“Count the letters carefully: effort is not a four letter word. Even those who believe in blood-bought, Christ-wrought, undeserved, sovereign, gospel grace do not despise effort in the Christian life. How can we? 2 Peter 1:5
tells us to “make every effort.”
Of course, anyone familiar with this passage will remember that the effort enjoined by Peter is God-graced effort. Verse 3 says we have divine power through “knowledge of him.” Verse 4 says we can become “partakers of the divine nature” through “his precious and very great promises.” Verse 5 harnesses these twin turbines of Spirit energy when it says “For this very reason, make every effort.” In other words, Peter holds up a pattern of godliness–increasing faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love. This pattern relies on gospel power. And the gospel-powered pattern requires effort.
It is the consistent witness of the New Testament that growth in godliness requires exertion on the part of the Christian. Romans 8:13
says by the Spirit we must put to death the deeds of the flesh. Ephesians 4:22-24
instructs us to put off the old self and put on the new. Ephesians 6 tells us to put on the full armor of God and stand fast against the devil. Colossians 3:5
commands us to put to death what is earthly in us. 1 Timothy 6:12
urges us to fight the good fight. Luke 13:24
exhorts us to strive to enter the narrow gate.
Christians work–they work to kill sin and they work to live in the Spirit. They have rest in the gospel, but never rest in their battle against the flesh and the devil. As J.C. Ryle put it, the child of God has two great marks about him: he is known for his inner warfare and his inner peace.
Obviously, even when we work, it is never meritorious. Our effort can never win God’s justifying favor. In fact, whatever we manage to work out is really what God purposed to work in us (Phil. 2:12-13
; cf. Heb. 2:11
). The gospel is truly the A-Z of the Christian life.
But let us not misunderstand what it means to be gospel-centered. As gospel Christians, we are not afraid of striving, fighting, and working. These are good Bible words. The gospel that frees us from self-justification also frees us for obedience. In fact, 1 Corinthians 6 and Galatians 5 and 1 John and Revelation 21 and a dozen other passages make clear that when we have no obedience to show for our gospel profession, our conduct shows we have not understood the gospel.
God did not tell the Israelites, “Work hard and I’ll set you free from Egypt.” That’s law without a gospel. Neither did God tell them, “I love you. I set you free by my grace. I ask nothing more except that you believe in this good gift.” That’s gospel with no law. Instead, God redeemed the people by his mercy, and that mercy made a way for obedience. Gospel then law. Trust and obey.
Let us not make the mistake of Keswick theology with its mantra of “let go and let God.” Justification is wholly dependent on faith apart from works of the law. But sanctification–born of faith, dependent on faith, powered by faith–requires moral exertion. “Mortify and vivify” is how the theologians used to put it.
When it comes to growth in godliness, trusting does not put an end to trying.”
Last week I wrote a piece about the role of effort
in the Christian life. It was born out of concern that in our passion for glorying in the indicatives of the gospel (something I have gladly advocated many times) that we are in danger of giving short shrift to the necessity of obeying biblical imperatives. My worry is that we are afraid to exhort each other, as Scripture does, to strive, fight, mortify, vivify, and make every effort for godliness.
Later in the week Tullian Tchividjian offered some pushback with his post “Work Hard! But In Which Direction?”
I’m thankful for Tullian’s post. He is a good writer and an ardent champion of the gospel. He is also a good friend, not the “I met him once in a cab and now we always call each other ‘my friend’” way, but an actual friend. These are important issues and I’m glad to have Tullian to sharpen me.
A Big Issue
As you may recall, I’m on sabbatical this summer. My main project is to write a book on holiness and union with Christ. Essentially it’s a book on sanctification. So I have lots of thoughts rolling through my mind, thoughts not directly related to Tullian’s post (even less, a direct rebuttal of his post), but thoughts related to sanctification in general. Thoughts like:
– Can the justified believer please God with his obedience?
– Is the justified believer displeasing to God in some way when he sins?
– Is unbelief the root of every sin? Or is it pride? Or idolatry? Should we even both trying to find a root sin?
– How are justification and sanctification related?
– Can we obey God?
– Can we feel confident about our obedience, not in a justifying way but that we have done as we were commanded?
– How does Scripture motivate us to obedience?
– Are most Christians too hard on themselves (thinking they are filthy scum when they actually walk with the Lord in a way that pleases him)?
– Or are most Christians too easy on themselves (thinking nothing of holiness and content with little progress in godliness)?
– What is the role of union with Christ in sanctification? And how do union with Christ and sanctification relate to justification?
