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

  1. Bill says:

    You see these two are great definitions of legalism that I took from this puritan board topic Below I’m quoting from the puritan board the two definitions I liked the most and they fit Matt and Dcamp pretty good :

    “I think that is a sound definition but I would also add that, in addition to a Pelagian form of legalism there is a semi-“Pelagian form where God goes most of the way with grace and we fill in the blanks with our faithfulness to what is granted. ”

    “Any believer who tends to compare himself with others or measure his standing before God based on how carefully he follows either legitimate laws of God or the customs of church culture is a legalist at heart. The heart issue is usually most clearly seen in the desire to measure yourself based on whatever rules you follow. So you can actually be either right or wrong about an issue such as alcohol and still be a legalist, or not.”

  2. Bill says:

    I mean the fact that these guys have problems with practicing prostitutes or a man that commits adultery (the example of Randy that was given by you guys) being christian shows a heart issue similar to the ones the pharisees had when they saw Christ eating with prostitutes and tax collectors. God justifies the ungodly and no sin is big enough for God that he can not forgive. Look at David, he not only committed adultery but also murder, and he was forgiven, he was never asked to give up Bathsheba . He gets to keep her as his wife and goes to heaven, mentioned as a hero of the faith in the book of Hebrews. His sins were bigger than most unbelievers, yet he goes to heaven while the unbeliever is frying in hell. Take a look at Peter, he denies Christ three times. He was a coward,, sure he wept but while denying his master, but his tears did not change his behavior. And some say that was before Pentecost ? We all have a weakness, for Peter it is clear it was the fear of man. And this was both before and after Pentecost. Paul in Galatians teaches how Peter refused to eat with gentile believers because he was afraid of those galatians that made ccircumscision a requirement for salvation. And this led Barnabas and many of the jews astray Galatians 2:11-13. This is Peter filled with the holy spirit.

  3. Kenton says:

    A year later, and this discussion is still ongoing!

    I think there are a few basic assumptions that should be tested before trying to fit scriptures into our positions:

    1) Do human beings actually make decisions (that is, possess a will)? Does a decision have to be completely autonomous (without outside influence) for it to be a decision?

    2) Is it possible for humans to be inactive (that is, to not do works)?

    3) What does the Holy Spirit actually do in the Christian’s life? What is the grace of God in the life of the Christian?

    4) Are the works of God coterminous with the works of men, or does one stop where the other begins?

    I think these four questions lie at the heart of Philippians 2:12-13, which is perhaps the most important verse in this discussion. What does it mean that “God works in you both to will and to do according to his good pleasure?” Who is the one who “wills and does”? On the one hand, Richard and Bill seem to say that it is God who wills and does (after all, “He does what every He pleases”), while d camp and Matt seem to say that it is the Christian who wills and does.

    First, we all seem to accept the premise that human beings are active beings, that they are always doing and therefore they are always doing works. Second, we mostly seem to accept that human beings are decisive beings, that they make decisions, even if those decision making faculties are twisted and bent toward sin.

    The question is, does the Christian remain so indelibly marred by sin that he can neither decide nor act in accordance with God’s pleasure? I don’t think the answer is as simple as yes or no. First, I think we’ve misunderstood the term “regeneration” to mean something that it does not. Yes, God promises a new heart and a new spirit, such that Paul can honestly say, “I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God”, but he also says that the flesh wars against the Spirit, for the body is dead because of sin. Furthermore, we all have, and to an extent still desire sin, so the heart is not so perfected that sin is not an issue. Yet without mistake Paul claims to himself desire the things of God, and to act accordingly.

    I think the emphasis of Phil 2:12-13 is that God works in us in a way that empowers us to desire, decide, and act according to his will. We see that God does not work in a way that prevents us from ever sinning (this is true whether you think God works for us or through us), but it would seem that God neither takes control of our actions nor leaves it up to us to make our wills line up with his. He shapes our desires in pursuing him, and he empowers us to decide and act according to what pleases him. In short, he places his motivating love in our hearts.

    What place does that leave for obedience and striving against sin? He empowers us in this as well. He gives the power to do what he lovingly commands, such that the good works of Christians are truly theirs, but they are ultimately God’s, from whom every good and perfect thought and action comes. We know that nothing that God does is imperfect, and everything that we do is, so by his working in our working, the acts of those who are sanctified in Christ are both perfect before him and pleasing to him. So it is not God working for us, but God working in us, to his glory. This is, after all, how Jesus could say, “My Father is working, and I am working”, and “My Father, He does the works.”

