Sanctification Debates Part 1

(Volume 24, Issue 1, January-March 2018)

Throughout church history the issue of sanctification, how Christians change, grow and mature, has been hotly debated.  Those who cling to the Reformed position on salvation, that is, salvation is a gift of God based completely on His grace (sola gratia), received entirely by faith in Christ alone (sola Christos), totally apart from our merits (sola fide) have not always agreed on how the saved, regenerated individual “work[s] out [their] salvation” (Phil 2:12).  Until recently most have concurred that spiritual growth, or fruitfulness, is an inevitable result of our new nature and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.  Certainly, such maturity was uneven and depended on many factors, but regeneration was sure to produce some evidence of spiritual change.  But today this commonly held belief has been challenged on two fronts.  Before we delve into these, a short review of other positions on sanctification within evangelicalism is in order. It is this subject of progressive sanctification, or how the believer matures in Christ, that now draws our attention.  There have been a number of models embraced by various evangelical groups.  They include:

 

Christian Perfectionism: Held by some in the Holiness, Pentecostal and Wesleyan camps, the idea is that at some point of spiritual crisis, whether that is called a second work of grace or a second or even third baptism of the Holy Spirit, the sin nature can be eradicated and the believer can reach the point of sinlessness in this life (scriptures used: Rom 6:6, 11; 1 John 3:6-9; 1 Thess 5:23). Christian perfectionists do not believe that a person can become flawless or be free from mistakes and wrong choices, but they can live sin-free in this life.

 

Higher Life: Sometimes called Victorious Life, this view popularized by the Keswick Movement in the mid-1800s also teaches a point of crisis in which the believer “lets go and lets God.”  At that moment, the Christian realizes that they are to play a passive role in their spiritual development and rely upon God who will do all that is necessary for sanctification (scriptures used: Rom 8:2-3)

 

Dedication: Formulated by Lewis Sperry Chafer in his book He That Is Spiritual, it is argued that Christian growth comes as a result of being filled, or controlled, by the Holy Spirit.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit the believer is enabled to obey the Lord and thus make significant progress in their spiritual walk. Chafer made a distinction between a Christian who is saved by grace and one who, at a moment of serious reflection, dedicates, or rededicates, their life to the Lord and is filled with the Spirit.  Prior to this experience of dedication, the believer will grow very little in the things of the Lord, but following dedication the believer will begin to progress toward Christ-likeness (scriptures used: Rom 12:1-2).

 

Spiritual Formation: Through the use of ancient, largely Roman Catholic, mystical and ascetic spiritual disciplines, Christ is formed in the life of the believer.  The ultimate goal of spiritual formation is an event in which Christ is experienced in an inexplicable mystical experience, with a resulting union with God (scriptures used: 1 Tim 4:7).

 

Reformed:  All who are justified will grow in sanctification.  Of the major views presented here this is the only one that does not teach some form of crisis experience as necessary for sanctification. Growth in the Lord, while uneven, will continue throughout the lifetime of the one who has been truly regenerated as they make use of the means of grace.  If, in time, there is no evidence of spiritual development in the professing believer, the most likely reason is that they were not truly born again.  Most of this persuasion would accept a Lordship view of salvation.  That is, you cannot accept Christ as Savior but deny Him as Lord (scriptures used: Rom 10:9-10).

 

Free Grace – Dispensational:  While progressive sanctification is desired, not every Christian will grow; not every Christian even wants to grow, and a carnal Christian life is a state lived by many believers perpetually (scriptures used: 1 Cor 3:2-3).  Texts such as 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and Galatians 5:19-21 are interpreted as true Christians who will not inherit the kingdom of God because of their sinful lifestyles.

 

Free Grace – Reformed: This view champions the idea that the Christian life is basically resting in the finished work of Christ. Attempts to grow spiritually, use of means of grace, or use of put on/put off principles, are seen as works-based Christianity, legalism or pietism (scriptures used: Gal 3:2-3).

