First the low down, then a few statements, and then a lot of questions.

About two weeks ago Jen Wilkin wrote a piece called “Failure Is Not a Virtue” in which she registered her concern over celebratory failurisum–“the idea that believers cannot obey the Law and will fail at every attempt.” I thought her post was right to expose one of the possible errors in talking about sanctification, especially when some in the Reformed community have suggested that trying to help people stop sinning is a waste of time akin to teaching frogs how to fly.

In response, Tullian Tchividjian accused Jen of “theological muddiness,” saying that while failure is not a virtue, acknowledging failure most definitely is. After that, Michael Kruger jumped in, arguing that Tullian’s response failed to distinguish between the second and third use of the law. Then Mark Jones, whose excellent book on Antinomianism I commended here and here, came down on the side of Jen and offered to fly to Florida to debate law and gospel with Tullian, his fellow PCA pastor. Carl Trueman seconded the idea, and Jared Oliphint weighed in with a fine piece on the relationship between law and gospel in Reformed theology.

It’s no surprise that I share the concerns raised by Jen, Michael, Mark, Jared, and others in this discussion. I’ve already written a book on the subject and dozens of blog posts, so I won’t repeat everything I’ve already said. What may be helpful, however, is to try to push this discussion to the next level. I think Mark Jones has the right idea. Whether it’s a public debate or not, we as fellow evangelicals, often fellow Reformed pastors, and sometimes fellow friends, should be willing to provide further clarity and answer some probing questions from both sides of this scuffle over sanctification. And we should do at least some of this publicly, because this has been a public discussion entered into willingly by “public figures” on all sides.

We all agree the differences are not mere semantics. We all agree the issues are of crucial importance for the church’s preaching, counseling, and overall health and vitality. So let’s move past boilerplate and try to get to the bottom of these critical disagreements.

What We All Agree On (I Think)

On a number of key points, I think we are all singing from the same hymnal.

1. We cannot justify ourselves by anything we do or try to accomplish. Self-salvation is anti-gospel and doesn’t work (Gal. 1:8). We are only made right with God through the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21), gifts which come to us by faith alone (Eph. 2:1-10).

2. Growth in godliness is impossible apart from the inner working of the Holy Spirit. God does not save us by grace and then tell us that the rest of the Christian life is up to us (Phil. 2:11-12). The gospel is for all of life. We need to be strengthened in the inner man (Eph. 3:16) and renewed in the thinking of our mind (Rom. 12:1-2).

3. The law of God is meant to convict sinners, including Christian sinners, of disobedience. God’s commands, as the perfect standard of the divine will, reveal to us our idolatries, imperfections, and failures (James 1:23). When we sin, we should not hide our failure from God, but confess our sins and seek forgiveness in Christ (1 John 1:8-9).

4. On this side of heaven we will always be simul iustus et peccator. There is no perfectionism for earth-bound creatures. We are all saints and sinners (Rom. 7:25-8:1). Even our best deeds and most grace-filled acts are accepted by God only because of the intercession and mercy of Christ.

5. The Bible is concerned about our obedience to the moral law of God. God wants us to be obedient and expects us to teach others to be obedient (Matt. 28:19-20). The purpose of exulting in grace is never so that sin may abound (Rom. 6:1-2).

Let’s establish these areas of agreement and celebrate them. This is a lot to agree on. These are precious truths, and in one sense we never move beyond them. There will never be a time when we should stop talking about grace, gospel, and justification. And yet, this doesn’t mean we can only talk about these things or that we can only talk about them in one way. The discussion is too important, the historical precedence for these disagreements too deep, and the dangers to the church too real. Let’s press ahead, not to forget what lies behind, but to appropriate the Reformed tradition as best we can and (more importantly) to stick with the Scriptures as closely as possible.

What We (Probably) Don’t Agree On

I can think of at least 15 crucial questions (with many related sub-questions) that need to be addressed in this sanctification discussion.

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-rigtheousness? 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?

Maybe we agree on more of these points than I imagine. Maybe on some issues the disagreement is over matters of emphasis. Maybe my thinking needs its own tweaking. That’s all possible, likely even.

But it’s also possible—and in fact, everyone seems to agree on this point—that there are profound disagreements about what sanctification is and how it happens. I’d be happy to slowly work through each of these questions over the coming months. I’d be happy to look at questions from the “other side.” I’d be happy to see Mark and Tullian sit down (or stand up, as the case may be) for a friendly debate. I’d be happy for anyone willing to hash through these questions, ready to quote Bible verses and bring to bear the wisdom of our confessional tradition. I’d be happy for anyone or anything that produces clarity.

