We Who Have the Spirit Have the Power to Change

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In response to my recent essay for Christianity Today, Dane Ortlund has written a letter of indictment: “the approach you take in your essay undercuts the very holiness you long to see in the church today.” How do I do that? Apparently it involved (a) casting doubt on a slogan that (so far as I know) didn’t exist before the 1960s, and/or (b) failing to articulate a particular version of sanctification.

My Main Point

Ortlund asked me to “reconsider” the main point of my article, namely, that “[t]he charge of antinomianism is not an understandable misunderstanding, but an utterly undeserved, undesirable, and slanderous charge that is ironically accurate of Paul’s loveless, lawless opponents.” He gives one reason for me to reconsider: He is convinced Paul is “surely” accused of antinomianism because of the scandal of his message.

In a strange move for a response, Ortlund doesn’t address the biblical evidence I cite for my view, which includes the fact that in Romans 3:8, Paul identifies the “lawless” label as slander coming from opponents who are intentionally dissembling. Paul’s message was scandalous all right, and not just for the reasons Ortlund cited. But Paul does not attribute the label to the scandalous preaching of the cross, as Ortlund does. The antinomian accusation is a lie to taint Paul, to make him look like something he was not. It was not a reasonable misunderstanding.

There is no evidence that Paul thought a “lawless” label was a good thing (Ortlund’s inference persuades him; but an inference is not evidence). That accusation does not prove that we have been faithful stewards of the Word. It is not good to burden young pastors by giving them that benchmark.

Ortlund brought up other things that I did not address in the original post. He called sanctification a “crux,” so let’s focus on that.

Our Solutions: Different Approaches to Sanctification

I made only a few comments on sanctification, simply noting some radical requirements, the need to exhort accordingly, and the new power at work in believers (I discussed Rom. 6 and Eph. 1-2; I also noted radical grace). Ortlund thinks I’m wrong. He distinguishes between two options for “how this radical obedience and personal holiness are to be encouraged.”

(1) “Balancing gospel grace and exhortations to holiness.”

and

(2) “The other way, which I believe is the right and biblical way, is to so startle this restraint-free culture with the gospel of free justification . . .”

I did not propose number one. And when addressing sanctification, New Testament writers do not describe number two. We need a third way that really is biblical, of which Ortlund’s second solution is but a part.

I can celebrate grace, justification, forgiveness, and righteousness in Christ with Ortlund, and I never want to lose that, fail to preach it often, or move past it. But we’re not going beyond gospel grace when we exhort believers to holiness or radical obedience, because gospel grace includes a new capacity to respond to exhortations.

We cannot present “exhortation to holiness” and “gospel grace” as two distinct paths for teaching sanctification. They go hand-in-hand in every Pauline book save Philemon.

Ortlund says, “[L]et’s pursue [holiness] centrally through enjoying the gospel.” Some will read that sentence and think that this makes effort and exhortation far less important than focusing on belief and justification. Dane and I know some preachers who think that the accent should not be put on effort or action, but on belief. When we are sinning, it is lack of belief in the gospel that is the issue, and so addressing belief must be the remedy: not law, commands, or exhortations of any sort. (Despite the fact that he accuses me of “straw men,” Ortlund admits that he, like me, knows individuals and even preachers inside and outside broadly Reformed circles who in fact believe no preacher should ever use law, commands, and exhortations.)

There’s certainly some truth to what Ortlund says. Joyfully remembering our justification and forgiveness are important tools in holiness. But it’s not the approach to sanctification modeled by Paul, which is why it is hard to be consistent with that model. (Admittedly he only lays his version out briefly.) Shouldn’t that tip us off that the approach of “sanctification by justification” Ortlund holds out as the only biblical approach to sanctification does not fully reflect Paul’s approach to sanctification?

If so, aren’t effort and action central to sanctification? Isn’t exhortation to holiness vital? Why are these things—for new creation believers with new life and new ability—not all gracious gifts from God?

Some of my Reformed brothers and sisters do not know that they can please the Lord (1 Thes. 4:1; Rom. 8:8-9), or be holy (2 Cor. 7:1; or as Ortlund notes, that we will not see God without being holy and pure), or that religious acts are acceptable to God, not something to repent of (Jas. 1:27, Acts 10:4). In both his Romans and Ephesians expositions, James Montgomery Boice calls this “The New Humanity.” But too many Reformed people I meet think that they are no different from unbelievers. They sadly do not know what Murray, Packer, and Ferguson taught us, and what broader evangelicalism celebrates: regeneration and the power of the Holy Spirit in believers.

The Change in Us

Ortlund recently pointed out for TGC that we have been neglecting the doctrine of regeneration. As a result, we treat believers like unbelievers. As best I can recall, Ferguson, Packer, Murray, Gaffin, and others agree that union with Christ, resurrection power, the indwelling Spirit, New Creation status, and regeneration have more practical impact on sanctification than justification, forgiveness, and imputation. As Ortlund cites from Edwards, justification is a verdict for us, but regeneration is the change in us. Neither is more gracious or more important than the other, but renewal and the Holy Spirit are what make sanctification “work.” There is a similar and related neglect of the Holy Spirit dimension of the gospel (on this see Darrell Bock’s new book, Recovering the Real Lost Gospel of Jesus. May it make our gospel bigger).

In the Old Testament God promised that he would give the Spirit, write his law on our hearts, and give us new resurrection bodies and hearts. That operation started happening in Acts, and it changes how we relate to commands. Anticipating that, and having a foretaste of that, the psalmist thought that having a “law-marinated heart” was not something to be cured of, but a good thing, and that law is a gracious gift. Ortlund disagrees.

The New Testament has reams of examples of exhortation because it regards its hearers as regenerate and Spirit-empowered, newly capable of obedience, posse non peccare (so Thomas Boston; Augustine). Justification and forgiveness are not dispensable.

But if we don’t tell believers how much more they have, they’ll believe they are bringing knives to the gun fight. We need the deep encouragement and confidence that comes from knowing that sanctification is God and the believer at work, not pitted against one another (Col. 1:29; Phil. 2:13; and the various passages on walking in the Spirit).

Let’s preach with Paul that believers in Christ have a new life, and new Holy Spirit power. They are graciously given a new identity and new capacity for good works, holiness, and righteousness (Eph 4:24ff). Then let’s preach lots of other radical indicatives and lots of radical imperatives, imitating Galatians, Ephesians, and Romans. Maybe even James!

Have the Spirit? You Have the Power

Paul’s letters were likely read as sermons in his absence, passed around a region Sunday by Sunday. If someone heard one of his letters, he or she would not say, “In the Christian life I don’t have to do anything. All I need to do is believe. What a lawless religion.” They would marvel at grace, including the new power, Spirit, and regeneration that God offers those who believe in his son and the gracious gift of exhortations and commands.

If sermons mimic Paul’s letters, I hope Ortlund and others don’t rate them as unbiblical if they are rarely (or never) accused of antinomianism. If their approach to sanctification looks like Paul’s, I hope Ortlund won’t say they are undercutting holiness. Please affirm for our readers that this approach to sanctification is fully Reformed and (what is infinitely more important) biblical, and that I have not undercut the pursuit of holiness by articulating it.

I’ll give Ortlund the last word now and later: “[I]nstructed by Edwards, let us ask the Lord for a fresh awareness of the impotence of natural living, the power of supernatural living, and the reality—and availability—of the new birth to get us there.” We who have the Spirit have that power, and we are exhorted to use it, to work, to love, to strive.

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