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

  1. Bereans All says:


    You are confusing sanctification with justification. We all know that it is not “due to our [my] good”: sanctification, as someone has said, “is about following not about earning.” No one is saying that the source of our obedience is not a gift, that is not the issue, we all recognize that. The issue is whether we are active or merely passive in progressive sanctification. We are passive in regeneration, we have no conscious awareness of the inward work of the Spirit. Certainly you don’t believe we are passive in the means of our justification, namely faith. Isn’t your faith a conscious act? Is the fact that it is conscious make it a work of the flesh? Then why must that be the case with our active obedience in sanctification? Of course it is grace that leads us to obey, no one is denying that — you are ‘jousting with windmills’ if you think anyone is suggesting that. No one is talking about mixed grace — that is your straw-man. The fact that man is active is exactly what Paul points to in Phil 2:12. Do you think Paul is teaching ‘mixed grace’ simply because he points to man’s activity in God’s overall process of sanctification? What do you think he means by “as you have always obeyed, work out your salvation with fear and trembling”? Of course the Spirit gives eternal life, but we are talking about sanctification not regeneration/justification. And it is also true that the same Spirit inspired the Word that He would use as a specific tool in the sanctification process. The fact that the Spirit empowers us to act doesn’t deny the reality of our action or the Spirit as its source.

  2. John Thomson says:

    Hi Matt, thanks for responding. It won’t surprise you that the views expressed in the responses to your comment are largely mine too. As D Camp points out you fail to quote Phil 2:12 (work out your own salvation with fear and trembling…) . I would point out too that you misquote Galatians 3:3; Paul does not say ‘by your own human effort’ but ‘by the flesh’. These are two different things that get to the heart of the difference that lies between us. ‘The flesh’ is autonomous human effort, human effort that finds its strength and direction and confidence within itself apart from God. Life in the Spirit is human effort that finds its strength and confidence and direction in the Spirit. The issue is not human effort but the source of this effort. It is the same with ‘works’. ‘Works’ of two kinds are found in Scripture. There is the ‘works of the law’ and the ‘good works that God has prepared beforehand for us to walk in’. ‘Works of the law’ sometimes referred to simply as ‘works’ refers to the Mosaic Covenant and in particular to the principle of that covenant which was ‘autonomous human effort’ designed to gain ‘life’ (do this and live). To embrace the Mosaic Covenant (in either OT or NT) was essentially to embrace salvation by autonomous self-effort. Of course this was a counsel of despair. It was impossible to keep the covenant thus the works of the law were ‘dead works’. But this does not mean all ‘works’ are dead or all works are ‘works of the law’. Jesus does many mighty ‘works’ Indeed he says he must ‘work the works of him who sent him while it is still day (John 9:3). He is the Son working the works of his Father. His works are in his ‘father’s name’ (Jn 10:3). This is the model for our ‘works’.

    John 14:12 (ESV)
    “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.

    Like Christ, we do nothing of ourselves but we do what the Father asks us to do. Works prepared beforehand for us to do (Eph 2). Such ‘works’ are done by those who have come to the light so that they are seen to be ‘works carried out in God’ (John 3:21). Christians have to do good and be rich in ‘good works’ (1 Tim 6:18). Titus is to be ‘a model of good works’ (Tit 2:7) and is to exhort those who believe to be ‘careful to devote themselves to good works’ (Tit 3:8, 14). The Hebrew writer exhorts that we ‘stir one another to love and good works’ (Hebs 10:24). In Revelation Christ looks on his churches and says to each either in approval or censure, ‘I know your works’ (Rev 2:19).

    The important point about ‘works’ therefore is their source. ‘Works’ are not wrong if they are sourced in godly faith, in fact they are absolutely necessary and we will be judged according to them (Jer 32:19; Roms 2:6; 1 Cor 3; 2 Cor 5:10). Thus Paul toils with all the might energy that God works within him (Col 1:29).

    In summary, Scripture condemns neither effort not works as such. What it condemns is autonomous effort, effort in the power and arrogance of flesh and ‘fleshly works’ or ‘works of the law’, works carried out in the confidence of the flesh.

  3. Richard UK says:

    Business has kept me away but I have glanced over recent comments (including my not particularly illuminating ones!)

    Much but not all of this talk of works and sanctification is based, wrongly IMHO, on Phil 2 v 12-13. This passage is not exhorting the readers to good works or to fear.

    The context is Paul’s imminent departure and the Philippians are worried (1 v28). Paul perhaps seems to them to have it all together and they do not. Paul recognises their fear but he too has nothing in which he can boast (3 v1-9) he too has not taken hold of his goal (3 v13). But both he and his readers have attained something key (3v16) and for their assistance, he plans to send Timothy and Epaphroditus, reminiscent of Jesus sending the Holy Spirit

    What he has not taken hold of, and what they have attained, is more to do with relationship and union; it is not to do with any status of being more or less Christ-like or in any sense of having one’s own righteousness (3 v9). Furthermore 2 v12 is not ‘work for your salvation’ but work out a salvation you already have (‘continue’). And v12 simply cannot stand without v13’s ‘for’.

