Making Use of the Sanctification Debate in a Reformed Presbyterian Church Plant

The debate over sanctification in the Reformed community has reached a complex status. For a few years, the debate seemed rather simple. There were the “Grace Boys” that wished to maintain a Reformed identity but appeared soft on preaching the imperatives (i.e. third use of the law). Pastors like Tullian Tchividjian, Steve Brown, and others have not just appeared “soft” on preaching and applying imperatives, but they also seemed to offer absolutist, sweeping statements such as “sanctification is just getting used to your justification”, “Jesus plus nothing equals everything”, etc.

Carl Trueman, Rick Phillips, Mark Jones, Kevin DeYoung, and William B. Evans have offered gracious yet firm critiques of Tchividjian and his ilk. Yet, the issue became a bit contentious with the parting of ways between The Gospel Coalition and Tchividjian. While many were fine with labeling Tchividjian an “antinomian” as Mark Jones does, I have offered a different perspective without affirming Tchividjian’s path. Also, many see this as a confessional issue, but I’ve argued here and here that this scenario may have more continuity with the Marrow Controversy of the 18th century. Like the Marrow Controversy, we have different camps both embracing Reformed Orthodoxy and the confessional viewpoint on sanctification. Yet, the difference in pastoral theology and ministry has produced vigorous disagreement and dissension in the Reformed community.

Even though I have a Bible & Philosophy degree from  Christian liberal arts college and an M.Div from a Reformed seminary, and thus enjoy heavy-duty theological discourse, as a church planter I have a different question: In light of these discussions, how do I disciple people? How do I preach, teach, shepherd, and counsel in the contexts of Sabbath, Neighborhood, and Vocation? What is the cash value of this discussion?

Here is a first attempt to explain how the contemporary sanctification debate finds application in a church plant in a Reformed Presbyterian denomination.

Four General Options

In discussing this issue with some of the movers and shakers in this debate, there seem to be four general approaches to the sanctification debate. The Puritan route, with Mark Jones and Rick Phillips, centers on the question of the efficacy of works when it comes to the believer’s salvation. This paradigm focuses on the tenses of justification and the various ’causes’ of justification, along with some discussions about the conditionality of the New Covenant.

The so-called antinomian or “Grace Boys” paradigm has historical precedent with particular Reformed thinkers and their lower view of the law, especially with a bent toward Lutheran orthodoxy. Tchividjian, Michael Horton, Scott Clark, and (to an extent) Tim Keller, go this route. The emphasis on justification and the imputation of Jesus’ active obedience results in two kinds of of unions with Christ (forensic and participatory). William B. Evans has shown, in the end, that this produces an “extrinsic covenantalism.” It is ultimately Christ, outside of us, that gives us the benefits of redemption.

A third paradigm is rather bland, which is probably the predominant viewpoint of most Reformed pastors. Call this the “Berkhof” paradigm where a simple resuscitation of the ordo salutis is the standard view of sanctification in its relationship to justification.

A fourth perspective, recently articulated by Evans in a blog post responding to Phillips, combines the perspectives of Geerhardus Vos, Richard Gaffin, Evans, Sinclair Ferguson, and others as they recover John Calvin’s explication of union with Christ and the duplex gratia (double grace) of both justification and sanctification, both which flow from the believer’s single union with Christ.

Union With Christ in a Ministry Context

I would align myself with the fourth paradigm, though I acknowledge that the other paradigms are welcome members of Reformed Orthodoxy and may affirm the confessional standards on the issue of sanctification. (I wouldn’t excommunicate Mark Jones, Michael Horton, or Louis Berkhof from my presbytery!) Yet, this theological commitment has little use unless it is applied in the context of discipleship.

At Hill City Church our sermons, community group discussions, and discipleship clusters all share the same language for discipleship and growth in grace. We emphasize two aspects of the gospel: Invitation and Challenge. (These are terms we’ve borrowed from a non-Reformed entity, 3DMovements). Essentially, Invitation has to do with the indicatives of the gospel while Challenge has to do with the imperatives of the gospel. Invitation points us to how wonderful Jesus is and how he embodies truth, goodness and beauty in the gospel. Invitation is so important to us that I preached an eleven-week series called Gospel Glossary: Becoming Fluent in the Invitation of Jesus. While I preached imperatives in each sermon, the emphasis was on how Jesus displays welcome/hospitality/invitation to sinners through the various benefits of our union with Christ (justification, sanctification, glorification, election, adoption, redemption, atonement, new creation, perseverance).

