The Marrow of the Matter: The Sanctification Debate Returns

Marrow Matter

It has taken me almost 27 years, and sanctification is still a tough subject to get around. It is, in my opinion, the doctrine where the rubber meets the road. The nature of good works and their relationship to sanctification is not a new debate. The Reformed tradition has come to this dispatch box for centuries, the Marrow Controversy has not died yet. Last week, John Piper lit the powder keg again saying,  These works of faith, and this obedience of faith, these fruits of the Spirit that come by faith, are necessary for our final salvation. No holiness, no heaven”. Of course, the Reformed community came back with either push back for affirmation.

But my effort in this is not to respond to either Dr. Piper or the responses to him. This of course may seem like I am dodging the war; but I want to respond to two things I myself have seen. I want to clarify the position of the “Free Grace” boys and give some push back to my New Law brothers. I think we have a serious discussion creeping up on us, and it has the potential to teach something that is contrary to the Scriptures.

What is sanctification? According to our Confession,

Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace,[97] whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God,[98] and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.[99] (WSC #35)

Right from the onset we must dispel some things about Sanctification. First, sanctification is a work of God’s grace. Man cannot please God apart from the Spirit’s work within him. He cannot merit for Himself any righteousness before God. The Confession leaves us no room to say that sanctification is our work. It is something that is wrought in us by the Holy Spirit. The prophet Ezekiel tells us this when he says:

And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (ESV)

Second, sanctification is not passive. We are truly active in sanctification. We are equipped, by God’s free grace, to truly resist sin and to live according to God’s commands. Sin has no power over the Christian insofar that he cannot resist it. The believer is certainly given a new spirit that wills and wants that which is pleasing to God. We cannot deny this from the Confession either. By God’s grace we actively obey Him, and we break off the chains of sin.

I want to be very clear in these statements. Doubtless some will throw around the dread term antinomian for what I will say. However, I am not saying that the Christian should live in a state of unrepentance and passivity. Yes of course we should put to death the deeds of the flesh and chase after righteousness. We would not disagree on this.

However, my concern arises when we begin to treat good works as either the basis for our sanctification or the instrument by which the Spirit sanctifies us. Or that the Christian has a somewhat two fold justification: one that is given to us sola gratia, sola fide and one that is taken hold of per opera bona. This is utterly foreign to the Reformed tradition. Paul is clear that those who are justified and surely glorified.  (Romans 8:31) If these good works are Spirit wrought, how then can one obtain the promise of eternal life but never take it in actuality? However our Confession teaches that through good works believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the Gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God. But none of this speaks of good works being the instrument nor is it the means by which we take possession of eternal life.

Berkhof writes that good works, “do not have the inherit value which naturally carries with it a just claim to a reward.” This is because they are Spirit-wrought, not Christian-wrought. Whatever claim we have to them, we must be very quick to remind ourselves that they God working through us.

Good works then cannot be the instrument of sanctification. It is not that we are equipped to work and are thus sanctified. To argue this is to put the cart before the horse. It makes our sanctification (and thus our final salvation) dependent on our good works meriting God’s sanctifying work.

My fear is that there is a conflation in these discussions between justification and sanctification. Our New Law brothers at best are trying to ward off against anti-nomianism. I can appreciate that. However, they do a great disservice when they argue that our salvation is through good works and not unto good works. It is a dangerous place that this leads us to.

It leads us to a place that I saw one Southern Baptist seminarian go this weekend. Let’s call him Tim. Tim, in one of his many attempts to ignite the passions of his social media echo chamber, began to put a former Presbyterian minister on blast for an antinomian view. This pastor has not been on the stage for some time. But Tim likes to be heard and so attacked a formally ordained minister. However in doing so he makes the statement that it is “not enough” that we rest in our justification. My question is then: In whom then should I rest for my salvation? Jay? Jay is a terrible person to rest in. Jay is a sinner who daily has to repent. Do I have all that I need in Christ to be fully redeemed? Is it really finished? Or must I add to Christ’s work with my own sanctifying efforts as Rome tells me?

This is how serious the discussion is, it is the crux of the Reformation. Scripture clearly teaches that we are saved not by our works but by Christ. Our works are evidences of the faith and grace that has been freely given to us. But they are not the instrument of some final salvation. So to Tim, or anyone else who asks, “What must we do to be doing the works of God?” I look to Christ who says, “Believe” and “come to me and take my yoke, for it is easy and my burden is light.”

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A Mental Buffet // 5 Aug 2017

Mental Buffet

 

Some reading material for the eager mind and the hungry soul. This week’s mental buffet includes articles from Martin Luther (no he’s not back from the dead for a blog post), Garry Vanderveen, Jason K. Allen, and Octavius Winslow.

Luther’s Last Word on Predestination – Martin Luther

“God did not come down from heaven to make you uncertain about predestination, to teach you to despise the sacraments, absolution, and the rest of the divine ordinances. Indeed, He instituted them to make you completely certain and to remove the disease of doubt from your heart, in order that you might not only believe with the heart but also see with your physical eyes and touch with your hands. Why, then, do you reject these and complain that you do not know whether you have been predestined? You have the Gospel; you have been baptized; you have absolution; you are a Christian.”

