The Doctrine of Neo-Calvinism is Gospel Sanctification
Sanctification is a critical issue. We will run the race well or we won’t and it matters to God (Acts 20:24, 1Cor 9:24, Gal 2:2, Gal 5:7, 2Tim 4:7, Heb 12:1). He saved us for the purpose of running the race of sanctification to please Him: “So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it” (2 Cor 5:9). “He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (1 Jn 3:8). Gospel sanctification claims to be the only right way to run the race of sanctification, but is that really the case?
What is Gospel Sanctification?
First, let’s look at a traditional view of sanctification. The Scriptures make it clear that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves; it is a work of God alone. But once we are born again we are new creatures set apart and enabled by God to dependently work with him in the sanctification process. Sanctification is the spiritual growth process that takes place until God brings us home. Most evangelicals would agree with that definition. However, proponents of gospel sanctification would say: “No, no, no, God alone saved us but now you say we can work for our sanctification? The gospel saved us and it also must sanctify us, both are a work of God alone. We are saved by the gospel and sanctified by the gospel.” Hence the term gospel sanctification. As Jerry Bridges often says: “We must preach the gospel to ourselves every day.” Therefore, we are saved by the gospel and must live by the gospel every day (there is some element of truth to this; for instance, everyday repentance likens somewhat to our original repentance at salvation, but in fact, is not exactly the same [Jn 13:10]). The next logical question is: how does that apply to our everyday walk with God? As a friend of mine often says, “Put feet on that.” Well, think salvation. The main key to gospel sanctification is that you couldn’t do anything to be saved and you therefore cannot do anything to be sanctified. Dana L. Stoddard, in his treatise on gospel sanctification in the Journal Of Biblical Counseling entitled, “The Daily Christian Life,” put it this way:
It is by virtue of Christ’s perfect life, death on the cross and resurrection-plus nothing-that we are justified (made and declared right with God) and sanctified (set apart, kept, and viewed as right in the Lord’s eyes by virtue of his obedience). Christ is our holiness. Christ is our sanctification.
Therefore, according to Stoddard in this article which is an excellent representation of the gospel-driven life, both justification and sanctification are brought about by the life and death of Christ “plus nothing.” Stoddard further drives this point home by quoting John Murray who calls this view definitive sanctification (sanctification by virtue of the indicative alone): “Being made and declared holy is a definitive act of God alone in Christ” (emphasis mine). Therefore, gospel sanctification by virtue of its definition alone is necessarily a passive approach to sanctification. It seeks to synthesize justification and sanctification as much as possible making everything a total work of God alone. Is it biblical? And if it isn’t, what are the ramifications?
But first, let me say that proponents of gospel sanctification would be very quick to answer a charge of let go and let God. Gospel sanctification does have a practical application. But again, it is necessarily limited by its passive definition and attempts to make sanctification as monergistic as justification (or otherwise as passive as possible). In other words, our contribution to the sanctification process is limited and narrow. Paul David Tripp, a propagator of gospel sanctification, even refers to biblical thinking as a, “technique that is not sufficient for real change.” For all practical purposes, he says in one of his books that 2 Corinthians 10:4-6 is unbiblical:
But this approach again omits the person and work of Christ as Savior, Instead, it reduces our relationship to Christ to think his thoughts and act the way Jesus would act (How People Change pg. 27).
When you warn readers that even our own efforts to change our thinking to the mind of Christ is a work that eclipses the person and work of Christ, that is excessively passive. Also, note that the crux of the matter in Tripp’s mind is “omitting the person and work of Christ as Savior” (emphasis mine). This is a very defining statement in regard to gospel sanctification; we can exclude Christ as Savior from the sanctification process. Any effort on our part, even an attempt to align our thinking with the mind of Christ is to exclude the person of Christ from the sanctification process. Proponents of gospel sanctification make no distinction between justification and sanctification; both are monergistic and obtained by the gospel. Of course, this approach would be a really hard sell to Christians at large if there was no real-life application. So then, what are the primary working dynamics of gospel sanctification, if any? In other words, is there a practical application? As one person asked me, “So what are we supposed to do?” (GS proponents often say that very question is indicative of a grave spiritual problem).
