Biblical Sanctification & “Jesus + Nothing = Everything”
In recent years the topic of “gospel-centeredness” has received increasing amounts of press in Christian books and blogs. Unfortunately, some recent writings under this theme do not square with the clear teaching of God’s word – particularly those writings that blur the distinction between justification and sanctification.
Sanctification & Justification
“Sanctification” is the word we use to describe our increasing progress in personal holiness as Christians. The word shows up in our English New Testaments as a translation of a form of the Greek word hagios which is usually translated “holy”. Romans 6:19 for instance, tell us “For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification (hagiosmos).” Throughout the Bible God tells his people to “be holy” (Lev.19:2; Rev.22:11). When Peter recites this oft-repeated command he elaborates with the words, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (1Pt.1:14-16). The many biblical passages that speak to the Christian’s responsibility to be holy or live righteously is what we mean when we speak of “sanctification.”
The process of increasing sanctification in the Christian life stands in contrast to the biblical description of Christian justification. To be “justified” by faith in Christ is to be declared “righteous” before God and accepted as his adopted and forgiven child. In the New Testament the word “justified” comes from the same Greek word that translates “righteous” (dikaios). God “justifies” us – or declares us legally “righteous” – not based on any of our attempts at being “righteous” but based on the imputed “righteousness” of Christ (Rom.4:1-8). This happens at a moment in time when we become God’s son or daughter by the regenerating work of God’s Spirit. At that moment God officially transfers us from “death” to “life” and we are completely accepted before our Creator on the merits of Christ. This is a great truth to be celebrated as I do here in this clip from a recent sermon on justification.
The Bible clearly differentiates this one time act of justification from the ongoing process of sanctification in our lives. While we are made righteous and therefore acceptable before God by the work of Christ, God commands us as regenerate, accepted, and dearly loved children to get going and purposefully work at our sanctification.
Our upcoming conference at Compass Bible Church will address this kind of sanctification – a sanctification depicted in the Bible as active, intentional and even aggressive. Sadly this is very different than the kind of sanctification that seems to be growing in popularity in many Christian circles today. This popular “passive” form of sanctification is taking root in many Bible-teaching churches, in part, because it speaks so highly of God’s grace, Christ’s indomitable love, and the finished work of the cross on our behalf. Unfortunately, it also severely confuses the biblical truths regarding justification with what the Bible tells us concerning sanctification.
A new book just released by Crossway Publishers is a perfect example of the confusion I am referring to.
In Jesus + Nothing = Everything, Tullian Tchividjian (the pastor of renowned Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida) recounts his struggle to overcome what he calls an “addiction to being liked” (p.23) and his longstanding practice of “depending on the endorsement of others to validate” him and make him “feel that [he] mattered” (p.23). This personal victory is set against the backdrop of a significant congregational crisis regarding his acceptance as the new pastor who is called to lead in the wake of the long and esteemed ministry of his predecessor, Dr. D. James Kennedy. Tchividjian tells of how he not only wins a crucial vote to maintain his position as the pastor in the face of a petition to remove him (pp.194-195), but how he also discovers while studying Colossians “that the gospel alone can free us from our addiction to being liked” and that because “Jesus measured up for us” we don’t “have to live under the enslaving pressure of measuring up for others” (p.23). This discovery, which he calls a “gospel revolution” (p.12), is defined and unpacked in this 209 page book as the “liberating truth” which should “define our lives” (p.24), making attainable “a fullness, a completeness, [and] a life-abundance” (p.30) that he claims is sadly nothing more than “a parroted platitude” for most “religious folks” (p.31).
While we should all celebrate when Christians (especially pastors) cease any attempt to find their validation in man’s approval, we must be extraordinarily careful that the solution does not come at the expense of a proper view and biblical approach to sanctification.
Tchividjian purposefully presses his readers to reconsider their preconceived distinctions between justification and sanctification. He tells us that we need to understand that “sanctification is the daily hard work of going back to the reality of our justification” (p.95). He says that “the hard work of Christian growth therefore, is to think less of ourselves and our performance and more of Jesus and his performance for us” (p.95). The working out of our salvation referenced in Philippians 2:12 is defined by Tchividjian as the “hard work” of “thinking those things through, asking those questions” – that is, thinking and asking “how does the finished work of Christ affect my thirst for security, affection, protection, meaning, and purpose?” and “how does the finished work of [Christ] satisfy my deepest daily needs so that I can experience the liberating power of the gospel every day and in every way?” (p.169). In other words, “the secret for Christian maturity” is to “focus less on what we need to do for God and focus more on all that God has already done for us” (p.185). Any biblical passages relating to our sanctification that call for “work” are repeatedly reduced by Tchividjian as the work of “resting” (p.46) “believing” (p.172), and “giving up our efforts at self-justification” (p.172).
Tchividjian’s newfound definition of the “work” of sanctification is encapsulated and promoted by his repeated call for Christians to relax – “‘It is finished,’ so relax” (p.206); “The gospel tells us to relax” (p.120); “I don’t fret over things as much. I’m more relaxed” (p.11); “God doesn’t dwell on your sin the way you do. So, relax” (p.184). In essence we are told that “the gospel liberates us to be okay with not being okay” (p.120).
But is that really what the Bible teaches us regarding the sanctification of regenerate people and our call to be holy? Can the New Testament commands to “be holy in all your conduct” (1Pt.1:16), to “make every effort to add to your faith” (2Pt.1:5), and to be “abounding in the work of the Lord” (1Cor.15:58) legitimately be understood as calls to relax? Or can we not look to the immediate context of Philippians 2:12 to discover that the work in view is not the effort of remembering, but the work of obedience (“as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your salvation…”). Yes, Philippians 2:13 describes the synergistic reality of such obedience (“for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure”), but certainly the context of this command to work cannot be reduced to be the work of “remembering,” “resting” or “relaxing.”
When many of Tchividjian’s assertions are considered in the context of justification, all of evangelical Christianity should heartily agree. Yes, we are accepted by God on the merits of Christ, with no reference to our efforts, works, or good deeds. “The only thing we contribute to our salvation” as William Temple famously wrote, “is the sin that makes it necessary.” But “expanding” on this quote, as Tchividjian does on page 104, where we read “the only thing you contribute to your salvation and to your sanctification is the sin that makes them necessary” is a radical redefinition of sanctification, which will not hold up to biblical