During the recent Together for the Gospel conference, Kevin DeYoung delivered an excellent message, “Spirit-Powered, Gospel-Driven, Faith-Fueled Effort.” My prolific friend and fellow Council member for The Gospel Coalition also has a book coming out on the subject, The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness. Anyone attuned to the reformed evangelical blogosphere will know that Kevin’s sermon and book spring in part from lively in-house discussions over the last year about the nature of sanctification: its relationship to justification, the gospel, effort, and so on. (If that’s news to you, start here.)

Those who have been tracking that ongoing discussion might be interested to know that many of these sanctification-related issues were recently addressed by D. A. Carson and Fred G. Zaspel at Clarus ’12, a TGC regional conference.

The 83-minute video of our panel discussion is now online. What follows is an edited, partial transcript of a few of the juicier parts (e.g., Dr. Carson’s use of the technical theological category, “scuzzball”).

Striking Balance

Ryan Kelly: This issue has been a recent debate and discussion among several blogs in our circle: the issue of rest versus effort in the Christian life. That is, resting in the gospel versus disciplining ourselves unto godliness. Can you speak to that?

D. A. Carson: The two Ryan is almost certainly referring to are both on The Gospel Coalition website, so I jolly well ought to know something about them. And I’ve let them run because I think the debate is healthy. And, in fact, at our council meeting, which we are going to have in May, some of this stuff is going to be thrashed out just a wee bit, too.

Fred was saying that when he reads some of this stuff, he thinks that Warfield would have been pretty happy with what both sides were saying, so while both of these sides on the blog are contradicting each other, Warfield would probably say, “A plague on both your houses, if you absolutize either one side or the other.” But at the same time there is something to be said for both. The question is how to integrate them.

So, on the one hand, you do really have to trust Christ. At the end of the day, what finally commends you to God is not how hard you tried. What commends you to God is the utterly sufficient sacrifice of Christ. That’s resting in Christ. On the other hand, there are so many, many, many passages in the NT that talk of Christian life and experience as warfare. You’re a good soldier (2 Tim. 2:2). Discipline yourself (1 Tim. 4:7) as an athlete striving to win the prize (Phil. 3:14), or as a farmer who works hard in order to receive some of the reward from the vineyard (2 Tim. 2:6). “We wrestle not against flesh and blood but against the principalities and the powers of this evil age” (Eph. 6). And “I put my body in subjection so that after preaching to others I myself might not be a cast away,” (1 Cor. 9:27). Lots and lots of texts like that!

You can make sense of these texts when you remember Philippians 2:12-13: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God working in you, both to will and to do of his good pleasure.”

So it’s not a question of God having done his bit and then you come along and do the extra bit by trying really hard. Because that suggests this little bit is abstracted from what God is doing. God has done his bit, and now it all depends on you, and we speak of cooperating together with God. It’s God and I together producing sanctification.

Well, there’s a sense in which you can say that, but there’s a sense in which you must not. And if this bit that I contribute is independent of God, then it’s really quite wrong. This text says that we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling! And yet it is God working in us, both to will and to do of his good pleasure. That is even our struggling, our wanting to be pure, our disciplining of ourselves, and then all the things that we do.

At the end of the day, God is working in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure. Although we must be struggling along these lines, and growing, yet as we look at our own struggles analytically—-from a theological perspective, from a biblically faithful perspective—-we recognize that we do this precisely because God is at work in us. That’s one of the signs that God is at work in us—-that we want to struggle and keep on going.

So this does not mean, therefore, that you back off into passivity, let go and let God, God’s doing all the struggling on my behalf. Rather, it’s precisely God working in us that empowers us, and compels us, and activates us, and motivates us, and strengthens us, in order to keep struggling. So you are mandated by Scripture to choose the right, to make right decisions, to be godly, to be self-disciplined, and all the rest of those things.

What we need to get rid of is this bifurcation in which God does everything and we sort of sit around and do nothing. Or, on the other hand, we think of God doing so much and we add our bit. They’re both wrong. You want to say a plague on both your houses. Whereas you put them together and see that the things that are mandated to us are precisely the things God empowers us to do by his Spirit, and it seems to me they’re coming a little closer together. Is that fair?

Fred Zaspel: I think in the blog debate one of the primary concerns was that on the one side, there’s a push for giving effort, striving for holiness, striving against sin. That is what’s commanded. And on the other side, there’s a concern that we’re going to enter into our efforts and striving without a gospel motive. And so we should just rest in your justification, rest in what God has done for you. And there’s a concern that in this emphasis on effort and striving, there will be a loss of a gospel centrality in it all. I sympathize with that.

But I think what there might be happening in that, is an either/or, when it should be a both/and. There are multiple motivations. The overarching motivation has to be gospel concerns—-what God has done for us in Christ, both in justification, definitive sanctification, and all the rest. The Spirit’s work within us has to be our primary focus—-what God has done, and the provisions we have in Christ. But still there are obligations, and still there are matters of rewards.

Carson: There is also a difference in pastoral diagnosis and application. Consider a few verses from James 1. James 1:9 and following reads,

Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation. Since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant. Its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even as they go about their business.