These are just some of the issues I’m exploring this summer. I’ll keep you posted.
To the Point
But with this post I simply want to respond to the main point Tullian raised in response to my earlier post. Tullian agrees that effort is not a bad word for the Christian. He questions, however, what exactly this effort is aiming at.
“Kevin rightly affirms the fact that the Christian life is not effortless–”let go and let God” is not biblical. Sanctification is not passive but active. My concern here is to add to what Kevin wrote and identify the direction of our effort.”
Tullian’s concern is that we don’t think of sanctification as moving beyond justification. I couldn’t agree more. It’s all too common for Christians to figure (in their heads if not spoken explicitly): “I’m saved by grace and assured of eternal life. But now I have a lot of work to do in making myself better. God gets me in all on his own, but now it’s all up to me to become like Him.” Justification feels like good news and sanctification feels like punishment. This is not the message of Christianity.
Tullian acknowledges that “sanctification is a grueling process.” It requires effort. But the effort of our sanctification is to believe the good news of our justification. “Remembering, revisiting, and rediscovering the reality of our justification every day,” says Tullian, “is the hard work we’re called to do if we’re going to grow.” Later: “Sanctification is the hard work of going back to the certainty of our already secured pardon in Christ and hitting the refresh button over and over.” Again: “sanctification is the hard work of getting used to our justification.” Tullian’s point is that sanctification requires the hard work of fighting to believe that we are justified by faith alone apart from anything good do or could possible contribute.
I agree sanctification requires the fight of faith to believe this scandalous good news of the gospel of justification. I disagree that this is the only kind of effort required in sanctification.
Effort Once Again
Growing in godliness is a fight of faith–a fight to believe the truth about our justification, our adoption, a fight to believe all that God says about us by virtue of our union with Christ. But growing in godliness is more than trusting; it is also trusting enough to obey. The New Testament gives us commands, and these commands involve more than remembering, revisiting, and rediscovering the reality of our justification. We must also put on, put off, put to death, strive, and make every effort.
Yes, this effort is always connected to gospel grace. But we cannot reduce “effort” to simply believing in justification. Tullian rightly points out that after Peter tells us to “make every effort” (2 Peter 1:5
), he warns us against forgetting that we have been cleansed from our former sins (1:9). If we live ungodly lives we show that we have forgotten God’s mercy in our lives. The antidote is to remember who we are in Christ and
to “be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure” (1:10). Sanctification is from God and by faith, but unlike justification it is not by faith alone. (If that last sentence threw you for a loop, I’ll say more later in the week.) As we work hard to remember the reality of justification, we must also work hard in the Spirit to stop doing sinful stuff and start doing righteous stuff.
True, there are lots of Christians who need to know the glorious good news of their forgiveness. American Christianity tends to be overly activist and can drive timid souls to despair. But just as surely, there are lots of professing Christians (and non-Christians!) who feel perfectly justified but are not growing in godliness and may not even be God’s children. They do not doubt God loves them. They do not worry that they might not be accepted. They have no problem with grace. They do not come to church with crushed consciences. They do not need to work hard to rediscover God’s forgiveness. They need to work hard to live like they have died to sin and been raised with Christ. The basic New Testament ethic is “be who you are.” This requires believing “who we are” and working hard to “be” just that.
A Few Examples
At this point, I’m not really responding to Tullian (because he probably agrees with much of what I’ve written above and probably everything that is written below). But I do want to make clear why we must be clear about the sort of effort required in sanctification.
