My concern is that Reformed folk are tempted to become the sanctification police and scope out everything that is said on the subject, analyzing it to its tiniest minutiae, as if the doctrine itself is at stake. The Reformed tradition is not completely uniform on this doctrine (though there is a unified core belief about sanctification). This means that humility, gentleness, willingness to be corrected or balanced should be goals.
I appreciated the tone and clarity of Scott Cook’s reply to my article on The Aquila Report, “The Contemporary Sanctification Debate: The New Marrow Controversy?”. My sharpest disagreement with Scott is his claim that yours truly is a “thoughtful commentator in the world of online Reformed discussions.” I do make comments, but ‘thoughtful’ may be a stretch.
I also appreciate Scott sharpening my own thinking on this issue. He encouraged me to reread Sinclair Ferguson’s three lectures on the Marrow Controversy, and I have had a pastoral situation in my church plant that required me to work out (with much fear and trembling) these discussions in a practical context.
Below are several remarks in response to Scott.
1. I agree with Scott’s point that the contemporary sanctification debate is important and it does matter. I fear that I gave the impression that sanctification is merely an intramural debate and is best left untouched. Also, I agree with Scott’s point that this issue is connected to the gospel. I think we would disagree as to how central this debate is to the gospel (more on this later). Nevertheless, Scott has done us a favor in articulating the importance of this matter.
2. Scott and I both agree that particular Reformed pastors and scholars are, at the very least, imbalanced in the way they present the doctrine of sanctification. Tullian Tchividjian has been at the forefront of this discussion, but it would be fair to also include Michael Horton, Scott Clark, and the so-called ‘grace boys’ pastors in the PCA. Obviously, Scott would go farther and claim that some of these men are significantly distorting scriptural doctrine in their ministries. I would not go that far as I contend that the disagreement in this debate is still a matter of emphasis and pastoral theology (though this does not negate doctrinal differences on some level). However, I would claim that this contemporary debate over sanctification is not as serious as the Marrow Controversy, which would make my analogy fall apart at some point. Scott, though, might wish to claim that this contemporary debate is analogous to the Marrow Controversy due to the serious errors involved.
3. I am somewhat confused by Scott’s comments concerning the Marrow Controversy. Scott claims that he has not found Tim Keller’s interpretation of the Marrow Controversy endorsed by anyone else, but Scott is obviously familiar with Sinclair Ferguson’s views on the topic, which (at least, to me) mirrors Keller’s interpretation. Ferguson acknowledges that both sides of the Marrow Controversy were confessional and agreed on the body of doctrine found in the Westminster Standards. Ferguson states, “Let me emphasize again that these men belonged to a confessing church. They thoroughly confessed the doctrines of the Westminster Confession. And yet you see that they belonged to a reformed orthodoxy that was thoroughly cold and thoroughly lifeless, thoroughly moderate and dead.” (Sinclair Ferguson, Marrow Controversy#1: Historical Details, 7)
Ferguson makes an insightful comment on the critical issue in the controversy:
You see what had happened was that reformed men had begun to adopt a wrong starting place in their thinking about the gospel. They were thinking along these lines. To whom belong the benefits of the work of Christ? And the answer within their confessional standards was obvious. The benefits of the working of Christ belong to elect. No other sincerely and heartily close with the saving benefits of the cross. Quite so and quite right. But then you see they concluded that what we must do in our preaching of the gospel is to offer the benefits of Christ’s work to those to whom that benefit belongs, namely, the elect. And we can never really offer those benefits until we have some sense or another of who the elect really are. And that means at the end of the day that we begin to offer the gospel to those we deem to show some signs of belonging to God’s secret elect (Sinclair Ferguson, Marrow Controversy#1: Historical Details, 8-9).
In other words, the confessional standards may not have endorsed the position of the General Assembly, but the standards didn’t contradict the Assembly’s position. Thus, both sides were strictly confessional, endorsing ‘Reformed’ opinions on the matter, but this didn’t prevent major disagreement (or even significant error) from occurring. This was my essential point (and Keller’s point in Center Church), but Scott seems to have selectively quoted Ferguson. Indeed, Ferguson sounds a lot like Tchividjian and Keller when he says,
You see the whole point of the Auchterarder Creed was…meant to emphasize the great indicatives of what God has done, out of which come the great imperatives of how we are to respond. The same motivation fired the Marrow Men. They saw that to make the offer of the grace of God dependent upon anything even upon graces, was to distort the true nature of grace.” (Sinclair Ferguson, Marrow Controversy#1: Historical Details, 13) Ferguson also echoes Tchividjian’s emphasis on the danger of legalism, “And I want to say to you, brethren, today that when we consider Legalism, there is a sense in which we are considering the ultimate pastoral problem of all (Sinclair Ferguson, Marrow Controversy #2: Danger of Legalism, 2).