  4. Bill says:

    Kenton, those are really good questions. And believe it or not, once we understand what the Reformers taught that we are simul justus et peccator, i.e. simultaneously just and sinner. Luther coined that term, and he affirmed that a christian is 100% Saint and 100% Sinner at the same time. Unlike Matt, Luther taught that a christian is sinlessly perfect (Matt denied sinless perfection) and he is at the same time 100% sinner (not one iota different from an unbeliever), something that Matt also denies). if we do not come to grips with this, we will never understand that both of what 1 John teaches is true, it is true that anybody that says he is without sin is a liar 1 John 1:8-10 but it is also true that a christian does not sin, he is a Saint and sinless, and anybody that sins is of the devil 1 John 3:8-9 . So we are simultaneously just Saints and sinners, as Luther teaches. Based on this and what Luther teaches in the bondage of the will where he provides an answer to all of your questions I will proceed to answer them. Your 4 questions are easy question, but essential to answer them in order to see why we differ.

    1) Do human beings actually make decisions (that is, possess a will)? Does a decision have to be completely autonomous (without outside influence) for it to be a decision? Answer : Human beings make decisions. A human being is either a slave to sin (the unbeliever) or a slave to righteousness (the Christian). Luther’s compares them to two horses, the unbeliever is being ridden by Satan and the believer by God.

    2) Is it possible for humans to be inactive (that is, to not do works)? It is impossible. Humans are constantly in action, the unbeliever controlled by Satan and the believer by the holy spirit. All of the actions of the unbeliever are ruled by Satan and all the actions of the believer ruled by the holy spirit.

    3) What does the Holy Spirit actually do in the Christian’s life? What is the grace of God in the life of the Christian?
    Luther summarizes the work of the holy spirit perfectly in his small catechism, you see how Luther defines sanctification as believing in the forgiveness of sin. it has nothing to do with our good works but everything to do with our faith in Jesus Christ. Here it goes:

    “Of Sanctification.

    I believe in the Holy Ghost; one holy Christian Church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.

    What does this mean?–Answer.

    I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.

    4) Are the works of God coterminous with the works of men, or does one stop where the other begins?”
    The works of God are coterminous. The holy spirit works through us, and as a result all our works are polluted by sin. As a matter of fact all of the works of the christian are the same, no matter what he does, everything the christian does is driven by the holy spirit (100% sinless) but it is polluted by the sin in the old man (100% sinful). Whether a christian be attending the Lord’s Supper or be in a Strip Bar, it is no different in that the spirit convicts him of and points him to Christ for forgiveness. Only in some very grievous sins like when David killed Bathsheba’s husband and committed adultery a christian can lose the holy spirit, for example it was only when Nathan spoke to David that David realized he had sin. So David had lost the witness of the spirit, which is a dangerous thing because he was one step away from losing his salvation but God sent a message through Nathan that brought David to repentance and the holy spirit was reignited.

  5. Kenton says:

    Thanks Bill,

    I think I would agree, at least on the surface, with much of what you have said, but a number of things stick out to me.

    1) While I understand Luther’s characterization of the Christian as simul justus et peccator, I am not sure it has biblical warrant. I do not mean that sin doesn’t reside within the Christian, but that the Christian is never characterized in the present as a sinner, “not one iota different from the unbeliever.” I think that has to do with the fact that “sinner” is first an appraisal of a person by God based on his status as a member of estranged mankind, and then it is an appraisal of the person as one who sins. God’s Spirit first restores the Christian to the status of sonship as a member of Christ the Son, and then empowers the Christian’s will and action. This is sanctification, the abiding presence of the Spirit that certifies that we are God’s and enables us to live accordingly. So by status and by behavior, the Christian is no longer a sinner, though he still sins because he still possesses natural faculties tainted by sin. Absent the abiding Spirit, the Christian is no different than the unbeliever, but that will be true now and through eternity. There is no such thing as a regenerate heart distinct from the abiding Spirit.

    2) I am a bit confused by your statement that only “very grievous sins” such as murder and adultery put one at risk for losing the Spirit. I think I understand where you are getting that, but we should be careful not to equivocate the role of the Spirit under the Old Covenant and his role in the New Covenant. Status as a member of God’s house was precarious under the Old Covenant, not least in part due to the fact that every human was estranged from God’s family. David was at risk of being cut off from God for his one sin, which is why he pleads for God not to take away His Spirit. But the Christian has a surety based on the eternal sacrifice and abiding status that Jesus retains as God’s risen Son crucified for sins. Therefore when we sin, we are not at risk in the same way, for the promise stands of immediate forgiveness without need for sacrifice. The risk stands only for those who turn back from the faith, and who thereby show that their faith was never truly rooted in Christ.

  6. Kenton says:

    I apologize Bill, my response was cut off.

    3) I believe the analogy of slavery is far more apt than that of horses driven by other wills. The way in which slaves are compelled to act is starkly different. A slave is compelled by a stronger person to bring his own will and action in alignment with that of the stronger party. He may do so willingly or grudgingly, but his own will remains under his own personal control. That is why Paul says, “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” and, “You once presented your members as slaves to impurity.” Sin is an involuntary master over the sinner, but the sinner does obey the sinful desires that compel him.

