Jesus + Nothing = Everything God Promised

The chorus of one of my favorite old hymns says, “Grace, grace, God’s grace; Grace that will pardon and cleanse within.”  Many times I heard the senior saints of my childhood church bellowing those words with gusto.  They were just old sounding songs to me at the time.  But after my conversion that melody and particular line from the chorus penetrated deep into my soul.  The sovereign grace of God alone had drawn me, convicted me of my wretchedness, granted me repentance and faith, and opened my eyes to see the loveliness of the Savior!  His grace had indeed “pardoned.”

 

But the second truth of that lyric has been equally thrilling to my soul through the years.  The grace of God also “cleanses within.”  I’m not only declared righteous before God, but I’m also truly being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.  The grace that purchased my justification also mightily works in my sanctification.  Recent books and articles today are notably passionate about the doctrine of justification.  For the first time many are grasping the truth of “Sola Gratia”—it is grace alone that saves!  New songs about the glory of the cross and our freedom from sin’s bondage are being written almost weekly.  Young people are rightly praising God for the grace that makes us acceptable in Christ alone.  These are amazing days for the church and a testimony to the kindness of God in magnifying His truth with such power and clarity.

 

But what about the equally vital doctrine of sanctification?  I know that a condemned sinner cannot, on his own, bring his dead heart to life.  God alone “makes us alive together with Christ” so that “no man can boast” (Ephesians 2:5,9).  Mercy comes running to the sinner.  But is spiritual transformation effected in the same way?  As God’s grace and power work to conform us into Christ’s image, what is our role if any?  Sadly, some evangelicals today are becoming confused about how our justification relates to the everyday battle with sin and guilt.  Sometimes called “Gospel Sanctification” or “Free Grace,” a view is becoming popular which asserts that believers are passive in the work of sanctification.  The basic idea is that since our justification was accomplished by grace alone through Christ alone, our spiritual transformation occurs essentially the same way.  Because we are justified, free from condemnation, and set-apart as God’s chosen people we have only to know and believe these realities to effect spiritual change.

 

When challenged about the purpose of Scripture’s commands, proponents agree that Christians should obey God’s word, but are quick to add that true obedience is solely the result of knowing and believing the truths of the gospel.  Is this true?  Are we as passive in spiritual transformation as when our dead heart was regenerated?  Is laboring to obey the commands of Scripture a plunge into the self-atonement trap, trying to do what Christ has already done?  Since Christ has already accomplished everything for our justification, how should we respond to the flood of imperatives in Scripture given for our sanctification?  There is a growing theological divide along these lines, which is leading to serious imbalance for some and dangerous error for others.  With the upsurge of joy over justification has come several misguided ideas of how God’s grace operates in sanctification.

 

Justification’s “Instant Replay”

Evangelicalism’s fairly recent obsession with terms like “gospel-centered” and “grace-driven” is the wonderful fruit of clearer, more biblical teaching on the Solas of the Reformation.  They are great terms.  They resonate with all who desire to live for the glory of Christ in response to His grace freely given to us!  It’s why we slap these terms on every book cover, use them in songs, and attach them to almost everything in ministry and theology.  Perhaps it’s also why we can be vulnerable to passionately over-applying these words in ways that foster confusion.  Being “gospel-centered” today has almost become synonymous with being against any kind of holy striving.

 

In his book, Jesus + Nothing = Everything, well-known author and pastor, Tullian Tchividjian, writes,

“Think of it this way: Sanctification is the daily hard work of going back to the reality of our justification.  It’s going back to the certainty of our objectively secured pardon in Christ and hitting the refresh button a thousand times a day….Real spiritual progress, in other words, requires a daily going backwards.”[1]

 

To support his conclusion, Tchividjian offers the following interpretation of Philippians 2:12-13:

“Christian growth, in other words, doesn’t happen by first behaving better, but by believing better—believing in bigger, deeper, brighter ways what Christ has already secured for sinners.  Realizing this has changed the entire way I read the Bible.  Think of what Paul tells us in Philippians 2:12; ‘Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.’  We’ve got work to do—but what exactly is it?  Get better?  Try harder?  Pray more?  Get more involved at church?  Read the Bible longer?  What precisely is Paul exhorting us to do?  He goes on to explain: ‘For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.’ (v13) God works his work in you, which is the work already accomplished by Christ….By continuing to place your trust in Christ’s finished work, and by learning to do this more and more,…all that is your possession already in fact—now becomes increasingly yours in experience.”[2]

