Sanctification and Giving Up

All believers experience spiritual frustration. We desire to live lives that are obedient to our Lord and that grow in likeness to His life of humble service (Mark 10:45). But anyone who is a believer for very long discovers that failure is common. Those who take 1 Peter 1:15 seriously (“be holy for I am holy”; see also 2 Cor. 7:1) and who do not think of themselves more highly than they ought to think (Rom. 12:3), know that they are far from what they ought to be. Transformation into His image (Rom. 8:29, Col. 3:10) never seems to happen quite fast enough.

Sadly, some are so often and so painfully disappointed with themselves and others that they give up on the idea of changing much at all, and many of these take up a theology that supports that response. A recent example appeared in a post by Christianity Today editor Mark Galli.

I doubt the ability of Christians to make much progress in holiness. I look at churches that are committed to transformation and holiness, and I fail to see that they are much more holy or transformed than other churches…. I look at my own life, and marvel at the lack of real transformation after 50 years of effort.

Galli has written along similar lines previously (“If at First You Don’t Succeed, Stop Trying So Hard”) but is by no means alone in de-emphasizing the role of personal effort and obedience in living the Christian life.

A hypothesis

As I’ve read and interacted with several who lean toward Galli’s attitude (and the usually more nuanced views voiced by Tullian Tchividjian), my efforts to understand this perspective have often ended in a fog I can’t seem to penetrate. The case against “outward obedience,” or “trying harder,” or “law,” etc., reaches a point where the chain of reasoning from premises to conclusions becomes untraceable, and even the conclusions grow increasingly vague rather than increasingly clear.

Add to that the fact that writings advocating less focus on personal obedience often speak in reactive terms. Sometimes subtly but often directly, they refer to bad experiences in homes, churches, schools, or other ministries. Allusions to “legalism,” “performance-oriented” and “performance based” views of relationship with God are common, as are references to personal frustration—even despair—during some period of Christian experience under the influence of such views.

These factors have led me to a hypothesis. Much of the current controversy regarding our role vs. God’s in sanctification is not primarily doctrinal. That is, it is primarily experiential and, as a consequence, doctrinal. It is a response to frustration and disappointment, and often—as in Galli’s case, it amounts to basically giving up on continued, real transformation.

My aim here is to consider briefly some reasons we ought not to give up in response to the inevitable frustration and disappointment involved in running the long race (Heb. 12:1) of the Christian life.

Why we should not give up

1. Frustration is normal

Scripture depicts frustration in the faithful life as a normal occurrence. If your interpretation of Romans 7:15-25 doesn’t allow you to see a believer’s frustration there, Paul’s writings elsewhere necessarily imply it. He continued to see himself as “chief of sinners” years after Romans 7 was written (1 Tim. 1:15). The examples of Peter (Matt. 26:75), the Twelve in general (e.g., Matt. 16:8-9), and John Mark (Acts 15:37-18, 2Tim. 4:11) help us see the point as well. And many of the faith-heroes of Hebrews 11 experienced soul vexing failures: Abraham, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Samson, David. Enoch’s experience of walking with God right into glory stands out in the chapter because it is truly exceptional.

Perhaps Jesus Himself offers the weightiest evidence—in Matt. 7:14, for example. If “the way is hard,” we should expect stumbling and frustration to part of the journey.

To be sure, overly rosy depictions of “victorious Christian living” by some groups have added to the confusion. The Bible knows nothing of an all-victory-all-the-time experience for believers. That fact should move us to continue to press on toward the mark, even when real progress feels hopeless.

2. You are probably doing better than you think.

Galli’s post crystallized a growing impression of mine: some believers are discouraged in the struggle, and inclined to give up, because they are overlooking much of the transformation that has truly occurred in their lives. For some, this takes the form of obsessing continually over one area of persistent weakness and failure. As long as victory does not occur consistently (or maybe ever) over this one particular sin, they feel that nothing else matters much. In their minds, they are simply not growing as a Christian should.

But this is foolish. We all know that God does not deal with each believer’s sins at the same rate or in the same sequence. He doesn’t free all believers of sinful anger first, then improper sexual habits second, then lack of generosity third, and so on. So at least one conclusion is unavoidable: the sin we most want to see gone today may well not be the one God is most interested in ridding us of today. Persistent failure in area A is not the same as overall lack of growth. Obsessing over that one problem area may well be a case of not seeing the forest for the manure on the trail.

Galli’s thoughts do not reflect that kind of monomania, but they do reveal a similar mistake:

[T]here is a larger part of me that really is patient and understanding. But the more I get to know myself, the more I see layers and layers of mixed motives. I’m gracious in part because I am filled with grace. And in part because I don’t want to stir up an argument. And in part I need my friend to do me a favor. And in part, I’m fearful that if I don’t act graciously, God will not be pleased. And in part, I want people to think of me as gracious. On it goes, one selfish motive after another, all mixed up together with the righteous motive.

A habit of seeing ordinary self interest as an evil is certainly a recipe for spiritual frustration. The Bible does not depict the desire to avoid quarrels as a faulty motive (Rom. 12:18, 1 Pet. 3:11). Nor does Scripture depict quid pro quo interactions as inherently evil (Prov. 16:11); a bit of extra patience with a companion in exchange for some help from him is not manipulative or “selfish.” It’s simply ordinary. As for the fear that God will not be pleased—this is, in fact, a virtue (1 Pet. 1:17) as is the desire for a good reputation (Prov. 22:1).

