Editor’s Note: At the PCA’s 40th General Assembly Bryan Chapell and Michael Ross discussed the topic: God’s Role and Our Role in Sanctification. The following is an edited version of Chapell’s presentation.
I have so much respect for my friend Dr. Mike Ross that I doubt if there will be any disagreement on our theology of sanctification. We are both going to say that humans are responsible to obey God, and that God enables us to will and to do His good purposes. There is a synergistic mystery by which our wills and energies are 100 percent involved in our sanctification. At the same time, apart from Christ we can do nothing. His Spirit alone gives us the will, the ability, and the circumstances to do what He requires.
We know the Scriptures that affirm human responsibility: Hebrews 12:4, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”
We know the Scriptures that affirm divine enabling: Acts 17:28, “In him we live and move and have our being. … ” And John 15:5, “… apart from me you can do nothing.”
We also know the Scriptures that place the synergistic mystery of these truths before us without diminishing our responsibility. For example:
Colossians 1:28-29, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”
Ephesians 6:10-11, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.”
Ephesians 6:13, “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.”
Philippians 2:12-13, “… 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.”
These truths are also declared in our historical documents. For example, John Calvin reminds us of the inadequacy of human efforts to sanctify. In “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” he writes, “To man we may assign only this: that he pollutes and contaminates by his impurity those very things which are good. For nothing proceeds from a man however perfect he be, that is not defiled by some spot. Let the Lord, then call to judgment the best of human works: he will indeed recognize in them his own righteousness by man’s dishonor and shame.”
The Westminster Confession of Faith (XVI.2, 3) and other documents within the Reformed tradition remind us that we need the enabling work of the Holy Spirit to fulfill our responsibility: “[G]ood works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them [i.e., good works] believers manifest their thankfulness. … Their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves but wholly from the Spirit of Christ.”
We also have the Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC):
WSC, Q. 33. What is justification?
A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.
WSC. Q. 35. What is sanctification?
A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed [passive, indicating God’s work] in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled [passive, again] more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness [active personal obedience].
Since there is so much agreement in the Reformed tradition on human responsibility, divine provision, and synergistic mystery that are involved in our sanctification, why are we having this discussion?
My surmise is that some feel the words of Jude apply to us today: “[C]ertain people have crept in … who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 1:4).
Some are concerned that grace has been overemphasized, and that this overemphasis has led to license among us. So we need honest conversation about how God’s grace affects our human responsibility to honor and obey Him. I contend that grace, rather than lessening human responsibility in sanctification, is the primary motivation and enablement for our obedience. Rightly perceived, grace is not license to sin, but the means by which we fulfill the human responsibilities of sanctification.
My passion and privilege for the past two decades have been to help others see the gospel throughout Scripture. My contention has been that Christ’s grace does not wait until the last chapters of Matthew to make its appearance, but rather is the dawning light increasing throughout Scripture toward the day of the Savior. Jesus contends the same when, after His resurrection, He spoke to disciples on the road to Emmaus and “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).
Of course, key questions for us are: (1) How do all the Scriptures bear witness of Christ, and, (2) Why is this important?
How Do All the Scriptures Bear Witness of Christ?
Christ-centered exposition of Scripture should not require us to reveal Jesus by some mysterious magic of allegory or typology. Rather, solid exposition should identify how every text furthers our understanding of who Christ is, what the Father sent Him to do, and why. The goal is not to make Jesus magically appear from every detail of Hebrew history or Greek house code, but rather to show where every text stands in relation to the ultimate revelation of Christ. To do this we must discern the message of grace as it unfolds throughout Scripture. Our goal is not to force every text to mention Jesus, but to show how every text furthers our understanding of God’s grace, which is ultimately revealed in Christ.
Why is It Important to Bear Witness to Christ from All Scripture?
The first reason is to keep our messages Christian. We are not Jews, Muslims, or Hindus who believe our status with God is determined by our performance. We believe that Christ’s finished work is our only hope. To preach sermons full of moral imperatives apart from the indicatives of the justifying, sanctifying, and enabling work of Christ is ultimately to preach messages that are un-Christian. Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Sermons devoid of Christ’s enabling grace implicitly deny the necessity of Christ.
A key question we must ask ourselves at the end of every message is, “Would my sermon have been acceptable in a synagogue or mosque?” Was the core message of the sermon only, “Be better than other people or, at least, be better than you were last week”? If so, then we inevitably leave people believing that their status before God depends on their performance. That is the message of every other faith, but not Christianity.
The second reason to keep grace in focus is to provide the power for the fulfillment of our human responsibilities in sanctification. In order to discern how grace empowers, we need to consider the sources of power for the Christian life:
We have the ability to serve God when we know what to believe and what to do. This means we’re responsible for knowing who God is and what He requires. Among other things, this means that the preaching of God’s grace does not render the law of God superfluous. The law reflects the character and care of God; it reflects who He is (Psalm 19:7-10), and what He requires. Sanctification requires that we believe biblical truths and do as God commands.
Still, such knowledge is insufficient for the struggles of the Christian life, unless we also know who we are. We must know our true identity in order to know whether God’s commands apply to us, and to know what resources are available.
The first thing that you should know about your identity is that you are human — a fallen creature who is vulnerable to sin. If you don’t know that, you will not listen to the practical precautions the Bible gives, such as, “Do not get on the path of the wicked; do not even go near the path, but turn and go the other way” (Proverbs 4:14-15). This knowledge should also keep you humbly seeking Christ, remembering that He said, “Apart from me you can to nothing” (John 15:5).
