A Wrangle on Sanctification

Beloved Christ Church, the winds of doctrinal controversy have picked up again over the subject of sanctification. Some well-intentioned ministers and laypeople are promoting a truncated view of the gospel, that is, one that heralds God’s saving mercy in Christ, but greatly minimizes (or even disparages) God’s call to Christian growth and holiness through biblical instruction. They have a negative perspective on God’s law as it relates to the Christian life. In their view, calling Christians to a life of grateful and growing obedience (in light of Christ’s redemption) will foster a brand of legalism.

The gospel, however, is not only the good news that we’ve been delivered from the penalty of sin, but also the reigning power of sin (Rom. 6:2). Christ, the Good Shepherd, saves and progressively sanctifies His sheep (Titus 2:11-14). In Christ we have been redeemed unto a life of spiritual growth and maturity (c.f. Eph. 4:1; 17-32; Rom. 12:1-2). This is not to say that Christian growth happens overnight. It occurs over the course of a lifetime through the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit and active participation in God’s appointed means of grace (e.g. Word, sacraments, prayer, fellowship– Acts 2:42).

The following answers are in response to questions I was recently given by the Gospel Reformation Network, a group of Reformed ministers that I’ve been associated with over the past several years. The GRN is deeply concerned about some of the recent trends on the doctrine sanctification, and how these trends may be negatively impacting our churches.

1. Is there misunderstanding about sanctification within the PCA and the broader Reformed community?

Yes, without question. The PCA and the broader Reformed Community have in some quarters inched away from a theologically-driven philosophy of ministry to one chiefly driven by cultural, missional, therapeutic, and pragmatic emphases. One of the negative effects of this trend is that the biblical doctrine of progressive sanctification has been, at best, marginalized, and, at worst, ignored altogether. The call to growing Christian obedience is increasingly viewed as somehow negotiating the gospel. There is no doubt that confusion and misunderstanding abound on this matter. I've personally witnessed this confusion among laypeople, fellow presbyters, and seminary students.

2. Which is the greater threat to the church in our time, legalism or antinomianism?

In my experience both legalism and antinomianism (antinomian=against the law) are equal threats to the church today. In terms of legalism, numerous professing Christians are confused about the sufficiency of Christ's redemptive work for sinners. They think that they must contribute something toward the grounds of their justification. Deep down, they struggle with the idea that Christ is enough. Ironically, the modern day missional/social justice movement sometimes unwittingly cultivates legalism by making our good works the focus of the Church rather than the saving work of Christ. The mission of the church becomes more about what "we do" than what "Christ has done" and "is doing" through His Spirit and appointed means of grace. Perhaps legalism is not seen as an immanent threat because we don't see as much of the hard core, self-righteous, pharisaical rule following of days gone by. But make no mistake, the more subtle and hip forms of legalism are alive and well in our day.

Antinomianism is also a serious threat to the health of the Church. Teachers within the pale of Reformed confessionalism promulgate a gospel that saves but does not progressively sanctify, a grace that redeems but does not transform. Perhaps now more than ever Christians misunderstand the role that biblical imperatives, sober warnings, and the third-use-of-the-law play in the sanctification of the believer. We must always be on guard against the perennial threats of legalism and antinomianism.

3. Why do you think pastors downplay the importance of effort in sanctification?

Pastors downplay the importance of effort in sanctification for some or all of the following reasons ...

1. They have a deficient view of the doctrine of sanctification.
2. They are afraid of being perceived as a legalist.
3. They are unwilling to relinquish their personal idols of worldliness and spiritual indolence.

4. How would you define progressive sanctification, and how have you emphasized it in your teaching, preaching, and ministry?

Progressive sanctification is “a work of God’s free grace whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” (WSC 35). In the process of sanctification, which is possible ONLY by the grace of God and enabled by the Spirit of God, we, God’s redeemed children, actively work out in our Christian lives what God is actively working in (Phil. 2:11-12Open in Logos Bible Software (if available); Col. 1:29Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)).

At Christ Church Charleston we underscore and encourage progressive sanctification primarily through the faithful ministry of the means of grace. According to God’s Word and our Reformed confession, the divinely appointed means of grace herald the finished work of Christ for our redemption as well as call us unto a life of loving, grateful, Spirit-empowered growth and obedience in Christ.

1. Systematic Expository Preaching: By preaching the whole counsel of God, verse by verse, we give serious attention to both the indicatives and imperatives of Scripture. The indicatives, among other things, teach us who we are in Christ. The imperatives teach us how to live in Him. We need both.

2. Sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper not only signify and seal to us the precious promises of the gospel, they also “oblige us” to growing measures of loving, grateful, and growing obedience (WSC 162).

3. Prayer: Biblical prayer includes praise, gratitude, confession, and petition. A lion’s share of our petitions include earnest pleas for God to mature us in our faith through His Spirit and Word. We pray that our lives would, by God’s grace, increasingly conform to God’s commands, and not to the changing values of this world. As a church, we offer up prayers in our weekly prayer meeting and in substantial pastoral prayers in public worship. God powerfully uses prayer to aid our spiritual growth in Christ (WLC #178-186).

- Pastor Jon