Imperatives are for preaching...

Now that Kevin DeYoung has weighed in quite effectively on the most recent flap over the justification/sanctification debate I suppose any words from me would be superfluous. However, I am a preacher so silence is not an option. But given DeYoung's excellent post I have greatly altered what I had originally written.

Like many others, I was thankful for Jen Wilkin's recent post over at TGC entitled "Failure Is Not a Virtue." She expresses appropriate concern over what she calls "celebratory failurism" - the tendency to excuse our sins by casting them as means by which we experience more grace. Tullian Tchividjian fired back with a strongly worded response accusing Wilkin of muddy theology and confusing theological categories. Dr. Michael Kruger responded with understandable dismay given the fact that Pastor Tchividjian never actually responds to Wilkin's article and even accuses her of assertions she did not make. To Dr. Kruger's response (are you following this?) Pastor Tchividjian did not yield the point but dug in by asserting that he knows of no one guilty of "celebratory failurism." I actually have seen quite a bit of it. Jared Oliphint effectively pushes back on Pastor Tchividjian's objection. But I digress.

One thing that concerns me in this discussion about the law, sin, and sanctification is the tendency by some to force an antithesis where there is only a distinction. In other words, law/gospel and indicative/imperative are very helpful, yea, necessary distinctions. But they are not antitheses. They are not enemies. And perhaps I'm way off but it seems to me that Pastor Tchividjian at least comes close to forcing an antithesis where a distinction is called for. My question for him would be, "What place does the preaching of biblical imperatives have in the life of the church?" or "What function does preaching the biblical imperatives serve in the life of the Christian?" Perhaps I am misreading him completely, but it seems to me that Pastor Tchividjian sees the preaching of imperatives as useful merely to teach us that only Jesus obeyed perfectly. So, for instance, in his schema the parable of the Good Samaritan was given merely to prove to us that we cannot obey perfectly. This seems to be terribly truncated and therefore misleading. The fact is the parable of the Good Samaritan was given in answer to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" Is Jesus the ultimate Good Samaritan? Absolutely. Is that the only function of Jesus' parable? Of course not. To deny the salutary function of that parable is to rob Christians of a God-given means toward their sanctification.

Certainly we must never preach the commands of Scripture as a means of justification. Woe to us if we do! But I'm curious as to where this is going on within confessionally reformed churches. I'm not asking if there is any bad preaching out there. We know there is. I'm not asking if there is any moralistic preaching out there or if any preachers veer off dangerously close to legalism. That's true enough. My interest is in the charge I hear from Pastor Tchividjian that many reformed preachers are grossly confusing law and gospel and are preaching that the law has the power to make us righteous.

I grew up Southern Baptist. And while I never heard the phrase "law/gospel distinction" or "imperative/indicative" I never once (I repeat: never once) heard that justification before God came by way of obedience to the law. Did I hear moralistic sermons? Unfortunately, yes. Plenty of them. Did I hear "Dare to be a Daniel" types of sermons? Again, yes. But I was never taught that the law is the gospel and therefore has the power to save. I never heard a sermon instructing that justification before God was gained through obedience to God's law.

Those of us who are gratefully reformed must be very careful to avoid elitism in our assumptions. While our non-reformed brethren may not have the helpful but somewhat sophisticated categories of "law/gospel" and "indicative/imperative" they may still actually be able to preach the gospel without promising justification by works of the law. Imagine.

The imperatives in Scripture do more than simply point out to us that we cannot obey perfectly. Without a doubt the law of God reveals to us the full extent of our sin. The law proves to the sinner that all his "righteousness" is as filthy rags before a holy God. But the law of God is so much more, as David professes in Psalm 119. For Christians, the law of God is a lamp for our feet and a light for our path. While we can never be justified by the law, certainly God uses its proclamation as a means to sanctify us.

It is not legalism to desire to obey God. It is not legalism to call God's people to conformity to Christ. It is not legalism to strive to put sin to death. It is legalism to think that such conformity and obedience is what justifies us before God. But to equate "the law" with legalism is to dishonor the law and be robbed of its sanctifying function. Preaching God's law is not legalism. God's law is a delight to his people for it shows us how to glorify him. The biblical calls to holiness and perseverance are blessed means for our sanctification. To preach this is not only Reformed, it is biblical.

That is why I was concerned over Pastor Tchividjian's charge that, "Anyone paying attention to writing and preaching today (in both the reformed and non-reformed world) cannot deny that there is a gross confusion of categories and that the law (in all of its uses) is assumed to have the power to produce what it demands" (from his reply to Michael Kruger).

Two thoughts:
1) "The non-reformed world" is a massive category that includes Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Pentecostals, Southern Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, liberals, conservatives, Federal Visionists, dispensationalists, Mennonites, Quakers, and fans of Elton John. So there will of course be all sorts of preaching in some (not all!) of those circles that confuse law and gospel, justification and sanctification. There is plenty of preaching in some (not all!) of those circles which is outright heretical. Certainly, we all know this. That's a point that needs no proving. However...
2) Who are the reformed pastors who are guilty of "gross confusion of categories" between law and gospel? Who are the Reformed (not FV!) pastors who are preaching that we are justified by the law?

This is Pastor Tchividjian's charge and it is a serious one. Are these pastors members of confessionally reformed denominations? If so, then they are in violation of their ordination vows. They are teaching false doctrine and ought to be identified. If Pastor Tchividjian is aware of anyone in the presbytery in which I serve who is preaching justification by the law then I need to know so I can bring formal charges.

This is why I agree with Jared Oliphint and Carl Trueman that Pastor Mark Jones' offer to meet with Pastor Tchividjian for a debate on the matter is a good idea. Throughout her history the church has had to debate matters of doctrine precisely because of our propensity for error. That's a tougher sell these days because of the unwritten but clearly implied canons of niceness within evangelicalism.

Pastor Jones has made no secret of his concern over Pastor Tchividjian's theology. If what Tchividjian says is true, that there is "gross confusion" over law and gospel among reformed pastors and preachers, then we need to know where this is happening for the sake of the church's peace and purity. I like Carl's idea of TGC hosting such an event. I also like his idea of offering a necessary corrective to those who invoke Luther to advance a rather extreme law/gospel antithesis.

Take and Read:
The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms      
A Body of Divinity by Thomas Watson  
The Mortification of Sin by John Owen
The Enemy Within by Kris Lundgaard  
The Hole In Our Holiness by Kevin DeYoung  
Antinomianism by Mark Jones