The Role of ‘Effort’ in Sanctification – a dialogue between Kevin DeYoung and Tullian Tchividjian

There has been an interesting series of posts over the past week or so between Kevin and Tullian. It started when Kevin, who is on sabbatical writing a book on Holiness, posted an article on the Gospel Coalition blog entitled “Make Every Effort”

In doing my daily search for news for The Aquila Report, I ran across the fourth (and in Tullian’s mind, final) article in this series at the Christian Post, another on-line magazine. It seemed appropriate for our readers to pull all four in the series from the blog (who graciously has given us permission to reprint posts) and put them into one article to make it easy for our readers to follow the thoughts in order.

Warning – there are almost 7,000 words here, so you might want to print it off or at least set aside some time before you start reading.

1. Kevin DeYoung’s Initial Post: “Make Every Effort”

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.

2. Tullian Tchividjian’s Response: “Work Hard! But In Which Direction?”

Yesterday my good friend Kevin DeYoung blogged about the need to “make every effort” in the Christian life. He rightly noted that “effort” is not a four-letter word and that throughout the New Testament we are told that growth in godliness requires exertion. He writes:

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.

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.

There is no question that Christian’s are to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12) and that the sanctification process will be both bloody and sweaty. After all, daily Christian living is daily Christian dying. Jesus likened the pain of Christian growth to “gouging out an eye” and “cutting off a hand”–indicating that growth in godliness requires parting with things we initially think we can’t do without.

There does seem to be some question, though, with regard to the nature and direction of our efforts. And at the heart of this question is the relationship between justification and sanctification.

Many conclude that justification is step one and that sanctification is step two and that once we get to step two there’s no reason to go back to step one. Sanctification, in other words, is commonly understood as progress beyond the initial step of justification. But while justification and sanctification are to be clearly separated theologically, the Bible won’t allow us to separate them essentially and functionally. For example, citing 2 Peter 1:5-7, Kevin refers to the list of character traits that mark a Christian–faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love. Notice, though, what Peter goes on to say in v.9:

For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.

In her book Because He Loves Me, Elyse Fitzpatrick rightly says:
One reason we don’t grow in ordinary, grateful obedience as we should is that we’ve got amnesia; we’ve forgotten that we are cleansed from our sins. In other words, ongoing failure in our growth is the direct result of failing to remember God’s love for us in the gospel. If we fail to remember our justification, redemption, and reconciliation, we’ll struggle in our sanctification.

In other words, remembering, revisiting, and rediscovering the reality of our justification every day is the hard work we’re called to do if we’re going to grow.

Similarly, in Colossians 1:9-14 Paul says: You will grow in your understanding of God’s will, be filled with spiritual wisdom and understanding, increase in your knowledge of God, be strengthened with God’s power which will produce joy filled patience and endurance (v.9-12a) as you come to a greater realization that you’ve already been qualified, delivered, transferred, redeemed, and forgiven (v.12b-14).

Sanctification is a grueling process. But it’s NOT the process of moving beyond the reality of our justification but rather moving deeper into the reality of our justification. If sanctification could be likened to our responsibility to swim, justification is the pool we swim in. 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.

A couple chapters after Peter exhorts us to “make every effort” he succinctly describes growth in 3:18 by saying, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Growth always happens “in grace.” In other words, the truest measure of our growth is not our behavior (otherwise the Pharisees would have been the godliest people on the planet); it’s our grasp of grace–a grasp which involves coming to deeper and deeper terms with the unconditionality of God’s justifying grace.

It’s also growth in “the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” This doesn’t simply mean learning facts about Jesus. It means growing in our love for Christ because of what he has already earned and secured for us and then fighting to live in a more vital awareness of that grace.

The reason this is such an important theme in the New Testament is because every temptation to sin (going all the way back to the Garden of Eden) is a temptation to disbelieve the gospel–the temptation to secure for myself in that moment something I think I need in order to be happy, something I don’t yet have: meaning, freedom, validation, cleansing, forgiveness, a sense of identity, worth, value and so on. Bad behavior, therefore, happens when we fail to believe that everything we need, in Christ we already have; it happens when we fail to believe in the rich provisional resources that are already ours in the gospel.

Conversely, good behavior happens when we daily rest in and receive Christ’s “It is finished” into our rebellious regions of unbelief (what one writer calls “our unevangelized territories”) smashing any sense of a self-aggrandizing and narcissistic need to secure for ourselves anything beyond what Christ has already secured for us. As A.W. Pink put it, “Repentance is the hand releasing those filthy objects it had previously clung to so tenaciously while faith is extending an empty hand to God to receive His gift of grace.”

