Sanctification Debates Part 3
(Volume 24, Issue 3, June/July 2018)
In this concluding article on sanctification debates centered around what is often termed Liberate Theology (LT), and at other times the “grace model” or “monergistic” sanctification, the goal is to evaluate the basic teachings behind this model through the lens of Scripture. That is, are the teachings of LT consistent with NT Scriptures or do they present a view of sanctification that is out of balance? Have the key leaders of the movement overreacted to perceived views of Christian growth found within evangelicalism leading to legalism and pietism? Are the common theological views held by most evangelicals throughout the church age, which understand that spiritual maturity is made possible through the energy and power of the Holy Spirit, as the believer cooperates through use of means given by the Lord, application of truth and obedience to the directives found in the Scriptures, in error? Have evangelicals misunderstood the Lord’s expectations for His children for two millennia? Have they smuggled in an unbiblical form of pietism and legalism that mirrors, but is not the same as, Spirit-led Christianity? Have moralism, performance, and hypocrisy replaced true Christianity? These are the accusations of the LT leaders, as has been demonstrated in the previous two papers on this subject. It has to be admitted at this point that many grassroots Christians are guilty as charged. And unfortunately even some biblical scholars, local churches and denominations also fit the description. However, the solution is not to oversell an equally false understanding of sanctification, but to develop a theology of Christian growth drawn from the New Testament itself.
In this paper we will begin with a quick review of LT, then challenge its primary tenets, first theologically then biblically, and in the process reveal the NT paradigm for sanctification.
LT is not a heretical teaching, rather it is a form of quietism which emphasizes a passive approach to the Christian life. It focuses its attention exclusively on the finished work of Christ and virtually eliminates active efforts to grow in godliness. It majors on the indicatives – that which Christ has accomplished for us – and either ignores or minimizes the imperatives – that which the Christian is directed to do. Further, those who insist on obedience to the commands the Lord has given us are labeled pietists and legalists, despite Jesus’ clear instruction to the Eleven, “Go… and make disciples…teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matt 28:20). To the LT teachers, attempts at obedience to the Lord’s commands might produce moralists, but it does not produce Christ-like people. Just the opposite is more likely. All directives are seen as law-based, and law as they understand it, has only one purpose: to drive us to failure and despair. Therefore, when we attempt to obey Christ, even energized by the Holy Spirit, we will grow, not in godliness, but in hopelessness and rebellion. The solution offered is not to bother about obedience and maturity, but to relax, accept our sinfulness, and rest in the completed work of Christ. Grace is given ultimate place in the system but, as theologian Carl Trueman observed after listening to Tullian Tchividjian describe it, “Grace seems 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.”
What LT is attempting to correct, and rightly so, is the idea that our acceptance by God is based on our performance and obedience. Clark Whitten, in his book Pure Grace, writes, “What we have failed to understand is that we don’t reign in life through our performance. We reign through our position! Not through understanding what to do, but understanding who we are.” Therefore Whitten writes, “I am attempting to get you to think about focusing on Jesus’ finished work rather than your unfinished work.” In this he is not wrong, but he immediately loses biblical balance claiming, “If you are ‘working” to please Him, you are in for a lifetime of unfinished business, and it will leave you perpetually exhausted!” Never mind that the apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him” (2 Cor 5:9). Paul did not seem to share Whitten’s concern that his desire to please Christ would lead to spiritual exhaustion. Later in the book Whitten writes, “God doesn’t demand we love Him.” After all, that would be “law” and would lead to legalism in attempting to do so. Yet when Jesus is asked to identify the greatest commandment, He replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37). However Whitten wants to nuance love, or its motivation, the fact remains that we are indeed commanded to love God and to claim otherwise is a distortion.
Again, LT promoters are not wrong about the importance of the gospel and the finished work of Christ. It is foundational and essential. Without the work of Christ on our behalf Christianity is mere behavioral modification at best. More attention is needed by most on the gospel; how critical to our identity as believers it is. Without the Christ-event we are lost in our sins and no amount of effort on our part matters. Response to the gospel is not turning over new leaves, behaving more morally, or feeling more spiritual. As Trueman writes, “We do not need spiritual healing, for that would imply we are merely in need of repair. We need spiritual resurrection… Grace is not God giving wholesome advice or a helping hand. It is God raising someone from the dead, first Christ and then those who are in Christ.”
