Editor’s Note: At the PCA’s 40th General Assembly Michael Ross and Bryan Chapell discussed the topic: God’s Role and Our Role in Sanctification. The following is an edited version of Ross’s presentation, which followed Bryan Chapell’s.
Dr. Bryan Chapell has done a great job in laying out the biblical and theological framework for our Reformed view of sanctification. I commend to you his book “Holiness by Grace.” I would have titled the book differently, but I found nothing in it that I disagreed with. Perhaps this whole discussion about grace and sanctification boils down to what a preacher or teacher chooses to emphasize.
Bryan has set forth the biblical and theological parameters of sanctification, grace, and our efforts as regenerate sinners. What I would like to add to the conversation would be some practical and pastoral considerations. There are forces at work within our culture and our pastoral contexts that cause tension for those seeking to preach grace and human responsibility in sanctification.
Spiritual Forces at Play
First and foremost may be the generational tensions as the children of the baby boomers come of age. They are asking themselves the normal question: “Will my father’s faith be my own?” Tweaked by Millennial influences, the answer seems to be “Yes!” But Collin Hansen’s “Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists” may well indicate less concern about holiness than those displayed by the generation converted in massive numbers in the 1960s and ‘70s.
There is a massive movement of spiritual tension in our 21st century world. Tim Keller referenced this in his book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. It appears that both secularism (the new atheism) and faith (adherence to religions) are on the rise in our age. Fundamentalism in Islam, the new atheism and evangelical Christianity are all growing in numbers around the world. In the Western world, “spirituality” is growing while “organized religion” may be on the decline. This means that many of the old beliefs of classical Christianity (e.g., progressive sanctification) are being called into question by an eclectic new spirituality.
Distrust of Modernity
Postmodern, younger people have both a disdain for and a distrust of anything that smacks of tradition, old ways, or creeds and confessional statements. They haven’t rejected them in total, but the authority of the Confessions and Catechisms is not what it used to be. The Shorter Catechism’s clear statement that sanctification is a “work” of God’s free grace appears to be up for grabs by more than a few Millennial Christians in Reformed circles.
An Age of Confession
There is an undeniable wave of moral, spiritual, theological, and ecclesiastical confusion among evangelicals, indeed throughout our American culture. Brian McLaren’s book “A New Kind of Christianity” and Tom Brokaw’s “The Time of our Lives” try to address the same vortex of uncertainty, from two separate angles: spiritual and secular. I find in young ministers, younger Christians, and a large number of people in the pew, a great tentativeness — almost fearful reluctance — to be certain about key Christian beliefs: creation, gender roles, homosexuality, baptism, grace, and holiness.
A myriad of untrained, immature, shrill, censorious, and biased voices fill the cyber-world of blogs, websites, Facebook, texting, and email. Streams of random thought and unguarded words have made most discussions turn into ugly debates. These bloggers are the techno-urban descendants of those of whom Paul spoke in 1 Timothy 1:6-7: “Certain persons, by swerving from these (love, pure heart, clear conscience), have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.” More heat than light has been shed on the discussion about sanctification by the blogosphere — a heat that has burned many and wounded scores.
Our age craves simplistic answers to complex problems: sound-bite theology and politically correct ethics. It is no surprise to us that the difficult nature of sanctification has been reduced to pithy sayings: “Preach the gospel to yourself, go deeper into grace, when the gospel gets a hold of you then. …” Such simplicity is both unbiblical and unproductive because it is untrue. Sanctification is the fight of a lifetime; there are no easy answers to besetting sin and no quick fixes for spiritual bondage.
An Age-Old Tension
Christianity has always lived at the point of biblical tension where God’s grace and believers’ efforts cause spiritual sparks. Ours is not the first age to struggle with this issue. The Acts 15 Council debated this very topic. The Monastic Movement of the medieval church sought relief from this tension. The Great Reformation waded into the debate on grace and good works. The Puritan movement took its name from this struggle. Every revival and awakening has spawned book after book and sermon after sermon about law and gospel, grace and effort, justification and sanctification. The contemporary grace movement is widespread in evangelicalism in America. No surprise, then, that the PCA has its own parochial discussion about these things that are under way.
An Age of Guilt, Shame, and Hopelessness
We have lived the libertarian and licentious life for more than 60 years in our American culture. Since the 1950s, Americans and American Christians have played fast and loose with “sex, lies and videos.” Millions of men are addicted to pornography, fornication, homosexuality, drugs, alcohol, and the Internet. Our sexual license has led to a culture of shame. Sex was not “free,” but few told us the price we would pay: “… the sexually immoral person sins against his own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18).