This is why when Jesus was asked in John 6:28, “What must we do to be doing the works of God?” he answered, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him who he sent.” What? That’s it? According to Jesus, yes! Actively, our work is to daily battle the root of all sin: unbelief (Calvin said that Christians are in perpetual conflict with their own unbelief).

Passively, our work is to receive and rest in his work for us which is a terribly painful thing because we are all seasoned “do-it-yourselfers.” As it was with Martha in Luke 10:38-42, so it is with us: we just have to be doing something. We can’t sit still. Achieving, not receiving, has become the mark of spiritual maturity. It is much harder to rest in his promise of grace than it is to make a list and try to live by it. With this in mind, Martin Luther wrote, “To be convinced in our hearts that we have forgiveness of sins and peace with God by grace alone is the hardest thing.”

Jesus was getting at the root of the problem when he answered what he did in John 6:28 because justification alone kills all of our self-salvation projects that fuel all of our bad behavior and moral failures (Read Romans 6:1-14). Sanctification, therefore, involves God’s attack on our unbelief—our self-centered refusal to believe that God’s approval of us in Christ is full and final. It happens as we daily fight (with blood, sweat, and tears–”making every effort”) to receive and rest in our unconditional justification.

As G. C. Berkouwer said, “The heart of sanctification is the life which feeds on justification.” It is in this context that I’ve said before how sanctification is the hard work of getting used to our justification.

So, going back to Philippians 2:12, when Paul tells us to “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” he’s making it clear that we’ve got work to do—but what exactly is the work? He goes on to explain: “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (2:13). As is often, and rightly, said: We work out what God has worked in. Well, what has God worked in and what are we therefore to work out? God works his work in you—which is the work already accomplished by Christ. Christ’s subjective work in us is his constantly driving us back to the reality of his objective work for us. Sanctification feeds on justification, not the other way around.

This is why in his Lectures on Romans Martin Luther wrote, “To progress is always to begin again.” Real spiritual progress, in other words, requires a daily going backwards.

We are to work at fighting the sin that so easily entangles us and robs us of our freedom by fleeing to the finished work of Christ every day.

Sanctification, as someone once put it, is not something added to justification. It is, rather, the justified life.

3. Kevin DeYoung’s Response: “Gospel-Driven Effort”

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, xvii-xviii).

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.

4. Tullian Tchividjian’s Respose: First Things First

God has hardwired me to thoroughly enjoy and be sharpened by good and friendly theological discussion about the gospel. So, for that reason I am deeply grateful to my friend Kevin DeYoung for engaging me in a good and healthy conversation regarding the role of the gospel in Christian growth.

We are both pastors who love Jesus, love the gospel, love people, and love the church. We both long for people to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are both theologically Reformed, blog at The Gospel Coalition, and therefore agree on more than we disagree (we actually disagree more about food than doctrine). Since we are both relatively public figures, my prayer during this conversation has been that people would resist the temptation toward divisiveness. Differences are good. Divisions are bad. Kevin and I are happily on the same team, laboring side by side and back to back.

Before I sign off on this particularly helpful conversation with my friend, I simply want to add one note of clarification, address the concern that Kevin said drove his original post, and make one crucial distinction.

The Clarification
First, when I say that remembering, revisiting, and rediscovering the reality of our justification every day is the hard work we’re called to do if we’re going to grow–I’m not simply talking about mental assent and meditation. Remembering, revisiting, and rediscovering the reality of our justification every day involves daily dying. My failure to lay aside the sin that so easily entangles is the direct result of my refusal to die to my natural proclivity toward attaining my own freedom, meaning, value, worth, and righteousness–not believing that, by virtue of my Spirit-wrought union with Christ, everything I need I already possess.

What is indisputable is the fact that unbelief is the force that gives birth to all of our bad behavior and every moral failure. It is the root. “The sin underneath all sins”, said Martin Luther, “is the lie that we cannot trust the love and grace of Jesus and that we must take matters into our own hands.” Therefore, since justification is where the guillotine for unbelief and self-salvation is located–declaring that we are already righteous for Christ’s sake–we dare not assume it, brush over it, or move past it. It must never become the backdrop. It must remain front and center–getting the most attention.