We all agree these issues really matter. So let’s see what’s really the matter.

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261 thoughts on “What We All Agree On, and What We (Probably) Don’t, In this Sanctification Debate”

  1. Richard UK says:

    John T and others

    Happy New Year, guys!

    John, I owe you a reply to your measured thoughts of June 24th

    I agree that

    The final third of most of Paul’s epistles are either exhortations or commands

    There are very real moments – watching TV, telling the truth – where we are conscious of options

    There is a fight of faith in the Christian life

    But, disagreeing with you, I suggest

    The terms ‘Make every effort’ and ‘enable’ are both highly misleading when addressed to post-Enlightenment, Rationalist man

    The term ‘Good works’ was already seen, as early as the Reformation, as being highly misleading, and indeed clearly misused by the Catholic church

    There is a real ‘tension’ at the heart of the picture you portray, normally presented as God’s sovereignty alongside man’s responsibility. But this tension is, I fear, a real contradiction arising from a category error, not some lovely theological mystery.

    To start to unpack this, I need to draw in aid the following (hopefully) biblical ideas

    Negatively, we need to realise, with Luther, that there is no such thing as free will in the sense of ‘the power of contrary choice’ – whether for Christians or non-Christians alike. (There is of course free will in a Jonathan Edwards sense, replacing the word ‘will’ by ‘want’ – our wants are ours, they are nobody else’s).

    We must also remember that sin is not just rebellion; it is more profoundly Augustine’s ‘incurvatus in se’. Thus even our best efforts to obey God and to resist sin are still in danger of being sinful even when done with the ‘best of motives’.

    Positively we need to regain the existential-ontological dimension that Luther appreciated of the New Creation but which, starting with Melanchthon, has slowly been lost. We must regain the sense of the qualitatively different power of God’s Word as opposed to the power of man’s word. What is essentially at stake is Identity not Ethics.

    I will try now to portray a simple non-mancentred picture of God at work (though further down the line, we would also need to revisit what we mean by ‘sanctification’, ‘transformation’ and even’Christlike-ness’; and what we think was happening in Eden). But for now, here we go

    As we know, God is working out a redemptive story and His supreme glory is seen in His willingness to love (and die for) the unlovely. The goal, or teleos, will be a bride rendered suitable for His son and who loves His son. This will involve unbelievable transformation to or within us (greater than we can imagine or achieve), and will arise from or be accompanied by a fuller knowledge of His son.

    To do this, God does not give us the Holy Spirit as a Duracell battery pack to ‘enable’ us to do the right things (change TV channel). This would amount to a god of Second chances, and of Third chances, God as the electrical retailer of batteries. At best this only leads to some (external) improvement of the old Adam. Whereas one might joke that the Catholic church (and much of evangelicalism) is based on ‘we do our best; and God makes up the rest’, we must avoid the equal error of ‘God gives us some grace, but we must finish the race’.

    Instead He so changes us that it is barely right to call us ‘us’ anymore. We are, and are to be, a new creation. When God called the world into existence by His Word, the effect was immediate. But now His redemptive work is clearly not finished, and it is to His glory that it is gradual because that is the way it produces in us, through life and trials, that increasing knowledge of His son that will be that seed of faith harvested in glory.

    He does His present work by the power of His Word, by His Law which must first kill us, and by His Gospel which gives new and different life. The Gospel is not an invitation. Nor is it just the statement of good news. The Gospel when preached, by which I mean preached properly as Luther meant, is a power, indeed it is the power of God unto salvation. Technically, to use the language of Austin, Searle and Mike Horton, it is a Performative Speech Act. ‘It does what it says on the tin’ to borrow from a TV advert here.

    Now we go one step further. When Paul writes to the churches, what he wants for them is freedom – freedom from the tyranny of sin and the freedom of the new life. His letters are gospel letters even when they include commands. His inspired commands are also Performative Speech Acts – they are primarily to be heard as a Word of, and from, God not as a word about God or even words about His values and preferences. The Word of God will always and irresistibly bring about what God wants it to (whether to bring life or to harden hearts unto condemnation) so we hear or read it with fear and trembling because it is ‘coram deo’ and (Phil 2.13 ‘opere dei’).

