension points.

But the differences on how we emphasize indicatives and imperatives are not simply matters of emphasis rooted in legitimately different theological emphasis in the same confessional tradition. The differences also represent different contextualized pastoral realities. Along this line, I was a bit puzzled by Bill's suggestion that "there is a danger lurking in attempts to contextualize one's preaching on sanctification to a particular audience." And I'm puzzled for two reasons.

First, surely we don't believe that every congregation is in the same spiritual condition and requires the same spiritual medicine week-after-week world without end. As I mentioned my own pastoral context, I've tried as a patient doctor of the soul to give people ample servings of God's steadfast gracious love in Jesus (indicative) and then moved to tell them what holiness looks like in the light of that (imperative). But if I had a different context--say, a congregation of 350 people whose average age is 28 and whose average length of discipleship is 3 years--I might lead with teaching them how Jesus expects us to live (imperative) in the light of this amazing grace that has saved us (indicative). If we are going to be faithful pastors, it strikes me that we must contextualize our ministry in this way.

Second, even in saying this, I still wonder whether a consistent pattern of insisting on obedience sermon after sermon, without showing people that obedience is only possible because of our union and communion with Christ, will actually produce the holiness that we all desire in our people. (Thankfully, Bill and I are agreed on this point.) Again, there are contextual realities that are in play here. In the same way that we vary our preaching so that people are exposed to the entire Word of God, so (it strikes me) we vary our themes and emphases--some weeks, the text leads me to glory in a supreme and sufficient Savior; some weeks, the text leads me to warn people about the danger of lust and the need for mortification. But my consistent theme week-by-week is that God's grace transforms everything about us; the indicative leads to the imperative; the imperative find roots in the indicative.

One final word: I would simply note once again that I've not heard any of the "grace" advocates deny the importance of imperatives or on insisting on obedience. What I have heard is a consistent emphasis upon what is the motivation for obedience. And the paragraph from the WCF 19:6 that Bill quoted is one that I love: because our 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. Motivated by seeing and savoring Jesus, we delight to obey, we fear to disobey, we rejoice in God's smile, and we reveal in God's blessing. We love because he first loved us. The indicatives ground and serve as motivation for the imperatives. And that is both biblical and Reformed.