Hannah Whitall Smith’s book, The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life
, is an unfortunate classic. As Andy Naselli has pointed out
, Hannah’s life was not happy and her theology provided no secret for Christian living. She makes a sharp distinction between God’s work in holiness and our work. God’s work is to make us holy. Our work is to continually surrender and continually trust (5). “All that we claim then in this life of sanctification,” she wrote, “is that by a step of faith we put ourselves into the hands of the Lord, for Him to work in us all the good pleasure of His will; and that by a continuous exercise of faith we keep ourselves there…Our part is trusting, it is His to accomplish the results” (7). It was this sort of teaching that prompted J.C. Ryle to ask “whether it is wise to speak of faith as the one thing needful, and the only thing required, as many seem to do nowadays in handling the doctrine of sanctification? Is it wise to proclaim in so bald, naked, and unqualified a way as many do that the holiness of converted people is by faith only, and not at all by personal exertion?” (Holiness
Long before the Keswick controversy the Dutch theologian Wilhelmus a Brakel (1635-1711) expressed a similar sentiment in The Christian’s Reasonable Service
. In his chapter on “Spiritual Growth” a Brakel explores “Reasons why Believers Do not Grow as much as They Ought.” He gives five reasons: 1) They presume upon grace. 2) They doubt their conversion. 3) They are discouraged by their progress. 4) They conform themselves to the world. 5) They are lazy. Remembering our justification may be the antidote for reasons 2 and 3, but effort is required with number 5. Many Christians “are hindered in their walk solely by lazines.” Later a Brakel observes, “We indeed desire to be in an elevated spiritual frame and to grow as a palm tree, but we are not willing to exert any effort–and thus we also do not receive it. . . .Therefore, Christians, to the task! Strive to grow in both habitual and actual grace” (Volume 4, 154). It is precisely this exhortation that I fear is missing from some quarters of evangelicalism.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones made the same point more recently. After taking several sermons to unpack the glorious objectivity of our union with Christ in Romans 6:1-11
, Lloyd-Jones turned to our efforts in 6:12-14. He emphasizes over and over that “holiness is not a constant appeal to us to surrender” (The New Man
, 156). A little later he adds, “The New Testament teaching about sanctification is not just an appeal to us to ‘look to the Lord.’” Sanctification, he argues, requires personal exertion. When we are told “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body” this is “an exhortation addressed to us, an admonition, a call to a positive activity of the will” (157).
I’ve read enough Lloyd-Jones to know that he often takes his readers/listeners back to justification (as he should). Spiritual Depression is mainly about applying the gospel of free grace to our pursuit of God. But Lloyd-Jones does not suggest that sanctification comes about only by recalling our justification.
The New Testament calls upon us to take action; it does not tell us that the work of sanctification is going to be done for us. . . .We are in the ‘good fight of faith’, and we have to do the fighting. But, thank God, we are enabled to do it; for the moment we believe, and are justified by faith, and are born again of the Spirit of God, we have the ability. So the New Testament method of sanctification is to remind us of that; and having reminded us of it, it says, ‘Now then, go and do it’. (178, emphasis mine)
Remember the gospel indicatives. Then give full throat to the gospel imperatives.
A Crucial Matter
These issues matter because, on the one hand, some Christians are beating themselves up to be more like Jesus when they first need to realize that in Christ they’ve already died to sin and been raised with Christ. And on the other hand, some Christians are stalled out in their sanctification for plain lack of effort. They are lazy and need to be told so.
And then there are those who are confused, wondering why sanctification isn’t automatically flowing from their heartfelt commitment to gospel-drenched justification. They need to get up and, as one author put it, “just do something.”
We all need God’s grace to believe what is true and do what is right. We died to sin in the death of Christ. Now we must put to death the deeds of the flesh.”
“You may have seen Bill Evan’s recap and analysis
of the sanctification discussion I’ve been a part over the past months. It’s a helpful summary and raises a number of good points. Later, on the same Ref21 site, Sean Lucas posted a friendly rejoinder
. Without necessarily dissenting from Evans, Lucas argues that much of this discussion boils down to a matter of emphasis. This is the paragraph from Lucas that Justin Taylor highlighted on his blog:
I mention all of this to simply say: this is a historical disagreement.
It is not recent, not the result of misbegotten, misspent fundamentalist childhoods, not the offshoot of strange Lutheran strains in a pure Reformed stock. I tend to think that the differences are simply matters of emphasis: some lead with imperatives and others lead with indicatives; but both sides hold the indicative-imperative relationship together. If we can recognize that the other “side” holds a legitimate perspective in the Reformed tradition that is largely a matter of emphasis, then we can approach each other with love, respect, and gratitude. We can avoid lumping them into pejorative groups (legalist, neo-nomian, antinomian, cheap grace, moralist), and we can recognize the temptation in our own approach that might lead us to become “imbalanced”—either by overemphasizing indicative to such a point that we fail to say what the Bible says in Colossians 3:5-17
; or by overemphasizing the imperative to such a point that we fail to say what the Bible says in Colossians 3:1-4
That’s a good paragraph. I agree that there is historical disagreement on some of these matters. The Reformed tradition does not always speak with one voice. I also commend Lucas’ exhortation to avoid “lumping” and employing pejorative labels. Finally, I’m sure Lucas is right that part of this debate comes down to a matter of emphasis.
But I’m not sure it’s only a matter of emphasis.
I have no problem with Christians emphasizing the indicatives. I often do. In fact, let me say this as plainly as possible: we ought to positively glory in the indicatives of the gospel. The indicatives ought to fuel our following of the imperatives. Our obedience must be grounded in the gospel. Sanctification is empowered by faith in the promises of God. We need to be reminded of our justification often and throughout our Christian lives. Our pursuit of personal righteousness will not go anywhere without a conviction that we are already reckoned positionally righteous in Christ. So let’s be passionately and repetitively gripped by the gospel of free grace.