    The effect is not a man-centred focus on the good works to which the believer has been called but a God -centred focus on what God has and is achieving. The response Paul expects is ‘Wow! It is amazing to think of what, despite my pitiful state, /god has, is and will be working in and through me!’ Something like that will indeed counter the fear that the Philippians were facing.

    A text out of context is a proof text, usually for man-centred moralism

  4. Bereans All says:

    Again, the argument doesn’t apply here. I can’t find a single post, nor do I know anyone seriously involved in this discussion that believes that Paul said or tried to say that we, “work for our salvation.” Paul simply acknowledges their obedience and encourages them to continue their serious (what Paul means here by ‘fear’) effort to apply what they have been taught/commanded. But rather than a man-centered approach, which no one here promotes, Paul wants to make sure that they realize that although they put forth an active effort (redundant of course), that effort is still the outworking of the Spirit’s sovereign control in their lives. In other words, they are not earning anything, they are reflecting Christ’s work in them.

  5. John Thomson says:

    Richard, agree with much of your comment. It is certainly not ‘work for your salvation’ in any meritorious sense and none of us think it is. Further, I think you are right that the context is Paul is no longer with them and in his absence the responsibility falls on them (this last point re responsibility you may disagree with). They obeyed when he was there to encourage them now they have to obey (work out their own salvation) in his absence; the onus falls on them to take responsibility for obeying (Cf Gals 4:13-17). However, they can do so with great confidence because all the aspiration and ability to do so come from God.

    Two further observations.

    One, Paul may be saying ‘work out the implications of your salvation’ where salvation is viewed as an already accomplished reality or he may be thinking of salvation in a future sense, as Peter does in his letters, where salvation is awaited as the outcome of continuing in faith and believers exhorted to ‘grow up into salvation’. I believe the latter is in view. Compare Phil 1:28 where future aspect seems also to be in view. Christ, in Philippians is the Saviour we wait for from heaven (3:20).

    Two, surely they ‘work out their salvation’ by living in humility and love with each other, preferring others above themselves and by ‘doing all things without grumbling and questioning’. In doing this they ‘grow up in salvation’ and ‘make their calling and election sure’. Like Paul by such obedience we ‘press on towards the upward call of God in Christ Jesus’.

  6. Moe Bergeron says:

    When we speak of the “believer’s sanctification” what is neglected within Reformed circles is the following emphasis that is so well articulated by Charles Leiter. This is the way of the Spirit.

    “It is highly significant that in the New Testament, sin is not thought primarily in terms of breaking a list of written prohibitions, but in terms of grieving, quenching, resisting (Acts 7:51), lying to (Acts 5:3), testing (Acts 5:9), insulting (Hebrews 10:29), blaspheming (Matthew 12:31-32), and otherwise offending a living Person–the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, godly living is spoken of in terms of living in the Spirit (Galatians 5:25), walking in the Spirit (Galatians 5:25), being led by the Spirit (Romans 8:14), bearing the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), being filed with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18), sowing to the Spirit (Galatians 6:8), rejoicing in the Spirit (Luke 10:21), abounding in hope by the power of the Spirit (Romans 15:13), praying in the Spirit (Ephesians 6:18), worshiping in the Spirit (Philippians 3:3), being in the Spirit (Revelation 1:10; Luke 2:27), speaking words taught by the Spirit (Luke 12:12; Acts 6:10; 1 Corinthians 2:13), obeying the restraints of the Spirit (Acts 16:6-7), being comforted by the Spirit (Acts 9:31), serving in newness of the Spirit (Romans 7:6), setting our minds on the things of the Spirit (Romans 8:5), putting to death the deeds of the body by the power of the Spirit (Romans 8:13), being strengthened by the Spirit (Ephesians 3:16), preserving the unity of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:3), loving in the Spirit (Colossians 1:8), having the joy of the Spirit (Acts 13:52; Romans 14:17; 1 Thessalonians 1:6), guarding through the Spirit the treasure that has been given to us (2 Timothy 1:14), preaching the gospel by the Spirit (1 Peter 1:12), casting out demons by the Spirit (Matthew 12:28), and listening to what the Spirit says (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22)! To these verses, many others might be added. It is not surprising, therefore, that Paul in 2 Corinthians 3 refers to the entire New Covenant as “the ministry of the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:8).”

