Law and Grace

Why "Preach the Gospel to Yourself" Is Not Enough

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.”

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The Sanctification Paradox: Can It Be Solved?

The NT seems to teach that believers must obey in order to be transformed, yet must be transformed in order to obey. The language of responsibility and action abounds, but so does the language of sovereignty, humility, and dependence. Students of the doctrine of sanctification have long struggled to understand how both can be true and how faithful believers should think and act in response.

I’ve recently suggested that many have embraced what amounts to a theology of giving up when it comes to Christian growth—and that they have done so because what they see in themselves and others seems to fall so far short of “read your Bible, pray every day and you’ll grow, grow, grow.” But even this sense of frustration with self and others tends to arise from—or perhaps fuel—a view of the sanctification paradox.

My aim here is to survey four solutions to the paradox and briefly evaluate their merits.

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Romans 7: Believer or Unbeliever?

The interpretation of Romans 7 is long disputed. My wife once told me that as a Christian teen she read Romans 7:14ff in the Living Bible and thought, “That is me!” Was she wrong in her hermeneutics? Is Paul talking about his Christian or pre-Christian experience in this very auto-biographical chapter?

For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. (ESV, Rom. 7:14-19)

Here are some arguments for the pre-conversion and post-conversion positions. You will be able to tell where I stand.

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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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In Defense of "Trying Harder"

Christians agree that those who come to Christ in faith and repentance are supposed to behave differently thereafter. We also agree that God’s plan for every believer is to remake him or her in the likeness of Christ. Most also understand that this is a process that continues throughout this earthly life and culminates when “we shall be like Him,” seeing Him “as He is” (NKJV, ). It is God’s great gospel purpose to graciously change sinners into saints.

But what responsibilities do believers have in that plan? What attitudes should dominate our thinking? How does grace relate to effort and struggle?

Some insist that “effort” has no role at all. Beyond preaching the gospel to ourselves, struggle and striving are incompatible with grace and draw our attention away from the gospel and from Christ. Others concede (with evident reluctance) that effort is required, but quickly emphasize tension in the opposite direction. To them, believers are in constant danger of lapsing into “performance based” thinking or, worse yet, “trying harder.”

Both of these views tend to favor language and emphases that are out of sync with the simplicity of the New Testament teaching regarding sanctification. What we find in the NT is that properly understood, “trying harder” (i.e., discipline, hard work, and old fashioned effort) is a vital part of God’s design for the remaking of His saints.

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