westminster assemblyKevin DeYoung’s Sanctification Questions

While I haven’t been able to keep up with every back and forth in the debate, it seems to me that Kevin DeYoung has essentially captured the debate in his series of questions: (reproduced here for convenience)

1. Can we exhort one another to work hard at growing in godliness? Is striving in the Christian life bound to become an exercise in self-righteousness? What place is there for moral exertion and calling others to make a gospel-driven effort to be holy?

2. Is there more than one motivation for holiness? Is preaching our acceptance in Christ and God’s free grace for sinners the only way to produce change in the Christian? Or are there many medicines for our motivation in godliness and many precious remedies against Satan’s devices?

3. Is it right that we try to please God as Christians? Is the language of “pleasing God” legalistic and to be avoided or does it capture a profound New Testament motivation for godliness?

4. Is God displeased with Christians when they sin? Is God ever angry with justified, adopted, born again Christians? Does he see our sin? What is God’s attitude toward sin in the believer?

5. Does God love all justified believers identically? Is it true that Christians can never do anything to make God love them more or less? How are we to understand our acceptance in Christ—static, dynamic, both?

6. Is sanctification by faith alone? We know that work has no place in justification, but what about in sanctification? Should we say that sanctification is monergistic or synergistic, or are these the wrong categories altogether? How are justification and sanctification different?

7. Can we be obedient to God in this life? Is everything we do no more than a filthy rag in God’s sight? Is there a place for imperfect, yet sincere, pleasing obedience in the Christian life?

8. Are good works necessary for salvation? Do people go to heaven without holiness? What are good works and how do they relate to justification and glorification?

9. Is growth in godliness a legitimate ground for being assured of our right standing before God? Does God want us to examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith? Should we look for evidences of grace in our life for confidence that we are saved, or is that tantamount to self-defeating, gospel-denying moralism?

10. Is it moralistic to seek to improve in holiness of conduct and character? Is sanctification about getting used to our justification, seeing our faults more and more, or learning to own up to our weakness? Does the pursuit of holiness involve trusting and trying?

11. What is the relationship between law and gospel? Should all of the Christian life and the whole of Christian theology be understood through this antithesis? And is it always antithesis, or can we say that law and gospel, in the final analysis, “sweetly comply”?

12. Does gospel preaching include exhortations and warnings as well as promises and assurances? Can gospel preaching be reduced to “acceptance” preaching, or is there are a place for other kinds of indicatives in our proclamation of the good news?

13. Is the good work in sanctification produced in us by God also done by us in the execution of our willing and acting? Is Christ the only active agent in our pursuit of godliness? How does God work in us and we work out our salvation with fear and trembling?

14. What is the place of union with Christ in the order of salvation? How does an understanding of the duplex gratia (the twofold blessing of justification and sanctification) affect our approach to sanctification? How might the doctrine of union with Christ protect us from legalism and antinomianism?

15. Can we preach the law pointedly, not only for conviction of sin, but so that we might keep striving for greater obedience to God’s revealed will? We know that law establishes the perfect rule for righteousness and that God wants us to walk in obedience to his commands, but is the only way to produce this obedience by the preaching of justification? Is the only way to accomplish the imperatives by preaching the indicatives, or can we also insist on the imperatives without apology?

While the questions become a bit redundant toward the end, this essentially captures the debate.

But the Debate Was Settled in the 17th Century

What strikes me, however, is how many of these questions are answered explicitly by chapter 16 of the Westminster Confession of Faith.
What strikes me, however, is how many of these questions are answered explicitly by chapter 16 of the Westminster Confession of Faith.  And while, occasionally, understanding why the divines chose the proof texts they offered requires a bit of puzzle solving, most of them are obvious, and require little discussion.  For instance, question 2 asks, “Is there more than one motivation for holiness? Is preaching our acceptance in Christ and God’s free grace for sinners the only way to produce change in the Christian? Or are there many medicines for our motivation in godliness and many precious remedies against Satan’s devices?” WCF 16.2 offers the following motivations:

These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the Gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto; that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end eternal life.

The divines offer these texts to support obeying out of gratitude:

What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me? 13 I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, (Psa 116:12–13 ESV)

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Pet 2:9 ESV)

To which I would add, at least:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Rom 12:1 ESV)

Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Rom 15:7 ESV) 

Obedience in the pursuit of greater assurance they establish by pointing us to:

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: (1 John 2:3–5 ESV)

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. 10 Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. (2 Pet 1:5–10 ESV)

Working for the Edification of the fellowship, which also answers DeYoung’s 1st, 12th and 15th questions, the divines establish by pointing us to

for I know your readiness, of which I boast about you to the people of Macedonia, saying that Achaia has been ready since last year. And your zeal has stirred up most of them. (2 Cor 9:2 ESV)

In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matt 5:16 ESV)

We need not work through every motivation here (the divines offer 9 of them), though that would be profitable.  Rather, let us return to the rest of DeYoung’s questions.

Question 1: “Can we exhort one another to work hard at growing in godliness? Is striving in the Christian life bound to become an exercise in self-righteousness? What place is there for moral exertion and calling others to make a gospel-driven effort to be holy?”  Paul certainly exhorts us to work hard at growing in godliness (1 Thessalonians 4:1-7). And Paul himself sets an example of doing so (Phil 3:12–14).

We began with Question 2, so let us proceed to Question 3: “Is it right that we try to please God as Christians? Is the language of “pleasing God” legalistic and to be avoided or does it capture a profound New Testament motivation for godliness?”  Surely 1 Thessalonians 4:1 answers that question.