    Charles Leiter’s book, The Law of Christ []

  7. Bereans All says:

    Absolutely no doubt, and good reminder. I don’t think there is argument from anyone that the ultimate cause and the empowering source for any and all obedience is the Spirit. The question is whether we are passive participants — as in regeneration — or active with respect to the Word. The point that Paul is making is simply that we are active, and one of the tools — for which He inspired it (2 Tim 3:16, 17) — that the Spirit uses in His empowering activity are the imperatives. The fact that the Spirit uses means, like the Word, fellow believers/Church leaders, preached Word, Church ordinances, etc doesn’t detract from the fact that it is not Spirit caused/driven. The fact that we are active in pursuing those things doesn’t make it any less a work of the Spirit, for “God works in us to will and do of His good pleasure.” Paul said, “Do this until I come.” The fact that we do it, even when some days we do it more zeal than others, doesn’t mean that it is not the Spirit that is ultimately giving us the desire/ability to do it. Like justification, the fact that there are human means involved, e.g. faith/repentance, doesn’t make it a work of the flesh or man’s work — the glory still goes to God, from first to last.

  8. Bereans All says:

    Correction: Sentence mid-paragraph should read: “The fact that the Spirit uses means, like the Word, fellow believers/Church leaders, preached Word, Church ordinances, etc doesn’t detract from the fact that they are ultimately Spirit caused/driven.”

  9. matt says:

    Wow, hard to respond to everyone on every point.

    I am not confusing justification and sanctification. Justification comes at salvation and sanctification is a lifelong process described here. Hebrews 10:14 For by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy.

    Paul generally lays out the work of Christ in our lives at the beginning of his letters and / or when he was with them orally, preaching only Christ and Christ crucified. Then he begins to show what that looks like in a Christian’s life and he exhorts them for their behavior. If you only focus on the last half of his letters, you will get a mixed grace message. Focus on the first half of his letters, the power of Christ and the work of grace, and the last half will take care of themselves. It is only in the context of understanding the first half that his exhortations are possible or even make sense, by trusting completely in the power and righteousness of Christ.

    We are only given two choices in the verses I mentioned above (Phil 3:3, Gal 3:3, John 6:63) about human effort (and flesh has the exact same meaning), by the Spirit or by human effort / flesh. There are not 3 options in any of those verses no matter how you slice it. Christian maturity is the process of less dependence on human effort for righteous behavior and thoughts and more dependence on the Spirit for purity. More of Christ and less of us. For only in Him do we truly “live and move and exist.”

    I’ll sign off with this verse which sums up Paul’s message in the context of this conversation. If you can find wiggle room in it, you are really working way too hard to justify a doctrine over what the Word says. Keep everything in the context of what Christ accomplished and the clear definition of grace (as this verse clearly does) and you won’t have to worry about linguistic gymnastics. Even better, you won’t have to rely on your own human strength (as Paul clearly doesn’t).

    1 Cor 15:10 But whatever I am now, it is all because God poured out his special favor on me—and not without results. For I have worked harder than any of the other apostles; yet it was not I but God who was working through me by his grace.

  10. Bereans All says:

    “Focus on the first half of his letters, the power of Christ and the work of grace, and the last half will take care of themselves.” Thanks for the interaction. At least your candid and your point is clear, but it must then also be clear to anyone reading these posts as to why DeYoung and many others do not believe your position does justice to the way Paul (Jesus) writes the 2nd part of his epistles. He could have written those parts to emphasize our passivity, but as John Thompson pointed out earlier, he does exactly the opposite by urging our involvement. Human effort and “works of the flesh” cannot possibly be synonymous or Paul would urge total passivity. The fact that we are positionally sanctified and justified is now what frees us to obey in good conscious, knowing that God desires our purposeful though imperfect obedience/sacrifice/service (Rom 12:1,2). If human effort meant “works of the flesh,” we couldn’t in good conscious participate in any spiritual activity, including participating in this forum.

  11. Richard UK says:

    John Thomson, hi

    Forgive me for any abruptness – I am simply seeking to avoid us fudging over our differences and yet be as brief as I can

    1. It is not ‘work for your salvation’ in ANY sense at all – meritorious* or not. Nor is it Reformed, or even reformed, to say that ‘salvation is awaited as the outcome of continuing in faith’ in any way that undermines at all that we ARE saved and can have full assurance. Salvation, which includes sanctification, is not synergistic in any of its components. We might grow IN our salvation but we do not grow INTO salvation.

    2. If however you mean that God will bring about the perseverance of the elect, then there are clearer ways of saying so. Our faith might be the instrument of our justification, and our effort might be the instrument of our sanctification, but neither faith nor effort are the causes of anything. We are not in fact justified by faith, but by grace through faith. The ‘perseverance of the saints’ is God’s promise not a requirement on man.

    3. In your first note, the rendering as ‘work out the implications of your salvation’ would seem to avoid the meritorious notion, but it then depends on what you mean by ‘implications’. It might just hide the problem elsewhere

    4. As I say, I believe v.13 is specifically to remind them that it is NOT them but God at work. That is the difference between us. I reiterate that the context is not about ‘responsibility’ as you suggest, but fear, wrong fear. Paul is sending Timothy and Epaphroditus to encourage them to live free from fear, not to ensure they take responsibility for obeying. Your rendering of ‘their responsibility for obeying’ leads to a much darker connotation than mine for the ‘fear’ that accompanies ‘working out’.

