First Things First

God has hardwired me to thoroughly enjoy and be sharpened by good and friendly theological discussion about the gospel. So, for that reason I am deeply grateful to my friend Kevin DeYoung for engaging me in a good and healthy conversation regarding the role of the gospel in Christian growth (click here, here, and here).

We are both pastors who love Jesus, love the gospel, love people, and love the church. We both long for people to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are both theologically Reformed, blog at The Gospel Coalition, and therefore agree on more than we disagree (we actually disagree more about food than doctrine). Since we are both relatively public figures, my prayer during this conversation has been that people would resist the temptation toward divisiveness. Differences are good. Divisions are bad. Kevin and I are happily on the same team, laboring side by side and back to back.

Before I sign off on this particularly helpful conversation with my friend, I simply want to add one note of clarification, address the concern that Kevin said drove his original post, and make one crucial distinction.

The Clarification

First, when I say that remembering, revisiting, and rediscovering the reality of our justification every day is the hard work we’re called to do if we’re going to grow–I’m not simply talking about mental assent and meditation. Remembering, revisiting, and rediscovering the reality of our justification every day involves daily dying. My failure to lay aside the sin that so easily entangles is the direct result of my refusal to die to my natural proclivity toward attaining my own freedom, meaning, value, worth, and righteousness–not believing that, by virtue of my Spirit-wrought union with Christ, everything I need I already possess.

What is indisputable is the fact that unbelief is the force that gives birth to all of our bad behavior and every moral failure. It is the root. “The sin underneath all sins”, said Martin Luther, “is the lie that we cannot trust the love and grace of Jesus and that we must take matters into our own hands.” Therefore, since justification is where the guillotine for unbelief and self-salvation is located–declaring that we are already righteous for Christ’s sake–we dare not assume it, brush over it, or move past it. It must never become the backdrop. It must remain front and center–getting the most attention.

In an excellent article entitled “Does Justification Still Matter?“, Mike Horton raises the same concern I raise:

Most people in the pew are simply not acquainted with the doctrine of justification. Often, it is not a part of the diet of preaching and church life, much less a dominant theme in the Christian subculture. With either stern rigor or happy tips for better living, “fundamentalists” and “progressives” alike smother the gospel in moralism, through constant exhortations to personal transformation that keep the sheep looking to themselves rather than looking outside of themselves to Christ… The average feature article in [Christian magazines] or Christian best-seller’s is concerned with “good works”-trends in spirituality, social activism, church growth, and discipleship. However, it’s pretty clear that justification is simply not on the radar. Even where it is not outright rejected, it is often ignored. Perhaps the forgiveness of sins and justification are appropriate for “getting saved,” but then comes the real business of Christian living-as if there could be any genuine holiness of life that did not arise out of a perpetual confidence that “there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

This is why the Reformers said that the article on which the church stands or falls is justification (the cause), not sanctification (the effect). The Roman Catholic church had it the other way around. In his book God in the Dock, C.S. Lewis makes the obvious point that “You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.” While justification is not the only thing, it is the first thing–the judicial ground of our union with Christ and all of the renewing benefits that yields.

“The alternative to a sanctification flowing from justification”, writes Horton, “is a moralistic activism that identifies growth in Christlikeness with the imitation of Christ more than union with Christ.”

The Concern

Second, Kevin writes that the concern which prompted his first post was “that in our passion for glorying in the indicatives of the gospel we are in danger of giving short shrift to the necessity of obeying biblical imperatives.” I have to admit that I’ve never met anyone who passionately glories in the indicatives of the gospel who then gives “short shrift to the necessity of obeying biblical imperatives.” In fact, according to Romans 6:1-14, that’s impossible. Paul makes it clear in those verses that anyone who concludes that grace sanctions and encourages disobedience clearly doesn’t get grace.

As a pastor, one of my responsibilities is to disciple people into a deeper understanding of obedience—teaching them to say “no” to the things God hates and “yes” to the things God loves. But all too often I have wrongly concluded that the only way to keep licentious people in line is to give them more rules, intensify my exhortations–lay down the law.  In my desire as both a pastor and a parent to see those under my care become more radical in their obedience to God, I have often fallen into the trap of going from the law (cutting off hope) to the gospel (forgiveness and life) and then back to the law, as if the gospel of free grace handled justification but can’t keep up with sanctification. The fact is, however, that the only way licentious people start to obey is when they get a taste of God’s radical, unconditional acceptance of sinners.

As Mike Horton points out here, in Romans 6:1-4 the Apostle Paul answers antinomianism (lawlessness) not with law but with more gospel! I imagine it would have been tempting for Paul (as it often is with us when dealing with licentious people) to put the brakes on grace and give the law in this passage, but instead he gives more grace—grace upon grace. Paul knows that licentious people aren’t those who believe the gospel of God’s free grace too much, but too little. “The ultimate antidote to antinomianism”, writes Horton, “is not more imperatives, but the realization that the gospel swallows the tyranny as well as the guilt of sin.”

So, if someone is giving short-shrift to the necessity of obeying biblical imperatives, it’s because they are not glorying in the indicatives of the gospel. Their problem is not first and foremost that they aren’t giving full-throat to the imperatives. It’s that they’re not giving full-throat to the indicatives. Disobedience and moral laxity happens not when we think too much of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in the finished work of Christ alone from start to finish, but when we think too little of it. Radical grace is not the enemy of radical obedience–it is its fuel! (Isn’t it interesting that in Galatians 5:7 Paul identifies legalism, not free grace, as the obstacle to obedience?)

