A friend of mine, after reading the original edition of this post, challenged me about how it came off as arrogant, as I sometimes do. Today I re-read it and decided he was probably right, and that I was probably guilty of the same ungracious attitude I was attempting to critique. What follows is a rewrite in which I’m trying to maintain the substance of what I said and lose the arrogant tone. I am confident in my point of view, but I recognize that how I say it is important if I hope to persuade people. I also recognize that a lot of people already read that version that I’m now a little embarrassed about. Please be patient, if not forgiving, with me. The level of emotion involved here caught me a bit off guard. I’m taking a warning about how the internet makes it a little too easy to speak too fast.

Some preliminary notes:

  • I arrived at my point of view on this subject before the current controversy erupted. The article I posted earlier this week to present my view of sanctification and its relationship to the commandments of scripture was written in 2011. In the bibliography of that article, you will find resources reflecting a wide range of perspectives on the subject of sanctification. The book that probably most influenced me in developing that article was Possessed by God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness by David Peterson, which builds a strong biblical case that sanctification should be viewed primarily in definitive terms. Another strong influence is no doubt Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, the first thesis of which is this: “The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him.” I have grown into holding a monergistic view of sanctification over a period of many years of biblical and theological study, much of which was not particularly aimed at understanding these issues but ended up giving me a particular understanding anyway. I am extremely pleased that God has apparently led other leaders to similar (not identical) conclusions, but I didn’t arrive here by being caught up in a movement.
  • I do not speak for anyone but myself. I have never read a book by Tullian Tchividjian, and if this argument is about things he has said, I am not really qualified to participate. I heard him speak once, and I remember that I very much liked what he had to say, though I couldn’t tell you today what it was–something about the value of suffering. From listening (a little) to some of the discussion, it seems to me that while there may be two sides, there are about as many views as there are speakers, and we should try to avoid attributing any guilt by association.
  • In these three critiques at least, there’s a lot of quoting of Tchividjian’s books without context, which makes me nervous about straw man arguments. To check this would require me to read his books, and I don’t think that’s the best way to be faithful to my particular calling as a Pastor in Bonaire. To be fair, that means I probably shouldn’t have stepped into this ball field in the first place.
  • I am the pastor of one church, and I am not the pastor of any other churches. It has come to my attention that this national debate has been employed by people seeking backup for their point of view as they try to engage the argument at Community Bible Church. Before I realized this, I said I would give my take on these three sermons. My intention here is to fulfill that commitment, to do so in pretty general terms, and then to pretty much withdraw from the discussion.
  • Everyone who is involved in whatever level of disagreement is going on at CBC should know this: I completely trust the men God has appointed as Pastors and Elders at CBC because I know them. I know their devotion to Christ, their skill in interpreting the scriptures, and their wisdom in shepherding the people of God at CBC. They continue to have an important role in my own spiritual direction. I was also, of course, a participant in the development of their perspective on this issue, which I wholeheartedly embrace. Nothing I say should be construed as disagreement with them.
  • This particular disagreement would not be a sufficient cause for me to leave any church. That means that if I were a member of a church that did not hold my view on this, I would not leave it apart from the blessing and leadership of the elders of that church. That means I would ask them and I would depart if they said it was best. I recognize that my idea of what makes a good reason to leave one’s church seems a little crazy to a lot of people.
  • It is my prayer for my own church, and for everyone at CBC, and for everyone I know, that they will experience the same joy I have experienced in the realization that I have been liberated by the work of Christ from the need to produce a righteousness of my own, and that the whole of the Christian life is the enjoyment of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and that obedience on that basis is, as John put it, “not burdensome.”

