19 August 2011

Meandering Reflections on Gospel-Informed Sanctification

Emerging out of my hobbit-hole after a week offline and interested to read through the recent wise stuff on the gospel and growth. A few thoughts, open to correction, as I think out loud here.

In no particular order.

1. May the tag on the life preserver explaining how to use it never distract soggy, once-drowning men of the wonder of being rescued as they are pulled to shore. May blog posts on gospel sanctification never distract saved sinners from the wonder of having been rescued.

2. Simply amazing how many thoughtful brothers God continues to give the church. I'm thinking especially just now of Kevin and Tullian. Jeremiah 3:15, period. The very thought of them heartens me.

3. Agreed--we're all on the same team here. I never grow weary of reading that introductory clarification on these kinds of posts. Still, let's never stop striving to manifest that unity not only in content but in tone. Almost without fail this conversation has done this.

4. Surely, ministry context plays a part in how we parse out the gospel and its relation to growth.

5. I suspect, too, that personality--specific, unique, wiring; our own personal bent--plays a role.

6. So too, no doubt, does personal history and background.

7. Neither 4 nor 5 nor 6, nor all together, can be the whole story. Let's allow room for different emphases due to ministry context, wiring, and personal background. But at some point we need to say: here's the biblical balance, now let's all get on board. While we'll all contextualize the gospel and sanctification, it should be the same gospel and the same sanctification that we're contextualizing.

8. Bible; Bible; Bible. Sit under, not stand over. Self-consciously, not assumingly. It's tantalizingly easy (I have found in my own thinking) to slip from claimed biblical authority with functional biblical authority to claimed biblical authority with functional personal-framework authority. Anyone can extract a few texts and make 'the Bible' say what they want. The question is: whose delineation presents biblical truth with the rhythm and flavor of the Bible itself? We can sound clever, and quote texts, all the while lacking the aroma of truth that arises from a wise synthesis of all the Bible says. You can smell when someone's really sitting under the Bible, the whole Bible, or not.

9. So many related theological convictions inform how we relate the gospel to growth. What's our understanding of eschatology? The Holy Spirit? Regeneration? Mosaic law? The new covenant? Union with Christ? The sacraments? If everyone weighing in on the gospel/growth discussion prefaced their comments with a paragraph on each of these and other doctrinal convictions of theirs, clarity would go up and misreadings would go down. It's impracticable, of course. Just making the point that our articulation of the gospel and sanctification are linked up with, and influenced by, our articulation of other doctrines, other doctrines which generally are implicit, not explicit.

10. As born again believers, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, already resurrected (!) by faith if not by sight, regenerate Christians have a new inclination to obey God. The law of God now lands on them differently than it did before regeneration. Adopted children, when they realize what's happened to them, want to please their magnanimous father. Not all attempts to please God are moralistic. When we communicate that they are, we are being reductionistic and one-dimensional. A 1-to-1 correspondence between seeking to please God and works-righteousness simply cannot be sustained if we submit to the New Testament in its entirety.

11. Yet: something I wish I heard more of from those emphasizing the positive role of the law in the life of the believer, and the legitimate call to effort in sanctification (which is undoubtedly biblical, and a crucial staple of a healthy spiritual diet), is the remaining fallenness even in the redeemed, one big manifestation of which is a bent to earn rather than receive God's love. From one angle, the Christian life really is one of rooting out the Pharisee in each of us. The bent to earn is given a decisive blow at regeneration. But the old man continues to rear its head.

12. Jesus. At times these conversations become a bit de-Jesus-ized. Of course there is no gospel without Jesus, they're inextricably linked, yes yes yes. But might we so finely express how the gospel relates to sanctification, getting all the causes and effects so precisely and carefully parsed out, that somehow Jesus himself in all his magnetic beauty becomes backgrounded, replaced in the foreground by tidy formulas? I'm not sure quite how to express this. But I was very struck with Jared's word a few weeks ago that we not become gospel-centrality-centered instead of gospel-centered. I think also of Sinclair Ferguson's arresting point that there is no such thing as 'grace' abstractly conceived as some kind of substance that one 'gets'; rather, grace comes to us only in the person of Jesus.

13. To carry that last point a bit further, this time positively rather than negatively--seems to me that it isn't remembering the gospel, strictly speaking, that changes us, but rather communing with Jesus. I can remember the gospel, be grateful for forgiveness, and slide right back into all my old resentments. (I know because I've done it.) But I can't really commune with Jesus, really looking at him as 2 Cor 3:18 describes, and then follow that up with bitterness. I just can't. I'm different as I leave the presence of Jesus. There's a wonderful softening that happens, softening that feels rock-solid at the same time. Calm returns. Gentleness. Sanity. Fresh life. But what is so right about the call to gospel-remembrance, which I love and continue to trumpet, is that this communion is uniquely flavored by the grace of Jesus. It has to be; otherwise we can't even approach him in the first place. The one place in all four Gospels when Jesus tells us about his heart, he tells us it is gentle and lowly (Matt 11). And Jesus is the perfect image of the Father (John 14). Grace is who the Triune God is (Exod 34). And I will grow in godliness no further than I grasp that.