    5. By interpreting v.12 without reference to v.13, I fear you are dragging Philippians elsewhere (Galatians is throughout about ‘obeying’ the gospel or walking with the Spirit; it is not about obeying the Law which is how I read your interpretation).

    6. I think we have to agree to disagree. I know there are problems about the Christian life as I see it which I am happy to explore, but I am sure that a return to crypto-moralism is not the solution – and sadly that is the way I read your position.

    *PS – I do not think we can sustain the common notion that some of our actions are meritorious before God (on justification where we all fall short and need a savior) and others are not meritorious so they can be left to us.

    PPS – You also quote Peter in aid. Peter’s ‘make your calling and election sure’ is not a comment on whether you actually have that calling/election or not. ‘Sure’ means stable, the opposite of wobbly. The election is certain and guaranteed, but do not make it a wobbly path through to the end. The idea of ‘make sure’ that we must ‘ink in’ the election that God has ‘pencilled in’ for us would run totally contrary to the golden chain on Romans 8.

  12. Richard UK says:


    Terrific stuff. Thank you

  13. Moe Bergeron says:

    Richard UK,

    You are welcome.

    Leiter does not work within the theological construct of Law & Gospel. He works within Paul’s understanding of “Letter / Spirit” as seen in Romans 7:6 & 2 Corinthians 3.

    – Grace!

  14. John Thomson says:


    Lots to respond to. Could we get past the point that ‘all is of God’. We all agree on this. There is no question that any ‘good works’ are by the Spirit, God working in us to will and do for his good pleasure. There is equally no question that salvation from beginning to end is God’s work. The issue of debate is whether we are called to ‘effort’ in Christian living. It is true that often in the first half of a letter Paul lays down the salvation-basis (Christ’s work for us and in us) but he does write a second-half and it is not good enough to say this will take care of itself. If it will simply take care of itself then Paul need never have written it. If we need not ‘make every effort’ then why are we commanded to do so? If ‘striving for holiness without which no man can see God’ is inexcusable human effort then why are we urged to so do? Why are believers to ‘strive to enter God’s rest’ if such striving is mere flesh?

    The reality is that these forms of striving are godly strivings inspired and directed by God. The effort that believers put into their service for God is holy effort, the consequence of walking in the Spirit. Yes in 1 Corinthians 15 it is God who works in and through Paul BUT Paul labours strenuously. Just as in Philippians Paul lives, but not Paul, rather Christ living within him.

    To approach things in another way. Do I am tempted to watch something unwholesome on TV how do I respond? Do I simply wait on an impulse to turn it off and if it doesn’t come then continue to watch it? Or do I put to death the fleshly impulse to keep watching and switch channel? At some level of consciousness I am depending on God’s enabling in this. In the really hard struggles this enabling may be well to the fore and in others perhaps less hard, the emotional depth of my ‘depending’ may be less, but I still depend. The point however, is that although all is of God, nevertheless I do the assessing, I do the mortifying, I do the switching of channels. I fight the fight against temptation wearing the armour of God and through the strength of the Spirit.

    I choose not to lie but to speak the truth. I choose not to steal but to give to those who have not. I choose not to watch questionable TV but to read and meditate on the word. I choose not to use my tongue for corrupt and vulgar talk but to speak that which upbuilds. At every point I am engaged in this conflict. The temptation comes to me, I refuse it. The obligation to take care of my parents is mine and I undertake it. I never do so depending on my own abilities (this is effort in the flesh) but I do so strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.

    I shall finish this post here. I have not dealt with other related issues at this point. I simply ask, can we all agree that what I describe is proper Christian living?

  15. Kenton says:

    There is a passage that captures quite simply the above:

    To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. (Colossians 1:27-29 ESV)

    Paul proclaims “Christ in you, the hope of glory”, to the end that everyone is presented *mature* in Christ. Then he demonstrates what Christ in you looks like: “I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”

    Who toils, who struggles?Paul

    Who works in him? Christ

    By whose energy? Christ’s

    That’s as simple a biblical explanation as one could hope for.

  16. matt says:

    Bereans All

    Just a quick thought. Romans 12:2 is in the passive voice when it refers to sanctification, “but let God transform you…” Sadly, I have heard this preached in the active voice multiple times, how to transform yourself. In addition, a sacrifice by definition is passive. Complete surrender is required and available by the power of Christ who made it possible through his passive surrender.

    Likewise the verse I mentioned earlier Hebrews 10:14 says, For by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy. Both verbs are passive with the subject doing the action being God, “made perfect and being made holy”” by God.”

    However, grace does not produce passivity in us. This straw man has been built many more times than I can count. Why do so many people on this forum assume grace produces passivity? Ponder that question for a moment. Grace produces what Paul prayed in Heb 13. “21 may he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him. All glory to him forever and ever! Amen.” Again, God is doing the producing and we are the objects of the blessing, thus God gets all the glory. All of Paul’s exhortations must seen in the context of zero glory going to us and all to God. Paul is laying out what grace ultimately produces in us, not setting up a new legal system.