The breakup of marriages and the breakdown of family have left a generation to be reared by friends rather than godly role models. In a world of virtual relationships, impersonal contacts, and unaccountability, the isolation of the American soul has made sanctification — a community project – all the more difficult. The icing on the ugly cake has been two generations of Christians spoiled by parents and taught to avoid anything that is “hard,” uneasy, difficult — which is exactly what sanctification is. The result? When told that one must “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12-13), a guilt-ridden, shame-filled, pampered generation of hopeless people without strong community simply says, “No way! I can’t. I won’t. Tell me more about grace!” Bonhoeffer would call this grace cheap grace — grace too easy.
This is the spiritual context in which we must address the issues of grace justification, godliness, sanctification, good works, adoption, perseverance, and human effort. I offer seven cautions as we move forward in our gospel mission.
1. Beware of the Sin of Generationalism.
Only local churches with multigenerational community can address sanctification properly and successfully. Tullian Tchividjian has warned us about the sin of generationalism.
“Following the lead of the advertising world, many churches today (and more specifically worship services) are targeting specific age groups to the exclusion of others. For years now churches have been organizing themselves around generational distinctives: busters, boomers, Generations X, Y, and Z. Many churches offer a ‘traditional service’ for the tribe who prefers old music and a ‘contemporary service’ for the tribe who prefers new music. I understand the good intentions behind some of these efforts but something as seemingly harmless as this evidences a fundamental failure to comprehend the heart of the Gospel. When we offer, for instance, a contemporary worship service for the younger people and a traditional worship service for the older people, we are not only feeding tribalism (which is a toxic form of racism) but we are saying that the Gospel can’t successfully bring these two different groups together. It is a declaration of doubt in the reconciling power of God’s Gospel. Generational appeal in worship is an unintentional admission that the Gospel is powerless to ‘join together’ what man has separated. Plainly stated, building the church on age appeal (whether old or young) or stylistic preferences is as contrary to the reconciling effect of the Gospel as building it on class, race, or gender distinctions. Negatively, when the church segregates people according to generation, race, style, or social-economic status, we exhibit our disbelief in the reconciling power of the Gospel. Positively, one of the prime evidences of God’s power to our segregated world is a congregation which transcends cultural barriers, including age.”
A Church with only Millennials is asking for failure in both the moral and spiritual aspects of the Christian life. Communities with aged and mature saints have resources we all need to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).
2. Beware of Unbridled Speech
Words have meaning. Strong words connote stronger meanings. Too loosely do we call people “legalist” and “moralist.” And we label others “antinomian” or “licentious” in a much too cavalier manner. I will remind us all: The legalist does not go to heaven (Galatians 5:4), nor do the lawless (1 Timothy 1:8-11). Even our most popular authors use these words in an injudicious manner. We do not foster the work of Christ by demonizing our brothers.
3. Beware of Blogging
If you desire the PCA to become a “safe place,” stay off the blog sites. Replace blogging with face-to-face conversations and cordial emails. Remember James’ words — perhaps given by the Spirit for the Internet age: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak (or “blog”), slow to anger, for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20). Don’t expect people to be kind to you if you’ve been less than that in the exchange in some blog. You reap what you sow!
4. Beware of Psychologizing Religion (and Preaching)
The gospel is not your story. It is “God’s Story” — the Old German Gotts Spiel, Old English Godspell, meaning “God’s Story” (1 Corinthians 15:1-11). Whatever God’s grace brought you through to salvation is a wonderful application of grace or testimony to the Good News, but it isn’t God’s Story. It’s yours! There is a modern tendency to personalize the gospel to such an extent that it loses its objective power and message (Romans 1:16). Marsha Witten, in her book “All Is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism,” relates how her study of Southern Baptist and PCUSA pastors and their preaching of the parable of the prodigal son revealed serious warpage of the gospel message. God was portrayed either as Fellow Sufferer (“I feel your pain”) or Indulgent Daddy (unable to discipline His children). God became one of us. The pattern has become formulaic in the New Calvinism: Set up the older brother as the straw man of legalism (the villain); present the Father as a “sugar daddy,” and turn the Prodigal Son into whatever we are. The result? We miss the main points of the parable (lost and found), reduce God to an impotent friend, and replace repentance with therapy and cheap grace.
5. Beware of Celebrity Pastors
Learn to study, read, and formulate your own convictions about gospel grace and holiness. There are too many celebrity pastors — large personalities who are prolific writers, bloggers, and speakers. They tend to become our heroes whose word is beyond challenge. Their followers often form into “camps” promoting their hero’s viewpoint rather than Christ’s!
6. Beware of Hearsay
Before you label a man and his viewpoint, read his works, listen to his sermons. Buy his book and study it. Call him up and interview him. I suggest, for starters, that you go purchase Bryan Chapell’s book Holiness by Grace and read it. Don’t let others place a third party in a niche for you. Do your own research.