14. I keep hearing, 'Let's not preach only grace but the whole counsel of God.' I wonder if those who say this have carefully considered that entire speech in Acts 20 that Paul gives to the Ephesian elders and seen how else Paul describes his ministry. Not only does he say he preached 'the whole counsel of God' in v. 27 but he describes that same ministry by summing it up a few verses earlier as testifying 'to the gospel of the grace of God.' Testifying to the gospel of grace is 'the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus,' says Paul. This merits reflection. Could it be that 'the whole counsel of God,' in biblical context, is not a phrase that means 'gospel grace, plus a bunch of other things, so don't forget those other things,' but something more like 'gospel grace, as such grace manifests itself in eldership, and in missionary endeavors, and in suffering, and in doctrine, and in . . .'

15. The main (not the only) answer to those who ask, 'What about all those people who know and believe the gospel but are ethically lazy?' is that they don't really know and believe the gospel. Not in the biblical sense of 'know' and 'believe.' The obedience deficit is due to a gospel deficit, not a gospel surplus that hasn't been adequately supplemented.

16. But: we simply cannot communicate that the only way the New Testament generates obedience is by going back to the gospel. Paul doesn't come to the end of Ephesians 1-3 or Galatians 1-3 or Romans 1-11 and, about to launch into imperatives, catch himself and say, 'Oh! Whoops--never mind. I was about to give you a series of sound exhortations, but the truth is, the only way you're going to grow is by going back to the gospel, so please go reread what I've already said in this epistle, and then out will come obedience.'

17. The proof is in the pudding. Give me a guy involved in this discussion oozing joy and simplicity and love and tenderness, and give me another guy who for all his fine sounding arguments is a bit prickly, and the first guy is immediately more convincing to me. Before I give one brain cell to considering their reasoning, the first guy is already out ahead in persuasive power. It's not everything. But it's something.

18. How awful to call some in this discussion 'the grace guys.' Surely this is all of us?


JT said...

Welcome back! Excellent thoughts, as always.

Jonathan said...

Hi Dane,

I've appreciated your writings in this area. About 15 years ago, I would consider myself Reformed, being influenced by the Reformed faith. Michael Horton's writings, in particular, helped me understand about the law/gospel distinction and his writings and that of ACE (CURE then I think) helped me realize that there are different (Reformed) views out there regarding the Lordship Salvation controversy.

Even though I don't consider myself Reformed now, I've always kept up to date more or less with Reformed writings, especially on this subject on the gospel (and especially as it relates to Sanctification).

I'm not sure if you're familiar but there is a growing movement of Christians around the world who are not Reformed and probably have no idea what Reformed is whose lives are being impacted by this message that focuses on the gospel.

Many of them have been Christians for years but only when they understood that the gospel is not just for unbelievers but for believers too and only when they attended a church or read/listened to preachers whose ministry and preaching centered on the beautiful gospel of Jesus Christ - did they start to have their whole Christian lives transformed. Many Churches - Reformed or not - still focus too much on the imperatives as if that's what the Christian life is all about. And that's why many Christians feel worn out, useless, unworthy of God's love, etc. More and more of such Christians are starting to encounter the gospel from outside the Reformed world.

I hesitate to mention some of the so-called "leaders" of this "gospel awakening" I'm talking about because these people are charismatics and some moderate Word of Faith - which Reformed Christians generally don't take too kindly to. Some of the preaching/teaching may lack the vigor in analysis in doctrine that Reformed Christians are used to. And almost all of them see no place for the law/10 Cs in the life of Christian (which has a little backing among some Reformed Christianity and has good scholarly backing elsewhere among evangelicals, though Reformed Christians generally still see a Third-Use of the Law). But these people are transforming lives around the world.

I'll list some names for those interested to find out more. As I said, not your cup of tea for the staunchly Reformed, but God has been using these people mightily around the world to recover His gospel: Joseph Prince, Ryan/Rob Rufus, Andrew Wommack, etc. Cheers :)

Sean Michael Lucas said...

Thanks, Dane. Very wise reflections. Mea culpa on the last point; exactly right.

Eric said...

Dane, I've literally been counting the days until I get to read you blog again! What a fine job you did here of balancing different considerations.

I wonder to what extent good gospel-infused biblical-theological reflection like this is like music - in the sense that, an orchestra doesn't decide which notes or themes to play, but how to relate them to create a total effect which stays with the listener.

Dane Ortlund said...

Fascinating and illuminating metaphor, E.