So the gospel comes to a congregation, and there are some people in it that are poor, oppressed, and, in the first century, slaves. They’re nobodies. And the gospel comes and says, “Take pride in your high position. You’re a son of the eternal King. You inherit all things in Christ Jesus. All are yours and Christ is God’s.” And yet the same gospel comes to rich dudes in the same congregation and says, “Don’t you understand that you’re just dust? At the end of the day you’re going to take out exactly what this fellow takes out. Absolutely nothing.” The same gospel comes to different people, and it is applied to them in somewhat different ways. It’s why Puritans sometimes spoke about the importance of the “cure of souls.” When we speak of counseling, they speak of the cure of souls. They used the medical terminology because they saw that a big part of it was a right diagnosis.

Now, applied to this situation, if you come to a time in society or in a local church where you see a lot of people skidding down to indiscipline, where a lot of the young people in the church are not praying anymore, or very few people in the church are having family devotions anymore, where there’s not much care for evangelism, there’s not much care for other people, and people are just happy in the gospel, then there is a part of the ministry that wants to start laying down the law again, as it were, laying down the moral standards. The trouble is, when you lay down the moral standards really, really hard, then it becomes a church that is characterized by do, do, do, do, do, do. And you start getting the impression that by do, do, do, do, doing, you eventually can please God. And you just destroyed the gospel!

But at the same time, if you just preach the gospel in a way that God has done it all, and there are no entailments in how you live, then you can say done, done, done, done, done, and free from the law, oh happy condition, and I don’t have to do anything! And that’s not quite right, either.

So in a church that has lots and lots and lots of moralism in it, you need to see the comprehensiveness of the gospel. That’s what needs to be applied to the church. But once you start getting a whole lot of people who really do understand something of grace, but they’re beginning to sink in lethargy, into a comfortable acceptance of grace without understanding that grace has entailments in terms of obedience and striving, then it becomes urgent to pass on those sorts of emphases too, while still avoiding the do, do, do of just mere moralism.

To put it in the way that Tim Keller likes to put it, the religious world says do, do, do in order to gain reward, to be acceptable before God. Whereas the gospel says because it’s done, done, done, therefore, this is how we must live. To get all of that together in a right balance, you don’t swing the pendulum one way or the other and destroy people or destroy the gospel.

Kelly: So you’re saying some people need rebuke because they are presumptuous and lazy, and others need the balm and comfort of the gospel; they’re actually held back in their Christian life because of their unhealthy, unbiblical guilt.

Carson: Yes. When I was pastor of a church in Vancouver, a number of our Bible studies were evangelistic, and people came in from the outside and got converted in them. And a particular chap got converted. He was in his late 30s, and he spent half his life in jail. He had a low IQ, flunked out of school, was on the wrong side of the tracks, and a social misfit. He had really been a scuzzball for all his life.

Then God genuinely converted him. And when he got converted, on the other hand, he had this background. He’d sit in the back of the church, and if I got anywhere near judgment or sin, he’d sit there and weep. He had such a tender conscience at this point. All of us sort of regular reprobates were looking at this guy crying, and saying, “Boy, the pastor is really powerful this morning. Give it to him!” And if I got anywhere near grace, and the spectacular freedom of it all, he’d look at me and could scarcely believe it was true for somebody as bad as he was.

Meanwhile, I was wanting some of the regular people who had settled into lethargy to hear the threats and so on, and become convicted of their sin, and be a little less confident of the grace applicable to them, because it wasn’t working out in their lives very powerfully.

But that’s part of the challenge of preaching all the time. You’re preaching to a diverse crowd in a church, and you’re trying to make it apply to the right people. And so partly it’s by the balance of messages, partly by the way application is done, but the same [thing we’ve been discussing] is true here!

If you only say, “You’re a child of the King, therefore do you think God wants you to be a prince or princess in poverty? Claim! Ask of God! You’re a child of the King! All things are yours! Don’t you understand?” then you get an over-realized eschatology, and prosperity gospel, and all kinds of arrogance. It’s really quite dangerous!

On the other hand, if you go to a really oppressed and poor part of the world, where people don’t have much to eat, and they’re oppressed by wicked landlords and totalitarian regimes and so on, and all you talk about is “you’re a miserable sinner,” then you’re not hearing something of the freedom of the power of the gospel to transform and elevate people and raise them up to be sons and daughters of the living God.

So what you especially emphasize is going to vary a little bit. It’s not that the doctrine changes, it’s where the emphases run. It’s going to depend a little bit on your spiritual diagnosis on what’s going on in people’s lives.

The Discussion Continues

In keeping with the conference theme, “The Cross-Shaped Christian Life,” much of the panel discussion was given to the doctrine of sanctification. Other questions addressed in the video include:

  • How do you understand Paul’s struggle with sin in Romans 7:17-25? (Fred and Don have differing views of Rom. 7—-and neither is the most popular view!)
  • What is the relationship between justification and sanctification? Are they tied or separate?
  • Can we see our own growth? Or is growth only the further, deeper acknowledgment of our need for the gospel?
  • If we have only one nature, why do we still sin?
  • What is “perfectionism”? And what is the “higher life movement”?
  • Warfield wrote a work called Miserable Sinner Christianity. What is “miserable sinner Christianity”? Is that the kind of language we should use to speak of Christians?
  • Concerning indicatives and imperatives, how do we avoid neglecting or distorting one or the other?
  • How do we teach new believers the basics of discipleship without promoting chec-list Christianity?
  • What are some encouraging and concerning trends in North American Christianity?