But because our salvation is a supernatural work of God resulting in spiritual resurrection and union with Christ, the importance of progressive transformation in our daily lives is not minimized. We do not press toward practical godliness to win God’s approval or love; we do so because of what He already has done for us in Christ. Thomas Schreiner has it right:
It is important to recognize that obedience isn’t motivated by a desire to be accepted by God. Acceptance with God is by faith alone through the work of Christ alone and to the glory of God alone. Obedience, then, stems from joy, from a delight in God, from a desire to do what pleases him. Obedience…is a response to His love.
Ultimately only Scripture is authoritative. It is possible for all the great theologians throughout church history to be wrong about a point of theology, and, in fact, some are making that claim today. For example, N. T. Wright and the scholars behind the New Perspective on Paul assert that the church, at least since the Reformation, has been wrong about the gospel message as found in Paul’s epistles. Rob Bell claims we have misunderstood hell and the Bible since the time of the apostles. And LT leadership believes that most of the church has misinterpreted what the Bible says about sanctification. Only the Scriptures themselves can arbitrate between such views, but at least the historic church should have a say.
What we discover going back through church history is that the vast majority of Christian theologians who have embraced salvation by grace alone, in Christ alone, by faith alone, also recognized that justification is transformative. Thomas Schreiner, in his book Faith Alone, provides a historic tour beginning with the Church Fathers, cruising through the Reformers and concluding with Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley, demonstrating that whatever other differences these leaders had they closed ranks on the idea that saving faith should lead to good works. Luther, for example, rejected any notion that works contributed to our salvation, but they were evidence of our justification. He was under no illusion that salvation removed the believer’s desire to sin nor their sinful actions. He famously recognized that the believer was both saint and sinner and understood the spiritual weakness that still existed in the redeemed. Calvin stated, “For we dream neither of faith devoid of good works nor of justification that stands without them.” As we trace conservative biblical scholarship through the ages we find that most spokespersons for the faith have agreed that salvation is independent of good works but good works are the fruit and evidence of salvation. A. W. Tozer sums up the thinking in his own unique style:
Plain horse sense ought to tell us that anything that makes no change in the man who professes it makes no difference to God either, and it is an easily observable fact that for countless numbers of persons the change from no-faith to faith makes no actual difference in the life.
What the students of Scripture have recognized rather consistently is that there in fact exists an indicative-imperative (that is, statements of truth and facts of reality commands to take action) paradigm in Scripture, in which the imperative is not disregarded yet is always dependent upon the indicative. The commands of the NT rest clearly on the foundation of truth and without that foundation the imperatives are mere legalistic demands for behavioral adjustments. But streaming out of the believer’s position in Christ, as a result of the work of Christ, imperatives are the natural product. Michael Allen states the obvious, “The structure of Paul’s Epistles consistently demonstrates this pattern (e.g. Rom 1-11 preceding 12-15:13; Gal 1-4 preceding 5-6; Eph 1-3 preceding 4-6). Allen, in his book Sanctification, confirms “Reformed theology has never felt the need to downplay the ethical dimensions of the way in order to accentuate the gracious character of the gospel.” In other words, Reformed theology, with which the LT teachers identify, has always recognized the life-changing nature of the gospel. The gospel, when believed, not only saves our souls – it changes our lives. Allen further writes, “Sanctification depicts, first and foremost, not a discipline of the Christian but a gift of the Savior (although of course, this gift of the Savior does bring with it discipline, duties and demands which the Christian then fulfills through Christ’s own life-giving energy and blessing).” Allen has summed up well the essential components of progressive sanctification. It is grounded in the gospel and it requires obedience and discipline, but the fulfillment of Christ’s demands is possible only through the power and energy of Christ communicated to the believer through the Holy Spirit. And the motivation for obedience is not to win the favor or love of God but a heart of gratitude: “Justification precedes works as an act of God’s grace so that works are subsequently motivated by gratitude for this unconditional favor.”
It is time now to turn directly to the NT to let it speak for itself.
The Witness of Scripture
In considering what NT texts would best demonstrate that, while the gospel is clearly grounded in the work of Christ, it also calls for ethical changes that are brought about through Spirit enabled efforts, it became clear that it would be difficult to read the NT and not encounter this balance at every turn of the page. I will highlight some random important passages toward the end but, as I was working on this paper, I was reading two NT epistles: Titus and Philippians. Without any attempt to proof text, or force Scripture to say what I wanted it to say, below is what I discovered, beginning with
- 1:6-8 lays out the qualifications of an elder and they are quite robust. Far from saying “relax and don’t angst over your sin, after all you are not likely to improve spiritually all that much anyway,” Titus is told to appoint elders who are above reproach, having their own lives and those of their families under control.