 

The Lamb’s High Feast: Good Reasons for Weekly Communion – Garry Vanderveen

“The visible centre of the Church’s worship must not be left as a blank space for long periods of the year. Calvin, accordingly, declares himself in favour of weekly communion. “All this mass of ceremonies being abandoned, the sacrament might be celebrated in the most becoming manner, if it were dispensed to the Church very frequently, at least once a week.” “It was not instituted to be received once a year and that perfunctorily (as is now commonly the custom).” He, indeed, goes the length of saying that “we ought always to provide that no meeting of the Church is held without the Word, prayer, the dispensation of the Supper, and alms”; and he calls the custom of communication once a year “an invention of the devil”. “The practice of all well ordered Churches should be to celebrate the Supper frequently, so far as the capacity of the people will admit.”

 

Eight Tips for Veteran Preachers – Jason K. Allen

“One of the benefits of expository preaching is that it anchors the sermon in the text of Scripture, not current events. The Word of God is perennial, never needing to be updated or improved upon. At the same time, faithful preaching brings the Word of God to bear, actually pressing it upon the lives of the hearers.”

 

The Glory of the Redeemer in His People – Octavius Winslow

“He is glorified in the progressive holiness of His people. “The kingdom of God is within you,” says Christ. The increase of this kingdom is just the measure and extent of the believer’s advance in sanctification. This is that internal righteousness, the work of God the Holy Spirit, which consists in the subjugation of the mind, the will, the affections, the desires, yes, the whole soul, to the government and supremacy of Jesus, “bringing into captivity,” says the apostle, “every thought to the obedience of Christ.” Oh, you who are “striving against sin,” longing to be “conformed to the image of God’s Son,” panting to be more “pure in heart,” “hungering and thirsting for righteousness,” think that in every step which you take in the path of holiness, in every corruption subdued, in every besetting sin laid aside, in every holy desire begotten, Christ is glorified in you! But you perhaps reply, “the more I strive for the mastery, the more I seem to be conquered. The more strongly I oppose my sins, the stronger my sins seem to be.” But what does this prove? it proves that “God is working in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure,” -that the kingdom of God is invading the kingdom of Satan- that the Spirit dwelling in the heart is warring with the flesh. It is truly remarked by Owen, that “if a believer lets his sins alone, his sins will let him alone.” But let him search them as with candles, let him bring them to the light, oppose, mortify, and crucify them, they will to the last, struggle for the victory. And this inward warfare, so graphically and touchingly described in the seventh chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, undeniably marks the inhabitation of God the Holy Spirit in the soul.”

Till He Returns,

Logan

Homily: Ghosts in Church

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“And to the angel at the church in Sardis write: These are the words of Him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: “I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember then what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a theif, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. Yet you have still a few persons in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes; they will walk with me, dressed in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before His angels. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” – Revelation 3:1-6, NRSV

Flannery O’Connor once said that while the south is hardly Christ-centered, it is most assuredly Christ-haunted. I thought that that was such a profound statement especially considering what part of the south I’m from. I live close to Russellville, Arkansas where there are roughly 120 churches. There is practically a church on every corner, and yet our town doesn’t seem very Christ-centered.

Of course, it’s easy for us to look outside the four walls of our church and see how morally bankrupt the rest of the world is, but what would we see if we looked in our own hearts? Will we find that are hearts are Christ-centered or Christ-haunted? Are we actively living our faith or are we simply ghosts, remnants of what used to be?

For the last couple of months, I’ve been doing a slow read through the book of Revelation and every once in a while it seems like the Holy Spirit will poke me on the shoulder and say, “Pay attention, I’m talking to you” and when He does I soak in the passage and I am drawn closer to Christ through an outcry for repentance. And that sounds all warm and fuzzy, but it’s not. It’s painful. I think sometimes I make it more painful than it has to be. I don’t know about you, but I find myself in a rush trying to be holy NOW, and then I end up messing up again. I want to hurry to do enough ‘holy’ things to make up for the sinful things I’ve done, but the reality of the situation is that my sin was already paid for by the blood of Jesus. So, what must I do? Listen.

Notice the last words of Jesus in this passage, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.” So, what will I hear if I listen? His voice telling me to “remember what I’ve received and heard and to obey it.” So, did I receive and hear? The Gospel. The good news that Jesus came to save sinners like me. How do I obey it? By repentance and belief. I must repent of my sins and believe that God raised Jesus from the dead to declare victory over all sin.

If I listen closely to what the Spirit saying, I can also hear Him telling me to wake up. One of my favorite passages is found in the book of Ephesians, and it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Paul quotes from an old hymn of the first century Church that alludes to Isaiah 26:19 which is a promise of God to His people that their dead shall awake from their slumber, and one stanza of that particular verse says, “O dwellers of the dust, awake and sing for joy!” The Holy Spirit is telling us that the time for taking a spiritual dirt nap is over! We must come alive, see the glory of God, repent and be saved, be sanctified, and be filled with the Holy Spirit!