    What does this mean for the Christian and good works? The Holy Spirit abides in the Christian, liberating him from sin’s mastery, instructing him according to the goodness of God in the character of the Son of God, and empowering him to live as one whose desires are fully redeemed from sin. But, the Christian still freed to choose to yield his sinful body to the will of God. That is why Paul instructs, “so now present your members as slaves to righteousness.” The Spirit empowers us to choose, which is why Paul can say that God works in us [prompting and leading us] to will and to work, for his good pleasure. This is what glorifies God, not that he simply sidesteps our own will and action in doing the good himself, but that he transforms and empowers people who by themselves would desire and commit evil as sinners into a people who desire and work good as His sons.

    This in turns leaves open Paul’s many statements about the Christian being judged according to what he does in the body, whether good or evil, but also does not ignore the grace of God in forgiving sins and enabling the works which he will appraise. As James affirms, this is judgment with mercy, as sons of God and not sinners cut off from him.

  7. Bill says:

    Kenton, you see I will give you my comments on what you wrote. But you see before I do I immediately notice that you and I although we both affirm that the gospel transforms a person, we understand this transformation differently. I put the grace of justification foremost, and this means that anything that I speak about sanctification can not contradict the doctrine of justification of the ungodly. I will not allow that , otherwise I diminish Christ and exalt myself and without noticing I end up undermining the doctrine of justification. With that in mind let me get to each of your 4 points one by one.

    1) Although christians are called Saints and Christ is victorious over sin and in spite of our transformation when we become christians we still remain 100% sinners. The only difference with the unbeliver is that christians are 100% Saints and the unbeliever is not. But both are 100% sinners. I will quote you several scriptures instead of Luther to show you that Scripture affirms emphatically that Christians are sinners, 100 %. Starting by Romans 4:8 and Psalm 32:2 , Blessed is the man to whom God does not impute or does not count his sin against him. Right there scripture affirms that the Christian is not somebody that does not sin, but somebody that sins and God does not impute the sin to him. 1 john 1:8 , If we claim we are without sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. Ecclesiastes 7:20 there is not one man on earth that does not sin. It is pretty clear that believer and unbeliever are alike in that they have one thing in common, they both sin. Issaiah 64:6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. Issaiah is speaking about the whole human race and he is including himself and the elect that have faith. He makes no distinction between the works of the believer and the unbeliever, both of them are like filthy rags. Matthew 6:12 , the Lord’s prayer, a christian prays to God forgive us our trespasses. It is clear from here that christians are sinners or trespassers that need constant, daily forgiveness. Luke 18:13 the tax collector crying out, God have mercy of me a sinner. And this is something that the tax collector was doing daily, it is not a one time thing that he did, he went justified, and then he was a sinner no longer. No, this is the christian life and daily need to cry out again and again, God have mercy on me a sinner. The 95 theses of Luther, number 1 and 2 indicate that the life of a christian is a life of repentance and this is not a one time thing, but it is required daily. So christians sin daily like the unbeliever sins daily, but the christian flees to Christ for salvation while the unbeliever tries to establish his own righteousness by doing good works. So both are sinners, fully sinners, 100% sinners.

    2) Well, what I mean is that if we stop availing ourselves of the means of grace (hearing the preached word, reading the writings of the Saints of the past, or reading Scripture) we are at risk of losing the witness of the Spirit. Same thing if we transgress the second table of the Law in a serious manner as David did, or in a willful manner by lying or deceiving or stealing or coveting or adultery or anger (which is murder in the heart). A Christian can tangle himself / herself up so much in sin that the Spirit is extinguished and the assurance of salvation severely weakened or completely lost. When the latter happened, one can safely say that unless the Lord restores him back this man is at risk of perishing in unbelief. It is impossible to confess Christ as our Savior while willfully disobeying God, those that think they can use the gospel as a license for sin will soon realize that they will lose the gospel altogether and they will be incapable of believing in their heart that Christ died for their sins.

