Part and parcel of the promotion of “gospel-centered sanctification” is its juxtaposition with God’s moral law. Unfortunately the classic “law-gospel” contrast is taken to unbiblical extremes in this view of the Christian life. This view does not simply affirm or reaffirm that moral law-keeping is impotent in justification, but, by definition, “gospel-centered sanctification” goes to great lengths to tell us that God’s rules should be downplayed (if not completely ignored) in our sanctification. Much is made by Tchividjian in Jesus + Nothing = Everything for instance, that we are all natural born legalists, and all that the rules will accomplish for us (even as Christians!) is to put us on a damnable, anti-gospel, self-justifying, moralistic path of increasing sin (see pp. 40, 46, 98, 105, 152, 172).
As it regards God’s moral law and our sanctification, we must weigh such austere admonitions against the teaching of Scripture. Helpful in this discussion is Calvin’s widely embraced summary of the moral law’s three uses as observed in the Bible (see John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Book 2, Chapter 7, Sections 7, 10, & 12). In summary, these are:
1) the role the law serves in revealing our sin and our need for salvation (Rom.3:20);
2) the role the law serves in restraining evil in the general population (Rom.13:3-4);
3) the role that the law serves in directing Christians in living a godly life (Rom.13:9- 14)
(Note: Often you will hear the order of the first two inverted as a result of the codification in the Formula of Concord and the early Lutheran theologians’ use of the triad, “Sündenriegel, Sündenspiegel, Lebensregel” meaning “a restraint against sin, a mirror of sin, and a rule of life” or oft-used English summary, “political, pedagogical and didactic” uses of the law.)
Unfortunately, many who confound their view of sanctification with justification speak often of Calvin’s first use of the law (to show us our sin), but speak much less, sometimes not all, of the third use of the law (to show us how we are to live). When the moral laws of God are spoken of, preached or taught by them, the first, dominant and sustained focus is on how we fail and fall short. This emphasis is easy to understand. If our focus is perpetually set on justification, then that is the appropriate perspective concerning God’s rules – they show us how incapable and defeated we are. In evangelism we must utilize the law in this way. And as we reflect on the gospel at the Lord’s Supper and in worship, we should humbly see the magnitude of God’s grace as we recognize the holy and perfect standard of God. But if this is our only perspective and it is our mission to think singularly about justification, then there is nothing left but the worst version of “miserable-sinner Christianity”, which is weighted with chronic defeat and dejection.
By contrast, in our call to pursue biblical sanctification, we are to see the law as an expression of God’s righteousness that we are privileged and resolved to reflect in an unrighteous world. It teaches, guides and even motivates us to live as reflections of his holiness (not only his grace). We “are the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” and are called to “let our light shine before others, so that they may see our good works” (Mt.5:16).
When we passionately and joyfully embrace the high calling and privilege to uphold God’s righteous standards in this world, we are not being “self-righteous” or seeking “self-justification” or engaging in “sanctimonious legalism”; we are instead seeking to please and obey our heavenly Father who commands us to be “be zealous for good works” (Tit.2:14b) saying “show yourselves in all respects to be a model of good works” (Tit.2:7).
This was Christ’s purpose “to redeem us from all lawlessness” (Tit.2:14a). The downplaying of the privilege of engaging in the “third use of the law” is a kind of “lawlessness” that Jesus came to prevent among his redeemed people. “Sin is lawlessness” John writes, “You know that he appeared to take away sins” (1Jn.3:4b-5a). Clearly concerning God’s people who are pursuing sanctification, this statement encompasses more than the penalty of sin, it also includes the practice of sin.
Far from disparaging the law, when God’s favored people understand the law’s role in sanctification we learn to love his rules. Knowing he has “commanded his precepts to be kept diligently” (Ps.119:4) we “praise [him] with an upright heart when we learn [his] righteous rules” (v.7). We “delight in his statues” (v.16), our “soul is consumed with longing for [his] rules at all times” (v.20), and we “find delight in [his] commandments, which [we] love” (v.47). That partial testimony from Psalm 119 is being scolded in many circles today as a legalistic, self-righteous, moralistic, self-justifying, heretical orientation. But remember that these inspired lyrics are part of a God-breathed song book that was also quick to celebrate the unmerited favor of God, the forgiveness of the Holy One, and whose writer knew just “how blessed” the person is “whose transgression is forgiven” and whose “sin is covered” (Ps.32:1). There was no doubting that not a single person “could stand” were the Lord to “mark iniquities” or “keep a record of wrongs” (Ps.130:3).
Yes, those who sing of the grace of God should also celebrate their love and enthusiasm for aggressively seeking to keep God’s law day by day.