Interview With Mike Horton: Part Three

This is Part Three of my four-part interview with Mike Horton on the nature of the gospel and sanctification. You can (and should) read Part One and Two.

In a blog post of mine the other day I quoted Tim Keller who said that some people claim that to constantly be striking a ‘note of grace, grace, grace’ in our sermons is not helpful in our culture today because legalism is not the problem, license is. But Keller points out that unless you critique moralism, many irreligious people won’t know the difference between moralism and what you’re offering. He contends that non-Christians will always automatically hear gospel presentations as appeals to do more and try harder unless in your preaching you use the good news of grace to deconstruct legalism. Only if you show them there’s a difference–that what they really rejected wasn’t real Christianity at all–will they even begin to consider Christianity.” Do you agree with this? And how does this square with the idea that non-Christians will never be able to hear the good news of the gospel unless they first hear the crushing blow of God’s law?

Again, I’m not sure that the problem is either legalism or license: those are categories of a largely Christian culture, that thinks in theological categories. Our default setting is always legalism: the assertion of our own goodness. However, the reference point in our world today is no longer God, much less heaven or hell.  It’s the “heaven” of personal peace and affluence and the “hell” of meaningless nihilism.  “Legalism” in our culture today often takes the secular form of climbing the corporate ladder while trying to raise a family and own three homes, with anxiety about which call to return and which song to download.  It’s nihilism: the life of vanity described in Ecclesiastes.

Go back and read (or listen to/watch) R. C. Sproul’s “The Holiness of God.” Now there you can’t help but be faced with a person rather than a principle. Your questions, not just answers, change. The vertical dimension is recovered. Sure, you’d like to have a better marriage and family, but a deeper set of questions emerges—questions you never had before. Then you find that God is not a prop or resource for your life movie, but your problem.  Only then does the question, “How then can I be saved?” arise.  Only then is the gospel really good news—namely, that in Christ the Judge has become your father.

So I agree wholeheartedly that a renewed proclamation of the law in its full force and threat is needed today, but that means a renewed proclamation of the Triune God.  People need to be stopped in their tracks, no longer measuring “god” by their own sense of morality, goodness, truth, and beauty.  They need to encounter the God who is actually there, judging and justifying sinners.  If we start with the Bible’s answers, we’re too late.  We need to allow God’s Word to give us new questions first.  There is a massive place for God’s holiness, justice, goodness, and righteousness in the law to do that.  Apart from the holiness of God, neither the law nor the gospel makes any sense.

At the same time—and I take it that this is Tim Keller’s point—the gospel is just as necessary.  Otherwise, what we have is what the Puritans called “legal” rather than “evangelical” repentance: that is, fear of the law without gospel-driven hatred of sin.  It’s one thing to run from a judge; it’s another thing to hear the surprising announcement from the Good Father that he welcomes the sinner, wraps him in his best robe, puts a ring on his finger, and kills the fatted calf for the celebration. Many of our contemporaries have never met anyone like that.

Some say that union with Christ is the integrating structure for both justification and sanctification. In other words, we’re justified “in Christ” AND we’re sanctified “in Christ.”  Sanctification doesn’t depend on justification, but both depend on union with Christ. How would you respond?

There’s a long and noble history of “the marvelous exchange” in patristic and medieval theology that the Reformers picked up. Bernard of Clairvaux had an especially significant impact on Luther and Calvin, and both Reformers gave a lot of space to this theme of union with Christ as an analogy not only for justification but for all of the saving benefits we have in Christ.

Like Paul (think especially of the transition from Romans 6 to 7), Calvin emphasized that we cannot embrace Christ for justification without at the same time embracing him for our sanctification. We don’t just receive a gift, or even many gifts, but Christ himself by faith. We are united to him. He is the eschatological forerunner, head, Vine, and source for the new creation to which we now belong. The Spirit unites us to Christ by the gospel and the gospel is not only the good news that we are justified, but the good news that the Lord Christ has conquered the dominion of sin and we have been baptized into his death and resurrection. So the gospel is always the source of our sanctification, but the gospel includes freedom from both the guilt and tyranny of our sins.

But some among us suggest that because we receive justification and sanctification in union with Christ, there is no logical dependence of the latter on the former. I don’t find that anywhere in the relevant scriptural passages or in the exegesis offered by the Reformers, the confessions and catechisms, and the Puritans.  Reformed theology certainly teaches that justification provides the secure legal basis for our growing and maturing relationship with Christ (i.e., sanctification).  At the same time, we’re always returning to Christ for both.  So we have to resist the false choice between union with Christ or justification.  As much as Calvin referred to the former, he still calls justification “the main hinge on which religion turns,” “the primary article,” etc..  That runs straight through all of the great spiritual writings, sermons, and treatises of the Reformed tradition.

In the recent discussions at the Ref21 blog, Rick Phillips clarified that “Justification is logically prior to progressive sanctification.” When you say that justification is logically prior to sanctification, are you speaking of definitive or progressive sanctification?

The idea of definitive sanctification (distinct from regeneration or progressive sanctification) was first proposed by John Murray.  I agree completely with his interpretation of the passages that lead him to this position, but think it can still be covered under the new birth.  If that’s the case, then yes, the new birth precedes justification logically.  However, sanctification in no sense (however defined) is logically prior to justification, which would lead basically to Rome’s position (justification as the outcome of sanctification).

To be continued…