    If one is reading the Word to find a way to save themselves, they will find the Law, which doesn’t save. If one is looking for Christ in the Word, they will find Him, and He alone does and will save and sanctify, and give us the strength and desire to do His will. When God brings us before Him to display His great love and mercy after this age by pointing to us as examples, (Eph 2 and 3) not one person present will be boasting about the part they played in it all.

  17. dcamp says:

    Do you really believe that anyone here is trying to “save themselves” or seek to rob God of his glory? Talk about a straw-man. At least you are not arguing for passivity any longer. But you have certainly put in a lot of effort here, which by your own definition must be a work of the flesh.

  18. Kenton says:


    Romans 12:2 says, “Be transformed”. Though it’s passive, “you” is still the implied subject. (You) be transformed. It’s not too different from “Be ready” or “Be prepared.” It describes a state of being. Regardless, note the end result: “that you may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

    Yes! Grace does not produce passivity, but Spirit-empowered, Christ-serving, God-glorifying activity. That’s what we’ve been saying. The problem is that it seems that despite this, the way in which you promote grace would seem to downplay or oppose such activity.

    For example, when Paul gives commands throughout the New Testament, the assumption is that it’s grace fueled. Grace doesn’t stop our activity, because what grace also does is “train us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:12-13). This is included in the salvation that God graciously brings to us.

    And I think it should be noted that we don’t obey or do good works in order to become more holy or more godly or more mature. Obedience and godliness are ends in themselves. That is, if we are to live, then we must live in one of two ways: either living ungodly lives characterized by doing evil actions, or living godly lives characterized by doing good actions. We can’t live in any other way, because we are active beings, and the point of grace is not to make us stop acting.

  19. Kenton says:

    I should also add, “good works” does not mean exceptional acts of goodness or charity, as is often meant by a Catholic use of the phrase. Good works are simply actions that are good as opposed to evil. Grace empowers and trains is to do good.

  20. Bereans All says:

    The activity, or active human will, that Paul describes and exhorts us to is no different in sanctification than it is in conversion. And it has the same source (the Spirit) and arises through the same means (the Word): “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” Man’s will is active in conversion, in response to the written Word, but the Spirit is the ultimate cause and God gets the ultimate glory. Obedience in the life of the saint occurs in the same manner, that is exactly what Paul is saying in 2 Tim 3:16, 17. The regenerate man’s will is active and responds to the written Word (imperatives as well as indicatives), yet the Spirit is the ultimate cause and God gets all the glory. I do not believe that anyone here has argued for the believer’s active role and the means of the written Word in our sanctification that is not also true of our conversion.

  21. Matt says:

    Sorry Kenton, all four uses of metamorphoō in the NT are passive, see Strong’s G3339. Passive voice is different from a command structure which you refer to.
    2Cor 3:18 So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image.
    Again in passive voice, God is the one doing the changing. You’ve got to get the grammar right to understand the Gospel. God purifies us. We don’t purify ourselves.

    In any case I’m so glad to see that the posts on this article have moved decidedly towards the work of Christ in and through us rather than what we think we can do for Him.

    More grace and peace from the Lord to you all!

  22. John Thomson says:

    Matt (and Richard), can I ask you to respond to my above post and say whether you agree with it. If you do many of our apparent differences will disappear.

  23. Richard UK says:

    John T

    Yes, I would be happy to respond. I had hoped to today but it looks like tomorrow. We are very possibly making some small progress!!

  24. matt says:

    John T

    I’m not sure we all agree with the first half of your first paragraph. However, when I see quotes like this, “Thus these parables do not teach about God’s grace in justifying faith but the responsibility of those who claim to be children of the kingdom to live as such,” I don’t believe we all agree. I also read, but can’t find something to the effect that it is not either / or, but both, which in the context of the discussion, I take to mean God’s grace plus our proper response equals sanctification.

    We may have all forgotten, but the article these comments are attached to is pointing out this very disagreement. It seems like Wilkin and Deyoung emphasize the important role of the believer in sanctification. To me at least, that necessitates that at least some righteousness must come from us (at the minimum a proper response from us). I will one day have to declare this, so I’d rather just start living this now, strength included.

    Isa 45:24 The people will declare, “The LORD is the source of all my righteousness and strength.”

    I’m with Tozer on this one,
    We pursue God because, and only because, He has first put an urge within us that spurs us to the pursuit. “No man can come to me,” said our Lord, “except the Father which hath sent me draw him,” and it is by this very prevenient drawing that God takes from us every vestige of credit for the act of coming. – A. W. Tozer

    Understanding Paul’s doctrine of grace alone will result in the rest being taken care of. Jesus says the same thing here. Then from verse 30 on He let’s them know that Moses’ acts were not the source of their provision, in my view, just like we are not the source of righteousness, no matter how it may appear.

