Even though he’s co-presenting a discussion on “Grace and the Christian’s Responsibility in Sanctification” at the PCA’s General Assembly in June, Mike Ross doesn’t want to fight about it.
“I’m not looking for opportunities to get into a squabble,” said Ross, senior pastor of Christ Covenant Church (PCA) in Matthews, N.C. “I have pretty definite opinions, but I don’t like to argue. I prefer reasoned discourse and compromise that holds the center of faith intact.”
The discussion will take place 5:15-6:45 p.m. Wednesday, June 20, at the PCA General Assembly gathering in Louisville, Ky. Ross, who’s co-presenting the discussion with Covenant Theological Seminary President Bryan Chapell, said this topic can provoke controversy because of divergent opinions between ministry leaders.
“We’re in an age that’s leaning away from sanctification; we don’t want absolutes,” Ross said. “We have a new generation of leaders and churchmen emerging into leadership, through campus ministries, through sonship theology, through the contemporary grace movement, they tend to think the older men and the church are not safe places to talk about doubts, fears, and divergent opinions. They tend to be highly sensitive to moralism and legalism.
“Whereas the older men tend to say, ‘we have a pretty good balance,’ they tend to be more concerned that the younger generation is forfeiting the historic faith, especially in terms of ethics, in order to be culturally relevant.”
Ross said the struggle over this topic is not limited to this denomination. “Everyone is dealing with the issue,” Ross said. “Acts 29 Network, Gospel Coalition, Together for the Gospel, the Emergent movement. Brian McLaren’s book A New Kind of Christianity is a grand overview of the cultural confusion in the American church. I think it’s all across the country.”
The struggle over sanctification and how it applies to everyday life is nothing new, Ross said. “In fairness, throughout the history of church, the balance between justification and sanctification is always somewhat in flux. There tend to be some groups that overemphasize justification, who are genuinely concerned about any kind of legalism or works-righteousness worming its way into the faith. Then there are other groups who are genuinely concerned about sanctification, [that] the church is getting worldly and antinomian. “Probably every generation has to have this discussion some time or another.”
Ross said he believes both sides are confessionally committed to justification and sanctification. “The differences are in what we might emphasize,” Ross said. “I sometimes think this whole thing can be the battle of two straw men. The people concerned about our holiness will present the other side as antinomian, present them in the worst light. It’s an easy straw man to burn up and knock down. And the people concerned about justification and grace, many of them are throwing around the word ‘legalist.’ My understanding is that the legalist and the antinomian don’t go to heaven; that’s what Paul says. We use these damning labels far too glibly and much too cavalierly.”
Ross said he is looking forward to co-presenting this discussion with Dr. Chapell. “The issue is important,” Ross said. “The whole ball of wax rests upon balancing these two tensions — how do we reach our society (people) for Christ, and how do we maintain the holy faith of the apostles? This was what the Acts 15 Council was all about — evangelism and discipleship, justification andsanctification, gospel and ethics.
“It’s the way we work this out that matters,” Ross said. “We talk, and talk often, talk openly and respectfully. Every time we have a discussion, I understand the other side better, their motives, fears, and aspirations. I change a little bit. I moderate my opinion, not only of them, but on the issue. I say to myself, ‘I never thought of it that way.’ You keep doing that enough, you have a good biblical blend of both positions.”