 

For Tchividjian, being conformed to the image of Christ (progressive sanctification) consists of “hitting the refresh button” on our justified standing—a kind of fresh-faith instant replay to free us from the burden of “trying harder.”  Paul’s command to work out our salvation is not, therefore, a call for holy striving, but a command to remember, contemplate and believe that Christ has already accomplished everything.  The effort we’re called to exert is the determination to rest, knowing we’re acceptable to God through Christ.  To prevent “legalism” we must ruminate on saving grace until our affections and passions turn Christ-ward, overwhelming us with holy delight unto obedience.

 

But is this a biblical understanding of how Christians grow spiritually?  Is this an accurate interpretation of Paul’s words?  Upon closer examination, Philippians 2:12-13 does not encourage mere contemplation at all!  Paul teaches that our proactive striving “with fear and trembling” is the very means by which God’s grace transforms us.  Grace is the ground and power of spiritual change, and faith-filled human effort is the means of grace through which Christ’s power is always working.  Tchividjian ignores the straight-forward grammar of the text and redefines our work as remembering that Christ has already accomplished it.  In other words, we don’t actually have to strive for holiness (a sign of legalism in Tchividjian’s view), we just “preach the gospel to ourselves every day.”[3]  Mentally replaying the grace of salvation is deemed sufficient to cool temptation’s allure and inexorably generate good works

 

That this is what Tchividjian means is clear when he writes:

“Bad behavior, therefore, happens when we fail to believe that everything we need, in Christ we already have; it happens when we fail to believe in the rich provisional resources that are already ours in the gospel.  Conversely, good behavior happens when we daily rest in and receive Christ’s ‘It is finished’ into our rebellious regions of unbelief.”[4]

 

Notice that Tchividjian reduces sin’s cause to unbelief about Christ’s finished work, and all obedience merely to “resting in” it.  Clearly this is an oversimplification.  Of course unbelief is at the root of all sin, generally speaking.  But specific “rebellious regions” will not be subdued merely by re-believing the gospel.  Pointed texts, truths and commands in Scripture which get at the root of particular sin problems must also be believed and obeyed.  Similar over-statements are becoming the norm within reformed circles.  In a discussion on the dangers of antinomianism, Dane Ortlund offered two ways to avoid it:

“One way is to balance gospel grace with exhortations to holiness, as if both need equal air time lest we fall into legalism on one side (neglecting grace) or antinomianism on the other (neglecting holiness).”[5]

 

He admits that Christians should be careful to avoid extremes.  But Ortlund creates an unnecessary dichotomy between gospel grace and exhortations to holiness.  There’s no denying the Bible’s perfect balance between indicatives and imperatives, but Scripture always grounds exhortations in the grace of the gospel.  When saving grace is used to counterbalance holy striving, both get distorted.  In an effort to feature the wonders of grace, Ortlund and others are upstaging the powerful means of grace also provided in the gospel.  Note the attractive, but subtle way this is explained:

The other way, which I believe is the right and biblical way, is so to startle this restraint-free culture with the gospel of free justification that…human approval, moral performance, sexual indulgence, or big bank accounts begin to lose their vice-like grip on human hearts and their emptiness is exposed in all its fraudulence….The solution to restraint-free immorality is not morality. The solution to immorality is the free grace of God—grace so free that it will be (mis)heard by some as a license to sin with impunity. The route by which the New Testament exhorts radical obedience is not by tempering grace but by driving it home all the more deeply.  Let’s pursue holiness. (Without it we won’t see God: Matt 5:8; Heb 12:14.) And let’s pursue it centrally through enjoying the gospel, the same gospel that got us in and the same gospel that liberates us afresh each day.”[6]

 

The pursuit of holiness is never completely put out but it’s become a kind of red-headed stepchild to the grace of salvation.  “Pursue holiness,” Ortlund says, but “centrally through enjoying the gospel.”  Again, this is simplistic.  What does “enjoying the gospel” mean?  Proponents can’t seem to define it beyond rehearsing and believing the finished work of Christ again and again.  Their claim is that when believers finally understand grace, vices that so easily entangle will be exposed for the fraudulent promises they are and we will enjoy the liberating grace of God.  But aren’t we also enjoying God’s grace (and power) in the gospel when we’re “striving according to the power that works within” us (Colossians 1:29)?  Doesn’t God promise that His grace is “willing and working for His good pleasure” as we “work out our salvation” with reverence (Philippians 2:12-13)?

