Last week I wrote a piece about the role of effort in the Christian life. It was born out of concern that in our passion for glorying in the indicatives of the gospel (something I have gladly advocated many times) that we are in danger of giving short shrift to the necessity of obeying biblical imperatives. My worry is that we are afraid to exhort each other, as Scripture does, to strive, fight, mortify, vivify, and make every effort for godliness.

Later in the week Tullian Tchividjian offered some pushback with his post “Work Hard! But In Which Direction?” I’m thankful for Tullian’s post. He is a good writer and an ardent champion of the gospel. He is also a good friend, not the “I met him once in a cab and now we always call each other ‘my friend’” way, but an actual friend. These are important issues and I’m glad to have Tullian to sharpen me.

A Big Issue

As you may recall, I’m on sabbatical this summer. My main project is to write a book on holiness and union with Christ. Essentially it’s a book on sanctification. So I have lots of thoughts rolling through my mind, thoughts not directly related to Tullian’s post (even less, a direct rebuttal of his post), but thoughts related to sanctification in general. Thoughts like:

  • Can the justified believer please God with his obedience?
  • Is the justified believer displeasing to God in some way when he sins?
  • Is unbelief the root of every sin? Or is it pride? Or idolatry? Should we even both trying to find a root sin?
  • How are justification and sanctification related?
  • Can we obey God?
  • Can we feel confident about our obedience, not in a justifying way but that we have done as we were commanded?
  • How does Scripture motivate us to obedience?
  • Are most Christians too hard on themselves (thinking they are filthy scum when they actually walk with the Lord in a way that pleases him)?
  • Or are most Christians too easy on themselves (thinking nothing of holiness and content with little progress in godliness)?
  • What is the role of union with Christ in sanctification? And how do union with Christ and sanctification relate to justification?

These are just some of the issues I’m exploring this summer. I’ll keep you posted.

To the Point

But with this post I simply want to respond to the main point Tullian raised in response to my earlier post. Tullian agrees that effort is not a bad word for the Christian. He questions, however, what exactly this effort is aiming at.

Kevin rightly affirms the fact that the Christian life is not effortless–”let go and let God” is not biblical. Sanctification is not passive but active. My concern here is to add to what Kevin wrote and identify the direction of our effort.

Tullian’s concern is that we don’t think of sanctification as moving beyond justification. I couldn’t agree more. It’s all too common for Christians to figure (in their heads if not spoken explicitly): “I’m saved by grace and assured of eternal life. But now I have a lot of work to do in making myself better. God gets me in all on his own, but now it’s all up to me to become like Him.” Justification feels like good news and sanctification feels like punishment. This is not the message of Christianity.

Tullian acknowledges that “sanctification is a grueling process.” It requires effort. But the effort of our sanctification is to believe the good news of our justification. “Remembering, revisiting, and rediscovering the reality of our justification every day,” says Tullian, “is the hard work we’re called to do if we’re going to grow.” Later: “Sanctification is the hard work of going back to the certainty of our already secured pardon in Christ and hitting the refresh button over and over.” Again: “sanctification is the hard work of getting used to our justification.” Tullian’s point is that sanctification requires the hard work of fighting to believe that we are justified by faith alone apart from anything good do or could possible contribute.

I agree sanctification requires the fight of faith to believe this scandalous good news of the gospel of justification. I disagree that this is the only kind of effort required in sanctification.

Effort Once Again

Growing in godliness is a fight of faith–a fight to believe the truth about our justification, our adoption, a fight to believe all that God says about us by virtue of our union with Christ. But growing in godliness is more than trusting; it is also trusting enough to obey. The New Testament gives us commands, and these commands involve more than remembering, revisiting, and rediscovering the reality of our justification. We must also put on, put off, put to death, strive, and make every effort.

Yes, this effort is always connected to gospel grace. But we cannot reduce “effort” to simply believing in justification. Tullian rightly points out that after Peter tells us to “make every effort” (2 Peter 1:5), he warns us against forgetting that we have been cleansed from our former sins (1:9). If we live ungodly lives we show that we have forgotten God’s mercy in our lives. The antidote is to remember who we are in Christ and to “be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure” (1:10). Sanctification is from God and by faith, but unlike justification it is not by faith alone. (If that last sentence threw you for a loop, I’ll say more later in the week.) As we work hard to remember the reality of justification, we must also work hard in the Spirit to stop doing sinful stuff and start doing righteous stuff.

True, there are lots of Christians who need to know the glorious good news of their forgiveness. American Christianity tends to be overly activist and can drive timid souls to despair. But just as surely, there are lots of professing Christians (and non-Christians!) who feel perfectly justified but are not growing in godliness and may not even be God’s children. They do not doubt God loves them. They do not worry that they might not be accepted. They have no problem with grace. They do not come to church with crushed consciences. They do not need to work hard to rediscover God’s forgiveness. They need to work hard to live like they have died to sin and been raised with Christ. The basic New Testament ethic is “be who you are.” This requires believing “who we are” and working hard to “be” just that.