Remember, think gospel. What did you have to do to get saved? Believe and repent. The sanctification process is then no different. Daily repentance is the primary thrust of gospel sanctification because it is the lowest common denominator of passivity that proponents can come up with. Remember, we are dealing with a narrow concept, so whatever elements they have must be greatly embellished. So, we have deep repentance as opposed to regular everyday biblical repentance. This is a process in which the heart is emptied of any desire that exceeds our desire for Christ. This can be done through our recognition of daily sin but not stopping there, we must determine what desire led to the sin (good luck).
Theology of the Heart
This is the process that is used to determine the sinful desires of the heart (see “How People Change,” chapter 6). It involves a knowledge of how the heart supposedly works in the milieu of life and often explained through visual charts. Besides outward sin and response to circumstances, desires can be evaluated by asking ourselves x-ray questions. Paul Tripp supplies a list of thirty-four with two or three phrases in each that ask additional questions in each separate question on page 163 of “HPC” for a total of about 100. The most popular one that you will hear often is: “What did you want?” Imagining possible future circumstances of life and thinking about how we might respond while asking ourselves the right x-ray questions is yet another way to determine desires of the heart that cause sin. We empty our heart of idols that distort our desires by confessing them daily, and then Christ fills our hearts with himself resulting in an effortless flow of obedience. Supposedly.
Belief and Identity
Once we have emptied our heart of idols, we then “rest and feed” on the living Christ who then fills our heart with Himself, replacing the idols of the heart (idols that create desires that exceed a desire for Christ, “HPC” pg. 28). We also focus and learn about who we are, and what we have in Christ to fill the void left by the eradication of sinful desires / idols effected by deep repentance.
The result of this process is new obedience. Or as Tripp explains it in “HPC”: “New and Surprising Fruit” (chap. 14). Or as others explain it, obedience is always a “mere natural flow” (The Imperative Command is Grounded in the Indicative Event, “Vossed World” blog). In other words, we are walking along and holy fruit just starts popping up everywhere without any effort and to our surprise. However, Philippians 2:8 says Christ was obedient to the cross. Now go to Matthew 26:36-46 and read about the struggle Christ experienced as he faced the cross. Hebrews 12:3,4 says: “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”
Nevertheless, according to proponents of gospel sanctification, Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins and justify us before God, but also lived an obedient life in order to obey for us as well (remember what Stoddard said about us being justified and sanctified by the “life” and “death” of Christ with His active obedience being imputed to us, not just righteousness). To accept anything less is to exclude the person of Christ from the gospel, so they say. Some call this belief monergistic substitutionary sanctification. Christ was not only a substitute for the penalty of sin; but was also, and presently is, a substitution for all our works in sanctification as well.
So how do we know when we are obeying God in our own efforts or when it is the work of Christ through us? Easy, our obedience is accompanied by joy and all willingness, that’s how we know according to proponents of the gospel-driven life. Joyless obedience is always in our own efforts and not pleasing to God. Please do not misunderstand me, I realize there is much obedience in the life of a believer accompanied by joy and complete willingness, but sometimes that joy comes as a result of the obedience at a later time. Knowing this often helps us to endure accordingly: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2). Here I must pause and interject a very important note: Paul Tripp is the guru who has articulated the supposed practical application of the gospel-driven life via “How People Change.” John Piper is the guru who has articulated the experience of gospel sanctification via Christian hedonism and other such writings. Much of the theory in regard to how the gospel-driven life is experienced is through the writings of John Piper.
What does that look like?
This is a gospel sanctification (GS) buzz question / mantra that replaces “how do we do that?” How, is now the wrong question to ask because it indicates there is actually something we can do to participate in the sanctification process, a crime worthy of death. If you doubt the wide spread influence GS has today, take note of how often you hear that phrase. Even the terminology must be changed to discourage some kind of effort on our part in the sanctification process that might imply some verb to follow.
The GS Hermeneutic
But what about all of those pesky Bible verses that seem to contradict gospel sanctification’s passive approach? Like say for instance, 1 Corinthians 9:27; ”No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” No problem. GS has its own process for interpreting the Bible through the lens of a gospel perspective so everything comes out redemptive. It’s called the redemptive-historical hermeneutic, or the Christocentric hermeneutic, or the cross-centered hermeneutic; so you have the theology of GS doing the interpretation.
