A Few More Questions

Derek Thomas proposed a question at the PCRT conference a couple weeks ago in his talk titled "The Holy Christian Life." It has been ringing through my ears as I've been reading about and discussing this sanctification debate in Reformed circles. He read Philippians 2:12-13, "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." And he basically asked, "What is a Christian to do with an imperative like this?" Why such strong language? If we are united to Christ, justified according to his work, why would we then need to work anything out regarding our salvation? And why with fear and trembling?

If the message is all about one-way love, then why do I need to work out anything? Dr. Thomas distinguished between the definitive, positional sanctification that is ours in Christ, and the progressive sanctification that is ongoing for the believer. Yes, it is vital that we hear over and over again the good news that Christ has fulfilled all righteousness on our behalf and that he has paid the full penalty for our sin. Praise God! Our default is to want to think that there is something we do to contribute to our being justified before God. We are prone to self-righteousness.

And I understand the emphasis that this must have. I will even say that I was very attracted to Tullian Tchividjian's writing when I first encountered it. He has written some beautiful words about God's grace. But as Dietrich Bonhoeffer so eloquently wrote, it is not a cheap grace. I am disappointed that Tchividjian has not spoken more clearly about how God's valuable gift of grace gives the Christian a deeper responsibility in obedience.

Carl makes a valid point in taking this sanctification issue to practical, pastoral matters by looking at the other issue plaguing the church at the moment, the issue of sexual abuse. No, grace isn't cheap, and if we accept the gospel message we know what it cost our Savior. This gives a pastor boldness in calling a sinner to repentance and obedience. Derek Thomas noted that we are to "work out" our salvation, not "work for" it. But this involves 100% effort on our part, "Spirit-filled, gospel-centered, Christ-exalting effort."

Which leads me to another question: how does the proper view of sanctification, both judicial and progressive, affect the victims of sin? Let's use the example of a married couple in the church. If the wife is having an affair and the husband seeks pastoral help, does the counsel stop with a reminder of what Christ has done for their salvation? Look to your justification? Sure, it might certainly begin that way, but both offenders and the victims also need to hear some serious validation of how the law has been broken, and how anyone can possibly move forward and grow in holiness. It seems the victims end up being the ones with the burden that is too heavy to bear when forgiveness is assumed to make light of obedience and restitution. Yes, there is forgiveness. But we are told to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Derek Thomas emphasized the fact that this is a lifelong engagement, reminding us that it is indeed God who works out his purposes in our "sanctified, Spirit-driven" efforts.

We are to delight in God's law because we now have the heart to love it and the power to obey it. We are to mortify sin because, as Dr. Thomas quoted John Owen, if we don't kill sin, sin will kill us. We are called to be like our Savior, Jesus Christ, setting aside our own dignity and emptying ourselves of our rights (some of those indicatives before our Philippians imperative). We certainly fall short of perfection in our obedience, but we can run the race, fight the fight, and hold fast to our confession knowing that Christ is even now at the right hand of the Father interceding on our behalf. That is grace. And if we are in Christ, he will bless our efforts. As Derek Thomas put it, "He will add all of the finishing touches like a master painter." If we are not heeding this imperative, but rather presumptuously sinning against God's proclaimed grace, then maybe we really don't understand what grace means. As Dr. Thomas ended his talk so well, "We fight as Christian soldiers, but we fight nevertheless."

Christian, "Is there a trembling in your pursuit of godliness?"

Derek Thomas's session as well as the other great PCRT talks are available here.