Hannah Whitall Smith's book, The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life, is an unfortunate classic. As one writer has pointed out, Hannah's life was not happy and her theology provided no secret for Christian living. She makes a sharp distinction between God's work in holiness and our work. God's work is to make us holy. Our work is to continually surrender and continually trust (5). "All that we claim then in this life of sanctification," she wrote, "is that by a step of faith we put ourselves into the hands of the Lord, for Him to work in us all the good pleasure of His will; and that by a continuous exercise of faith we keep ourselves there. . . .Our part is trusting, it is His to accomplish the results" (7).
It was this sort of teaching that prompted J.C. Ryle to ask "whether it is wise to speak of faith as the one thing needful, and the only thing required, as many seem to do nowadays in handling the doctrine of sanctification? Is it wise to proclaim in so bald, naked, and unqualified a way as many do that the holiness of converted people is by faith only, and not at all by personal exertion?" (Holiness, xvii-xviii).
Long before the Keswick controversy the Dutch theologian Wilhelmus a Brakel (1635-1711) expressed a similar sentiment in The Christian's Reasonable Service. In his chapter on "Spiritual Growth" a Brakel explores "Reasons why Believers Do not Grow as much as They Ought." He gives five reasons:
1) They presume upon grace.
2) They doubt their conversion.
3) They are discouraged by their progress.
4) They conform themselves to the world.
5) They are lazy.
Remembering our justification may be the antidote for reasons 2 and 3, but effort is required with number 5.
Many Christians "are hindered in their walk solely by laziness." Later a Brakel observes, "We indeed desire to be in an elevated spiritual frame and to grow as a palm tree, but we are not willing to exert any effort-and thus we also do not receive it… Therefore, Christians, to the task! Strive to grow in both habitual and actual grace." (Volume 4, 154)
It is precisely this exhortation that I fear is missing from some quarters of evangelicalism.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones made the same point more recently. After taking several sermons to unpack the glorious objectivity of our union with Christ in Romans 6:1-11, Lloyd-Jones turned to our efforts in 6:12-14. He emphasizes over and over that "holiness is not a constant appeal to us to surrender" (The New Man, 156). A little later he adds, "The New Testament teaching about sanctification is not just an appeal to us to ‘look to the Lord.'" Sanctification, he argues, requires personal exertion. When we are told "Let now sin therefore reign in your mortal body" this is "an exhortation addressed to us, an admonition, a call to a positive activity of the will" (157).
I've read enough Lloyd-Jones to know that he often takes his readers/listeners back to justification (as he should). His book, Spiritual Depression, is mainly about applying the gospel of free grace to our pursuit of God. But Lloyd-Jones does not suggest that sanctification comes about only by recalling our justification:
"The New Testament calls upon us to take action; it does not tell us that the work of sanctification is going to be done for us. We are in the ‘good fight of faith' and we have to do the fighting. But, thank God, we are enabled to do it; for the moment we believe, and are justified by faith, and are born again of the Spirit of God, we have the ability. So the New Testament method of sanctification is to remind us of that; and having reminded us of it, it says, ‘Now then, go and do it'." (178, emphasis mine)
Remember the gospel indicatives. Then give full throat to the gospel imperatives.
These issues matter because, on the one hand, some Christians are beating themselves up to be more like Jesus when they first need to realize that in Christ they've already died to sin and been raised with Christ. And on the other hand, some Christians are stalled out in their sanctification for plain lack of effort. They are lazy and need to be told so.
And then there are those who are confused, wondering why sanctification isn't automatically flowing from their heartfelt commitment to gospel-drenched justification. They need to get up and, as one author put it, "just do something."
We all need God's grace to believe what is true and do what is right.
We died to sin in the death of Christ. Now we must put to death the deeds of the flesh.
Kevin DeYoung is Senior Pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan. He is married to Trisha with four young children. This article originally appeared on Kevin DeYoung's blog, "DeYoung, Restless, and Reformed," at The Gospel Coalition website. Read the complete article here.
Used with permission.