The Pitfalls and Joys of "Trying Harder"

I recently wrote a brief defense of the importance of personal effort (or “trying harder”) in God’s gracious design to transform His saints. My central claim was that we put ourselves at odds with the NT if we understand or teach the dynamic of sanctification in a way that devalues or strongly cautions against hard work.

But that doesn’t mean emphasizing hard work has no attendant hazards.

Bob Hayton wrote of one of these pitfalls in a post last summer: Particular Pitfalls of Independent Baptists: Performance-Based Sanctification.

Work hard, feel good; blow it and feel terrible. Where is the confidence in God’s grace in this model? The secret to living victoriously for Christ is gritting your teeth, doing more, and not doing the things you shouldn’t do. Try, try, try. Harder, harder, harder! Don’t quit. Keep going. We say that salvation is by grace, but growing in Christ is about the will power, the commitment and the determination.

This can lead to despair or a terrible form of pride.

The solution Bob advocates (citing Terry Rayburn and Tim Kellar, in part) is to reject trying harder, and focus exclusively on faith. Several Reformed leaders have emphasized a similar perspective in recent years (with a burst of back and forth on the Web beginning in the summer of 2011, see the table posting tomorrow), Tullian Tchividjian and Sean Lucas among them.

My purpose here is to explore the problem Bob and others have described. Perhaps we can come to more fully understand it.

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Book Review - Accidental Pharisees: Avoiding Pride, Exclusivity, and the Other Dangers of Overzealous Faith

No one sets out to be a Pharisee, well, almost no one. There was a time before and during the life of Christ where a certain group of religious leaders were actually called Pharisees—and they were proud of it. They thought they were doing God and all His people a spiritual service by making all kinds of extra biblical rules. They were making laws for God’s laws and they believed God loved them all the more because of it. They were zealous about their faith.

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Hammond, Accountability and Legalism

The pastoral scandal in Hammond has sparked many conversations about why these disasters keep happening, what the phenomenon says about independent fundamental Baptist (IFB) churches and ministies, and what ought to be done to fix whatever exactly is broken. The idea of accountability has figured prominently in several of these conversations.

But if IFB and other branches of Christendom1 are going to use accountability effectively, we’ll have to arrive at a clearer understanding of what accountability is, what it’s limitations are, and where its real value lies. My aim here is to make a small contribution toward that end.

Defining “accountability”

For some, accountability has an almost magical power to keep all bad behavior from happening. Whenever some kind of shocking sin comes to light, their first and last response is “we need more accountability.” In these cases the term “accountability” tends to be defined vaguely if at all. At the other end of the spectrum, some argue that accountability is only something that occurs in response to wrongdoing and that has no power to prevent it (see the conversation here, for example).

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