 

Only One Way to Exhaustion?

In his most recent book, Tchividjian has been quick to argue that it is not effort in sanctification he questions, but rather the “unintended consequence” of thinking we must “perform” for God’s love.  In One-Way Love, he writes:

“I heartily amen the desire to take one’s faith seriously and demonstrate before the watching world a willingness to be more than just Sunday churchgoers.  That Christians would want to engage the wider community with God’s sacrificial love—living for their neighbors instead of for themselves—is a wonderful thing and should be applauded.  The unintended consequence of this push, however, is that if we’re not careful, we can give people the impression that Christianity is first and foremost about the sacrifice we make for Jesus rather than the sacrifice Jesus made for us; our performance for him rather than His performance for us; our obedience for him rather than his obedience for us….it often seems that the Good news of God’s grace has been tragically hijacked by an oppressive religious moralism that is all about rules, rules, and more rules.  Doing more, trying harder, self-help, getting better,…Christianity is not about good people getting better.  If anything, it is good news for bad people coping with their failure to be good.”[7]

 

This view has gained so much traction that some followers are becoming confused about the relationship between law and grace, and are leveling charges of legalism, phariseeism, and self-atonement at anyone who describes sanctification in terms of striving, obedience, submission or mortifying sin.  In fact, for scores of wonderful young people with whom I’ve interacted, this view is fast producing in them, not a passion to obey God’s word, but a shocking contempt for the imperatives of Scripture.  I can understand why.  Tchividjian assumes that exhausted, depressed or discouraged believers are most likely suffering from “performancism.”[8]  He defines his newly minted term as

“…the mindset that equates our identity and value directly to our performance and accomplishments….This is not to say that accomplishments are somehow bad, or even that they aren’t incredibly important.  It is simply to say that there is a difference between taking pride in what we do and worshipping it….Performancism causes us to live in a constant state of anxiety, fear, and resentment until we end up heavily medicated, in the hospital, or just really, really unhappy.”[9]

 

Tchividjian sees the greatest problem in the church today as the drive to conform to rules for fear of failing and losing God’s love because of it.  Given this chief concern, it’s no surprise that he trumpets faith in God’s justifying grace as the only solution to spiritual exhaustion and discouragement.  Only when we fully trust that Jesus already achieved everything for us can we get off the treadmill of performing and conforming.  Only when we believe that grace alone has justified us will we be free from the stifling need to “do better.”

 

Happily, I agree that trusting in Christ’s finished work is amazingly freeing!  I remember the first moment I knew and believed that God’s saving grace in Christ was utterly sufficient to cover all my sin.  The resulting euphoria and heart-relief was dramatic.  And that arresting truth has anchored my soul to Christ again and again through the years.  For someone who’s frequently plagued with doubts and fears about the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work, strengthened faith in God’s promise of justification is the supreme cure.  There is a very real danger, however, in merely telling exhausted, fearful Christians that Christ has done everything for them.  We must also help them trace their spiritual discouragement to its correct root.  A superficial diagnosis will lead to misguided, even dangerous treatments.

 

Not all downcast, exhausted people suffer from the tyranny of false expectations to perform.  When God visited Cain in his exhausted misery, He immediately pinpointed Cain’s problem: guilt.  In Genesis 4:6-7, God asked, “Why are you angry and why has your countenance fallen?  If you do well, won’t your countenance be lifted up?”  As with Cain, when people refuse to deal with sin, they become hidden, despondent and angry.  They will even attempt to suppress their heavy heart by busying themselves in ministry, work, educational pursuits or emotion-driven spirituality.  Yet the outward symptoms are often identical to those of someone overwhelmed with the fear of losing God’s favor.  Self-righteousness has many faces, all of which stem from unbelief of one form or another.  Some Christians are simply heavy-laden with the fruit of disobedience.  The burden they carry is rooted, not in thoughts about earning or losing God’s love, but in an unwillingness to prefer Christ above vanities that hold their flesh captive.