Galli makes the same error that many frustrated believers do: that of replacing God’s standards with ideals of our own imagining. The result is that we fail to see how much positive change God has actually produced in us.

3. The fruit of our efforts is not where our responsibility lies.

Most believers I know are able to see that in evangelism, we labor but God produces the fruit (1 Cor. 3:6). So why do so many find it difficult to see a similar dynamic in sanctification? There is no pride or idolatry in embracing our responsibility to work hard at “bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1) while recognizing that the results of our labors are entirely in God’s hands.

It’s called the “fruit of the Spirit” for good reason (Gal. 5:22). Though Jesus says we bear “much fruit” (John 15:5), He is quite clear about where it really comes from. (Note, by the way, that though Jesus identifies abiding in Him as our part in bearing fruit, He does not say abiding is our only responsibility.)

What does this tell us about our attitude toward the amount of transformation we see in ourselves and others? Certainly, Galli is right that no matter how much we grow in this life, most of the transformation occurs later. Creation groans for the revealing of the sons of God (Rom. 8:19-22). But even if we suppose that Galli is right that the prospect of real transformation in this life is unimportant, it doesn’t follow that we should expend little effort pursuing it. Our calling is to join God in the work (Phil. 2:12-13) regardless of whether that seems to be yielding the right outcomes.

4. We are not given permission to give up.

It’s odd that confusion persists on this point when the NT speaks to it so directly. Even in the good ol’ days of the first century church, believers grew weary in doing good (2 Thess. 3:13, Gal. 6:9). They grew tired of “striving against sin” (Heb. 12:4) and of experiencing God’s corrective discipline (Heb. 12:5). The response of the apostles was to assure the saints that they must endure and “abound more and more” (1 Thess. 4:1; cf. 1 Cor. 15:58) in obedience. They were to find courage in the fact that He who had begun the good work in them would continue it—not just at but until the day of His return (Phil. 1:6). They were to understand that God has generously and thoroughly equipped them for living the life (2 Cor. 9:8, 2 Pet. 1:3, Eph. 6:13, 1 Cor. 10:13).

The Scriptures leave no room for the attitude that says “Well, I’m about as good as I’m ever going to be in this life, so I think I’ll just relax and rejoice in grace.” Rather, the consistent—and I think clear—message to believers is to faithfully and actively participate in God’s work of transformation.

For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (ESV, 2 Pet. 1:8-11)

Aaron Blumer Bio


Aaron Blumer, SharperIron’s second publisher, is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in a small town in western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. He is employed in customer service for UnitedHealth Group and teaches high school rhetoric (and sometimes logic and government) at Baldwin Christian School.

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CPHurst's picture

Thanks for these thought Aaron! This is very much in line with Brian Hedges new book Active Spirituality which I recommend.

Anne Sokol's picture

how the 1689 Bapt Confession of Faith addresses the issues of sanctification and good works. They state things very Biblically.

 

Chapter 13: Of Sanctification

1._____ They who are united to Christ, effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection, are also farther sanctified, really and personally, through the same virtue, by His Word and Spirit dwelling in them; the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified, and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of all true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.
( Acts 20:32; Romans 6:5, 6; John 17:17; Ephesians 3:16-19; 1 Thessalonians 5:21-23; Romans 6:14; Galatians 5:24; Colossians 1:11; 2 Corinthians 7:1; Hebrews 12:14 )

2._____This sanctification is throughout the whole man, yet imperfect in this life; there abideth still some remnants of corruption in every part, whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war; the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.
( 1 Thessalonians 5:23; Romans 7:18, 23; Galatians 5:17; 1 Peter 2:11 )

3._____ In which war, although the remaining corruption for a time may much prevail, yet through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome; and so the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God, pressing after an heavenly life, in evangelical obedience to all the commands which Christ as Head and King, in His Word hath prescribed them.
( Romans 7:23; Romans 6:14; Ephesians 4:15, 16; 2 Corinthians 3:18; 2 Corinthians 7:1 )

 

 

Chapter 16: Of Good Works

1._____ Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his Holy Word, and not such as without the warrant thereof are devised by men out of blind zeal, or upon any pretence of good intentions.
( Micah 6:8; Hebrews 13:21; Matthew 15:9; Isaiah 29:13 )

2._____ These good works, done in obedience to God's commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith; and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that having their fruit unto holiness they may have the end eternal life.
( James 2:18, 22; Psalms 116:12, 13; 1 John 2:3, 5; 2 Peter 1:5-11; Matthew 5:16; 1 Timothy 6:1; 1 Peter 2:15; Philippians 1:11; Ephesians 2:10; Romans 6:22 )

3._____ Their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ; and that they may be enabled thereunto, besides the graces they have already received, there is necessary an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit, to work in them to will and to do of his good pleasure; yet they are not hereupon to grow negligent, as if they were not bound to perform any duty, unless upon a special motion of the Spirit, but they ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them.
( John 15:4, 5; 2 Corinthians 3:5; Philippians 2:13; Philippians 2:12; Hebrews 6:11, 12; Isaiah 64:7 )

4._____ They who in their obedience attain to the greatest height which is possible in this life, are so far from being able to supererogate, and to do more than God requires, as that they fall short of much which in duty they are bound to do.
( Job 9:2, 3; Galatians 5:17; Luke 17:10 )