If Invitation would have one look to Jesus and marvel at how wonderful he is as we are united to him, then Challenge has the purpose of showing what it means to actually follow Jesus through count the cost of discipleship and imitating him.

While I understand why many prefer the Law-Gospel distinction as their theological and pastoral hermeneutic, we prefer to say that both Invitation and Challenge come from the gospel. This is in line with Calvin’s articulation of union with Christ and the duplex gratia of justification and sanctification. With preaching Invitation every week, we are essentially showing how even justification isn’t a static event in the past but has a continuing reality for the believer as they participate in Christ. (See Evans, Imputation and Impartation, p. 265)

Yet, while we love to preach various glosses of the gospel (justification, adoption, glorification) and how they relate to our call to follow Jesus, perhaps the biggest emphasis in our sermons is that as beautiful as the benefits of the gospel are, they are not as beautiful, wonderful, and glorious as Jesus. The greatest benefit of the gospel that we receive is Jesus himself. Thus, union with Christ is the greatest priority in our preaching and discipleship. As much as we emphasize mission, loving our neighbor, being conformed to the image of Christ, these things find their full meaning and motivation in the Lord Jesus as we are united to him by faith alone.

In this, we don’t use a lot of complicated language. We use Invitation (How is Jesus the Hero?), Challenge (What is God saying to you, and what are you going to do about it? And who will help you?), and union with Christ. Our folks will occasionally hear words like justification, adoption, and even election. If we use such words, we will define them with simplicity and clarity.

We probably would never use the phrase “efficacy of good works” or even “necessity of good works.” While we could have our people read the recent blogs on this issue between Jones, Phillips, and Evans, I doubt it would edify many of our folks. We are content with showing our people that good works are very important and that if we never ask the question “What is God saying to me and what am I going to do about?” then we have the right to question one’s commitment to Jesus.

This is how we apply the sanctification debate to our church plant context. I use this same paradigm in counseling married couples and singles, leading discipleship clusters, and ministering to college students. While there are Reformed brothers who disagree on the issue of sanctification yet may still exist in the same denomination or network, there are significant pastoral implications as to how one articulates the doctrine of sanctification and what relationship it has to justification and union with Christ. I hope this debate continues to happen on the academic level as well as the ecclesial level.

I would encourage readers to keep up with William B. Evans and his Ecclesial Calvinist blog for future posts and updates on upcoming projects as I suspect he will have much to say on this issue and will say it much better than I have. In many ways, my thinking on these issues is indebted to him. (Though any and all flaws should be attributed to yours truly.)


4 thoughts on “Making Use of the Sanctification Debate in a Reformed Presbyterian Church Plant

  1. I think I’m probably with you in the 4th view. Maybe a mix of 2 and 4. I believe our union with Christ by God’s grace will generate good works in us, because we have the spiritual DNA of our Father. We don’t do this perfectly because sin is still in us, and that’s why we need to be challenged to live out who we are in Christ.

    1. Good stuff, Fred.

      While I myself enjoy these heavy-duty theological discussions, the practical outworking of this is what concerns me. I think what we do at Hill City wouldn’t offend too many folks. 🙂

  2. Good stuff as usual, Daniel. I’m with you that I think, no matter how technically correct Jones or Evans are on this (which is debatable), it’s not helpful to use language like “efficacy of good works” or “necessity of good works” when talking about salvation.

    Slight correction: Tullian does preach imperatives quite a bit (see his series on James – “The Gospel of Works”). And when he says “getting used to our justification,” he is simply saying “right belief comes before right action.” Further, Tullian does preach on union quite a bit as well. I realize you probably haven’t explored the depths of his preaching at Coral Ridge as much as I have, and to no fault of your own, so I can see how you may arrive at your conclusions about him based strictly off his blog and books.

    Also, I’m not sure I see a difference between your 2nd and 3rd sanctification paradigms. Scott Clark, et al., seem to be very much in line with Berkhof on the ordo salutis.

    1. I’ve tried to be careful to not claim that Tullian is against imperatives or never preaches them. I’ve actually said to the contrary! The issue is a bit more complex than that.

      Also, I acknowledge that Tullian, Horton, and others do talk about union with Christ, but they do so in a different way than Calvin, Vos, Gaffin, Ferguson, and Evans. There are two different paradigms here.

      Yes, the 2nd and 3rd paradigms overlap, though the 3rd paradigm is more of a lowest common denominator in NAPARC circles rather than committing to a more explicit paradigm. Although, Horton and others seem to eliminate “regeneration” from the typical ordo salutis spot!

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