 

The solution God set before Cain was repentance from the unbelief that plunged him into failure.  Cain’s problem was an unwillingness to yield to God’s commands.  Sin’s stubborn mastery was breathing down his neck and the result was spiritual depression (Genesis 4:7).  To emphasize justifying grace when a person is under the divine burden of real guilt is a bit like a physician reminding a sick man of a past illness and recovery.  Without today’s cure for today’s illness it does him no good.  Being justified by grace—freeing as it is from sin’s power—doesn’t eradicate sin’s presence or persistence.  Paul never said “there is therefore now no battle for faith and obedience,” but that there is “no condemnation” (Romans 8:1).  If our problem is disobedience and accompanying guilt, musing on justification would tempt us to ignore the warnings of the conscience.

 

Scripture teaches that failure to obey God’s word always brings heaviness upon the conscience (Psalm 32:4; 38:1-10,18; Romans 2:15; 1 Corinthians 8:12; Hebrews 12:11-14).  When the Spirit’s conviction is ignored guilt compounds, and the conscience becomes dulled and speculative, leading eventually to pride (1 Timothy 1:5-7).  Without true confession and repentance the result will soon be spiritual lethargy (exhaustion).  What Tchividjian calls the fallout from trying to earn God’s love might just as likely be the result of plain old unbelief that excuses sin and exalts our will above God’s. The danger here is that if we always comfort someone’s tired heart with justifying grace they won’t see the squandered sanctifying grace that frequently lies behind their fatigue.

 

From nearly two and a half decades of shepherding souls, I’m convinced that the more common problem in the church is not hoards of people burned out on the treadmill of self-atonement and divine merit.  False religions are full of those, the exhausted and energetic.  To be sure, there are some true Christians seized and discouraged by recurring doubts about God’s love and grace.  Their greatest cure is a lively and thorough study of God’s saving grace and justification.  The greater problem in evangelicalism, as I see it, is the very opposite: countless sheep weighed down with the cares of everyday life whose faith is weak, who can’t seem to entrust themselves to the promises of God in the stuff of Christianity 101.  Pragmatism has left God’s people with shallow sermons, untrustworthy leaders, theological confusion, and culture-immersed evangelism paradigms.  Battling sin is hard enough when the sheep are well nourished and cared for.  It’s absolutely devastating when they’re left with no biblical weapons against temptation, nor the discernment to clearly see the cause of their spiritual exhaustion.

 

In today’s church, patterns of defeat and failure are not the result of “trying too hard” to be holy, but of resisting the commands of God in unbelief when faced with temptation.  Even self-atoning tendencies (legalism) are rooted, not in conforming to a set of “do’s and don’ts,” but in believing that conformity equals spiritual merit.  Martin Lloyd-Jones was crystal clear on this issue:

 “We must be diligent in our seeking [Hebrews 11:6].  ‘But,’ says someone, ‘your preaching, is it not an inculcation of justification by works?’  You see how subtle the devil is!  ‘Surely you are going back to the Roman Catholic heresy and the whole Catholic type of devotion?’  The answer to that argument is that it is the Apostle Peter,…who goes out of his way to remind us…that we must ‘add’ to our faith these various other things and to give all diligence in the doing of it.  Be more zealous, be still more active, he says.  And, of course, there is not contradiction at all.  The error of justification by works is in trusting the discipline of your own soul to save your soul; but the opposite to trusting your works is not to do nothing, it is to do everything but not to put your trust in any of it.  It is not the works that are wrong, it is the faith in your works, trusting in your works.  But what a subtle danger this is.  … The opposite to a false trust in works is not indolence, lack of discipline and doing nothing, it is to be diligent and more diligent, to be zealous, and to add to your faith.”[10]

 

It is dangerous, therefore, to tell every defeated, sin-worn Christian that his/her disobedience is really nothing more than a failure to believe they are already acceptable.  That isn’t the point!  I can know and believe that I’m forgiven and acceptable to God (justified), and still resist God when my will doesn’t want to “lay aside” a particular sin that tempts me.  Resisting God’s will in favor of my own is ultimately the sin of unbelief.  It is the sin of not believing God’s character or promises when temptation is vying for my allegiance.  No amount of joy and relief over having been justified will eliminate the demand to trust and obey at the precise moment a carnal lie spreads its enticements in my face.  God saves us by His grace so that He can empower us with grace to deal with the flesh victoriously (Romans 8:13).

