A battle has been raging for some years now regarding how believers progress in sanctification. It has probably been raging in one form or another for centuries. For those who have not been following it, a few words on why the question is important.
First, by definition, genuine believers want their character and conduct to please the One they call Lord. Second, they also discover quickly by experience (if not by reading the NT) that they do not immediately please Him completely and consistently. Third, they want to know what they should do to improve. In short, “What must I do to be sanctified?” is a question every true disciple is interested in answering correctly.
One school of thought that has made major inroads in the last few years generally reacts negatively to calls to Christian duty and obedience—especially when those calls focus on our nonconformity to the world we live in. Warnings against “legalism” and appeals to “get the gospel right” or to be truly “gospel centered” are typical. To the extent that this perspective offers a clear view of sanctification at all, it often boils down to “just preach the gospel to yourself; that’s all you need to do; God will do the rest.”
Much to appreciate
This attitude toward Christian discipline has some qualities I gladly pause to appreciate. It really is possible to err by pursuing godliness with a DIY mindset that is both arrogant and sterile—arrogant because it ignores how profoundly dependent we really are on God for every good gift, sterile because its neglect of day by day seeking of God often results in a mechanical, impersonal dynamic. Just keep the good habits going and the bad habits at bay, and, like a machine, the right results will come out in your life.
So I appreciate this approach’s emphasis on personal devotion to Christ and concious dependence on God’s grace.
Further, though it is possible to overemphasize anything, it’s unlikely that any of us are in danger of preaching the gospel to ourselves too much. Some things are very hard to overemphasize! Whole books have been written on what increased gospel-mindfulness can do for the Christian, and rightfully so. For example, strong, gospel-understanding and awareness…
- keeps us continually thankful (It reminds us that we do not deserve better.)
- keeps us from falling into self-righteous judgmentalism (It reminds us that the distance between the best of us and the worst of us is really pretty tiny, and what true righteousness we have is 100% gracious gift.)
- encourages us to be patient with others (God’s gospel-agenda to transform us and His world proceeds on His timetable.)
- animates eager, unforced worship (It emphasizes Who God is in both His holiness and His mercy, and who we are in relation to Him.)
- reframes and reorients all of life (It reminds us that we are blessed to live as vehicles “for the praise of the glory of His grace.”)
It’s quite a list, and I haven’t even begun to touch on how gospel-conciousness fuels forgiveness in relationships, nurtures peace, and helps us see meaning in suffering. I don’t think anyone in the sanctification debate is arguing that we should not preach the gospel to ourselves or that we should do so less. (This piece sounds that way, but I think this is really not his point.)
Which leads me to why “just preach the gospel to yourself” is not adequate as a way to understand the Christian’s responsibility in sanctification.
For several reasons, gospel-awareness is, at best, an incomplete description of what we are to do to grow in grace and holiness. At worst, it ends up being a distortion of biblical doctrine on the subject, and terms like “neo-antinomianism” and “nomophobia” are, in many cases, fitting.
1. “Preaching to ourselves” and “relying on ourselves” are not the only possibilities.
The “just preach the gospel to yourself” approach to Christian living often reasons that if we urge believers toward increased personal discipline, cleaner living, and better outward conduct, we are necessarily calling them to self-reliance, growth “in their own strength” and the like. But why would this be the case? The underlying assumption seems to be that there are only two possibilities: preaching the gospel to yourself and self-reliance. If there really are only these two possibilities, it follows that any move to include something in addition to gospel-mindfulness is movement away from gospel-mindfulness.
But the premise is false. It’s bit like insisting that you can’t thoughtfully hum Amazing Grace while also doing the dishes—maybe even trying to do them faster. Granted, some of us don’t multitask as well as others, but we really can all be gospel-mindful while also disciplining ourselves for the purpose of godliness (1 Tim. 4:7-8) and making every effort to supplement our faith with virtue (2 Pet. 1:5).
Let’s dismiss the false either/or thinking from our efforts to understand sanctification. It’s enormousely helpful to have that out of the way.
2. The New Testament does not say we should only preach the gospel to ourselves.
In all of the back and forth regarding gospel vs. legalism (or lately, gospel vs. “moralism”), a simple fact is often overlooked: there is no passage of Scripture that actually teaches we should rely exclusively on preaching the gospel to ourselves. If we dispense with the faulty either/or thinking as a starting point, we soon discover that passages that urge us to ponder the gospel and who we are in Christ do not actually imply exclusivity. We can pile up gospel-mindfulness proof texts all day and they don’t even begin to support the idea of excluding other responsibilities in addition to gospel-mindfulness.
In fact, a both/and reading of the NT is the only approach to sanctification that does not require us to ignore, or explain away, large heaps of verses. The “just preach the gospel to yourself” view has a hard time with passages like these:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross…. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. (ESV, Heb.12:1–4)
Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. (2 Pet.1:10)
Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Cor. 9:25–27)
On the other hand, the approach to sanctification that says “Yes, preach the gospel to yourself, but also work hard” has no difficulty at all with gospel-mindfulness passages like these:
Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. (Col. 2:6–7)
For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. (Rom. 6:10–12)
In fact, it’s a bit difficult to find NT calls to gospel-mindfulness that do not include calls to personal discipline and effort in the immediate context. (Another is Phil. 2:12-13.) Neither the indicatives nor the imperatives may be compromised if we are going to be faithful to Scripture.
3. Depravity is a shrinking factor.
Tullian Tchividjian and others have spread a fair amount of confusion about depravity and how it relates to believers’ pursuit of godliness. Other teachers (several of them Reformed, I might point out) have done a thorough job of answering him (strong rebuttal also here). Still, the idea persists that Christians carry throughout their lives the same degree of depravity they had at the beginning of their Christian experience. You’ll rarely find the idea of static depravity expressed in those terms, but it is a necessary inference from other assertions.
By contrast, the NT indicates that believers are indeed “new” (2 Cor. 5:17, Eph. 2:10) and also, in a way, becoming even newer (Col. 3:10, Eph. 4:23). If we are obedient, we really do “grow in grace and knowledge” (2 Pet. 3:18). We are transformed (Rom. 12:2), and we move toward the measure of the stature of Christ so that we are no longer children in the faith (Eph. 4:13-14). Our increasing actual likeness to Christ has weighty implications for understanding sanctification.
For starters, we may not base our view of how we ought to pursue holiness in Christ on passages that describe our condition before Christ—except by contrast (what Rom. 6 actually does). As a new creation, whatever role my continuing depravity has, it is not identical to the role it had in my relationship to God before that change.
Secondly, our growth in grace means that there are two categories of resources for Christian: the grace we must seek from God continually and dependently, and the grace we already have from God and must faithfully and thankfully use. J. C. Ryle says it well in this oft-quoted observation:
Hearken, my believing reader. What is the cause of your weakness? Is it not because the fountain of life is little used? Is it not because you are resting on old experiences, and not daily gathering new manna—daily drawing new strength from Christ? (Consider Your Ways: Being a Pastor’s Address to His Flock, 31. 1849)
However, because believers are new creations who are indwelled by the Spirit and possess the Word of God, we not only seek God continually for more “manna,” but we also have a pile of the good stuff already on the table ready to eat—and a body that has been strengthened and fed on the stuff for some time already. Grace must continually come to us, yes, but it is also already ours in large measure and already us in some measure.
Preaching the gospel to ourselves is not enough because we have been richly empowered already to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts and live soberly, righteously and godly (Titus 2:11-13). Our responsibility is to be gospel-needy but also gospel-grateful and gospel-obedient—in fact, even gospel-disciplined.