A Few Examples

At this point, I’m not really responding to Tullian (because he probably agrees with much of what I’ve written above and probably everything that is written below). But I do want to make clear why we must be clear about the sort of effort required in sanctification.

Hannah Whitall Smith’s book, The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, is an unfortunate classic. As Andy Naselli 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 lazines.” 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 not 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). 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.

A Crucial Matter

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.

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112 thoughts on “Gospel-Driven Effort”

  1. Ben Pun says:

    Kevin, I’m absolutely with you that faith without works is dead — that introspective “remembering the Gospel” that doesn’t lead to active, killing of sin, is not really faith at all. But I think if we separate these two kinds of “effort,” rather than exploring how one leads to the other, than we are prone to think that we must “add” works to our faith, to use the law instead of the Gospel as the power for change — to be “perfected by the flesh” rather than the Spirit (Gal 3). You probably agree with all that — but I think some might get this impression from what are you saying.

  2. Tracy says:

    But how are you defining “godliness”???

  3. Kyle Ferguson says:

    Are we not simply debating James 2 that Faith without works is dead? Is not faith to be faith in God’s work of salvation, which includes justification AND sanctification? James does not tie faith simply to being justified/forgiven but leaves it at faith. If we truly claim to believe that God is at work in us, we will live that out in action.

  4. Richard UK says:

    Any book, or teaching, on Holiness that does not put at its core the New Creation (but simply assumes an Improved Creation) will inevitably lead to a will-centred moralism that is very little different from the will-centred moralism that sought to be justified before God in the first place.

    Inevitable? Yes, because the underpinning logic is simply that of the old Man receiving either a ‘heart’ transplant (and we should be able to tell from our own hearts that they still remain sinful’) or some sort of ‘will transplant’ which is a very creepy idea.

    We over-realise eschatology when we believe God has already fully put a totally new heart within us. Yes, we have a deposit that guarantees, but the best is still to come

    Remember ‘Freedom through Work’ is not always a pretty sight

  5. Richard UK says:

    Post-script to mine above

    Horton’s massive tome has a couple of the briefest references to a way in which we might view epistolary commands in a non-moralist way.

    Incidentally, why do we say ‘gospel imperatives’? Do we use ‘gospel’ to endorse a product as we might with ‘gospel fear’ or even ‘gospel punishment’? And ‘imperative’ is a dangerous word since it carries with it more than the hint of significant sanctions if unfulfilled. Can we not say ‘command’ (or ‘exhortation’ when Paul expresses them as such) and leave the consequences detached?

  6. Richard,
    I just can’t resist…so when Paul uses new, he doesn’t mean new, but partially new, kinda new, sorta new, new but still old, new but not quite new, not all the way new, 98% new? A little tongue in cheek here, but when Paul uses new in I Corinthians 5:7, II Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 6:15, Colossians 3:10…what does he mean if not new?

    I understand the concept of already, but not yet. But the heart transplant we were promised in Ezekiel 36:26 says we will be given a new heart, which Paul speaks to in the verses above. Not a different heart, but a new heart. So what do you mean by not a totally new heart?

    Morris

  7. Richard UK says:

    Perhaps my wording was not clear enough – sorry

    Of course new means new, and yes, God promises that He will give His people a new heart. But we always assume this is given on conversion/regeneration as if by a sudden transplant – which would mean, would have to mean, a perfectionism only ever marred by ignorance (not even by weakness; and perhaps ignorance would also be a departure from perfection) .

    Using the word ‘totally’ was clumsy – I did not mean a partly new heart; I did not intend to say anything specifically quantative. What I wanted to stress was, as you picked up, the ‘not yet’. IMHO scripture does not point to perfectionism now (an over-realised ‘glorification’ might have been better) but later. Faith/hope not seen/looked for etc. In this life we remain peccator, peccator, peccator – to disagree with this would be to disagree with Luther.

    None of your passages refer to a ‘new heart’. 3 of them refer to a New Creation which I think is central to regeneration but I still think the regenerate man, the new man, has somehow to be distinguished from a new heart otherwise we fall into perfectionism (what is wrong with that? it is a moralism that is too burdensome to bear – incidentally as Gandhi said of reincarnation).

    Of course peccator is a desperately sad state and we yearn to be free, but holiness does not amount to self-help efforts while citing a mantra ‘I only do this by the power of the Holy Spirit’

    I don’t suppose it is ever intentionally meant, but the notion of progressive holiness sometimes suggests we would get to the pearly gates and say that Christ died for my sins and my sinfulness though fortunately both these are a lot less than previously. (Surely Christlike-ness is primarily dependence on the Father)

    You may not agree, but does that make my view clearer?

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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