    Therefore, as soon as we describe Paul’s epistles as Indicatives followed by Imperatives, we have slipped over the line into the Rationalistic, post-Enlightenment view of autonomous, or at least semi-autonomous, man responding in some independent, or at least semi-independent, way to something commanded by a distant deistic, but eventually returning, God. Thanks be to God that man, even regenerated man, does not have that sort of rationalistic Capacity in a sinful body. Regeneration has given him something far more precious, a new Identity, a new Status, a new Covering and Jewels, a new Belonging, a new Communion and Sharing, a new Father and a new Home

    The words ‘Imperative’ and ‘followed’ (in a chronological sense) are therefore man-centred and misleading (though the word ‘command’ might be better suited psychologically). Nevertheless we like the word Imperative because we do not trust the power of God’s Word to change us (not surprising given many of the sermons preached in churches today) and we feel we must make up the shortfall ourselves. It is not that our default position of works righteousness stems from pride, but from fear that we might be caught short at the Judgment seat.

    And yet ‘imperatives’ and fear are such obviously man-worked substitutes for those occasions (of power, I would say) when the scriptures are properly opened and our hearts burn within us. On such an occasion, our (new) spirit is responding to the spirit of God. This is God creating ‘Identity’ upon His deposit already given, and therefore so much more than man’s fleshly emotional response by which he can ‘ethically’ clean up the old man – a bit

    The centurion understood the power of God’s Word such things and was praised for it. But we see only the flimsiness of our words. Our words are essentially symbols, not acts of power. Even a king’s words are symbols although they tend to produce compliance by virtue of the very separate understanding of how that king treats non-compliance. The closest that man’s words approach the power of God’s Word is when we might shout out ‘Stop’ or ‘Listen’ and everyone immediately freezes not by virtue of having selected that response but by virtue of the command allowing for no other response.

    When we see God’s Word in this same weak way as giving an option to man, then we invoke the concept of free will as the power to make things happen. When we then read Augustine, Thomas Chalmers, Jonathan Edwards etc, we realise that the power needed for action comes from our heart not from our will. So we then see the will in the Stoic-Aristotelian sense as the choosing faculty between our ‘affections’, not just that which determines which shirt we wear but whether we change that TV channel or not.

    However these is no such thing as the ‘will’ as this choosing faculty, or indeed in any sense at all as something separate from our heart or mind. The ‘choice’ of our activity arises directly out of our competing affections. There is no further filtering or assessing by something called a ‘will’ (otherwise we would have to ask whether this ‘will’ was part of us – in which case is it not also influenced as are our affections – or not – in which case what could it be?)

    All this comes out of the Stoic notion that man is essentially good and makes himself better by the practice of the virtues and the repression of bad desires. This is hardly a biblical anthropology even for born-again man. Simul iustus simul peccator is more accurate. Although we sense ourselves as having free will, experiments appear to have shown that our perceived point of decision actually comes after the neurological point of actual decision, and the supposed point of decision is more likely to be simply our perception of what it is ‘we’ have decided – one might almost say, what it is that has been decided within us by our components.

    This does not make us robots because robots do not have self-awareness (or feelings), and we do, and that indeed might be our ‘imago dei’ All creation is aware of God but possibly man alone (apart from the angels) is self-aware, which alongside God-awareness, means we can appreciate the ‘Other’, which is the start or indeed the totality of relationship. And even if we were robots, which is too simplistic a term, that would in any case still be perfectly consistent with Romans 9!

    Yes, in civil law we do take man to be at least partially autonomous unless the pressures on him were so great that we declare diminished responsibility. But formulating laws which treat man as autonomous (or ‘responsible’) is still the best way of making men behave in a particular way. When we train a plant to grow up a post, we bind it. But when we seek to train dogs, we address them as if they had autonomous choice. And yet we know, paradoxically, that we do this not to offer separate paths forward but to train them into taking one particular path. This is exactly what Paul is doing when preaching the gospel, and exactly why we can and should likewise preach his epistolary commands within the full waters of (and not in any chronological sense of moving on from a closing statement about) the gospel.