 

It is to these final two positions that we now turn.

 

Free Grace – Dispensational

Briefly, because this is not the focus of this particular paper, and I have discussed it in other articles, those who identify as “Free Grace” are desiring to protect sola fide from any encroachment of works in the salvation process. Interestingly, those who are seen as the opponents of Free Grace, that is, those who teach Lordship Salvation, are in substantial agreement.  Both believe fiercely that salvation is received from the gracious hand of God by faith alone, sans any efforts or merits on the part of the sinner, yet important differences exist.  A pastor friend of mine, Dr. John Hosler, a careful theologian and strong advocate of the Free Grace position, defines this view well.  He writes in his blog, “Free Grace Theology is essentially a view of soteriology grown from more traditional Baptist roots. It was systematized by theologians such as Drs. Charles Ryrie and Zane Hodges in the 1980s, mainly as a response to Lordship theology, or Lordship salvation, which has its roots in Reformed theology.”[1]  While there are significant differences between Ryrie’s modified view and Hodges’ more extreme position (see TOTT, “The Crossless Gospel”),[2] Hosler is essentially on target.  He continues:

 

The basic teaching of Free Grace Theology is that responding to the ‘call to believe’ in Jesus Christ through faith alone is all that is necessary to receive eternal life.  This basic, simple belief brings assurance of entering the kingdom of God.  Then, if a person further responds to the ‘call to follow’ Jesus, he becomes a disciple and undergoes sanctification.  The follower of Christ has the opportunity to ‘inherit’ the kingdom of God, which includes receiving particular rewards based on works accomplished for God on earth.

 

Suffice it to say that while both approaches agree on salvation by faith alone the rub comes in understanding the content of saving faith.  Since sanctification, not salvation, is the focus of this paper, I will refer my readers to previous TOTT articles for a fuller understanding of the differences. [3]

 

In the realm of sanctification, some division between the positions can be seen in Hosler’s statement above, but he adds the following clarification: “Lordship salvation holds that saving faith includes inherently the ‘act’ of accomplishing radical internal change leading to good works.  This leads to the Free Grace emphasis on assurance of salvation, again based on the basic promise in John’s Gospel, that belief is all that is necessary for salvation.  To the Free Grace theologian, this is a simple, cut-and-dried issue – if you believe, you are saved.  For the Lordship salvation camp, assurance of salvation comes through the observation of change in the professing believer, i.e., that is, accomplishing good works.”

 

Hosler exposes the two primary differences between Lordship and Free Grace: the content of saving faith (see comment above) and the evidence of salvation.  Lordshippers believe, with free gracers, that the first line of evidence, and the most important for personal assurance of salvation, is faith in Christ and His finished work.  But to this objective evidence is added the subjective evidence of a changed life.  It is inconceivable to these theologians to think that a person can be genuinely saved, which includes the regeneration process, and yet manifest no evidence of this radical change in everyday life.  This brings us back to sanctification.  The Free Grace thinkers are concerned that by adding the subjective element of observable change (or fruit) one runs the danger of adding works to faith for salvation.  Therefore, they tend to divide Christians into two classes: carnal who are born again but demonstrate little if any indication of such, and spiritual who are making obvious spiritual progress. As Hosler insinuates above, the first class are truly saved, but only the second class are disciples and will inherit the kingdom (which is seen as something separate from eternal salvation).  Simplifying these differences, as it relates to sanctification, it can be said that those embracing Lordship understandings cannot envision a true Christian who does not grow spiritually.  Despite growth that may seem small at times, it may, and almost certainly will, be ups and downs, and believers can sin in grievous ways and remain in that state for some time.  Ultimately regeneration, if it is real, will inevitably produce signs of life in the child of God.  Those advocating Free Grace would agree that all Christians should demonstrate subjective evidence of regeneration but may not, for carnal Christians do not show spiritual fruit and may remain in that state perpetually.  The tipping point from carnal to spiritual is at the moment of dedication as taught by Chafer (see above).  For the purposes of this paper what is important is to understand that Free Grace supporters believe that some Christians will never grow, never progress in sanctification, or bear observable fruit.  Yet they are encouraged to rest in the moment when they believed in Christ for their assurance of salvation.