5._____ We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come, and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom by them we can neither profit nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins; but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants; and because as they are good they proceed from his Spirit, and as they are wrought by us they are defiled and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God's punishment.
( Romans 3:20; Ephesians 2:8, 9; Romans 4:6; Galatians 5:22, 23; Isaiah 64:6; Psalms 143:2 )

6._____ Yet notwithstanding the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreprovable in God's sight, but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.
( Ephesians 1:6; 1 Peter 2:5; Matthew 25:21, 23; Hebrews 6:10 )

7._____ Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands, and of good use both to themselves and others; yet because they proceed not from a heart purified by faith, nor are done in a right manner according to the word, nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, nor make a man meet to receive grace from God, and yet their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing to God.
( 2 Kings 10:30; 1 Kings 21:27, 29; Genesis 4:5; Hebrews 11:4, 6; 1 Corinthians 13:1; Matthew 6:2, 5; Amos 5:21, 22; Romans 9:16; Titus 3:5; Job 21:14, 15; Matthew 25:41-43 )

AndyBern's picture

That Baptist confession has it right. Sanctification is God's work, through His Word and Holy Spirit (Romans 8:11, Galatians 5:24-25, John 6:63, John 15:5, 2 Corinthians 3:18, Zechariah 4:6). It is just as much a work of His grace as justification. But it's very easy to fool ourselves into believing we're relying on God to make us like Christ when we're really striving in our own weakness.

I am in the process of writing a short book on this very subject to help those frustrated by their failure to overcome sin.

Andrew Bernhardt

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I think the confession, along with several others, has it right as well.

I wonder who forget's that sanctification is God's work, though? I mean, I don't doubt that this happens. There is certainly no truth in the Book that isn't forgotten by somebody somewhere. It's just not something I've encountered much... I'm not sure I've encountered it at all. It might be accurate to say that I only know of its existence through the many who are so often reacting to it.

AndyBern's picture

I don't think we forget as a matter of doctrine, but it seems to me if I blame myself for my failure to overcome sinful habits, I'm assuming practical responsibility for my sanctification.

It doesn't make sense to blame ourselves for our inability to resist temptation if we say God is the one making us like Christ. My sanctification is God's work, therefore it is His responsibility. Like justification, sanctification is also by grace through faith. It's incredibly freeing to understand the "no condemnation" of Romans 8:1 comes immediately after Paul admits he serves sin in his flesh in Romans 7:25.

Not that we blame God for our failures. Like a potter at the wheel, God takes His time molding us into Christ's likeness.

And not that we just sit around doing our own thing waiting for sanctification to happen. It is appropriated when we abide in Christ and walk in submission to the Holy Spirit.

Andrew Bernhardt

pvawter's picture

AndyBern wrote:

I don't think we forget as a matter of doctrine, but it seems to me if I blame myself for my failure to overcome sinful habits, I'm assuming practical responsibility for my sanctification.

It doesn't make sense to blame ourselves for our inability to resist temptation if we say God is the one making us like Christ. My sanctification is God's work, therefore it is His responsibility. Like justification, sanctification is also by grace through faith. It's incredibly freeing to understand the "no condemnation" of Romans 8:1 comes immediately after Paul admits he serves sin in his flesh in Romans 7:25.

Not that we blame God for our failures. Like a potter at the wheel, God takes His time molding us into Christ's likeness.

And not that we just sit around doing our own thing waiting for sanctification to happen. It is appropriated when we abide in Christ and walk in submission to the Holy Spirit.

Andy,

the content of the two sentences above that I have highlighted certainly seem to contradict one another. In what sense can we contend that if God is responsible to do something and he does not do it, he is not to blame? Doesn't this very contradiction force us to consider that there is a certain element of personal discipline involved, which is, of necessity empowered by the Holy Spirit?

Furthermore, how do we define what it means to "abide in Christ" and "walk in submission to the Holy Spirit?" In fact, in John 15 where Jesus speaks of abiding in him, he also explains just what that abiding entails, and it is far from a passive picture. Specifically, we must consider v.10, "If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love." This instruction must mean something, or else Christ was giving us an impossible command. 

It is interesting that you use the word "walk" to describe our role in sanctification, since walking is active rather than passive. For example Eph. 4:1-3, "I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." These terms are hardly passive. 

In other words, the NT itself instructs us to actively engage in disciplined living and striving after holiness in the fear of the Lord. If we have been so commanded, then should we shift the blame to God for failing to obey such commands? I do not think so.

dmyers's picture

Aaron, no one is arguing that we should give up. You're putting words in people's mouths. It's hard to have a constructive discussion that way. 

Anne Sokol's picture

This is where this gets hard to explain, but I htink you're making assumptions or adding things to what Andy is saying.

It is true that God is responsible and has sovereign power over our sanctification, just as He has over all that happens in the world. But on the other hand, it doesn't make Him guilty for our sins or the unrighteous things that anyone does.

These two things are hard to put together, but they are true. On my side, this means: I am guilty for the entirety of my sins, but that doesn't give me the power to not sin.

I think the passivity question is an assumption/conclusion that people jump to when they hear the above statements, but it doesn't follow. It doesn't have to follow. I can still be active ... in the Lord's power.

pvawter's picture

Anne Sokol wrote:

This is where this gets hard to explain, but I htink you're making assumptions or adding things to what Andy is saying.