    It is not that we should preach more or less of this or that, but our biblical anthropology of what is happening is so imbued with essentially secular, humanist footings that we slide into moralism. At the simplest level, this erroneous anthropology is seen in the view that ‘God wouldn’t ask me to do it if I couldn’t do it’ (quoting ‘equipped for all good things’). But surely we know that, unlike all other religions, Christianity is based on mankind not being able or willing to do what he ought to do. Romans 9 suggests it would be better to talk about man’s culpability rather than man’s responsibility which always suggests (in that post-Enlightenment Rationalist way) ‘able’ to ‘respond’. But Jesus’ reply to the rich young ruler suggested the very opposite.

    Nevertheless when we can see epistolary commands as God’s Performative Speech Acts, that old metaphysical ‘tension’ dissolves away. The fact that some Christians and most scientists believe they have no free will does not make them fatalistic, or crazy; they still operate as human beings and you would hardly know. And more, the Christians can rejoice all the more when we see God at work. (The question of free will reminds me of the joke where the convicted felon says he was predestined to commit the felony, to which the judge retorts that he too was predestined to send the felon to prison!)

    So in summary and to try to answer your specific points

    I don’t like to use the word ‘effort’ because it suggests to our ears now an autonomous man (but I am happier with ‘labor’!) But, yes, there is a fight of faith, though this is God’s spirit within us warring against the spirit of the world within us, with us as the battlefield and very much conscious of the struggle which itself naturally produces within us a yearning for peace and resolution. This is no more fatalistic than Luther’s imagery of a donkey ridden by one of two masters.

    We are simply His handiwork and we can rejoice in our creaturely smallness. We are earthenware vessels holding unsurpassed riches, we might even be canvasses on which He paints some of His loveliness; we might even be trains whose wheels turn; we might even be Pinocchio into whom the woodcutter breathes His life-giving love; but we are never the assessor or the mortifier, or the judge or the destroyer of worlds, or anything so active in power that it sounds like some baton has been passed to us. Otherwise the whole of creation would not be waiting for the sons of glory to be revealed, as for the sons of Adam to reveal the glory – the treachery of the active substituted for the passive!

    So when there are two paths ahead of us, whether to turn away from that TV channel, we sense those spirits warring within us. We have no free will or power to overcome either of them; that is why I am perplexed by your suggestion “nevertheless I do the assessing, I do the mortifying, I do the switching of channels. I fight the fight against temptation” and have to ask “Who is the ‘I’ in all this?” And I also always want to ask what progress you are making?!

    When you also talk of ‘godly strivings’ I would say that, whereas ‘good’ in ‘good works describes the works in the practical sense that they are good for our neighbour but in no way describes the person doing them, so ‘godly strivings’ describes the direction of the strivings but in no way the person doing them.

    As long as we are saying ‘I like that channel but I mustn’t’, then (however softly we couch that ‘mustn’t’), we are being ruled not by love but by the law; not by a relationship but by a rule that leads only to repression. The more we see the person, not the principle; the more we find ourselves focussing on the endearing Truth, and thus the more we are forgetting the enticing temptation, then the closer we are to the salvific ‘depending’ of which you rightly speak.

    It is as God reveals to us, ie permits us to see, His love behind His spirit warring for us and within us, that we are moved by the expulsive power of the new affection, drawing us, if only for a moment, to something beyond what now becomes the rather tawdry attractiveness of that TV channel. This is how, and why, it is God’s work alone.

    I am grateful you have addressed the psychological anthropology of the ‘fight’ when you write “At some level of consciousness I am depending on God’s enabling in this…..this enabling may be well to the fore…. and in others….the emotional depth of my ‘depending’ may be less, but I still depend.” Too many Christians assume that all their good works come, by definition, from dependence on God’s enabling by virtue of being a Christian but you have sought to nuance this by adding the dimension of consciousness (or emotionality). I would love to explore this further, along with Eden, and the ordo salutis, but I have gone on long enough!

  2. Shingai says:

    An important product of all teaching should be the fruit in one’s life. whatever a person’s perspective on sanctification must stand up to the fruit test; how have the proponents of both sides of the story fared in coming to Christlikeness? What have been the failures in real life experiences? these can inform the debate a lot better than the theory

  3. Shingai says:

    Also, it seems in Paul’s teaching the imperative was never separate from the indicative; indeed, he would almost always give an imperative while pointing ‘back’ to the indicative as a reason for obedience to the imperative. Therefore I believe exhorting to the imperatives without giving the indicative context is almost always going to plunge the believer into legalism.

