Sanctification and the Gospel: A Surrejoinder to Sean Lucas

William B. Evans

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."­