 

As Hosler states, the Free Grace theology springs largely from baptistic (and dispensational) roots.  Few in Reformed circles would cozy up to the Free Grace thinking and, as we will see, some are allergic to Lordship views as well.

 

Free Grace – Reformed

 

While not new to Christian theology, and seemingly out of sync with the teachings of the Reformers, most of whom would be aligned more closely with a Lordship understanding of both salvation and sanctification, a resurgence of a Reformed “free grace” view has gained traction. One of the most common names given to this view is Liberate Theology. The Liberate network was founded by Tullian Tchividjian when he pastored Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, and is described on its website as “an annual conference, a content-based website, a pastors’ network, radio, writing projects and soon-to-be television program.  Liberate exists for one very specific reason: to connect God’s inexhaustible grace to an exhausted world,” (which is the subtitle of Tchividjian’s 2013 book, One Way Love). Tchividjian stated that “the purpose of the Liberate conferences is to rebrand Christianity on a global scale.”  His concern was that evangelicalism had created a religion which was fixated with teaching Christians how to gain God’s favor via performance. Speakers at the various Liberate conferences included Steve Brown, Bryan Chapell, Elyse Fitzpatrick, Ray Ortlund, Paul Tripp and Michael Horton. Liberate was dissolved in 2017 after repeated moral failures surfaced in Tchividjian’s life, resulting in  his divorce and being fired by two churches.

 

Other descriptions of teachings in line with Liberate Theology are: hyper-grace sanctification, antinomian sanctification, and Radical Lutheranism. It is also known as monergistic or the grace model of sanctification by its supporters.  Although the recognized leader of Liberate sanctification, Tullian Tchividjian, is no longer at the helm due to his moral implosion, his theology is still very much alive in those who have picked up the baton.  We will start with the teaching and practical distinctions of Liberate sanctification.  In order to distill the massive amount of material into manageable form, I will concentrate on three sources: Tchividjian, Theocast and The Cure.

 

Doctrinal Distinctives

 

It must first be acknowledged that Liberate Theology (LT) is safely within the borders of orthodoxy.  While there have been some divisions and heated debate over the issue, including the removal of Tchividjian from the Gospel Coalition in 2014, and pointed accusations from both sides, no one should be accused of heresy.  As a matter of fact, this particular model has brought some needed correctives, or at least helpful reminders.  For example, LT focuses on the gospel rather than being distracted by moralism.  Moralism is not central to Christianity; Christ and his finished work are, and LT is right to hold our feet to the fire on this issue.  LT also warns of the danger of performance in which the believer lives and behaves as if they can enhance the Lord’s love and approval of them through their obedience.  LT reminds us rightly that there is nothing we can do to increase the Lord’s love for us, and no sin that we can commit as Christians would endanger our acceptance by Him.  And too, LT’s distinction between law and grace, while overdone at times as will be demonstrated later, and not unique to LT, nevertheless is valuable.  Legalism is a constant enemy of authentic Christian living and understanding the role of the law and that of grace is essential.  LT is not wrong to reiterate the difference between law and grace (or gospel, as they like to frame it).  As a matter of fact, on the essentials of the faith LT leaders are sound.

