The blogosphere has been humming lately with questions of Christian freedom and Christian depravity, the role of faith and works in sanctification, the priority of law or Gospel in sanctification, and the like. Some have seized the “Gospel-Centered” banner and have used it to wage general war on law and works—after all, they argue,
Major Premise: The Gospel is Justification.
Minor Premise: Justification is destroyed by law and works.
Conclusion: The Gospel is destroyed by law and works.
So what’s wrong with the syllogism? Well, the logical structure is fine, so if an error is to be found, it has to be in one of the premises. In this case, it is the major premise. The gospel is not reducible to the forensic reality of justification. It also includes the experimental reality of regeneration. Together they comprise what the Reformers described as the duplex beneficium of union with Christ—two distinct benefits received simultaneously in the Gospel. And whenever we minimize either of these benefits, the Gospel disappears:
- Suppress justification and a “Gospel” of legalism, Pharisaism, and pious moralism emerges to insulate the proponent from the righteousness of God.
- Suppress regeneration and a “Gospel” of antinomianism, Corinthianism, and arrogant license emerges to insulate the proponent from the very possibility of sanctification.
What happens then is saddest of all: the Pharisees and the Corinthians start quibbling over which version of the Gospel is better. The Corinthians hoot that if we continue in sin, grace abounds. And even when checked by Paul’s “God forbid” in Romans 6:2, they still conclude that it’s better to be a Corinthian with no works at all than to engage in works that, upon examination, are found to be self-righteous. The Pharisees howl back that faith without works is dead: “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do,” concluding that the best chance at earning God’s favor is by multiplying works: better a Pharisee who can argue his case (Matthew 7:22) than a Corinthian with absolutely no case at all!
The fact is that neither group has a legitimate claim to the label “Gospel-Centered.” Both have missed a critical aspect of the Gospel. Yes, we are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, “not from yourselves, [but by] the gift of God; not by works, so that no one can boast.” But we are also sanctified by virtue of the the impartation of a new nature as partakers of the divine nature and new creatures in Christ—regenerate beings “created in Christ Jesus to do good works that God prepared in advance for us to do” and “without which no one shall see the Lord” (Ephesians 2:8-10; Hebrews 12:14).
Being “Gospel-Centered” is a good thing. But like the “biblicist” label before it, this new label risks becoming useless if a subset of believers with an incomplete and careless soteriology is allowed to illicitly commandeer the term to seize moral high ground that they have not earned. That is the problem with “Gospel-Centered” sanctification.