    John 6:28 They replied, “We want to perform God’s works, too. What should we do?” 29 Jesus told them, “This is the only work God wants from you: Believe in the one he has sent.”

    30 They answered, “Show us a miraculous sign if you want us to believe in you. What can you do? 31 After all, our ancestors ate manna while they journeyed through the wilderness! The Scriptures say, ‘Moses gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32 Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, Moses didn’t give you bread from heaven. My Father did. And now he offers you the true bread from heaven.

    Having said all that, I think the deeper question is, if one doesn’t expend human effort / flesh of some kind fighting sin, then how do we overcome it? I suggest you take a tip from Paul, although I have to warn you, his faith in God is radical. Paul had a thorn in the flesh. I believe it was at least a nagging temptation that could easily have resulted in sin as well. I know it drives some Christians crazy to think that Paul could actually sin, but he confesses as much very clearly in his writings (Rom 7:21-25 …This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. 24 Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? 25 Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord….) Some who deny that Paul could have sin in his heart believe the thorn is a physical ailment. It doesn’t really matter, though. His response would be the same in either case.

    2 Cor 12:7 even though I have received such wonderful revelations from God. So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. 8 Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. 9 Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me.

    He didn’t struggle or strive, he prayed for God to take the thorn away. God did not. Humility is far more important than sinlessness in God’s eyes. Often our drive for perfection is merely to satisfy our own pride or as a way to try to impress God.

    I believe Paul often prayed to the Lord and saw God rid him of many thorns. The reason I believe Paul mentioned this specific example is to let us know, one, God is the One who removes the thorns, not us. Two, He often removes thorns as we run to Him for the solution rather than our own striving, but not always or at least not always when we want Him to. Again, His purpose was to keep Paul from becoming proud, not make him perfect.
    In my personal experience, I have never had a single success against my nature (although I did spend many years doing a fantastic job of faking it!). I let the Lord know that without supernatural intervention, I will sin. That is just my nature (just as Paul described clearly in Rom 7). More often than not, the thorn is quickly removed. I was shown my sin for the reason of God’s plan to replace it with the power of Christ in that aspect of my life. However, just like Paul, other times, it is not replaced with the power of Christ so that I can be reminded of my constant dependence on Him. I don’t enjoy the thorns, but as I turn to Christ for the solution, I enjoy seeing Him and His amazing grace. I take comfort in seeing my deeper and continual need for His help (Rom 7:25). Thorns drive me to further dependence and a greater fear of the Lord.

    Also we shouldn’t assume all striving for God and righteousness is godly. We can strive to try to impress God, to impress others, to satisfy our desire to be perfect, etc. We can read the Word to be smarter than others, impress them, or beat them in arguments. We can do good works for all the wrong reasons as well. I have had all of these bad motives and more. I’m certain other bad motives are lurking below the surface, but the Holy Spirit hasn’t revealed them yet. Thankfully, when we notice these bad motives, we can pray like Paul did and God will remove them as only He can in His way and in His time. He will replace them with godly motives that stem from a desire to know Him that He gives us. Part of living by the Spirit is letting the Spirit respond to our temptations rather than trying to rely on the flesh. So in my view, all responses to temptation are fleshly if they don’t come from the Spirit as we depend completely on Christ. Fleshly responses to sin do create order in the world and keep us from complete havoc, so there is some value to fleshly responses to sin. Guilt and fear of any law keep the world in check to a degree. However, God’s plan for Christians is much different, it is to live in the Spirit, depending on Christ for all.

  25. Bereans All says:

    “Part of living by the Spirit is letting the Spirit respond to our temptations rather than trying to rely on the flesh. So in my view, all responses to temptation are fleshly if they don’t come from the Spirit as we depend completely on Christ.”

    Yes, and one of the ways that we completely depend on Christ is to recognize that one of the ways that the Spirit responds to our temptations is by causing us to actively obey the living Word that the Spirit has ‘breathed out.’ That is part of what this discussion has been about. A believer who obeys the words of Christ has the same joy that Christ had when He obeyed the words of His Father. That is exactly what John 15:9-11 is teaching: ” As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”

    And the joy we experience in walking with Christ, which is what we are doing as believers when we are walking in obedience to His word, is part of the armor that defends against sin and temptation (Eph 6). A believer’s faithful obedience does not mean we are trying to save ourselves, rob God of His glory, or exalt the flesh, but simply seeking to honor Him. To honor His Word, indicatives and imperatives rightly interpreted in their covenantal context, is to honor Him. How did Christ honor His Father? One of the ways was by being attentive to His Words. Christ, who completely depended on the Spirit would still say, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” He was talking about the Scriptures, which are by the empowerment of the Spirit, “living and active” as the writer of Hebrews says.