 

Some, such as the members of the podcast known as Theocast, consistently claim to be promoting Reformed theology of a confessional nature.  Theocast has four members, who call themselves “The Boys”:  Byron Yawn, Ryan Haskins, Jeremy Litts and Jon Moffitt.  The Boys are either staff members or church planters connected with Community Bible Church in Nashville, Tennessee.  Having listened to dozens of their podcasts and reading some of their literature, I find myself alternately agreeing strongly with many of their positions and then repulsed by their extreme statements.  In their “Primer on Pietism” booklet, The Boys claim “there are two types of evangelicals out there: pietists and confessionalists.”[4]  Of course, as soon as you make an attempt to break any large grouping of people into two, and only two, types you immediately run the risk of reductionism, distortion and erecting straw men for the purpose of lighting them on fire.  The Boys, for example, see themselves as confessionalists who adhere to the classic Reformed confessions.  As a result, they believe they are promoters of Reformed theology.  Yet the majority of Reformed theologians disagree passionately with LT, the heartbeat of Theocast, which is why the Gospel Coalition bounced Tchividjian.  Obviously not all confessionalists agree in their interpretations of the confessions and creeds. On the other hand, Yawn and his partners, lump everyone else into the pietist classification. This, in their view, is a broad category that swallows up everything but their own brand of confessionalism. They see, for example, fundamentalism as a subset of pietism but not exclusive: “Fundamentalism is merely a small room in the massive edifice of pietism.  While not everyone would identify as a fundamentalist, everyone can be identified in these larger paradigms.  You can be a pietist without being a fundamentalist, but you can’t be a fundamentalist without being a pietist.”[5]

 

If we stick with these handles we discover that according to LT, evangelical pietism is the mortal enemy of the authentic Christian life.  Pietism is seen as the polar opposite of the teachings of LT and yet it dominates evangelicalism of all types, according to The Boys.  For that reason, it must be exposed and its influence minimized.  Our logical next step then is to determine the definition of pietism as LT leaders understand it. The Theocast Boys say it is “an ideology that is preoccupied with piety.  All its messages, material and admonitions are dedicated to cultivating piety in the Christian life.  Piety, on the other hand, is a quality produced in the believer by the Holy Spirit (Ezekiel 36:25-27).”[6]  Even as definitions such as these are given by its strongest supporters, clarity is lacking and questions abound.  Is piety, that is godly Christian living, unimportant?  Is it really true that all the messages and materials of the pietist are dedicated to producing piety, or are they simply talking about overemphasis and degrees of differences?  Is piety produced solely by the Holy Spirit as the believer remains passive (this, as we will soon see, is at the heart of the discussion)?  Is an Old Testament passage (Ezekiel 36), which in context is about the restoration of Israel during the Millennium, not the Christian life, the best proof text for their position?  As The Boys flesh out their views in their paper “A Primer on Pietism” things become a bit clearer.  The following are some of the marks of the type of pietism they resist:

 

  • “Pietism is preoccupied with the interior of the Christian life… [It has] an ‘inward orientation.’”

 

  • “A commitment to the spirituality and moral progress of the individual Christian overwhelms pietism’s message.”

 

  • “Progress in the Christian life is its sonum bonum [highest good].”

 

  • “Should is pietism’s main focus. It is about what we should be doing, how we should go about doing it and where we should be as compared to where we are… It is concerned that we progress.”

 

  • “In the broadest sense the main focus of pietism is the life of the Christian. This observation is central. Pietism has committed itself to placing the duty of the Christian above all other realities.”[7]

 

At first blush it would appear that any effort to grow, mature, or progress in the Christian life is seen as pietism and its twin, legalism. But what the LT leaders put forth with one hand is often withdrawn by the other, leaving their followers wondering what exactly is being said.  Indeed The Boys claim they believe in piety, they just don’t believe “as pietists do that piety is the central concern of Christianity.”[8] So now they are talking degrees and emphasis.  Left at that, LT has a legitimate place at the discussion table and are offering good reminders that at the heart of true Christianity are not our efforts but Christ and His accomplishments on our behalf.  It is because of what Christ has done that we are able to be and to do. That must never be forgotten and yet often is as we reduce authentic Christian living to moralism or duty.  Such reminders are productive, but as we will see LT goes much further.