    3) You see I don’t agree that christian freedom is about choice, as you wrote “The Spirit empowers us to choose” . I thin that the christian is a slave to righteousness. The unbeliever is a slave to sin, can do nothing but sin. The Christian can do nothing but obey God, we are talking here about the obedience of faith (not of works, only Christ was capable of obeying the law of works, a christian can not obey the law of works Romans 3:27). Christian liberty as Luther and Karl Barth correctly point out is not freedom of choice, but being free means we are slaves to the righteousness of faith, a christian believes the gospel, in God who justifies the ungodly Romans 4:5 . And he can’t choose otherwise. Christian Freedom is not choosing between two alternatives, but it is being slaves to righteousness, a christian can only choose Christ and by choosing Christ’s righteousness this righteousness is imputed to him. The unbeliever on the other hand can only choose evil and can not choose Christ. This was the whole argument of Luther in his book the bondage of the will. The christian is free and not in bondage, but being free means he has only one choice that he makes and that is Christ. Once you are freed from sin you can not choose sin any longer. Was Christ free ? Yes, he was but his freedom meant that he could only choose to obey the will of his father. Is God the Father free ? Yes, but he can not sin because it is against his nature, it’s not like God chooses between two paths, he always chooses the right path. As you can see when the bible talks about christian freedom or being set free, it refers to being set free from the bondage of sin through faith in Jesus Christ, so a christian is a slave of righteousness, he can not sin in that he can only trust in Christ. This is the obedience of faith that I pointed out earlier, and is possible solely because of the holy spirit. But it is not the obedience of works, the christian is not empowered by the spirit to keep the law of works, as I pointed out before only Christ kept that law. The purpose of the law is not that the man (the christian included) will obey it, the purpose of the law was always knowledge of sin. The law entered the world so that sin would abound, it was never God’s purpose for man that he would be able by himself or empowered by the spirit to obey the law. No flesh shall be justified by the works of the law Paul teaches, and righteousness can not come by the law.

    Now with regard to your statement about the christian being judged by what he does in the body, I don’t think Paul refers solely to the christian but to the final judgment of all of mankind both believer and unbeliever. For the christian this judgment has already taken place in the body of Christ and his salvation is assured. At judgment day the christian will walk in clothed in the beautiful robe of righteousness of Isaiah 61:10 :,
    “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”

    So a christian ought not to fear the judgment, for in that judgment he will wear nothing but Christ and Him crucified, there will be no boasting, and no good works that the christian brings to the judgment but the solely the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Philippians 3:9

  8. Bill says:

    You see with regard to the judgment, the Christian has already been acquitted and need not fear the second death Revelation 20:6 The first resurrection has already happened for the Christian, who is right now reigning with Christ for 1000 years.. This is the understanding that the Reformers had of the first 6 verses of chapter 20 of the book of revelation. Now with regard to the second resurrection, and the judgment before the Great White Throne christians can approach this with confidence because their names are written in the book of life and because they have already been acquitted in the first resurrection when they came to faith. Even if Christians have to be given an account of their works at this final judgment, it is clear that they will face a friendly judge that has already announced to them that he will look upon them with favor and they have nothing to fear, but instead they will be rewarded for being good and faithful servants.

  9. Bill says:

    Actually 1 Corinthians 6:2-3 indicates that the Saints will be judging the world and the angels and not be judged. The Christian already has eternal life and has passed from death unto life on account of Christ taking upon himself all his sin and Christ imputing his righteousness to the christian. This good news is the gospel.

  10. Kenton says:

    Thanks for the response Bill. I understand your position much more now. You are correct that we differ on the nature of the transformation that occurs with the Christian, and on what that means for the Christian now and when we stand before God’s throne.

    1. I think we are disagreeing over how we define “sinners.” I fully agree that Christians still sin as unbelievers do. But, Christians are not sinners, because they have been forgiven and accepted by God. We are sons of God, filled with His Spirit to desire and do His will. That is a marked difference between the believer and the unbeliever. The good works of the unbeliever count for little because of his sinful orientation, but the good works of the Christian are pleasing to God because He empowers His own children whose sins He forgives.

    2. I understand what you are saying. “God is not mocked. Whatever a man sows he will also reap.” I’m not sure how you can delineate which sins lead to the loss of the Spirit. The Christian who sins willfully after he has received the truth is the one at risk of ruin, no matter the sin. It is a matter of repentance and apostasy.

    3. I’m not sure how this lines up with what you said earlier. If the Christian still sins, then he cannot be one who only trusts in Christ. We do not have split personalities such that we can claim plausible deniability. Paul’s instructions throughout all his letters presume that Christians must choose between belief and unbelief, obedience and disobedience, righteousness and sin. “Yield your members as slaves to righteousness.”

    4. With all due respect, there is yet a judgment for the Christian. “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” “Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the [foundation of Christ] survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?”

    Most importantly, “I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.”

    So the Christian must also stand before the judgment. It is most certainly a judgment without condemnation, but it is not necessarily a judgment without rebuke.

  11. D camp says:


    Much appreciated, especially the phrase, “the good works of the Christian are pleasing to God because He empowers His own children whose sins He forgives.”

