Sanctification Debates Part 2

(Volume 24, Issue 2, April/May 2018)

Liberate Theology (LT), as we saw in Part 1 of this series, is a method of sanctification which focuses on what its teachers call the indicatives of Scripture, rather than the imperatives. Indicatives are statements of fact, in this case facts related to Christ and the gospel. The Christian is to rest in the facts of the gospel, the finished work of Christ. “Done” is the key word. The imperatives are the commands and instructions found in Scripture, in this case, those related to issues of Christian growth and maturity. These are the “shoulds,” the commandments given to the believer found within inspired Revelation. Those who believe that the Scriptures indicate there are certain imperatives given to the saints, imperatives that are to be followed if the child of God is to mature in their faith, are often labeled by the LT crowd as pietist, legalistic and worse. They are accused of putting the believer back under the Law and shackling them with burdens that they cannot bear. LT promises to set the believer free from these encumbrances and give them relief. As Tullian Tchividjian promised, LT would give “inexhaustible grace for an exhausted world.” I believe that LT has overplayed its hand, reacting too aggressively to perceived imbalances. LT is not a heretical movement so much as it is an overreaction to some very real concerns within evangelicalism and some serious misunderstandings of what the Scripture teaches. What follows is engagement with, and an examination of, some of the primary concepts that define and are foundational to LT.

The Place of the Law in the Believer’s Life

Admittedly, the role of the Law of God, whether the Old Testament Mosaic Law, or the New Testament law of Christ, is a most difficult one and has baffled the minds of some of the greatest thinkers throughout church history. Law could be defined as any part of the Bible that tells us what God wills, wants or promises. It is the imperative of Scripture. The Holy Spirit-inspired apostle Paul states clearly that we are not under the Law but under grace (Rom 6:14) and that “we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter” (Rom 7:6). This is good news for us because law, while it may command, lacks the power to transform. Paul continues, “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did, sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:4). And yet law continues to have legitimate functionality. God’s law still operates:

  • To expose our sinfulness (Romans 3:20). While the law of God, as defined above, cannot make us right before God, it can and does reveal our sinful condition. It deepens our awareness of failure before God (Romans 7:7).
  • To produce guilt (Romans 3:19). God did not give humanity the law in order to save us but in order to silence us. He silences us by using the law to make us accountable to Him. Law reveals our guilt before a Holy God.
  • To condemn and serve as a standard by which we are judged (Romans 4:15). Because we cannot perfectly keep the law it serves as our accuser.
  • To increase sin (Romans 5:20). “The law by multiplying the requirements of God reveals to men the multitude of their offenses. In this sense, the law does not make men worse than they are, but rather shows more clearly how bad they are already” In addition, due to our rebellious nature, commands actually increase defiance, as the next function of law indicates.
  • To show us the terrible nature of sin (Romans 7:8-13). In this passage Paul is careful to teach that there is nothing wrong with the Law itself. The problem lies with us. We are so depraved that even the holy commandments of God stimulate sin in us rather than eliminate it.
  • To restrain sin (1 Timothy 1:9-10). This purpose for law seems to run counter to the fourth and fifth purposes above. “The answer is that the law contains two elements and two effects. The two elements are the command and the penalty, and the two effects are internal and external. The command inwardly stimulates the attitude of rebellion in men with sinful natures. On the other hand, the penalty externally restrains the outward act of rebellion.”
  • To serve as a tutor (Galatians 3:24). The Mosiac Law served Old Testament Israel as something like a guardian that would put a restraint upon God’s people and point them to Christ until the Lord came. With the ascension of Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Law’s role as guardian has been fulfilled. It no longer serves as a custodian or in the capacity of leading men to Christ, at least in the way it did in the Old Testament age with Israel.

