In 1786, at a meeting of pastors in Northamptonshire, England, the young William Carey stood up to champion the cause of sending missionaries to foreign lands. To which the now infamous retort rang out from the senior ministers: “Young man, sit down; when God wants to convert the heathen, he will do it without your help!” To his theologically astute colleagues, Carey’s passion to carry so much concern and expend so much effort for the lost only invited the insult of being called “a miserable enthusiast”.
Thankfully, William Carey was not dissuaded. His “enthusiasm” won for him a very different nickname from his spiritual progeny: “the father of modern missions.” We can be glad the pervasive form of hyper-Calvinism, which held sway in so many churches of his day did not extinguish Carey’s resolve to respond wholeheartedly to the plain teaching of Scripture.
The problem with the influential “theologically astute” in 1786 (as with many today) wasn’t that they were not serious about the Bible or theology; it was just that too many of them had grown accustomed to utilizing biblical truths in unbiblical ways.
When it comes to missions for instance, there exists the classic tension between what we read in the Bible concerning divine sovereignty and human responsibility – responsibility, both on the part of the lost person and the missionary. And like all theological truths in tension, if Christians seek to eliminate the tension in their minds or in their practice, one can be sure their theology has become unbiblical and their lives disobedient. The eighteenth-century religious establishment had affirmed divine sovereignty to the exclusion of human responsibility. And while attempting to meld those two concepts in our minds can cause a headache, they both have to be affirmed in order for us to remain biblically faithful.
The pastors of Carey’s day needed to say (as many later did), yes, God is sovereign in choosing to convert people, but God has also laid on the sinner the responsibility to repent and believe the gospel. To quote Romans 10:14-15, “And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’” To be obedient and biblical, we must work hard to reach the lost and then give credit to God for any success we see on the mission field.
That’s how it must be for missions, and it’s not much different when it concerns the topic of sanctification. There is a similar kind of tension in trying to understand what takes place in the process of our sanctification.
Biblical Tension in Sanctification
On the one hand, the Bible speaks of God working in us for his good pleasure (Phil.2:13). It tells us that without Christ being an organic part of our daily life we cannot bear any good fruit (Jn.15:4). It says that God equips Christians to do his will and then works in them to bring about what is pleasing in his sight (Heb.13:21). These truths are clear, cannot be denied, and should not be downplayed.
At the same time the Bible also states that Christians must work out their salvation (Phil.2:12). It says that we must make every effort to supplement our faith with virtue and good works (2Pet.1:5-7). It commands us to be resolute about always abounding in the work of the Lord (1Cor.15:58). As a matter of fact, a good portion of the New Testament is grammatically laid out to Christians as commands, directives and instructions – things we are exhorted to choose and decide to do. There is no getting around it. The Bible requires that Christians volitionally work to do what is right. This is a biblical tension that must be kept and never be resolved. Unlike the eighteenth-century pastors we dare not use biblical truths in unbiblical ways, thinking ourselves to be “miserable enthusiasts”, “anti-gospel”, or engaged in self-righteous “performancism” for carrying around so much concern about holiness or working so hard to expend so much effort at sanctification. May we never secretly be tempted to think, if it’s God who decides to work all this in me and through me, then when he chooses to bring forth good works in my life, I guess he will just do it without my help.
For many of the new proponents of the so-called “gospel-centered sanctification” and readers of books like “Jesus + Nothing = Everything”, there is an unbalanced view of the Christian life that leaves a lot of its adherents with a diminished and sometimes even abolished tension within their understanding of sanctification. For some, any talk of effort, choices, decisions or duty is seen as aberrant, injurious and even heretical.
As I have said previously in this blog, much of the problem rests on a conflation of our understanding of justification and sanctification. Maintaining the appropriate distinctions we find in the Bible is critical to avoid this imbalance. One of the most important distinctions has to do with the role of good works.
A Biblical Doctrine of Good Works
When it comes to our justification, works are useless. That’s what the Bible teaches. There is no “good thing” we can do to gain our acceptance before God. As fallen people there is no moral deed which can bring us any closer to God or garner his favor. As unredeemed people our best efforts and our greatest attempts at performing righteous deeds are all considered by God to be filthy rags (Is.64:6). Anyone who is ever justified “is justified apart from the works of the law” (Rom.3:28). That is the doctrine of “good works” as it relates to justification. But there is a big problem with sliding this doctrine of good works over on top of one’s view of sanctification – that’s not what the Bible teaches. God tells us he takes great pleasure in his “favored ones” doing what is right. “The Lord is righteous; he loves righteous deeds” (Ps.11:7). His favored ones are not favored because they do right, but as graciously favored people, God loves their good deeds.
When Paul wrote the Philippian Christians and praised them for their act of financially supporting him, he said that their deed was “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Phil.4:18b). The writer of Hebrews exhorts his readers saying, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Heb.13:16). These depictions would surely take one’s mind back to the Old Testament Israelites who, already having been granted a favored status before God, purely by grace (not by works), were obediently, sincerely and gladly offering up their evening sacrifice on the altar; and those sacrifices which were being received by God with pleasure and joy (Ex.29:41).
With this same metaphor in view, Paul calls the redeemed and accepted Christians of Rome to gratefully offer themselves day by day, “as living sacrifices” which are said to be “holy and acceptable to God” (12:1). And as they refused to be conformed to the world, and were renewed in their minds, they would learn to discern what the “will” of God is, that which is “good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2). Note that these are the things that God “wills” – that is, what he “wants” or “desires”. Those real feelings exist in the mind and heart of God.
The Bible tells us as Christians we can choose to do what pleases God and that these resultant acts are acceptable to him (Rom.14:18). He embraces them, accepts them, and takes pleasure in them. This perspective does not overlook the truth that the acceptability of ourselves or our acts was and is only made possible because of our new status in Christ (more on that later). The radically distinct acceptance of our good deeds is predicated upon, and possible only because we are now accepted, loved and adopted as God’s own children through the redemptive work of Christ. That is why we will often find the addition of this simple, yet profound phrase “in Christ” as it relates to our work and efforts to obey. Again this “acceptable and pleasing sacrifice” motif is repeated in 1 Peter 2, where Christians are compared to the Old Testament temple and its sacrifices, “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1Pt.2:5). Christ is our high priest; he is the cornerstone (v.6). But we are the cherished building and the approved priests who are offering acceptable sacrifices.
As it relates to the Christian life, a proper “doctrine of good works” will move us from seeing our works as “filthy rags” to seeing them as “acceptable sacrifices.” And that change can make a world of difference. We can begin to find great joy and motivation in our work of sanctification, knowing that God takes pleasure in our good works and loves it when his children do what is right.