Writing in response to Jason Hood’s Christianity Today article where Hood voices concern about the lack of emphasis on personal holiness and radical obedience in this generation of Christians, my friend Dane Ortlund (read Dane’s full, gospel-drenched response here) shows how there are two ways to address this:

One way is to balance gospel grace with exhortations to holiness, as if both need equal air time lest we fall into legalism on one side (neglecting grace) or antinomianism on the other (neglecting holiness).

The other way, which I believe is the right and biblical way, is so to startle this restraint-free culture with the gospel of free justification that the functional justifications of human approval, moral performance, sexual indulgence, or big bank accounts begin to lose their vice-like grip on human hearts and their emptiness is exposed in all its fraudulence. It sounds backward, but the path to holiness is through (not beyond) the grace of the gospel, because only undeserved grace can truly melt and transform the heart. The solution to restraint-free immorality is not morality. The solution to immorality is the free grace of God—grace so free that it will be (mis)heard by some as a license to sin with impunity. The route by which the New Testament exhorts radical obedience is not by tempering grace but by driving it home all the more deeply.

The greatest danger facing the church is not that we take the commands of God lightly. To be sure, that is a bonafide danger but it’s a surface danger. The deep, under the surface danger (which produces the surface danger) is that we take the announcement of God in the gospel too lightly. The only people who take the commands of God lightly are those who take the gospel lightly–who don’t revel in and rejoice over what J. Gresham Machen called the “triumphant indicative.” Beholding necessarily leads to becoming. Or to put it another way, this wonderful and neglected view of justification by grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Christ alone that I am championing does not deny the impulse toward holiness. Rather it produces it!

The Distinction

Third, one of the marks of a truly maturing Christian is that you begin to love the things God loves and hate the things God hates. In this regard, the law (all of the imperatives we find in the Bible) guides us well and wisely. It tells us what God wants and who God is. Yes, the law is good.

But while the law guides, it does not give. To be sure, the Spirit does use the whole Word in our sanctification: the law as well as the gospel. But the law and the gospel do different things in sanctification. The law has the ability to reveal sin, but not the ability to remove sin. It points to righteousness but can’t produce it. It shows us what godliness, is but it cannot make you godly, like the gospel can. The law shows us what a sanctified life looks like, but it does not, in and of itself, have sanctifying power, as the gospel does. So, apart from the gospel, the law crushes. The law directs us, but only the gospel can drive us. It’s very important to keep these distinctions in mind.

Let me stress again that this is not a matter of whether obedience to God’s law is important, either to us or to God. Of course it’s important. The question is: Where does the power to obey God’s commands come from? Does it come from the gospel—from what God has done for us? Or does it come from the law—from what we must do? That contrast is another way of saying, Does the power come from God or from you? At the end of the day, it’s that simple.

Paul lays out the intensity of his struggle in Romans 7 to make it clear that although the law can no longer condemn us (because Jesus has kept it perfectly on our behalf), it’s still unable to produce in us the desire to keep it. It can only tell us what God requires, which it does. But the law is not the gospel.

To say, however, that the law has no power to change us in no way reduces its ongoing role in the life of the Christian. We just have to understand the precise role it plays for us today. The law now serves us by showing us how to love God and others and when we fail to keep it, the gospel brings comfort by reminding us that God’s infinite approval doesn’t depend on our keeping of the law but on Christ’s keeping of the law on our behalf. And guess what? This makes me want to obey him more, not less! As Spurgeon wrote, “When I thought God was hard, I found it easy to sin; but when I found God so kind, so good, so overflowing with compassion, I smote upon my breast to think that I could ever have rebelled against One who loved me so, and sought my good.”

Therefore, it’s the gospel (what Jesus has done) that alone can give God-honoring animation to our obedience. The power to obey comes from being moved and motivated by the completed work of Jesus for us. The fuel to do good flows from what’s already been done. So again, while the law directs us, only the gospel can drive us.

One Final Word

One final word on something important that Kevin and I (and a number of our friends) agree on.

We share a common concern that while there’s a lot of talk about gospel-centrality these days (something we’re all encouraged by) this doesn’t mean that everything which claims to be gospel-centered is. We both want you to be Berean-like in your evaluation of everything that comes in the name of gospel-centrality.

So, here’s a good litmus test: whether it’s a sermon, a book, a blog post, or a tweet–if the lasting impression you get causes you to focus more on what you must do than on what Christ has done, the gospel has not been communicated and the communicator (albeit, unwittingly) is no better than the Pharisees who were charged by Jesus with “tying up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and laying them on people’s shoulders” (Matthew 23:4). Beware of preaching that, in the words of Herman Bavinck, “acknowledges that we are justified by the righteousness of Christ but then seems to think that we are then sanctified by a holiness we ourselves have acquired.” It is through the preaching of the gospel that Jesus summons sinners (both Christians and non-Christians) and says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29). The difference between “religion” and the gospel is that religion gives burdens by announcing that Jesus plus something equals everything while the gospel absorbs burdens announcing that Jesus plus nothing equals everything.

It’s very important to remember that the focus of the Bible is not the work of the redeemed but the work of the Redeemer. When the Christian faith becomes defined by who we are and what we do and not by who Christ is and what he did for us, we miss the gospel–and we, ironically, become more disobedient.

As Tim Keller has said, “The Bible is not fundamentally about us. It’s fundamentally about Jesus. The Bible’s purpose is not so much to show you how to live a good life. The Bible’s purpose is to consistently and constantly show you how God’s grace breaks into your life against your will and saves you from the sin and brokenness otherwise you would never be able to overcome.”

So you be careful out there.

Keep thinking, wrestling, reveling, and rejoicing. As members of the same team, Kevin and I surely will.