    And that is exactly what Paul says all Scripture is, the breathed out Word of God: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV) This verse is clear, obedience to the Word of God by a believer desiring to walk in the Spirit is not the same thing as “law keeping” by an unregenerate Israelite simply following a dead letter. If Christ sent the Spirit to inspire and teach us His word, how can following it — in promise and precept — be automatically equated with “works of the flesh”? The Spirit breathed out the 2nd half of Paul’s letters just like he did the first, and walking in the Spirit means active participation/commitment to those words just as it does to those in the 1st half.

  26. Dani says:

    You over-educated and under-worked modern preacher-theologian academic wannabes are doing to Christ’s bride what career politicians have done to America. Shut up and repent. You are arguing about whether we should obey God and encourage each other to do so? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? You have to have a PhD to wonder about that. Don’t let me Google the real meaning of Biblical sanctification and find this ridiculousness. You all should be ashamed.

  27. Richard UK says:


    Over 2,000 years (3,800 if you include the Old Covenant), the people of God, prompted by God, have sought to draw near to their God. The true prophets and teachers, raised up by God, have warned of the dangers along the way – the dangers not least of false teachers. While there is always a danger of scrutinising the scriptures and failing to the see the Lord of Glory, at no time has the Church ever felt that sound teaching is so obvious that it needs no protection.

    Kevin de Y’s original post shows that he is most concerned with the danger of antinomianism. Many of the later posts suggest that the greater danger is moralism. The bible speaks against both of these. Failure to understand either of them is a shortcut into falling into one of them.

    The discussion above is not irrelevant at all. It can help enormously in pastoral situations. If someone comes saying they despair of their salvation because they have tried hard to ‘kill the sin’ in them, I don’t think it will be helpful to say ‘try harder – the command is clear’.

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  29. de Douglas says:

    Kevin, I think your topic, and 15 points, and questions are definitely relevant, because I think there would be many theologians that would be asking these questions, and that many are not so self-confident as to think that they have it all sorted out even in the case that they are not novice theologians, and being diligent in searching for truth would be careful to both ask relevant in-context questions, and form conclusions cautiously, desiring to avoid the error of forming false doctrines because of not gathering all the scriptural evidence and pulling it all into the whole context for consideration. Many of the other perspectives have been commented on already so I would like to bring another perspective or two up for consideration:

    I would like to bring a couple passages into the mix for consideration before one credits God’s sovereignty to every action, good and evil, responsible and irresponsible.

    “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Gal 1:6 ESV).

    Notice in Gal 1:6 that Paul states
    1) that God has called them, and
    2) that they have deserted God.

    Paul clearly lays the blame on them for their deserting God. This clearly shows this to be a responsibility put on human will. Otherwise Paul should have said, “God called you, but He did not grant you enough grace to avoid deserting Him, because He was only toying with you, and had no real intention of sanctifying you, or granting you the enabling grace to persevere in the faith.” According to this natural conclusion (if Reformed Theology is applied), we could say that God sometimes sends out a false call, in that God sometimes calls those that He has no intention of actually granting the grace to be saved.

    Also consider another passage:

    “About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food” (Heb 5:11-12 ESV).

    The author of Hebrews lays blame on the Hebrew Christians in stating that they should be teachers by now. He does not say that they have not yet become teachers because God in his sovereignty has held them back and caused them to be running behind schedule in becoming teachers.

    We know that we cannot earn salvation by works or else we might say to God, “You owe it to me” (Rom 4:2-5) but God owes us nothing. Never the less God holds us responsible to do the good that we know that we should do (that God wants us to do). See Lk 12:47-48. God will most certainly hold men responsible for what they know, and what they choose not to do while possessing the ability to do it and knowing that they should do it (Mt 25:26). Of course there is forgiveness as a person repents, acknowledging that he has sinned in this (1 Jn 1:9).

    In 1 Corinthians 11:31-32 Paul gives a warning directed to the church (not the world) and implies that if we do not judge our own actions we cannot be chastened by the Lord, and therefore will fall under the same condemnation that “the world” is under, and we know what that is — the lake of fire. Though I do not profess to be Reformed or Arminian this kind of talk would seem to show Reformed Theology to be unstable at best, and therefore in your initial introduction where you mentioned “Reformed Community” if it is that you establish Reformed Theology as a foundation of Christianity then the foundation is faulty before even entering into the discussion or debate of the topic. Perhaps we would all do better to be open-minded and not take stances in specific theological camps and rather just keep seeking for Scriptural truth at all cost to whatever reputations we have built or earned in particular theological camps or communities, etc. We must not make the word of God ineffective by our preconceived ideas which are built on the traditions of denominations and theological communities that take a stance as to imply to be superior to other Christian communities.

    Not So Reformed

    [email protected]

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  31. de Douglas says:

    I wanted to show that I have extensively studied both sides of the argument. But I am very surprised that no one replied to my comments with one passage:

    “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion’.” (Rom 9:14-15 ESV).

