Sanctification and the Nature of the Gospel

William B. Evans

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.