    The “good works,” as Jesus and the Apostles called the Spirit-empowered obedience of the saints, are not so in and of themselves as they are still tainted with the flesh, but they are so because they arise from positionally sanctified vessels. As Paul noted:

    “faith of some. But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.”
    Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.” 2 Tim 2:19-21

  12. Bill says:

    1) Agree that Christians are Saints, this what differentiates it from unbelievers. But they both sin (are sinners). The christian is a Saint though and not addressed as a Sinner in the epistles of the New Testament, though I quoted numerous scripture proving that Christians sin, but they are Saints solely because the sin is not imputed to them (and not because they do good works, since the only work that God accepts as holy is Christ’s work on the cross which believers receive through faith and is imputed to them as righteousness)..

    2) Agree Kenton, any willful sin will result in the loss of the spirit. It is only sins of weakness that are covered by the blood where the christian does what he doesn’t want to perform (Paul in Romans 7). If the battle between the spirit and the flesh is not present, and somebody merrily enjoys his sin, the holy spirit has departed.
    3) I disagree with you, anybody christian that claims to be without sin is not a christian and is worst than an unbeliever is what scripture teaches. A christian is a might sinner with a corrupt original nature which scripture calls the flesh like anybody else. 1 John 1:8 “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” It is the mark of the christian that he confesses his sin. Again, what differentiates the christian from the non christian is that the christian confesses his sin and trusts in Christ for forgiveness, and the unbeliever doesn’t either. They both sin, but the christian confesses it and is forgiven through faith in Christ, the unbeliever does not. We have to get out of our heads that sanctification is to stop sinning, it is not, sanctification is to confess our sin and trust in Christ that our sins have been blotted out and pardoned. This is very different from stop sinning, I can not stop sinning, but I can believe in Jesus Christ that forgives my sin. My sin is blotted out through Christ’s blood and not by me amending my ways or changing my moral behavior. Christianity is not moralism at all, is not about changing people’s lives or behaviors by making them stop sinning, it is about forgiving sin. Salvation by grace through faith is opposed to any kind of salvation by works, and the two are contrary to each other.
    4) Agree that there will be a djudgment and as a Christian I can’t wait for it and all the rewards I will receive all from the fruit of Christ’s labor because I have labored not. As Luther said before he died , we are all beggars, and I’m the biggest beggar of all, I have done no works worthy of anything but condemnation but I rejoice that Jesus has done all the work himself and carried my load. I am the biggest free loader of all Christians that never works but trusts in him that works not but justifies the ungodly Romans 4:5 . I am like the worker in the parable of Matthew that was called on the eleventh hour and everybody else that work harder than him was jealous because he was paid as much as everybody else. People will be mad when I get to heaven for I have worked not for it, but I have all from the work of Jesus which is the only work I love and the only work God loves.

  13. Bill says:

    D camp there is only one good work and that is that we repent / confess of our sin and trust in Christ for forgiveness. And this on account of this work, alone all our sins are blotted out and Christ’s perfect obedience imputed to us. I do not know of any other work that I have done that is worthy of eternal life than trusting in my Savior, and even this is not my work for faith is a gift from God that I received freely. Although I obey Him by believing in his Son, I can’t claim no credit for it, since it is a gift of God. So basically I did nothing to earn eternal life, and I couldn’t have done anything, it was all of grace and the work of the holy spirit.

  14. d camp says:

    Bill: Your comments are accurate in so far as we are discussing the basis of our justification. Yes, there is “no work [that we can do] that is worthy of eternal life than trusting in my Savior.” But to say that “there is only one good work and that is that we repent” is not consistent with the whole counsel of God. In the doctrine of progressive sanctification, we are not talking about earning or claiming credit, but following. Paul is very clear that the term “good works” is perfectly applicable to the life of the believer: “The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.” (Titus 3:8) This is not about earning salvation, but demonstrating the fact of it, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph 2:10)

  15. Bill says:

    d camp , Ephesians 2:10 i interpret as the work of Jesus Christ which was prepared before the foundation of the world and we are predestined to believe it (i.e. walk in His work and not ours), And you can notice it by reading the two prior verses Ephesians 2:8-9 . Titus 3:8 refers to staying in the faith after we have believed, that is to confess our sin and trust in Christ for forgiveness. Karl Barth correctly defined sin a lack of knowledge of God, and not as a transgression of the law. Lutheranism and Luther also consider unbelief to the only sin. So the only good work can be to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. This article from the Lutheran Quarterly quotes Luther where he writes in his preface to the Commentary on Romans Unbelief, the Reformer writes in his Preface to Romans (1522/1546), is “the root and source of all sin . . . unbelief
    alone commits sin . . . unbelief [is, in fact,] the only sin!”

    This is why for Luther a good tree faith can only produce good fruits and a bad tree (unbelief) can only produce bad fruit. But you look at the tree first (whether faith or unbelief) to decide whether the fruit is good or bad. You do not look at the fruit (works) to decide whether the tree is good or bad.