 

Momentary Affliction and a Merciful Savior

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. …For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. ” – 2 Corinthians 4:7, 17-18, NRSV

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” – 2 Corinthians 5:17-19, NRSV

Let’s get one thing clear. I suck at being a Christian. I love Jesus with all my heart. He’s my best friend. I call upon Him as Savior everyday and I pray for Him to be my Lord, and I try to submit myself to what He wants for my life, but sometimes I just blow it. If I weren’t a Calvinist, I would say that I’ve lost my salvation two or three times in the last week. The struggle that I have is real and one of the reasons I believe God allows me to have these struggles is so that I can help others who have similar problems.

You see, this whole sanctification thing is from now until we die. We’ll never be perfect until we stand in the full presence of Almighty God in Heaven. Until that moment, God continually draws us to Himself. He beckons us into a beautiful relationship with Him. And this life is full of ups and downs, unexpected turns in the road, and sometimes we lose our way. Sometimes we make bad decisions. The good news though is that Jesus didn’t lay any terms and conditions in a negotiation with the Father before He came. Jesus didn’t look at God and say, “Now Dad, I’m only going to atone for their sins if they never blow it or mess up again from the moment of their conversion.” That conversation never took place. As a matter of fact, I don’t even believe there was any negotiation because Jesus humbly submitted Himself to the Father’s will.

Spurgeon said, “God came here in human form, not bound to be obedient; but “being found in fashion as a man, he became obedient”; obedient to his own law, and fulfilled every jot and tittle of it. He was “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” And his obedience is ours, if we believe.” So you see, Jesus was perfectly obedient because He knew we wouldn’t be. He knew we were sons of wrath and disobedience when He saved us, and then He made children of the light.

Now, I’m a secure child of God, but there are days when it feels like the darkness will not lift and I have gone too far and Jesus, in all of His love and mercy, reminds me of the atonement that He secured for me over 2,000 years ago on an old rugged cross. My sins, my mess ups, my mistakes, my depression, my habits, and hangups were nailed to the cross and Jesus had already declared His victory over them.

So if you’re reading this and you’re having one of those days, remember He’s not done with you yet. He loves you and He still says to us, “Neither do I condemn you, go, and sin no more!.”

Integrity in Pastoral Ministry

If you could mold the perfect pastor, what would he look like? Would he be a great expositor? Would he be able to give practical and biblical solutions to any problem that was brought before him? Would he deliver humorous anecdotes in his sermons? Would he love his wife to the way Christ loves the Church? Would he love his children and model the role of our heavenly father by being kind and showing loving leadership to his children the way God does for us?

Unfortunately, sometimes when a pulpit committee tries to decide on a pastor they don’t answer those last two questions first. This is why you have so many people who are excellent preachers, but they are horrid pastors. When you see a church goer that is satisfied to go to church on Sunday and live like hell Monday through Saturday, then there’s a good chance that they have a pastor that does the same.  This is why character is so important as a pastor. Pastoral ministry always starts in the home. 1 Timothy 3:4-5 tells us “He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way— for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?”

Your home is a private sector that’s limited to you and your family. It’s easy to avoid dealing with your sin at home because you are under the impression that your home life is your business and you can keep it separate from your church life because you treat your church like a source of income instead of treating it like the Bride of Christ. If you let your habitual sin control you in the home, it will control you in the church. James tells us that sin is simply a slow and painful death.

“But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death. Do not be deceived, my beloved.” – James 1:14-16 (NRSV)

Dr. Ronnie Floyd, Pastor of Cross Church of Fayetteville, and author of 10 Things Every Minister Should Know said that personal holiness seems to be a forgotten commodity in the church today and he’s not wrong. Names of famous pastors are popping up almost every week in the news and why? It seems like there’s a sin epidemic that going around and reality is that you, I, and everybody are all susceptible to it, but at what point to go from just being susceptible to being victims of the epidemic? In the passage we just looked at in James, what’s going on? You’re tempted by your desire. You’re lured and enticed by your desire. Your desire conceives, and then all at once, you’re in sin before you know it. It’s when you allow your desire to conceive with the allurement of ungodly affections that you give birth to sin. So, what’s the answer? What can possibly keep us from allowing sin to grow in us?

When we were justified, we received the Holy Spirit. According to Acts 1:8, we were granted power by the Holy Spirit to do God’s work. In Peter’s second epistle, the Apostle breaks down for us what it means to have that power.

“His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature.  For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” – 2 Peter 1:2-8 (NRSV)

The Holy Spirit gave us divine power, and according to the Apostle Peter, that power is all we need for life and godliness. Why? Because that divine power produces a divine nature within us. Because we are harnessing a divine nature, we must make every effort to make our faith active with goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection, and love. We’re not fighting this battle against sin alone. Jesus declared victory over sin when He stepped in bodily form out of the tomb, and soon God will declare our final victory over sin when all those who have God’s Spirit dwelling inside them will rise triumphantly to meet Jesus in the air.