I have no problem with that emphasis. Actually, I love it. But my question is whether we can emphasize all the glorious indicatives of Scripture and still insist on obedience to the imperatives. The phrase “insist on obedience” is key. I know that all my friends in this sanctification discussion believe obeying the imperatives is crucial. I know they want Christians to be holy. I don’t doubt for a moment that they think the imperatives of Scripture are really, really important. What I’m not clear on is whether my brothers and sisters in this debate believe we can explicitly and directly insist on obedience to those imperatives.
I’m not sure the issue is just emphasizing one or the other–indicatives or imperatives. There are at least two other issues at play.
1. Should Christians be exhorted to make an effort to obey the commands of Scripture or is the only appropriate exertion the effort to believe more fully the promises of God?
2. Should Christians be exhorted to obey the imperatives or does sanctification so invariably flow from justification that the way to get obedience is always and only to bring people back to the gospel?
I think everyone agrees that justification fuels our sanctification (see Rick Phillips’ post
for an excellent summary of the differences between the two). Imperatives must be rooted in indicatives. The question, however, is whether we betray the indicatives by insisting directly and explicitly for Christians to work hard at obeying the imperatives. No ones denies that obedience to the imperatives is crucial. But can we demand obedience to those imperatives? Or is that falling back on law? The central question in this discussion is not just a matter of emphasis between the indicatives and imperatives, but whether emphasizing the indicatives accomplishes the goal of the imperatives without ever insisting upon them. Or to put it another way, is sanctification by faith alone in our justification by faith alone? I think not.
The last thing I want is to be the guy who says “stop making the gospel so important.” I never want to encourage people to emphasize the gospel less. But it is possible to emphasize the gospel in a wrong way. The Westminster Confession of Faith, after expounding that the law ”directs and binds” us explains, “Neither are the forementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the gospel, but do sweetly comply with it” (WCF 19.7). Likewise, the Larger Catechism says the “moral law” is “of special use” to the regenerate because it shows, among other things, how they ought to take “their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience” (Q/A 97). And the Belgic Confession says about the law, “we continue to use the witnesses drawn from the law and prophets to confirm us in the gospel and to regulate our lives with full integrity for the glory of God, according to his will” (Art. 25). There is no degrading language here about falling back into law or moving beyond justification, no hint that the imperatives are only a concession to our unbelief. The Reformed confessions understand that obedience to God’s commands–which we all want–is not accomplished merely by insisting on indicatives, but also by insisting directly and explicitly on the imperatives that flow from them.”
“Some recent posts address the important discussion taking place together regarding the relationship of justification to sanctification (see here
). This topic is crucial to us getting the gospel right today while avoiding the deadly extremes of antinomianism (a lawless Christianity) and legalism (a works-oriented Christianity). In an attempt to give clarity to this topic, I would offer these six assertions regarding justification and sanctification:
1. Justification and Sanctification are twin benefits that flow from union with Christ through faith.
2. Justification and Sanctification are distinct but simultaneous.
3. Justification and Sanctification are both necessary and intrinsic to salvation.
4. Justification is logically prior to progressive Sanctification.
5. Justification does not cause Sanctification, but Christ both justifies and sanctifies his people.
6. In Justification faith is passive
), whereas in Sanctification faith is active
7. The law of God functions differently with respect to Justification and Sanctification.
Let me discuss each of these briefly:
(Note: My Scripture references are not meant to be exhaustive, but to point to the main line of biblical support.)
1. Justification and Sanctification are twin benefits that flow from union with Christ through faith.
Christ is himself the center of the gospel, and through faith we are saved in union with him (Acts 16:31
; Eph. 1:3
). Justification and Sanctification are distinct benefits flowing through union with Christ by faith alone. Justification is a legal benefit of our union with Christ, granting us forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through faith alone (Rom. 3:23-26
; Gal. 2:16
). Sanctification is a Spiritual benefit* of our union with Christ, involving the believer’s transformation into the holy likeness of Christ (Rom. 6:1-14
; Eph. 4:20-24
; Tit. 2:12
*I capitalize Spiritual to emphasize that it is the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives.