Question 4 is tricky: “Is God displeased with Christians when they sin? Is God ever angry with justified, adopted, born again Christians? Does he see our sin? What is God’s attitude toward sin in the believer?” and it is related to question 5: “Does God love all justified believers identically? Is it true that Christians can never do anything to make God love them more or less? How are we to understand our acceptance in Christ—static, dynamic, both?”  It is essential that we recognize that we do not stand before God on our own.  We stand before Him in union with Christ (2 Cor. 5:21; Phil 3:8-11; etc.).  And his wrath has been cooled by the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ (Rom 3:25; Heb 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10) so that he is no longer angry with us (Rom 5:1; 8:1). Nevertheless, we are urged not to grieve the Holy Spirit (Eph 4:30; Isa 63:10).  So, Yes, we are all loved identically.  It is true that we can never do anything to make God love us more or less, because if he loves us at all, it was his sovereign decision to do so, and all the work required for his justice and mercy (Rom 3:26) is His doing.  But that does not mean that He is not grieved, or that he does not see our sin.  It means that he does not count our sin against us.  But he does see it, and is intent to discipline us, so that we grow in holiness (Heb 12:7-11).

Question 6: “Is sanctification by faith alone? We know that work has no place in justification, but what about in sanctification? Should we say that sanctification is monergistic or synergistic, or are these the wrong categories altogether? How are justification and sanctification different?”  Here, perhaps more than in any other of DeYoung’s questions, is the great cry of the Reformation highlighted, Soli Deo Gloria (to the glory of God alone). There is no doubt that Sanctification is, in one sense, monergistic (one party, God, working).  Jesus said, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” (John 15:4–6 ESV) And clearly, the new covenant blessing spoken of by Ezekiel points to a monergistic work: “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezek 36:26–27 ESV)  And yet …

Perhaps DeYoung’s hint should be taken, that monergism versus synergism (a cooperative work between us and God) is less than helpful as we consider sanctification.  The Westminster Shorter Catechism (Questions 33 and 35) distinguishes sanctification from justification along an act/work distinction, but both are God’s doing.

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.

Q. 35. What is sanctification?  
A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

But that is not to say that we are not active in a cooperative way:

work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil 2:12–13 ESV)

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Cor 15:10 ESV)

But it is obvious that while we strive, to God alone belongs the glory, since our sanctification, like our justification, is His doing.

Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, (2 Cor 3:5 ESV)

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. (1 Th 5:23–24 ESV)

What about question 7?  “Can we be obedient to God in this life? Is everything we do no more than a filthy rag in God’s sight? Is there a place for imperfect, yet sincere, pleasing obedience in the Christian life?”  This, especially, I think, is where the whole debate could have been preempted by a clear knowledge and understanding of Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 16.  Paragraph 6 reads:

Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in Him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that He, looking upon them in His Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections. (WCF 16.6)

And the proof texts offered are excellent.  Consider, for example, the following:

he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. … 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. …14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. … 2:7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Eph 1:5–6, 12, 14; 2:7 ESV)

The divines do not include Eph 2:7.  I added that.  But as with all the Assembly’s proof texts, one must consider them in context.  The divines’ point seems to be that God is going to be glorified by the whole work of  salvation wrought in our lives, not merely our justification.  The divines also offer 1 Pet 2:5; Ex 28:38, and Abel’s offering (Gen 4:4; Heb 11:4).  And while a clear demonstration that imperfect works done through faith in Christ are accepted in Him is found in that great benediction at the end of Hebrews:

Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, 21 equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. (Heb 13:20–21 ESV)

and in the prior promise found in that book (Heb 6:10), I think the clearest passages commenting on it are 2 Cor 8:12 and Matt 25:21.

But only works done through faith in Christ are acceptable in Him.  Cain’s sacrifice is brought to bear, as are 1 Corinthians 13:3 and those statements from the sermon on the mount:

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. … 16 “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. (Matt 6:2, 5, 16 ESV)

Question 8 is clearly answered by Hebrews 12:14.  And if we’ve clearly, biblically and confessionally answered the first 8 questions, the remaining questions seem to be redundant and unnecessary..

The Gospel Coalition seems to have come down on the more biblical side. The problem isn’t so much in what Tullian wants to safeguard, it is in what he loses as he presses the antithesis so hard. We must be very clear that we are not accepted on the basis of our performance. But that does not mean we don’t perform. And as the Scriptures contain warnings to believers, we would be wrong to ignore them as we strive to become what God has declared us to be.

Are Law and Gospel always antithetical?

One more interesting question, however, is DeYoung’s 11th:

What is the relationship between law and gospel? Should all of the Christian life and the whole of Christian theology be understood through this antithesis? And is it always antithesis, or can we say that law and gospel, in the final analysis, “sweetly comply”?

Of course the law and the gospel are not always in antithesis (Psalm 119:97; 165; etc.) When it comes to standing before God in righteousness, they are antithetical paths (Phil 3:7-11; Rom 3:20; Gal 2:16). But when it comes to living for Him, what better path can we take than the one which reveals His character? (2 Cor 3:18)

So, where does that leave us?  If I had to choose a ‘camp’, The Gospel Coalition seems to have come down on the more biblical side.  The problem isn’t so much in what Tullian wants to safeguard, it is in what he loses as he presses the antithesis so hard.  We must be very clear that we are not accepted on the basis of our performance.  But that does not mean we don’t perform.  And as the Scriptures contain warnings to believers, we would be wrong to ignore them as we strive to become what God has declared us to be.