A Rejoinder on Sanctification and the Gospel

Sean Lucas
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).