    Again, this kind of legalism and obsession with law keeping is pervading calvinism to an incredible extent. Except for MiKe Horton and the White Horse Inn calvinism is rife with legalism. Westminster Seminary in Pennsylvania has been a hotbed for legalism and have begotten Norman Shepherd who denied justification by grace through faith. Even though he was expelled from the Seminary , many Professors there still admire him. John Calvin himself turned Geneva into moral dictatorship filled with the commandments of men and to do lists for the whole population. And last but not least the puritans were plagued with lack of assurance of salvation because instead of looking Jesus Christ as evidence of their salvation, they looked at themselves. Kevin Deyoung is also a legalist who interprets 1 John as if it were a checklist to determine whether I am saved or not. It is hard for me to explain why calvinism is so prone to legalism, whether it be limited atonement, or that they teach that sanctification is a gift on par with justification or that unlike lutheranism they fail to see that the end of the gospel is the justification of the sinner instead of doing good works. Whatever it is, in this day it is better to stay with Karl Barth or lutheranism when it comes to the doctrine of good works than calvinism. Lutheranism teaches that the redemption of the sinner, his forgiveness, his justification is the ultimate goal the gospel while we are here on earth. Calvinism instead teaches that we are redeemed in order that we can do good works, so ultimately the obedience of the law (good works) is the goal. This is utterly unbiblical teaching and destroys the doctrine of grace.

  16. Bill says:

    And the cause of calvinism is not being helped when the champion of grace , Tullian Tchividjian has been caught in an adulterous relationship and was stripped of his license as a Minister. Frankly I always suspected and this affair only confirms it that Tchividjian is an antinomian, only God knows his heart, but I have to wonder whether all his preaching of grace is head knowledge or whether he was ever born again. Sadly I have to say the same about some of the hosts of the White Horse Inn program, and many lutherans, that even though I agree theologically with them I wonder whether these guys are born again or not. But this is because this fellows, none of them ever talks about their conversion experience, they claim they have been christians since they were born in christian families. Now come on guys, we all have to come to faith at one point in our lives, so when I see all these guys saying there were christians all their life, they were raised christian I have to wonder. Because we are all born sinners arent’t we ? So tell me at what point in your life did you left your sin and flee to Christ? At what point did you trust in your Savior ? And none of these guys can tell me, so this to me is highly suspicious. And this is a widespread problem in reformed and lutheran churches. Even though Tullian thanked Mike Horton for helping him understand grace, it is not about understanding grace, it is about being born again and having your heart renewed. It is not head knowledge but a new heart that God gives his elect.

  17. d camp says:

    Calling DeYoung a legalist really is silly, and no response needed as the futility should be evident to all by now. Biblical sanctification is not opposed to “good works” or righteous behavior, but self-righteousness, which there seems to be no shortage of in this thread. Speaking of Tullian, he is an example of what happens when you interpret sanctification as meaning nothing more than the “Grace Movement” teaches, merely looking back to your justification. To interpret Titus 3:8 in the fashion you did is also evident to all as merely eisogesis. There are many aberrant views of Luther out there, not that he didn’t make expected human errors, but following Tullian, the rest of the “Grace Movement,” “Sonship Theology,” or whatever you want to call it is not authentic Luther; Carl Trueman has a much more biblically consistent and studied perspective: “Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom.”

  18. Bill says:

    d camp , Tullian’s theology and view sanctification is vastly superior to DeYoung’s. Justification is a one time thing that God does when we come to faith and sanctification is going back to our sanctification. I totally agree with Tullian, that sanctification is the ongoing experience of justification which is a one time experience. Now with that said, I always felt somewhere uneasy about Tullian, something didn’t feel right from the fact of him dropping from high school and turning to drugs and alcohol while professing to be a christian. And then his rededication to Christ, meeting the “right” woman , getting married, and later on his new understanding that he didn’t have to perform good works to please God. I mean he may be a man of God, and be a mighty Christian, but I yet need to hear when was he born again, when was he regenerated. And he has not told us that. You see regeneration is crucial, without it there is no salvation, in regeneration turned from our sin and put our trust in Christ and God makes us into new creations. I have not heard from Tullian when did God regenerate him. So until hear of his conversion, he could be a false professor for all I know. Or he may not, he may just be true christian that took too much, wife, family, a big church and all these worldly cares gave Satan the opening he wanted to. He may very well be a Christian, but he has not assured us at all because he never talked about his new birth and how sin lost all of its strongholds in his life. I haven’t heard it. But I have not heard it from DeYoung or Mike Horton either. As I said, we’ve got a problem when people think that a born again experience or regeneration is some weird pietistic experience that nobody experiences and belongs in theology books. Well, guess what, they are wrong. if I had to know whether somebody is a Christian or not, they better give me an account of their conversion, their repentance, and how they came to faith. It was a requirement of church membership at time of the puritans. And the most popular christian book after the bible, Pilgrim’s Progress clearly talks about it when Christian (the main character) loses his burden and how the righteousness of Christ was revealed to him. His wife Christiana also discusses it when gets to the place where her husband lost his burden in the second part of the book. John Bunyan, i know he’s a christian, his plain account of his conversion in his book “Grace abounding to the chief of sinners” clearly shows the exact moment when he turned to Christ away from his sin. John Wesley’s Aldersgate moment when God revealed him that Christ had effectively cancelled all of his sin is another example. In both cases (Bunyan and Wesley) there was an instant feeling that their hearts had been renewed and sin had lost its power in their lives. My conversion was also along those lines that I turned from myself to a full trust in Jesus Christ, this was instantaneous, many years after my baptism, and many years after I had made a commitment to Christ. So those that have not been born again of the spirit and do not have full assurance of salvation written in their hearts, not just head knowledge, are not christians and are carnal men ready to be devoured by Satan.