It is true that God is responsible and has sovereign power over our sanctification, just as He has over all that happens in the world. But on the other hand, it doesn't make Him guilty for our sins or the unrighteous things that anyone does.

These two things are hard to put together, but they are true. On my side, this means: I am guilty for the entirety of my sins, but that doesn't give me the power to not sin.

I think the passivity question is an assumption/conclusion that people jump to when they hear the above statements, but it doesn't follow. It doesn't have to follow. I can still be active ... in the Lord's power.

Anne, 

of course when you put it that way, who would disagree? But it's interesting to note the conundrum that Andy's reasoning presents. One on hand, we would all agree that God is not responsible for our sinful failure, but then again, Andy also said, "it seems to me if I blame myself for my failure to overcome sinful habits, I'm assuming practical responsibility for my sanctification." So God is not to blame, but neither am I? Cool! I guess everybody just gets a pass when I sin. Maybe we should say, "The devil made me do it." Or we can simply believe what Scripture says and take seriously the commands to pursue holiness. I don't think that you, or Andy or even most people are arguing for casting off all restraint because sanctification is not their job, but I think there is a very real danger of minimizing the responsibility that each of us has to obey the commands of our Lord because they are impossible for us to keep perfectly in this life. 

I don't think there is much distance between our views, really, and it may be simply the limitations of our ability to explain what is really at issue. 

AndyBern's picture

pvawter wrote:

the content of the two sentences above that I have highlighted certainly seem to contradict one another. In what sense can we contend that if God is responsible to do something and he does not do it, he is not to blame? Doesn't this very contradiction force us to consider that there is a certain element of personal discipline involved, which is, of necessity empowered by the Holy Spirit?

There is personal discipline. However, that discipline is not a matter of trying to keep any Old Testament (or even New Testament) command legalistically. We cannot please God through our own natural strength and resources (i.e. the flesh of Romans 8:7-8). The discipline comes in the continual, conscious reliance on God's power in us to live holy lives. There's awareness that without Him we can do nothing, but with Him we can do all things. So we continually look to God to daily provide what is needed in us to live in the manner He desires. We never come to the point where we think we've matured enough to obey on our own. And we seek to avoid whatever hinders (grieves) this dependent relationship with God.

pvawter wrote:

Furthermore, how do we define what it means to "abide in Christ" and "walk in submission to the Holy Spirit?" 

Jesus provided us with the ultimate example of walking in the Spirit. Even though He was fully capable of doing so, Jesus did not serve His Father in His own strength and wisdom. The Spirit led Him into the wilderness to be tempted, and then He returned in the Spirit. He preached in the Spirit and did miracles by the Spirit. The words Jesus spoke were not His own words, but the Father's by the Spirit speaking through Him (Luke 3:21-22, 4:1, 4:14, 4:18, 21, John 3:34, 6:63, Matthew 12:28).

When Jesus tells us to abide in Him, I believe He includes the "how" (Spirit walk) along with the "what" (teachings and commands). Just as Jesus was dependent and submissive to the Holy Spirit, we are to be the same ("...without Me you can do nothing"). One practical example of this can be seen in how the gospel was presented by the early church. Jesus told His disciples not to worry about what they would say, but trust the Holy Spirit to speak through them (Matthew 10:19-20, Mark 13:11, Ephesians 6:19-20, Acts 4:8, 6:10).

Our dependence on the Spirit to live as Christians is sprinkled througout the New Testament. Many of us (myself included) tend to operate like the phrase "in the Spirit" or "by the Spirit" is missing in passages such as Ephesians 6:18, Colossians 1:8, Philippians 3:3, 1 Peter 4:6, Romans 8:13. But we need to realize we can't do it on our own.

pvawter wrote:

It is interesting that you use the word "walk" to describe our role in sanctification, since walking is active rather than passive. For example Eph. 4:1-3, "I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." These terms are hardly passive. 

Walking is active - but we don't look to our sanctification as coming from our walk, but from the One we walk with (or rather 'in'). It's a subtle difference. It is just like justification. We don't save ourselves by our faith. The One we have faith in does the saving.

pvawter wrote:

In other words, the NT itself instructs us to actively engage in disciplined living and striving after holiness in the fear of the Lord. If we have been so commanded, then should we shift the blame to God for failing to obey such commands? I do not think so.

The blame is not so much on failing to obey, but on failing to walk in the Spirit. If we walk in the Spirit, we will obey (Galatians 5:16).

Andrew Bernhardt

Anne Sokol's picture

pvawter wrote:
But it's interesting to note the conundrum that Andy's reasoning presents. One on hand, we would all agree that God is not responsible for our sinful failure, but then again, Andy also said, "it seems to me if I blame myself for my failure to overcome sinful habits, I'm assuming practical responsibility for my sanctification." So God is not to blame, but neither am I?

We may be quibbling over verbage, but ... Who is responsible and who is to blame? Are they one and the same?

I am fully blamable for my sins. But God is in charge of / responsible for/ the leader in my sanctification.

