God has hardwired me to thoroughly enjoy and be sharpened by good and friendly theological discussion about the gospel. So, for that reason I am deeply grateful to my friend Kevin DeYoung for engaging me in a good and healthy conversation regarding the role of the gospel in Christian growth.
We are both pastors who love the gospel and care about the church. We both long for people to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are both theologically Reformed, blog at The Gospel Coalition, and therefore agree on more than we disagree (we actually disagree more about food than doctrine). Since we are both relatively public figures, my prayer during this conversation has been that people would resist the temptation toward divisiveness. Differences are good. Division is bad. Kevin and I are happily on the same team, laboring side by side and back to back.
Before I sign off on this particularly helpful conversation with my friend, I simply want to add one note of clarification and address the concern that Kevin said drove his original post.
When I say that the effort of our sanctification is to believe the good news of our justification–that remembering, revisiting, and rediscovering the reality of our justification every day is the hard work we’re called to do if we’re going to grow–I’m not simply talking about mental assent. Remembering, revisiting, and rediscovering the reality of our justification every day involves daily dying. What is indisputable is the fact that unbelief is the force that gives birth to all of our bad behavior and every moral failure. My failure to lay aside the sin that so easily entangles is the direct result of my refusal to die to my natural proclivity toward attaining my own freedom, meaning, value, worth, and righteousness–not believing that, by virtue of our union with Christ, everything I need, I already possess. In this sense death must precede life, not just once but every day. And since justification is where the guillotine for self-salvation is, we dare not assume it, brush over it, or move past it. It must be never be left behind. It must remain front and center–getting the most attention.
In an excellent article entitled “Does Justification Still Matter?“, Mike Horton raises the same concern I raise:
Most people in the pew are simply not acquainted with the doctrine of justification. Often, it is not a part of the diet of preaching and church life, much less a dominant theme in the Christian subculture. With either stern rigor or happy tips for better living, “fundamentalists” and “progressives” alike smother the gospel in moralism, through constant exhortations to personal transformation that keep the sheep looking to themselves rather than looking outside of themselves to Christ… The average feature article in [Christian magazines] or Christian best-seller’s is concerned with “good works”-trends in spirituality, social activism, church growth, and discipleship. However, it’s pretty clear that justification is simply not on the radar. Even where it is not outright rejected, it is often ignored. Perhaps the forgiveness of sins and justification are appropriate for “getting saved,” but then comes the real business of Christian living-as if there could be any genuine holiness of life that did not arise out of a perpetual confidence that “there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
This is why the Reformers said that the article on which the church stands or falls is justification (the cause), not sanctification (the effect). The Reformers were not downplaying essential doctrines like union with Christ and regeneration. But they recognized justification as the foundation of everything we the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit
Secondly, Kevin writes that the concern which prompted his first post was “that in our passion for glorying in the indicatives of the gospel we are in danger of giving short shrift to the necessity of obeying biblical imperatives.” I have to acknowledge that I’ve never met anyone who deeply glories in the indicatives of the gospel who then gives “short shrift to the necessity of obeying biblical imperatives.” In fact, according to Romans 6:1-14, that’s impossible. Paul makes it clear in those verses that anyone who concludes that grace sanctions and encourages disobedience clearly doesn’t get grace.
As a pastor, one of my responsibilities is to disciple people into a deeper understanding of obedience—teaching them to say “no” to the things God hates and “yes” to the things God loves. But all too often I have wrongly concluded that the only way to keep licentious people in line is to give them more rules, intensify my exhortations–lay down the law. The fact is, however, that the only way licentious people start to obey is when they get a taste of God’s radical, unconditional acceptance of sinners. As Mike Horton points out here, in Romans 6:1-4 the Apostle Paul answers antinomianism (lawlessness) not with law but with more gospel! In other words, licentious people aren’t those who believe the gospel of God’s free grace too much, but too little. “The ultimate antidote to antinomianism”, writes Horton, “is not more imperatives, but the realization that the gospel swallows the tyranny as well as the guilt of sin.”
In other words, if someone is giving short-shrift to the necessity of obeying biblical imperatives, it’s because they are not glorying in the indicatives of the gospel. Their problem is not first and foremost an exhortation deficit but a gospel deficit. Disobedience and moral laxity happens not when we think too much of the gospel of free justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in the finished work of Christ alone but when we think too little of it.
Writing in response to Jason Hood’s Christianity Today article where Hood voices concern about the lack of emphasis on personal holiness and radical obedience in this generation of Christians, my friend Dane Ortlund (read Dane’s full, gospel-drenched response here) shows how there are two ways to address this:
One way is to balance gospel grace with exhortations to holiness, as if both need equal air time lest we fall into legalism on one side (neglecting grace) or antinomianism on the other (neglecting holiness).
The other way, which I believe is the right and biblical way, is so to startle this restraint-free culture with the gospel of free justification that the functional justifications of human approval, moral performance, sexual indulgence, or big bank accounts begin to lose their vice-like grip on human hearts and their emptiness is exposed in all its fraudulence. It sounds backward, but the path to holiness is through (not beyond) the grace of the gospel, because only undeserved grace can truly melt and transform the heart. The solution to restraint-free immorality is not morality. The solution to immorality is the free grace of God—grace so free that it will be (mis)heard by some as a license to sin with impunity. The route by which the New Testament exhorts radical obedience is not by tempering grace but by driving it home all the more deeply.
The greatest threat facing the church is not taking the commands of God lightly. That’s a surface threat. The deep, under the surface threat is taking the announcement of God in the gospel too lightly. The only people who take the commands of God lightly are those who take the gospel lightly–who don’t revel in and rejoice over, what J. Gresham Machen called, “the triumphant indicative.”
One final word on something important that Kevin and I (and a number of our friends) agree on.
We share a common concern that while there’s a lot of talk about gospel-centrality these days this doesn’t mean that everything which claims to be gospel-centered is. We both want you to be Berean-like in your evaluation of everything that comes in the name of gospel-centrality. So, here’s a good litmus test: whether it’s a sermon, a book, a blog post, or a tweet–if the lasting impression you get causes you to focus more on what you must do than on what Christ has done, the gospel has not been communicated and the communicator (albeit, unwittingly) is no better than the Pharisees who were charged by Jesus with “tying up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and laying them on people’s shoulders” (Matthew 23:4).
It’s very important to remember that the focus of the Bible is not the life of the redeemed but the life of the Redeemer. When the Christian faith becomes defined by who we are and what we do and not by who Christ is and what he did for us, we miss the gospel–and we, ironically, become more disobedient.
As Tim Keller has said, “The Bible is not fundamentally about us. It’s fundamentally about Jesus. The Bible’s purpose is not so much to show you how to live a good life. The Bible’s purpose is to consistently and constantly show you how God’s grace breaks into your life against your will and saves you from the sin and brokenness otherwise you would never be able to overcome.”
So you be careful out there.
Keep thinking, wrestling, and rejoicing. As members of the same team, Kevin and I surely will.