  19. Al DeFilippo says:

    Thank you for the post. For more on John Wesley, I would like to invite you to the website for the book series, The Asbury Triptych Series. The trilogy based on the life of Francis Asbury, the young protégé of John Wesley and George Whitefield, opens with the book, Black Country. The opening novel in this three-book series details the amazing movement of Wesley and Whitefield in England and Ireland as well as its life-changing effect on a Great Britain sadly in need of transformation. Black Country also details the Wesleyan movement’s effect on the future leader of Christianity in the American colonies, Francis Asbury. The website for the book series is Please enjoy the numerous articles on the website. Again, thank you, for the post.

  20. Kenton says:

    Bill, I don’t know how you can say that the end of the gospel is the justification of the sinner, when Paul clearly states, “Those whom He justified He also glorified,” and, “[Jesus] gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” Hebrews says that God’s purpose in sending Jesus is to bring “many sons to glory.” That is the end of the gospel, God’s redeemed people living in His presence as His sons, through His Son. Justification, sanctification, and glorification are therefore the means by which God makes us His people.

    Much of this debate exists because of a great misunderstanding of the scope of our salvation, and its relation to the broad narrative of the scriptures. But without taking up too much space, I believe that both Calvinism and Lutheranism err regarding the Law because they are based on the mistaken belief that the fundamental relationship between God and mankind is that of Lawgiver to lawkeeper/breaker. This is not true in the least. God created mankind to be His children, embodying His image and likeness on the earth. The Lawgiver/lawkeeper relationship only exists because Adam breached the Father/Son relationship by his sin, and is itself reflective of the separation between God and man. This is why Paul stresses so strongly in Galatians that we are God’s sons, and that seeking justification in the Law of Moses is tantamount to rejecting Christ.

    What this means for the present discussion is that our obedience is not primarily about lawkeeping, but about embodying the image of God as God’s sons, as it is manifest in Jesus the Son of God. By His Spirit our God is reshaping us into the image of His Son, which is evident by our faith and love and good works. No, sanctification is not about earning our righteousness or doing more good than bad. Sanctification is about a consecrated life lived in accordance with a consecrated status. In His grace, God has given us His Son, through His Spirit, to accomplish this. This is Christ in you, the hope of the glory of the sons of God.

  21. Bill says:

    Kenton, certainly our glorification is the end goal, but this take place after our physical death when we are raised with new bodies. While we live here on earth it is justification the so,e purpose of our life. Any good work the bible speaks of it can not refer to anything other than our believing in the only good works that matters to God, Christ work on the cross. So the chief and sole end of the human life on earth is the justification of the sinner through faith in Jesus Christ. I know of no other work that matters to God but that we believe in his son. And I know of no other assurance of salvation apart from what God has done in Christ, and what he does in U.S., I.e. Our conversion or new birth. It is these two events that assure us of our salvation, unlike Roman Catholics who,look as salvation as a process and identify it with good works throughout this life, the Reformers correctly view our salvation as a one time instantaneous event when we are converted. This is why I can’t figure out Kevin DeYou g and Mike Horton who repeatedly denied the importance of our conversion or conversion experience, both think it is some sort of pietist in pipe dream.

  22. Bill says:

    You see justification and sanctification happen both at our conversion and are one time events. Justification is what God does, he acquits the sinner of all guilt and sanctification is our response in faith to this acquittal. Both are instantaneous and happen at the same time at conversion. The doctrine of progressive sanctification that the Roman Catholics teach is heretical. Sanctification is to continue to believe in Jesus Christ, I.e. Perseverance in faith, but it is not performing the works of the law or good works except for believing in Jesus Christ, no other work is demanded by God in the New Testament.

