The modern sanctification controversy is difficult and challenging but it does not help the discussion to pitch into the rubbish bin basic Reformed distinctions as we seek to encourage one another to be faithful to the whole counsel of God. Losing these distinctions has impoverished our dialogue and contributed to unnecessary confusion on essential issues. If we distinguish between the different sense of condition and between law and gospel, we will be headed on the right track.
David Robertson is pastor in the Free Church of Scotland. He has a blog and recently he reviewed Tullian Tchividjian’s latest book, One Way Love. There has been some back and forth and most recently Robertson has written an Open Letter. In his response he says some things that deserve a response.
Summary of Some of Robertson’s Concerns
In response to the claim that grace does not “make demands, it just gives” (his summary), he responds that grace does make demands. When our Lord said “take up your cross,” that was a demand. Further, he adds, “all Gods demands are gracious and grace.” He argues that Jesus is “full of grace and truth–and I don’t regard him as having a split personality. Is there any word or action of Christ which is not grace?” He alleges that Tullian redefines grace “to such an extent that it just does not fit the scriptural use.” He complains that Tullian is guilty of setting up a false (which he puts in scare quotes for reasons not clear to me) dichotomy analogous to the false dichotomy between the love of God and the justice of God. He sees Tullian divorcing grace from God. He suspects that preaching in the States must be more than just moralistic therapeutic deism and legalism. He doesn’t seem entirely confident about the validity of the hermeneutical distinction between law and gospel.
It also all depends on what you mean by law, and gospel. Did Jesus fail to distinguish between law and gospel when he said; if you love me you will keep my commands? Was the Sermon on the Mount, law or gospel? Was it helpful tips for practical living or a set of social and moral demands we must live out? I am not really sure that this hard and fast distinction between law and gospel actually works, because I am not sure it is absolutely biblical.
As we read on, it becomes clear that he’s not just unsure about the distinction. He doesn’t like it. “There is no doubt that the term law is used in different ways in the Bible, but in the sense of the just and fair expression of the character of God, I think that this is as much part of the Good News as anything.”
He argues that grace “demands that those who are saved live a holy life (2 Timothy 1:9) that it “makes the most incredible demands on me because Christ who is grace makes those demands–I am to repent, take up my cross and follow him. I am to be prepared to lose my life for his sake.”
It’s a more than 4,000 word piece that raises a large number of issues that I cannot address here but there are a couple of fundamental issues that deserve a response. First, let me be very clear that Robertson’s first problem is that he does not clearly distinguish between the two uses of conditions in Reformed covenant theology. There is an important sense in which Reformed theology teaches an unconditional covenant of grace and a conditional covenant of grace. Let me explain.
The Covenant of Grace Is Unconditional
In the first sense, the covenant of grace must be said to be unconditional. Grace is free. Paul makes that abundantly clear in Romans 11:6, when he contrasts two principles, grace and works. “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (ESV). He had already established a clear distinction between wages and gifts. “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due” (Rom 4:4 ESV). In 6:23 he makes the contrast perfectly clear: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23, ESV). Wages are one thing, a gift is something else. Salvation is a gift. Eternal life is a gift. Righteousness with God is a gift. Gifts are unconditional. Gifts are graces. We do not receive acceptance with God because we’re good or because we have performed satisfactorily. It is a gift, it is a grace, it is free because Christ has performed for us. That is why the gift can only be received through faith, the only adequate and divinely approved instrument for benefitting from Christ’s obedience.
There Are Conditions In the Covenant of Grace
We use the word condition in another sense, however, and sometimes fork are not always clear about the distinction between antecedent conditions and consequent conditions. There are no conditions in order to receive Christ’s benefits. Sometimes faith has been said to be condition but, as Herman Witsius said near the end of the 17th century, when we call faith a condition, we’re using the word improperly. It is, as I indicated above, an instrument rather than a condition. There are, however, conditions for those in the covenant of grace. To be clear, these conditions are not in order to remain in the covenant of grace. That is the sort of covenant nomism that one finds in Rome, Arminianism, the New Perspective(s) on Paul, and the self-described Federal Vision Movement. No, these are the conditions that exist for those because they have received a gift. The conditions that apply to those are in the covenant of grace are those consequent conditions.