That law still has several functions is therefore obvious, but the question on the table is does the law of God have a role in our sanctification and, if so what is it? At this point we define law not narrowly as the Mosaic Law, but in broader terms as any part of the Bible that tells us what God wills, wants or promises. It is the imperatives of Scripture. Concerning law in this broader sense the LT leaders are correct that keeping the law, or trying to, does not produce godliness. There is no power within any law to change us internally. Laws can modify our behavior, restrain our actions, and produce moralism, but they cannot cause us to become holy. When we make use of law in this way we become legalists and the LT people are right to remind us of this. Tchividjian is on the mark when he writes that legalism happens “when imperatives are disconnected from gospel indicatives. Legalism happens when what we need to do, not what Jesus has already done, becomes the end game.” He is right. Sanctification is possible only because of provisions found in Christ. Spiritual maturity can never be decoupled from the gospel nor from the power and energy of the Holy Spirit (Eph 3:16). This, however, is not the discussion at hand. To emphasize law and ignore the gospel leads to moralism at best, and not to biblical living. With this we all agree. The issue is, what are we to make of the copious imperatives given to the believer as part of New Testament living? The list of commands and instructions would fill many pages. Just a few obvious ones: love one another, be anxious for nothing, pray without ceasing, walk in the Spirit, obey, edify one another, etc. No one can deny that these imperatives, and hundreds of others, exist. But how should they be understood? The standard interpretation among conservative Christians is that these directives and teachings, while they can never save us, and in and of themselves do not change us, nevertheless serve as guidelines providing us with the Lord’s expectations and desires for how to live Christ-honoring lives. Some specific imperatives, such as the ministry of the Word, prayer and fellowship, are denoted as means by which spiritual growth is expedited. It is through the use of these, what some call “means of grace,” that the Holy Spirit empowers the regenerate believer to holiness.

Liberate Theology’s Approach

It is at this point a great watershed arises. LT teaches that law has one essential purpose – to bring about rebellion. Quoting Tchividjian at length will reveal this:

The apostle Paul notes that the giving of the Law to Israel did not lead to a newfound obedience but began a history of rebellion…Jesus’s severe indictment of the Jewish leaders in the New Testament does not lead to a heartfelt repentance, but to his own crucifixion. Jesus’s command to his disciples that they must take up their crosses and follow him fails to get their martyr juices flowing. Instead, they all abandon him. Paul’s stinging criticism of the Corinthians leads directly to his own tearful letter in 2 Corinthians 10-13. In each instance, the arrival of the Law does not lead to life but to disobedience and death. And I haven’t even mentioned the most obvious example of all, the very first one, in the Garden of Eden. The command not to eat from the Tree of Good and Evil prompts Adam and Eve to disobey rather than follow it. If the Law has a purpose, it must just be this paradoxical outcome.

Given this view of the directives found in Scripture it is no wonder that even those who seek to obey God’s imperatives by the power Holy Spirit, are accused by LT teachers of pietism, legalism, and Pharisaism. If the only purpose of the commandments of God is to produce rebellion, then any attempt to obey will inevitably lead to failure and discouragement. Incredibly, the implication from the above quote is that even the Lord does not seem to understand or appreciate this. Unless it was God’s intention to trip up Adam, and the Holy Spirit inspired Paul’s goal to cause his readers to stumble, or Jesus’ desire was to produce uncommitted disciples, then these imperatives were counterproductive, according to Tchividjian. LT teaches that any and all imperatives are given to expose our rebellion and drive us to the gospel. Therefore, attempts at compliance, even among Christians lead to disaster. LT theologians’ alternative then is to relax, cease all efforts, and turn to the gospel and grace rather than be concerned about the Lord’s instructions. Let’s take a look at each of these:

The authors of The Cure, a book written by several men who lead an LT-based ministry describe those attempting to live in obedience to God’s imperatives as living in the “Room of Good Intentions.” 6 This room is filled with exhausted, frustrated, superficial, lonely, guarded people, who hide behind masks so that no one knows how messed up they really are. On the front door of the Room of Good Intentions is a sign marked “Self-Effort.” There is an alternative to the Room of Good Intentions and it is the Room of Grace. Here we can take off our masks and let everyone know how messy our life is. In this room the one most enslaved to sin is honored. A new arrival to this room in the book confesses a number of sins and is immediately topped by a veteran of the Room of Grace, who shouts, “That’s it? That’s all you got? I’ll take your anger, guilt, and dark thoughts and raise you compulsive sin and chronic lower-back pain! Oh, and did I mention that I’m in debt up to my ears?… You’d better get more than that little list.” A bit later Christ Himself joins the fun. “He puts His hands on my shoulders, staring into my eyes. No disappointment. No condemnation. Only delight. Only love. He pulls me into a bear hug, so tight it knocks the breath out of me for a moment… After several moments, with a straight face He says, ‘That is a lot of sin. A whole lot of sin. Don’t you ever sleep?’ He starts laughing, and I start laughing.”