7. Beware of Imbalance
Balance is not a bad word. There is a heavenly and hard-to-maintain balance between God’s powerful grace and our personal responsibility. Sometimes we need to stop and rest in grace provided. At other times — dare I say it? — we merely need to try harder. The indwelling Holy Spirit can and will give balance as spiritual maturity grows. A holy man is inevitably a balanced man — moderate, humble, zealous, calm, joyful yet sober, able to rest in grace and fight the good fight, all at once. Beware of extremes. Extremism is merely one more simplistic answer to a difficult challenge.
Seven Steps Forward
My conciliatory approach does not mean that this entire discussion is ill-spent. We do have serious issues on which we need to come together. I will close by mentioning seven things we all need to work on.
1. Preach the Imperative and not just the Indicative.
Follow Paul’s indicative/imperative pattern. Because of what Christ has done for us (indicative), we are empowered, enabled, and expected to do something for Christ (imperative). Preaching that seldom mentions duty or obligation, or which never calls sinners to repent and obey, is unbiblical preaching. Remember Paul’s trinity of priorities for preachers: “Reprove … Rebuke … Exhort” (2 Timothy 4:2).
2. Recapture Your Confidence in the Means of Grace.
In all our discussion and debate about grace, we seldom mention the “means of grace” (Acts 2:42). Sanctification is not possible outside a community devoted to the Word, prayer, fellowship, the sacraments, worship, witnessing, stewardship, mercy, and ministry. (Read Acts 2:42-47.) Grace does not come to us out of the blue; it travels through conduits of God’s provision known as the means or channels of grace.
3. Re-engage in the Traditions of the Church.
James I. Packer reminds us that tradition affords to us four great blessings for any silly and shallow age: roots, resources, reminders, and realism. We do not need to reinvent the gospel, the church, or the Christian life for a new generation of worldly saints. We need to rediscover what rich spirituality the Reformed faith possesses and to re-engage in age-old practices that produced holy people. (Read Alister McGrath; “Spirituality in an Age of Change”).
4. Be Careful of What You Are Not Saying.
Charles Hodge once said that most heresies begin not by what’s added to the gospel but by what’s left out of the gospel message. We all agree with the Reformed view of progressive sanctification (Westminster Shorter Catechism #35). The problem lies in our emphasis. Balance is the key. What you don’t tell your people will hurt them. It is one thing to deny grace; it’s another thing to deliberately not tell your congregation about its duty to work toward holiness.
5. Don’t Forget the Redheaded Stepchild.
In the ordo salutis (order of salvation), all the limelight has been grabbed by justification, adoption, and sanctification. These three are the heart of the Christian life. But we dare not forget Perseverance of the Saints – our perseverance in pursuit of godliness and the Spirit’s grace that holds us in the security of Christ. Philippians 1:6 is a great comfort and tremendous ballast to those struggling to be holy. The Perseverance of the Saints may be the redheaded stepchild of salvation, but he’s a vital part of the family of grace.
6. Mutual Respect Creates a Safe Place.
Older and younger men need to read 1 Peter 5:1-14. Humility toward one another, in different generations, creates an atmosphere where mentoring, encouragement, and affirmation grow. I find it fascinating that Mark is mentioned at this passage’s end. The same young man, once barred from ministry with Paul, resurfaces as “useful” to an aged, dying Paul (2 Timothy 4:11) and as Peter’s “son” in the faith. He is evidence that humility, mutual respect, and kindness toward one another have powerful restorative effects.
7. Staying Together is What’s Best for All.
Sanctification and gospel ministry have a doctrinal, missional, and pietistic element to them. True growth in grace and godliness cannot happen without the Culturalists, the Pietists, and the Doctrinalists working together. I return to my love for the word “balance.” Here we have it. In Acts 15 and 1 Corinthians 3, you’ll see the Doctrinalist, the Pietist, and the Culturalist (Missionalist) working together to build upon the foundation laid by Jesus Christ. We in the PCA need this threefold balance.
The Swing of the Pendulum
When Martin Luther and his fellow Reformers gave the gospel pendulum a huge shove in the 16th century, the course of church history was radically altered. Gospel religion was rescued from the “Babylonian Captivity” of Roman Catholic legalism. But there’s one bad thing about pendulums: They always rise to the opposite apex before they head back to dead center — a place they inhabit only for a second in time.
Perhaps ours is an age where grace has gone “too far” and we need to push the PCA pendulum a bit more toward the balance of dead center:
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, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)
We may be feeling the angst and tension that always precedes a new work of God, another reformation, a true gospel renewal. Let us pray so. And let us work together. Pendulums are heavy things, bound and determined to run their course uninterrupted, unless we all push together toward a gospel balance of God’s grace and our holy responsibility.
To read Bryan Chapell’s presentation, please click here.
Michael Ross is senior pastor of Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, N.C.