 

pvawter wrote:
Or we can simply believe what Scripture says and take seriously the commands to pursue holiness.
No one is saying not to do this. it's a wrong conclusion poeple leap to.

pvawter wrote:
I don't think that you, or Andy or even most people are arguing for casting off all restraint because sanctification is not their job, but I think there is a very real danger of minimizing the responsibility that each of us has to obey the commands of our Lord because they are impossible for us to keep perfectly in this life.
 I think perhaps the issue is the way we get to that obedience. Aaron, for example, seems to be saying "just keep trying." Andy is saying there is another way of internal reasoning. So I think we are mostly talking about our internal reasonings/spiritual truths we speak to ourselves as we live.

pvawter wrote:
I don't think there is much distance between our views, really, and it may be simply the limitations of our ability to explain what is really at issue. 
yes, there is a sense in which people are talking with different spiritual emphases and experiences here.

more to say, but this is not a great time ...

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

dmyers wrote:

Aaron, no one is arguing that we should give up. You're putting words in people's mouths. It's hard to have a constructive discussion that way. 

Actually, Galli's "stop trying so hard" is pretty close. As is his "hey, we shouldn't expect to change much anyway... that never happens" (paraphrase). But my main claim is not that people say "I believe in giving up" but that this is the essence of the teaching. It is an unavoidable inference of it.

It is also the only key I've been able to find so far that makes the view cohere a bit. As even this latest discussion here has shown, it tends to lack internal consistency/it's self contradictory. (For example, reasoning like this: if I blame myself for my disobedience I'm claiming my transformation depends on me; but if it depends on God, I should not blame Him.) Further, I've posted piles and piles of NT urgings toward obedience, self-discipline, trying harder, fearing God's disapproval, etc. In the larger debate between TT and DeYoung et. al., defenders of that view have done likewise. On the whole, the Galli/TT perspective (though there are some differences between them) does not interact with these passages or with the arguments that point out internal contradictions.

What is someone seeking understanding suppose to conclude? (Add in the evidence of the frequently-reactionary language I mentioned in my article).

I'm reasoning inductively from the question, what can explain all this? So far, frustration and giving up seems to be the best answer.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Is there a genuine paradox in the biblical teaching on sanctification? Transformation depends on obedience but obedience depends on transformation?

I do think that there is a somewhat difficult puzzle to solve. But we can't even begin to solve it until we accept what's clear.

For starters, understand what He has already done: God has already transformed believers' wills (nobody turns to Christ and believes the gospel without being drawn; all true believers call Him "Lord" and mean it), and empowered us sufficiently to hold us responsible to do everything He has told us to do.

So harmonizing "blame" and "responsibility" with humble dependence begins with recognizing that nobody is to blame for disobedience or lack of transformation but we ourselves--because God (who is indeed "in charge" of the process) has already sufficiently commanded and equipped us.

AndyBern's picture

I think, on our part, sanctification begins with presenting ourselves to God, "as alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God" (Romans 6:13). I don't see this 'presenting' as implying anything about our ability to live in a righteous manner. It is about our availability to God... not just to do right, but to look to Him to enable us to do right. It is saying, "Here I am, use me."

The same 'presenting' concept appears in Romans 12:1-2, where sanctification comes about through God's transformation, not our reformation. 2 Corinthians 3:18 says the Agent of this transformation is the Holy Spirit.

Andrew Bernhardt

Wayne Wilson's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

 I've posted piles and piles of NT urgings toward obedience, self-discipline, trying harder, fearing God's disapproval, etc. In the larger debate between TT and DeYoung et. al., defenders of that view have done likewise. On the whole, the Galli/TT perspective (though there are some differences between them) does not interact with these passages or with the arguments that point out internal contradictions.

 

It would be very helpful to hear the Galli/TT perspective folks interact with that list of Scriptures you mentioned, Aaron. 

Anne Sokol's picture

Maybe there is a type of giving up — giving up my own sense of control over this process of sanctification. Giving up the idea that I can sanctify myself.

And maybe some people do just give up with no replacement.

But it’s more of an exchange, when it’s understood correctly. It’s a surrender to God’s personal leadership in sanctification, through the Holy Spirit. For example, I might have a sin area I want to stop asap, but God wants to work on another sin area, and not that one, for example, because  for one thing, He knows I have selfish (self-interested) reasons for wanting to stop a particular sin and not the motive just to please or honor or be like Him. So am I willing to give up my own plan of how I want to see myself—to stop trying harder in one area where He is not giving me success, and instead look to the area that He wants to deal with and let Him teach and lead me? Am I willing to be that humble?

I think it’s also an exchange in understanding the process of sanctification. I used to make lists of ways/things to change—like stop yelling at my kids, stop xxx, do ____, etc. But now, I look deeper. Those behaviors are outward expressions of my spiritual life. If I, by self-will/self-power, can simply stop yelling at my kids, I haven’t addressed the deeper sin or lack of holiness/righteousness that this is stemming from, and maybe then I never would consider it. I would just start to think that I’ve become a better mom and person.

But I haven’t. … I can be honest with myself and realize that I cannot love my children in my own natural power—as I am told to do in Titus, and if I continue to try this, it will be some kind of deformed love mixed up with my sins and selfishness, even with my desire to think of myself as a "good" christian. …  so I turn to God, asking Him to teach me all the true facets of His own love and how I, in following Christ, should express this in my own life. It's exchanging a narrow focus for a much wider one Scripturally.

It’s not a giving up entirely. But exchanging certain paths or emphases in sanctification for other paths. It’s taking the whole of Scripture into consideration instead of focusing on certain commands.