 

The Boys call their view “confessionalism,” which they claim is “an ‘outwardly focused’ orientation.  Done is its main emphasis.  It is primarily about what has been accomplished by another and how we go about benefiting from this accomplishment.”[9] They go on, “Christ has done (past) all that is necessary to secure God’s favor and approval on the sinner’s behalf (present/future)…We have found a faith that places the stress on the divine love of God rather than the imperfect efforts of the weary pilgrim.”[10]  I do not think most believers, whom they would label pietists, would disagree with these statements.  Certainly, our salvation and even sanctification rest on Christ and His work.  Our approval by God is possible only because of what Christ has done.  Further, our identity is as saints because we are in Christ.  We are who we are, spiritually speaking, because we are in Christ – we are in union with Him.  Without question extreme pietists exist who are trusting in themselves instead of the Lord, who believe they win the love and acceptance of Christ only as they perform, who confuse moralism, or even patriotism for Christianity, and who are motivated by terror of God instead of the love of God.  Perhaps LT is a reaction to such people.  But to brand everyone except themselves as pietists, who suffer from the above flaws, is misrepresentative and divisive.  As The Boys like to say about everyone who subscribes to their views, “they get it,” and the rest apparently don’t and therefore misunderstand the biblical message.   The real issue under discussion is not whether we should rest in the finished work of Christ (we should), or if our union with Him forms our spiritual identity (it does), or if the love of the Lord for us is unconditional (it is).  At issue, is once we are resting in the accomplishments of Christ, and know we are secure in Him because of His love, what should be our response?  Is it a passive acceptance and indifference about spiritual progress, or is it a call to action to “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12)?  LT frames virtually any call to action, the importance of ordinary means of grace such as setting aside times for Scripture reading and prayer, and any concern for spiritual progress, as legalism.  To them such efforts are to crawl back under law and abandon grace.

 

The Theocast Boys make this plain when they write that “on a practical level the differences between pietism and confessionalism are numerous.”[11] They then press on to outline a dozen substantial differences.  These differences are strained at best, and I will briefly respond to each.  Here are a few:

 

  • Pietism is heavily practical in nature (do). Confessionalism is heavily declarative in nature (done).  Response: Most of those being labeled as pietist base the “do” on the “done” of Christ.

 

  • In pietism doubt often emerges as an implicit motivation for godliness. In confessionalism certainty motivates the believer.  Response: This would not be typically true of most non-confessional conservative evangelicals.

 

  • Pietism is concerned with cultivating spirituality in the individual. Confessionalism is concerned with exalting Christ as the sole object of faith.   Response: Such a distinction cannot be maintained.

 

  • Pietism mixes Law and Gospel. Confessionalism maintains a distinction between Law and Gospel.[12]  Response: This is not normative among most pietists.

 

The Boys erect several additional strawmen connected to sola fide.  They are in lockstep with the Free Grace theology mentioned earlier in this paper in that both believe attempts at recognizing spiritual fruitfulness or transformation as evidence of salvation are rejected.  LT teaches that if we link evidence of spiritual aliveness to our claim of salvation, “the believer can never rest.”[13]  Related to this “confessionalism does not share pietism’s obsession over transformation.”[14] Tchividjian writes, “The gospel liberates us to be okay with not being okay.  We know we’re not—though we try very hard to convince other people we are.  But the gospel tells us, ‘Relax, it is finished.’ … “The bottom line is this, Christian: because of Christ’s work on your behalf, God doesn’t dwell on your sin the way you do.  So relax, and rejoice, and you’ll actually start to get better.”[15]  The idea seems to be that as we relax and are passive concerning sanctification we may very well make progress.  If not, then we rest in what Christ has done for us despite seeing few if any signs of spiritual life.  “It is okay to not be okay,” but is it?  Are we to be content with lack of spiritual progress, enslavement to sinful habits or a disconnect between what Christ has done on our behalf and our application of these truths?