- 2:1-10 calls for similar characteristics of all age and gender groupings within the church.
- 2:11-14 focuses specifically on grace. But it is a demanding grace, not a cheap version. Grace, in this text, trains us to “deny ungodliness and worldly desires” and to live self-controlled, disciplined lives. People trained by grace, Paul informs us, will be zealous to perform good deeds, not in order to win the favor of Christ but because He has already “purified for Himself a people for His own possession.”
- 3:5-7 makes it clear that good works are not the means or cause of our salvation, which springs directly from God’s mercy, and the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. However, those who have experienced His saving grace will “be careful to engage in good deeds” (v. 8).
- The Lord’s grace does not lead us to some form of passivity but to action, not to gain salvation but because salvation naturally leads to activity. If we follow LT’s views, we would have to conclude that the letter to Titus has placed an impossible burden on the backs of the believer leading to frustration and exhaustion in our attempts to live as prescribed. The interpretation of Titus from the LT hermeneutic would be that these instructions, descriptions and demands have been given merely to demonstrate how unattainable they are and to lead us back to contemplation on the cross. We are not really being called to live as the Holy Spirit demands in Titus, but simply to realize that we cannot live up to God’s directives and need to relax. If we attempt to live out the teachings of Titus we will succumb to legalism and pietism. Such concepts are certainly a strange twist to force upon the clear teachings of Scripture.
- 1:9-11 – Far from being content to passively wait on the Holy Spirit to bring about spiritual changes, Paul prays that the Philippians’ love might “abound in knowledge and discernment, in order that they might approve the things that are excellent, that they might be sincere and blameless, filled with the fruit of righteousness.” Without question these qualities are not humanly manufactured, for they come through Jesus Christ, but they are not inertly obtained either. There is a divinely ordained synergy involved in progressive sanctification. Paul was convinced that the Lord would leave him on the earth for the “progress and joy” of the Philippian believers. Progress is an important theme in the epistle.
- 1:27 – Conduct is important as well, and Paul demands the saints at Philippi to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the gospel. This verse reminds us of Ephesians 4:1 where the believers are called to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling…” There is no conflict between our gospel calling and our gospel living.
- 2:2-5 tells us that the two components of this worthy walk are unity with the fellow saints and unselfish humility of living, a life patterned after that of Christ’s.
- 2:12a demands obedience, a strong command which, according to the LT teachings, will only result in rebellion and failure for those trying to obey.
- 2:12b-13 is an important passage in this debate, for just as we are directed to work out our salvation with fear and trembling we are also informed that “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and work for His good pleasure.” No text puts the two entities (our efforts and God’s power) together so clearly in describing the sanctification process. Without question, no spiritual transformation is possible without the supernatural work of God, yet we are called personally to work out our salvation, indicating that spiritual progress also depends on our Spirit-empowered efforts.
- 2:14-16 offers several tests to determine our progress in working out our salvation including: lack of grumbling, living blamelessly, innocently and above reproach, being lights in the world and holding fast the word of life. These are hardly passive activities.
- On a more positive note we are commanded to rejoice in the Lord (3:1) and do it continuously (4:4). LT leaders might see this as placing an impossible burden upon the believer. Paul, on the other hand, saw this command as the sweet outcome of a gospel-enriched life.
- 3:2 demands that we beware of false teachers (3:2).
- 3:12-14 offers the example of Paul who forgot the things that he used to trust in, and who pressed forward toward “the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” We do not witness in the apostle a laidback approach to Christian development. In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 Paul emphasized his great efforts to run the race, exercise self-control and buffet his body that he not be disqualified from winning the prize. Similarly, in 2 Timothy 2:3-6 he admonishes Timothy to suffer hardship like a good soldier, a dedicated athlete and a hard-working farmer. He did not encourage Timothy to rest on the sidelines basking in God’s grace, but to fight the good fight, finish the course and keep the faith (4:6). The Philippians too were to imitate Paul in this approach to the Christian life (Phil 3:17).
- 4:1 commands us to stand firm in the Lord, while 4:4 calls on us to be known for reasonableness.