In an excellent article entitled “Does Justification Still Matter?“, Mike Horton raises the same concern I raise:

Most people in the pew are simply not acquainted with the doctrine of justification. Often, it is not a part of the diet of preaching and church life, much less a dominant theme in the Christian subculture. With either stern rigor or happy tips for better living, “fundamentalists” and “progressives” alike smother the gospel in moralism, through constant exhortations to personal transformation that keep the sheep looking to themselves rather than looking outside of themselves to Christ… The average feature article in [Christian magazines] or Christian best-seller’s is concerned with “good works”-trends in spirituality, social activism, church growth, and discipleship. However, it’s pretty clear that justification is simply not on the radar. Even where it is not outright rejected, it is often ignored. Perhaps the forgiveness of sins and justification are appropriate for “getting saved,” but then comes the real business of Christian living-as if there could be any genuine holiness of life that did not arise out of a perpetual confidence that “there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

This is why the Reformers said that the article on which the church stands or falls is justification (the cause), not sanctification (the effect). The Roman Catholic church had it the other way around. In his book God in the Dock, C.S. Lewis makes the obvious point that “You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.” While justification is not the only thing, it is the first thing.

“The alternative to a sanctification flowing from justification”, writes Horton, “is a moralistic activism that identifies growth in Christlikeness with the imitation of Christ more than union with Christ.”

The Concern
Second, Kevin writes that the concern which prompted his first post was “that in our passion for glorying in the indicatives of the gospel we are in danger of giving short shrift to the necessity of obeying biblical imperatives.” I have to admit that I’ve never met anyone who passionately glories in the indicatives of the gospel who then gives “short shrift to the necessity of obeying biblical imperatives.”

In fact, according to Romans 6:1-14, that’s impossible. Paul makes it clear in those verses that anyone who concludes that grace sanctions and encourages disobedience clearly doesn’t get grace.

As a pastor, one of my responsibilities is to disciple people into a deeper understanding of obedience—teaching them to say “no” to the things God hates and “yes” to the things God loves. But all too often I have wrongly concluded that the only way to keep licentious people in line is to give them more rules, intensify my exhortations–lay down the law. In my desire as both a pastor and a parent to see those under my care become more radical in their obedience to God, I have often fallen into the trap of going from the law (cutting off hope) to the gospel (forgiveness and life) and then back to the law, as if the gospel of free grace handled justification but can’t keep up with sanctification.

The fact is, however, that the only way licentious people start to obey is when they get a taste of God’s radical, unconditional acceptance of sinners.

As Mike Horton points out here, in Romans 6:1-4 the Apostle Paul answers antinomianism (lawlessness) not with law but with more gospel! I imagine it would have been tempting for Paul (as it often is with us when dealing with licentious people) to put the brakes on grace and give the law in this passage, but instead he gives more grace—grace upon grace. Paul knows that licentious people aren’t those who believe the gospel of God’s free grace too much, but too little. “The ultimate antidote to antinomianism”, writes Horton, “is not more imperatives, but the realization that the gospel swallows the tyranny as well as the guilt of sin.”

So, if someone is giving short-shrift to the necessity of obeying biblical imperatives, it’s because they are not glorying in the indicatives of the gospel. Their problem is not first and foremost that they aren’t giving full-throat to the imperatives. It’s that they’re not giving full-throat to the indicatives. Disobedience and moral laxity happens not when we think too much of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in the finished work of Christ alone from start to finish, but when we think too little of it. Radical grace is not the enemy of radical obedience–it is its fuel!

Writing in response to Jason Hood’s Christianity Today article where Hood voices concern about the lack of emphasis on personal holiness and radical obedience in this generation of Christians, my friend Dane Ortlund (read Dane’s full, gospel-drenched response here) shows how there are two ways to address this:

One way is to balance gospel grace with exhortations to holiness, as if both need equal air time lest we fall into legalism on one side (neglecting grace) or antinomianism on the other (neglecting holiness).

The other way, which I believe is the right and biblical way, is so to startle this restraint-free culture with the gospel of free justification that the functional justifications of human approval, moral performance, sexual indulgence, or big bank accounts begin to lose their vice-like grip on human hearts and their emptiness is exposed in all its fraudulence. It sounds backward, but the path to holiness is through (not beyond) the grace of the gospel, because only undeserved grace can truly melt and transform the heart. The solution to restraint-free immorality is not morality. The solution to immorality is the free grace of God—grace so free that it will be (mis)heard by some as a license to sin with impunity. The route by which the New Testament exhorts radical obedience is not by tempering grace but by driving it home all the more deeply.

The greatest danger facing the church is not that we take the commands of God lightly. To be sure, that is a bonafide danger but it’s a surface danger. The deep, under the surface danger (which produces the surface danger) is that we take the announcement of God in the gospel too lightly. The only people who take the commands of God lightly are those who take the gospel lightly–who don’t revel in and rejoice over what J.