So, regarding whether the Marrow Controversy was a matter of essential gospel clarity or of pastoral practice, Ferguson answers, “Yes.” This is why I appreciate Scott’s clarification on that point, but my original contention that the Marrow Controversy (and, I believe, today’s debate over sanctification) had less to do with confessional and systematic theology and more to do with pastoral and practical theology is affirmed strongly by Ferguson, who says,
And the fourth thing, and for us one of the most salient is this, that at the end of the day it distorts the nature of the pastoral ministry. You see, what had happened among these men in the early decades of the 18th century was this. They had mastered the pattern by which the grace works. There wasn’t a comma in the ordo salutis with which they were not familiar. They knew their Confession of Faith forwards and backwards and upside down. And yet while they were familiar with the pattern by which grace works and had mastered it, they had never really been mastered by the grace of God in the gospel in their hearts. They knew what John Owen calls, “The distinction between the knowledge of the truth and the knowledge of the power of the truth.” They were masters of Calvinism who had never been mastered. They were Calvinists with the minds and hearts of natural men, at least as far as these truths were concerned…And that, you see, was the blight upon the ministry in the Church of Scotland of those days, men who were thoroughly reformed in confessional subscription but whose bowels, whose hearts were closed up to God’s people and to the lost in all the nations ( Sinclair Ferguson, Marrow Controversy#1: Historical Details, 16).
4. Perhaps the issue of whether the contemporary sanctification debate is one where some Reformed pastors and scholars are advocating a non-confessional view of sanctification comes down to Scott’s claim that Tchividjian doesn’t hold to WCF 11.5 and 13.1. Yet, Scott (and those he quotes) commits the fallacy that the absence of evidence is the evidence of absence. Not one quote from Tchividjian is given which demonstrates a contradiction/incoherence between Tchivjidian’s view and the Westminster Standards. Scott writes,
I have not seen anything in Tchividjian’s writing to indicate that he holds to God’s “fatherly displeasure” resting on justified believers until they “renew their faith and repentance” in any way. If this is the case, then we are dealing not with a mere difference of emphasis but with an issue of antithesis between Tchividjian and the Reformed faith, not to mention Scripture itself.
Again, I would encourage Scott to find a sample of Tchividjian’s writings or sermons where there is not simply a lack of discussion on 11.5 or 13.1 but rather a denial of affirmations in these sections.
While I have not reviewed all that Tchividjian has written and said on this subject, I am familiar enough with his ministry to contend the he could affirm 11.5 and 13.1 without creating a gross incoherence in his theology. Indeed, Tchividjian would take a Jack Miller approach to 11.5 in stressing that God’s displeasure is a Fatherly displeasure, thus framing the discussion under the doctrine of adoption. Also, I don’t see how Tchividjian would deny the doctrine of mortification and vivification in 13.1 in light of Tchividjian’s blog post on mortification
Also, wouldn’t WCF 13.2 would be a favorite of Tchividjian, since it seems to cohere with his concept that Christians are ‘totally depraved’ in one sense? I myself don’t prefer Tchividjian’s terminology, but the concept corresponds to 13.2.
5. Perhaps this disagreement is related to another disagreement we share. Scott and I recently dialogued on Facebook over the perspectivalism of John Frame and Vern Poythress. In general, I agree with Frame and Poythress, while Scott isn’t as positive about perspectivalism. Thus, I see Tchividjian emphasizing one valid perspective from the Bible on the believer’s sanctification (though I wish Tchividjian, Horton, Clark, and others would be ‘as balanced as the Bible is balanced,’ to quote my professor from Reformed Theological Seminary, Bob Cara). Scott sees something more than imbalance going on. Thus, I am a bit more tolerant with Tchividjian and others (even if I would disagree with them on some aspects of soteriology) than Scott is.
I mentioned at the beginning of this rejoinder that I’ve had a pastoral situation occur that dealt with this debate over sanctification. One man wanted to have breakfast to discuss his struggle with guilt and shame, though he was a Christian. I exhorted him to dwell in the indicatives of his justification and adoption and to not confuse his justification with his sanctification. This counsel provided encouragement to him. However, we would meet the next week and his depression was somewhat different. He now wondered how he could have assurance of his salvation (including his justification and adoption) when he feels burdened by sin. In this instance, I exhorted him to look to Christ as the ‘mirror of his election’ (taken from John Calvin), and that his union with Christ should point him to a Person, the Lord Jesus, and it is only in Jesus that we receive all the benefits of redemption.
As imperfect as I am as a pastoral guide to those in a church plant, I was fascinated that I instinctively appealed to different perspectives from Scripture in ministering to a Christian that suffered with different forms of doubt and internal struggle. In one instance, I sounded like Tchividjian or Horton. In the other, I was Ferguson or William B. Evans.
6. My critique of Scott’s response should not indicate that I do not want these discussions to occur. Rather, my concern is that Reformed folk are tempted to become the sanctification police and scope out everything that is said on the subject, analyzing it to its tiniest minutiae, as if the doctrine itself is at stake. The Reformed tradition is not completely uniform on this doctrine (though there is a unified core belief about sanctification). This means that humility, gentleness, willingness to be corrected or balanced should be goals. I think Scott models such charity and winsomeness in his practice of theological dialogue. May his tribe increase!
Daniel Wells is a Church Planting Intern at Hill City Church. This article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.