So, on to the point:

  • Dr. Lawson’s message struck me as ungracious, an example of the sort of demanding tone, sometimes descending into mockery, that really doesn’t fit the goodness of God’s grace. (Listening to this sermon actually upset me a little, which I think is where my pride took advantage in my original post, in which my response probably adopted the very tone I was criticizing. I am sorry for that.)
  • Both Pennington and Wragg were more irenic. I disagree with these guys, but appreciate the fact that they recognize that this is a disagreement among friends.
  • All three of these men (along with a number of other Christian leaders I respect) believe that sanctification is synergistic, meaning that it is accomplished by the work of God alongside the work of man. What I want everyone to notice is simple: Sanctification is an aspect of our salvation. As such it is on the same list as election, justification, redemption, reconciliation, and glorification. Salvation, in all its aspects, is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Salvation, not just justification but including sanctification, is monergistic.
  • These men argue that the so-called cross-based view errs by conflating sanctification with justification–that we are saying that all there is to sanctification is constant reference to justification. Some people do say that, but a cross-based idea of sanctification doesn’t necessarily do so. To say that sanctification is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is not to say that it is simply remembrance of justification. It is not. Growing in grace does involve constant reference to the atoning work of Christ, but there’s more to the atoning work of Christ than justification. Justification is the application of the righteousness of Christ to the one who has faith based on the penal substitution of the death of Christ. Sanctification is the saving work of God in which he sets me apart for his exclusive use. This is based on—even accomplished by—our union with Christ in his death and resurrection (Rom 6). Living the Christian life involves a daily (or even minute-by minute) recognition by faith that I do, in fact, belong to God in Christ–that I am at his disposal. This “confession of my sanctification” is the ONLY basis of true obedience: “whatever is not of faith is sin,” “apart from me you can do nothing.” This way of seeing this is certainly cross-based sanctification, but it is not “just looking back to our justification.”
  • These men argue that the mere existence of commandments given to believers proves that sanctification is synergistic. Here the question often seems to revolve around how much effort and pain is involved in obedience. For me, the question is not whether I am obligated to obey or how hard it’s going to be; the question is whether I obey through active dependence on the power and direction of the Spirit purchased by the blood of Christ and out of the love of Christ OR whether I just read what I’m s’posed to do and try to do it. Where I’m trying to live is “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” I strive with all my might to live there. I tell my people regularly that I don’t want us to do anything for which Jesus doesn’t need to show up. Faith in Christ produces obedience; striving after obedience without Christ produces only self-righteousness.
  • This brings us to what I see as the crux of the issue. The main mistake of those who adopt a synergistic idea of sanctification is an inadequate appreciation of the definitive nature of sanctification. This leads to an unbiblical over-emphasis of progressive sanctification, which in turn leads them to redefine the very word to mean something like increased obedience to commandments. That is not what the word sanctification means when the Bible uses it (my post, “14 Theses on the Doctrine of Sanctification,” or better yet Dr. Peterson’s book, provides a fuller explanation). Growing in obedience cannot be equated with sanctification; it is, rather the fruit of walking by faith in the finished sanctifying work of God the Father in the Son and by the Spirit. That is how even ‘progressive’ sanctification is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. My obedience does not sanctify me, God does. To be holy or sanctified–to be a saint–is to be completely set apart by God unto God. You can no more be partially sanctified than you can be partially pregnant. Or to use the terms of Galatians 5, you cannot walk in the Spirit and in the flesh at the same time, and you can’t walk in a way that’s somewhat in the Spirit and somewhat in the flesh. I “progress” in sanctification in the sense that I walk by faith in my already complete sanctification more and more of the time.

This post references the following sermons:

Steve Lawson, preaching at the 2014 Shepherd’s Conference General Session, 3/7/2014, “The Costly Discipline of a Godly Pastor

Tom Pennington, preaching at Countryside Bible Church in Southlake, TX on 11/10/2013, “Creatively Dodging Santification” (This link goes directly to the audio)

Jerry Wragg, teaching at the 2014 Shepherd’s Conference Seminar, “The New Antinomianism


One Response to “My Take (2) on Lawson, Pennington and Wragg”

  1. Well said Doug. Thank you. I am not apart of the argument, but I just told Damien that…
    On the grace/sanctification debate: I think I would rather listen to my brother and his ex-wife’s new husband hash it out on Facebook about who is the better father to their children. At least THAT is measurable–they are both failures. It makes no sense to so passionately and aggressively argue over such a priceless, humanly immeasurable and unfathomable GIFT (such as grace and sanctification) this side of heaven. The purest and unsuburbanized definition of grace (and sanctification) is just as infinite as its Originator, The Creator Himself. It is amazing, wondrous, and absurd all at the same time. Perhaps we will never grasp its fullness till we see Him face to face… So why argue about it?

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