While all of us appreciate the Lord’s great mercy and forgiveness, there is no place in Scripture that depicts Him laughing at our sin or taking it lightly. This distortion of grace might provide comfort to some but it is not the picture of our Lord’s reaction to evil. Instead we find that our sin grieves Him (Eph 4:30). We find Him weeping over the rebelliousness of Jerusalem (Matt 23:37-39), calling out the Pharisees as hypocrites (Matt 23:13-36), as well as demanding repentance from five of the seven churches in Revelation 2-3, not grinning like a goof and laughing at our sin. The implication of LT teachings is that we are such messed up sinners that there is really nothing we can or should try to do about it. Rather, we relax and rest in the Lord’s grace.

Of course there is a sense in which this is true. We all stand because of grace. None of us lives up to our calling and our position. None of us wins the approval or the love of Christ because of our own performance and merits. But that is not the same thing as saying that sin does not matter and that we should not be concerned with spiritual growth in holiness. This is, in essence, turning Romans 6:1-2 on its head: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” Grace is designed to lead us to godly living, not provide us with excuses to continue in our messiness. Tchividjian disagrees. In a quote used also in Part 1 of this series, he wrote, “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.” 10 In truth the gospel is by definition the finished work of Christ and is the ground upon which every Christian stands. We rest in what our Lord has done. We can add nothing to it. But let us not forget that we are called to build on the gospel foundation. (I Cor. 3:11-15), and grow in godliness (1 Tim 4:8).

Under the LT system, if spiritual growth takes place (and it very well might not, so relax), it will come about passively. Tchividjian states, “The new self Paul speaks of will emerge more and more as we allow the gospel to remove idolatry’s shackles.” Earlier in Jesus + Nothing, Tchividjian provides more details:

Growth in the Christian life is the process of receiving Christ’s “It is finished” into new and deeper parts of our being every day, and it happens as the Holy Spirit daily carries God’s good word of justification into our regions of unbelief – what one writer calls our “unevangelized territories.”

Kevin DeYoung sees where this leads,

Many Christians have simply given up on sanctification. I frequently hear from believers who doubt that holiness is even possible… The pursuit of holiness is just bound to make us feel guilty. So we figure all we can really do is cling to Christ. We are loved because of the imputed righteousness of Christ, but personal obedience that pleases God is simply not possible. The truly super-spiritual do not “pursue holiness”; they celebrate their failures as opportunities to magnify the grace of God.

Some in the LT clan like to call their view Reformed Confessionalism but theologian Michael Allen documents that it is actually a radical form of Lutheranism. “Radical Lutheranism [is] a failure to see that the free promise of justification fully in Christ Jesus can be united with the equally divine pledge that God will sanctify his people and (crucially) that discipline is a gift which, far from undercutting the gospel grace, actually extends the gift of Jesus for his flock unto that end of holiness and glory.” The danger of Radical Lutheranism is to pit the imperatives against the indicatives as if they were enemies. The fact is that it is on the basis of the gospel, the finished work of Christ, that our sanctification is made possible. The gospel does not save us and leave us wallowing in our messiness; the gospel is the foundation upon which true inward change is to take place. When J. C. Ryle wrote his classic book Holiness, he was battling the 19 th century brand of passive sanctification emerging out of the Keswick movement. He wrote, “We must be holy, because this is one grand end and purpose for which Christ came into the world… In short, to talk of men being saved from the guilt of sin, without being at the same time saved from its dominion in their hearts, is to contradict the witness of all Scripture… Jesus is a complete Saviour. He does not merely take away the guilt of a believer’s sin. He does more – He breaks its power (1 Pet 1:2; Rom 8:29; Eph 1:4; 2 Tim 1:9; Heb 12:10).”