The second thing Christians should know is that they are “new creations” (2 Cor. 5:17). We are still human but, by the grace of God, our vulnerabilities are no longer certain avenues for Satan’s influence. In our unregenerate state, we were not able not to sin (non posse non peccare). But now, by virtue of our union with Christ and the indwelling power of the Spirit (Galatians 2:20), we are fundamentally different creatures. Now, “greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
Sin has no more dominion over us (Romans 6:14), nor do we remain slaves to sin and helpless before its power (Romans. 6:17-22). Knowing that God has provided sufficient grace to overcome evil should give us great confidence in our spiritual battles. By God’s grace, we have the ability and confidence to fight our spiritual foes. Such knowledge enables us to do what God requires.
But why should we exercise this power? To have ability but no motivation to exercise it renders our power meaningless.
This is why the third thing you should know about your identity is that you are a child of God. John writes, “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God” (1 John 3:1, KJV). Additionally, it is important to remember that you have been made such a child through God’s provision of his own treasured Son (John 3:16). Why is it important to know that God would send His one and only Son to suffer and die in your behalf (see Romans 8:29; Ephesians 2:19)? The answer is that such love breeds love. As the Apostle John taught us, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19), and such love motivates us to act upon the ability we have to honor God.
Love is power
To help us grasp the full power of love for God, I must ask a critical question: What is the primary reason that sin has power in our lives? Sin’s power has been defeated; we are no longer its slaves. So why do we yield to sin? The answer is, because we love it. If sin did not attract us, it would have no power in our life. We sin because, in the moment and for the earthly benefits, we love it.
This leads to another question: What will drive love for sin from our hearts? The answer is a surpassing love. This answer doesn’t deny that Scripture motivates us with warnings that the pleasures of sin are temporary, that its consequences are ruinous, and that the discipline of God is painful. Additionally, we’re told that rewards of blessings and peace accompany obedience — although the full blessings may not be experienced in this life, and the peace may be beyond understanding (Romans 8:18; Philippians 4:7).
While the warnings and rewards in Scripture are intended to direct us from sin, we should recognize that they’re made effective by self-love — that is, we heed warnings to avoid personal loss, and we pursue rewards for personal gain. God stoops to His children to guide us by such self-affection. But for those who long to glorify God and enjoy Him (WSC, #1), these motivations — as important as they are — cannot be most important. I emphasize that there are varieties of motivations because there are two chief errors that occur in discussing the motivations for our sanctification. The first error is not recognizing there are multiple motivations for holiness; the second error is not recognizing that there is a priority of motivations.
The prime motivation for sanctification is made clear in the “first and greatest” commandment: “[Y]ou shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). There is a reason that love for God is the foundational commandment. Though warnings and rewards dampen our desire for sin, they are not sin’s most powerful deterrent. The most powerful deterrent cuts off our love for sin at its source, which means the most powerful deterrent is, again, a surpassing love.
Our love for sin is overcome when it’s displaced by a greater love. Thomas Chalmers’ famous sermon “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection” yet rings true. When love for Christ exceeds all other loves, we want to walk with Him. Thus, Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). When our love for God is our primary motivation, then honoring Him is our chief desire.
Now we have a final critical question to answer for understanding the process of sanctification: If love for God is the Christian’s primary motivation for honoring Him, then what will fill our hearts with love for Him? The answer is, “amazing grace … that saved a wretch like me.” He loved me before I knew Him. He died for me while I was yet his enemy. He keeps me when I fall. He holds me when I fail. He abides faithful though I am faithless. He forgives me when I am wrong and loves me still. Such grace fills our hearts with surpassing love for God; such grace is the power for Christian living because such love displaces love for sin and supersedes love for self with love for the Savior.
The power of grace to stimulate love for God is the ultimate reason we prepare redemptive interpretations of Scripture. Sermons marked by consistent adulation of the mercy of God in Christ continually fill the Christian heart with more cause to love God. This is why the Apostle Paul could say the grace of God is “training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:11-12). The Bible recognizes no definition of grace that excuses sin or encourages moral license. Grace is the power source of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30), which is the foundation and expression of Christian sanctification.
I know that I must address the concern that too much focus on grace will lead to license. Let’s be honest — it is undeniable that where love is immature, there will be a math of the mind that will reason, “If God will always be gracious, then why should I be good?” In such cases, the warnings and rewards of Scripture can do much good, but they are not the ultimate power for godliness. Ultimately there is a chemistry of the heart that must overcome the math of the mind – this chemistry warms the heart with a desire to draw near to the One who gave Himself for us. This is why the Apostle Paul wrote: “[T]he love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all … that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:14).
Our preaching should fuel a pre-eminent love for God that makes doing His will the believer’s greatest joy (2 Corinthians 5:9). Such joy is the strength for fulfilling our responsibilities (Nehemiah 8:10). Our Confession reminds us that our task is not to harangue parishioners into “slavish duty,” but rather to fill them with “a childlike love” for God by extolling the wonders of his grace (WCF, XX.i). Consistent proclamation of motivating and enabling grace drives despair, pride, and disobedience from the Christian life. Despair dies when we know our failures are not greater than His grace. Pride has no place when we know our performance is not the basis of His love. Disobedience departs when our greatest desire is to walk with the Savior who loved us and gave Himself for us.
Thus, emphasizing the grace of all the Scriptures is not simply an interpretive scheme required by the Bible’s overarching themes; it is regular exposure of God’s heart to ignite love for Him in the heart of believers.
Our informational goals remain in place: We need to teach people what to believe and what to do, but relational and spiritual goals remain prime. We never neglect the gospel truths that fill believers with love for God, and a love that displaces love for the world. Without love for the world, its temptations have no power. Grace leads to godliness. For only when the grace of the gospel fills our hearts will we have the desire and power to live for Him.
To read Mike Ross’s presentation, please click here.
Bryan Chapell is the chancellor of Covenant Theological Seminary