There seems to be a growing intramural discussion on the internet among those who say we must “try harder” to attain growth in holiness and those who say our growth in holiness comes from constantly returning to the Gospel — understanding that in Christ, it is finished. I’m with the latter camp; our standing is not based on our performance and our growth is based in His completed work.
Growth in holiness — progressive sanctification — is not a battle to be fought in the flesh but in the strength of the Holy Spirit () in light of the Cross.
Check out this clip from Josh Harris as he makes the case:
Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? ()
The Spirit-Filled Church: Finding Your Place in God’s Purpose
We recently noted an ongoing discussion about the effort we’re called to make in our sanctification. I believe Scripture tells us that although we can do things that look like sanctification, if those actions are done in the flesh they are simply behavior modification. It’s a change in the heart that is desired, not simply an outward change in actions.
I’m currently reading The Spirit-Filled Church: Finding Your Place in God’s Purpose, by Terry Virgo. Virgo takes this argument one step further, showing us that using the law for sanctification gives Satan the opportunity to heap condemnation on us. “The law always kills in the end,” Virgo notes.
It is essential for us constantly to recognize our death to law. It is no longer the basis for our relationship with God and never will be. We are married to Christ and our fulfilment as Christians is bound up in our love relationship with him.
2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (ESV)
Justin Taylor brings our attention to an online dialogue between Kevin DeYoung and Tullian Tchividjian on the effort we’re called to make in our sanctification. Since that ties in with our current series, Completed by the Spirit, I thought it would be good to visit the discussion as it stands so far:
The two pastors agree that the indicative of the gospel and our justification in Christ must be the basis of our sanctification. But I think the difference can be boiled down to the difference between action and ontology. At the risk of oversimplification, Kevin’s call is for us to “do” those things that are given to us as imperatives, while Tullian’s call is for us to “rest in” the indicatives so that the imperatives flow from them.
Our view — and the one that will be explained in further posts in the Completed by the Spirit series — is that Paul’s imperatives are calls for us to “be who we already are.” We can do things that look like sanctification but if those actions are done in the flesh, they are simply behavior modification. It’s a change in the heart that is desired, not simply an outward change in actions.
To grow in Christ’s image, we must engage in “the hard work of going back to the certainty of our already secured pardon in Christ and hitting the refresh button over and over,” as Tullian explains. It’s knowing who we now are in Christ that gives us the freedom to be that new creature.
This is the fourth part of a series of posts adapted from a paper I presented at a New Covenant Theology think tank in upstate New York in July 2010.
Despite Paul’s warnings that the law arouses sin, many will point to the law as a prime mover in sanctification, essential to convicting us about our remaining sin and measuring our growth in holiness. In doing so, they will attempt to draw a distinction between being “under the law” and following the law. For example:
This convicting use of the law is also critical for the believer’s sanctification, for it serves to prevent the resurrection of self-righteousness — that ungodly self-righteousness which is always prone to reassert itself even in the holiest of saints. The believer continues to live under the law as a lifelong penitent.
This chastening work of the law does not imply that the believer’s justification is ever diminished or annulled. From the moment of regeneration, his state before God is fixed and irrevocable. He is a new creation in Christ Jesus (). He can never revert to a state of condemnation nor lose his sonship. Nevertheless, the law exposes the ongoing poverty of his sanctification on a daily basis. He learns that there is a law in his members such that when he would do good, evil is present with him (). He must repeatedly condemn himself, deplore his wretchedness, and cry daily for fresh applications of the blood of Jesus Christ that cleanses from all sin (; ).
I enjoy reading Tullian Tchividjian’s blog because of his unwavering commitment to the Gospel — not just in our justification but in our sanctification. Many in the “reformed camp” can focus too strongly on our own wretchedness and on law-based behavior modification in sanctification, while instead we should be relying on the finished work of Christ and growing in grace by beholding Christ. That sort of flesh-based attempt at sanctification leads to despair and a losing battle against sin — rather than the joy and victory we’re called to have — as I am arguing in my current series, Completed by the Spirit.
Today, Tchividjian writes about his new sermon series entitled “Pictures of Grace:”
What the Pharisee, the prostitute, and all of us need to remember every day is that Christ offers forgiveness full and free from both our self-righteous goodness and our unrighteous badness. This is the hardest thing for us to believe as Christians. We think it’s a mark of spiritual maturity to hang onto our guilt and shame. We’ve sickly concluded that the worse we feel, the better we actually are.
A friend refers to that feeling of guilt and shame as “Protestant penance.” Christ’s forgiveness removes that shame. Understanding that grows us in the knowledge and likeness of Him.