  23. Bill says:

    You see the doctrine of progressive sanctification as understood by Roman Catholics as Alice of good works is heretical. The doctrine of progressive sanctification is nothing else than the perseverance of the Saints, I.e. Persevering in the faith until death. It is not about performing any good works but continuing to believe in our Saviour, I.e is sanctification. You see justification and sanctification are by grace through faith and not by works, justification is God’s pronouncement of a non guilty verdict on the sinner and sanctification is the sinner”s response in faith. They are both instantaneous one time events that take place at our conversion. Now because the Christian remains in the faith until death, progressive sanctification is that doctrine that refers to this staying in the faith, but it is certainly by faith alone and not by works as Roman Catholics teach.

  24. Kenton says:

    Bill, I don’t think the Bible actually supports your position.

    1) Glorification is the end goal. Hebrews states this clearly. “For it was fitting that he [God the Father], for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation [Jesus the Son of God] perfect through suffering.” It is theologically limiting to restrict glorification to the moral and physical restoration of the body from sin and death. Glorification is the exaltation of the sons of God to the glory of God, with the Son of God in the kingdom of God, through resurrection to eternal life. This is the end that both justification and sanctification serve. This, properly speaking, is our salvation, as Peter says, “though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

    More to the point, Paul gives his own aim as a Christian: “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him… that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” The goal is glorification in Christ, through the resurrection. That is our goal as those who have been justified and sanctified.

    2) Justification most certainly is a one-time “event” — that is, God justifies those who believe in the Son whom He raised from the dead. However, this ongoing status is also demonstrated by faith, as it is written, “The righteous will live by faith.” Faith, of course, is the ground of obedience, as Hebrews states, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called.”

    As I mentioned above, Protestantism has long read the Scriptures with the idea that the fundamental relationship between God and mankind is one of Lawgiver to lawkeeper, Judge to criminal. This has caused this very discussion to drive a wedge between a supposedly legal/forensic justification and a moral/spiritual sanctification. But this is not the way we should view it. If there is a court, it is a royal court, where God is King (and therefore both Ruler and Lawgiver and Judge). Justification, therefore, is not merely the acquittal of repentant sinners. It is the recognition of repentant sinners as people of the righteous King, who follow the King’s ways. This is not due to a transfer of moral records between lawbreakers and a lawkeeper, but the inclusion of disenfranchised rebels into the identity and position of the King’s own Son. You see, Protestantism has actually failed to pay attention to Paul’s words, that righteousness does not come through the works of the Law. That would include the lawkeeping works of Jesus. Justification is a positional, even covenantal decree by God, that bestows upon believers the same righteous status that Jesus enjoys by virtue of his identity as the Son of God (his righteousness precedes his own works).

    3) Sanctification is also a one-time “event”, but it is not “our response in faith.” Sanctification is God’s act of setting apart the believer as holy through His indwelling Spirit. The Spirit sets us apart from the world, frees us from sin, and identifies us as the children of God, partakers of the covenant’s promises. The sanctification that we are to pursue according to Hebrews 12:10-14 is a godly lifestyle that lines up with our status as those who are sanctified through the Spirit, on account of our faith in Jesus. This is a lifestyle that begins and ends with faith. In reality, justification, sanctification, and adoption (which is the real new birth) are all facets of the same act of God in making us His people. Justification causes us to be the righteous people of the righteous God, sanctification the consecrated people of the holy God, and adoption the royal sons of the majestic God.

  25. Kenton says:

    4) This also informs our relationship to the Law. In Matthew 17:24-26, tax collectors demand the law-required tax from Jesus’ followers. In response, Jesus asks Peter, “‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?’ 26 And when he said, ‘From others,’ Jesus said to him, ‘Then the sons are free. 27 However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.'”

    Do you think Matthew’s concern here was about taxation, or something else? According to Jesus’ principle, the sons of the king are exempt from the laws of the king’s subjects. This does not mean that the royal sons are permitted to be lawless, for they are subject to the rules of the king’s own household, in which there is grace. In other words, those who have been given the right to be the sons of God are no longer under the Law, which was written for subjects. They follow the rules of God’s own household, as taught and exemplified by His very Son. This is why external things, such as food and drink, that are forbidden under the Law are permitted to the Christian, while at the same time weightier things, such as divorce, are even more stringent. The result is that the sons of the king, though free from his law, fulfill that law because they follow his spirit.

    Paul essentially makes the exact same argument in Galatians 4 and 5:

    “1 I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, 2 but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. 3 In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. 4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ 7 So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God… 9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? …5:18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”

    Yet at the same time, Paul can say, “1 Cor. 9:19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.”

    You cannot understand the New Testament’s teaching if you have such a restrictive view of our salvation. We are not under the Law, and yet we are under God, and are called to practice (not perform) good rather than evil.

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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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