Where the Sanctification Controversy Lies

"For Tullian to claim that there is no controversy, long after Kevin has highlighted very significant matters of disagreement is, to say the least, surprising." Where the Sanctification Controversy Lies

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dmyers's picture

"Tullian has not retracted or clarified but has hardened his insistence that we should not expect Christians to change."  This is a false statement.  I have not read everything TT has written, but I have read Jesus + Nothing = Everything, I've heard him deliver a commencement address at Covenant College (concluding line:  "So, what are you going to do, now that you know you don't have to do anything?"), and I've read his blog posts for the last 2 years or so.  He has never said that we should not expect Christians to change.  I would challenge Rick Phillips or anyone else to point to that statement anywhere in TT's writings.  The issue isn't whether Christians change (i.e., grow in Christlikeness).  The issue is what causes or yields that change and the extent to which motivation by guilt (or command, or law, or imperatives, etc.) is proper or effective.  

I think a fair summary of TT's position is that (a) long-term change/growth will happen, inevitably, for the genuine Christian; (b) most/much of that change/growth will flow automatically from the new nature, union with Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, the sacraments, the Word, Christian fellowship, etc. -- all of which are aspects of the grace of God; (c) more genuine change/growth results from the foregoing than results from guilt-inducing emphases on doing more or trying harder; (d) a dismayingly large percentage of preaching across denominational lines puts the onus for change on the effort of the individual Christian, premised on both an overestimation of the Christian's ability and an underestimation of God's holiness; (e) therefore, the imperatives of scripture that are aimed at Christians should be preached, but should be preached with an emphasis on grace and gratitude rather than effort and guilt.

I remain amazed that TT's critics continue to endorse Jen Wilkin's attack with overheated rhetoric ("celebratory failurism"?  really?) and then criticize his comparatively measured response.

dmyers's picture

From Barbara Duguid's Extravagant Grace, a contender for World Magazine's 2014 Book of the Year:

John Newton teaches us, however, that God’s goal in our sanctification is not merely better obedience and increasing sinlessness. He observes that if God had wanted to do so, he could have made us instantaneously perfect at the moment of our salvation. . . .

Let’s be honest: if the chief work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification is to make Christians more sin-free, then he isn’t doing a very good job. . . .

God could have saved us and made us instantly perfect. Instead, he chose to save us and leave indwelling sin in our hearts and bodies to wage war against the new and blossoming desires to please God that accompany salvation. This is a raging battle that we often lose, and that often leaves us feeling defeated and joyless in our walk with God. Yet Newton also points out that since we know God does all things for his own glory and the good of his people, his decision to leave Christians with many struggles with sin must also somehow serve to glorify him and benefit his people. This is shocking news, isn’t it?

Think of what this means. God thinks that you will actually come to know and love him better as a desperate and weak sinner in continual need of grace than you would as a triumphant Christian warrior who wins each and every battle against sin. This makes sense out of our experience as Christians. If the job of the Holy Spirit is to make you more humble and dependent on Christ, more grateful for his sacrifice and more adoring of him as a wonderful Savior, then he might be doing a very, very good job even though you still sin every day.

(Emphasis added to rebut in advance the charge that Duguid (and Newton) "celebrate failure" or insist "that we should not expect Christians to change.")


Aaron Blumer's picture

Again, reading the New Testament reveals another view. The quoted reasoning greatly diminishes the Spirit's work of transformation. The only way we actually grow and change is a deeper sense of dependence and love? 

The job of the Holy Spirit includes exposing the truth of our weakness to us. It also includes genuinely changing us and making us stronger. (Again, parting with the false dichotomy is extremely helpful to understanding the whole)

2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (ESV, Romans 12:2) 

4 For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. (ESV, 1 John 5:4)  

3 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, 4 by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. (ESV, 2 Peter 1:3–4)  

12 Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. (ESV, Colossians 4:12)  

13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. (ESV, Ephesians 6:13) 

12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, (ESV, Ephesians 4:12–13)  

10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (ESV, Ephesians 2:10)  

14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (ESV, Titus 2:14) 

8 The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. (ESV, Titus 3:8)

8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. (ESV, 2 Corinthians 9:8)    

... and so, so many more.

It's ironic that the piece focuses on the question why didn't God immediately make us holy when we were converted. It then reasons an answer. But the NT gives us the answer.

12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (ESV, Philippians 2:12–13)  

The answer is that He has graciously given us the opportunity to work with Him in this transformation process.

dmyers's picture

"The only way we actually grow and change is a deeper sense of dependence and love?"

Where, in either of my comments above or in the Duguid passage (or in the lengthier linked Duguid excerpt) do you find the statement you're taking issue with?

Aaron Blumer's picture

God thinks that you will actually come to know and love him better as a desperate and weak sinner in continual need of grace than you would as a triumphant Christian warrior who wins each and every battle against sin.

The piece is a bit hard to follow, I'll admit, because the first three paragraphs contain nothing that is in dispute. Then the final paragraph seems to suddenly tack in a different direction.

If the point is simply that the struggle humbles us and that's a good thing, there is nobody in the current controversy who questions that. 

The current controversy has to do with two main areas (with several sub-issues): (a) what means does God use in His work of transforming us, and (b) what does He actually transform?  Of course there are other questions that inform and expand those: to what extent is "inability" on the part of believers supposed to continue? Is there really any sin we are not "able" to successfully resist? (1 Cor. 10:13). At what point does calling people to struggle against sin (Heb. 12:3-4) become "moralism"? Is the normal Christian experience supposed to be that we become increasingly like Christ or not? And if we do, are we not increasingly victorious and aren't failures decreasingly common?  

Two propositions cannot possibly both be true:

a. We are being transformed into the likeness of Christ
b. We are just as weak and often-failing later in our Christian life as we were earlier

So, quite often in this debate we see a false disjunction between responsibility to work hard vs. dependence and humility while overlooking a real disjunction between transformation into Christlikeness vs. static weakness and inability.

The solution, in a nutshell, is this:  we do continue to struggle with sin and fail; we are transformed into Christ's likeness and so become less weak, more able to obey; we experience this transformation with full awareness that it is gracious, Spirit-empowered, and only possible because of our union with Christ; we call on ourselves and others to obediently and humbly participate in what God has declared He is doing within us.

There's no moralism in that, but also no passivity, no excuses for perpetual immaturity, no cautions against simple obedience--in short, no disharmony with the NT.

Anne Sokol's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

Two propositions cannot possibly both be true:

a. We are being transformed into the likeness of Christ
b. We are just as weak and often-failing later in our Christian life as we were earlier

this actually is not true. Or at least, it's sets up wrong propositions against each other. As we mature, I think external sins to tend to fall away, but we become ever more aware of how far we are from having the mind of Christ. Harder, deeper tests in life become the challenge, and we see how different our flesh and thoughts' tendencies are from God's.