    Remember the angels that are now destined to a judgment in the deepest abyss of hell [Tartarus] are reserved for that destiny because of only one sin–the sin of leaving their first estate (2 Pet 2:4; Jude 1:6) with God and following Satan in his rebellion. Only one sin is enough to confirm that one is a sinner (James 2:10) and therefore worthy of death. Since all humans will sin and fall short of God’s glory (Ro 3:23) it should not make God look unrighteous for not having mercy on all. Even if God destroyed the whole evil race of humans He would still be righteous. But rather than God being unjust, we see God being more merciful than he has to be in saving anyone:

    “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Ro 9:16).

    If it were not for the grace of God we could have all been destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah:

    “And as Isaiah predicted, “If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring, we would have been like Sodom and become like Gomorrah” (Ro 9:29 ESV).

    In hardening Pharaoh’s heart it was not as if God mysteriously moved upon Pharaoh’s heart and turned him from being a righteous man to a wicked man. Pharaoh was already wicked in his natural self. God simply gave him over to the wickedness that he already wanted to do and was abiding in, rather than breaking his rebellion. If God wills he can use the rebellion of those who are already wicked and will not repent to accomplish His purpose:

    “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Ro 8:17-18 ESV).

    Or perhaps one might also reply to my proposed statements with this passage:

    “You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” (Ro 9:19-21 ESV).

    Whether we understand these things as well as we think we can know one thing: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:25).

    I still have not said much about the questions and points at hand which have to do with sanctification. But I will close this post by saying that God leaves the human will in tact. It is not a question of whether the human will has a part in making choices which cause the saint to progress in sanctification. At least some of the answers I think are to be found in the means by which God through the Holy Spirit teaches the saint what things to choose. It is not a question of whether God has allowed me to make many wrong choices in my life as a Christian by my own will, but the evidence that He was working in me was in His showing me they were wrong choices, so that I would choose better in subsequent situations and trials. At times I found out what God’s more specific will was for my life by first finding out what was not God’s will for my life, but His method of teaching is in no way limited to just this manner, and it is always better to not have to suffer the consequences of bad choices. In the words of St Augustine, paraphrased: The Holy Spirit uses a multitude of practical and supernatural means to teach us.

    Perhaps more on sanctification later…

  32. de Douglas says:

    I wanted to follow up to my previous post if for no other reason than to clarify myself so that there is no misconception pertaining to what I posted earlier pertaining to God’s wrath against the human race of sinners. I was not implying that God “should” destroy the whole human race in hellfire, but that He simply “could.” And I especially did not plu to be including infants, and children under the condition of accountability (Scripture implies that God sees these as innocent for judgment, though no age group on earth is exempt from dying the physical death of the body as a result of Adam’s original sin).

    I also wanted to say a few more things. I have stated that I hold to neither an Arminian nor Reformed Theology, though there is a great deal of truth taught within both camps. I first posted some passages and points that are not often mentioned, and that are or appear non-Reformed, then I followed up by posting some of the passages and dogmas that Reformed Theologians tend to base much of their core theology around. These verses which are often highly fore-grounded by Calvinists are very profound, yet still do not overturn the truths I posted in my first comment post.

    But the reason I have said much without really saying much directly about sanctification is because whatever we believe as core beliefs or foundational beliefs will affect our subsequent beliefs, such as what we believe about sanctification, and the believer’s part in it. We need to have a Scripturally balanced view or belief about it. And coming to a completely accurate understanding on this is not real easy. This is in fact why I think that it is great that Reverend DeYoung has brought this subject to the table for a much deeper study….enough from me for now; Sunday School time is quickly approaching.

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  47. Bill says:

    I think these differences are real, but some of it is due to miscommunication. For example, myself, I’m lutheran I am more on the side of a guy of those that emphasize justification over and above everything else. Now I do admit that by reading the new testament (both the gospels and epistles) christian living matters, sanctification is preached. To me it all comes down to the audience. To somebody that is repentant already, i do not believe we need to preach good works or the law. That person only needs to hear the free forgiveness of sins. This is what comforted Paul at the end of Romans 7 and first verses of Romans 8. Now when there are unrepentant sinners, like in the times of Paul and today as well, to those people we ought to preach the law and good works. So it all comes down to your audience, the preaching of Tullian Tchividjian is great for christians that feel the burden of their sin, and the message of Kevin De Young is great for those that have not repented of their sin. so one message is good to produce repentance in the heart, and the other message is good to comfort the heart that has already been crushed by the weight of the law.

  48. Bill says:

    By the way I didn’t mean to say that the message of Kevin De Young and Tullian Tchividjian is good for both christians and non christians alike. Kevin preaches more to the unrepentant heart (of a christian or non christian) and Tullian to the one that has been crushed by the law already (christian or non christian). But I personally do not think that one type of preaching is better than the other one, but one is more suited to one type of audience than the other.

  49. Bill says:

    Sorry in my post above, the first sentence should have said “I meant to say” instead of “I didn’t mean to say”

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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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