The Trouble with Gospel Centered Sanctification

Used with permission from Theologically Driven.

The blogosphere has been humming lately with questions of Christian freedom and Christian depravity, the role of faith and works in sanctification, the priority of law or Gospel in sanctification, and the like. Some have seized the “Gospel-Centered” banner and have used it to wage general war on law and works—after all, they argue,

  • Major Premise: The Gospel is Justification.
  • Minor Premise: Justification is destroyed by law and works.
  • Conclusion: The Gospel is destroyed by law and works.

So what’s wrong with the syllogism? Well, the logical structure is fine, so if an error is to be found, it has to be in one of the premises. In this case, it is the major premise. The gospel is not reducible to the forensic reality of justification. It also includes the experimental reality of regeneration. Together they comprise what the Reformers described as the duplex beneficium of union with Christ—two distinct benefits received simultaneously in the Gospel. And whenever we minimize either of these benefits, the Gospel disappears:

  • Suppress justification and a “Gospel” of legalism, Pharisaism, and pious moralism emerges to insulate the proponent from the righteousness of God.
  • Suppress regeneration and a “Gospel” of antinomianism, Corinthianism, and arrogant license emerges to insulate the proponent from the very possibility of sanctification.

What happens then is saddest of all: the Pharisees and the Corinthians start quibbling over which version of the Gospel is better. The Corinthians hoot that if we continue in sin, grace abounds. And even when checked by Paul’s “God forbid” in Romans 6:2, they still conclude that it’s better to be a Corinthian with no works at all than to engage in works that, upon examination, are found to be self-righteous. The Pharisees howl back that faith without works is dead: “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do,” concluding that the best chance at earning God’s favor is by multiplying works: better a Pharisee who can argue his case (Matt 7:22) than a Corinthian with absolutely no case at all!

The fact is that neither group has a legitimate claim to the label “Gospel-Centered.” Both have missed a critical aspect of the Gospel. Yes, we are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, “not from yourselves, [but by] the gift of God; not by works, so that no one can boast.” But we are also sanctified by virtue of the the impartation of a new nature as partakers of the divine nature and new creatures in Christ—regenerate beings “created in Christ Jesus to do good works that God prepared in advance for us to do” and “without which no one shall see the Lord” (Eph 2:8–10; Heb 12:14).

Being “Gospel-Centered” is a good thing. But like the “biblicist” label before it, this new label risks becoming useless if a subset of believers with an incomplete and careless soteriology is allowed to illicitly commandeer the term to seize moral high ground that they have not earned. That is the problem with “Gospel-Centered” sanctification.

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There are 6 Comments

Anne Sokol's picture

I'm confused. I probably believe some form of Gospel-centered sanctification, but I don't see what I believe written about in this "take" on the issue.

 

Do you have any specific sources that you could refer me to that you used to extrapolate the major/minor premises, for example? or the idea that gospel-center sanctification promotes antinomianism?

Mike Harding's picture

Mark,

 

Thank you for the excellent and efficient crystallization of the subject.

 

Mike Harding

Pastor Mike Harding

Steve Davis's picture

Mike Harding wrote:

Mark,

 

Thank you for the excellent and efficient crystallization of the subject.

 

Mike Harding

 

Mike:

I was going to let this go since it's been debated without much new light. And when I commented on an another earlier blog that I had an aversion to rules (meant tongue-in-cheek but who doesn't) I was told that it was because of my personal hang-ups which effectively stopped serious discussion. However you baited me by your glowing affirmation Smile Mark is capable of of excellence and efficiency and I have benefited from his writings and our interaction but I don't really see his point here.

Did we read the same blog? With statements like “Some have seized the “Gospel-Centered” banner and have used it to wage general war on law and works…”   There is legitimate disagreement on the place of law and works in sanctification. Who argues the way Mark presents the situation? Yes, there are those who hold that law keeping won’t produce what only the Spirit and Word can do and that good works and obedience are more the fruit of God at work than means of obtaining an advanced sanctified status. Dependence on the Spirit and the Word does not in any way nullify effort or responsibility. Is anyone saying anything differently? Maybe but that's not what I've seen. Our incomplete obedience is made possible only by Christ's perfect obedience. As we actively obey through the presence and power of the Spirit in us we grow in likeness to Jesus. Yet in many ways this takes place daily since we never attain full sanctification this side of glory. My furthered sanctification today provides no guarantee of pleasing the Lord in all things tomorrow.

And then to set up the Pharisee and Corinthian groups. Who represents these groups? As presented by Mark, he is correct that neither of these groups “has a legitimate claim to the label ‘Gospel-Centered’.” But do they really exist? And who then is in the right group? Surely there are some Pharisee types and some Corinthian types around and the spirit in us all at times. Yet the men I read about gospel-centered sanctification are every bit as committed to and concerned about holy living as fear-motivated and law-keeping advocates. They may not always hold to the same scruples but they are passionate about living lives pleasing to the Lord.

Mark is also right that “we are also sanctified by virtue of the the impartation of a new nature as partakers of the divine nature and new creatures in Christ—regenerate beings “created in Christ Jesus to do good works that God prepared in advance for us to do” and “without which no one shall see the Lord” (Eph 2:8–10; Heb 12:14).” This sounds much better and more scriptural than his previous sanctification by rules.

Frankly I see less trouble with gospel-centered sanctification than with some of its misrepresentations. The subject is important and should be discussed and debated. But in characterizing those who differ as seizing “moral high ground that they have not earned” this sounds characteristically like echoes from the past on how to deal with issues of disagreement. Put others in the very worse light, exaggerate their positions, and then claim your own moral high ground.

Steve

Mike Harding's picture

Steve,

 

I don't know who Mark has in mind.  I don't believe it was you.  I have written some responses to Matt Olsen's blogs.  Perhaps, that was the target or perhaps one of the sources behind Matt's blog.  I took Mark's categories as hyperbolic categories (purposeful and understood exaggeration in order to make a point).

Pastor Mike Harding

Anne Sokol's picture

wrote a lengthier response and sent it to aaron to see if he wants to publish it as such. 

 

Steve Davis's picture

Mike Harding wrote:

Steve,

 

I don't know who Mark has in mind.  I don't believe it was you.  I have written some responses to Matt Olsen's blogs.  Perhaps, that was the target or perhaps one of the sources behind Matt's blog.  I took Mark's categories as hyperbolic categories (purposeful and understood exaggeration in order to make a point).

Mike:

I didn't have myself in mind, really, or Matt. It's not personal. I just thought it was general and broad brush. Okay for the hyperbole but I'm not sure what purpose it really serves here. Maybe I need to re-read it a dozen times or so (hyperbolically speaking).

Steve 

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