It’s no secret that I have an abiding interest in the place and function of sanctification in the life of believers. The journey that began for me as a doctoral dissertation answering the Keswick model of sanctification that has historically punished dispensational fundamentalism has taken a new twist in recent years as a new threat has emerged within conservative evangelicalism: the gospel-driven sanctification approach most vividly seen in the writings of Tullian Tchividjian, but certainly not restricted to his sphere of influence.
In ultimate terms, I am not opposed to the label “gospel-driven” as applied to sanctification. My tension with the contemporary use of this label by those in the “contemporary grace movement” (as it is now being labeled in some Reformed circles) is that it restricts the gospel, in varying degrees, to Christ’s accomplishment of justification for us while giving scant attention to Christ’s accomplishment of regeneration in us. As such, “gospel-driven” sanctification becomes, to a greater or lesser degree, an exercise in recalling Christ’s righteousness imputed in justification (with an attendant abhorrence of all that smacks of “doing” or “rule-keeping”) rather than as a disciplined cultivation and exercise of Christ’s righteousness imparted in regeneration. This is an irregularity of no small concern.
The Great Commission knows nothing of this irregularity. Its burden is not only to secure professions of faith, but to create Christ-followers who are baptized into local church communities and then “taught to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20). In short, the Gospel includes teaching new believers to keep God’s rules, both cultivating virtue and extirpating sin. This very compact expectation represents, I think, the very essence of sanctification, and it is a part of the Great Commission. Obedience is not, to be sure, necessary to salvation, but it is, most emphatically, necessary of salvation. So necessary are obedience and good works in the Christian religion that the Scriptures can say, “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14). The burden of this statement, which dominates several whole books of the NT canon (James, 1 John, and 2 Peter), informs us that obedience is important to God. As Rick Phillips has recently (and very carefully) explained, the Gospel includes sanctification (read the whole thing—he says things so very much more clearly than I). But let me take his statement one provocative step further: if the Gospel includes sanctification/regeneration (and I think Pastor Phillips is correct in affirming this), then to the degree that Gospel presentations suppress/omit these ideas, they risk altering the Gospel into something other than what the Bible claims it to be. And that is a very, very big deal.
The reason we Protestants tend to diminish the importance of obedience is, of course, the real and vital concern that we might communicate to an unbeliever that one’s obedience contributes to one’s justification. This is a devastating error, and we rightly want to avoid it at all costs. And so, we reason, if introducing regeneration/sanctification/obedience in a Gospel presentation might confuse an unbeliever about the means of justification, then we may dispense with these topics as matters of secondary importance: it’s more important, after all, to get people saved than it is to get people holy. But this is a very anthropocentric sentiment that flies in the face of Christ’s earthly mission. Christ came not only to rescue his people from the guilt of sin, but also from the power and practice of sin—he came to destroy the works of the evil one and to create a heaven that is scoured free not only of guilt, but of all unrighteousness (see, e.g., 1 John 3:5–8; Rom 6:1–14; etc.).
I remain mindful that the “movements” from which many of us and many of our churches have emerged have emphasized obedience and rules to excess, and I cannot condone this. Still, we err mightily if we adopt the binary approach that sees libertinism as the only remedy for legalism. There is an excluded middle here that we badly need to discover.