 

What this sensual, culture-immersed generation needs is not another excuse for their guilt and weakness (let alone in the name of justifying grace!), but a message of real power—the power that God assures us in the very gospel of grace young people vigorously champion.  The biblical gospel never pits indicatives against imperatives.  The grace that effected and secured my justification is the same grace that empowers me in the use of God’s intended means (the word, prayer, service, praise, et.al.).  The key that unleashes the Spirit’s power in sanctification is true faith.  Entrusting ourselves to God’s word in the moment of temptation starves fleshly appetites and brings our will under the Spirit’s renewing power.  The Scriptures teach that Christ’s victory over sin and death in the past assures us a dynamic power over sin in the present (Romans 6:11ff).  When we’re weak and experiencing defeat, the Bible’s answer has never been: “Hit reset on justification and stop trying to be holy.”  On the contrary, both legalistic pride and libertine pride are put to death by the same means: faith in the promises of God, evidenced by obedience to His will.

 

Even an exhausted believer who’s been wrongly trying to perform for God shouldn’t merely gloss their sorrows with a fresh coat of justification.  That will only hide the roots of unbelief that prevent dying to self at the precise point of temptation.  The solution to self-atoning tendencies is not to stop vigorously pursuing righteousness, but to stop trusting in it.  The solution to patterns of defeat is not to stop denying self, but to stop blaming unbelief on moral standards we find hard to obey.  The power of the Spirit against the flesh is not accessed by mere contemplation of saving grace, but by entrusting ourselves to God at the very moment our flesh is crying out for satisfaction.  And since obeying the will of Christ is the only sure proof of genuine faith, then we must always fight discouragement, not with less striving, but with greater faith-filled effort.

 

Faith and Change

The Gospel-Sanctification movement teaches that our thoughts and faith are active, but our will is passive—as if faith merely consists of right thoughts with no relationship to self-denial or yielding the will.  But according to the entire eleventh chapter of Hebrews, true faith is always manifested in yielded obedience.  Faith willingly responds to the “conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).  The grace of the gospel won’t transform anything in me without my obedient faith.  The moral capacity to yield is enabled solely by divine grace, but is only experienced the moment self is denied and God is trusted from the heart (Romans 6:17; 1 Peter 2:23).  An unyielded will betrays a “dead faith” (James 2:17).  Divine grace is behind any ability to turn from sin and prefer Christ.  But though God is the ultimate cause of our sanctification, the means of grace He’s provided include more than merely “going back to our…secured pardon.”  Preferring Christ above vices does not simply begin to happen as we bask in the shock and awe of God’s amazing grace!  The flesh doesn’t suddenly lose its vice-grip when we mentally “hit refresh” on justification.

 

Could God have designed progressive sanctification that way?  He could’ve ordained that as we revisit the theme of God’s scandalous grace over and over, our pride is melted away, sin no longer entices, fleshly desires take flight in utter impotence, and our will seamlessly oozes into delightful conformity to Christ.  No real battle, and no moment in a temptation when “by the Spirit” we are responsible to “put to death the deeds of the flesh.”  Indeed, there are times when our obedience to Christ seems to happen in just that way!  Reflecting back on how we conquered some sin and it’s as though we experienced the delight of saying “yes” to God without the pain of saying “no” to the flesh.  Biblically speaking, however, true obedience only happens when both things occur.

 

Faith is entrustment to Christ, for everything.  True faith is a self-emptying.  And it is only visible when our will is yielded and conformed to His.  God could’ve ordained that our wills be passive in sanctification.  But He didn’t.  He calls us to believe Him with a visible faith, proven in active obedience (Hebrews 11:1,6).  God calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him in faith (Luke 9:23).  He calls us to strive in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, which holds the promise that our obedient faith is being wrought in God (John 3:21; Philippians 2:13). That’s why Scripture doesn’t even blush at emphasizing the “do’s and don’t’s” of sanctification!  In fact, a biblical understanding of the gospel (it’s freeing grace and Spirit-empowering reality) always leads to a renewed, Spirit-led love for holiness and a faith-filled, vigorous battle against sin (Romans 6:1-22).

