Thoughts on the Sanctification Debate


I’ve watched the ongoing debate about Tullian Tchividjian’s theology with much interest. I greatly appreciate all of the theologians involved in this discussion. Mark Jones is an excellent historical theologian whom I highly respect. I’m grateful that R. Scott Clark has opposed the Federal Vision and the New Perspective on Paul so consistently. Both legalism and antinomianism are dangerous errors, which must be studiously avoided.

I believe that almost everyone involved in this dispute is saying something important, but with different emphases. We see this same phenomenon in Scripture itself. Paul and James speak differently and often incompletely, not because their theologies are different, but because they’re addressing different errors. Paul often addressed Jewish legalism, while James addressed antinomianism. I suspect something similar is going on in this particular dispute, though unlike Paul and James, I do believe that there are some basic differences among those involved.

The questions of justification, sanctification, and motives in holiness have occupied my mind for some time. I wrote my PhD dissertation on the doctrine of justification in Richard Baxter (a neonomian legalist) and the Particular Baptist, Benjamin Keach. I basically hold Benjamin Keach’s view on these matters, who often borrowed heavily from John Owen.

Practically speaking, I think Kevin DeYoung is right that the heart of this debate has everything to do with reasons and motives for growth in holiness.

Motives to Holiness: Those who emphasize justification.

One side of this debate emphasizes justification as the motive for our sanctification. This side reminds us that every day, we must remember our terrible sinfulness but also that we’re clothed in Christ’s righteousness by faith alone. This frees us from thinking that we have to work for God’s approval and for the approval of others. It frees us from pride (thinking we’ve arrived) and from depression (thinking we ought to have arrived). This side of the debate says that the hard work, or effort, in sanctification is believing that God really loves us and accepts us even in our terrible sins because of Christ’s work alone. We must learn to believe more and more that our good works can never merit anything in God’s sight, but that Christ has merited all.  We can then obey God from a humble heart of faith and love to Him.

And all of that is absolutely true. These truths must never be denied or distorted. The trouble comes when this side says that justification is the only motive of sanctification. Justification is not the only motive.

Motives to Holiness: Those who emphasize sanctification.

The other side of this debate emphasizes the fact that there are numerous motives in sanctification. Believers ought be motivated to strive for future reward, knowing that our sanctification is a means of our final salvation. We should grow in holiness from a desire to imitate Christ, to please God, to avoid angering Him, and displeasing Him. We should be motivated by the fear of God, and the warnings of the Bible, which threaten condemnation to those who do not persevere in faith. This side of the debate says that the hard work of sanctification is not merely believing Christ’s work for us, but also includes a great deal of personal effort and striving for holiness without which none will see the Lord.

And all of that is also absolutely true. These truths must also never be denied or distorted. The trouble comes, I think, when this side forgets, or fails to show, how all of the motives mentioned above are completely influenced by justification and the initial assurance that justification brings. None of these motives is independent of justification, but must all be understood in light of it.

Motives to Holiness: My own personal stab at this issue, heavily influenced by Keach.

Much has been said about union with Christ as the source of the “double blessing” of justification and sanctification. As Calvin rightly said, these two blessings flow immediately from vital union with Christ, which means justification is not the basis of sanctification, but that Christ is the basis of both.

I think we need to add something to this understanding of union with Christ. It’s something I haven’t seen mentioned in this debate. Christ and His historic work of righteousness is the basis and cause of our union with Christ, justification, and sanctification. That is, Christ’s life and death secured the work of the Spirit to bring His people into vital union with Him. Thus, Christ and His historic righteousness is the basis and cause of vital union with Christ, justification, and sanctification.

This is important, I believe, because it shows that all of the motives of sanctification must be understood in light of Christ’s accomplished work for us, which freely and absolutely secures Christ’s applied work in us. This makes certain that all of the motives in sanctification are understood on the basis of redemption accomplished.

*Gratitude and Joy: Believers should not try to obey God to satisfy His justice, but from gratitude and joy for all that the Father has done in Christ.  Faithful gratitude in no way tries to pay God back for His graces, but is the joyful response of a heart conquered by God’s love.

Fear of God: Believers should not fear God as a judge, but God as a Father. In Christ, we must not slavishly fear that God will destroy us for our sins.  Christ has satisfied God as judge. We should, however, have a reverential and filial fear of God as our Father.

Pleasing God: Believers should not try to please God as judge, but God as Father. God the judge is totally pleased by the work of Christ. Our good but imperfect works, however, please God as our Father, much the way earthly fathers are pleased by the imperfect efforts of their children.

To Avoid Angering God: Believers should not think that their works could ever be good enough to placate God’s judicial anger, or that they could ever be so free of sin, that they would avoid God’s judicial anger. God’s judicial anger is totally satisfied by the work of Christ, so that we do not avoid sin to avoid His judicial anger. Rather, we flee from sin because sin angers God as our loving Father. We don’t want to anger the God we love and who loves us. God’s anger toward His children is never hateful or judicial, but always loving and Fatherly. God’s anger toward us is rooted in His Fatherly care for us.

Future Rewards: Believers should not strive to deserve eternal reward as though their works could ever be good enough to earn rewards on the terms of God’s justice. Christ alone has earned our reward. Rather, believers should strive to be fitted for heaven, transformed, so that they can enjoy it. Only those who love holiness will love heaven.

As a Means of Final Salvation: Believers should not think that their personal holiness is legally sufficient to deserve final salvation. Christ’s holiness alone is sufficient to deserve salvation. Rather, personal holiness is a means of final salvation because it is prior to final salvation. Because God distributes the blessings purchased by Christ in a certain order, believers should understand that only those who are sanctified will enter into glory. That is the order God has designed.