But most people can’t explain this part of it. It is very hard for me to put words around it.

AndyBern's picture

Anne Sokol wrote:

It’s a surrender to God’s personal leadership in sanctification, through the Holy Spirit. For example, I might have a sin area I want to stop asap, but God wants to work on another sin area, and not that one, for example, because  for one thing, He knows I have selfish (self-interested) reasons for wanting to stop a particular sin and not the motive just to please or honor or be like Him. So am I willing to give up my own plan of how I want to see myself—to stop trying harder in one area where He is not giving me success, and instead look to the area that He wants to deal with and let Him teach and lead me? Am I willing to be that humble?

I think it’s also an exchange in understanding the process of sanctification. I used to make lists of ways/things to change—like stop yelling at my kids, stop xxx, do ____, etc. But now, I look deeper. Those behaviors are outward expressions of my spiritual life. If I, by self-will/self-power, can simply stop yelling at my kids, I haven’t addressed the deeper sin or lack of holiness/righteousness that this is stemming from, and maybe then I never would consider it. I would just start to think that I’ve become a better mom and person.

That is the way I see it, too. When Jesus rebuked His disciples, it was over things they thought were good and right - and hence would not have considered as needing any repentance and forgiveness over (Matthew 19:13-14, Mark 8:32-33, Luke 9:54-55). God does a much better job at searching out our sin than we do.

Andrew Bernhardt

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

As far as I can tell, pretty much everyone is in favor of seeking God's exposure of the deeper problems in our character (though this is certainly going beyond "preach the gospel to yourself"). Lot's of Scripture encourages us to do that. Ps. 19:12-13, Psalm 139:23, Heb. 4:12-13 for example.

But certainly we shouldn't neglect application, too. The deeper issues have rubber-meets-road implications. And so much of the NT goes directly after those implications, giving us specific--even outward--things to do and not do.

AndyBern's picture

I don't think anyone has a problem with doing the things we ought to do. It is just a matter of doing those things in the flesh or in the Spirit - of trying to obey in our natural strength or seeking God's power to enable us to obey.

Andrew Bernhardt

pvawter's picture

Where do you get the idea that Aaron or myself are arguing for self-righteousness apart from the power of the Holy Spirit? I think that is the problem with the "preach-the-gospel-to-yourself" perspective of sanctification. It assumes that any effort exerted by a believer toward obedience or holiness automatically excludes any dependence on the Spirit. That is simply erroneous thinking. The two are not at odds with one another, or else the Scriptures would not teach believers to pursue holiness and mature obedience. All such effort would be wasted if not for the Holy Spirit's indwelling presence, to which every believer is called to submit. It is both Holy Spirit dependence and conscious obedience to our Lord's commands.

alex o.'s picture

Were there is fire, there attention is needed. Institutional Christianity as seen in many fundamentalist churches and schools is terrible in helping a believer properly orient themselves toward God, themselves, or society. Fundamentalist institutions have it wrong! Repent! Some have apologized for some errors but I have a feeling they are like the little boy who is sitting down outwardly but standing up inside his heart. A failed institution will need to prove themselves.

Without looking at the Greek, Aaron, I think the Mt. 7 reference of the "way being hard" is that it is "defined" and not so much "difficult." After all Jesus said His yoke was easy and the burden light.

I am somewhere in between the DeYoung and Galli positions. These "popular type" books I am convinced will not help many in any significant way. A Christian would be better off just reading big portions of the bible to get to know what God is like and be informed how to live.

I think the bible backs me up on this point also as Jesus' prayer to the Father was that He would sanctify the believers by the scriptures. This addresses the practical means of progressively becoming like God while still on earth: it is multi-faceted. Does the word of God only speak to one area of need? No, it tells us many things about many practical areas instead of reducing life to a lowest common denominator.

So, I disagree with Galli that we should just focus on others instead of introspection. Yes, obsessive introspection is crazy but the answer is not only focusing on others. Paul told the Corinthians to look objectively upon themselves to see how God had worked in their lives. The Apostle John seemed to take the objective testimony that other godly ministers had toward him as an assurance of sorts in his epistles. So, healthy introspection is good.

While I don't think we should just give up and expect everything to work itself out somehow, some of the striving along fundamentalist ideas is counterproductive. First, they establish many false criteria of what true godliness looks like (all know what I mean here if they have any background in fundy circles). Second,it engenders pride when any false criterion is met. 

Your 4th point Aaron is rather messy. You jump all over the place with the scripture quotations without dealing with each context. I agree mostly, with some reservation, to what you say but your last point was the weakest.

"Our faith itself... is not our saviour. We have but one Saviour; and that one Saviour is Jesus Christ our Lord.  B.B. Warfield

http://beliefspeak2.net

Chip Van Emmerik's picture

alex o. wrote:

Without looking at the Greek, Aaron, I think the Mt. 7 reference of the "way being hard" is that it is "defined" and not so much "difficult." After all Jesus said His yoke was easy and the burden light.

The word, thlibo, means to press, as in a grape, and indicates something that is constricted or difficult. Vine says "hemmed in, like a mountain gorge; the way is 'narrow' by the divine conditions, which make it impossible for any to enter who think entrance depends on self-merit, or who will incline towards sin, or desire to continue in evil.' Vine then references afflict as a similar word to research. 