 

The Boys continue with an inflammatory remark: “Pietism cannot comprehend an obedience that flows naturally from the heart of the Christian and is motivated by assurance rather than fear.”[16]  To this is added, “Within pietism doubt drives the believer forward because justification is made to depend on the person.  Within confessionalism freedom drives the Christian forward because justification lies completely outside the individual.”[17]  On the surface, both of these statements are highly misrepresentative.  But the last paragraph of the Primer gets closer to the heart of what is being said: “Pietism drives the believer forward by the application of discipline in an effort to increase spiritual activity and godliness.”  It is the idea of discipline, or efforts on the part of the believer, that is so repugnant to The Boys.  As soon as a child of God seeks to discipline themselves for the purpose of godliness (1 Tim 4:7) they cry legalism and vilify those who make such efforts as pietists.  In essence LT is a modern-day revival of old quietism. Quietist leader of former days Andrew Murray writes, “What [the believer] can do himself is altogether sinful.  He must therefore cease entirely from his own doing, and wait for the working of God in him … Just as in proportion as he yields himself as a truly passive instrument in the hand of God, will he be wielded of God as the active instrument of His almighty power.”[18]  LT seems to be a modern rendition of this older form of quietism or passivism.

 

Spiritual Progress

 

One of the key debates swirling around LT is whether spiritual progress, maturity and/or growth are even possible or desirable.  The strong implication within LT is that the answer to these questions is negative, and any real effort to seek spiritual progress, except by looking backward to our justification, is both a dead end and legalistic.  Tchividjian quoted positively Radical Lutheran Gerhard Forde:

 

Am I making progress?  If I am really honest, it seems to me that the question is odd, even a little ridiculous.  As I get older and death draws nearer, I don’t seem to be getting better.  I get a little more impatient, a little more anxious about having perhaps missed what this life has to offer, a little slower, harder to move, a little more sedentary and set in my ways.  Am I making progress?  Well, maybe it seems as though I sin less, but that may only be because I’m getting tired!  It’s just too hard to keep indulging the lusts of youth.  Is that sanctification?  I wouldn’t think so! One should not, I expect, mistake encroaching senility for sanctification!  But can it be, perhaps, that it is precisely the unconditional gift of grace that helps me to see and admit all that?  I hope so.  The grace of God should lead us to see the truth about ourselves and to gain a certain lucidity, a certain humor, a certain down-to-earthness.[19]

 

Tchividjian comments that Forde, “rightly shows that when we stop narcissistically focusing on our need to get better, that is what it means to get better! When we stop obsessing over our need to improve, that is what it means to improve!”[20]

 

The heart of the controversy wraps itself around such thoughts.  We will conclude Part One by leaving the reader to contemplate two issues as related to LT, Scripture and the Christian life:

 

  • As we teach and apply Scripture to our lives, should we teach the imperatives given or focus solely on the indicatives? In other words, does the Word of God draw us to focus entirely on the work of Christ or does it also call us to make efforts to obey God.  Which efforts are to be encouraged by the church?  Or are such efforts graceless legalism and falling back under law?

 

  • Is the Christian expected to progress in their spiritual walk? Should we make it a goal to grow in holiness and obedience?

 

 

These are important matters that we will unpack in Part Two of this article.

by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher Southern View Chapel

[1] Article on file.

[2] http://tottministries.org/the-crossless-gospel-part-2/

[3] http://tottministries.org/the-crossless-gospel/

[4] A Primer on Pietism, Its Characteristics and Inevitable Impact on the Christian Life, (Nolensville, TN: Theocast, Inc. 2017), p. 5.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 6.

[7] Ibid., (emphasis in the original).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 7.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., pp. 7, 8.

[13] Ibid., p. 9.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Tullian Tchividjian, Jesus + Nothing = Everything (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), p. 120.

[16] A Primer on Pietism, p. 9.

[17] Ibid., p. 10

[18] Andrew Murray, Abide in Christ, p. 128.

[19] Tullian Tchividjian, Jesus + Nothing = Everything, pp. 173-174.

[20] Ibid., p. 174.