 

Sanctification by Feeling

This brings me to a pastoral concern about how this young generation has become so vulnerable and easily confused about sanctification.  Their new-found grasp of justifying grace has thrilled their souls, but their love of cultural aesthetics and sensual stimuli leads them to pursue sanctification by “feelings” rather than faith-driven obedience.  When facing everyday temptations, they simply cannot go forward in obedience unless their “affection and longing” for God precedes their faith and submission.  What a tragedy of epic blindness!  The very thing that produces love, joy and longing for Christ—simple faith in Him—is what they’re expecting their emotions and life’s aesthetics to produce.  This is to turn the process of sanctification on its head.

 

Pastor Ichabod Spencer, many years ago, recorded the same myopia in his day when trying to help a lost soul discover what kept him from saving faith:

“I finally said to him one evening:

‘I do not know, my dear sir, what more can be said to you. I have told you all that I know. Your state as a sinner lost, exposed to the righteous penalty of God’s law, and having a heart alienated from God; and the free offer of redemption by Christ; and your instant duty to repent of sin, and give up the world, and give God your heart; and the source of your help, through the power of the Holy Spirit assured to you, if you will “receive” Christ; all these things have become as familiar to you as household words. What more can I say? I know not what more there is to be said. I cannot read your heart. God can, and you can by his aid. Some things you have said almost made me think you a Christian, and others again have destroyed that hope. I now put it to your own heart – if you are not a Christian, what hinders you?’

He thought a moment. Said he: ‘I can’t feel!’
‘Why didn’t you tell me this before?’
‘I never thought of it before, sir.’
‘How do you know this hinders you?’
‘I can think of nothing else. But I am sure I shall never be converted to God, if I have no more feeling than I have now. But that is my own fault. I know you cannot help me.’
‘No, sir, I cannot; nor can you help yourself. Your heart will not feel at your bidding.’
‘What then can I do?’ said he, with much anxiety.
‘Come to Christ now. Trust him. Give up your darling world. “Repent, so iniquity shall not be your ruin.”‘
He seemed perplexed, annoyed, vexed; and with an accent of impatience, such as I had never witnessed in him before, he replied, ‘That is impossible. I want the feeling to bring me to that, and I can’t feel!’
‘Hear me, sir’, said I; ‘and heed well what I say. I have several points:

‘1. The Bible never tells you that you must feel, but that you must repent and believe. 

‘2. Your complaint that you “can’t feel” is just an excuse by which your wicked heart would justify you for not coming to Christ now. 

‘3. This complaint that you “can’t feel” is the complaint of a self-righteous spirit.’

‘How is it?’ said he.
‘Because you look to the desired feeling to commend you to God, or to make you fit to come, or to enable you to come.’
‘Yes, to enable me’, said he.
‘Well, that is self-righteousness, in the shape of self-justification for not coming; or in the shape of self-reliance if you attempt to come. That is all legalism, and not the acceptance of a gracious Christianity. You cannot be saved by the law.

‘4. Your complaint is the language of the most profound ignorance. To feel would do you no good. Devils feel – lost spirits feel. 

‘5. Your complaint that you “can’t feel” tends to lead you to a false religion – a religion of mere self-righteous feeling. Religion is duty.’

‘But, sir’, said he, ‘there is feeling in religion.’
‘But, sir’, said I, ‘there is duty in religion; and which shall come first? You ought to feel; you ought to love God, and grieve that you are such a senseless sinner.’
‘I know I am a sinner, but I can’t feel any confidence to turn to God, to draw me to him.’
‘You are like the prodigal in the fifteenth of Luke, when he thought of saying to his father, “Make me as one of the hired servants.” Poor fool. Say that to his father! Why, the very idea is a libel on his father’s heart. But he didn’t think so. Poor fool! He knew no better. And you are a greater fool than he. He went home. And where he met his father he found his heart. He could “feel” when he found his father’s arms around him, and felt the strong beatings of his father’s heart. Do as he did. Go home, and you will feel, if you never felt before. You will starve where you are; your “husks” will not save you.’”[11]

 