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

Chip Van Emmerik's picture

Mark Snoeberger weighs in on this discussion indicating it has been an ages-old argument pushing the pendulum back and forth between extremes. He references B. B. Warfield who dealt with this topic under the heading of perfectionism. He seems boils down the pendulum swing of the perfectionist position of TT and others this way very plainly.

"Frustrated by dead orthodoxies where individuals work very hard to earn favor with God, perfectionists seek ways to grow in grace authentically, without expending any effort at all, relying wholly upon Christ to unilaterally accomplish for me the Christian growth that I once thought was accomplished through obedience (or to use a more sinister word, “law-keeping”). This all-I-have-is-Christ approach to sanctification occurs almost magically: all I need to do is to “reckon” on my standing in Christ (that’s the Keswick version) or preach the Gospel to myself (that’s the Tchividjian version), and I will grow—almost without even trying and free from the frustrations experienced by those wicked folks who are “striving” to be more like Christ."

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

TylerR's picture

Editor

This discussion reminds me of my own struggles with this very issue. I have read, and strongly recommend, Jay Adams' How to Help People Change as a primer on growth in Christ. One big thing Adams emphasizes there is that we must exercise personal discipline in our daily walk with God, which is only possible with the indwelling Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, Adams correctly (in my view) emphasizes our personal responsibility in this arena:

I’m going to discipline myself to godliness. I’m going to work at it. I’m going to engage in sustained daily effort in doing God’s will and obeying God’s requirements. I’m going to deny self and crucify self every day. I’m going to put to death the old life patterns of the old man. I’m going to say ‘no’ to self and say ‘yes’ to Christ every day. As I do these things I will be developing godly habits. I will not give up but I will persist in doing right. I will do what the Scriptures say regardless of how I feel. I will live a commandment-motivated life of holiness oriented towards godliness.

Adams has been criticized by some (including, for instance, George Zeller) who suggest that he downplays the grace of God in salvation and puts believers back under the law as a rule of life:

Another concern we have with reformed theology, and the one that will be addressed in this pamphlet, pertains to the area of sanctification. Reformed theology teaches that the believer is under the law as a rule of life. Concerning sanctification and how one is to live a set apart and holy life, reformed theology will often send the believer back to Mount Sinai rather than to Mount Calvary. But it is at the cross where true freedom from sin is found. 

. . .

The main thrust of Jay Adams’ booklet does not bring the believer to Christ or to the cross. Instead it brings him to Mount Sinai, face to face with God’s awesome requirements as set forth in the Scriptures, but where is the power and the dynamic to fill these requirements? We need to apply the principles of Romans chapter 6 and claim the power of Romans chapter 8.

To be fair, Zeller is criticizing a booklet Adams put out, developed and distilled from How to Help People Change. I don't think Zeller's critique is accurate. But still, there you have it - the same impasse we see with this recent TT (aka "Billy Graham's grandson") kurfluffle. There is such a divide over this very issue. For my part, I cannot say, and will not say, that we have no part to play in sanctification. I think a Christian life can and must be a disciplined one, and that takes work. I think to say otherwise is just plain wrong. We can only succeed by the power of the Spirit. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

dmyers's picture

Has anyone read Grace Works! (And Ways We Think It Doesn't) by Douglas Bond?  http://www.amazon.com/Grace-Works-Ways-Think-Doesnt/dp/1596387432/ref=sr...

I saw it advertised in a recent World Magazine issue.  From its description, it sounds as if it comes down on the Tchividjian side of this debate.  It carries endorsements from R.C. Sproul, Jr., Mike Horton, Joel Beeke, and others.

There is an excerpt here:  http://douglasbondbooks.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2014-05-23T14:33...

alex o.'s picture

Chip Van Emmerik wrote:

 

alex o. wrote:

 

Without looking at the Greek, Aaron, I think the Mt. 7 reference of the "way being hard" is that it is "defined" and not so much "difficult." After all Jesus said His yoke was easy and the burden light.

 

The word, thlibo, means to press, as in a grape, and indicates something that is constricted or difficult. Vine says "hemmed in, like a mountain gorge; the way is 'narrow' by the divine conditions, which make it impossible for any to enter who think entrance depends on self-merit, or who will incline towards sin, or desire to continue in evil.' Vine then references afflict as a similar word to research. 

 

Of course Chip, one cannot just pick a choice in a lexicon to translate a passage, the context dictates usage. "Constricted" is what I meant as "defined". The idea is still a narrow path and not a difficult one. Colossians tells us to walk in Christ just as we have received Him. Sanctification is accomplished by the Christian's faith in the course of daily life.

I don't think Jesus was speaking of anything different than other scriptures present as a path with ditches on both sides: a built up highway. I think it is a serious error to present the Christian life as one of difficulty, frustration, and striving to be pleasing to God. So, are we saved by grace and then have to struggle to please Him? That is not the picture the apostle's paint of the Christian walk. Of course our life here will be difficult in many aspects, but our transformation into Christ's image is through the same faith as salvation.

 

"Our faith itself... is not our saviour. We have but one Saviour; and that one Saviour is Jesus Christ our Lord.  B.B. Warfield

http://beliefspeak2.net

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Someone asked several posts up: what's wrong with speaking in reactive terms? Glad you asked. It wasn't my point to say anything is wrong with that. Rather, the reactive terms (in particular reaction to disappointment, frustration, "legalism" etc.) was evidence of my giving up theory. What I mean is that along with other evidence, it's significant that most of what I've seen from this view is expressed in some kind of bad-experience context. Again, nothing wrong with that, but in the search for understanding it suggests that bad experiences play a major role in this take on sanctification.

