Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Gospel Reformation Network Interviews Me

I Ask Myself the Five Questions

I waited for Kevin DeYoung to call and interview me, but he never did. So I had to interview myself. I then waited for the folks at The Gospel Reformation Network, but they too neglected to call. Maybe, since their concerns are focused on the controversy between the Grace Boys and the Obedience boys in the PCA, and I am now, after 65 years as a Presbyterian and 42 in the PCA, in the Reformed Episcopal Church, they thought that they would not trouble me.

So, since for whatever reason they have not called, I decided to interview myself using their questions.

Is there misunderstanding about Sanctification within the PCA and the broader Reformed community?

Yes. Enough misunderstanding for plenty of blame, if that's the word, to go all around. There are those who so emphasize the tests of true faith (focusing on holiness of character and righteousness of life) as to undermine the truth that we are justified (declared righteous) on the basis Christ's representative righteousness and substitutionary death. To put it another way, they so focus on what Christ does to and in us as to deflect attention from, if not practically deny, what Christ does for and outside of us as sole basis for our intial, present, and eternal acceptance with God. On the other hand there are those who see faith as a once-for-all decision or act (such as saying a prayer) and so make faith something less than receiving Christ and resting upon his work for our salvation. This is sometimes called "easy believism" which I think is something of a misnomer as the opposite would be "hard believism" which would be just as big an error. Others teach the "alien righteousness" (righteousness that is outside us) in such a way as to lead Christians to be indifferent to the law, to sin, and to righteousness. "We all sin all the time. Don't make such a big deal of it. Don't worry about it."

Which is the greater threat to the church in our time, legalism or antinomianism?

If you mean by "the church" what some would call the evangelical church, it is antinomianism. There is such an aversion to law that it undermines not only sanctification but justification, because it is very difficult to see our need of being forgiven, declared righteous, and accepted by God when the law is not there to make us aware of guilt and condemnation and when we do not see the demands of the law as what Christ fulfilled for us and the penalties of the law what Christ suffered for us. It seems to me that in the broader evangelical world people are largely oblivious to the law.

If, on the other hand, you look at the church in terms of the fundamentalist Christianity in which I grew up or in terms of kind experimental Calvinism of which I became a part, it may be legalism. Not legalism in the sense of teaching salvation by works. But legalism in two senses: First, there is the sort of legalism that produces legalistic (extra-biblical) rules. This kind of fundamentalism was not confined to independent Baptists but was very much a part of conservative Presbyterianism. I grew up with the no dancing, no smoking, no drinking, no card playing rules. This leads to the Barney Fife rule of "Obey all rules" which put rules at the forefront of Chrisian living. It's interesting that this sort of thing occurs somtimes in tandem with doctrinal antinomianism. Second, there is the sort of legalism that leads to a performance mentality. "God loves me, or God loves me better, according to how I perform." Or "God requires of me a certain quality, quantity, and time of performance before I can get back into his good graces when I sin." This sort of legalism can be torturous for the individual who believes it, can lead to congregations where people do a lot of hiding and/or pretending, and can lead, sometimes simultaneously, to ignoring some sin and/or sinners and being exceedingly harsh in regard toward some sins and/or sinners.

Why do you think pastors downplay the importance of effort in Sanctification?

To the extent this is a problem I think there are probably several reasons. One is the most unfortunate effort to make the Christian faith attractive by making it a means to personal happiness and fulfillment. God has a wonderful plan for our lives and wants to help us to find it and enjoy it. "God isn't mad at you no matter what!" This makes Christ not a Savior but a helping friend. Another is non-existent or defective theology. An example would be the kind of "carnal Christian" teaching that is associated with dispensationalism and popularized by the Schofield Bible and Campus Crusade (now CRU). Then, I think some downplay effort in sanctification because they do not want Christians to experience the kinds of legalism which I mention above. They do not want Christians to think of the Christian life as "you watch out, you better not pout, you better not cry...he knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows when you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness' sake." I think we would all be better off if we followed the pattern of the Heidelberg Catechism - guilt, grace, gratitude. In fact I have been surprised, that, so far as I can tell, this approach has not been more emphasised among either groups of boys.

How would you define progressive sanctification, and how have you emphasized it in your teaching, preaching, and ministry?

Progressive sanctification is progress in developing holiness of heart and righteousness of conduct in the life of a Christian who is accepted by God now and eternally because of the holiness and righteousness of Christ. It is not only individual but corporate lived out in the fellowship of the church.  It is always dependent on the church's  ministry of Word and sacrament. It cannot ever be detached from once for all justification.  And it always must be attached to a healthy realism about how imperfect, partial, and halting it is in the lives of many of God's people. The churches and Christians in Thessalonica, Galatia, and Corinth show us that Christians and congregations can be pretty messed up (unsanctified if you will) and still be Christians. If Romans 6 shows us that we cannot be indifferent to sin or make ourselves its servants, Romans 7 shows us both doctrinally and experientially the reality of struggle and defeat in the Christian life. We may not and must not sin with impunity but we may and we must reckon that God forgives us at least 490 times. God does not condone our sin, but God is more ready to forgive and be reconciled to the chronically sinning believer than the believer is to ask forgiveness and believe he is reconciled.

I am afraid I tipped too much to the "nomian" or obedience and tests-of-faith approach for much of the time. I have tried and do try to be more gospel oriented. And, as a pastor, I think it is important to know your people. Where are they? What do they need now? Sometimes they need a kick in the butt. Some of them may need to look at the question of faith - in whom, for what, by what means. But I guess I have become increasingly convinced that God's people need more confidence and less testing, more forgiveness and less guilt, more encouragment and less questioning, more Christ and less of themselves or the preacher.

In general, while mis-placed or over confidence is a bad, I think confidence in God's acceptance is the best foundation for living the Christian life. It's hard to do your duties as a spouse if you trying to earn the love of your spouse. So it's hard to live the Christian life when you are unsure of how stand with God in Christ you, when you are not there but trying to get there with God. I recall Sinclair Ferguson's being extremely helpful on this matter. I think the book I'm remembering is now titled The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction.

Do you agree with the Gospel Reformation Network’s Affirmations and Denials?

Yes and no. But, I think this sort of thing is properly and best left to church bodies rather than to various extra-ecclesiastical groups. The church is the body that ought to work out doctrinal statments with affirmations and denials.  Those produced by other groups should not be used as doctrinal tests. 


mozart said...

Amen and amen! I attended the GA--"The Gospel Reformation Network" was all over the place with "seminars" and lunch presentations. All of this seemed to be aimed at Tullian T, although his name wasn't mentioned at all. I don't get their authority--I guess they have none--in our denomination.

Curt Day said...

This is a good interview because of the questions and the answers. I would add one distinction between those who struggle with the role of sanctification in our lives. That is there is a way of approaching sanctification that is self-centered. That is that we learn to live for ourselves while following the right rules. Usually those who teach this form of sanctification make faith to be something we exercise so we can obtain an after-life insurance policy. Again, the center is on ourselves with this kind of faith rather than on God.