The same is true regarding a believer’s sanctification.  We change, not when we’re first compelled by inner-longings or feelings, but when we entrust our lives to God’s truth (believe in Him – Hebrews 11:6).  In fact, faith is at its zenith when aesthetics, circumstances or feelings we are experiencing are most contrary to the promises of God.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus was inwardly and deeply “troubled in His soul,” He considered His Father’s will and yielded to it (“not my will but yours be done” – Mark 14:36).  Trusting God despite His agony and the hellish temptation to flee the prospect of bearing our guilt was the essence of Jesus’ active faith in the Father’s promises.  On Mount Moriah, surely Abraham had no emotional “sensations of joy” at the prospect of driving a stake through his beloved son’s heart.  There were no compelling earthly reasons to feel affectionate “delight” toward God.  All he had were divine promises.  It was a “hope against hope” moment of truth (Romans 4:18), and he believed, submitting his own will in faith to the character of God, despite the overwhelming desire to defy the command and protect the child!  Such faith is the stuff of real change!  The Scriptures teach that believing is seeing, and not the other way around (John 20:29; Romans 8:24-25; Galatians 2:20; Second Corinthians 5:7).  Faith is real entrustment in the person of Christ and loving submission to His commands.  It is the “conviction of things not seen” (or in this case “not felt” – Hebrews 11:1).

 

Some teachers today are promoting the idea that love for Christ begins with feelings of affection for Him.  But even loving Christ with true affection and joy is impossible apart from true faith.  In fact, the only way for me to truly know if I love Christ is obedient faith in His word (e.g. as all of Hebrews 11 indicates: “By faith…[they obeyed]”).  Subjective, inner-dynamics are not a trustworthy gauge for whether we’re intimately walking with the Lord.  The objective truth of Scripture and yielding to it by faith in Christ is the only clear way to know where we stand spiritually on a daily basis.  To love Christ is to be controlled by the Spirit, which results in the subordination of our will to His.  Emotional sensations prove nothing!  Looking inward to evaluate levels of longing and affection is dangerous because fallen creatures find nothing in themselves that is pleasing to God apart from faith (Hebrews 11:6).

 

On the other hand, we can know for certain, even temptation-by-temptation, whether we are walking with God by evaluating our heart and conduct by the word of God.  Where it speaks, we are called to believe it, entrust ourselves to it and yield to the Spirit in obedience (Galatians 5:16,25; Ephesians 5:18).  If we’re constantly obsessed with feelings or aesthetic sensations, we’re left to human assessments of our spiritual condition—an inconclusive enterprise, as the Apostle Paul declared in First Corinthians 4:4.  Sin and disobedience are not rooted ultimately in a lack of joy or the absence of affectionate emotions toward Christ, they are rooted in a lack of faith.  Consequently, waiting to obey in faith until we can crank up enough internal passion for Christ is a spiritual dead end.  Obedient faith is the essence of loving Christ (John 14:15).  True faith doesn’t wait for anything that can be seen, felt, or aesthetically generated.  Indeed, that’s the very definition of faith—it doesn’t wait for anything, it simply believes.

 


[1] Tullian Tchividjian, Jesus + Nothing = Everything (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2011), Kindle Electronic Edition: Chapter 7, Location 94-95.

[2] Ibid., Location 95-96.

[3] This concept was first popularized by author Jerry Bridges in his book The Discipline of Grace (NavPress, 1994).  He meant it as a practical tool for mortifying a tendency in some Christians to believe they have forfeited God’s love because of disobedience.  I’m sure he never envisioned that the concept would later become linked with the antinomian notion that sanctification is merely contemplating the grace of justification.

[4] Tullian Tchividjian, “Work Hard! But In Which Direction?” (http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tullian/2011/06/08/work-hard-but-in-which-direction/. Accessed October, 2012).

[5] Dane Ortlund, “The Radical Gospel, Defiant and Free,” (http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2011/01/27/the-radical-gospel-defiant-and-free/.) Accessed February, 2013.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Tullian Tchividjian, One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World (Colorado Springs, CO.: David C. Cook, 2013), Kindle Electronic Edition: Location 54-78.

[8] Ibid., Location 46-59.

[9] Though Tchividjian seems unable to offer clear principles for knowing exactly when a Christian crosses over from proper goal-setting into idolatry, he consistently assumes that personal and spiritual fatigue are universally the result of performancism.

[10] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and its Cure (Grand Rapids, MI:, Eerdman’s, 1965), 210-211.

[11] Ichabod Spencer, A Pastor’s Sketches (Central, Hong Kong: Forgotten Books, 2010), Kindle Electronic Edition: Location 5226-5276.

Jerry Wragg

Pastor of Grace Immanuel Bible Church in Jupiter, Florida and the Chairman of The Expositors Seminary.