" It is just a matter of doing those things in the flesh or in the Spirit - of trying to obey in our natural strength or seeking God's power to enable us to obey."

I appreciate this concern, I really do. I'm just never sure what people mean by it. Possibilities are easy to guess but which of them is the intent? Is someone "trying to obey in natural strength" when they use self-discipline or give up something for Lent or spend an extra hour memorizing Scripture ...or is it more like doing the right thing while neglecting the relationship that makes it all matter and empowers it?  I think there are very few who would say the latter is a good idea. It's not a major view on sanctification, in any case, though as a sinful failing it is common enough, to be sure.

... I think the Mt. 7 reference of the "way being hard" is that it is "defined" and not so much "difficult." After all Jesus said His yoke was easy and the burden light.

I think the meaning is best seen the context. Here's the verse.

13  “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (ESV2011, Matt 7:13-14)

The contrast is between easy and hard... narrow and wide....few and many.

About "yoke is easy...burden is light," I believe Jesus is talking comparatively, i.e., easy and light compared to the alternative. The alternative is trying to be reconciled to God by your own righteousness rather than being credited with Christ's. So He says come to me you who are weary and weighed down and find rest. It is not the rest of inactivity or ease, but the rest of trading a futile, soul-crushing effort with a fruitful one--one that occurs within a completely altered relationship with God, not as the end point but as the starting point.

So the genuinely legalistic way was "work to find acceptance with God;" Christ's yoke is "find acceptance with God once for all in Me, then work to 'walk worthy' of it."

AndyBern's picture

Taking on Christ's yoke and carrying His burden implies effort on our part. However, the thing about His yoke (as with any yoke) is that it makes the work we are to do easier. I'm reminded of people in third-world countries carrying heavy burdens with a pole across their shoulders. What was impossible or extremely difficult to do becomes possible or even easy with a yoke.

Jesus' yoke, however, is easier than that, and His burden is lighter. I think many act like the yoke or burden is the Law. But Peter basically ruled this out in Acts 15:10. I understand His yoke to be the Holy Spirit, who helps us in our weakness, and the burden to be the work God has for us to do (Ephesians 2:10). 

IMO, the effort we expend in sanctification is focused not so much on keeping commands but on denying ourselves and crucifying the flesh through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:12-13). Without this, we won't be able to keep His commands. Sin is the outward manifestation of an inner problem. As long as we allow the mind of the flesh to operate, sin will result. To gain practical victory over sin, the fleshly nature needs to be addressed. Otherwise, we're just attempting to cover up the symptoms.

Sanctification involves active dependence upon the Spirit to become aware of, not only sins in our lives, but the fleshly mindset behind them (like Psalm 139:23-24). It includes confession of those areas as they are revealed, and trust in God to not only forgive those things, but to sanctify us (1 John 1:9). It involves relying on the Spirit to be able to say "No!" to the flesh - to put the flesh to death. It involves the 'reckoning' of Romans 6:10-11, and the 'presenting' of our bodies as instruments of righteousness to God (Romans 6:13, 12:1). It involves relying on His power to obey. All of this requires some effort on our part, but it is the Holy Spirit who grants the success in these efforts. As such, I think keeping Jesus' commands is the result of walking in the Spirit, not the means to walking in the Spirit.

Andrew Bernhardt

alex o.'s picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
 

So the genuinely legalistic way was "work to find acceptance with God;" Christ's yoke is "find acceptance with God once for all in Me, then work to 'walk worthy' of it."

So, with your version, one needs only to look to Christ to be saved, but then work hard in sanctification to please Christ. This is what I am against. Sanctification is similar to justification in that both involve steps of faith. This is all I am going to say on this. It is your site and thread, have the last word.

The Mt. 7 passage: I have "wide and spacious" in 13, and "narrow and constricted" in verse 14. I do not read any "easy/difficult" into this section.

"Our faith itself... is not our saviour. We have but one Saviour; and that one Saviour is Jesus Christ our Lord.  B.B. Warfield

http://beliefspeak2.net

Anne Sokol's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

" It is just a matter of doing those things in the flesh or in the Spirit - of trying to obey in our natural strength or seeking God's power to enable us to obey."

I appreciate this concern, I really do. I'm just never sure what people mean by it. Possibilities are easy to guess but which of them is the intent? Is someone "trying to obey in natural strength" when they use self-discipline or give up something for Lent or spend an extra hour memorizing Scripture ...or is it more like doing the right thing while neglecting the relationship that makes it all matter and empowers it?  I think there are very few who would say the latter is a good idea. It's not a major view on sanctification, in any case, though as a sinful failing it is common enough, to be sure.

This really is something that only a person can determine in himself-- it's not what we can see on the outside. Or God has to graciously show to a person what is really motivating him.

I remember very clearly the time God showed me that I was wanting to be "godly" just so I could feel good about myself as a "Christian."  All the sinning in an area where I wanted to achieve ... He very definitely convicted me that my desire to change / stop sinning was not because I wanted to be like Christ, but because I wanted to think well of myself. And all these months I was faithfully reading my Bible, not wanting to sin ...

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