LT’s view of grace is consistent with its view of sanctification. In The Cure we read, “It’s less important that anything gets fixed, but that nothing is hidden’.” Transparency, the removal of masks so that our messy lives are exposed to others, is more important to these authors than spiritual transformation. Such thinking causes theologian Carl Trueman to remark about LT. “Grace seemed to be nothing more than God turning a blind eye to human rebellion. It was as if grace were a free pass to do whatever one chooses.” Tchividjian tells us that “grace doesn’t make demands. It just gives… It doesn’t expect a return on investments.” Such a statement is hard to square with Scripture. For example, Ephesians 1:3 tells us that God has “blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.” From this point on, until the end of chapter three, no demands are given, only expressions of our position in Christ, and the provisions of His grace. But the second half of the epistle opens with a demand, “Therefore I… implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called” (4:1). So, unless the inspired apostle merely wants to frustrate the believer by commanding them to do what they could never do (walk worthy), as LT adherents seem to believe, then this instruction is something the Lord expects from His children. The remainder of the epistle is filled with one imperative after another. To emphasize portions of God’s Word at the expense of other portions always results in unbalanced Christian living, the very thing that is being produced in LT.

In Tullian Tchividjian’s One Way Love, he offers several stories that he believes illustrate grace. The first tells of his wayward years as a youth. Even though he lived outside the home and often refused to work, his father gave him blank checks and tolerated his theft of other checks for many months without a word. To Tullian this enabling is an object lesson of the grace of God who continues to give without expectations or consequences. Another story gives details of his rebellious teenage son who, because of misbehavior, had had his cellphone taken away (and sold).  Yet, some time later, following a particularly defiant episode, Tchividjian decided that grace, not discipline, was needed and took his son out to buy a new phone.  20 A third story tells of a friend who as a teen got drunk and wrecked his car only to have his father immediately rush out and buy him a new one. These stories represent several premises concerning grace that Tchividjian wants to illustrate:

  • He believes for example that Steve Brown is right when he claims, “Children will run from law, and they’ll run from grace. The ones who run from law never come back. But the ones who run from grace always come back. Grace draws its own back home.” The falsehood of such a statement needs little discussion. Contrary to Brown, people rebel against grace, and do it for a lifetime, on a regular basis.
  • “People get worse when you lay down the law.” The logical inference is that the less demands the better a person lives.
  • Attempts at applying biblical truth are legalism, Tchividjian writes, “Application is almost always a code word for law.” Apparently, therefore, application of biblical instructions must be avoided or else it will lead to legalism.


What we are seeing, I believe, is an unbalanced understanding of sanctification. When confronted with this imbalance the LT leaders such as Tchividjian recoil and reject discussions of balance: “As understandable as this hedging tendency may be, a ‘yes grace, but’ posture perpetuates slavery in our lives and in our church.” And while he would “never want to eschew talking about and praising works of faith-fueled service that spring out of a forgiven heart, we err on the side of emphasizing the passive
righteousness that inspires such works.” 26 But why err on either side? I agree, sanctification is not found in our own efforts to keep the law or through moralism, or by mere behavior modification. But neither is sanctification found in passively waiting on the Holy Spirit while we contemplate the gospel and relax in our sin. Sanctification is produced through God empowered efforts which are designed to result in the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Why not seek and proclaim the balance clearly found in
Scripture? We will carefully examine this balance from the Word in our closing article on this subject.

1 This is the subtitle for Tchividjian book, One Way Love.
2 Alva McClain, Law and Grace, p. 27.
3 Ibid., pp. 26-27.
4 Tullian Tchividjian, Jesus + Nothing = Everything (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), p. 46.
5 Tullian Tchividjian, One Way Love, Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook,
2013) p. 87, emphasis mine.
6 John Lynch, Bruce McNicol, Bill Thrall, The Cure, What if God Isn’t Who You Think He Is and Neither Are You? (San
Clemente, CrossSection: 2011), p. 13.
7 Ibid., pp 16, 20, 30-33.
8 Ibid., p. 19.
9 Ibid., p. 22.
10 Tullian Tchividjian, Jesus + Nothing = Everything, p. 120.
11 Ibid.
12 Ibid., p. 78.
13 Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in Our Holiness, Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness
(Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), p. 20.
14 Michael Allen, Sanctification (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), p. 30.
15 J., C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties and Roots (Moscow, ID: Charles Nolan, 2011), p. 49.
16 John Lynch, p. 86.
17 Carl Trueman, Grace Alone, Salvation as a Gift of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), p. 17.
18 Tullian Tchividjian, One Way Love, Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World, p. 33.
19 Ibid., pp. 56-57.
20 Ibid., pp. 160-163.                                                                                                                                                                                               21 Ibid., pp. 164-165.
22 Ibid., p. 57.
23 Ibid., p. 91.
24 Ibid., p. 155.
25 Ibid., p. 180.
26 Ibid., p. 201.


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