15 Comments

Ted Bigelow

about 4 years ago

Yup. Ding, ding, ding. Thanks for refreshing my soul with Phil 2:13 today. I love my justification, but I also love the command to work at sanctification. Needed that.

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Matthew Johnson

about 4 years ago

Excellent article. I believe this is one of the most important issues of our day in the evangelical church. How we carefully do exegesis on this topic of sanctification will have a profound effect on the state of the church moving into the next generation. Thank you for your voice of clarity in this.

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Kelty

about 4 years ago

Thank you for this excellent article. I'm printing it out to read and digest even further as I'm dealing with a couple of beastly besetting sins, the ordinary, stubborn ones that just dog you day after day. This article is helping me think more clearly and practically about how the Spirit works with me in moments of temptation, that yielding to God at those moments STARVES the flesh and accesses the Spirit's power. I hadn't thought of like that. That is helpful and useful. I find Tullian's (and others) insistence upon opposing law and gospel a forced and unnatural reading of Scripture. Also, I find it oppressive as it says to me as I do daily battle with these sins that, well, I should have just believed in my justification harder! Is that not a legalism all it's own? And a defeating one at that, because how can you know if you've truly believed in your justification hard enough? (Maybe I'm misunderstanding his points but I don't find them hopeful as I've heard and read them so far.) Thank you again for these words.

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Jerry

about 4 years ago

Kelty - You understood the implications of Tullian's view keenly. If Jesus were an antinomian He would've said to the adulterous woman in John 8: "Neither do I condemn you. From now on go and do nothing else but remember this acquittal."

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Ken Mullins

about 4 years ago

Thank you, appreciate the time and thought it took to write this. Spot on!

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In Christ Alone

about 4 years ago

Pastor Wragg, this is so timely....this issue and book surfaced in our church Sunday School a week or so ago. I had never heard our pastor teach on sanctification. Now wondering what our pastor actually believes about God's means of grace and sanctification and obedience to God's Word and holiness. I printed this article out and went through it carefully. Hoping to share it with others in the church. Thank you so much!

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peggy

about 3 years ago

Thank you so much for addressing this issue. Recently our church has been divided by this very issue and I wish every member could read this article as well as "kelty's" comment.

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Jerry Wragg

about 3 years ago

Peggy - I'm sorry about your church's strife over this issue. Tragically, you're not alone. I'm working on a book on sanctification and I'll be dealing with this neo-antinomian error that continues to divide many longstanding and faithful ministries. Those who teach a hyper view of grace seem totally unaware of the fire they're playing with. In the history of the church, the rise of hyper-grace movements (antinomianism) always inevitably led vulnerable sheep into despair, further worldliness, and often agnosticism. To salve their guilty consciences, many turned to liturgical forms of religion while countless others were driven to mysticism or atheism-with-attitude. I fear that the young, reformed crowd is careening down this same path. They're being duped by foolish and irresponsible leaders whose doctrine of sanctification, it seems, has developed from fluency with weakness rather than Scripture. While claiming to extol grace they are draining the power right out of it. Glad you’ve been helped by the article. I also taught two seminars on this topic at the Shepherds Conference, held at Grace Community Church each year in March (www.shepherdsconference.org). I’ve also taught an entire Sunday night series on it from our own pulpit at Grace Immanuel Bible Church (www.gibcjupiter.org). You’ll find it under the title “Free to Pursue Holiness.” Trembling at His word, Jerry

Reply

E

about 2 years ago

What if Tullian and others in his line of thinking are simply using the terminology of "refresh" as a way of saying our obedience (if it is to be pleasing to God or transformative to us) must trust in Jesus's work in the believer before each act of obedience? Rather then going forth in acts of obedience to do our part in sanctification couldn't we biblically follow Jesus? What I mean to say is that often we get ahead of Jesus and begin doing things we think are best. There are thousands of New Testament imperatives after all. We could get 15 acts of obedience down the road, ahead of Jesus, with trust in our growing abilities and look back to see if Jesus is pleased. He asked us to follow Him. This might be why He freed us from the thousands so we can follow Him in few He has for us today. That intimate dependence and trust in who He is, who He has made me, in one single act of obedience will transform me in ways dozens of acts on my own could ever do. I think that is the refresh. Not passively doing nothing. But not actively doing everything either (if we could do this we didn't need justified). But an actively doing something in trust in Jesus grace today.

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about 2 years ago

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