    That said, an exclusive focus on the indicative can produce a loose lifestyle with people comfortable with living unholy lives instead of striving for holiness. so the two live together and are related. neither one is more important than the other, nor should either one be more emphasised than the other, but the order should be respected; the indicative should be preached first, and the imperative next.

  4. lwesterlund says:

    Well said, Shingai!

  5. Matt says:


    The indicative, the power of the Holy Spirit to change hearts, can only produce the imperative, growth toward godliness. Therefore, focusing on the indicative could never lead to a “loose lifestyle,” only a process toward purity. Rom 6:1-2. However, a focus on the imperative will certainly only lead to legalism. There is no power in any law or in our own efforts to make us pure.

    Your principle must assume that grace is a concept to be learned (which can produce loose living) instead of an undeserved, Holy Spirit inspired change of heart (which compels us to avoid loose living).

    2 Timothy 3:5 They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that!

  6. Daniel says:

    I could probably break out the concordance or lexicon and make you guys sweat, but I thought I would just say, you guys are a joke. I minister in Chiapis Mexico where I recently preached on Ai and had to reference Jericho to make my point, I realized that it is a good chance these people do not know what Jericho is so I think your “positions” on sanctification might not go over well with the illiterate crowd or 3/4s of the world. Come down off your theological thrones boys, (and girls?) and walk in the harvest.

  7. Richard UK says:


    Your first comment seemed one of cautious welcome; your second was one of sceptical caution.

    As Matt says, the gospel has the power to produce change; it does not need to be limited in order to prevent licence. I don’t even understand what sort of ‘gospel’ that would be. It seems you simply don’t trust the Holy Spirit to do His transforming work

    I find Daniel’s comment patronising and hope he is not like that in his pulpit. It does matter what doctrine you teach, otherwise people can drift into legalism, then into depression, then away from the church.

  8. Richard UK says:

    I’ve just read KdY’s comment on this massive blog – perhaps his most provocative and yet most important one. He writes

    “Maybe we agree on more of these points than I imagine. Maybe on some issues the disagreement is over matters of emphasis. Maybe my thinking needs its own tweaking. That’s all possible, likely even”.

    No, 257 posts later, the issue is not just one of emphasis

    Yes, after reading and culling from 257 posts, KdY might learn that there is a different perspective which he could at least recognise before dismissing it.

    My guess is that he has not, and will not, read these posts, nor even get anyone to do so for him

  9. Sanctification is an ongoing process through which the Spirit of God is molding believers into the likeness of Christ by applying the life-changing purpose of the death’s of Christ in their lives in a tangible fashion. I’d say that the purpose of sanctification is to preserve the holiness and righteousness the believers have received upon salvation through Christ.

  10. Richard UK says:

    Sanctification is an instantaneous act of God by which He sets us apart for His good pleasure. Transformation is a better word for the on-going process. But yes, that too is an act of God, as you say

    But all protestants believe that, on conversion, it is Christ’s righteousness that is imputed to us. We do not have a righteousness infused into us which is much closer to a Catholic notion

    As Luther said, we remain, for our lifetime, simul iustus (which means justified not sanctified) but also simul peccator – we have no righteousness of our own

    Would you not agree?

  11. Bill says:

    Agree with Richard that any doctrine of sanctification that does not pass the “simul Justus et peccator” test needs to be ditched. I also agree that our sanctification can not depend on our good works or be a process. Christians are already Saints and the apostle Paul calls them Saints. I know that traditional reformed theology identifies sanctification as a slow ongoing process during the whole life of the Christian. Can we not call this good works ? Or fruit of the holy spirit ? The latter probably is more appropriate. Now with regard to sanctification Richard is correct that it is the sole work of God when he sets us apart. Karl Barth also had an interesting view of sanctification and he considered accomplished by Christ. There is nothing left for man to do. Basically justification for Barth is identified with Christ in his state of humiliation (hi sinless life and his death on the cross when he said it is finished), on the other hand for Barth Christ’s state of glory, i.e. his resurrection and ascension represents sanctification. So both justification and sanctification are objective works accomplished by Christ alone 2000 years ago. Now the subjective or human response to justification is faith and to sanctification is love. So justification is identified with Christ priestly role and sanctification with Christ role as king. Now this makes sense if we look at how Paul in Romans 6 talks about us being risen with Christ so that we can walk in newness of life. So Christ by rising from the dead sanctified all those that would come to believe in him.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church 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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