2. Justification and Sanctification are
Justification pertains to the legal problem of sin, providing Christ’s imputed righteousness once for all (Rom. 3:23-25
). A believer will never be more righteous than at the moment when he first believed, since he receives through faith Christ’s perfect and complete righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21
). Sanctification pertains to the spiritual and moral corruption of sin. It is bothdefinitive
. Definitive sanctification refers to the believer being set apart for and to Christ at the moment of conversion (1 Cor. 6:15-17
). Progressive sanctification refers to the on-going process of becoming holy according to the likeness of Christ (Eph. 4:21-24
). At the moment of saving faith, the Christian is both justified and sanctified (1 Cor. 1:30
), definitive sanctification immediately beginning the Spirit’s work of progressive sanctification (Rom. 6:1-14
3. Justification and Sanctification are both necessary and intrinsic to salvation.
While Justification and Sanctification are distinct, they are also inseparable in salvation. A believer cannot be justified without being sanctified (Rom. 6:1-2
; Eph. 2:8-10
). Through faith alone, sinners are justified in Christ (Gal. 2:16
). But as faith brings us into union with Christ, the Holy Spirit also begins and continues sanctification (1 Cor. 6:15-17
; Eph. 5:1-21
; 1 Thess. 4:1-8
). In other words, while we deny that faith + works = justification, we insist that faith = justification + works (i.e. sanctification)(Eph. 2:8-10
4. Justification is logically prior to progressive Sanctification. This is Calvin’s meaning in describing the doctrine of justification as the hinge on which the door of salvation turns. By “logically prior,” we mean, for instance, that we will usually address an unbeliever regarding his need for justification before we call him to sanctification. (Until the sinner is justified through faith, there is little point in discussing his or her sanctification.) The logical priority of justification is seen in the Book of Romans, where justification is treated first (Rom. 3-5), after which Paul turns to sanctification (Rom. 5-8). As another example, after the Fall God blocked the entryway to the Garden with the angel and his flaming sword. This represents the forensic/legal problem of sin for which justification through faith is the answer. Once passing through this barrier, the believer may eat of the tree of life and dwell in the presence of the Lord, which pertain to his sanctification.
5. Justification does not
. Sanctification, like Justification, is caused by union with Christ through faith (Rom. 6:1-14
). Just as Christ justifies, Christ also sanctifies his people (1 Cor. 1:30
; Col. 3:12-17
). For this reason, the idea that we need only preach justification in order to gain sanctification is contrary to the biblical pattern. Paul, for instance, does not preach justification so that sanctification will occur, but rather he preaches sanctification itself (Rom. 6:12-14
, etc.). Peter also declares “Be holy” (1 Pet. 1:15
). This being the case, gospel preaching does not
consist merely of preaching Christ for justification, but also consists of preaching Christ for sanctification.
6. In Justification faith is
receptive (Gal. 2:16
), whereas in Sanctification faith is
; Col. 3:5-11
). In justification, sinners receive the grace of God for forgiveness and righteousness. In sanctification, believers work out the grace that God works into them (Phil. 2:12-13
). Innumerable New Testament passages urge activity and obligation on the part of the believer in advancing his or her sanctification. Generally, sanctification is empowered by Christ through the faithful employment of the means of grace: God’s Word, prayer, and the sacraments (Isa. 55:10-11
; Jn. 17:17
; 1 Cor. 10:16-17
7. The law of God functions differently with respect to Justification and Sanctification
. In the service of Justification, the primary purpose of God’s law is to convict us of sin (the law is Calvin’s mirror that shows us that we need the cleansing soap of the gospel;Rom. 2:12
). This is called “the first use of the law.” In Sanctification, the primary purpose of the law is instructive: it is the guide for how believers live and honor Christ (Mt. 65:17-48
; Rom. 8:4
; Eph. 5:3-5
). This is “the third use of the law.” (The “second use of the law” is as a curb to restrain ungodliness.) All of these uses of the law are legitimate and necessary.”
“Points in Which Justification and Sanctification Are the Same
1. They are inseparably joined together; there is no justification without sanctification, and no sanctification without justification. The person who has one has the other.
2. God is the Author and source of both justification and sanctification.
3. Both justification and sanctification proceed from God’s grace, or special love and favor to sinners.
Points in Which Justification and Sanctification Differ
1. An act of God’s free grace.
2. An act in which God imputes Christ’s righteousness.
3. An act in which God pardons sin.
4. Total and equal in all cases.
5. Complete and perfect in this life.
6. A judicial verdict which frees from condemnation and awards eternal life.
1. A work of God’s free grace.
2. A work by which God infuses grace and power.
3. A work in which God subdues sin.
4. Different in degree in different persons.
5. Incomplete and imperfect in this life.
6. A divinely planted and watered spiritual growth of Christian character.”
– Johannes G. Voss, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary