Can Grace Really Cut It in Sanctification?

Of the writing of “gospel-centered living” books there is no end. Or at least it seems that way. That’s not necessarily a complaint, though. As Augustine observed, “It’s useful to have several books by several authors, even on the same subjects, differing in style though not in faith, so that the matter itself may reach as many as possible.”

Besides, few questions require more continual revisiting than this: If salvation is entirely by grace, what incentive is there to stop sinning? How can something as seemingly non-threatening as grace inspire us to make war on our most beloved sins? Is grace sufficient for our sanctification? If so, how does it work?

Bryan Chapell—pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois, TGC Council member, and author of Christ-Centered Preaching—deals with those questions and more in his new book, Unlimited Grace: The Heart Chemistry that Frees from Sin and Fuels the Christian Life (Crossway). I caught up with him and asked how we’re to make sense of the law/grace debate, why Christians still sin so much, and more. 


You open with a memorable statement: “There is a chemistry of the devoted heart that is stronger than the math of the divided mind.” Could you elaborate? 

The mind is always ready to do the math: “If God will forgive me later, then why not sin now?” We do the logical calculations and reason that the gospel of grace allows us to indulge sin and selfishness now, since God will pardon us from guilt and consequences later. Promises of full and free forgiveness seem sure to encourage license whenever we apply pure logic to our wayward inclinations.

So what’s to keep God’s people on the straight and narrow, in light of God’s grace? We can’t say God won’t forgive them later because we believe he will. Put in all the necessary qualifications about true repentance and real contrition, but the conclusion is still the same: The grace of God is greater than all my sin and shame. So how do we counter the license that grace seems to allow?

We counter sinful license not by diminishing the message of grace but by magnifying it.

The counterintuitive answer is that we counter sinful license not by diminishing the message of grace but by magnifying it. My pardon is at the price of my Savior. His sacrifice was ordained by the will of his Father before the dawn of human history. His provision has been revealed to my heart today by the work of the Spirit through a redemptive plan woven through thousands of years that culminate in a divine embrace of sinners like me. Such amazing grace has unsurpassed power to turn the human heart from its idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thess. 1:9). That’s why the apostle Paul writes, “The love of God controls us” (2 Cor. 5:14), and Jesus emphasizes, “If you love me, you will keep my commands” (John 14:15).

The grace of the gospel stirs the chemistry of the heart, igniting a love for God that is our most compelling power for devotion and transformation.

The grace of the gospel stirs the chemistry of the heart, igniting a love for God that is our most compelling power for devotion and transformation.

“If grace grants us Christ’s status and power, why do we still sin?” (75). Why is this “the most critical question” in your book?

The apostle Paul consistently reminds believers that we are loved by the Father, united to Christ, and indwelt by the Spirit. As such, we’re “new creations,” fundamentally transformed from our pre-redeemed nature (2 Cor. 5:17). Before we were indwelt by the Spirit of God, we were “not able not to sin,” but now we’re made able to resist the temptations that assault us. Paul’s great declaration of our new power is that we’re “no longer slaves to sin” since sin “no longer has dominion over us” (Rom. 6:6, 14).

As new creatures in Christ, we can’t claim that there’s no hope of change in our lives. We’re not in bondage to our old nature. John declares, “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Satan’s powers aren’t greater than Christ’s provision (Phil. 4:13). But if we’re not slaves to sin, then why do we sin? The answer that we hate—but that Scripture makes plain—is that we sin because we love it (John 3:19). The desires of our flesh yield to the allure of sin (James 1:13–14). Consider this simple truth: If sin did not attract us, it would have absolutely no power in our lives. We sin when we love it more than we love living for our Savior.

We sin when we love it more than we love living for our Savior.

So the question we’re forced to ask is, “If love for sin grants it power in our lives, what will displace love for sin?” The gospel answer is, “A greater love—the ‘expulsive power of a new affection,’” to quote the famous sermon of Thomas Chalmers. And then we must ask, “What is the source of such love?” Again, the gospel is clear: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

The chemistry of the heart stirred by the love of Christ compels us to act upon, and in concert with, the power he has already granted us to fight sin and walk with him. What stirs this chemistry in our hearts is a profound understanding and embrace of his gracious love toward us. So trumpeting the grace of God in Christ is not a license to sin, but the basis for our heart’s compulsion to serve Christ’s glory and his kingdom’s priorities.

Your book comes out amid several years of debate among Reformed pastors and theologians surrounding the issue of sanctification. Questions like how we should use the law, how our sanctification relates to our justification, whether God’s love can be said to depend on our obedience, and what should motivate our obedience have been widely (and sometimes heatedly) discussed. How do you deal with these issues? 

The debates are almost always a consequence of concerns to combat either legalism or license. Some, who have been wounded by church backgrounds that seem to emphasize one’s Christian identity is established by strict adherence to biblical or traditional standards, emphasize the freedom grace grants from qualifying for heaven by human performance. Others, who have witnessed the abandonment of sound Christian obligations on the rationale that God has set us free from worry about obedience as a qualification for grace, emphasize human obedience as the mark of a redeemed life.

Both emphases can come from a legitimate concern, and either can lead to an illegitimate emphasis. The gospel teaches that our identity is established by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

Both emphases can come from a legitimate concern, and either can lead to an illegitimate emphasis. The gospel teaches that our identity is established by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We’re free from anxiety or arrogance springing from the presumption that human performance of any sort is the basis of God’s love. We’re also free from worry that we don’t know how we should respond to God or care for his people, since the Bible teaches that God’s law is given to guide us according to his character and care.

By his law, God establishes a safe and good path for our lives and relationships. To neglect his path is to dishonor him and endanger the spiritual health of people. Those saved and secured by God’s grace alone are obligated by love for him to honor the instructions of his Word. Such adherence to God’s law doesn’t earn heavenly love, but is a loving response to God’s unconditional grace and is also the confirmation in our hearts that we “have gotten the gospel” since we desire to live for the One who provided it.

Outside Reformed circles, debates about how the imperatives of Scripture relate to our identity in Christ erupt from disagreement about the imperative/identity order. Within Reformed circles, we usually agree that identity is foundational, but differ over the emphasis to give the imperatives. Anxieties about what others are neglecting typically heat up our debates with caricatures more likely to reflect the hurts or fears of our own backgrounds than others’ actual perspectives.

My book seeks to calm the anxieties that divide us by clarifying the motivations behind biblical obedience—motivations often not apparent even to the debaters. 

My book seeks to calm the anxieties that divide us by clarifying the motivations behind biblical obedience—motivations often not apparent even to the debaters. There are two chief errors that can be made regarding what should motivate Christian living.

One chief error is not recognizing that there’s a plurality of proper scriptural motivations (e.g., love, thanksgiving, gratitude, avoidance of harm, desire for blessing). Sanctification battles tend to erupt whenever a perspective begins to so emphasize one motivation (e.g., love or gratitude) that others (e.g., desire for reward or response to warning) are eclipsed or even denied.

One chief error is not recognizing the plurality of proper scriptural motivations. . . . The other chief error is not recognizing the priority of motivations.

The other chief error is not recognizing that there’s a priority of motivations. While there are many proper motivations in Scripture, one clearly rises above the rest: love for God, the first and greatest commandment (Matt. 22:37–38). When this motivation is prime, all other motivations receive their proper emphasis, resulting in love for what and whom God loves—the ultimate basis for all biblical living, ethics, and mission (Matt. 22:39). Grasping how this motivation only comes in response to grasping the love God provides makes the case for the power and necessity of grace.

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