To Pass Muster on Judgment Day: Believers should not try to work to satisfy God’s justice on judgment day. Christ has already done that. Rather, we should be motivated by the fact that our works will be examined on judgment day as evidence and proof that we are united to Christ, who alone is the ground of our entry into heaven.

Efforts and Striving: Believers should never strive as though their good works could deserve anything from God. Christ’s works alone deserve God’s judicial approval. Rather, they should strive to know God’s love for them (yes, to believe justification more), and in light of His love for them, they should strive to love Him and keep His commandments (this requires active effort beyond simply believing Christ for justification).

Threats of Condemnation: No one should ever be motivated to do good works as though their personal efforts could avert God’s condemnation. Jesus’ works alone avert God’s judicial condemnation. Rather, threats of condemnation serve to warn those who are persisting unrepentantly in their sin. The threat of condemnation should motivate us to cast ourselves wholly upon Christ for justification by faith alone, and knowing His love for us, we grieve and mourn our sin, hate it and forsake it, and strive for the holiness without which none will see the Lord.

Communion with God: I believe that this is the highest motive of holiness. Our holiness in no way earns or deserves communion with Christ. Rather, Christ’s work is the ground of our adoption. On the basis of what He has done to receive us into relationship with Himself, we strive in the Spirit to commune with Christ, our brother, and with God our Father. Ultimately, we press on in holiness to know God and be conformed to the likeness of Him who has loved us. We grow in holiness to have fellowship with the Triune God.

I don’t pretend that this is a complete summary or analysis, but it points in the direction that I believe is right. May we avoid both legalism and antinomianism. May we embrace all the motives God gives us in His Word for the application of redemption, but may we do so on the basis of Christ’s accomplished redemption.

*Edited on the recommendation of a brother.

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12 Responses to “Thoughts on the Sanctification Debate”

  1. Rick McLain

    I believe Tim Keller said, “The Gospel is between legalism and antinomianism.” Unfortunately it seems that it is so easy to run into either ditch and not stay in the grace lane. Thank you for such a thoughtful article that will help us see the signs that will keep us in the lane.

    • RK Reed

      The quote, where ever it originated, errs in that both legalism & antinomianism are condemned as false gospels by Paul (Galatians & Romans). The Gospel does not lie between these, but is entirely other than these. To follow either of these is to end in destruction as the wedding guest who arrived in unsuitable garments.

      • I could not agree more!

        I cringe every time I hear someone say, “We have to find the middle ground between antinomianism and legalism”. These are not polar opposites with the truth in the middle. They are both utterly wrong and the truth is something that is altogether NOT either of them.

  2. Don Speedy

    I appreciate your emphasis on the the doctrine of federal union with Christ. He is the only ground of both justification and sanctification. Faith is the sole instrument. This faith, which is effectually granted by the Holy Spirit because the meritorious obedience of Christ, expresses itself differently in these dual blessings. In justification, saving faith rests in Christ. In sanctification, it works through love. I appreciate your thoughtful response to this very important theological issue. May the Lord use your insights to bring doctrinal clarity and unity.

  3. A couple observations:

    First, what you describes in the “emphasize justification” section sounds like what I believe, but I still have major issues with Pastor Tullian. I must just be reading Tchividjian wrong, because it seems he takes it five steps further than what you describe here.

    Second, I’m not sure he nailed you with your description of “Those who emphasize sanctification.” Seems to me they emphasize all of what is stated in both sections. Again, I could be reading them wrong.

    Third, I fully agree that the ground of our union with Christ, our justification, and our sanctification (and I would add our glorification) is the accomplished work of righteousness of our federal Head. I just wonder why the work of the Holy Spirit in progressively renewing the mind and heart of the believer seems to be so diminished in this presentation. In fact, the Spirit is only mentioned twice in the passage: once to refer to a one time application of Christ’s work, and once to refer to our striving in Him. There is no discussion of the continued indwelling work of the Spirit in the life of the Christian to mold him into the image of Christ.

    Ultimately, justification does need to be at the forefront of the Christian’s mind when he considers his sanctification. I am convinced that it was at the forefront of the apostles’ minds when they discussed sanctification in the epistles. The problem that Tchividjian and his ilk run into is the fact that the apostles don’t always revert to a full-fledged discussion of justification when discussing sanctification. Yet, that is what they seem to expect all evangelical leaders to do. I just don’t think it’s a biblical expectation.

    • Tom Hicks
      Tom Hicks

      William, many of your observations are completely valid. I wrote this post to stimulate thought and discussion on the issues that seem most at the forefront to me, and to sketch the contours as I see them. I did not intend this to be comprehensive. I agree with you about the role of the Holy Spirit, that He indwells and progressively sanctifies believers by renewing their minds through His Word, and I believe that is vital. I believe many other things are vital as well. To give you an idea of where I am, I believe in the sanctifying importance of the means of grace (Word, sacrament, prayer, fellowship), of understanding the distinctions and the sweet harmony of the law/gospel (in each way of distinguishing: Adam/Christ, OC/NC, command/promise) as well as Word/Spirit, of robustly orthodox confession, regulated corporate worship, and a well-disciplined church. I also believe in the importance of personal and family devotion and that the Ten Commandments are a necessary rule of walking for the believer. God’s good law is an indispensable instrument in the sanctification of believers.

      Regarding your comments about “those who emphasize justification” and “those who emphasize sanctification,” I understand your perspective. You may be right, and I could certainly be the one who is wrong. I’m simply articulating things the way I see them. Blessings brother!

      • Thank you for your quick, pastoral response. I wasn’t trying to say you are wrong. It just seems that my take and your take on the debate seems to be a bit different. It could all come down to what one has been exposed to. I am certain you have been exposed to far more facets of this debate than I have. That being the case, I’m sure there is much I could learn from your perspective.


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