- In the face of conflict with others and turmoil within, we are directed to not be anxious, but rather take our concerns to the Lord (4:6), dwell on things that are true (4:8), and practice these truths (v. 9).
- Even a casual reading through an epistle such as Philippians finds no support for the LT brand of sanctification in which the believer passively contemplates the finished work of Christ, expects the Holy Spirit to do any spiritual work in our lives that is being done, while we rest contentedly in our lack of progress. Nor do we get a hint that the many commands issued to believers are for the purpose of driving us to despair. The clear teaching of the NT is that progress can be, and should be, made by the child of God. That progress is based on the gospel, empowered by the Spirit but joined by the efforts of the Christian. Philippians 2:12-13 is the key text in this book on this synergistic sanctification process.
Other Scriptures: Virtually all the NT books could be similarly surveyed with the same result. Each would root our sanctification in the person and work of Christ, which must ever be at the forefront of any consideration about who we are, and how we are to live as believers. Each would attribute ultimate power and energy to the Holy Spirit who must enable believers to progress in godliness. Joined together these are the indicatives of the faith, as they designate what the Godhead has done or is doing on our behalf. Yet Scripture would also call on the believer to take action to grow in holiness. These are the imperatives, commands directed to the saint. Both indicatives and imperatives are taught in Scripture. They are not enemies; they are friends. Now for a random survey of other NT texts teaching this divine and glorious tension.
- I Timothy 4:7 is a command to “discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness.” One of the distinctions of LT teachings is that insistence on personal acts of discipline are pietistic. “The Boys” of Theocast (see part 1 in this series) proudly proclaim that they do not practice the discipline of daily Bible reading and prayer, seeing such practices as legalism. This flies in the face of the encouragement of almost every evangelical leader, of every stripe who advice Christians to set aside time regularly to spend with God in order to grow in godliness. The Boys simply see this as a sign of how far evangelicalism has strayed from what they consider Confessionalism and Reformed theology. But they have clearly overreacted. The Boys are right that if the believer sees daily devotions as some form of performance which impresses God and draws His anger if missed occasionally, they are totally missing the point. Nor do regular “quiet times” guarantee that we will mature in holiness, for such activities could be mere meaningless routine. But without a consistent time of feeding on the Word, both privately and corporately, spiritual maturity will be seriously stunted. As Romans 12:1-2 informs us, spiritual transformation will not take place without the renewing of our minds. Paul’s command in 1 Timothy is not directly referencing the discipline of the reading and study of God’s Word, but it certainly falls under the umbrella of discipline. The central point of the passage is that discipline is necessary for godliness, something that is denied, or at least minimized, in the LT system.
- 1 Peter 1:13-17 lists a series of commands to the followers of Christ: gird our minds for action, keep sober, fix our hope on the grace of Christ, obediently do not be conformed to former lusts, be holy in all our behavior, and conduct ourselves in fear. These commands are based upon the redeeming work of Christ (1:18-21) and thus are not mere behavioral adjustments, nevertheless they are clearly a call to a life of obedience because of Christ’s provisions. In the very next verse those who have experienced the purification of their souls due to the work of Christ are demanded to demonstrate that experience by “fervently lov[ing] one another from the heart.” Perhaps it is missed by those espousing a quietistic form of Christianity that we are commanded to love. To command love is law; it is an imperative, but it is certainly not legalism. It is an act of obedience that springs from the heart of the redeemed and is an evidence of our salvation (1 John 4:8-9).
- 2 Peter 1:5-8 calls for the believer to diligently strive for moral excellence, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love. It is hard to imagine a section of Scripture more at odds with LT teachings.
- Ephesians 2:10 follows the clearest passage in the Bible proclaiming that our salvation is by grace through faith in Christ, and is not as a result of our own efforts or merits (vv. 8-9). Yet God’s gracious gift of salvation directly leads to good works. As a matter of fact, as God’s “workmanship,” we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Our good works do not win the favor or love of God, but they are not detached from our salvation. We are not saved by works, but as God’s masterpieces when we are saved good works are expected to follow.
- Later in Ephesians 6:10-18 we are given instructions on spiritual warfare. Since our battle is not with flesh and blood, but with spiritual forces of wickedness, victory is only possible by being strong in the Lord, putting on the full armor of God, standing firm against the schemes of the devil and praying at all times in the Spirit. None of these is passive. They are commands of action given directly to the believer.