Gospel sanctification is well suited for American culture. It’s new, It’s easy, and claims to have a low failure rate. It also has a strong intimidation factor. To speak against GS is to be against Christ and his gospel. To be against GS is to propagate the “legalism” of self-discipline and hard work in the sanctification process. Worse yet, if you believe that obedience is an exercise of the will to please God, you are supposedly engaging in works salvation. First of all, any Christian knows that we cannot please God apart from His life giving Spirit, but neither are we merely potted plants in the process:
We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith (1 Thess 3:2, emphasis mine. Some translations: “coworker”). Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15, emphasis mine).
GS is destructive error for the following reasons:
It takes away from the word of God in regard to elements of biblical sanctification.
Our resources and guiding truth concerning sanctification in the Bible are many faceted and numerous. GS is a narrow approach that excludes or ignores key truths of sanctification such as satanic strategy and our battle with the flesh. According to GS proponents, these kinds of considerations, and many others distract us from “owning our own sin.” They say that the flesh is not our problem, the heart is the problem, the flesh is a realm. As only one example among many, most GS teachers do not see Satan as being in the loop of spiritual warfare, regardless of clear warnings from the Scriptures. This is no trite matter.
The following quote concerns John Piper’s Christian Hedonism which is the articulation of how gospel sanctification is experienced. But, the same concerns expressed by Dr. Masters below can also be applied to gospel sanctification as a whole. Gospel sanctification applies, and confines sanctification to the same elements of justification which are much fewer; namely, by faith alone.
But Dr. Piper’s formula for its use undoubtedly alters the understanding of sanctification long held by believers in the Reformation tradition, because it elevates one Christian duty above all others.
Delighting in God, we repeat, is made the organizing principle for every other spiritual experience and duty. It becomes the key formula for all spiritual vigor and development. Every other Christian duty is thought to depend on how well we obey this central duty of delighting in the Lord. The entire Christian life is simplified to rest upon a single quest, which is bound to distort one’s perception of the Christian life and how it must be lived. Whatever the strengths of Dr. Piper’s ministry, and there are many, his attempt to oversimplify biblical sanctification is doomed to failure.
Because the biblical method for sanctification and spiritual advance consists of a number of strands or pathways of action, and all must receive individual attention. As soon as you substitute a single ‘big idea’ or organizing principle, and bundle all the strands into one, you alter God’s design and method. Vital aspects of Truth and conduct will go by the board to receive little or no attention.
It denies specific biblical instruction.
GS denies that the Bible includes specific instruction. The hit list of GS includes: living by lists; do’s and don’ts; put off and put on; biblical thinking; discipline; and a traditional view of obedience among many others. Yet 2 Timothy 3:16 says: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”
It redefines obedience and the gospel.
It makes obedience in the sanctification process synonymous with works salvation. Therefore, it redefines Christ as a Lord that does not require obedience, and in fact, rejects it. Is it therefore a half gospel that presents Christ as Savior only? Yes.
It redefines spiritual warfare.
Gospel sanctification’s battleground location would suggest a totally different form of warfare as opposed to warfare with sin that abides in the flesh. For one thing, warfare with the flesh is much more defined as opposed to the subjective nature of what the Bible calls the heart. As a matter of fact, Jeremiah suggested that we cannot know the heart to begin with. These are two separate paths of sanctification. Saints would do well to choose their path carefully.
The church for the most part defines spiritual warfare as Scripture describes it, a warfare between our regenerate heart and the flesh. Disciplines that feed our spirit God’s pure milk and deprive the flesh of provisions is not merely an outside warfare verses an inside warfare, it is the biblical prescription.
It robs Christians of assurance of salvation.
Throughout Scripture, striving in obedience to the word of God is said to result in assurance of salvation. Most notably, 2 Peter 1:5-11. This is a far cry from the prescription for assurance by New Calvinist Jerry Bridges who counsels us to have assurance via “preaching the gospel to ourselves every day.”
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