Gresham Machen called the triumphant indicative. Beholding necessarily leads to becoming. Or to put it another way, this wonderful and neglected view of justification by grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Christ alone that I am championing does not deny the impulse toward holiness. Rather it produces it!

The Distinction
Third, one of the marks of a truly maturing Christian is that you begin to love the things God loves and hate the things God hates. In this regard, the law (all of the imperatives we find in the Bible) guides us well and wisely. It tells us what God wants and who God is. Yes, the law is good.

But while the law guides, it does not give. To be sure, the Spirit does use the whole Word in our sanctification: the law as well as the gospel. But the law and the gospel do different things in sanctification. The law has the ability to reveal sin, but not the ability to remove sin. It points to righteousness but can’t produce it. It shows us what godliness, is but it cannot make you godly, like the gospel can. The law shows us what a sanctified life looks like, but it does not, in and of itself, have sanctifying power, as the gospel does. So, apart from the gospel, the law crushes. The law directs us, but only the gospel can drive us. It’s very important to keep these distinctions in mind.

Let me stress again that this is not a matter of whether obedience to God’s law is important, either to us or to God. Of course it’s important. The question is: Where does our power to obey God’s commands come from? Does it come from the gospel—from what God has done for us? Or does it come from the law—from what we must do? That contrast is another way of saying, Does the power come from God or from you? At the end of the day, it’s that simple.

Paul lays out the intensity of his struggle in Romans 7 to make it clear that although the law can no longer condemn us (because Jesus has kept it perfectly on our behalf), it’s still unable to produce in us the desire to keep it. It can only tell us what God requires, which it does. But the law is not the gospel.

To say, however, that the law has no power to change us in no way reduces its ongoing role in the life of the Christian. We just have to understand the precise role it plays for us today. The law now serves us by showing us how to love God and others and when we fail to keep it, the gospel brings comfort by reminding us that God’s infinite approval doesn’t depend on our keeping of the law but on Christ’s keeping of the law on our behalf. And guess what? This makes me want to obey him more, not less!

As Spurgeon wrote, “When I thought God was hard, I found it easy to sin; but when I found God so kind, so good, so overflowing with compassion, I smote upon my breast to think that I could ever have rebelled against One who loved me so, and sought my good.”

Therefore, it’s the gospel (what Jesus has done) that alone can give God-honoring animation to our obedience. The power to obey comes from being moved and motivated by the completed work of Jesus for us. The fuel to do good flows from what’s already been done. So again, while the law directs us, only the gospel can drive us.

One Final Word
One final word on something important that Kevin and I (and a number of our friends) agree on.

We share a common concern that while there’s a lot of talk about gospel-centrality these days (something we’re all encouraged by) this doesn’t mean that everything which claims to be gospel-centered is. We both want you to be Berean-like in your evaluation of everything that comes in the name of gospel-centrality.

So, here’s a good litmus test: whether it’s a sermon, a book, a blog post, or a tweet–if the lasting impression you get causes you to focus more on what you must do than on what Christ has done, the gospel has not been communicated and the communicator (albeit, unwittingly) is no better than the Pharisees who were charged by Jesus with “tying up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and laying them on people’s shoulders”
(Matthew 23:4).

Beware of preaching that, in the words of Herman Bavinck, “acknowledges that we are justified by the righteousness of Christ but then seems to think that we are then sanctified by a holiness we ourselves have acquired.” It is through the preaching of the gospel that Jesus summons sinners (both Christians and non-Christians) and says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29).

The difference between “religion” and the gospel is that religion gives burdens by announcing that Jesus plus something equals everything while the gospel absorbs burdens announcing that Jesus plus nothing equals everything.

It’s very important to remember that the focus of the Bible is not the work of the redeemed but the work of the Redeemer. When the Christian faith becomes defined by who we are and what we do and not by who Christ is and what he did for us, we miss the gospel–and we, ironically, become more disobedient.

As Tim Keller has said, “The Bible is not fundamentally about us. It’s fundamentally about Jesus. The Bible’s purpose is not so much to show you how to live a good life. The Bible’s purpose is to consistently and constantly show you how God’s grace breaks into your life against your will and saves you from the sin and brokenness otherwise you would never be able to overcome.”

So you be careful out there.

Keep thinking, wrestling, reveling, and rejoicing. As members of the same team, Kevin and I surely will. 

[Editor’s note: Some of the original URLs (links) referenced in this article are no longer valid, so the links have been removed.]