- Galatians 5:16-24 is one of the most important NT scriptures in this discussion. Here we are directed (an imperative) to walk by the Spirit, otherwise we will be overcome by the desire of the flesh. But our walk is not in our own power; it is in the Spirit’s power. When the Spirit is at work His fruit becomes evident in our lives (vv. 22-23). Nevertheless, we who have spiritual life, only because of the enablement of the Spirit, are commanded to walk by the Spirit (v. 24). In God’s Word the Christian life is never parsed as either/or, but as both/and. We do not mature in Christ purely by the energy of the Spirit, but we cannot process without that energy. On the other hand, the Spirit does not do for us what God has told us to do. Therefore, we are told to walk by the Spirit, but we can only do so because of His strength. This is the biblical balance.
- 1 John 2:3-6 informs us that we can be certain that we know Christ because we keep His commandments and if we do not obey Him we do not know Him. Chapter 5, verses 2 and 3, add that we know that we love because we observe His commandments. Far from being “okay not to be okay” as LT states, compliance to the Lord’s commands are expected of the child of God. And John makes certain we understand that the Lord’s commandments are not burdensome (v. 3). As a Spirit-regenerated believer, our nature has changed and therefore the Lord’s commands no longer weigh us down, they have instead become our delight. LT misses this key ingredient.
- 2 Corinthians 9:8-10 reads, “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have abundance for every good deed.” The specific context of this passage is finances and giving, but its application is broader. At the very least, grace and good deeds are not in opposition. Grace leads to good deeds.
This quick survey is merely representative of what we find in the NT. It would be hard to poke your finger in almost any place in the NT and not find the dual role of the Holy Spirit’s power and the believer’s obligation sitting side by side.
Yet Kevin DeYoung, addressing this same topic, has observed: “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…The truly super-spiritual do not ‘pursue holiness’; they celebrate their failures as opportunities to magnify the grace of God.” The reason this is true, DeYoung claims, is:
Among conservative Christians there is sometimes the mistaken notion that if we are truly gospel-centered we won’t talk about rules or imperatives or moral exertion. We are so eager not to confuse indicatives (what God has done) and imperatives (what we should do) that we get leery of letting biblical commands lead uncomfortably to conviction of sin. We’re scared of words like diligence, effort and duty.
LT leaders are concerned that too much emphasis on obedience and exertion leads to legalism. Their solution is to minimize, or even eliminate, efforts to obey God, seeing them as counterproductive and futile. Imperatives are given, not to call us to action but to show us our hopeless condition. The solution, we are told, is to cease our struggle to comply, to turn from law (commandments) and cling to grace alone as we contemplate the Gospel. This approach might result in some spiritual maturity we are assured, but if not, we are to relax in the Lord’s grace and finished work. This might sound attractive to some but it is an overreaction and out-of-balance approach to the Christian life. DeYoung is right:
Emphasizing free grace is not the problem. The problem is in assuming that good works will invariably flow from nothing but a diligent emphasis on the gospel… The irony is that if we make every imperative into a command to believe the gospel more fully, we turn the gospel into one more thing we have to get right, and faith becomes the one thing we need to be better at. If only we really believed, obedience would take care of itself. No need for commands or effort. But the Bible does not reason that way.
LT people are resistant to balance but, as has been demonstrated throughout these three papers, God’s Word presents the clear balance between the gospel, the work of the Spirit and the efforts of the child of God in the process of sanctification.
by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher, Southern View Chapel
 Carl Trueman, Grace Alone, Salvation as a Gift of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), p. 17.
Clark Whitten, Pure Grace, the Life Changing Power of Uncontaminated Grace (Shippensburg, Pa: Destiny Image, 2012), p. 41.
 Ibid., pp. 39-40.
 Ibid., p. 40.
 Carl Trueman, p 41.
 Thomas Schreiner, Faith Alone, the Doctrine of Justification (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), p. 202.
 Ibid., pp. 31-94.
 Ibid., p. 40.
 Ibid., pp. 43, 46.
 Ibid., p. 61.
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Best of A. W. Tozer (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978), p. 168.
 Michael Allen, Sanctification (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), p. 194.
 Ibid., p. 267.
 Ibid., p. 169.
 Carl Trueman, p.124.
 Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in Our Holiness, Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and Pursuit of Godliness” (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), pp. 19-20.
 Ibid., p. 19.
 Ibid., p. 55.